Burned Out Heroes
“...You’ve done a bang-up job training your cronies. Or, are you trying to piss me off? Is that it?”
“No, no. I would have nothing to gain by angering you. I am a pragmatist. I would never take such an unprofitable course of action.”
“...Yeah, you’re practical to a damn fault. I’ll give you that.”
The thug’s fist still snug in his grasp, 01 exchanged words with the digitalized brainwaves entering his mind. Though he gave up on inflicting any more pain on the underling, he would have followed through had circumstances been different.
“Would you be so kind as to release my associate? I’m sure your daughter has seen enough blood splatter for one day.”
“...You never know who’s watching. Act like it next time.”
01 released the thug’s fist after uttering those words. Starting a fight here and now would actually work against 01 as well. He was not fool enough to let his ideals interfere with work.
“Get yourself treated in the back. And yes, you are at fault. I clearly remember instructing you to give our guest and the girl accompanying him a proper welcome.”
The thug staggered away, clutching a ball of mangled, bloody flesh to his chest. The boss’s orders were absolute.
Remaining would only result in another painful lesson from 01 or the boss stepping in to finish the job.
“My associate was careless. I shall see to it that he takes this to heart.”
“Hardly convincing from someone without a heart at all.”
“I beg your pardon. Amends shall be made, I assure you. Now, please come inside.”
Walking past the curtain, the repulsive sounds that had inundated their ears suddenly vanished. What greeted 01 and Karen’s eyes was not the standing room seating of the rest of the arena, but sturdy chairs and an antique desk.
Far from a VIP box, this was a place designed exclusively to conduct business.
The arena below was surprisingly blocked from view. Valued guests were instead treated to a parade of real time codes and information on a screen in place of the carnage.
What was once a seat of honor reserved for imperial visitors now belonged to the establishment's new sovereign.
“...It took three days to get to this pile of refuse, so I won’t be taking another job cleanin’ out the sewers, Berkov.”
Berkov, the liason. As the owner of several Flavius locations dotting the globe, the man with his fingers likely on the pulse of every black market in existence was also 01’s exclusive informant.
“It is precisely because information gathers at ‘piles of refuse’ such as this that I can remain in business. It also makes arenas like this quite profitable as gladiators are easily replaced. You are a betting man, yourself, are you not?”
“I bet on myself, nothin’ else. Don’t lump me in with those degenerates.”
“My apologies. And fear not, the job I have for you is urgent. The client even requested you personally.”
“I’m aware. Why else would I come all the way out here?”
One somewhat amiable machine (Berkov) and one frigidly indifferent to it (01).
They shared no affinity for each other. Just as there was no reciprocal connection between humans and insects, the two would never see eye to eye.
Though his appearance was human enough, something about Berkov was amiss. His facial expressions and movements were programmed as not to unnerve those around him.
The liaison Berkov was, in fact, a surviving automata unit, humanoid androids built for combat.
If arbiters (Karen) and mechanized soldiers (01) were the light on a battlefield, then automata were shadows. Were it not for their analytical abilities, they would not have stood a chance against humanity in war. Though, the Anamnesisian Conflict would have ended much earlier were it not for the existence of automata.
“For now, would you please have a seat? We have much to discuss. Oh, and if it isn’t Karen? How are you this day?”
“Hi there, Mr. Berkov. I’m fine. Money is a little tight, but else is new? So, you use a man’s body when you’re here?”
“Why, yes. The maneuverability leaves a little to be desired, but I am rather fond of it. By the way, did you enjoy the novel I lent you?”
In stark contrast to 01, Karen’s interaction with Berkov was akin to that of distant relatives. She found inhuman beings like him to be more approachable than everyday people.
“I sure did. Never once did I suspect the orangutan was behind it.”
“Indeed. The human mind is truly fascinating. Eccentric thought patterns such as those are entirely foreign to us. I was certain the red-haired bilingual man was the culprit.”
“...Could we please cut to the chase?”
01 sighed as he watched the girl interact with one of humanity's arch nemeses like an old friend and urged their host to get down to business. The Conflict may have ended five years ago, but that wasn’t enough time to forget the 50 years of bloodshed that preceded it.
The heart of the matter was that without Berkov, 01 would have no employment. Having to acknowledge that truth spurred headaches that just made the cycle even worse.
“Yes, we should. Though I was enjoying our conversation, time is of the essence for the client as well.”
Sitting up in his chair, Berkov pulled a file out from beneath his jacket and set in on the desk before them. Older methods of storage like printed paper could not be hacked. In this age, it was the only way to guarantee information could not be compromised.
Opening the file, the two discovered it was a copy of a high-ranking Federation official’s personal data.
“The client is John Hadia, a former member of the Federation's North American Continental Lone Wolf Squadron and a current senator on the Federation High Consul. Oh yes, you may know him better as the ‘Inferno Blade Flamberg.’”
“...I’ve heard the name before. Never met the man.”
Stories of the first mechanized soldier to be elected to political office two years prior had reached 01’s ears. A war hero during the Conflict, he had built a reputation for his exploits in battle but gained serious notoriety once he threw his hat into the political ring.
Committing himself entirely to this new occupation after the war, 01 had heard the former warrior only made public appearances once in a blue moon after winning his first election.
“Were you aware that he also adopted a young girl two years ago?”
“...I can’t say I’ve heard about that, no.”
“This job revolves around her, as it so happens. The rest of the details are not so straight forward.”
“...Has she been kidnapped?”
An abducted daughter. That was an easily understandable reason for a Federation Consul member to call on the “apparition's” services.
“That cannot be confirmed at this time. However, the situation is dire enough for the senator to contact you dir-”
“-Dad, this girl is an arbiter.”
Karen, the first to skim the file, interrupted Berkov before he could finish.
“...Let me see that.”
Although he didn’t doubt his daughter’s claim, confirming with his own eyes was in 01’s nature.
She handed him the file and 01 lifted the cover page to find attached image data staring back up at him.
Silver hair just like his daughter’s paired and red eyes ringed with gold, the girl in the picture appeared to be in her late teens. Traces of a sorrowful past clouded her expression.
A tragic beauty, 01 mused as he studied the girl’s gallant visage.
The image had been inscribed with the name “Erde Kaine Hadias.” The only other background information available was that she was an adopted war orphan.
“...Affirmative. Well, what’s the job? I’ll tell you upfront I won’t be killing her.”
Now the lack of details made perfect sense. No matter what the job entailed, an arbiter being involved meant firepower was a necessity.
“But of course, it is nothing of the sort. The job is, how should I say, retrieving a runaway?”
“The young Lady Erde’s whereabouts have been unknown for the past week. Terminals have been unresponsive and efforts to track her collar have ended in failure. Strange, is it not?”
Missing persons were not a rare occurrence in this world. Whether they were dead or met a worse fate, sudden disappearances had become fairly common.
However, the narrative would change dramatically if said missing person was an arbiter.
A “purification movement” against arbiters swept across the world once the Conflict came to an end. Only a new series of laws called the “Golgotha Accords,” which required all living arbiters to be registered in a database, suppress their anamnesisian abilities, and be fitted with a nanomachine collar to constantly track their location, quelled the unrest.
Arbiters under Federation rule didn’t have the freedom to disappear.
“...Has the collar malfunctioned? But, that shouldn’t be possible...”
“Indeed, it is not. Cancelling its programming is no easy matter, and it would automatically send a cancelation message to the database in the event that it ceased operating.”
“...This job really seems weird, Dad.”
Karen looked for verification from 01 as the man pondered the situation. It was just as Karen and Berkov had said, an arbiter so close to the Federation’s watchful eye shouldn’t be able to go missing.
For if one did, it would be an abnormality like no other.
“The possibility of this situation being discovered is weighing heavily on the good senator's mind. Thus, you have been selected for this assignment. The public records may say that you have perished, but your reputation precedes you.”
“...Hella good it’s doin’ me.”
This was far from the first time he had done jobs off the books for Federation officials or the military. In fact, getting his hands dirty had been the norm ever since he first enlisted.
Very few were privy to the fact 01 still lived, but there were a handful. At the very least, the military officer who altered the records knew and was most likely aware of who 01 was with as well as his new occupation.
The senator could very well have found him through that vine.
“The job includes finding the wayward girl and, if at all possible, uncovering what caused this predicament in the first place.”
“... I see.”
Indeed, it was a “job” fit for 01. There was no doubt that calls for a second “purification movement” would ignite rumors of a faulty collar spread. Awe and fear of arbiters was still deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of the public.
The senator not only feared for the safety of his adopted daughter, but the threat of another war was also squarely on his shoulders. Using underground channels to request Berkov as the liaison ensured that no record of his actions would be left behind.
“More detailed information is included in the file. A slight risk of danger comes with the territory, but I’m sure that won’t be an issue for one such as yourself?”
“...This whole thing’s fishy as hell.”
Even if it was logically sound, 01’s war-hardened sixth sense was raising the alarm. Everything was falling into place a little too perfectly, and that unease hampered 01’s decision.
“...What do you think, Dad?”
“That it is what it is... What’s your take, as long as you’re askin’?”
“I... am fine with whatever you decide, as usual.”
Asking for Karen’s input could have eased the burden, but to no avail. It would be his call when push came to shove.
“The compensation is 5 million up front, with another 10 million in cash upon completion and an agreement of non-disclosure. My cut as the liaison comes to 2.5 million. Which means you will receive 12.5 million when all is said and done. Certainly better than the average offer on the market, no? Had I the ability, I would undertake it myself.”
“...All right. Tell the senator we’re on it.”
01’s sentiments and logical analysis aligned at long last.
Having a Federation senator in his debt while earning a reward was as good as killing two birds with one stone. He had no reason to decline. Furthermore, an arbiter was heavily involved in this matter. Too much was on the line to let it be.
“That is the response I was hoping for. The senator will be most pleased.”
“Then tell him to throw in a tip while he’s at it. You in, Karen?”
“Yes. I’ll always be happy to help out a fellow arbiter.”
With the decision made, the rest of the details fell into place like clockwork. Nearly all aspects of 01’s life were different since his days in uniform, but following through with the rough stuff never changed. He’d spent the past three years learning the business side.
“...You have three days. I do hope you keep to your usual standard. Oh, and though I do not believe it needs to be stated, please keep the details of our arrangement close to the vest.”
“I figured, considering the high payout.”
“Indeed. The “Masked Man” has been rather spry as of late. Though, that story may change if it is you behind the mask and cloak, claiming to be Number 10.”
Berkov brought up the recent string of terrorist incidents on the island as a way to warn 01.
“Ya kiddin’? I’ve got no idea who the guy is, but he’s pilin’ up enemies real quick.”
“Rumors in circulation claim that you or another Zero Series is behind the bombings. Still others insist that one of my kind is the true culprit. I am most interested, whichever the case may be.”
Berkov added with a touch of ironic humor despite 01’s clear agitation.
01 had familiarized himself with the mysterious “Number 10” as a precaution, but plenty had claimed to be a successor to 01’s model in the days since the Conflict ended. This was nothing new.
“At any rate, please keep your nose out of undue trouble. It already seems to have a way of finding its way to you as it is.”
“Don’t look at me. Karen, we’re going.”
“Sure. See you later, Mr. Berkov.”
“Certainly. The both of you are always welcome here...always.”
Berkov’s sendoff complete, the two leave Flavius behind.
The job itself seemed fishy as hell, but their task was clear as day. That was enough for 01 no matter how events played out.