Burned Out Heroes
“...Yeah, I lost a step.”
01 suddenly detected the presence of at least ten individuals in the immediate vicinity. Their formation was unique to the Lone Wolf Squadron. Ranks of arbiters and demon cyborgs were looking down at him from all directions.
Their three allies must have acted as decoys to mask their movements. He knew this was a trap going in, but spent too much time sifting through memories. Now, he was a fish in a barrel.
“Well, what a coincidence. We happened to take in a little girl not too long ago. She was getting roughed up by the ‘Kais, and we couldn’t just watch it happen...”
“Bit too perfect a coincidence, if ya ask me. Kinda like braggin’ ’bout putin’ out the fire after lightin’ the match. Ain’t that right, Mr. Terrorist?”
01 was on high alert, scanning his surroundings for the slightest opening as they traded words. The one in front of him would not be dispatched as easily as the underlings he had dealt with thus far.
The largest obstacle was dead ahead, a shadow lined in moonlight.
Number 10, the enemy that had escaped 01’s grasp once before.
“...We are not ‘terrorists’. We are the Resistance. You should’ve seen proof of that by now.”
The mystery “man” corrected 01 in a voice loud enough for all their subordinates to hear.
A sliver of a moon overhead was the only light source to be found in the old power plant. Soldiers camping out on the rooftops waited only for their leader’s command. The special forces unit that once terrorized battlefields like a rabid pack of wolves was still alive and well.
“Ya expect me to buy the ‘only attack military targets’ and ‘harbor refugees’ song an’ dance? Sorry, but I ain’t the young pup I look.”
01 already knew Number 10’s true identity. With his own counter measures in place, he could put his plan into action as soon as he knew Karen’s location.
“Don’t move!! It’ll be the last thing you do!!”
Simply shifting his weight resulted in all the rooftop soldiers leveling their guns at him. Though their ammunition would not do much damage, it was best not to test their patience.
“We will give the girl back to you, safe and sound. I assure you, she is not a hostage. However, our actions were necessary to convince certain stubborn people to hear us out.”
“Stubborn, sure. But I ain’t gone enough to listen to some shady creeper hidin’ behind a mask. A little common courtesy wouldn’t kill ya, lady.”
01 snapped and waited for a reaction. He was not fond of cheap taunts, but it was necessary to bring Number 10’s true face to light.
“-You have a point. It might be easier to talk with you that way.”
However, “Number 10” defied his expectations and offhandedly agreed, taking off their mask without a word of protest.
Mask removed, the moonlight now exposed what had been kept hidden all this time.
“-I suppose it’s a little late for introductions.”
Flowing white hair and crimson eyes, distinct arbiter traits, and a face that had bore witness to much sorrow. Indeed, 01 had seen it before.
“-Ya put me through a ton’a shit, ya know.”
“I was expecting a bit more of a reaction, surprise at least.”
Erde Kaine Hadias was beneath the mask after all.
The senator’s missing daughter, the very person 01 had spent the day trying to track down was now right before his eyes. What’s more, it was as a terrorist ringleader.
“...What happened to the ex-’colonel’? Only one hell of a coward’d send his daughter out in his place.”
A soldier shouted with a sudden urge to slay 01 where he stood, but Erde silenced him in an instant. Her sharp tone put him in his place.
As a special ops unit, their affinity with each other was on par with a pack of wolves. Every drop of blood spilt on the battlefield made them stronger. Even if one should fall, the leader’s orders were absolute. That mindset never waivered.
“We have our reasons. I’m here in my father’s place.”
“...Terrorists use kids all the time. I ain’t gonna pry, don’t give a rat’s ass either.”
“-Allow me to repeat myself. We are not ‘terrorists.’ We are trying to change the world, just like you.”
Erde did not so much as flinch in the face of 01’s taunts. In fact, her expression was just as emotionless as the mask in her hands.
She was leading the pack with nothing but her natural arbitorial ability and rock-solid determination. However, the origin of her tenacity was a mystery to 01.
“I’m gettin’ real tired of that schtick. Nothin’ gets solved in this world ‘cause every asshole with an opinion thinks what they’re doin’ is right.”
“That may be true. They have the same right to a spot at the table as we do. Then tell me, how does being a ‘terrorist’ or not change anything? Results determine what is right and what is wrong. Revolutionaries were nothing but terrorists to the Kings they fought.”
“That’s class against class. Got nothin’ to do with me.”
01 had heard these arguments before and responded in kind. Just as how carnivores never sympathized with their prey, enemies and allies never mixed as soon as lines were drawn in the sand. Kill or be killed, nothing other than that simple rule existed on the battlefield.
“Can you really say we are not one in the same?”
“...I ain’t no terrorist, I can tell ya that much.”
“Your vigilante antics are nothing more than streaks of destruction when push comes to shove. That is no different from what we’re doing. We are trying to change the world that cast us away.”
“-‘Cast us away’, eh...?”
There was no denying this point. The Inside, and society as a whole, had no place for weaponized humans like himself.
The soldiers surrounding 01 at this very moment were in the same boat. Refugees, arbiters, and soldiers alike had been abandoned by the Inside, the world at large.
“They have declared us ‘irrelevant.’ The peace and equality that they spout does not apply to us.”
“...Old news. I know exactly what it’s like out there without yer preachin’.”
“I’m sure you do. After all, you had a hand in creating it. Protecting the citizens and maintaining order fostered peace. My parents, both arbiters themselves, were heroes who fought and bled for the sake of humanity.”
Fiery passion overtook Erde, each word adding fuel to the flame. The source of her tenacity was coming to light: hatred that refused to fade.
“Except, they were killed by those humans. Mercilessly burned alive by the very people they saved, in fact. Humans forget their debt in the blink of an eye, no matter how deep.”
Sparks were flying within 01’s mind. What had been sealed away to maintain his sanity had caught fire.
“Then, why do you still insist on protecting them? You saved them, only to be betrayed. You don’t owe them anything.”
Saying he had never given it any thought would be a lie. 01 had been reminded just how soiled, how down right ugly the ones he fought for actually were more times than he could count and lost his reason to carry on living (fighting) in the process.
A place to repay the sacrifices made by the mountains of dead who gave their futures to this world did not exist.
“They have no righteousness. They’ve used lies to paint a pretty picture that fits their needs all to forget the pain and suffering of the past. That is who they are.”
It was as if she could see into the deepest pits of 01’s heart, making him feel uncomfortably exposed. This was no arbiterial mind-reading power or system hacking, he would be able to detect those.
They shared the same thoughts. As little as he wanted to accept it, 01 understood this girl, not much older than his daughter, to her very core. He saw hatred powerful enough to melt the comfort of a mother’s embrace.
He had no place in this world. But, just as the thought drifting through the back of his mind said, if he allied with this girl who understood that level of pain...
Erde’s words had reached 01’s heart.
“That gate represents their fraudulent peace. They claim to be giving people Outside a chance, but at the end of the day, they’re just making themselves feel better.”
“...So ya blew it up?”
“Yes, of course. That gate, along with every person living on the other side of it, shares that guilt. Their peace is a lie. There’s no value in it.”
“...Is that so?”
Despite his wavering heart, 01 felt something was off about that statement.
She had declared peace on the Inside was a lie, point blank. That everyone living there was nothing more than hypocrites who allowed the lie to continue.
That was the point to which 01 could not agree. Their peace was based on a lie, but all lies were not without value.
“What we are fighting is a war against those trying to forget our existence.”
“...Was ’at true for the ones that went out with a bang for yer sake? Did they fight an’ die for this war of yours?”
“They willingly volunteered to do so. Becoming a martyr for our cause was their calling, a mission they had to see through to the end. We have no fear of death, just as you didn’t during the Conflict.”
Indeed, 01 had dedicated his life to the Anamnesisian Conflict from the very beginning. Fearing death would not only cost him the mission, but shaky hands would lose so much more in the long run. That was the undeniable reality.
01’s train of thought reached that point when he had an epiphany.
These soldiers were not trying to change the world, but find a fitting place to die. The Conflict had never ended in their eyes.
For 01, it ended the day he met Karen. That was the only distinction between them.
“We feel no resentment, anger, or sorrow. Justified retribution is the only thing we seek. Fixing what is wrong with this world is the only way.”
Erde’s words could not sound more correct. This was no personal vendetta, no conquest of hatred. Not once did she touch on the additional sacrifices or emotions they would unleash as a result.
“-Get to yer point, would ya?”
01 asked to bring this conversation to a swift end. No amount of words was going to redraw the lines in the sand. All Erde was doing now was posing questions for herself to answer.
He would not be fooled any longer.
“Can you not tell? It’s simple, really. This is an invitation to join our cause, to enter the fold.”
“...Well, ain’t ya honest.”
“Our objectives, motives, and ideas are one in the same. What reason would we have to fight one another? In fact, it would be better for both you and Karen to walk this path with us.”
The invitation was genuine, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Strong sentiments permeated the truth in her words.
“If you cannot forgive what we must do, I offer you my life once everything is over. However, right now, we need you and you need us.”
01’s hatred, anger, and sorrow had not been completely extinguished.
He understood the desire to find a place to die, to a painful degree. There had been countless times in life he wished for nothing more than someone else to end his pain.
“Surely, you remember how humanity treated the heroes who fought and died for their sake once the war ended better than anyone. Exiled from society and quickly forgotten. That is their answer.”
So long as he wanted affirmation for everything he had done in the Anamnesisian Conflict, nodding at Erde’s words would not be a mistake. For his daughter, for himself, for the ones who died... There were more than enough reasons (excuses).
“-Lemme ask one last thing.”
“...What would that be?”
“Do ya really not feel anythin’? For the guys that blew up, yer allies I killed, nothin’?”
“...Theirs was a necessary sacrifice. If enough sacrifices are made to change the world, to correct the mistakes, then so be it. Those who feel the same way find their way to my side.”
He understood, but would not choose that path. 01 cringed at his own willingness to accept Erde’s words, but all the sacrifices already made will have been in vain if he turned his back on the results of the war.
01 did not have the freedom to up and die whenever he pleased.
“However, sacrifices won’t be necessary with you in our ranks. The Federation won’t be able to ignore us with a hero of your caliber on our side. Our righteousness will be self-evident without a fight.”
“...I ain’t never thought of what I’m doin’ as ‘righteous.’”
He was acutely aware of all his mistakes. No matter the circumstances, his hands still remembered exactly what they had wrought.
“‘Cause I ain’t gotta choice. What I do, I do ’cause I can’t put up with that shit anymore, not for anyone else’s sake.”
That is how 01 had always lived his life. He took a great deal of pride in accepting responsibility for his decisions rather than shifting the blame and kept on fighting.
“...Then, you won’t be joining us?”
“Hey, I ain’t alone anymore. I can’t just up an’ leave.”
If there was one thing “right” in this world, that was it. The sense of responsibility parents, and adults in general, felt toward children. He certainly was not the best father figure, but he would do his damndest to protect his daughter. That was the righteousness 01 believed in.
“...So, we have reached an impasse. Well, it is what it is...”
“Come at me, why don’ ya? ‘At’s what I came here for.”
Mechanical digits slowly closed into a fist. The necessary time had been bought. All that remained was to find a window of opportunity.
Keenly aware of trigger fingers tightening around him, 01 strengthened his stance. A mere 50 meters stood between him and Erde. That distance was an afterthought to him.
“Stickin’ there damn noses into this...!”
However, the first to make a move was not 01, the Resistance, or even “Number 10.”
The sudden flashes and explosions that served as an opening bell came from the Ryusei-kai. They had come to reap their revenge for the two recent humiliations at the worst possible moment.