“Hero” (5.6k)

What makes someone a hero? What keeps them from becoming a villain?

These were the two questions on my mind while writing “Hero,” a short sci-fi story about a brutal, futuristic battle in which soldiers come in a variety of shapes and sizes: hardened veteran fighters, elite super-heroic units, and expendable child-soldiers grown in a lab. The question I have for you while reading this is two-fold: Who do you see being the true hero of this story, and who is the real villain? – DT

***

Bullets riddled the outer wall of Fort Verdant, the law of averages demanding that some would make their way through the moss-covered brick. After that, it was either shitty luck or God’s plan that sent the bullets into the vital organs of the soldiers of Kilo Squad. It wasn’t the loss of her men in battle that troubled Sergeant Kira Mayne; it was the fact that once they died, they got back up again and turned their guns on her.

“Keep to the corners!” she shouted over the relentless gunfire.

This temporary refuge had been Kilo Squad’s best option after the outpost fell to the guerilla armies of the Crimson Plague. Now, the brick wall was proving to be less of a defensive barrier and more of a roulette wheel, randomly selecting who would win a bullet to the head. Private Jacobs’ number came up next. Kira was barking orders before he hit the floor.

“Jefferies! Jacobs is down!”

The medic half slid and half crawled across the floor beneath the spray of brick dust and shrapnel. He grabbed Jacobs’ collar and pulled him close; the young soldier’s head flopped toward him.

“What’s the percentage?” Kira asked, after a brief silent prayer that she wouldn’t have to do what she knew she had to do.

“Zero, sir,” Jefferies answered. Kira gave him a curt nod and joined him. They huddled together over Jacobs’ body.

“Go see to Recon. I’ll handle this.”  Jefferies nodded and duck-walked toward a corner of the room where a boy no older than five was doing his best to make himself disappear.

Kira relieved Jacobs of his radio and slung its strap over her shoulder. She pulled out her combat knife and quickly cut away Jacobs’ khaki fatigues. Then she took the serrated edge to the joints of Jacobs’ shoulders, cutting through skin and muscle before severing connective tissue, first his left arm and then his right. She chopped away at each of his wrists until all the little nerves, ligaments, and tendons were disconnected. She left his hands dangling by mere flaps of skin as his blood oozed out onto the dusty wooden floor. Kira took her knife to his feet next, fighting the urge to vomit as she severed the thick cords of his Achilles tendons and watched the calf muscles roll up like a window shade. It was at this moment that Jacobs sat up.

He snapped at her, his teeth missing her throat by a fraction of an inch. She sliced a wide smile across his gaping mouth, cutting deep enough to render his jaw muscles useless. He lurched toward her, his body betraying him, his mind no longer under his control. Kira drew her service pistol and put two in his skull.  It stunned him momentarily before his body began floundering on the floor. Kira turned away from him and threw up.

When she had regained her composure, she dragged Jacobs’ writhing corpse over to the hatch that led to the level below them. She heaved it open and shoved his body through it. He landed on a pile of crumpled bodies that was all writhing limbs and snapping jaws at the base of the ladder. A blast of gun fire filled the space between the living and the dead before Kira slammed the door shut and threw the heavy bolt closed once more. A single shot snuck through and burrowed itself deep into her arm.

“Jefferies!” she shouted. In the amount of time it took the medic to reach her, Kira had strapped a pressure cuff on her upper arm and doused the wound with cauterizing powder, gritting her teeth as the chemicals sealed her leaking vessels shut.

“Couldn’t have done better myself, Sarge,” Jefferies said as he bandaged Kira’s arm and sprayed an antimicrobial solution over the entire area.

“How’s Recon?” Kira asked. The spray had numbed her forearm. She flexed her fingers and clenched her fist in an attempt to force feeling back into it.

“Lost cause,” Jefferies answered, nodding toward the young boy who was now rocking back and forth, his arms hugging his knees tightly to his chest. “He may have to be disavowed.”

“Black Lottery?” Kira asked, hoping Jefferies would argue against that final option.

“The probability that we will be able to get Recon to safety and out of the hands of the Crimson Plague is currently 0.7%. If one of us falls, the odds are reduced to…”

An unlucky shot caught Jefferies in the forehead, flaying his synthetic skin and leaving a gaping, sparking hole in his face.

“0.3%,” he continued. “Standby. Self-assessment in progress.”

“You good, Medic?”

“Processing. Yes, Sarge. I can continue. Please forgive my appearance. I’m sure it is unsettling.”

Kira barked a short, harsh laugh and then caught herself. This was no time to lose it. And she wasn’t ready to count Recon as a lost cause just yet. She sparked up the radio.

“We’re not in double zeroes yet,” she said, waiting for a response from HQ. “Kilo to Castle. Kilo to Castle. Do you copy?” An eternity of radio static seemed to pass before someone answered.

“Kilo this is Castle. Sit-rep.”

“This is Sergeant Kira Mayne. Kilo Squad has taken heavy casualties. Self, Medroid Jefferies and Recon Unit 057 remaining. Holed up in Fort Verdant. Crimson Plague hostiles numerous. Enemy Devil unit likely. Requesting Hero unit for suppression and rescue.”

“What’s your Recon readout, Sergeant?”

Kira glanced over to the nearly catatonic little boy in the corner.

“Negative on the readout, sir. Recon unit … viable yet unresponsive. Sit-rep as follows: People are rising from the dead. Revived hostiles and friendlies alike are aligning with Crimson Plague against us. Devil unit suspected; Hero unit requested. Repeat, Hero unit requested. Please advise.”

A lengthy silence followed Kira’s report. Worst-case scenario was that Castle would consider her entire team KIA, with Kira responsible for eliminating Recon, and then herself, before Jefferies’ self-detonation finished the job. Best-case scenario was that a Hero unit would save the day. Kira didn’t have to ask Jefferies for a percentage report on which outcome was more likely.

“Kilo Squad, Hero unit request denied. Possible bio-contagion in effect. If Recon confirms Devil unit presence, please re-advise.”

“10-4, Castle,” Kira replied, waiting for the hammer to fall. “Is Kilo Squad disavowed?”

“Standby.”

The silence that followed was the worst yet, enough to make Kira want to eat a bullet just to end the wait. Castle’s eventual reply made her glad she didn’t.

“Sergeant Mayne, this is Colonel Dikon. We’re sending Heavy Mama to your location for extraction. Recon Unit 057 is a priority protect. Do you copy?”

Kira hesitated, stunned. It wasn’t a Hero unit, but a veteran Tanker of Heavy Mama’s reputation was more than she had hoped for.

“Repeat, do you copy?”

“10-4, Castle. We’ll keep him safe until reinforcements arrive. ETA?”

“ASAP. Drop ship is inbound. You’ll know it when you hear it. Good luck, soldier.”

Kira clicked off the radio. She checked her weapons and ammo and flexed her right hand again to make sure her trigger fingers were still functional; she’d need them.

“Jefferies, hand me your AR. I need you to carry Recon and shield him as best you can. I’ll cover you both until we reach Heavy Mama.” The Medroid did as he was ordered. He then pulled out a small capsule-sized syringe from his chest pocket and handed it to Kira.

“Not unless you need it, Sarge. Doctor’s orders,” Jefferies said with a slop-eyed wink.

“10-4,” Kira answered. She exhaled a deep breath. The low drone of a drop ship buzzed overhead. The rain of fire slackened for a few moments and then stopped entirely as a shrill whistle filled the air. Terrified shouts of enemy soldiers were drowned out as something enormous struck the ground just outside the moss-covered wall of Fort Verdant. The floorboards shook beneath Kira’s boots. The crumbling wall threatened to give way at last.

“That’s our ride,” Kira said. “Let’s not keep her waiting.”

Jefferies unfolded Recon from the death grip he held on his own body and picked him up. Outside, the high-pitched whine of Heavy Mama’s Gatling guns revved up seconds before thousands of high-velocity rounds tore through the opposition.

Kira threw the bolt back on the floor hatch and tossed a flashbang down through the hole. She dropped down after its effects had disoriented any assassins waiting for her below. Her boots came down with a crunch on the skull of her former comrade.  She stepped off the pile of writhing limbs and swept her AR back and forth across the room. Nothing moved. Heavy Mama’s guns continued their destruction outside. Kira whistled for Jefferies who dropped down behind her with Recon in his arms.

They surged forward into the smoky room and out into the adjacent hall. Emergency lights blinked intermittently. Daylight streamed in through bullet-holes. Flashes of muzzle fire lit up distant corners of the darkened corridor. Kira returned them in kind, hurrying past the fallen fighters before they could rise again. With Jefferies and Recon keeping close on her tail, Kira cleared a path to the elevators, which were still running on back-up generator power. The opening doors held no surprises for her, but she couldn’t say the same for the floors below. Taking no chances, Kira pulled an explosive charge from her belt, set its timer, and tossed it into the elevator before sending it down to the lobby.

Kira and Jefferies put their backs against the wall on either side of the stairwell door. She swung it open and was greeted by a hail of gunfire meant to shred her K-vest to bits had she stepped through the frame. Outside, the whine of Heavy Mama’s Gatling gun had switched to the steady thump of her auto-shotgun. Kira gave a questioning glance to Jefferies who nodded and squeezed Recon to his chest more tightly. Kira took the syringe from her pocket and pressed it against her neck. The world went gray.

She had been trained in the use of HiJak in simulations, but this was her first time employing it in actual combat. Time slowed. Her vision cleared. Her ears heard only what they needed to hear. As she stepped out into the open doorway, each of her shots found their marks: dead center in the forehead of the gunner closest to her, the right eye of the gunner to his right, the brain stem of the gunner on the floor below; three shots to eliminate her targets and clear the way.

As she moved into the stairwell, it seemed to Kira that Jefferies and Recon were wading through a heavy fog behind her. Her HiJak’d senses picked up a half-dozen heartbeats waiting on the floors below. Kira trusted in her enhanced skills as she threw three grenades with precision to opposite corners of the stairwell beneath her. They exploded at the same moment that the lobby was blown apart by the elevator bomb. Of her enemies – two Crimson Plague men, four former squad members – all six were dead, or dead again, within seconds.

Kira leaped over the rail and dropped two stories to the ground floor before the smoke had cleared. Shots rang out above her. Jefferies dispatched remaining soldiers with twin Berettas as Recon clung to the Medroid’s neck. Kira’s training told her to assist them, but her enhanced senses pointed out a new sound … an ominous sound: heavy mechanical footsteps headed her way.

The stairwell filled with light and debris as the MechaTank crashed through the wall. Normally, Kira would have been happy to see the walking arsenal, but her heightened perception called attention to the tank’s cockpit. Electrical smoke poured through the shattered glass to reveal Heavy Mama’s body punched through with bullets many times over, her arms burned to the bone. Even so, she kept firing, except now she had her guns trained on Kira.

Kira dove out of the way and rolled along the perimeter of the narrow stairwell as the arc of machine-gun fire traced her path. Aiming to get inside the range of the tank’s weapons, Kira scaled the automaton using its armor plating. She reached through the cockpit’s frame of ragged glass and pulled Heavy Mama from her seat. The tank bucked wildly as Kira and the reanimated veteran pilot grappled for control. Like her comrades before her, Heavy Mama scratched and bit and clawed at every exposed inch of Kira’s skin, attacking her like a rabid animal. Kira grabbed her by the head with both of her hands and brought her skull down upon a shard of glass. Heavy Mama’s body jerked once and then fell to the ground in spasms. As she hit the floor, Jefferies and Recon emerged from the dusty stairwell.

“All good?” the Medroid asked.

“Not great,” said Kira. She could feel her pulse quickening, the throb of her heartbeat slamming against her ribs like cannon fire. She shook it off and reached down for Recon as Jefferies held him up. “C’mon, this is our best chance out of here.” She placed Recon on the floor of the cockpit, and offered Jefferies a hand up. “Can you link up?”

“Afraid not,” Jefferies said, pointing to his bullet wound. “That shot fried my connection ports, and I’m running on reserves. You’ll have to take us home, Sarge.”

Kira sank into the cockpit and stared at the control panel. Amidst the gauge clusters was a photograph. It showed a smiling blonde woman in khaki fatigues, a tattoo of the 1st MechaTank Battalion crest emblazoned on her sinewy bicep. She had her arm around the shoulders of a young boy who shared his mother’s blonde hair and lopsided grin. Kira wiped Heavy Mama’s blood from the readout screen.

“Jefferies, this isn’t looking good. I need you to stay down and shield Recon.” She’d had a crash course in mecha piloting at the academy years ago, but she’d never done it while coming down from HiJak. She exhaled a rattling breath. “If I’m compromised, I need you to self-detonate, no questions asked. Are we clear?”

“Completely, sir,” Jefferies answered. “However, if I may make a tactical suggestion.”

“Go ahead.”

“If Recon can make a positive ID on the enemy Devil unit, then HQ will have to send a Hero unit in response. He is a Priority Protect, after all.”

Kira almost argued the futility of the suggestion, but then she looked at Recon. It occurred to her that she had been treating him as less than a soldier, less even than a weapon. Recon was a tool, developed by the military in the same way that they made EMP-resistant radios and bullet-proof glass. That was how HQ wanted them to be seen, why they gave them unit numbers instead of names. She looked at the picture of Heavy Mama and her son once more, and for the first time, Kira saw Recon Unit 057, Priority Protect, as he really was: a scared little boy. She turned to face him.

“Recon,” she said, as calmly as possible, “Jefferies and I, we need your help.” The boy did not respond. “We need you to do something for us and then we can all go home. Do you understand?” The boy did not look at her. “I know you’re scared. I’m scared, too.” Recon looked up at Kira, tears in his eyes. She found herself reaching out to him, taking his little hands in her own. She squeezed them. “But if you can be brave for me, then I can be brave for you, and we’ll all get through this together.” Recon didn’t look convinced. “And then we can go get ice cream … and we’ll get Jefferies a new face.” The disfigured Medroid cocked his head and gave a gruesome smile; Recon actually managed to laugh. Kira smiled, too. “Can you help us? Can you save us?” Recon nodded. Kira patted his hands. “Good boy, my brave boy.”

Kira turned back to the controls. She fought through the haze creeping into the edges of her vision and focused on the tank’s screen in front of her. All the motor functions seemed to be in the green, except for the all-important flight controls.

“Of course,” said Kira to herself. “Looks like we’ll be fighting our way out.”

Her Gatling gun ammo was down to 1% so she dumped the heavy gun in the stairwell with a thud. Shotgun ammo was at 20% of capacity, along with half a dozen grenades in the launcher’s hopper, three surface-to-surface missiles, and 13% of flamer fuel in the tank. Armor integrity was good enough to protect the hydraulics and power core, but the cockpit glass was another story. Kira keyed a sequence into the control panel. A series of hisses sounded as the cockpit’s pressure locks opened. Kira shed the shattered window, which was replaced by a reserve pane of ballistic glass that descended like a shark’s tooth. It wasn’t much protection, but it would have to do. At best, Kira thought she could hold the hostiles off for five minutes, maybe ten if…

“Jefferies, do you have any more HiJak?”

“Yes, Sarge, but military regulations prevent two doses in any 72-hour span, let alone…”

“Not the time, medic. Hand it over.”

Jefferies handed Kira another syringe. Before she injected herself, she gave her orders to the two surviving members of Kilo Squad.

“As soon as we turn this behemoth, all Hell is going to break loose. Recon, I need you to use whatever you’ve got to pinpoint the enemy Devil unit. If we can find him, I can blast him, and maybe then HQ will get us the Hell out of here. Jefferies, radio Castle and fill them in. As soon as Recon gets a confirmation, I want them to know it. Understood?”

Recon nodded his head with confidence. Jefferies said, “Affirmative,” and sparked up the combat radio.

“Alright,” said Kira, “Let’s take the battle to these bastards.” She jammed the syringe into her neck and turned the MechaTank back into the fray.

Kira throttled up the tank’s treads and roared through the dusty, rubble-filled streets surrounding Fort Verdant. Running on HiJak had made Kira feel superhuman; dosed up while linked to the MechaTank’s synaptic interface made her feel something approaching the status of a god. With her abilities heightened by the drug and amplified by the war machine’s vast array of sensors, Kira carved through the enemy front like a vengeful spirit. Flesh-and-bone bodies of the Crimson Plague crumpled like paper dolls beneath the hydraulic blows of the MechaTank. She crushed her enemies beneath her treads as they fled before her.

In her frenzy, Kira lost sight of the separation between herself and the tank. Her vision took on a red tinge. She watched her own arms crashing through buildings and picking up Crimson Plague soldiers like toys, her own feet running nimbly running through a maze of twisting, blood-strewn corridors, stomping out her opposition wherever she encountered it. Kira Mayne was a war goddess; the MechaTank merely allowed her to realize her potential.

But even the gods have their failings. For all of Kira’s abilities, she still could not sense the Devil unit. Fallen soldiers, their limbs crushed beneath Kira the War Goddess’ might, continued to rise and pursue without tiring; the Puppetmaster still pulled their strings. When Kira’s god trance eventually ended, when the MechaTank’s ammo ran out, when the fuel was depleted, the undead would keep coming. Unless…

“Kilo to Castle, Kilo to Castle.”

Jefferies, combat radio in hand, hunkered down next to Recon, who had his eyes closed, not in fear but in concentration.

“Kilo, this is Castle. Sit-rep.”

“Heavy Mama’s down, MechaTank still functional. Sergeant Mayne is piloting. Weapons low, hostiles numerous. Evac requested. Please advise.” Seconds of static passed, punctuated only by the heavy thuds of Kira firing the auto-shotgun into a sniper’s nest.

“Dikon here. What’s the status of the Devil unit?”

Jefferies covered the radio’s mouthpiece with his hand and turned to Recon. “Any luck?” The boy shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut tighter in concentration.

It was then that Medroid Jefferies’ dynamic logic pathway found itself in an infinite loop. His programming told him to answer the Colonel truthfully, that there was, in fact, no confirmed presence of a Devil unit. Jefferies followed the logic that this response would likely result in the deaths of Kira Mayne, Recon Unit 057, and himself. Priority Protect or not, Hero units were the rarest commodity in the fleet while Recon units were as expendable as any other soldier. No help would be coming.

“Repeat, what’s the status of the Devil unit?”

However, if he were to do the inconceivable and lie to Colonel Dikon – though it was more of a technicality since Jefferies’ own probability calculations of a Devil unit in the vicinity stood at 99.987% – a Hero unit would be dispatched, Recon Unit 057 would likely be reclaimed, and Kilo Squad would stand a better chance of survival. Yet all of the positive outcomes conflicted with his primary directive of providing accurate and precise responses to his superiors. It was this infinite feedback loop that caused Jefferies’ processors to whir and click, taxing his computational efficiency down to an embarrassing 86%.

Hundreds of microseconds passed before a secondary program dubbed hippocratic_oath.exe interrupted Jefferies’ stalled logic pathway. His scans of Kira’s vitals indicated a 97% chance of heart failure and imminent organ shutdown. Recon was experiencing higher-than-normal levels of stress hormones with no other deleterious effects, but the peril of their situation did not give hope for the boy’s survival, as he would either be disavowed or captured by the Crimson Plague. It wasn’t exactly compassion Jefferies felt just then – the emotion simply wasn’t in his programming – but rather the realization that the harm done in telling Colonel Dikon the truth would far outweigh the harm done by lying.

“Devil unit confirmed, Colonel,” Jefferies said.

“That’s all I needed to hear, soldier. The Nebraska is on its way. Do you have a handle on the range of this Devil unit’s abilities?”

“Not precisely, sir, but …”

“Half a klick,” Recon said, his eyes scrunched shut.

“Good. Due to the nature of this Devil, I’ll be keeping reserve forces back until it’s dealt with. I don’t want to give these bastards any more of our soldiers to turn. We’re sending Lady Sun. ETA 15 minutes.”

“15 minutes, sir?” Confirmation of the time of arrival was vital to Jefferies’ survivability calculations, which had not improved as much as he had predicted.

“Affirmative, soldier. Hang tough.”

“Will do, sir. Kilo out.” Jefferies shut down the radio and addressed Kira. “Did you hear that, Sarge? Lady Sun is…”

A projectile blasted through the MechaTank’s control panel, shattered Kira’s right hip, and punched clear through Jefferies’ chest before exiting out the back of the walking weapon in a bloom of smoke and fire. Jefferies’ gaping chest sparked and crackled. The burning-plastic smell of singed SynthSkyn and the ozone whiff of fried electronics filled the cockpit. Jefferies’ eyes dimmed. He slumped to the floor.

“Bastards have a rail gun,” Kira hissed, not yet feeling the debilitating pain of her wound thanks to the HiJak. She pounded her fists on the control panel as the screens faded out one by one. Before the targeting system shut down she fired off a missile into the vicinity of the sniper, praying that it found its mark. The Crimson Plague had withdrawn from the MechaTank’s reach, negating their Devil unit’s powers but also pinning Kira down in a shooting gallery. As far as they knew, they could afford to wait; Kira could not.

Kira took manual control of the tank’s flamethrower and torched the few buildings that remained standing around her. She hoped the smoke would screen her from any further long-range attacks, but it would not buy them much time. She punched a defensive code into the console a moment before the lights in the cockpit went dark. The MechaTank kneeled, drawing its armored limbs closed around its pilot and passenger. A metal shield descended over the cockpit window, throwing Kira and Recon into near total darkness. A thin cloud of dusty light diffused in through the ragged hole made by the rail-gun. Sparking electronics from Jefferies’ body provided fits of blue strobe light.

Kira turned to face Recon. That’s when the pain hit her. She bit down on her sleeve to fight her screams, her urge to vomit, and her lightheadedness, not just for her sake but for Recon’s. If she lost it now, he was done for. Her heart threatened to burst with the force of its contractions, her head felt as if a hydrant had been turned on full force inside her skull with no way to release the pressure. Her shattered leg betrayed her, her heavy arms fell limp, her organs spewed bile, blood, and lymph into their surrounding tissues. Sergeant Kira Mayne had walked the high path of a War Goddess and fell to Earth a mortal.

She felt a small hand take hold of her own.

“Good boy,” she managed to whisper. “Brave boy.” She could hear footsteps approaching the tank and guttural voices calling out to each other in celebration. Kira had one order yet to give … and one to follow.

“Reach into my pocket,” she whispered. Flecks of blood coated her lips. Recon lifted the flap of the camo fabric and withdrew a packet of two small tablets. “That’s it,” she said. “One for you, one for me. Can you help me one last time?” Recon shook his head.

“Not just yet,” he said, his voice dry and wispy from disuse.

Recon closed his eyes, blocked out the labored breathing of Sergeant Kira, ignored her whispered pleas for help. She had been nice to him at the end, she had been good to him through it all, she had protected him. It was more than he expected and more than he’d ever known. He owed her more than a quick death. He owed Jefferies, too, but that was beyond his ability. He owed the Crimson Plague a thing or two as well.

Find the Red.

Recon Unit 057 never knew just what the other children in his division saw when they tripped into sensory mode because mandatory isolation prevented him from ever asking them. More to the point, with the exception of himself, Recon Units 50 through 59 were all dead.

The 050 division’s final test to track enemy positions through linked minds in a cooperative effort had started off fine. Recon Unit 057 reveled in the shared connection to his peers. He wanted to talk, to play, to share the memories and dreams of the children connected to him, children whose voices he’d never even heard. He saw them as if they were brilliant green dots buzzing around him, warm and close and friendly.

But it was the gray dots he was supposed to be tracking, along with a red dot thrown in as part of their final test: the Devil unit. Through great effort the Recon division brought the enemy units into their field of vision. And then it happened. As Recon Unit 057 strained under the task of pinpointing the Devil unit while being distracted by potential friends so close at hand, something in his mind snapped. All at once his connections were severed. The lights – green, gray, and red – blinked out. He was left alone in darkness.

It was soon after that that he was quarantined, no longer fit to link up to the other children in training but far too valuable as a potential weapon to be sent to the recycling farm. He had sat, and sat, and sat in that room, primarily shielded from his mental wanderings by a powerful electromagnetic force-field, and by a talented psychic dampener beyond that. Her designation was Hero Unit Miasma, but as Recon Unit 057 learned through their voiceless conversations, her real name was Maria.

It was Maria’s voice he heard as he sat in the protected core of the MechaTank, allies dying around him, enemies closing in. It was Maria’s voice that had gotten him through his months of isolation and intense, torturous testing. It was Maria’s voice that gave him focus.

Find the Red.

Recon Unit 057’s mind’s eye swiveled to an overhead view of his current location. One bright green dot nestled close to a fading green one. Thirteen gray dots circled them. The snare was closing. Recon was almost out of time.

Find the Red.

Recon Unit 057 expanded his field of vision. Gray dots peppered the landscape. Hidden among them, buried deep beneath layers and layers of sand and brick and living bodies was the Devil unit, a dim red blip in a sea of gray.

“I found him, Maria,” Recon whispered.

Finding him was useless. He knew that. Lady Sun was too far away, Kira was on death’s doorstep, and Recon himself was nearly in the grip of the approaching soldiers.

Kill the Red.

“Recon, please,” Kira said, her voice barely audible, her breath still. “Help me.”

“I’m sorry, Kira,” Recon said with tears in his eyes. “It will be over soon.”

Kill the Red.

Recon reached out to all of the dots between him and the Devil unit. He concentrated on their locations, his focus bringing them into sharp relief. His ability was powerful indeed, but it was raw, unrefined, just barely able to be controlled. With the exception of his own mind, everyone caught in his field of vision, friend or foe, would suffer at his hands.

“I’m sorry, Kira,” Recon said.

“It’s okay, Recon,” she whispered. “It’s okay.” Kira exhaled her last breath.

A bolt of lightning snapped through Recon’s mind and all at once the lights blinked out: gray, green, and red alike. He collapsed to the cockpit floor of the MechaTank in exhaustion.

A blinding light filled Recon’s vision and he questioned whether or not he was dead. A fiery grip took hold of his shoulder and shook him roughly.

“Are you alive? Are you with me?”

Recon Unit 057 forced his eyes open despite the blazing light. He squinted, trying to bring the face within the light into focus. Its intensity dimmed until it became just bearable to look upon her from his peripheral vision. Her very skin was ablaze, her eyes white-hot coals set in the heart of a roaring inferno. To look upon her was to go blind. To face her in battle was certain incineration. Here was the Hero unit they had been waiting for; here was Lady Sun … and she was woefully late.

Recon’s voice failed him but he nodded his head to tell her that he was indeed alive and responsive. She stood him up, being careful not to let her fingers linger too long upon him. Recon looked away from her burning visage and found himself outside the MechaTank, having been pulled out through a ragged hole of melted metal, its edges still glowing. Neither Medroid Jefferies nor Seregant Kira Mayne remained inside. Dead bodies of the Crimson Plague lay fallen all around the tank.

“Save your report for the Colonel,” Lady Sun said from somewhere outside Recon’s vision. “The recovery team has your Medroid unit’s data core. Sergeant Mayne however…” She stopped short. Recon turned further away to hide his face from her. “The important thing is that you’re alive,” Lady Sun continued. A brilliant flash of white made Recon squint once more. He could hear the smile in Lady Sun’s voice. “For what it’s worth, I’ll be informing them that Lady Sun wasn’t needed; Kilo Squad has their own Hero.” She briefly rested a warm hand on Recon’s head.

High in the clear blue sky, the warship Nebraska hovered into view. Drop-ships full of shock troops and clean-up squads descended all around them. Recon knew that one of those ships carried a Hero unit liaison, a handler who would confer congratulations to him on behalf of the military before whisking him away to a life of training, violence, and war.

For the briefest of moments, Recon toyed with the idea of putting his ability to use right then and there, eliminating those who sought to use him for their own ends. He was a Devil-killer, sure, but he was also a friend-killer. The memories of the other Recon units lived inside him still, along with the voice of Maria and the final thoughts of Sergeant Kira Mayne. But so did the disparate lives of the dozens of faceless gray blips he had just extinguished, and their thoughts came to him unbidden.

Could he face a lifetime of these battles? Was he strong enough to hold the memories of thousands, perhaps millions of victims in his mind without going insane? He could rationalize the killing of a few for the good of the many, but if his powers grew, how soon would he be exterminating nations to protect nations? Is this what it was to be a Hero?

He wrestled with these thoughts as the Colonel and his entourage approached, all smiles and pride. They were brimming with confidence from having secured an impossible victory and gaining an unanticipated new weapon for their arsenal. He saw little difference between these men and the forces of the Crimson Plague lying dead at his feet. Both groups wanted to use him as a weapon, Recon was sure of that. The only thing he wasn’t certain of just yet was how long he’d let them get away with it.

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