Burned Out Heroes
Governments across the globe could all agree that this artificial island, the Soul Settler, was an accurate model for the world at large post-Conflict.
A tower of pure alloy that once held the war room and other vital facilities stood at the physical and economic center of it, almost as if to prove them right.
That tower provided a stark barrier between the Outside World (reality) and the Inside (delusion).
The Federation preserved peace after the war ended by erasing such inconvenient truths.
One heavily guarded entrance gate dwarfed by the barrier was the only bridge between that fantasy and reality. Though some on the island may voyage into the delusion for a short while, no one on the outside ever truly made it inside. Open doors simply did not exist.
Now, 01 and Karen had arrived at that bridge which was only constructed so those living in reality would think they hadn’t been abandoned.
“...How long we been here?”
“I told you five minutes ago. Dad, you’ve had three already. Don’t you always complain they ‘taste like shit’?”
“I ain’t had nothin’ else to do but gnaw on these. That Berkov’ll do anything to save a buck, I swear.”
Grumbled 01, reluctantly sinking his teeth into a bar of tasteless nutrients, the cheapest synthesized commodity on the market. Sticks like these were a staple for people living in the slums of reality or on this island devoid of nature’s bounty, but 01 couldn’t bring himself to think of them as “food.”
The pair had been sitting in this waiting room for two hours with nothing but these bland bars to eat. The sun, which had been at its zenith when they entered, had already begun descending into the horizon outside the window.
Throngs of people who had gathered in the entrance hall waiting for their turn to pass through the gate were illuminated by the reddish, early evening light. Originally built to house weaponry, the 50-meter tall hanger’s sturdy design made it perfect to retrofit into a passageway.
Before them stood a heavily guarded examination center. While it’s physical and electronic barriers were imposing on their own, automated weapons and anatomical soldiers’ sharp eyes scanned the room from indoor watchtowers that overlooked the crowd from the second floor. Of course, their fingers were permanently hitched to the trigger of their rifles.
“...I don’t think I’ve heard of a senator’s daughter working part-time at a nightclub before.”
“...Meh, probably a first. Still, students are always strapped for cash, right?”
“Beats me. Never was one myself, so I ain’t got a clue...”
Two hours had proved to be plenty of time to read over every detail in the file from Berkov.
It contained the senator’s missing daughter’s (Erde’s) personal data as well as a record of her movements and activities over the past month.
What really stood out to them was Erde’s part time job. Clubs and nightlife facilities were fairly common on the Inside, but it was the organization running the show that was an issue.
“...Whatever her reasons, it being run by the Ryusei-kai bothers me. Their involvement sounds like it’ll be very important.”
“Yeah, probably. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Ryusei-kai. Like Berkov, they were one of the groups who had profited greatly from illicit activities after the Anamnesisian Conflict, perhaps the most successful of any black market entrepreneurs.
Dealing in weapons and drugs, their organization closely resembled that of an organized crime syndicate back when the world revolved around the old Western calendar.
They had enough firepower at their disposal to hold their position, so much so that small countries and even nation states didn’t dare challenge their status. 01, powerful as he was, would be hard-pressed in a direct confrontation.
“...Now serving number 3-7-5-6-4. Please proceed to the counter.”
“...’Bout time. I can’t believe they kept us waiting this long.”
“I’d rather pass through than complain, wouldn’t you?”
Just when the repetitive monotony was getting too much to bear, 01 and Karen’s number was finally announced. Though it felt as though they had been in their chairs for an eternity, three hours was a relatively short time to spend in limbo before the gate.
01 stretched his arms as far as they would go as he got to his feet. It was then that a wouldbe voyager from the Outside was dragged away right before their eyes.
“L-Listen to me, please!! It's a real permit, I swear! Really! You’ve gotta believe me, my parents are-”
“Illicit entry detected. Suspect in custody.”
01 mumbled under his breath as he watched an anatomical soldier pull a hysterical, bawling man through the waiting area. The soldier’s digital visor was completely blank.
They were human, and yet not human. Along with their surgical enhancements, empathy or remorse had been completely cut from their mental capacity. All that was unnecessary to carry out their duty had been stripped away.
A deep resentment for the Inside was palpable within these walls. Issues would surely arise if the guardians charged with its care treated each visitor as human beings.
On the Inside, a better life was possible.
On the Inside, real food could be eaten.
On the Inside, there was a place for them in society.
That baseless hope transformed into fury in the blink of an eye in this place. Countless legions of Outsiders had attempted to pass through the gate through any means necessary, legally or otherwise.
“...We oughta get moving.”
Karen picked up on her father’s raising ire and kept her voice down. Although she knew he would never vent that anger on her, that burgeoning fury still struck fear into her heart.
Every reminder that all that he once knew about this place no longer existed only served to add fuel to the fire in 01’s veins. This disgrace was more than enough to tarnish any remaining slivers of nostalgia.
“All right, Dad, I’ll go through first.”
Karen was first to undergo inspection. Though both carried far more than a guilty conscience on their records, she would have a much easier time passing through than 01.
“Present your ID.”
“Yes, yes, it’s right here.”
Security personnel strictly controlled who could pass through to the Inside. Those without the necessary credentials were indiscriminately barred from entry.
Two documents were required: a personal ID issued by the Federation and the seldom produced “voyage permit.”
And, though it goes without saying, 01 had neither. Should he abide by the digital voice’s instructions, he would find himself in a holding cell before nightfall.
“ID verified. Present voyage permit.”
The machine accepted Karen’s ID with nary a sound. One hurdle had been cleared.
Forging IDs was not difficult. The man they witnessed being forcefully escorted from the premises had cleared this stage as well.
The voyage permit, however, was a problem. A triple-layered biological identification coupled with a card constructed from incredibly rare metals made it so that only gifted engineers with access to the latest facilities were capable of producing them.
01 had neither the skill to create nor the financial resources to secure the genuine article. There wasn’t a single monetary note in his wallet, let alone a counterfeit permit.
“Permit verified. Identification confirmed.”
“...Damn, I’d lose a shit-ton of sleep if she weren’t on my side.”
However, that iron-clad security system was no stronger than paper mache once Karen had taken control.
She could have cleared security even without the counterfeit documents by simply telling the checkpoint to let her do so. It was as easy as taking candy from a baby for an arbiter of her caliber.
“Clearance granted. Welcome, Mister Hon’gu.”
The machine addressed 01 by his alias moments later. Takeru Hon’gu was the name he used while working odd jobs.
They were as good as on the Inside now. All that remained was to pass through the gargantuan gate up ahead.
“Excuse me, sir! Please wait a moment!”
“Can I help you?”
It was right before he boarded an elevator that a security agent called out to them.
The agent, a first lieutenant in the Federation army judging by the insignia on his uniform, smiled as he approached.
Said an uneasy Karen from the other side of the gate, but 01 signaled for her to keep moving by turning to face the newcomer.
She hadn’t been stopped, so 01 knew that she wouldn’t get dragged into any messes along with him at the very least.
“Would you step over here, please?”
“...Sure. No problem.”
01 was braced for a fight by the time he turned all the way around. The chances Karen’s hacking had been discovered were minimal, yet it was not entirely out of the question.
“There are extra security protocols in place now due to the upcoming ceremony... I must ask you to submit to a bodily inspection over there.”
01 silently cursed his luck. Digital security systems could be dealt with one way or another, but there was no deceiving a full-body inspection.
No matter how human 01 appeared to be on the surface, he most definitely was not. Muscles constructed from nanocarbon fiber and a metallic skeleton were just below his artificial flesh.
“Now, please step this way. It will only take a minute of your time. What brings you inside the gate?”
“...Business. You know how it is.”
Power flooded into 01’s fingertips despite his obedient act. A single battalion would be stationed at a facility like this, if that. In terms of combat ability, 01 was an elephant among ants. Breaking through would be child’s play.
“Are you alright, sir? You seem distracted.”
“...I’m fine. Right behind you.”
Yet, 01 made no attempt to force his way past the lieutenant. His assignment required the utmost secrecy and unnecessary entanglements with the military had to be avoided at all costs.
“First, please place your hands over this machine. Any metallic devices you may have on your person need to be placed in this basket. Do you have any mechanical implants or interfaces within your body?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Then, would you please enter the surgical location? The military will be protecting that information, so there is no need to worry.”
“...Kinda the whole thing, so...”
01 filled out the paperwork as he pondered his options.
It would be easy enough to rendezvous with Karen after these events had run their course. Breaking out of custody after an arrest was certainly preferable to causing a scene here and now.
That meant the terms of his arrest were vital. Anything too suspicious would draw the military’s attention, so the charges needed to be minor. Best case scenario, he might make it through the process without having to reveal what he was.
“Is there a problem, sir?”
“Not a problem, per se...”
It was too late to fein drug addiction or drunkenness. Having the counterfeit permit come to light would suit his needs perfectly, but improvisation on that scale was impossible.
Which meant making a scene was his only choice. Punching a random guard and acting deranged would yield the fastest results.
“Do you require assistance?”
“Yeah, I’d appreciate it...”
01 kept his curling fist out of the lieutenant's sight and judged the distance.
One, two steps, plus a little extra. While the blow wouldn’t be fatal, the lieutenant would suffer a concussion to be sure.
The sudden shriek sent 01’s body into action even before he understood the meaning behind it.
Just as the young female arbiter felt it coming, her father’s sixth sense warned him of the impending danger.
His mechanically enhanced reflexes and frame were sufficient to reach his target (Karen) a mere few meters away.
Ignoring the dumbfounded soldiers in their midst, 01 dove to shield Karen. He felt the heat on his back just as he got her to the ground.
A storm of heat, powerful enough to incinerate anything within its blast radius, hit him before anyone even registered the explosion.