Chapter 8:

First Encounter

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“...Can’t laugh at the rumors anymore, eh? I thought it was all bullshit.”Bookmark here

“I, too, am relieved to see the rumors pertaining to yourself are just as accurate, Mr. ‘Ghost.’”Bookmark here

The hearsay had been right about every detail. The infamous “Number 10” stood before him.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“It is an honor to make your acquaintance, 01. My name is-”Bookmark here

“Spare me the introduction, terrorist.”Bookmark here

01 cut “Number 10” off in mid-sentence.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

All that was relevant now was that this shady individual had orchestrated the attack on the facility.Bookmark here

“I ain’t got time to listen to some bastard playin’ dress up-”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Wha-?!”Bookmark here

Or, it should have been.Bookmark here

A punch that was intended to snap the newcomer's neck along with their armor only left 01 in a remarkable state of confusion.Bookmark here

“Are you satisfied?”Bookmark here

The blow had landed. 01 made physical contact with his target, but no visible damage had been inflicted whatsoever.Bookmark here

“Impressive, or perhaps, as I should have expected... Records can be altered, after all.”Bookmark here

“Tch!”Bookmark here

01 jumped back with the same velocity as his punch and reanalyzed the situation.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

The one thing he understood was that something had disappeared on impact. Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“...The hell?”Bookmark here

“I would love to hear your theory. You are welcome to try again, if you’re so inclined?”Bookmark here

“How nice of ya to offer!!”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

However, the unseen barrier absorbed this blow all the same. The backlash that should have accompanied the impact never came.Bookmark here

“Fine! Eat this!!”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Originating from his nuclear “black hole engine” core, the light passed through 01’s armor and burned everything in sight. Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“...Pointless, I assure you.”Bookmark here

Not this time, however. The unsclathed enemy emerged from the fading light.Bookmark here

“Toasty.”Bookmark here

“?!”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“...Not even a scratch? Well, I would prefer it that way, personally.”Bookmark here

“Make some damn sense... Yeesh...”Bookmark here

Putting distance between them yet again, 01 snapped in frustration. Meanwhile, his brain was firing on all cylinders trying to find an answer.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Hm? This is unexpected. I, personally, have a great deal of respect for you...”Bookmark here

“Huh?”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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-”Bookmark here

“Cut the crap, will ya? I’d like to think I’ve got better taste than that shit.”Bookmark here

“I was being completely serious... Still, I am glad for this opportunity to speak with you all the same.”Bookmark here

Seemingly unperturbed that he had nearly been killed, the shady character addressed 01 as one might when shooting the breeze with an old friend.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

They declared themselves to be the tenth successor of bygone heroes with a hint of euphoria.Bookmark here

“...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.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

“...Here I thought ya were nuts for showin’ up. So, it’s an invitation? A bit late for that, don’t ya think?”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

Not the reaction he had hoped for. The person before him cared little for the remains of his subordinates.Bookmark here

“That’s quite an optimistic outlook ya’ve got there. A bit delusional, I’d say.”Bookmark here

01’s reply to the invitation was downright abusive. Concession and compromise were useless. All he needed was timing.Bookmark here

“The answer is ‘no’. Now, get the hell outta my sight.”Bookmark here

“...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.”Bookmark here

“Well, then what are ya?”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Number 10’s barrier may be invisible to the naked eye, but it had a tangible form. That meant detecting it was plausible.Bookmark here

01 estimated that the barrier activated at a radius of three meters.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“...Your head is just as messed up as that getup.”Bookmark here

“Are you not just as taken with your own purpose behind that mask? Slaying your brethren as the ‘ghost’ would not be possible otherwise.”Bookmark here

“The fuck do ya know, eh?!”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

“...That all yer gonna say, is it?”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Preparations were complete. All that remained was to unleash it.Bookmark here

“...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.”Bookmark here

“...Think yer gettin’ outta here alive, do ya?”Bookmark here

01 dug in with his right foot, silently. Less than 20 meters separated the two, as good as point blank for 01. Bookmark here

“Indeed. Everything is in place.”Bookmark here

“Bullshit! Ya’ll be smokin’ crater before-”Bookmark here

The trap could not have been more obvious. Yet, powering through it would settle the score. 01 would not allow the terrorist to escape.Bookmark here

“Ludger, Joseph, if you please.”Bookmark here

“-!!”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

A spin, a flash of light, and a sonically charged knife-hand strike sliced the two attackers clean in half.Bookmark here

“Arise, our eternal light.”Bookmark here

If 01 had made a misstep, it was at this moment, this blow.Bookmark here

“?!”Bookmark here

In the one instant his focus shifted immediately after disposing of the would-be ambush, it happened.Bookmark here

The corpses, the lifeless bodies in two pieces that should hit the floor any moment, shone brighter than the sun.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Stopping the “ghost” came down to one thing: tiny, pebble-like obstacles called humans.Bookmark here

“I bid you farewell. I shall see to it that a proper stage is prepared for our next meeting.”Bookmark here

A voice came through blazing light. Explosions had little effect on transmissions that utilized anamnesis.Bookmark here

“Damn it!”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“...Well, shit. He got away, didn’t he...?”Bookmark here

 Blurred vision came into focus, relieving a blast crater and mountains of rubble. The mysterious masked figure “Number 10” was long gone.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“...Whatever. That ain’t my job.”Bookmark here

However, targets always slipped away when mistakes were part of the equation.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Also, 01 still had options even after losing his target. He had not survived over ten years in the Federation military for nothing.Bookmark here

“...Ya better be on the other side of that gate, Karen.”Bookmark here

The deserted gate loomed before him. It seemed the explosion had disabled every layer of security.Bookmark here

Chances were that his daughter had already passed through. They could set a rendezvous point once communication was possible again.Bookmark here

“...‘Number 10,’ eh?”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Proceeding further meant getting mixed up into a larger plot. Unfortunately, 01 did not have any choice but to press on.Bookmark here

Cours Twent
You can resume reading from this paragraph.