Burned Out Heroes
“...It’s been hours. Dad, you jerk.”
Karen sat alone, futile words echoing off the barren walls.
She and 01 had selected a low-end hotel on the outer fringe of Inside territory. Their pigeonhole of a room was outfitted with only a bed and a desk. While calling it luxurious was nearly impossible, it still far outclassed the lodging Outside.
Karen, believing her father when he said he would be back right away, had returned here three hours ago. A tasteless dinner in her stomach, she had already exhausted all possible avenues of research 01 had requested of her. Even the novels she loved so much had no appeal right now.
“Jerk... Idiot... Undependable.”
Each word was an attempt to hide the fact her loneliness was transforming into fear with every moment that passed by without word from her father. Fiddling with her hair, now its natural color with her disguise long since dropped, did nothing to hold it at bay.
Being left alone was not an uncommon occurrence, but Karen never felt comfortable on her own no matter how many times it happened.
“Dense... Lazy... Eternally broke... um... No, he’s not bald...”
Karen spouted every grievance she could think of, but never once did the word “hate” leave her lips.
01 was the one and only father she had. No amount of enmity towards him would change the fact he rescued her from that place and taught her about the real world.
She could never bring herself to hate him and he would always be invaluable to her.
“...Jerk, you jerk.”
She whispered at the photo displayed on her computer terminal. It was the only one the two of them had ever taken, though they were far more awkward around each other back then.
Karen and 01 had no connection by blood whatsoever. 01 had ceased living as a human being long before they met and Karen’s upbringing was about as far from “human” as physically possible.
There was no stopping the flood of memories whenever she was alone.
A sickenly white floor under fluorescent lights, a mixture of disinfectant and the smell of blood in the air, and an endless countdown ticking away. That was all there was, nothing more.
Born in a breeding vat, reared and monitored around the clock. That was the extent of who Karen once was. Had she remained there, she likely would have never known pain.
Karen wrapped her arms around herself and squeezed as tightly as she could to convince herself she was indeed here. If she had not, the dream could end at any second.
That was the one place she absolutely refused to return. Now that she knew warmth, she understood the cold.
“Someone... Please... I don’t want...to be alone anymore...”
These thoughts appeared whenever her father left her alone. The crippling fear was like an uncontrollable urge, and she was not strong enough to keep it under control.
An intense yearning to fade into nothingness, to escape from these feelings began creeping into Karen’s mind when the terminal beeped to life.
“Not asleep yet? Normally I’d let ya have it, but I’m glad you’re up this time.”
Answering the comm with a start, her father’s voice reverberated in her ears. It was only a few words over the phone, but the paralyzing fear vanished instantaneously.
“Why are you so late?! You promised you’d come right back here!”
“Sorry, sorry. I’m Outside right now and getting a signal through ain’t a cakewalk.”
“Outside? Why would... Ahh, a warp portal, right?”
“Yer darn sharp, ya know that? Yeah, that’s what happened.”
Teleporter. That word answered everything.
Knowing her father, simply entering an establishment run by the Ryusei-kai meant a brawl was inevitable. While the number of hospitalizations or damage to the building itself were still a mystery to her, Karen worked out that 01 had commendered an illicit teleporter, a warp portal, controlled by the Ryusei-kai to make his escape.
“...I’ll install a program into the security network to allow you back Inside. But, the gate will be closed by morning, so please hurry.”
“...Beefed up security for the ceremony, yeah? I’ll get moving.”
With the ceremony commemorating five years of peace after the Anamnesisian Conflict set for tomorrow afternoon, the whole island had been transformed into a veritable fortress. The bombing of the gate earlier today only served to heighten security measures. The gate would be heavily guarded by the Federation military itself, no doubt.
Even Karen wouldn’t be able to slip 01 through undetected under these circumstances.
“Did you get any information?”
“Yeah, a crap-ton of it... But, anything out of place over there?”
“No, nothing. Why do you ask?”
“Nah, just checkin’.”
01’s evasiveness made Karen tilt her head in confusion. He seemed like his usual self, but the uncharacteristic uncertainty in his voice put her on edge.
“Oh, I finished researching what you wanted. That being said, I couldn’t find any new reports on the attack at the gate, just a few details about Erde.”
Said Karen, changing the topic. Her nerves would settle if they got back to their usual routine. Plus, her father would praise her once she passed along the information, and that meant more to her than anything else.
“Anythin’ on her’d be great. Lemme hear it.”
“There was nothing on her in the government’s database, but her school records had information on her arbitorial abilities. It seems to have been a requirement for her to get into any school clubs... Anyway, it said she can transfer heat with physical contact. There wasn’t a name for it, but she’s a civilian, so yeah.”
“Transfer heat, eh? ...I see...”
01 did not sound too impressed, but Karen had more to offer.
“The people you fought detonated themselves before the Federation could properly investigate the scene. All they got from the autopsies was their cyborg model numbers...”
“Expected as much. That’s standard protocol for special ops. Secrets have gotta stay that way. That all?”
“...No, I found more.”
Karen continued despite a twitch of irritation at her father’s wording. She would have slipped in a few choice words of her own at any other time, but Karen was too distraught for backtalk at the moment.
“The corpses, weapons, and surveillance footage didn’t turn up anything useful, but I did find something odd.”
“Yeah? They drop something?”
“No, the anamnesis ‘waves’ on the battlefield. Number 10 counterattacked just once during your fight, didn’t he?”
“...Yeah, just once. What’s that got to do with it?”
Manipulating anamnesis in any way created small ripples, or waves of interference in the surrounding area. It was an inevitable byproduct of rewriting the laws of physics in the modern age and perfectly normal.
Be it a human, arbiter, or a life form created by anamnesis itself, these waves were often referred to as the “shape of the soul.” Arbiters created a higher density of waves, thus revealing their superiority.
That basic fact of anamnology was common knowledge. 01 was at a loss as to how that irrelevant piece of information was connected to this incident.
“That ray of heat matched the same wave density the sensors picked up when those guys blew themselves up. Even the terrorist bombings have the same signature.”
“...Interestin’. Yeah, that is odd.”
01 instantly understood what Karen was implying. That alone solved one major piece of the puzzle.
As they had matter, these waves were a physical phenomena. No two wavelengths were a perfect match, as the countless failed attempts to forge wave signatures had proven many times over.
A great number of attributes could be faked, but wave density was not one of them. Even 01, who grew up on the battlefield, knew this to be true.
“So, Number 10 made those suicide bombs personally, eh?”
“Yes, that is the only logical conclusion. Since triggering the explosion with an arbiter’s ability wouldn’t produce waves until detonation, there wouldn’t be anything for security to detect. They sure do think of everything...”
Karen could tell that her father’s mood had turned sour on the other end of the comm. He only used that tone when fury was pulsing in his veins.
Though Karen understood 01’s anger, she could not empathize. Their use of human explosives was a logical calculation to her, and therefore she did not have an emotional reaction.
But, was that because she was an arbiter or because she was inhuman? Not having an answer to that question unnerved her to the core.
“-But, now we know what we’re dealin’ with... Also, we’re changin’ hotels. I’ll sort out the funds, so-”
“W-Wait, wait! Out of the blue like this?!”
The sudden change of plans sent Karen for a loop. She had already unpacked their baggage, and though money was a concern, the fact Karen could not understand her father’s intention was even more troublesome.
“We’re changin’ hotels, and that’s that. We can get the bags later. For now, get to the biggest, most crowded hotel ya can find. It’ll take, what, two seconds for ya to pinpoint, yeah?”
“...Why do we have to move? Please tell me that much.”
Karen made it perfectly clear that she would not move without a viable explanation. Whether it was from being blindly ordered around or the anxiety she could not suppress, a spark of defiance was starting to grow within her.
Even the fact she had not received a single word of thanks during this conversation added fuel to the fire.
“I ain’t got time to explain. Please, trust me on this.”
“...That’s your favorite phrase when you’re cornered, isn’t it, Dad?”
There had to be a reason her father was pushing so hard. Knowing that, Karen could not stop herself.
“...Quit grumblin’. I’ll clear everythin’ up asap, ya have my word. But, right now-”
“-Do you not care about me at all, Dad?”
Karen had never doubted her father for an instant, even now. However, emotions had a way of skewing rational thoughts. Putting her anxiety into words only stoked the flames.
“......Did somethin’ happen, Karen?”
“...Nothing much. Does something have to happen for me to ask?”
“Ya wouldn’t ask that if nothin’ happened.”
“Well, true, but...”
01’s counter argument nearly sent Karen reeling, but she managed to endure. She knew logically that now was not the time for this and that her question itself had no meaning. Even so, she needed to hear 01 say it.
“...Listen, Karen. Anytime, anywhere, I-”
01’s voice suddenly cut out. Neither of them had severed the connection, which meant there was electro-magnetic interference.
“Wh-What? Dad...? Why would-huh?”
The whole room went pitch-black before she could identify the problem. The next series of events only pushed Karen’s mental state further into chaos.
“A blackout? That shouldn’t affect the comm...”
Making her way to the breaker, Karen tried to reestablish a connection to the network.
01 had always taught her to stay calm no matter the circumstances.
“The net is down, too...? What the heck is...?!”
Karen connected the dots and realized exactly what was happening before the words came out of her mouth.
The lights were not the only things to go out. This room, no, the entire hotel had been completely isolated. Cutting off communication and electrical power were the first step in any successful ambush.
“Oh no... Okay, stay calm... I can get through this...”
Karen told herself as she fumbled around in the dark to get what she would need from the suitcase. An attack was imminent. She needed to secure what she could right now.
The tarnkappe was her first priority. The enemy knew her location, but it would buy precious time. Next was her gun. It may only be an old model hand-me-down from 01, but having it at her side was preferable to being defenseless.
Focus on what ya can do, no matter the situation. Her father’s teachings sounded in her mind.
“All right! This should do-?!”
It was too late this time, however. Escape may have been possible if she left the room a few seconds earlier, but the situation was already well beyond her control.
First came a blast of blinding light that left her ears blaring. Karen remained conscious, but only because her father taught her how.
Face down on the floor, she fought desperately to keep the tears from overflowing.
So long as she could see, Karen could defend herself.
If the attackers intended to kill her outright, detonating her room, breaking through the walls, or a plethora of other options would have accomplished that end. There had to be a reason to infiltrate the building directly. Though depending on luck, staying put may be wiser than venturing out into the dark.
“There, that’s the brat. Get her and we’re outta here.”
“What about the other rooms?”
“Our orders just say to bring the brat. The boss’ll get where those jackasses are hidin’ out of her.”
Karen heard the words, but she could not make heads or tails of what they meant. The EMP flash had scattered enough anamnesis to not only give her a splitting headache but also make the world spin. With this much nausea and pain, consciousness would only last another ten seconds at most.
What scant information she was able to obtain was limited to that several people had forced their way into the hotel room, put some kind of bag over her head, and were now lifting her off the floor.
The terrifying realization that she was being kidnapped hit Karen like a steel wall. Even with her brain in a pain-induced tailspin, an explicitly clear picture of what was about to befall her appeared in the back of her mind.
“Hold still, dammit! Want yer face smashed in, huh?! Terrorist brat!”
She struggled with every ounce of strength she could muster, but to no avail. All her kicking and squirming did was anger her captors.
“Damn it, bitch...!”
She had been slammed to the floor. The new wave of pain from her back was enough to drown out the pulsing headache, but now she had an unsettling clear idea of what was going to happen to her.
They were outside, in an alley behind the hotel, perhaps? The muggy air was the only hint Karen had.
“I’ll make this easy for ya, brat. The more you say, the less painful this is gonna be.”
“Hold up, man. Get her in the truck first. Somebody’ll see us out here.”
“So what?! My brother died in that damn raid three days ago. I need to fucking vent, okay-NGH?!?”
But, just as Karen was bracing for a fist, the only impact that came hit her inner ear: a gunshot.
She curled up into a ball and even more gunshots and screams of pain rang out above. Then, it dawned on her. These were not pistols, but full automated assault rifles. Methodical volleys sounded for a few seconds until Karen was the only one left alive.
“-...Package secure. Withdrawing.”
A new voice on the scene caught Karen’s attention, but she lacked the strength to open her eyes and see to whom it belonged.
What was 01 trying to say before he was cut off? That question stayed with Karen up until the very second she passed out.