Bits of snow slid past Mr. Harrison’s window as the SUV roared to life. A masked man, who may have been the leader, closed his door politely after him. The man then nodded, and the – now ex-board member – returned the gesture timidly. The vehicle lurched forward, passing by several full-sized black trucks. The black-block men were slowly mounting up as they loaded large military-style crates into their beds.
Only then, did Mr. Harrison let out a staggered sigh of relief. His heart threatened to rip itself out in fear that they’d turn on their word. He took a few moments to calm himself, then turned his eyes out the window. The cabin was dark as it kept a safe speed as it navigated the snow-lined road. They had been within the mansion for quite a while. An hour if the SUV’s clock was correct.
It had snowed heavily, then the clouds had parted to bring out a beautiful view of the galaxy. Its gradient vivid lilacs and fathomless voids spanned the heavens, and he sent a pray to Mrs. Bailey and her daughter. A thank you and well wishes where even they may be.
Then, he turned to the blank manila folder in his lap. Despite the chill, his palms were sweaty and he was reluctant to touch it. The disbelief of what had transpired made him keep it shut. Afraid it had been some nightmare turned heavenly dream. If he wasn’t… dreaming… Then inside this folder was his resignation papers; signed by both him and Owner Bailey. Along with a full retirement package and “saint” bonus that had come out to nearly two billion dollars, tax paid by Owner– Mr. Bailey.
The event itself had been fairly dreadful and maybe he’d be traumatized for life. However, he had been freed from the company he had diligently worked for. And he since he had never crossed the company. Being a lover of food, he never really had any other desires that’d pull him to do so. Pride? Can’t eat it. Money? He had enough to dine in any restaurant or pay a chef to make it on his salary and then some. Fame? He was a board member for the most renown company.
Because of all this, he had been spared.
Five men had gone into the mansion, and only one walked away. With money and freedom. He shuddered as he recalled each thunder shot. The blood-covered floorboards. The fierce howls of fear of them all as the men executed each of the board members. Until it came to him.
No man had come to press the rifle to his head; instead, Mr. Bailey had led them out of the office. Mr. Harrison had been asked to follow. The man had never seen a man die, and he was cowardly to the sight. He’d been happy to follow suit. Mr. Bailey’s wicked grin had transformed into one of endearment. Something that felt weird.
The tired, fragile man, showed he was as vicious as the rumors said – turned back into the grandfatherly looking man again. The change had been sudden and threw him off guard until he had been led upstairs. To what he knew was the forbidden room.
Anything that was Cyril’s had been fiercely protected. Toys, pictures, drawings, etc. He was scared of why he had been brought up. Then, when he opened the door; it became clear. Inside was the core of the wires, this he knew. A large server rack had taken up the far wall. It hummed softly, almost like an angelic melody. Tens of green lights glowed across it, and a large screen was attached to its center. A single name had been neatly etched into a plate above the screen.
It had been the core of that miraculous world the company had built. The one that thousands of companies had tried to steal. There had been plenty of attacks on servers, cyber and physical, over this. In all his life, he had never suspected it would have been here. Then again, it made sense, if you knew the man.
Then and there, Mr. Bailey had explained everything. His past, his feelings, and what he was doing then… What he had–
The night lit up behind them. Quickly, Mr. Harrison had turned in his seat in time to see the rise of the fireball in the mansion’s direction. Flaming boards, wires, and other things flew through the winter sky. A few seconds later, he heard it. It crossed the forest like the explosion had been a pebble in a calm pond. The trees shook, snow fell, and, along with with it, Mr. Harrison’s tears.
— † —
Edward stared into the screen, center of the large server. Mr. Harrison had just been escorted out of his daughter’s old room; left alone with his thoughts as the grounds were being vacated. The large server hummed low, patiently waiting on someone to activate it. His eyes lingered on the screen, Then it scanned the walls around him. Pink paint, freckled with drawings and pictures. A small bed, loosely scattered dolls still scattered. The floor… Clean and sterile…
His jaw clenched at that.
The maid had cleaned the floor after they left; only the floor. They were trying to teach her self responsibility. It had been just another regret on his long list of things. He had hired a special crew to keep her room clean since that day – to keep it like the day she left. The house hadn’t been lived in for a few years since that morning. It wasn’t until the VR project had come to fruition, did they come back. Without her.
Cyril had wanted them to, and at her insistence, they had put her source code in her old room. They could “act” like a family again. Though, the “act” had only lasted a few days before neither of them could take it. Since then, Cyril avoided using primitive Hologram technology. Because they had begged her not too. Because they couldn’t hold her…
His heartache at his selfishness. At the same time, it burned with rage to think that Jax had betrayed her. They both had wronged her… She was just a child and they had kicked her around because they couldn’t handle it… Old age had brought wisdom and empathy. And with both, he hated the world, Jax, Maddin, and most of all, himself. Of the three, only he was left, old and wither. Stuck in this perpetual loop of wrathful self-hatred and reflection.
Then his mind brought forth the deadmen in his office. Vengeance had been swift, sweet, and short. Like his daughter’s life.
He smiled as he held his palm up to his eyes. A square black object rested there, a short red lever on its side. It was marked for military use, but Edward had his ways of obtaining illicit goods. In fact, it had been easier to get than spiriting his brother out of prison. Easier than locking him away somewhere and starving him. Well, the easy part was collecting the man. The hard part was not putting him down as the mutt he was before tonight.
Edward looked to the window. A fake window. It was an LED screen hooked to a camera outside. It was to preserve a sort of “natural feel” to the room. Cyril had rebelled against the natural portion and pointed it to the sky. Instead of a view of the old forest that she used to play in, it looked to the sky. The beautiful purples and blues, framed by the void; freckled by distant stars.
It’d been a long time since he’d seen it. It seemed, in retrospect, he had a lot of “long times” tonight. It made him feel small. Insignificant. Once a tyrant of the American underground to most influential business owner – now a tired old man.
He was alone. He was lost.
Rich and powerful, yet because of it, he had lost his wife and daughter. That money had been nothing but grief since that day. Billions of dollars sunk into the medical field. They were regrowing limbs. They could make the blind see and the deaf hear. Autism could be cured to a certain point chemically, and cripples could walk again…
Yet his wife refused to be treated until their daughter woke up. And she never woke up. No matter how many medical breakthroughs they made; they could never wake her. Not without the unbearable wails of agony and pain. They couldn’t figure out it until they… No… He had stopped it… He was just as guilty. He couldn’t stand it anymore.
He too had given up on her.
That was all that festered in him. At himself. His wife. Jax. The world. Everything.
Revenge had been a cold dish in winter, for those who’d wronged Cyril. He had the uncanny ability to singlemindedly march forth, till his objective had been met. These four men had only been the beginning. Mr. Harrison had done no wrongs, and thus, could have that accursed money. It was karma.
All of them had been stealing resources from the medical research he’d commissioned. Maybe that could have contributed to their failure. Hiring incompetent doctors to “save” money. Leaking company secrets for money, which in turn, made it harder to fund research. It had already been difficult to recruit the brightest minds. Most of them refunded to work for him, or even with him.
Their pride had cost him his daughter.
“What?” Edward growled as he tapped his smartwatch.
“No need to be rude.” A man cooed, his voice thick with a Chinese accent. “I take care of your problem, so I call you.”
“Good.” Edward leveled his tone with a sigh. “And the others?”
“Shot. Lynched. Burned, so on.” The man reported.
“Even better.” Edward smiled.” That’s all then. It’s been a pleasure. Your money has already been transferred.”
“Yes, yes. I know.” The man chucked. “I saw. However, it’s a shame. You good customer and a good friend. Is there no other way?”
“Cao Hu,” Edward stated. “You have been the same. It’s been fort years. A lot has happened, as you know. I have no other reason to be here, anymore. I’d rather leave the world in ruins before I left.”
“Yes, yes.” Hu sighed. “Dramatic as always, Old Dragon. You have not changed.”
“On the contrary, I have.” Edward scoffed. “They’ve lived this long, haven’t they?”
“Very true,” Hu said. “I thank your girls for that. Give me money for my retirement.”
“Di–” Edward was cut off by the man.
“I mean no offense,” Hu said. “Girls always change boys. Its simple, and I think, they changed you for the better. You lived this long. I expected you to die sooner with how you acted.”
Edward did not reply to that.
“I miss them too,” Hu went on. “I understand, for our loved ones paid for our sins.”
“They did.” Edward said.
“I loved Cyril like my own daughter. Its a shame I will have to lose you too, but such is the way of life, yes?” Hu said.
“Mhm.” Edward agreed. “Death comes for us all, but I chose to go out on my own terms, and it’s getting late. Is everything finished?”
“Yes yes.” He answered. “Their deeds will come out in the morning. News bribed already.”
“Good… Then I guess this is our goodbye, old friend.” Edward chuckled solemnly.
“Edward Bailey, the Dragon of America,” Hu said. “It has been a pleasure to be your friend. Maybe in a different life, we could have been better friends. Goodbye, Old Dragon.”
The phone jingled, notifying that the man had hung up. Edward’s mood fell lower afterward. Cao Hu had been an assassin for hire. Well known among the underground and quite the expensive one at that. Yet, they had been, at one point, enemies. Locked in a vicious game of cat and mouse. Eventually, by an odd twist of fate, they had come to respect each other after an ambush had forced them to work together.
Since then, Cao Hu had elected not to take any contracts on Edward. In turn, Edward always supplied him with work. Over the long years, Edward no longer gave him those kinds of jobs; choosing to higher him as Chief of Security in his company. They had been at odds, yet, they remained close friends. Cao Hu had even been one of the few people Edward trusted with Cyril… Cyril had even come to call him Uncle.
He lamented on how their fates had taken such odd turns.
A renown assassin eventually becomes a trusted friend. Then, Chief of Security. Then, a friend to his family. The strangeness of it all wasn’t lost on him. Had it been a different life, Edward was sure they’d be too bickering old men on the porch. Growing old, and watching their families play. Life had an odd way of repaying karma though, and both the men had lost their families.
With a sigh, Edward tapped on the server’s screen. It lit up and displayed the Administrative Login Screen. He pulled a keyboard from under the screen and locked it into place. He then logged into the server, and it displayed a menu. With a few taps, he found what he was looking for. His daughter’s avatar.
Beautiful, mature, and vibrant. This avatar hadn’t changed much over the years. Aside from the whole “I’m an adult!” phase she went through at fifteen.
He chuckled fondly at the memory. Cyril had played a child’s character. A mirror image of her before. Puberty hadn’t done much for her ill body, unable to grow normally. Her real body had become decrepit, sickly, and… Ugly… He had to admit, her real body had become ghoulish. Even he didn’t think it’d ever be healthy if she was cured of her ailments… As harsh as he had been on Jax for his “mistake”, Cyril had faced a plethora of health issues stemming from her long coma.
Eventually… When he thought of his daughter, he thought of this white-haired maiden on the screen. Bright-eyed and pure. She was the definition of an ideal woman, but it wasn’t her real body.
Then again, it was.
He felt his thoughts slipping away into the philosophical side of things. Thus, he simply dove into her character’s bio. The one thing he’d never done before. It really had been an act of courtesy. As a girl who’s whole life revolved around numbers and codes, nearly everything she did had been monitored; until the last year or so of her life. When she had given up.
He looked down the long and depressing back story that was her character. The adventurers she had written down. A good portion of it was childish and nonsensical; all of which brought him to tears in laughter at the pureness of it all. Then, slowly, he could tell were things began to change. When the weight of her situation began to weigh on her. Slowly, it became darker and darker. The story slowly veered away from her character, and into the world.
It wasn’t the anguish you’d see from an emotional teenager going through puberty; it was the anguish of a trapped bird. Eventually, he reached the end – when she had given up. Left with a small note.
[“I’m a trapped bird, strung up in a tree on a sunny afternoon. Everyone around me visits. When they’re done, they fly away. They spread their wings and fly away into the open sky. But not me. I sit here in this cage, watching. Waiting. Left behind. Will they come back? Will someone save me? Do I matter…? Am I real…? It doesn’t matter. This is the cage I will die in, and when I’m gone, no one will remember me.”]
He stared at it. Unsure of what to do. He knew she felt this way, but to actually see it jolted down. It hurt. He stared at the screen for a few minutes. Then, he deleted it all and wrote in one final entry in its place. In a matter of minutes, he had left one final wish for his departed daughter. Once done, he entered it into the system.
“For you, I’ll shoulder any sin if it meant your peace,” Edward whispered. “Should I need to destroy this world or the next – I’d do it all for you.”
With that, Edward plucked three stuffed toys off the bed on his right. A white dragon, a white wolf, and an elf. Three of her favorite toys, who’d gone on to become her companions in her little world. He resettled them on top of the screen and left them as he walked away. He’d no longer defile this small heaven with his bloodied hands. It was a grave as much as the one by tree outside. Or, the one within that server.
Three graves, and no real home… His heart died at that thought.
He stopped in the doorway and looked back at the server. Her avatar still smiled back at him, as if sending him on his way.
“It was a blessing to have you, Cyril.” In a raspy voice, Edward muttered his final words. “If you’d have me, I’d love to be your father again. To do it right. Take you to school. Fight with you when you become a teen, and hand you off to your husband…”
All those things he had dreamt to do as a father. A rather romanticized list of what he’d do as her dad.
“You take care of yourself, you hear?” Edward said as he lifted his chin with a smile. “I love you.”
He slowly closed the door on the machine. His feet softly thumped down the hall, and the screen remained unchanged.
Then, the house roared to life as fire tore through it. The office was obliterated with the foyer. Wood, tile, floorboards, and memories were consumed within a blink of an eye. Pictures of a smiling child, unmarred by the world glowed orange for a moment then disappeared. Edward and Maddin’s wedding photo, cake smudged across both their faces. The fire consumed it all as it rushed past Edward, killing him instantly as it raced toward’s Cyril’s empty room.
The server’s lights began to flicker as if sensing the rush of destruction coming its way. Yellow, green and red as cycled before each light turned a brilliant gold. The screen began to glow, and as the fire reached out for it, the server had cycled one more time.
[“Be free of these thoughts – Spread your wings and live. I will always love you, my precious star.”]