Burned Out Heroes
“Watch your step. It’s a bit dark in the hallways.”
Rusty walls illuminated by fading light bulbs greeted Karen’s eyes as she stepped out of the room. The air was musty on her skin, leading her to reason they must be below the surface.
The walls and ceiling, however, looked incredibly sturdy. Karen did not need to touch them to know they were thick.
“An underground shelter...?”
“Right again. You know the reactor on the southern tip of the island? We’re right under it.”
“...This whole place is contaminated.”
“Oh, that? We started that rumor. The colonel came up with that idea to keep people away from here.”
This was no lie. Out of all the various districts the Soul Settler had to offer, people avoided the old reactor whenever possible. Rumors of nuclear contamination and rough neighborhoods around it were enough to make most steer clear. Spreading false information to hide a base made perfect sense.
The hallway opened to a bridge that overlooked the various compartments of this hidden fortress. What better place for terrorists to have a base of operations was there?
Erde led Karen down a flight of stairs and through a series of thick doorways until they arrived at a hanger that was originally designed to house armored vehicles.
The hanger had been retrofitted to fulfil a new role. Mountains of weaponry cases now occupied the spaces where vehicles would have been stored in the shelter’s hayday. All kinds of machinery including powered armor suits were currently undergoing maintenance. Though outdated, each model had proven its value in battle many times over. Chances were that they had been purchased via the Ryusei-kai’s illicit channels.
“Ah, hello, Erde. Is this the girl? Or a new recruit, maybe?”
A man approached Erde as Karen watched the goings-on from behind her back.
“Can’t say she’s either one yet, Ed. Well? Are the weapons usable?”
“Meh, they’ve seen better days, but they’ll hold up just fine. Old models always find a way to be useful, just like me.”
Karen stood, speechless, at the sight of the soldier chatting with Erde.
“I see. Let me know if you hit a snag anytime, okay?”
Ghostly white hair framed a young visage. His right hand was wizened, but the skin on his left had a vibrant, youthful sheen. It was as if an elderly man had traded parts of his body with someone less than half his age.
Karen had never seen anything like this. Be it the result of a disease or a remodeling procedure gone wrong, she had no way to answer the questions surging through her mind without access to her arbiterial powers.
“...Ed was once special ops in the Fed’s military, believe it or not. But, once the war was over, they forced him out onto the street the second his cells started deteriorating... It was all their insane modding experiments that made him that way in the first place...”
Erde turned to Karen as the soldier returned to his station and explained almost like she could see the burning questions in the girl's heart. Her voice was laced with a fervent anger and irrepressible sorrow. Simply listening to her allowed those emotions to take root within Karen, and they felt all too real.
“Isn’t it, though? But, that’s how the Inside, no, the Federation itself operates. They threw away anything they deemed ‘unnecessary’ once the war ended.”
The truth that Erde laid bare matched what Karen had always suspected to the letter. The older arbiter was not providing anecdotal hearsay, but recounting her own first-hand experience.
“Well, we’re running short on time. Let’s keep moving.”
It was all too obvious to Karen what Erde was trying to do by this point. Rather than build a case with words alone, she was letting her see why they fought with her own eyes.
The two walked through more metallic halls until arriving at the residency block. Unlike the hanger, this area was fulfilling its intended purpose.
Women and children of many races gathered in a common area that linked to many smaller rooms. There weren’t any soldiers lingering about in here, as was the case up until this point. Another stark contrast to the rest of the shelter was the lack of downtrodden individuals. Giddy children were chasing each other up and down the room.
“Yes, they’re refugees. Arbiters on the run, sick in need of treatment, you name it. We take in anyone who doesn’t have a place to call home on this island.”
Erde’s words only confirmed the truth that was so plain to see. This was no terrorist base, but a refugee camp providing the less fortunate with a sense of security they would never find on the surface.
Karen had never seen anything like it.
“Surprised? Don’t tell me you thought we were brainwashing them into suicide bombers?”
Said Erde with a laugh as she practically read Karen’s mind. While not completely sold, a part of the young arbiter started wishing it were true.
Wishing that they were indeed the “Resistance,” not terrorists. Hoping that they were worthy of the name they had chosen for themselves.
“The rec room is just a bit further up ahead. You must be hungry? We’ll have some tea and I’m pretty sure there’s still some natural sweets the Ryusei-kai smuggled in.”
Overwhelmed, Karen did her best to keep up with Erde. It may be more accurate to say it was her only option.
Everything she had seen in this base was too much for her to process.
Karen squealed in surprise as something suddenly grabbed hold of her. She had been so lost in thought that she had not noticed the newcomer until physical contact.
It was a girl, barely as tall as she, with white hair and crimson eyes the same shade as Karen and Erde’s.
“Huh? You’re not Erde... Who are you?”
“Let go of her, Yuria. How many times do I have to tell you not to run in the halls?”
“Sorry! But, I saw you from my room, Erde!”
The girl called Yuria did as she was told and stepped back from Karen. She had the same carefree smile on her face as the other children in the common area.
“Are you new? Oh, you’re like us, right? What’s your power?”
“That’s enough, Yuria. You’ll startle her. How’s your mother?”
Yuria looked at this newcomer with all the excitement of a puppy. Erde responded in kind but redirected her attention. The two seemed close, like sisters born a decade apart.
“Great! Number 10’s medicine worked like a charm!”
“I’m glad... I’ll make sure another dose comes in soon.”
Erde gave the little girl a pat on the head, smiling with her eyes. Even on the outside looking in, Karen could not help but bask in the glow of their heartwarming exchange.
“Bye-bye, Erde! Ryoko and the others asked me to read for them.”
“Looking that far ahead again? Don’t use it too much, understand?”
“I won’t! Come say hi later, new girl! I wanna hear your story!”
“S-Sure. We can do that...”
Karen absentmindedly waved at the innocent girl as she skipped away. It all could be an act intended to make her feel a connection with their group, but Karen really did not want to think what she just saw was fake.
“Her mother has late-stage dragon rash... It’s reached her bones, so...”
Even Karen knew about dragon rash. The condition got its name from the serpentine pattern of welts and sores that covered an infected person’s body. It had claimed untold lives in the early years of the Anamnesisian Conflict.
However, the disease brought about by anamnology could now be cured with a simple vaccine at the outset. Now a mere footnote in the annals of history, it had been long since eradicated on the Inside and territories directly under Federation control.
“That’s right. People like us can’t even get a vaccine the legal way...and the stuff is cheaper than bread Inside...”
Erde looked away, as if to glare at something far in the distance. Here words were imbued with a wide array of emotions, but they were genuine. That much was undeniable.
“...The Resistance fights so people like us, all of us, can live on the surface. The colonel funds our efforts, but it’s not enough. That’s why we steal and destroy when we have to.”
Erde came to a halt and looked Karen in the face as she spelled out their ideology. Again, nothing about it aligned with any other lies she had ever encountered.
“However, I don’t think what we’re doing is wrong. This world is built on lies, like the ones that force people like them, like all of us, underground. That includes people who fought in the Conflict, people who sacrificed themselves for it who were no different from us.”
Karen had no counter argument. Though she lacked 01’s first-hand experience, that very same anger had indeed taken root within her.
The world today revolved around lies and a short memory. People scorned, shunned, and rejected the very arbiters who had protected them just to experience the “dream” of peace. No efforts to bury the truth would change the fact it was there.
“But... Why would someone like you do this...?”
“What? A senator’s daughter being a ‘terrorist’ too much to understand?”
“What I mean is, you could live a easy life. Even the senator...”
As bizarre as a Federation senator on the High Counsel sponsoring a terrorist organization that his daughter was part of was, facts were facts.
Just, Karen could not comprehend why. She had no information on Erde that would explain why she would abandon that peaceful life on her own volition.
“...Well, you could call it revenge, I suppose.”
“Yes, revenge... My real parents were war heroes, but they didn’t die in combat. They were murdered, right in front of me, when it was over. They were killed, burned alive, by the very ‘humans’ they fought so hard to protect.”
Erde started recounting her past once Karen posed that question. The look on her face as one word piled onto the next was not that of harkening back on distant memories, but of someone explaining the events in real time.
“They were forced to drink a serum that deadened their powers before having their fingernails ripped out one by one, their fingers broken, skin sheared from their bodies, and finally set on fire. If they hadn’t hidden me when they did, I would’ve burned along with them.”
Karen knew of the “purification movement” that occurred post-Conflict. The idea that arbiters’ and demon cyborgs’ use of anamnesis was the prevailing cause of the war picked up steam, resulting in severe discrimination and persecution. What began as a witch hunt lead to planet-wide genocide.
However, data could over provide numbers. The atrocious details Edre was recounting had far more impact.
“...My parents fought under the colonel’s command during the war. He took me in, an orphan, three years ago. I’d been living in the slums until then, finding ways to get by with my arbiterial powers.”
The true meaning behind Erde’s muddled words was starting to become clear. Everything she had done and had been done to her could have happened to Karen had 01 not stepped in to rescue her.
“...The colonel made this ‘resistance’ so that others like me wouldn’t have to go through what I did. But me? I’m here so my parents can have retribution. They believed in humans until the very end and refused to fight back. I’m going to change the world for them. Being a college student Outside, running for the ’Kais, those are just masks. This is the real me.”
Words were lost on Karen. Understanding may have dawned on her, but she could not say it out loud. Letting her silence be the answer was the only option. There was no appropriate response, positive or negative, right now.
“-Yes, we do kill. We also use suicide bombers. But, are we any different from your father?”
Different. But, the word would not come out right away.
I ain’t no justice fighter. 01 said so often enough for it to be his personal motto. In fact, her father had taken plenty of dirty jobs and bloodshed was all too common.
What the Resistance was doing was no different at its core. That was irrefutable.
“...That was a bit over the line, sorry. But, still, give it some thought, okay? We’re just like you and your father.”
Erde lightened her tone, bending over to address Karen like an older sister as the girl stared at the floor. Overwhelmed by her unstoppable warmth, Karen unconsciously came to agree with her.
“What is your point...?”
“That we don’t have to fight one another. I apologize for tricking you into coming to the island, but you two never would have come if we didn’t, right? It was underhanded, I know, but we need you and your father so desperately that we didn’t have a choice.”
“You, need us...?”
The truth naturally emerged when the most likely story and logic fit together in harmony.
“Yes, we do. We can’t change the world by ourselves, and neither can your father. But, that’s not true if we work together. In fact, we should be able to create a place to call our own.”
Erde’s vigor intensified, the heat making Karen’s mind hazy.
Her father would surely feel the same way if he were here. The Resistance was not in the wrong.
With 01’s combat strength in their ranks, even the Federation military could not stand against the Resistance. In fact, a hero like her father uniting with them would become a weapon strong enough to contend with the Federation government in the right hands. Used effectively, the Federation itself might crumble.
Change the world and create a place to call their own. Karen could see the appeal.
“Your father thinks of us as simple terrorists, but we aren’t. Our goals are exactly the same as his at the end of the day. So, we should- Ohh? Looks like he’s already here.”
Erde’s closing pitch was interrupted by a thundering temor. The entire underground facility shook before their eyes.
This must have been either an earthquake or a carpet bombing, at the very least. It was as though a war had sprang up over their heads.
The explosions were very familiar to Karen, confirming it right away: 01 had arrived.