Chapter 296 Judicata
At the Judicata, Worldwide Court of Justice
Aldrich stood in a small, rectangular waiting room with white walls segmented with glowing blue strips. Typical Mag-Lock construction, favored by the Panopticon for the ease of assembly and repair.
Just take several blocks, lock them together with the special magnetic tech, and voila, you got an extremely durable structure.
It was the same tech that built up city walls. Not to mention it could easily conduct forcefield energy currents - that was the biggest bonus to them. City walls themselves were tough, but medieval style walls, though effective against mostly land based variant monsters, had limits to them, the most glaring of which was weakness to any airborne attack.
That was where the shielding came in. In fact, so important was the shielding that it was probably more accurate to say that the walls were shield conduits first, then barricades second.
What stood out to Aldrich more, though, was the view. One wall of the room was see through glass showing the planet from low orbit. He had never been to space, but being up here, seeing the earth, a blue jewel painted in swathes of green and dotted with white clouds, he felt awed.
So tiny against such an impossibly big world.
'So this is the world we will conquer,' said Volantis.
'Yeah. A lot to do, huh?' said Aldrich.
'Nothing that is beyond my Armored! If you are to surpass the warmother I once served, then an entire world is the least that I expect from you!'
'No pressure, I guess.' Aldrich nodded though, appreciating Volantis's reassurance.
Outside of this waiting room, his hearing was getting prepped. Government and AA officials were probably packed around the circular seating spaces in the hearing room.
"How are you doing, Thanatos? Is there anything you require at this moment? I have a list of eighty seven different refreshments on hand-" A floating black orb with a friendly green eye dot spoke to Aldrich. A Panopticon service bot.
"No. I'm ready whenever the world is," said Aldrich.
"The hearing is still in preparatory stage." The orb paused. "You have a visitor. Clearance code: Trinity. I will vacate these premises."
The orb floated away, a pressurized sliding door opening to let it exit while letting a person step in.
A man of average height, though were it not for his crooked back, he would have been noticeably tall. He had a slim, thin, weak build that his loose fitting navy blue suit did little to conceal.
Under the brown brim of a bowler hat, he peered at Aldrich with X shaped solid black eyes.
Eyes that anyone could recognize.
"Supermind," said Aldrich.
"I'm still famous, am I?" Supermind hobbled forwards, using a mechanical black walking stick for support. He smiled at Aldrich, wrinkles wreathed around the thin skin of his eyes and pale lips.
For a man that was 100 years old, though, he looked spectacular. An average passerby would have thought he barely pushed past 60, let alone an entire century.
"There's not a single person alive that wouldn't recognize a member of Triune," said Aldrich.
"I suppose I've got Vanguard to thank for that. Without him, I doubt anyone would've heard a peep about us." Supermind limped near Aldrich and motioned to an empty row of seats in front of him. "Do you mind?"
Supermind grunted as he got himself in the seat with some pain. "Crystallization is a pain to deal with. Sometimes, I still dream about lifting mountains with my mind. Now, I can barely get up at night to take a leak on my own."
"Why are you here?" said Aldrich. "You're the Arbiter for this hearing, aren't you? That means you're supposed to be a neutral, mediating force between me and everyone else. More of an advisor than anything else.
Meeting me before the hearing isn't exactly what I'd call neutrality."
"There is no such thing as neutrality. Everything, no matter how small, has mass. Everything tilts to one side or the other." Supermind rested his walking stick down and clasped his hands together.
Aldrich tensed up, knowing well that Supermind activated his powers with that gesture. And Supermind had been the greatest telekinetic in the entire world in his heyday.
Even with Crystallization affecting him, he could probably threaten Aldrich.
"Rest easy. I do this to calm myself," said Supermind. "You're tough enough that even if, for some god forsaken reason, I wanted to try and crack you open, I'd break my spine trying.
Or lose control and rip apart this whole station."
"You haven't answered my question. Why are you here?"
"Straight to the point, hm?" Supermind sighed. "All I'm here to do is to take a close look at you."
"Well, I'm right here."
"You don't want to know why I want to look you over?"
"Are you offering an explanation?"
"Hm. Curt. No wonder Seismic took a liking to you." Supermind did not look at Aldrich as he spoke. He looked forward, intentionally avoiding Aldrich's gaze.
Likely to make Aldrich feel safe.
Supermind's telekinetic powers were incredible, but Crystallization had worn them down to a nub. However, his telepathy was less affected. If he got a good line of sight on somebody, he could probably completely destroy their minds.
Though Aldrich was immune to mental damage. He wondered if Supermind could get through it.
"You're a man of mystery. Someone that just showed up out of nowhere. You must know some things the rest of the world doesn't."
"Let me ask you: do you know where Vanguard is? Do you know if he is alive?"
Aldrich pondered the question. Supermind was not leading with it. He was genuinely curious.
Vanguard had not been seen in close to two decades. In fact, the year Aldrich was born was the year Vanguard, former top hero of the entire world, disappeared.
Nobody knew why or how. The year of his disappearance had been relatively peaceful, too.
There had been no variant attack or villain to take Vanguard down. But in the years leading up to his disappearance, it had been noted that the former top hero was getting weaker and weaker.
Seemingly older and older as well, his supposed slowed aging rapidly leaving him.
And, as a result, less and less active.
"No," Aldrich said simply.
"Hm." Supermind nodded to himself before standing up, pushing himself up with his cane.
"That's it?" asked Aldrich.
"Yes, that's it." Supermind began to walk away, back to the exit, but then paused. "I guess I do owe you more of an explanation. You'll be a top dog soon, anyway - you deserve as much.
You see, Vanguard didn't tell me or Valkyrie much. He was always more of the quiet type in private, despite how loudly he shouted about hope and good in front of cameras.
After the 2077 Corpowar, after he swallowed the equivalent of ten nukes, he started to get weaker. He cut off contact with us. With all of the world. He stopped talking to the media, his handler, his fans, everyone.
I thought he was in a depressive phase, seeing his position at the top slip away, but he was never the type to be worried much about rankings."
"Then what was it?" said Aldrich, too curious to remain silent. Throughout his whole childhood, Vanguard, the hero that ended any fight in just one punch, was his idol. Someone who swooped down when the going was roughest and brought smiles to everyone in just one fistful of hope.
"I don't know. Like I said, he cut us off, and we were the closest to him. But I've been trying to piece together clues, and I think he was trying to find a heir. His power - I believe it's inheritable." Supermind looked at Aldrich directly. "I've been spending decades trying to find some bastard child or hidden student of his, but no luck."
"Which is why you're here," noted Aldrich.
Supermind nodded. "I was checking to see if you had inherited it, if I could feel what I felt when I looked at Vanguard, but that isn't the case.
You're different, that's for sure, special.
But not in the same way Vanguard was."
Supermind turned to leave. "I'm sorry for wasting your time. I'll have the hearing commence soon. I wouldn't worry, if I were you. Everyone wants a piece of you. Hopefully, you can put all that attention to good use."
Aldrich watched Supermind leave. When he did, the orb shaped helper bot entered.
"Interesting" Aldrich said to himself.
The strongest hero team to have ever existed was called the Triune, consisting of Vanguard, Supermind, and Valkyrie. Not the same Valkyrie that operated on Sunlight, Solomon Solar's team.
That Valkyrie was the daughter of the original who lived in secluded retirement now after taking a severe career ending injury she could not heal from.
Triune had kept the world in balance to a large degree, dragging them by the scruff right out of the chaos of the Altering and the initial nigh apocalyptic disaster of the Monstering.
They were the lynchpin that guaranteed that humanity could survive even the toughest of attacks from Variants and also curb villain activity from getting too bad.
Once Triune was gone, especially after Vanguard's disappearance, that was when the world balance disrupted. When variant attacks got much worse. When villains started to consolidate much more power.
But if, as Supermind said, Vanguard's power - an overwhelming might that could defeat anybody in a single blow - was truly inheritable, then that would restore the balance again.
Only if that power went to the right person, though.
Supermind was probably on 24/7 watch for the heir to show up.
And now, so would Aldrich.
"Interesting story that was, hm?"
Aldrich turned to the helper bot. The voice coming from it crackled and held inflection that made it obvious it came from a living, breathing person, not an auto generated A.I. voice devoid of any real emotion.
The voice was grating, as if it was being pushed through a modulator that constantly distorted it.
"Who are you?" Aldrich narrowed his eyes under his helm.
This was not the Panopticon. But anyone that could hack into Panopticon tech was absurdly high end as far as techno ability went.
"You read my message, no? I'm your friendly neighborhood Stranger."
"Right. You." The Stranger. The entity that controlled the mysterious bots with powers that followed no proper ruleset.
Powers that Aldrich hypothesized to not belong to either Elduin or Alter realms, considering how impossible it was to read them. Though there were some holes in this hypothesis, like the fact that the bots had tech at least somewhat familiar enough that V could get into them and Mad Jack's virus could affect them.
"Yes, me." The Stranger chuckled. "Why so hostile, my friend?"
"Friend is not a term I would lightly use given our last interaction."
"An accident. Mad Jack's virus took over my bots. There was nothing I could do. And you, Thanatos, are my friend. Or at the least, I hope to make you my friend."
"And tell me, how are you going to do that?"
"I've reached out to your netpoint in Cyberspace and dropped some goodies. A location to Feather. Once you make him squeal, I'm sure he'll lead you to more important threads. Some compromising information on the Italian Prong, maybe. Or, if you're lucky, a net to catch that pesky spider Desmond."
"So this is Trident related."
"For now, yes, though I see this Trident issue as a small bump in the road compared to what is to come."
"And what is to come?"
"You'll know when you accept me as your friend."
The Stranger continued. "You and I are not so different. We both are not from this world. But that does not mean it cannot belong to us. Work with me, and we can make that happen.