Burned Out Heroes
Fragments of the sun fell like shooting stars. The scarlet droplets of rain dissipated just before hitting the ground as twilight set in.
The Spear of the Morning Star had dissolved into mist once it obliterated Erde’s arbitral power. Anamnesis itself had given rise to the weapon, and its programming stipulated that it vanish once its purpose was fulfilled.
However, the anamnesis it consumed disappeared along with it. Without any of the substance in the air, the space over the Soul Settler became the purest on Earth.
“Damn, I’m gonna be sore fer two, three days...”
Grunted 01 through the pain. In reality, the holes all over his body would cause much more agony than mere muscular discomfort. That did not mean, however, that 01 was unable to grin and bear it.
His body’s reversion to its fleshy state had already completed and the black hole engine had ceased emergency production. The threat of island-wide annihilation had passed, but 01 had lost the ability to fight.
The spear absorbed all anamnesis without exception. Barely a trace of it remained within 01’s system. Replenishing it to the point he could reactivate the core would require a full 24 hours. Transforming would be impossible until then.
That is what made the spear his “ace.” It could upend the very foundation of the modern world, anamnesis. Had he lost control of it or failed to cap its power, he very well could have annihilated the island himself.
01 had been given a decisive weapon to end the 50-year war and, simultaneously, the ability to murder his “brethren.”
01’s scrap-heap of a body barely managed to support itself. His blurred vision was spinning, but he could still move to some extent. That was good enough for now.
It was too soon to kneel. The victorious had an obligation to be the last one standing on the battlefield, no matter what state they were in.
“...Right then. It’s ’bout time to settle things.”
01 shuffled through the wreckage and debris, cursing his unsteady legs as he went. All that was left was the final nail in the coffin, just a little more blood on his hands.
A single human figure lay at the base of the Soul Settler’s hulking tower. Sprawled out and wet with blood, there was no doubt it belonged to the defeated.
Erde Kaine Hadias, the girl who went by Number 10 had met her fate.
Though her armored clothing had prevented instant death from the fall, she lacked the ability to stand.
Anamnesis was a second life blood for arbiters. With it now dried up, all Erde could do was wait for death.
“...Damn, young lady. That’s some tenacity ya got there. I’m honestly impressed.”
Even now, at her absolute limit, she refused to give up.
Revenge and curses worked in much the same way. The flames do not extinguish until there is nothing left to burn.
“I hate to break it to ya, but yer power’s gone. Ya burnt out.”
Erde willed her right hand to rise, but the marvel that once resided within it was absent. There was nothing left of the power that should be hers to wield. That final barrier pushed it beyond what she could handle.
“...Hold still. Movin’ now’ll just make ya die faster.”
01’s warning meant little to Erde at this point. An intense desire to finish what she started is what made her draw breath rather than a will to live.
After all, revenge was all she lived for. She had sacrificed everything else to reach this point.
“...Ah, sorry. Didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
01 was no stranger to seeing people refuse to accept their fate in their last moments.
The end drew near. Seconds passed at a snail’s pace. At last, Erde gave up on her fleeting attempt to stand and fell back as if resting against her own tombstone, motionless.
“...Where’s the colonel? I thought he’d show his face by now...”
“The colonel, my father... He’s dead...”
Erde struggled to string words together as she looked up at 01.
It came as no surprise. If the Federation records were to be believed, the former colonel was as brave a warrior as they came. He always issued orders to his subordinates from the front lines until his own wounds became too much to endure.
A man like that would never have the daughter of a deceased brother in arms take on such a dangerous role in his place. 01 understood that as well.
“It was the war that killed him... Poison, in a battle toward the end... Couldn’t cure it... By the time he put the Resistance together, he couldn’t move anymore...”
Poison that could not be treated. 01 had heard that story plenty of times. Even in the age of anamnesis, an underhanded arms race of sorts had claimed countless lives.
The best modern medicine could do was delay its effects. However, prolonging the inevitable would not change their fate.
“The video message to Mr. Berkov was recorded just before he died... He entrusted the rest to me... And then....”
“I got’cha, now shut up. Yer just rippin’ open fresh wounds, talkin’ like that.”
Light was leaving Erde’s eyes, yet words rolled off her tongue despite 01’s warning. Most likely, she did not see him as an enemy at this point. Looking at death in the face had spurred a desire to have someone, anyone listen to her story.
“...I... believed in you... Like my parents, they always said you would come to the rescue... in the end... always...”
Now it was 01’s turn to be taken aback. He began to see pieces of his own daughter within the enemy before him. The visions would not fade.
Karen had once been in Erde’s position, an innocent child in search of a helping hand. A helpless existence with only tears for company, they had yearned for rescue.
01 had slaughtered more enemies than he could remember. Though, he could not claim that there was no innocent blood on his hands.
That being said, never had 01 taken the life of a helpless child.
“Got me mixed up in this...eh?”
“Yes... I thought you, you of all people would understand... But... I was... wrong...”
With that, a ghostly pale Erde managed a weak smile. The better part of her facial muscles lacked the strength to show expression, but that slight curl of her lips was as organic as smiles can be.
“I... I thought...you hated them, too... Same with...Karen...”
The flames of vengeance burned within her, even now.
But, in the face of death, there was a purity that was absent before. This was far from the conclusion Erde wanted, but she could accept it so long as everything would come to an end.
Just like the Lone Wolves, she had been in search of a place to die.
“...Can I ask...just one thing...? Please, get the people in our hideout somewhere safe... They were just...looking for a way out...”
That plea did not come from Number 10, nor it come from the Erde hell-bent on avenging her parents. It was that of a little girl from long ago, one who felt no shame or regret in placing her last wish in the hands of an enemy. A girl who simply wanted a favor.
“...Consider it done.”
Perhaps it was out of pity, but the distasteful words left his mouth before he could stop them.
It would be no easy task. With the Resistance gone, those refugees lost the only safe haven they knew. They had been driven underground by the Outside and thus required protection to avoid being hunted down.
Saving the world was a simple matter for 01, but saving people like them was much more difficult. He was only capable of removing enemies from the big picture. When it came to rescuing individuals from a plight, however, he was limited to however many he could carry.
Only a helping hand from large organizations like the Resistance could truly help them.
“...Anythin’ else ya wanna get off yer chest? Grudges ya wanna vent?”
That being said, he was only showing sympathy to Erde to make himself feel better.
It was a fluke that she had survived the spear’s effects at all. 01 had underestimated her utter tenacity. Had she been any less determined, the blade would have run her through.
The only line that existed on a battlefield was the one that separated the victorious from the defeated. No background circumstances would ever change that.
Slowly, 01 raised his arm. Even as heavily damaged as he was, delivering a fatal blow to one girl was within his ability.
01 tried to shake off the thoughts haunting his mind. Her age did not change what must be done, a non-factor.
Now, he just had to let his arm fall.
“...I know I’m an idiot, but damn it.”
The hand that was going to take her life came to rest on her forehead. Using one of the few functions he could still activate, 01 transferred a small amount of anamnesis into Erde, quipping at himself all the while.
What had been intended as a way to prolong other demon cyborg’s lives until rescue was now being used to stabilize an arbiter.
There was nothing he could do about her wounds, but he gave her enough time to be found.
“That should be better, yeah? I don’t take jobs fer free, got it? You save those folks yerself.”
Erde failed to comprehend that 01 chose to save her life. There was no reason for it, nor did she have a reason not to be killed.
“...The way I see it, I finished the job. I taught ya not to mess with my daughter, so I’ll leave it here. Also, I ain’t gettin’ paid to-”
01 thought aloud as he answered her. His gaze stayed fixed skyward toward the tower.
“...I got hired to find a runaway. How stupid would it be to kill ya after all that work?”
He finished with a shrug.
In the end, 01 fought on his own terms. Justice and good deeds played no part.
Thus, he decided when enough was enough.
He did not want to hurt a child. That alone was reason enough for him to let Erde go. His own moral code was intact. Being a person Karen would not be ashamed to call “Dad” was a higher priority to him now.
“I don’t understand... I might come after you or your daughter. I still want revenge...”
“Then ya better avoid us movin’ forward, ya hear? Mercy only happens once.”
01 issued a warning just as sharp as Erde’s tone. He had chosen to let her live. However, there was no guarantee should their paths cross again.
If she reappeared as an enemy, his spear would taste new blood.
Plus, there would be no escape if the Federation found her first. It did not matter if they chose to seal her abilities as punishment, executed her on the spot, or used her for scientific experimentation: 01 would never see her again.
“This is goodbye, young lady. If ya were lookin’ for a grave at that age, there were better ways to make yerself useful along the way.”
With that, 01 turned his back stode away.
He spotted a crowd of people almost immediately, most likely survivors coming out of the underground shelters. There was no telling if the battle had disabled the shelter’s locking mechanism or if they emerged thinking the Federation had control of the surface once again. However, they provided the perfect cover to slip away unnoticed. The rest was up to her and her followers.
01 brushed shoulders with the innocent bystanders he had saved. They showed no interest in him, nor he in them. They only survived as a result of his actions, nothing more. 01 was not in the habit of taking pride in something so simple.
Gratitude and recognition were not necessary. That was 01’s way of doing things.