Chapter 261 Last Dream
Chrysa nodded thoughtfully, making Aldrich wonder exactly how much she knew of the world around her. She seemed to have been born knowing some basic things and emotions, but there were other things she did not know either.
Basically, she was like a human child, which was not surprising considering she copied off of Aldrich's soul, most likely how his soul had been when he was little, but he still did not know for sure what she did know or did not.
It was a learning experience.
"How are you alive?" asked Randall.
"Don't ask that," said Alan. "It's not something he wants to get into. But trust me, he's the real deal, and somehow, he's made it big. He says he's going to take this shop over and give it a nice facelift. He'll hire me, too, and get me a nice job, the kind you always wanted for me.
Shit, you and Elaine always complained I was wasting my time here even though I'm a good for nothing junkyard rat. Guess I get to prove you guys right for once, huh?"
"Really?" said Randall.
"Yes," said Aldrich. "I don't know how much my word means to you, but I can promise that."
"I guess I don't have much time left to be wondering," said Randall. "About Elaine - I'm glad she was happy. Thank you for giving her that time. It must have meant so much to her. Out here, she had nobody. As a pure human, she struggled so much.
It tore my heart to see her grow up and face the reality of the world.
Every single time I had to tell her some truths, that her parents abandoned her, that the Alters hated her for who she was, that this would never change, it felt like I was breaking off a piece of my heart.
Every time I had to tell her those truths, her smiles got smaller and smaller.
By the time she went off to Blackwater, she hardly ever smiled at all. But she smiled with you two.
That alone is enough for me."
"You were an incredible father to her," said Aldrich. "The best she could ask for - those were her own words."
"Was I?" Randall paused for a moment. His voice was modulated, lacking strong inflection. His face, like most of his body, was frozen, unable to show any expression. His breathing moved up and down in forced and unbreaking rhythm. It was impossible to show any emotion, and yet, that pause spoke volumes.
It spoke of deep regret.
"I don't know. I still think I failed her, sending her to that school and letting her die. I told her it was fine and that I didn't need her help, but that was a lie she saw straight through.
In the end, it didn't matter. My condition would have killed me before she graduated. But I hid that truth from her too. I didn't want her to give up on her dreams because I also knew if she got that license, she could do so much better for herself, even if I was gone.
But that lie made her stay there. It killed her.
When I got too weak to get out of this bed, I dreamed so much. Sometimes it got hard to tell whether I was alive or in a dream.
It hurt to be in either.
Alive, I saw my body get robbed from me, but atleast I could stop feeling pain.
In my dreams, all I saw were my mistakes. And the pain that came with them.
All those smiles I took from her. Lying to her.
The world is cruel - I've known this my whole life. I've felt it since I was young.
I took in children that knew nothing but that cruelty, hoping to give them something better than what I had.
But in the end, I keep wondering to myself; was I selfish? What if someone else had taken in Elaine? That smart, wonderful, sweet child? Someone better than me?
She would still be alive. Maybe she would be on the news, leading some new innovation - there are so many these days, I know she could have been behind one of them."
"Don't think that way, old man," said Alan. "You've done your best for us. That's all we asked for. And it was a hell of a lot better than rotting out on the streets, that's for sure."
"Alan's right," said Aldrich. "You can't blame yourself. You're a good man, Randall, and a good father. Elaine would want you to be happy knowing that."
"…You two are right," said Randall. "Wishing for more, especially now, doesn't mean anything. Still, it hurts. It hurts so much to know a crippled, broken, expired old thing like me is still breathing and my lovely, bright and incredible daughter is gone.
It feels wrong."
"It is wrong," said Alan. His tone grew hard, laced with pain packed rage. "And that's why Aldrich is going to make Blackwater pay."
"Don't get hung up on the anger, Alan," said Randall. "You always let your emotions drag you around. One day, they'll drag you someplace you don't want to go, and I won't be there to pull you back out."
"He's right." Aldrich nodded to Alan. "This is above what you can handle. I'm offering you protection, but I can't guarantee it if you get reckless."
"How do you have the right to hunt them down, satisfy your own vengeance, but not me?" said Alan.
"Because I have power. You don't."
The blunt words left Alan quiet. Because harshly blunt though they were, they were just as true.
"I'm…I'm going to cool off. If you need me, I'll be out front taking a smoke," said Alan. He took in a deep breath, purging his rising emotions, and left the room.
"Don't let him do anything stupid," said Randall. "He already got in trouble once, with the local gang here."
Aldrich raised a brow. "How?"
"Nothing big. They made a ruckus about us paying them protection money because this was part of their territory. Silly stuff like that. He wouldn't take it, so he got in a fist fight with them. Came back here with a broken arm that set the shop back a whole month."
"I see. I won't let him do anything dumb. He is Elaine's brother, after all. She wanted a good life for you two, and I'm here to respect that wish and make sure it happens," said Aldrich. "About you, Randall, I can have you arranged to a better medical facility than this. I have the credits to make it happen.
I also know someone in biotech who can secure a Regenerol treatment for you. It's not available to the public, but I can make it happen.
I hear the procedure's got a 70% success rate for Waste Lung."
Aldrich said this, but his words were more empty condolences than anything else. Regenerol's success rate came with healthy and young patients. It involved introducing a stem cell culture from a regenerating variant into the body, and the weaker and older a body was, the easier it was for it to reject the cells.
The chances of Randall finding any benefits were close to zero.
"No. I've lived long enough. And I can tell how close my body is to failing, even if I can't feel anything anymore.
It's just a hunch, but I know I'm not long before I get into one of my long dreams. One that I'll never wake up from.
Aldrich knew that as well. He could sense it strongly. As a Lich, he was keenly aware of death. It had an indescribable 'feeling' to it, a certain calming chill that he could measure and sense, and Randall was cold. Very cold.
"But, Aldrich, I can see it in your eyes. You didn't come here just for me, did you? You needed something," said Randall.
Aldrich was surprised. "You could tell?"
Very few people were ever capable of parsing Aldrich's intentions from his face.
"You pick up a thing or two living this long out in the Wastes," said Randall. "So, what is it?"
Aldrich took out his phone and displayed the screen to Randall. It showed the dark, blue gridded world of Cyberspace, and there, the amorphous, glitchy mass of cubes that made up Elaine's hidden server.
"Elaine left this server for me, but it needs your biomarker to open," said Aldrich.
"Really? I've never seen anything like this. I'm a techno myself, and I've been around for a long time. I was there when the Omega Expansion first happened, when technology fused with Cyberspace.
Cyberspace back then was much more unstable, full of odd elements and daemons and the like, but nothing like this.
This doesn't even feel like it belongs."
Aldrich had to agree. From a purely geometric standpoint, everything in Cyberspace was made up of cubes that represented data. But the glitchy mess of Elaine's personal server was a wobbly, ever changing mass that looked utterly unlike anything around it.
"How did Elaine make this?" asked Randall.
"I don't know. She didn't tell me about it either. I was hoping I would find answers when I got access to it," said Aldrich.
"Let's find out. Bring that phone up to my thumb," said Randall.
Aldrich did as Randall bid. The touchscreen flashed, sensing a biomarker. A rotating little ball camera embedded at the top of the phone projected a holographic green scan that registered Randall's fingerprint.
'ACCESS TO - - - - - - - GRANTED'
Aldrich saw the bold green words stretch out on his screen. The name of the server was completely covered in a glitched out mess.
All of a sudden, the phone began to vibrate rapidly, the screen glowing bright white. The metal heated up until it was near burning.
Aldrich immediately reacted by dashing to the corner of the room, moving the phone away from Randall.
"Valera," commanded Aldrich, and Valera reacted in an instant, manifesting her shield to cover Chrysa and Randall.
The light from the phone spread out from its screen to encompass its entirety, and it was so bright it felt like the sun had been shoved inside the tiny, dark room, completely blinding everyone.
Almost as soon as that light flashed, though, it died down.
Aldrich looked down at his hand. The phone had disintegrated into dust. In its place, he saw a small symbol inscribed on his palm. It looked like a silvery white, thirteen pronged branch, with two of the branches ending in a circle.
The symbol glowed bright for a moment before fading away, as if it had never been there at all.
Aldrich stared at his hand in wonder. Valera and Chrysa both stayed silent, curious as to what had happened.
"What was that?" asked Randall.
"I'm…not sure," said Aldrich. He did not feel anything wrong with him. His system had not registered anything either. He put two fingers to his earpiece. "V, check on the server in Cyberspace. Tell me what happened to it."
After a brief pause, V's voice crackled in his ear. "Sure thing…it's not there."
"No trace of it at all?"
"No. Gone. Poof. Like a fart in the wind."
"Right. Tell me if you find anything notable. Scan the surroundings here, too, while you're at it."
"I don't see anything sus around you," said V. "Just broken down streets. Nobody nearby other than Diamondback as well."
"Got it. Report to me if you find anything about the server." Aldrich moved his hand from his ear, disconnecting himself.
"I know I said I was experienced, but I'll tell you know that I have no idea what happened," said Randall.
"I know," said Aldrich. He needed to figure out what had happened. Get somewhere private and run some tests on himself to make sure nothing was wrong.
No medical science was going to explain anything going on with this body. He was too unique now as a lich. But he could return to the Nexus. The Death Lord would know far better.
"I'm sorry to cut this short, Randall, but I'm going to take my leave right now. I need to investigate what just happened. You'll be safe, though, I can assure you."
Aldrich intended on leaving Diamondback around to secure the area until he could move Randall and Alan safely.
"Safety? Leave that for Alan. That boy needs it more than this broken old body does," said Randall. "I'm ready to dream my last now, knowing Alan will be taken care of. And knowing that Elaine still had it in her to smile.
It doesn't sound all that bad, really. Dying in my sleep. It's an end many times better than what I thought I deserved."
"You've done enough good to deserve as much," said Aldrich.
"Have I?" Randall did not look at Aldrich. His eyes instead stared straight up, at the sterile metal ceiling, lost in thought, lost in the past.
It was then that Aldrich felt a discernible chill in the atmosphere. Entirely unlike the cold aura that emanated from Randall's dying body. This was more physical, less spiritual.
The temperature of the room had noticeably dropped.
Aldrich felt uneasy. Chrysa hopped over to his side, clutching at his leg, feeling the uneasiness as well.
Valera stood from her chair, her pointed ears perking up. Her eyes flickered red, her magical energy emanating around her body in a tight wrapping of wispy crimson.
"Valera, is something-,"
Valera instantly tensed up, veins on her toned arms turning visible as blood pumped through her body - an unmistakable preparation for combat. Her perception, her battle instinct, was far sharper than Aldrich's.
She had sensed something. Something threatening.
But before Aldrich could react, his vision flooded with bright blue light as the chill of the room turned into intense freezing.