—A tea room at Xu Lin Conglomerate HQ.
If one who knew Xu Mingling well looked closely at him, they would see a rare troubled expression on his face.
Unfortunately, no such person remained anymore.
Xu Mingling carefully sipped tea. Across from him, President Tai happily smiled.
Two years had passed since President Xu Wei disappeared. Despite all of Xu Mingling's efforts - the suffering, the sleepless weeks, the hassling and bartering - Xu Lin Conglomerate just barely remained afloat, and soon it would certainly sink. Many businesses affiliated with Xu Lin Conglomerate had crumbled, yet President Tai's F&S Corp had only grown more powerful thanks to his shrewd and canny insight. Because of that, when President Tai requested a meeting, Xu Mingling had no choice but to agree.
Xu Lin Conglomerate had once been a dragon in the global economy. Now, it was nothing more than a shaky-legged fawn. President Tai could crush it in a day.
President Tai sighed. "Little Mingling. Ah, these past two years have been harsh on you, haven't they?"
"... Yes, Uncle Tai," Xu Mingling responded, his eyes downcast.
President Tai stretched out a wrinkled hand. His fingers stroked Xu Mingling's loose hair. "Look at this. You've worked so hard that the luster of your hair has faded, and your skin is tight with tension." His index finger bent to stroke Xu Mingling's neck, and he clicked his tongue in chastisement. "Such a waste!"
Xu Mingling bit the inside of his cheek hard enough to taste blood. Strangling his rage, he said with only slight petulance, "I'm not a woman, Uncle Tai. Beauty..."
"... is still a gift to be treasured!" President Tai cut in. "Especially one so rare as yours, ah." He finally withdrew his hand.
Forcing himself to stillness, Xu Mingling took another sip of tea. A cold sweat formed at the back of his neck.
President Tai smiled. Though it would have appeared kind and gentle to anyone else, Xu Mingling saw its hideousness clearly. "Little Mingling."
Tightly gripping the tea cup with both hands, Xu Mingling replied, "...Yes?"
"Have you given any thought to my offer from two years ago?"
The corners of Xu Mingling's lips twitched downward. Seeing the reluctance on the boy's face, President Tai continued.
"Little Mingling, this uncle doesn't mind taking you as a son and helping you with business. A bright child like you, this uncle always thought the way your father treated you was a waste. Forcing you to labor all day, never showing affection or praise..." He shook his head sadly. "Think about it, little Mingling. When has this uncle ever done you wrong? My promise to take care of you and your father's company is without doubt." He grabbed Xu Mingling's hand from around the teacup and held it, gazing intently at Xu Mingling.
Xu Mingling despondently stared at the surface of his tea.
Acting so kindly, generously giving him a way out from this hell...
What a farce!
Only a naive idiot would think this lousy old man had any good intentions. Taking him as a son, more like as a prostitute! The wretched President Tai wanted to devour both Xu Mingling and Xu Lin Conglomerate! Xu Mingling savagely bit his tongue. He wanted to curse and beat this old man for his audacity, but doing so would spell the absolute death of Xu Lin Conglomerate.
And that was the one thing he could not allow.
For the sake of his father's company...
"Uncle Tai, I..." With great effort, he forced the stiff fingers in his left hand to grip President Tai's. "I..."
Even so, he hesitated. To him, this was like asking him to eat dog shit and pretend to enjoy it.
Not only that, it would be years of eating dog shit until the wrinkled old prune kicked the bucket.
In the end, this was a matter of deciding which was more important. Xu Lin Conglomerate, or his own pride and self-worth?
Obviously the answer would have to be...
"Uncle Tai... Your offer, I will..."
President Tai gazed at him with a smug smile.
Ignoring the crawling of his skin, Xu Mingling squeezed his eyes shut.
"I will acce-"
--The door slammed open.
Xu Mingling and President Tai both stared at the doorway with wide eyes. There stood a handsome and tall young man dressed in a striking business suit. He confidently strolled towards the two of them.
"President Tai, I'm afraid this negotiation can no longer be continued," the young man said. Upon hearing his voice, Xu Mingling jolted. Zhong Huang! The lazy, sloppy, slouching Zhong Huang!
Why was he here?!
Before President Tai could react, Xu Mingling instinctively snapped, "You dare intrude on our meeting? By what authority do you claim we can't negotiate?"
But Zhong Huang wasn't fazed. From his briefcase he withdrew a sheaf of papers, which he placed on the table. Then he shockingly said, "Xu Lin Conglomerate is now under the management of Gateway Media. As of ten minutes ago, Xu Mingling is no longer in charge, and cannot make business decisions on the Conglomerate's behalf."
Xu Mingling and President Tai shouted at the same time, "What!"
Xu Mingling's fast reflexes seized the papers. His eyes rapidly scanned the documents.
These... These were...!
These papers detailed the sale of Xu Lin Conglomerate to Gateway Media! But the most shocking part of it was, these negotiations had begun seven years ago!
After ascertaining the veracity of the documents, President Tai slunk off to the sewer he came from. But Xu Mingling couldn't feel happy about it.
Xu Lin Conglomerate had been sold right under his nose.
Furthermore, it was to Gateway Media, that tiny little game-making group!
But Xu Mingling had to grudgingly admit, at this point it could no longer be called such. After Xu Lin Conglomerate collapsed, so too did many areas of the world's economy. Life grew harsher, and prices fluctuated wildly while wages dropped. Recognizing the global crisis, the governments did the best they could to stabilize people's daily lives. In exchange, all luxuries and entertainment received severe taxes.
All except for a certain company's product.
Through various connections, Gateway Media was able to internationally sell their Virtual Reality console without any tax. The entertainment-deprived people of the developed world clamored for this cheap offering, and soon, millions began playing the game Drop of Aether.
Incredibly, this game even revitalized the world's economy. The wealthy hoarders at the top percent of the world began spending billions to purchase quality items for their characters in Drop of Aether. As long as people worked hard in the game, they had a chance of making a living in reality. It was no short of a miracle!
The company that made all of this possible swiftly rose to become one of the top forces in the world, replacing the old Xu Lin Conglomerate's legacy.
Xu Mingling and Zhong Huang stood side-by-side outside of the old Xu Lin Conglomerate's HQ.
The lost Xu Mingling no longer had a place in the company led by Gateway Media. He had sold all of his personal assets to invest back into the Conglomerate: stocks, cars, clothes... Eventually he had grown so desperate that he had even sold all of his houses. He had figured that since he barely left his office anyway he might as well get rid of those empty, unused living spaces.
Thus, Xu Mingling was now homeless. He had only a single suitcase of essentials with him.
"You really did work hard, didn't you," Zhong Huang said. He seemed to realize Xu Mingling's current predicament.
Xu Mingling snapped, "Shut up, dog of the upstart Gateway Media." Zhong Huang made a pained expression, but Xu Mingling ignored it. Walking up to the other man, he demanded, "What do you know about Gateway Media? Why would my father... What do you know of their relation?"
Gateway Media hadn't even appeared until four years ago, and yet his father had begun the transfer of power seven years ago. It made no sense. Furthermore, Gateway Media only dealt with the single game. What worth could it possibly have had in comparison to the importance of the Xu Lin Conglomerate?
Zhong Huang shook his head. "Xu Mingling, I mustn't tell you. If you want to know, then please come with me."
"Insolent! Why should I go when I can beat it out of you?" Xu Mingling automatically retorted, a firm scowl on his face.
Zhong Huang silently regarded him.
Heat pricked Xu Mingling's cheeks. At the moment, the former servant who grew up struggling under Xu Mingling's foot now surpassed the fallen master in wealth, status, and strength. Though Xu Mingling could make as many threats as he liked, in reality he had absolutely nothing to back them up.
Shaking his head, Zhong Huang said, "This is not information you would trust coming from another's mouth. The only one who can explain it is your father."
"Father?" Xu Mingling seized Zhong Huang's tie and pulled, making the tall man bend down close to Xu Mingling's face. "So he's alive? You're taking me to him? Where has he been all this time!"
"Ah, no," Zhong Huang stuttered, a slight flush overtaking his face. "Well, that is... in a way, I can take you to see him, but not the way you think."
Xu Mingling sneered. Why so vague? Was this situation truly so complicated? He unlocked his hand from the tie and took a step back. "Fine, then take me to him."
"This may take a while, so you'll be staying with me in the meantime."
Xu Mingling's pride couldn't overlook this obvious charity, but like a bitter pill, he swallowed it down.
Zhong Huang hailed a taxi. They traveled away from B-city's center, heading towards the neighborhood Xu Mingling had once visited as a child. The taxi stopped in front of a beat-up apartment complex. The entire building's width wasn't even the same size as his office. Xu Mingling exited the taxi and followed Zhong Huang inside.
"I live on the seventh floor," Zhong Huang said. He had avoided the rickety ancient elevator, which to Xu Mingling's eyes looked like a death trap.
After much toil, they arrived at the seventh floor. Xu Mingling struggled to regain his breath. These two years of nothing but sleepless office work had left his body in disrepair. The perfectly unaffected Zhong Huang, who had carried Xu Mingling's heavy suitcase, opened the door.
"I'm back!" Zhong Huang called.
"Welcome back!" a sweet feminine voice replied.
The two men proceeded further into the apartment. In the cramped living room stuffed with a couch, seats, and a dining table, a pretty young girl stood, setting down a plate of steamed fish. On the table were also plates of watercress, lotus root, and three bowls of rice with chopsticks.
"Oh!" The girl beamed happily, her feminine charm irritating Xu Mingling's eyes. "He's here, he's here! Wow!" Fluttering her hands, she immediately beelined towards Xu Mingling.
"Chen Ai!" Zhong Huang snapped. Xu Mingling had never heard Zhong Huang raise his voice before. That the indolent servant could actually use such commanding tone surprised him.
The girl deflated and stopped her approach.
Xu Mingling quickly understood that this girl must certainly be Zhong Huang's girlfriend. His discerning eyes glanced the girl over. A nice, fresh face, decently-styled hair, a moderate figure neither too skinny nor too sensual... by anyone's standards she would be a decent choice. But she was, of course, not even a third as beautiful as Xu Mingling.
With that vicious assessment Xu Mingling coldly said, "Zhong Huang, my business?"
"Master Xu, please eat first!" the girl said.
Zhong Huang looked at Xu Mingling with a blushing embarrassed face. "Ah... Xu Mingling, let us eat first. This is Chen Ai, a childhood friend. She is just like a mischievous little sister, please do not mind anything she says."
In a flat iron voice Xu Mingling said, "What do I care? I'm not here for pleasantries. Eat after you show me my father!"
"... All right," Zhong Huang said.
Xu Mingling followed Zhong Huang to a small office. A wooden desk crammed in the corner, bookshelves lining the walls, a futon in the other corner. On a desk lay a white box.
Zhong Huang picked up the box and said, "You'll be able to find your father through here."
The box had Gateway Media's logo in the center.
For a frozen moment, neither Xu Mingling nor Zhong Huang said a word.
Then Xu Mingling's face twisted into a terribly ugly expression.
"Mocking me?" he grit out, the fury of a thousand Asuras building in his throat.
Zhong Huang quickly shook his head. "I myself met him while playing. He ordered me to bring the documents to your negotiation."
Xu Mingling absolutely couldn't believe it. Xu Wei, playing a video game? Despite his complete disappearance from the rest of the world? What nonsense was that! If Xu Mingling's father actually skipped out just to play, then Xu Mingling would eat his shoe!
Seeing the fumes coming from Xu Mingling's head, Zhong Huang hurried with his explanation. "Xu Mingling, you have not become accustomed with Drop of Aether, and so think it is a mere game. But it is not so. DAO operates on its own connective system, letting someone play it from wherever regardless of internet or cell presence. Because you can craft a second identity, it is a good way to meet and contact people remotely and without anyone else knowing you are there."
"... So, you are saying that my father flew to some unknown location where he would never be found and started using this MMO to stay anonymously connected to the world?" Even just thinking it sounded ridiculous, let alone saying it.
But Zhong Huang just nodded his head.
Xu Mingling launched a round kick at the wall.
Hateful!! This stupid father, would he actually have done this!!
The Xu Wei that Xu Mingling knew would never put on such a scheme. But, Xu Mingling had to admit he knew very little about his father. This father, who had begun selling his company of blood and sweat and tears to the makers of Drop of Aether Online since seven years past, was one that Xu Mingling knew nothing about.
Grudgingly, Xu Mingling grit his teeth. At the moment, he could only trust that Zhong Huang was not playing a trick on him. There were no other leads on Xu Wei for the past two years, and the fact that Zhong Huang had access to a secret agreement between Xu Wei and Gateway Media lent some small credence to his word.
He'll join this game for no reason other than to search for his father! Xu Mingling decided. And once that was done, beat out that father's location no matter what had to be done!
"Tell me how to play this game," Xu Mingling snapped, snatching the visor out of Zhong Huang's hands. Loyally, Zhong Huang began a detailed explanation.