Chapter 2:

Arbiter

Burned Out Heroes


The island had gained the moniker of “Soul Settler” because it’s extensive database of Anamnesisian Conflict casualties had transformed it into a symbolic gravestone.Bookmark here

That database was central to an economic zone that was the island’s public face.Bookmark here

“In only five years...?”Bookmark here

“Has it changed that much? This place looks like a pretty normal city to me...”Bookmark here

“Yeah, it’s brutal. Not even a shadow is left.”Bookmark here

01 grumbled about how much the island had changed as the two looked out over the cityscape.Bookmark here

Their destination wasn’t connected to the teleporter network. With no choice but to walk from the port, witnessing the island's new reality firsthand was unavoidable.Bookmark here

Single-story concrete buildings stood abandoned. Barracks and other military facilities that had once been occupied by soldiers were now retrofitted into dwellings. That, or had become something reminiscent of slums from the old A.D. era. Sequences of completely unrelated structures lined the streets.Bookmark here

“...Soul Settler, my ass.”Bookmark here

“It’s because a lot of refugees found their way here. Data shows they number in the millions. There are 10 times more people here than when you were here, Dad. It’s pretty much a last stop for anyone with nowhere to go now. This kind of thing happens all the time.”Bookmark here

“...Yeah.”Bookmark here

01 did his utmost to mask his displeasure while coming to terms with what his daughter was saying about the island’s fate.Bookmark here

It wasn’t military personnel living here, but countless refugees. Everyone afflicted with the gloom and melancholy that loomed over the world at large seemed to be drawn to the island city.Bookmark here

It was a common site in the world today. Considering how many countries had been torn asunder during the Conflict, several millions of people was a mere drop in the metaphorical bucket.Bookmark here

“But, hey, Dad? Are you lost? Would you like some directions?”Bookmark here

“I lived here for nearly 10 years. No matter how much it’s changed, I know exactly where I am.”Bookmark here

Throngs of beggars, overdosed addicts, and thugs were everywhere they looked. 01, however, relied on the faint memories he had to navigate the streets.Bookmark here

“Watch out for that puddle.”Bookmark here

“Oh, I saw it.”Bookmark here

Of course, he kept a close eye on his daughter following behind him at all times while on the move. Karen may be used to places like this, but she was still a child. It was his fatherly duty to protect her.Bookmark here

“...Still, this job seems kinda weird. Mr. Berkov never calls out of the blue.”Bookmark here

Karen strikes up conversation as they rounded yet another filthy corner. Though it was unclear if she had picked up on her father’s foul mood as he trudged silently forward, she was rather prone to share her opinions on their “jobs” when she felt like it.Bookmark here

“Hey, it’s Berkov. This gig ain’t gonna be pretty.”Bookmark here

“I won’t complain, as long as the pay is worth it.”Bookmark here

“Can’t know that without hearing the details. How many times have we shown up for a job just to find out they wanted us to do something like inspect a sewer?”Bookmark here

“...You mean the crocodile that turned out to be a dragon? Actually, that one was kind of fun.”Bookmark here

“Did you forget about the stench that hung around for a week?”Bookmark here

“Mngh... But, it was fun.”Bookmark here

01 did everything from mercenary work to odd jobs to make ends meet. His assignments ranged from malevolent to benign, but the demand to quell matters behind closed doors was far greater in today’s world.Bookmark here

Amid all the bloodstained jobs he had undertaken, a large-scale investigation of the New York sewer system last year was particularly prevalent in his memory.Bookmark here

Along with that putrid smell that refused to be vanquished, a dragon had been lurking in that darkness. Karen could recall that day with excruciating detail as well.Bookmark here

“Whatever the case, we’ve already made the trip out here. I’ll be giving him a piece of my mind if this turns out to be a fool’s errand.”Bookmark here

01 declared as he scanned their surroundings. All seemed peaceful enough, but that was no reason to get complacent.Bookmark here

Though he didn’t mention it to his daughter, 01’s 6th sense for danger was sending up all sorts of red flags about this assignment. That, however, wasn’t the only reason for him to stay frosty. There was another, even more pressing issue at the moment.Bookmark here

“Sure... Um, Dad? Are you sure you’re not lost?”Bookmark here

“...How’d you guess?”Bookmark here

The girl pointing it out made 01 wince. He thought he had concealed that fact quite well, so getting called on his bluff came as a surprise.Bookmark here

Indeed, 01 had completely lost his bearings. Nary a shadow of the backstreets he once knew remained on the route they were traversing and the sense of direction he had been so proud of during the war wasn’t doing him any favors at the moment.Bookmark here

“We’ve been going in circles. That’s the same puddle from before.”Bookmark here

“...Care to point me in the right direction?”Bookmark here

“Sure thing.”Bookmark here

He may try to hide the truth, but 01 knew when to own up to his own mistake. Asking his daughter to navigate these backstreets was in the best interest for both of them.Bookmark here

“...I’ve found an overhead view of the city. We’re supposed to be on the opposite side.”Bookmark here

“...This used to be a shortcut, I swear.”Bookmark here

Hacking into the vast network of observation cameras interwoven into the complex backstreets laid the metallic catacombs bare.Bookmark here

Doing so broke nearly 10 Federation laws, but the two of them were well beyond caring at this point.Bookmark here

“Even the island’s security can’t keep you out. Damn, am I glad the enemy didn’t have anyone like you back in the day.”Bookmark here

“It was a cinch. Oh, but, you can keep the praise coming.”Bookmark here

Karen’s giddiness at 01’s compliment made her look like a girl her own age.Bookmark here

When it came to hacking or cracking weaponry in digital warfare, she was second to none.Bookmark here

“Electron Artemis.”Bookmark here

It was a fitting alias for Karen, whose abilities as an arbiter allowed her to seize any type of electronic network. Software recognized her thoughts as part of their programming, which put electrical systems at the mercy of her every whim.Bookmark here

“Well, shouldn’t we get going? We need to get to Flavius, right?Bookmark here

“Yeah, Flavius, per usual. Just great...”Bookmark here

01 listened to his daughter’s instructions and stepped over the puddle.Bookmark here

He was here to do a job. While he was less than enthralled about the prospect, he couldn’t just walk away from his duty.Bookmark here

Bookmarked
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