Burned Out Heroes
Body fully protected by unique, black armor, and face completely hidden behind a mask. Blending into darkness seemed to be the only discernible feature about the newcomer’s appearance.
Indeed, it could just as well be a demon cyborg like 01 or automata like Berkov. If the armor’s purpose was to conceal the wearer’s identity, it was doing an exemplary job.
“...Can’t laugh at the rumors anymore, eh? I thought it was all bullshit.”
“I, too, am relieved to see the rumors pertaining to yourself are just as accurate, Mr. ‘Ghost.’”
The hearsay had been right about every detail. The infamous “Number 10” stood before him.
Age and gender cues were skewed by a voice changer, but their physical build was far from imposing. With so many outward features hidden or falsified, it was impossible for 01 to venture a guess who or what was behind the mask.
“It is an honor to make your acquaintance, 01. My name is-”
“Spare me the introduction, terrorist.”
01 cut “Number 10” off in mid-sentence.
He had never once lent his ear to a terrorist’s ideology and was not planning to any time soon. No matter their philosophy, it would not apply to 01 anyway.
All that was relevant now was that this shady individual had orchestrated the attack on the facility.
“I ain’t got time to listen to some bastard playin’ dress up-”
Signals from his brain required a mere 300 millionth of a second to trigger his optic nerve. The battle concluded faster than a glint in the clouds.
Or, it should have been.
A punch that was intended to snap the newcomer's neck along with their armor only left 01 in a remarkable state of confusion.
“Are you satisfied?”
The blow had landed. 01 made physical contact with his target, but no visible damage had been inflicted whatsoever.
“Impressive, or perhaps, as I should have expected... Records can be altered, after all.”
01 jumped back with the same velocity as his punch and reanalyzed the situation.
His fist had made contact, that much was irrefutable. Certain of the killing blow, 01 had put more than enough strength into the attack to get the job done. The target should be dead.
The one thing he understood was that something had disappeared on impact.
There was no reverberation in his fist, nor had it been forcibly moved. It was the first time 01 had experienced his own strength miraculously disappear.
If there were any comparison, perhaps the sensation of punching something in a dream would suffice. The strength invested and the expected result simply vanished along with that certain something.
“I would love to hear your theory. You are welcome to try again, if you’re so inclined?”
“How nice of ya to offer!!”
01 lunged for his target just as the words came out of his mouth. A swift series of steps, and 01’s foot was arcing through air with several times more power behind it than his previous attempt.
However, the unseen barrier absorbed this blow all the same. The backlash that should have accompanied the impact never came.
“Fine! Eat this!!”
01’s right hand began to glow before the enemy had a chance to react. Energy followed the contours of his arm and gathered in the palm of his hand.
Originating from his nuclear “black hole engine” core, the light passed through 01’s armor and burned everything in sight.
This was one of 01’s few ranged weapons and a literal ace up his sleeve. There had been plenty of instances in his past where energy had proven effective when brute force was not enough.
“...Pointless, I assure you.”
Not this time, however. The unsclathed enemy emerged from the fading light.
01 dodged the incoming counterattack by the skin of his teeth. Seemingly thousands of heat rays passed right in front of his face. Had any of them connected, his armor would have yielded like butter.
“...Not even a scratch? Well, I would prefer it that way, personally.”
“Make some damn sense... Yeesh...”
Putting distance between them yet again, 01 snapped in frustration. Meanwhile, his brain was firing on all cylinders trying to find an answer.
The enemy was unknown. It could be an arbiter, but also a mechanized soldier like himself. Then again, the possibility of it being an archetype weapon in human form could not be ignored.
It was not as though 01 had not gleamed anything from their two exchanges, however. While the defensive mechanism was still an enigma, the enemy revealed its method of attack. With that information, he could account for it so long as he saw the attack coming.
“Hm? This is unexpected. I, personally, have a great deal of respect for you...”
01 was in no mood for jokes, but the shady figure pointed to their own neck. Fading in and out of the shadows was a black cloak, not dissimilar to the one 01 was wearing.
“This mask, my cloak, all designed to emulate you. How could I consider myself your successor if they were not? Don’t forget, the public records-”
“Cut the crap, will ya? I’d like to think I’ve got better taste than that shit.”
“I was being completely serious... Still, I am glad for this opportunity to speak with you all the same.”
Seemingly unperturbed that he had nearly been killed, the shady character addressed 01 as one might when shooting the breeze with an old friend.
What little light filtered into the darkness illuminated a mask that would be more fitting for the star of a stage production. The musing tone of the voice emerging from beneath it spoke volumes about how this person seemed to be enjoying the moment.
“If I may introduce myself, I am ‘Number 10.’ I represent all those who have been forced Outside, including both you and those you have slain.”
They declared themselves to be the tenth successor of bygone heroes with a hint of euphoria.
“...What would a self-proclaimed rep want with me? Sorry to break it to ya, but I ain’t got funds. My broke ass can’t help ya.”
01 paid no heed to Number 10’s theaterics or cheap provocations. They were an enemy that needed to be eliminated. That would not change no matter who was behind the mask.
“We have ample funds, I assure you. Our sponsor sees to that. However, we are always in dire need of like-minded personnel. You have taken a great amount of that precious resource from us today.”
“...Here I thought ya were nuts for showin’ up. So, it’s an invitation? A bit late for that, don’t ya think?”
Knowing full well it was a cheap taunt, 01 pointed to the slain cyborgs in their midst. Number 10’s reaction would reveal the validity of his offer.
“I admit your presence here was unforeseen on my part. Still, it is best to forget encounters that start off on the wrong foot. Though their loss pains me, it cannot be helped. Having you among our ranks would replace them tenfold.”
Not the reaction he had hoped for. The person before him cared little for the remains of his subordinates.
“That’s quite an optimistic outlook ya’ve got there. A bit delusional, I’d say.”
01’s reply to the invitation was downright abusive. Concession and compromise were useless. All he needed was timing.
“The answer is ‘no’. Now, get the hell outta my sight.”
“...I never thought you would join us at the drop of a hat. Though... there seems to be a slight misunderstanding. I, no, we are not terrorists.”
“Well, then what are ya?”
01 kept the conversation going while searching for the smallest details. He went over more than just what he could see with his eyes. All five of his senses were pushed to the limit, picking up sounds, auras, and even anamnesis interference energy waves.
Number 10’s barrier may be invisible to the naked eye, but it had a tangible form. That meant detecting it was plausible.
01 estimated that the barrier activated at a radius of three meters.
“We are the Resistance, bringers of retribution unto this world. Punishing those who forced you, me, all of us into darkness is our solemn duty.”
Whether Number 10 could sense 01’s intention or not, the masked figure enthusiastically continued their grandiose sermon. Each word felt more intense than that last.
“I have dedicated myself to this mask, to carrying out that solemn duty. I am not me, but the face of the nameless masses like you. Thus, I am your successor, Number 10.”
This was not a person playing the part of a messiah. Whoever was behind the mask, they whole-heartedly believed this role to be their true calling.
“...Your head is just as messed up as that getup.”
“Are you not just as taken with your own purpose behind that mask? Slaying your brethren as the ‘ghost’ would not be possible otherwise.”
“The fuck do ya know, eh?!”
A fervid desire to kill instantly overtook 01. The ferocity rose from within the calm depths of his mind, overloading his output limiters along the way.
This district had already been partitioned off. There would be no collateral damage to nearby citizens, including Karen who should be at a safe distance by this point. Only the Federation treasury would suffer should this whole facility collapse.
Number 10 was indeed in a class above the misguided soles 01 had clashed with up to this point. At the very least, this adversary knew exactly how to infuriate him.
“The ultimate cyborg, the hero who brought an end to the Anamnesisian Conflict, Zero Series Number 01. You continue to fight even now because you cannot remove that mask. Just as my mask is all I have, you only have combat.”
“...That all yer gonna say, is it?”
Nuclear core shrieking to life in his chest, boundless power flooded into his mechanized body. Anger was a transient phenomenon, but it became a potent weapon when applied correctly.
Preparations were complete. All that remained was to unleash it.
“...We seem to be at an impasse. Fear not, though, as another opportunity will arise. Let us use it to foster a deeper understanding of one another.”
“...Think yer gettin’ outta here alive, do ya?”
01 dug in with his right foot, silently. Less than 20 meters separated the two, as good as point blank for 01.
“Indeed. Everything is in place.”
“Bullshit! Ya’ll be smokin’ crater before-”
The trap could not have been more obvious. Yet, powering through it would settle the score. 01 would not allow the terrorist to escape.
“Ludger, Joseph, if you please.”
An ambush from behind, perfectly timed an instant before 01’s charge. His instincts responded swiftly to these unknown assailants, as he had experienced this pattern countless times before.
A spin, a flash of light, and a sonically charged knife-hand strike sliced the two attackers clean in half.
“Arise, our eternal light.”
If 01 had made a misstep, it was at this moment, this blow.
In the one instant his focus shifted immediately after disposing of the would-be ambush, it happened.
The corpses, the lifeless bodies in two pieces that should hit the floor any moment, shone brighter than the sun.
01’s vision was overtaken by a bright flash of intense heat. It was too late to react by the time he realized this was the main attack, his body immobilized as the light engulfed him.
Stopping the “ghost” came down to one thing: tiny, pebble-like obstacles called humans.
“I bid you farewell. I shall see to it that a proper stage is prepared for our next meeting.”
A voice came through blazing light. Explosions had little effect on transmissions that utilized anamnesis.
Gravity returned the moment the light faded out. Falling to his knees, 01 managed to keep the rest of his body upright despite the pain.
The damage was extensive. Though the outer plating itself was still intact, many of the internal mechanisms that composed his body were badly singed. The heat that came from supposedly human bodies had been many times hotter than that of an average weapon.
One or two such blasts could be endured, but 01 knew that there was no guarantee he could withstand several in a row. Human bombs like those had surely been employed in the recent bombing incidents.
There was no stronger weapon than a bomb that could be convinced it wasn’t human. The materials were even cheaper than making the explosive.
“...Well, shit. He got away, didn’t he...?”
Blurred vision came into focus, relieving a blast crater and mountains of rubble. The mysterious masked figure “Number 10” was long gone.
Radar and other sensors came up blank. The terrorist had vanished. The fact that Federation forces were still absent should have been laughable, but 01 could not even muster a smirk.
“...Whatever. That ain’t my job.”
However, targets always slipped away when mistakes were part of the equation.
Five years ago was one thing, but now there was something more important than taking down enemies. He had to put rations on the table, both for his and his precious daughter’s sake.
Also, 01 still had options even after losing his target. He had not survived over ten years in the Federation military for nothing.
“...Ya better be on the other side of that gate, Karen.”
The deserted gate loomed before him. It seemed the explosion had disabled every layer of security.
Chances were that his daughter had already passed through. They could set a rendezvous point once communication was possible again.
“...‘Number 10,’ eh?”
01 felt a slight ping of reluctance as he was about to set off. His 6th sense for danger was sounding the alarm, not just for his encounter with Number 10, but for the string of terrorist incidents as well.
Proceeding further meant getting mixed up into a larger plot. Unfortunately, 01 did not have any choice but to press on.