“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side.
Or you don’t.”
― Stephen King, The Stand
Asael had advised Richard not to make the decision to call upon him lightly, but Richard considered it to be one of the easiest decisions he ever had to make. His life to this point had been dominated by routine things, things he despised, and now he was being presented with an opportunity to change that fact. There was no way he was going to choose not to see Asael again. His suggestion that greatness was awaiting Richard fell upon ears that were eager to hear it and a mind that was quick to believe it. Having the sense of his own importance reinforced by a supernatural being made the thought of having his life continue on as it had been seem intolerable to Richard. In the days that immediately followed their encounter, he struggled to put up with all the mundane details of his existence even more than he usually did. Nothing commonplace could possibly compare with what he fantasized his future would hold. The unlimited possibilities he imagined awakened ambition in Richard for the first time. He didn’t want his life to even be touched by the ordinary, as he now saw it as something that could only pollute the nature of one so grand as himself. Asael had told him that there was much he would need to learn, and Richard considered the prospect of acquiring secret knowledge to be highly appealing. He was impatient to begin the education he was certain would lead to his rightful ascension above the nondescript masses. Having to wait a whole week before he could speak with Asael again felt like a great trial to him.
So, as soon as the seven days had finally passed, he arrived at the designated rendezvous site in a state of great anticipation. He pulled into the most isolated parking spot he could find, turned off the engine, then reclined his seat all the way back. He laid in that position and stared up through the moonroof, trying to let his mind go blank. After several minutes he let out a breath to calm himself, then quietly said, “Asael.” When he received no response, he repeated the name, this time louder. Still there was no answer. After about a minute of continued silence, he returned his seat to the upright position, and looked all around, as if expecting he might see him somewhere outside the vehicle. All he saw, however, was perhaps a couple dozen people milling about the park, engaged in various activities. But then, as he was scanning the area, he once again experienced a disconcerting tingling sensation in his head. It was the same feeling he had had right before he had heard Asael’s voice the first time. Unlike their previous encounter, though, there was no visual display of light preceding Asael’s manifestation. This time, he was just instantly there, abruptly appearing right beside Richard.
“I have felt the pull of your spirit, calling to me. I sense your desire to speak with me has been strong since we parted and so I have returned, as I said I would if you so willed it. Does the fact that you have summoned me indicate you are willing to have me as your teacher?”
Richard felt as though he was riveted in place as Asael’s impassive gaze engulfed him, seemingly scanning him to the furthest depths of his soul. He was confident he had never uttered anything with more conviction when he replied, “There’s nothing I want more.”
“That is as it should be,” Asael replied. “Man’s greatest hubris lies in their persisting in ignorance. You recognize this truth and seek to be different. I see that I have judged you well. Let us begin, then.”
“This place is dying, Richard, just as surely as you were when I was summoned to you. There is no hope for your world, only the one which will arise from it. If your kind is going to survive the disaster which is inevitably coming, they must seek sanctuary among the stars and colonize the heavens. Allow me to show you the future I have witnessed.”
“Please … yes, show me it all,” Richard consented in an eager whisper.
The vision Asael then showed to Richard wasn’t truly a glimpse into the future. Asael only enabled Richard to see a projection of the outcome he desired for the Earth: the future Asael had long envisioned and planned for. So, all that Richard saw was nothing more than Asael sharing his own vision of the Earth’s end. If Richard had been older — if he had been at an age where his critical reasoning skills had already been fully developed — he may have paused to question this dire assessment of the Earth’s future. As it was, however, after the vision concluded he simply sat in stunned and fascinated silence, waiting to drink in all that Asael would say.
“If your world is not awakened soon, destruction will descend upon you all while you slumber. It was essential for me to share this knowledge with you because I am bound to the fate of your home, just as you are. And so, we can help each other. If you are willing to serve as the safe haven I have been seeking, I can provide you with a blueprint, a plan for how we might both, together, escape the fate which awaits your planet. There is still time and, with my aid, the possibility exists that you will be able to emerge from the debris of a dead world to usher in a new and better future. However, in disclosing that future to your people, we must ensure it is framed wisely, and set within a context palatable enough for the multitude to consume. Even then, there will still be many who reject the salvation extended to them, no matter how sagely it is presented. But we should not allow their ignorance to doom us all along with them.”
“I agree,” Richard remarked. “But the ignorant get what they deserve. Their fate doesn’t concern me. I only want to avoid being among them. What do you need from me?”
“Only your continued trust and cooperation,” Asael replied. You must recognize your own limitations, and know that the path ahead will be littered with numerous obstacles. You will not be able to surmount them all by relying on your own abilities. There will be occasions when moving forward past the challenge of the moment will require my direct involvement. At such times, you must be willing to allow me full access to your mind and body, so that I may speak and act for you.”
“When I last spoke to you, I said I came to warn you,” Asael added, continuing on without giving Richard time to think about or respond to what he had just said. “You did well to heed me. Your rage toward the female would have overwhelmed you, for in her presence the fires of your passion would have burned beyond your capacity to extinguish or even contain; and the consequences which would have arisen from your actions would have diverted you irrevocably from the path that is your destiny. If we are to accomplish all that lies before us, you will need to be vigilant, and have at least one eye on your objectives at all times. You must work to gain the trust of others. We will not be able to succeed if the world is against you. Open anger spawns animosity and opposition. Why invite such things upon yourself, unnecessarily? Therefore, you must master this emotion. There is strength in rage, but it is a tool whose power is best harnessed in secret. Yours should never be apparent to others. In the future, if you feel an impulse to act as you intended to before I dissuaded you, you must be more shrewd. Give reign to your emotions only when it is advantageous to; and only when you can do so without accruing undesirable consequence to yourself. Be unwavering in the pursuit of your goals, letting nothing stand in the way of obtaining them. But as you drive relentlessly toward them, if it becomes necessary at times to engage in behaviors that would inspire antagonism toward you, it is critical that all such behaviors remain securely out of the public eye. Do you understand this lesson?”
“Perfectly,” Richard replied.
“Very good. It is your first and most important one. Make sure that you do not forget it.”
It was a lesson that Richard took to heart, and several more like it would follow through the years. The effect of his liaison with Asael was that Richard was transformed; and the character of his transformation, at least on its surface, was surprising. It was the mirrored opposite of what one might expect from such a partnership: a fact which contributed greatly to the effectivity of the masquerade. No one ever ascertained what was responsible for the dramatic difference they observed in him.
His mother was the first to notice the change. He apologized to her for his past behavior and all the difficulties he had caused for her, telling her that he had abused all the patience and kindness she had shown in raising him. He said he wasn’t going to take her for granted anymore, and he was committed to pursuing a better future for himself. He had a plan now, he told her. She had heard him say similar things before, but his promises to change had always only come at times when he had needed her help to escape whatever new difficulty he had brought on himself; and he never ended up keeping his word for long. So, on the day he came to her, she was initially wary of his out-of-the-blue apology and expected she would soon be hearing of some new trouble he had gotten into. But no ill news arrived and afterwards, for the first time, his actions started to be consistent with his words. His mother assumed his sudden display of maturation stemmed from some delayed response to his recent brush with death, and was more than happy to leave it at that.
Richard excelled academically during his senior year of high school and began to show a keen interest in computers, telling people he was going to start his own company one day. Whenever anyone asked about what had prompted the changes in him, his expressed motivation never went beyond saying, “I don’t want to be a loser anymore.” The surly, abrasive and unliked teen was gone forever, as though he had never existed. In his place stood an energetic, apparently humble young man of budding genius, who was charming and magnetic — even mesmerizing when he chose to be.
After his graduation, Richard studied Computer Science at the University of Texas, in Austin. While there, with the aid of Asael’s advanced understanding of technology, he developed a highly innovative new computer programming language, which he called ‘Alternative to Syntactic Protocols’, or ASP. He gave a few of his professors a demonstration of how easy it was to write code and simply get things done when using it. One, in particular, knew Richard had created something special. He was impressed by how its design philosophy placed emphasis on readability, but was more amazed by all that Richard showed him he could do with it. He told Richard he saw it as an extremely versatile and efficient language, and put Richard in touch with one of his friends, who was influential in the computer industry. After speaking with Richard, this friend was convinced that ASP could transform the way software was created and allow programmers to greatly improve their productivity, so he agreed to partner with Richard to bring it to the marketplace. Thus, Richard was able to quickly realize his goal of starting his own company, and he founded Ophis Software Solutions before he even completed his junior year.
There was always a demand within the business world for solutions that would increase productivity, and because Ophis Software filled that need so well, it enjoyed great commercial success. But this triumph was only the first phase of the blueprint that Asael had shared with Richard. For his next venture, Richard turned his attention from increasing productivity to feeding the general public’s appetite for diversion. Asael was a source of seemingly boundless inspiration, and he supplied Richard with a steady stream of stories; so Richard launched Thērion Interactive, a video game production company, to serve as the medium through which those stories were shared with the masses. Some were true accounts of real historical figures and events, some were pure science fiction and fantasy. Regardless of the genre, Asael’s narrative skill made them all highly entertaining and, one by one, Richard converted each of them into a blockbuster hit. He was hailed within the industry as a creative force of nature.
But Richard’s run of success wasn’t driven by creativity alone. With insight he gained from Asael, his ability to quickly read and accurately evaluate people was unrivaled, which gave him another competitive advantage. It helped greatly in his recruiting efforts. High caliber talent is the milk that nourishes a company and allows it to develop healthily and grow strong, and he seemed to possess a prescient ability to identify which candidates in the recruiting pool he skimmed from would prove to be the cream, without needing to wait until they had already risen to the top. Asael’s insights were also especially useful whenever Richard needed to enter into a negotiation. On multiple occasions, he was able to turn a difficult one around with a well-timed, penetrating observation about the other party; sometimes shocking people with how deeply he seemed to be able to see into them. The better he understood who he was negotiating with, the easier it was for him to get them to convince themself that the outcome he wanted was their own idea; and so, he didn’t have to persuade with brute force. That’s not to say, however, that Richard was averse to employing such lesser refined methods if it became necessary to.
Perhaps the most important factor that enabled his two companies to continue to expand and prosper, though, was his approach to running a business. Communications sent to his staff frequently contained at least one of his favorite maxims, but there were three in particular that he wanted to keep prominent in everyone’s mind. Everyone referred to them as “The Triumverate,” and they were engraved on his office door for all to see:
“It’s not difficult to have an idea. Executing it skillfully is.”
“At the heart of every masterful work, you’ll find attention to detail.”
“Unconscious Competence is a commodity that can’t be overvalued.”
When asked to elaborate on their significance and meaning, Richard would answer that being able to come up with good ideas could get a person in the door, but since he only hired the best and the brightest, every employee on his staff was going to have some. He would say the engraving was there to remind everyone who walked through his door of the fact that even the best of ideas fail to yield a quality result with sloppy execution. He wanted his employees to always be mindful that focusing on the details was what would set them apart from their peers, because he knew that maintaining an unwavering attention to detail, from the conception of an idea through to its ultimate realization, requires a sometimes punishing level of dedication. He would then go on to explain that Unconscious Competence means a skill has been mastered to such a degree that it can be performed at the highest level without having to pause to think about how to do it; so a true master can make it seem like his skill comes effortlessly. He would point out that the reality, though, was that no one ever mastered something without first committing a tremendous amount of time and energy to the effort; and that degree of dedication wasn’t something everyone always felt willing or able to give. So the last quote was intended to let his team know that, when they walked back out of through the door, they could have full confidence that their dedication to producing masterful results would always be well-rewarded by him because he placed a high value on their commitment to excellence. And the numbers appeared to testify that this wasn’t just lip-service on his part: compensation rates at both Ophis and Thērion were higher than industry standard.
If an employee was asked what they liked about working for Richard, one of the most frequent responses given was that he gave everyone an amount of intellectual autonomy that would be enviable in most other companies. This was because Richard was strongly opposed to bureaucracy. Having to fight through multiple layers of approval was the enemy of efficiency, he said; and he was zealous in his commitment to eliminating anything that could potentially be an impediment to accomplishing his objectives. Others said they appreciated that once a project was green-lighted, he always gave them what they needed to succeed. When considered in the light of the preceding facts, it would be difficult to create a culture and maintain an environment that was more employee-friendly than the ones Richard presided over.
There was, however, another side to his leadership: one that never made it into the light. Richard had a few projects he deemed to be mission-critical. Over the years, there were a few, isolated instances where an employee would make a major error on one of those projects. If the setback this caused was great enough, the responsible party would be summarily discharged. This was not an extraordinary outcome, in and of itself. However, if there had been any reason for someone to keep track of how the terminated employees fared in life after their dismissal, it would perhaps have raised some eyebrows to learn that each of them met with a premature death — some by seemingly natural causes, others unnatural. It may have also appeared to be more than coincidental if it had been learned that the unnatural ones tended not to occur until several years after they had been fired. Those who fell by natural causes tended to drop with less delay.
As the name Richard Cory was catapulted into the public consciousness, the world became fascinated with him. In a time where attention had become a commodity that was increasingly more difficult to capture and maintain, this was no small feat, in and of itself. He had the power to cast whatever he chose to discuss in a captivating light, altering the perspectives of those around him and causing others to see life in ways that had been previously hidden to them. When he was among those of a baser mind, this effect was even more pronounced and, despite his elevated social position, he still was known to associate freely with these types of individuals. It was perhaps partly for this reason that despite his reputation of being “a gentleman from sole to crown,” the sparkling sheen that seemed to be superimposed over his presence was not completely without blemish.
Additionally, regarding his intimate personal affairs, it was as if he were able to command gravity itself and generate an inescapable field that would draw anyone he deemed beautiful out from the customary orbit of their life and into his bed. It was well chronicled that, in such matters, he took pleasure as he pleased and moved on. This was no blight to his image, though: it rather enhanced it. Such behavior did not exclude one from being considered a gentleman in the spheres he mingled in: it was not only excused, it was expected. However, his frequent dalliances did also result in the occasional hushed rumor of secret vices. This could have led to some undesirable consequences for Richard, but his brilliance, charm, and overall generosity with his wealth bought him so much goodwill that no aspersion directed toward him was able to gain any traction with the general public, or sully the esteem they had for him. Any of these whispers that were floated into the air never remained aloft for long. They were all considered to be nothing more than gossip, the unavoidable consequence of fame.
Yet, despite his burgeoning fame, no one truly knew him. This was partly because, aside from freely discussing his business philosophies, he kept all of his personal values and beliefs strictly to himself. In interviews, he was a master at being able to coyly deflect any question that would require him to express a political opinion, and even if he was just engaging in a casual, one-on-one conversation this was still equally true. Beyond that, though, business associates would sometimes privately observe that they found it unusual that he had no real inner circle. The most astute of them wondered how someone who seemed to be so widely respected and admired could also, apparently, have no close friends at all. There were two reasons for this.
The first was that, while he could generate enough of a surface geniality to convince any casual acquaintance that he had nothing but warm feelings for them, the warmth he displayed to those around him didn’t emanate or flow from the core of his being. The more Richard knew about people, the more he found to dislike, so he saw no need and felt no desire for friendship. Indeed, although he was quite familiar with the word, and could give an accurate definition of it, at the most foundational level he didn’t understand what friendship even meant.
The second reason was to protect his self-interests. It served him well to be regarded as a virtuous and affable person, and the superficial depth of his personal relationships made it easy to maintain that public perception of him. The mask he donned for the business world was one he was comfortable wearing, but that didn’t mean there weren’t times when he desired to breathe without it on. If he had a wife or someone else in his life he had to regularly spend significant time with, it would mean there would be fewer opportunities for him to take it off. At least if he wanted to prevent them from catching sight of the demon shrouded in the shadows beneath its polished exterior, that is.
As OSS and Thērion continued to prosper, the march of time only accelerated Richard’s ambitions. His next innovation was the creation of a live streaming video platform for gamers. After this, Richard started acquiring other companies. He founded ThēraMark, Inc., and each of the companies he purchased were integrated under its banner. Each acquisition added some particular area of expertise he considered essential to his long-term plan, and ThēraMark, Inc. expanded to include a movie studio and major cable television network. It went on to dominate the entertainment industry. Richard then began to focus on extending his reach into adjacent industries. As he did, he found that he needed to lean more and more heavily on Asael. At this point, their association had become so strong that it could nearly be termed a complete union. The times when Asael took over and Richard “went away” became more frequent, and Asael would remain in charge for increasingly longer durations. And when Richard “returned” he never knew what had happened while Asael had been in control. Slowly but surely, he was being transformed into a puppet; but he was a puppet who believed he functioned without any strings attached.