In the dead of night, a bandit technical sped across a desolate expanse of barren desert plains, its thick black rubber tires tearing through the sand. Occasionally it would pass by a bundle of houses, built low into the sand as to hide from roaming marauders. Telling by the pitch-black darkness emanating from the broken windows and opened doors, their efforts had been rewarded in the same way any attempt to make a home out of Pandora was.
"It's a business opportunity!" Scrum explained loudly over the roar of the engine. "The marketplace is entirely vacant, totally open, ripe for the taking."
Sitting across from him, Scub shook his bald head. "'Cause it's a stupid job. Nobody wants t' hear some off-worlder try n' make jokes out of the traumatic childhood experiences that made him into the shell of a man he is today."
"I have an associates degree in marketing, and that was one time. I've diversified my act since then." Scrum turned to the seat next to him. "You've heard my talent, what do you think my chances are as Pandora's first professional comedian?"
"The hell you askin' him for?" said Scub. "He ain't said a word all night, probably asleep behind that mask of his."
"Fine, then just listen to this one then." Scrum cleared his throat. "So I heard that Moxxi's bar is hosting a skag appreciation day," he began in a vaudeville-esque voice, "to show how grateful they are to the animals they murder and eat every day. I think I'll wait a few months until my whore of an ex-wife's birthday and celebrate them together."
"Wait, you celebrate your ex-wife's birthday?"
"It's all apart of the setup," Scrum said, pointing with his finger. "Then I can seamlessly transition to my segment on the injustices of family court."
"So you don't celebrate your ex-wife's birthday?"
Suddenly the masked man got up from his seat and sauntered down past the turret into the technical's cab.
The man in the front seat didn't notice his presence immediately, but when he did he gave a heavy sigh. "I told y'all if you wanna safe ride to Transit Station, it's four hundred each plus staying in the back and minding your own damn-"
The blade slicing his throat cut him off. The driver slumped forwards, making the technical's horn blare with the weight of his lifeless body.
"This ride is over. You chose the wrong passengers. They have annoyed me."
"What's going on up there?" One of them called out from the back, he didn't care which. His hand clenched the wheel and swerved it towards a rock he spotted in the headlights jutting out of sand in between a clump of brown grass.
The technical hitched high into the air before crashing back down and exploding on impact. Its fiery remains were a lonely light in the empty midnight desert. From beneath a twisted metal door, a gloved hand emerged and dug its fingers into the cold sand.
Zero pulled himself out from the rubble and stood amidst the mess he'd made. His temper had decided for him that the rest of his journey would be on foot, yet he knew the irritations of trudging through the wilderness would pale in comparison to the bliss and relief he had felt from the sound of those buffoon's panicked cries.
A number is not something that can look a person in the eye and greet them with a gracious smile before shaking their hand. It's an abstraction, a thing, always influencing the world around it, but never really there.
Human beings have a shape to them, a form that when they see sketched out, even if crudely done, they connect to. That was what the suit was for, he supposed, as well as the one underneath it - an amalgamation of blood, flesh, skin and bone, even hair. Its only purpose being to simulate that which surrounded it, to create a believable surface and beckon to something on the inside that wasn't there.
He felt an itch. His hand smacked hard against the side of his neck, but when he brought it back to look at it was empty and stainless. It had to be the crash. Why did he have to do that? Now something had changed. Something horrible had happened to him. Something had moved beneath the surface like a mouse scurrying under a carpet. He couldn't see it, but he knew it was there, mocking him from the dark pit of his ignorance.
"What is this?" he asked himself aloud. A second passed, then another, then he counted the syllables of the words he had just said.
Is that it? Has nothing else changed? One part of him wanted to laugh, the other to weep.
"You... fucking monster!"
Zero turned to see Scrum lying on his stomach, crawled halfway out from the wreck. He a DAHL repeater pistol towards him. Not the most elegant weapon, but the tree shots would be enough to get the job done if not for the fact that his hand, trembling and slick with blood, dropped it as soon as he took aim.
Scrum tried to snatch the gun back up but every time he reached his arm would flinch back like it had a mind of its own. "Fucking freak!" he yelled as Zero drew closer.
Zero knelt down in front of him and picked the gun up. He was in surprisingly decent shape, besides his arm and a particularly nasty cut across his forehead. Zero placed the gun between his eyebrows, then against each of his arms, then pointed it down at his legs. The desert wind howled, kicking up lashes of sand around them.
"No one cares that you're here," Zero stated. He holstered the pistol on his hip and turned to begin his trek north across the dry, windswept wastes they called the Dead Sands. He had a train to catch.
The train was in ruins. Bits and pieces of metal, large and small, were scattered across the frozen tundra. From the heaps of trash that surrounded them, it was clear someone had been using the place as landfill beforehand. Zero imagined that could only be intentional on Jack's part, a cruel irony he would laugh about for a minute or so before forgetting about it and their lives. At least he until he found out from some unlucky employee that they had all survived.
The vault hunters walked in solemn silence behind the CL4T-TP bot. It had offered them warmth and shelter and seemed too stupid to lie. Still, it would want something from them in exchange. What exactly that was Zero didn't know, but he doubted the demands of an isolated semi-sentient robot would contain anything but delusion.
"How much farther?" the siren asked, her hands tucked away under her armpits. The form-fitting yellow, black, and grey turtleneck she wore made it abundantly clear she hadn't intended on spending the night in arctic weather without a shield to insulate her from the freezing conditions. It seemed none of them had dressed for the occasion of being dumped in the middle of nowhere, whether it was the soldier with his olive green fatigues, the thickset man with his stained orange t-shirt, the girl with her sleeveless denim jacket and red undershirt, or the towering, bear-chested psycho.
"Not much!" the CL4P-TP proclaimed. "Worry not, my dear friends, my humble abode awaits with enough old moldy couches for everyone. You'll have to make room with the frozen corpses and all, but I'm sure they won't mind the company!"
The redhead girl grabbed her stomach with one hand and covered her mouth with the over before puking through her fingers into the snow. The soldier rushed to her side, but she waved him away with her bionic arm. "Just some bad lunch," she panted, bent over, before retching up more bile.
"You're not in any condition to be walking," the soldier told her, his concern obvious in his voice.
"What're you gonna do? Carry me?" she laughed. "Oh, my knight in shining armor."
"The meat bombers have arrived!" the psycho called out, pointing his buzz axe up into the air towards a flock of rakk they were crossing the night sky above them. Fifteen, twenty, maybe even thirty, it was difficult to tell.
"Keep quiet," the short, bearded man whispered. "They won't see us if we move silently in this dark."
He was a native, Zero could tell. The rest of them had followed the CH4P-TP like a pack of lost puppies, but that one knew where he was going, knew the ground his feet walked on.
"We need to keep moving then," said the soldier. "Gaige, you got it all out yet?"
Zero was watching as the rakk disappeared into the night when he felt that itch again. He stepped back. Curtains of translucent blue light swept across a dark sapphire sky. The immensity of its beauty crashed over him like waves against the rocky shoreline. He felt consumed, all of the noise and clutter of the rest of the world was insignificant. His legs were weak as twigs, if it wasn't for the suit they might have started shaking. Below the somber glow of the aurora, he was buried in a sense of complete and utter humbleness, and within that moment of pure enlightenment, Zero could have easily joined the girl in vomiting his guts out.
"Come on, we have to go." A hand pulled gently on his arm and he found himself not flinching away. Zero turned his head.
When he had first laid eyes the siren his mind had raced to calculate the price that was probably on her head, as well as the likelihood that the other vault hunters would try and stop him. In the end, his thoughts had been interrupted by the arrival of the hyperion train and he decided to bide his time until he'd learned more about their supposed employer.
Her hand still held onto him for some reason. She kept staring at him, at the immeasurable chasm of his mask. Didn't she realize there was nothing staring back?
"Your eyes..." the words came spilling out of him as he pulled away from her gaze and stared up at the sky ablaze with northern lights. "Are they made from the same thing?"
"What?" She sounded confused at first, but after a moment she must have seen what he did. "Oh. That's... thank you, but we should... we have to move."
She led him back, and Zero could only wonder what those words he'd said to her meant.
When they caught up to the rest of the party, they found the redhead riding piggyback on the soldier and the psycho tiptoeing through the snow on the balls of his feet. Far in the distance, a faint orange light glimmered through the blue-grey gloom. As they drew closer, a light snow began to pick up. The flakes melted on Zero's visor like shadows on a wall.
By the time their party reached that vague light, the wind had kicked up into a harsh gale and the snow was falling in droves. It turned out only to be a burner barrel that still somehow sustained a fire.
"Why don't we all just squeeze in there?" the girl mumbled from the soldier's back.
"It won't be long now that we've reached good ol' Benny here," said the CL4P-TP bot, gesturing to the smiley face drawn onto the rusted metal with yellow paint. "Bye-bye, Benny!" It waved at the illustration before it pivoted on its single wheel and continued to lead them to refuge.
The storm was rising, and a minute or so out from the barrel the other vault hunters began to dissolve into a white haze. Zero looked over his shoulder and saw the barrel glaring at him, its mouth curved downwards and red 'v' drawn above its eyes. When he turned back, the others were gone. He waded through the ankle-high snow, alone, surrounded by a cold, empty world.
"Just keep moving forward!" the CL4P-TP shouted from somewhere up ahead. "There's a sign somewhere up here, go towards that."
"I'll do whatever the fuzzy lady says," said the psycho. "She's pretty, just like her!"
"Wait, you're seeing her too?" the soldier asked almost incredulously.
"Oh, that's swell," the girl sighed. "I thought I was just seeing things by myself. Good to know we're all schizophrenic together."
"I don't think it's that," the siren mused. "She wants to help us find the vault. We'll have to find out more about her, but... I don't think she's lying."
"It won't matter whether she is real or not if we all freeze to death here," the gruff voice of the short man interjected. "Keep moving!"
They were voices without bodies to match, and frankly Zero hadn't the remotest idea what they were talking about.
Finally, a far-off iridescent light appeared floating in the midst of the bleary air. It flashed blue, then red, then brown, then red again, then brown again, before starting the cycle again. Zero walked towards that light, not knowing whether it was the path he was meant to take.
"Here we are, as promised," announced the CL4P-TP just as the snowstorm began to clear. Around a cluster of igloo blocks, a wooden door was carved into a giant tire. The CL4P-TP rolled up to the entrance and waited as it scanned for some kind of verification. Before it could finish, the psycho pushed the robot aside and punched a hole through the door, reaching around and opening it slowly from the other side.
"Damn it, Krieg, now I gotta find something to cover that with," fumed the soldier. Still, he and the girl on his back followed the giant of a man through the doorway.
"Come on, Zero," the siren called out to him. "You're not going to get any warmer by staring at that."
"You're right," he agreed, forcing himself to look away from the flashing 'WELCOME' sign, leaving it to buzz and blink in its single dull white font.
Chapter 2: Dazing Snow
His arms were curled around the padded armor that covered his knees. He had been lying down sideways on the couch for hours, yet sleep eluded him. He could have scouted ahead, searched Claptrap's den for guns or a shield, he could have slit the throats of every other vault hunter there, but he didn't. The night had passed, with the stars wheeling across the sky above, and Zero had not moved an inch from his spot on the moldy red couch.
His eyes were locked on a dark stain on the cushion in front of him when a hand touched his shoulder.
"Wake up, Zero."
The siren was just as beautiful as when he'd first laid eyes on her. She had been standing away from the others, her arms crossed as she stared off into the empty desert, waiting for the train to appear in the distance, strands of sunlight running through her azure blue hair.
"I am," he said, pushing the hand off of him and rolling over to stand up. Immediately he noticed that the other couches were empty. "Where's everyone else?"
Maya nodded her head towards the other vault hunters, who were sat around a short table littered with cards and scattered poker chips. "We're trying to agree on what to do next."
Gaige must have heard her because she called out, "And failing!"
"We're not big bad vault hunters anymore." Axton rubbed his temples. "We can't just run with no idea what the hell we'll be facing. Every bit of equipment that made us invincible got blown to smithereens back on that train. For all we know we could be locked out of the New-U."
"If you want to fall into a mid-life crisis just because Jack broke your turret then be my guest," said Salvador. "But I don't plan on dying in this frozen hell scavenging through garbage another rusty shotgun."
Their argument faded out into a dull whisper in the back of Zero's mind. "You found new equipment?" he asked Maya.
"A while ago," she answered. "We would have woken you up then, but seeing how you slept through Knuckledragger ripping Claptrap's eye from its socket, we figured you were in pretty dire need of some rest."
You thought I would be useless. Zero wondered if she was wrong. Somehow these events had passed by without him even noticing. All that had mattered was the dark red stain on the moldy couch.
Maya led him to a metal wire shelf next to a pile of defunct CL4P-TP units. On its top shelf, a short line of pistols and shields were laid out.
"As you can see, you didn't miss out on much," Maya confessed.
Zero ignored her and crouched down to the bottom shelf, picking up what appeared to be another gun.
"That's a grappling hook," said Maya. "There's a lot of miscellaneous items down. Useful, but uh, not as much as the top shelf. Oh, and some explosives too. Judging from the labels it's old Atlas mining tech. Gaige says they're busted, but if you ask me she barely looked at them."
"If you can't function as apart of a group then why are you even here?!" Axton's voice shouted from across the ice den. "Why be a vault hunter if it's only gonna be you in the end?"
Krieg lurched to his feet. The air grew even colder as he stood there, looking down at the commando at the other end of the table. Finally, he growled and sat back down.
"If you're done with your tantrum, we need a way forward." Axton pulled a map out of a green nylon bag by his feet and unrolled it on the table, as if puzzling over markers and legends would improve their chances of survival.
"Who needs bandits and Jack when we've got each other," Maya mumbled just loud enough for Zero to hear. He wondered where she had gotten the idea that he was the one she should be confiding in, or why he thought she was doing it intentionally in the first place.
He felt the need to lie down again. It was if his entire body had been engulfed by a snow drift. Zero was about to let himself fall back onto the couch when he saw light glimmer off an object in the far corner of the room.
Pinned to the ice with a half dozen rusted rail spikes, a poster with a fading gloss finish displayed a woman in a thin red bikini cleaning the side of a dark grey runner. His eyes ran down her long legs until they reached the words scribbled out underneath her.
'Live free or die,' it said, followed by the name of whatever corporation manufactured the runner. Zero tried to read the rest, but his eyes instead returned to the scantily dressed woman.
"I guess we should throw our voices into the ring," said Maya. "There's another chair by the-" when she looked over Zero was gone, and she just barely caught a glimpse of the door shutting behind him. She found him out in the cold, alone, staring down at the snow in front of him. A frozen wasteland of jagged glaciers rose before him against a cloudless blue sky.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Thinking," he answered, and drew his sword.
Maya reached for a gun that wasn't there, but before her hand touched her hip Zero lowered the tip of the sword into the snow. Her eyes followed as he strode gracefully through the snow in circles and lines, dragging his sword all the while. After some time he stepped back and let his sword dissolve into nothingness. Zero climbed atop a nearby Hyperion supply crate and offered her a hand.
"What do you think?" he asked after helping her up.
"It's..." she paused, looking over the snow. "A woman?"
"And a runner."
"Oh... that's... it's nice. You... like to draw?."
"I don't know." Zero jumped down from the crate and started flattening out the snow with the bottom of his boot.
Maya looked down at him, confounded by his behavior. "If you're done with... that, then we should probably head back inside. I think Axton wanted us to have some kind of vote on what we do next."
"I'm not finished, just starting over. Tell them you have my proxy. I have more important things to attend to," Zero said, gliding his foot over the poorly drawn woman's brunette hair.
"See? That wasn't so hard," said Salvador. "All that senseless bickering - when all we needed to do was kill everything in sight. This is why Pandora does not have a debate club." He leaned down to wipe a clump of bloody bullymong hair off his shoe.
Axton ignored the not-so-subtle jab and continued wrapping the bandage around Gaige's knee. She was sat on one of the wrecked runners that Knuckledragger had thrown at them in his primal fury. The giant bullymong was rotting atop a Dahl dumpster he had fallen on after Krieg threw his buzzaxe and caught him square in the face mid-leap.
"Could you hurry up already?" Gaige fussed.
"For once today I'd like to do something on my own terms," Axton replied, tying the bandage around the back of her leg.
"Are you mad because everyone but you agreed on a plan and it actually worked?" Gaige squished her lips together in a mocking pout.
"No, my problem," he grunted as he tightened the knot, "is that we didn't have a 'plan'. Just charge in, all guns blazing."
"And it worked like a charm," Gaige pointed out, standing up after Axton finished with her knee.
"But for how long?" Axton stood up with her. "Maybe that would work on Pandora a few years ago when it was just us and some petty bandit tribes, but you can't think the same thing will work on a guy like Jack. Pandora's changed, the fun's over."
"Jack had a plan: blow us up along with that train. Look how well that worked out for him." She gave him a reassuring smile. "And don't be such a party-pooper. Trying to apply logic to a place like Pandora is bad for your health."
Above them, standing at the end of a stony path leading to a run-down Hyperion barge, Zero and Maya watched as Krieg banged his fist against the closed hatch.
"Hello! Is anyone home?" His huge hand left a noticeable dent in the faded yellow metal. "I just want to be a good neighbor! Why won't you let me be a good neighbor!? Why do you lie, Mr. Rogers!?"
"This should be working…" Claptrap muttered nervously next to Krieg as the eye-scanner ran another wave of blue light over him, before flashing red again.
"Oh, you'd do that for little ol' me?" Krieg squealed suddenly. The doors began to tremble, shaking off chunks of snow it had collected over the years, before parting slowly. The noise reminded Zero of an old man he had heard yawn once. Who the man was or how Zero knew him was not something he remembered.
Zero looked to Maya, who shrugged her shoulders. "The holographic lady again. She says she doesn't know why she can't reach you."
"Before we head out the other side we should search the ship for supplies," Axton said, having made his way up the hill behind them along with Gaige. "Claptrap said it's been a while since he visited Liar's Berg, so it could be filled to the brim with bandits for all we know."
"I'm standing right here, you know!" The robot exclaimed, seemingly unaware that they all wished he wasn't.
"Good idea," agreed Maya with him. "That last fight took most of my ammo."
"They probably don't have any frozen snacks, right?" Gaige asked no-one in particular.
She'd be proven right as they searched through the barge. Salvador found a Torgue shotgun, Gaige a Tediore submachine gun, and Axton a Dahl assault rifle. Maya was bent over rummaging through a knocked-over locker. Zero found himself unable to avert his eyes from the piece of exposed hip her outfit let show.
It was only when her eyes met his that he quickly turned back to his own locker, almost certain he was going pass out then and there from the strange tightening feeling that had suddenly appeared in his gut. His blurry vision returned to normal however when he saw the edge of something shimmer underneath a pile of x-rated magazines.
The clear bone-white coloring of the I.D card had been soiled by the passing of time. The thin black letters spelled out a name and a number, but the picture beside them was blank.
Zero wondered who he was. Whether he was dead or alive, or why he had even come to Pandora in the first place. He could have had a million reasons or none at all. Maybe he'd just forgotten them.
"This thing's still got some fuel left in it!" Gaige called out. Zero looked up to see the others filtering through a door that must've led to the cockpit. He pocketed the card and followed.
Gaige was sat in the pilot's seat overlooking a series of flickering display lights. She looked to be the only one who knew what they meant telling from the way the rest of the vault hunters stood behind her silently.
"Can it get us to Sanctuary?" Zero asked.
"Maybe, if I can get it off the ground, but…" her voice drifted off alongside her confidence as she looked for a switch that wasn't there.
"Aw, don't worry minion number five, there are plenty dysfunctional parts of my boat that you can fix up," said Claptrap. "Don't let your inability to contribute to the group in any meaningful way get you down!"
Zero's foot sent the robot crashing into the dashboard.
"Hey! Which one of you did that!? Reveal yourself!" Claptrap demanded, pushing himself back on his wheel, still blind. No one answered.
"Let's get moving then," Axton said. "Unless anyone wants to keep searching." No one did. The other cargo doors were grinding open when Zero felt a hand touch his wrist. Its cold metal touch made him think of the robot, but when he turned he realized he was wrong.
"Hey, thanks for that." Gaige was smiling up at him. "That tiny robot can be a real dick sometimes."
What do you want from me? Zero did not ask her. Was it approval? Or some kind of rebuttal that touched on the tragic life Claptrap had lived? Or something else? Once, he might have been able to tell.
Zero nodded. "Yeah."
"HELLLLLOOOOO BANDIT SCUM!"
A wave of panic and fear smashed into Zero with the force of a thousand bullymongs. He swung around to what he thought was the source of the voice and buried his fist inside of an old radio.
"... Jesus, dude, I'm in your echo device. Calm down."
Zero yanked his hand back, causing the radio to clatter to the floor and fully break into a dozen pieces.
"The hell do you want, Jack?" Axton asked the voice.
"A little birdie told me you guys were still galavanting around Pandora spreading death and destruction, so I thought I'd drop in, say hi, see how things are going, convince you all to kill yourselves."
"How do we turn this idiot off?" Maya asked Gaige, but the mechromancer only shrugged and shook her head.
"Let's see, you're a very diverse bunch, props for that by the way. I'm glad even scum sucking bandits see the value in representation."
"You've got an ex-Dahl merc who got fired and divorced on the same day, by the same person, and filled the hole in his poor, broken heart with copious amounts of alcohol."
"Some fat midget whose anger issues made even his own degenerate bandit hometown want him dead."
"A little girl who ran away from home, and by that, I mean whose daddy had to recuse her from spending the rest her life behind bars. He must so proud of you."
"A literal experiment gone wrong, and I mean, gone reeeeeeal wrong. Not that you were that impressive before that."
"Then there's the hot-topic assassin… I don't really know your story, but I assume it's just as pathetic as everyone else's."
"And finally… wait, a siren? Why the hell… Blake! Get in here and bring me that list of vault hunters you compiled… no, the last one!"
"Anyways, I'm sure with some more time I could persuade you all to start scavenging for some rope, but right now I have an underlying that I need to scream and throw clipboards at. Toodaloo!"
Silence hung heavy in the air as the outside cold from the now open door drifted in. Zero watched their eyes. Maya looked at Axton, and Axton looked at Gaige. Salvador looked at Krieg, who looked over at Maya. Their eyes would flicker back and forth between one another as if they were seeing each other for the first time. He could see the hints of emotion, of pity and of disdain, all swimming just underneath the surface.
No one looked at him. There was no reason for anyone to look at him. Somehow that hurt him. His hand touched for the left breastplate of his armor. There was nothing there, but the pain he felt there remained, sharp and constant. He opened his mouth, but words escaped him.
Their pseudo Truxican standoff ended with Axton cracking a joke at his own expense, and most of them laughed, if not just to release some of the tension was clouding the room.
It didn't matter to Zero. He could feel part of himself crying out, begging for him to give them a reason to look at him, to know him, to be something more than a shadow against the wall.
He had grown up somewhere, some place where he had learned to crawl, then to walk. He had played games with other children there, they'd all act like he was the annoying one, but he knew deep down that they liked him.
They liked me, didn't they? There was no memory, only an aching sensation in the back his skull that came alongside the question.
Yet no matter how hard he clenched his eyes shut, he could not think of where that place was on a map, nor could he recall the sounds of the other children's laughter. He searched for something, an interesting anecdote or a fascinating tidbit, anything, and returned empty-handed. He wondered if he existed before his ride to the train station through the midnight desert, or if somehow he died that night, and been born again amidst the fire and rubble of the crash.
"And when you think about it, our pasts, whatever they were, they're what brought us here," Axton was speaking. "I mean… were they really that bad, if in the end, we now have the chance to do something good for the world?"
"They don't mean anything," Zero told him, and walked alone out into the cold.
Chapter 3: Liar's Berg
AN: Hey all - I wrote this one quick because I wanted to get something out there since my writing's been slow for months because of finals. It's one-shotish, not really moving the overall plot forward, but still touches on Zero's development and the overall nature of his character. It was meant to be a short one, but somehow it ended up longer than the two chapters before it lol. Adding like 500 words at a time B)
I also get the lore wrong again I think.
Zero watched as the blood fell across the snow, droplets leaking from a black leather ceiling. He held his hand up to his face, examining the cut closer. Blood was seeping from his wound, but the color of his glove made it hard to see if there was something underneath, something more. He was about to move it even closer to his eyes when something tackled him to the ground.
The psycho held his buzzaxe high above his head, ready to bring it down on Zero, reminded him he was in the middle of a firefight. Sound returned to the world around him, and gunfire and screams of agony filled the air.
Zero pulled out his Jakobs revolver and blew the top of the psycho's skull off.
"For God's sake, pay more attention, Zero!" Axton called out from somewhere, probably taking cover behind one of the abandoned houses in Liar's Berg. The firefight was almost over though, and when Salvador tossed a grenade behind a turned-over dumpster, and two bandits ran out only to be gunned down by Maya and Krieg.
Zero laid there for some time, staring directly into the sun and enjoying the lack of weight pushing down on his legs before he stood and saw that the rest of the vault hunters had moved to the gate to Hammerlock's home. Behind it, Sir Hammerlock stood, and behind him, a dozen or so others.
Zero's first thought was to reach for his gun and aim for the midget since they were the hardest to hit while moving. For some reason, when Zero looked at him, he hid behind the legs of one of the taller bandits. That was when he realized that none were even holding weapons, nor did they wear masks or carry machetes, only baggy coats and stitched padded pants. One even cried out when Claptrap grabbed on to the electric fencing and collapsed on his side.
When Hammerlock unlocked the gate, the vault hunters didn't open fire on the bandits. Instead, Axton and Maya distributed insta-health among them while Hammerlock and Gaige looked over Claptrap's body, they dragged the limp metal shell into his home.
A scream pierced the air then, loud and brief. A bandit with a particularly round gut fell to their knees, a series of pained groans leaving their mouth. Two of them helped the bandit up and began to carry them through the door to Hammerlock's house. Zero watched Maya exchange a few words with Axton before she followed them through the doorway.
"Zero, come on, you and I are going to fix the power." Salvador was beside him now, nudging his thigh with an elbow. They walked through the cold, over still corpses resting in snowy graves three inches deep.
The only thing Zero could think of when the body hit the ice was utterly pathetic it sounded. The culmination of millions of years of evolution, a species who survived thousands of conflicts which killed countless people, who were responsible for incredible innovations of technology and science - it all led to this.
'Splat'… no, actually… it was more of a 'plop'. Maybe a 'thump'?
"That's the last of them." Salvador wiped the blood from his hands on his jeans. They had just finished getting rid of the last of the bodies, a task Hammerlock had assigned them to after they realized neither of them knew how to fix a powerbox.
Even with the power back on, fast travel was impossible. Jack had flagged all of them, locking them out of the system.
"I still can't believe we had to drag the bodies all the way out to this stupid pond. How do hell can these people live on Pandora and not be used to having a few dead bodies lying around town?"
Zero did not answer.
"I saw a bar sign over one of the buildings back there, you want to join me?"
"I don't drink," Zero replied, examining the cut on his glove instead of looking at Sal.
"What a surprise," the short man snorted. "Don't pick at that. It'll get infected," he told Zero before leaving him alone to overlook the frozen pond and pile of bodies that covered it.
Zero wandered the town until he found an old screwdriver to poke his cut with.
Sir Hammerlock's home stood atop a low incline hill overlooking the rest of Gateway Harbor. Zero was halfway up the climb when the door creaked open and a man stumbled out into the snow.
"Great! Thanks a lot!" he shouted over his shoulder before the door was slammed shut behind him. The man stood there for a moment, before punching Hammerlock's mailbox. A second later his arm had coiled up like a snake and he held his hand against his chest.
"Bad news?" Zero asked him.
The man gazed up at him, a look of confusion crossing his long face. "What? No, no, she's fine, they just… won't let me stay. Some age-old superstition about it being bad luck…" he paused, then looked over at the mailbox he'd just dented with his fist. "You mean that? No, I was just angry that… oh, you were making a joke, weren't you?"
"Shit, sorry about that," he apologized, scratching the back of his balding head. "Name's Fillion. I run the shop around here: food, water, guns, all the essentials. Business has been rough lately, but I make do, even with those scam vendors."
"Why are any of you out here?"
"It's not as bad as you'd think. We had our own little thing going for a while, fishing the bay and selling Bullymong pelts on the net." Fillion turned around and knocked over a nearby barrel to sit on.
Zero crossed his arms. He could sit here and listen to the man talk, or he could walk past him and tell Maya their plans for tomorrow as he had first intended.
He wondered if every bandit looked like Fillion under their masks. A face that was always familiar, but never recognizable. Zero had always had trouble making the distinction between the people living on the planet Pandora and a swarm of flies laying their eggs on a pile of dung. Eventually, they'd both be gone without a trace.
And yet... Zero open and closed his cut hand. A fly on a wall can see a lot more than people sometimes, particularly on Pandora. Maybe even live longer.
"This seems like a bad neighborhood to live in, still."
"That Flynt fucker..." Fillion's face grew dark with hate. "A year or so ago he crashes that fuckin' boat of his straight into our iceberg like the arrogant fuck he is starts actin' like he owns the fuckin' place. Rippers rolled over the bay, the harbor, all of it like a fuckin'... steamroller or somethin'. The only reason we're still here is because of the gate and that Hammerlock fella who was down here for some research when he got locked in with the rest of us. He can pick any of those fuckin'
pricks from a mile away with that rifle of his before any of 'em get close enough with some fuckin' explosives to blow open the gate."
"F-word this… f-word that…" Zero shook his head. "Must you converse as if you were raised on a ship?"
"Some of us were," Fillion chuckled. "Well at least one of us did, on a particularly large ship with a particularly nasty fuck for a captain."
"You let one in?"
He laughed then, but his lips remained sealed tight in a half-smile. "How you think the fuckers got in here?" The air escaped Fillion's nostrils in a tired sigh and his smile melted like a popsicle left out in the sun. "Fuck-face named Heaton came running up to the gate a week ago, holding his hands above his head, not a weapon on him, yellin' about how he needs to get away from Captain Flynt. We were gonna put a bullet through his head until he pulled off his shirt and showed us the cuts on his back. Real deep. Real red. He was about to pull down his pants too, but we opened the gate before he could.
"Gave him some fresh clothes, some food, pulled the knots out of his hair, told him we needed someone to act as bait for the Bullymongs, but we weren't serious about it. We basically let him rest in the hospital rent free. He must've been sneaking out at night to see who was watching the gate, because last night we all got woken up by Little Billy's screams of pain. I walked out there and see Heaton fiddle with the controls, got off a few shots at him, but he hides behind this sheet of metal Billy said he put there for a blanket. Then I heard the gate start rustling, shaking, sounded like a demon walkin' across some old rusty bridge. I guess I should be happy 'cause I was one of the few that managed to get behind Hammerlock's fence before they got in, but that noise…"
Fillion shook himself and blew a puff of cold air from his mouth. "Somethings just stay with you. Like when… when he saw Sheila's belly, he got all teary-eyed, start rambling about how he'd almost forgotten something as beautiful and pure as a child could exist even on a place like Pandora, that love could exist on a place like Pandora."
Zero watched a drop of water run down the side of an icicle dangling from Hammerlock's roof. "Can it?"
"Probably not. Especially since it was that demented fuck who said it." Fillion chucked. "How do you even stay loyal to someone like Flynt, someone who's done nothing but torture you, make you suffer like no one deserves to suffer, who's worn you down into a little spec of who you used to be?"
"You just answered your own question."
Fillion looked up at Zero. "Sounds like somebody's got some stories of their own to tell." The darkness of Zero's visor stared at him blankly for a few moments before Fillion stood up from his barrel. "Fine, I won't go digging there, but I need a favor instead."
Behind the bar, bottles of liquor watched Axton like a firing squad.
The bar stood creaked every time he moved to take another sip of water, but the others remained sound asleep. Gaige had taken the couch for herself, while Krieg had simply collapsed on to a carpeted spot and Salvador was using the psycho's stomach for a pillow.
He should've been asleep with them, or at least not awake by himself. Part of him knew he should find another place to lay his head, then he'd be able to sleep, but he couldn't bring himself to stand, too afraid that if he did, he would find himself walking back to the other side of the bar.
Axton ran his finger up and down, feeling the coat of condensation that covered his glass. The tiny bulbs of liquid were just as wet and cold as if he had put something he shouldn't in his drink. Yet what remained the same was still different somehow. Whether or not that was good, he wasn't sure.
Axton forced himself to look away from the bottles, to look down at the glass of cold water, sitting clean and pure within his grasp. It should be enough, he told himself.
He heard the hinges on the door behind him screeched like some dying animal. Axton looked to see a tall shadow standing in the door.
Zero's head turned from side to side, stopping momentarily on the corner where the other vault hunters were resting, before turning again to look at Axton.
Without a word, Zero walked up beside him and vaulted over the bar.
Axton sat up straight."What are you doing?"
Zero looked at each of the bottles of liquor, holding each one and reading over the labels. "Which one of these will get someone drunk the fastest?" he asked without turning around.
"I… uh… I..." Axton sputtered. "I… I… wouldn't know."
An audible sigh left Zero's helmet. He crouched down and began to rummage through the bar's cabinets. Axton leaned over to see what it was he was doing, but as soon as he did, Zero stood up with a plastic bag in hand.
He stuffed the four liquor bottles in the bag, climbed over the bar, and left the same way he came, without a word.
Axton watched the door shut behind him. He looked down from the empty bar stand, and stared into the water before taking another swig.
"Take that, you capitalist pig-dog!" Fillion barked at the ammo vending machine before delivering another kick to its side. In the dead of night, the neon lights were the gave a brownish glow to the snow, only contrasted by the dim yellow light emanating from Hammerlock's window.
Zero stood back and watched the spectacle.
"Why loot the dead when you can buy from me?"
"Like you don't get every gun you put your greasy fingers on from corpses," Fillion raised the half-empty bottle above his head and brought it down on the vending machine, "greedy son of-" A scream erupted from his lips when the glass shattered against the metal.
"God damn it!" He clutched one hand with his other. "Same hand, man. Twice in one night!"
"Maybe you should stop punching metal objects," Zero recommended.
"Maybe," Fillion shrugged before sitting down in the snow. The screaming from inside had stopped some time ago, but no one had come out with any updates and Fillion was too afraid to go inside and see for himself.
"Maybe it's like… a metaphor or something…" Fillion's face resembled that of a child figuring out which holes to put the squares and the circles in. "The-the working man's hands bleed against the cold steel of the tools of oppression."
Zero looked down at him. "Where did you even learn about that?" Two empty bottles of whiskey stuck upside down out of the snow to his left.
"Never were a lotta books 'round here, the title made it seem interesting and all that." Fillion fell back even further into the snow-covered ground, to where he was lying down looking up at the stars. "When you think about, all those bandits that came after us today, tried to kill us all along with my unborn baby, they were babies too once. They had little feet and hands, must've cried to no end too. It's fuckin' overwhelming when you think about it."
The sound of a rusted iron hinge came around the corner. Fillion shot up like a startled cat. Zero followed as he rushed to the front of the house.
Maya somehow had managed to work up a sweat even in the freezing weather of the southern shelf.
"Ma'am," Fillion called out to her, "is everything… is she alright?"
"She and your son are doing just fine." Maya smiled for him, though to Zero it seemed forced.
She's probably just tired, he reasoned.
"Oh God," Fillion covered his mouth with his hands before letting them fall to his sides, not sure what to do with them. "Can I see him?" When Maya nodded, he turned to Zero. "I... I've got a little boy now."
"It appears that way," said Zero.
"Fillion the fuck-up is a father now," Fillion beamed, staring down at his feet, before his expression turned sober and he looked up at Zero again. "No, no more of that." He reached into his coat and pulled out the last liquor bottle. "And no more of this," he went on, handing the bottle to Zero. "This is my chance to be something besides that, to be someone better. Not everyone gets that, especially on Pandora. Tomorrow is a new day and I'm not gonna waste it."
He stepped forward in what was more a drunken stumble, catching himself on Zero's shoulders. "I'm gonna be better," he vowed, his breath clouding Zero's visor. "Right?"
Zero looked long and hard at the drunken shop-owner he had come to know in the last few of hours. He was rude, self-centered, and a mean drunk of course, and seemed to be destined to do nothing more than work a failing supply store on a glacier in the middle of nowhere until he collapsed dead at the front counter, filled with bitter rage at a man he knew only by the face on the vending machines that put him out of business.
But he wants to be better. He thinks he can better.
Zero nodded. "Right"
Fillion smiled at him. "Good man."
When Fillion left and Hammerlock's door shut behind him, Zero noticed Maya still standing there, with a mixture of bewilderment and awe, though recognition followed when Zero held up the bottle Fillion had given him.
A pack of clouds passed over the sky then, and Maya's knees trembled before she caught herself on a dented mailbox.
"It's fine, it's fine," she insisted, but Zero was already at her side. "Playing the midwife just took more out of me than I thought," she said, her breathing slowed and heavy. "Brother Sophis would lose it if he saw me exhausting my powers helping some common woman."
"You need to rest." Zero stood beside her as she draped an arm over his neck and shoulders. "Tomorrow is... tomorrow is a new day."
Maya chuckled. "Sounds like fun…"
"I guess it just feels good to be helping people instead of hurting them every once in a while. Like that girl and her baby," Maya mused as they walked through the snow. "It's like there's someplace inside of you that's been empty and cold for a long, long time, and then all of a sudden, there's warmth." She turned her head towards Zero. "You know what I mean?"
Zero walked a few more paces and stopped in front of the door to the bar, setting down the bottle he carried in his free hand on a barrel. "I think so," he said and opened the door.
The morning brought clear skies and a pleasant chill. Rays of sunlight seeped through the blinds, banding the sleeping vault hunters with ribbons of light. Zero fixed Maya's pillow, pushing the stolen couch cushion beneath her head instead of just against it.
Liar's Berg was still asleep when he walked out of the bar. A pale pink dawn hovered on the horizon, the sun peeking its head just above Hammerlock's hill.
Zero felt the urge to stretch, despite not getting a moment of a rest last night or the night before. Wind chimes were tinkling from somewhere, a companion for the silence which filled the town's empty streets.
"Hey assholes, you up?"
Zero looked down at his echo device. A picture of a man with a dirty yellow coat, a steel mask, and huge round shoulders appeared on the screen.
"Captain Flynt here, big fella who uses an anchor for an ax? I'm sure you vault hunters know who I am and what exactly it is I want."
"You also probably guessed by now that Jack put out a fair bounty on each of your heads, 'cept the blue-haired one and the mysterious one - wants you both alive."
"But what you don't know is that there is an equally distasteful motherfucker on the other side of this glacier by the name of Midge-Mong that is probably stupid and vicious enough to want to go after that bounty right away."
"Me? I'd rather wait until you cause Jackie-boy some more trouble, maybe blow up a couple hundred constructors or so. Give him a reason to put a bit more weight on that bounty he's got on yah."
"Until then, I'll agree to let bygones be bygones with Claptrap and the members of my crew you all killed. Maybe we'll run into each other one day and we could all catch lunch?"
"Midge's got more boats than me and less muscle, so you'll be able to send yourselves and every one of those sorry saps Heaton failed to kill on a one way trip to Sanctuary. You'll have to bring the boats around the ice and park them by that little abandoned house out by Gateway Harbor."
"All I ask you do is that you stay away from my shit and my people. Good hunting."
"Hell of a wake-up call."
Zero looked over his shoulder to see Axton leaning against the doorway.
"Not that I believe any of that," he chortled.
Across the way, a door to a building with shuttered windows and a grey-white finish opened.
Zero watched as Fillion leaned halfway out the doorway, turning around the 'closed' sign to 'open'. Zero raised his hand to wave, and could see for just a heartbeat's moment, Fillion saw him. Where there was once joy and hope, Zero saw only shame.
The shopkeeper ducked back inside and closed the door behind him.
"I'll wake the others." Axton went back inside, leaving Zero alone to watch the overnight snows melt.
Zero's hand opened and closed, his fingers flexing the black leather. The cut was gone, the dark red line running down the side of his hand sheathed in black leather. The suit would always heal, one way or another.
"How much effort did you put into not making a star wars joke when Fillion asked Maya about his wife"
"Will you stop writing the equivalent of one-shot character chapters and spend more time developing an overarching plotline?"
Chapter 4: Denial, Anger, Acceptance
I have returned from the depths of college hell, bringing with me a new POV style for this story: 1st Person!
This chapter gets a bit heavy on the monologue side of things, my excuse is that I was feeling out the whole 1st Person thing. The next chapter is Sanctuary and will focus a lot more on the other vault hunters, that whole 'fleshing out' thing you're supposed to do with characters.
The bandit darted out from behind the outhouse, his quick steps clacking against the wooden docks, pounding like the hoofbeats of a frightened beast. The bridge was only a quick dash away, and if he crossed that fast enough, he might even be able to raise it behind him. Then he’d be home free, free to flee and hide and cower, free of the thing that came stalking and hunting in the dead of night to darken the docks of their peaceful little cove with blood.
Still, what exactly was he planning to do after that? Run away and live among the caves with the Bullymong? Perhaps he planned on spouting wings and making common cause with the Rakk?
Sadly, such fascinating tales have to be left untold.
The wood beneath his feet erupted, and something dark and glistening shot out through the splinters. The bandit fell to the floor, and for an instant, he accepted his fate and waited to be pulled under. But there was no burning hand from hell to drag him down into the fiery depths, only a simple cut along his ankle, a wound he noticed only when tried to stand back up.
“If you want, you could still try and hobble your way there,” I informed him politely, wiping my visor clear of the droplets of freezing water that soaked the rest of my suit.
“Fuck you!” he snarled, a rather rude reply considering the courtesy I was doing him by not standing between him and his desired destination. No moving, profound last words for this one. I respected that. Still, his poor manners had to be repaid. I fired a single round from my Jakobs revolver into the knee-cap of his other leg.
The ice caps in the distance had been growing and more challenging to make out as the morning passed. Somehow I found their shapes easier to understand in the black of night. The ancient mountains of ice and cold that once loomed like watchful arctic gods now hid behind a curtain of grey mist that discolored the frozen horizon. The same mists stretched across the bay and seeped through the sharp cracks and half-shuttered windows of the wooden houses and rundown metal shacks of Blackburn Cove.
They say that in times of great distress, we are most comforted by the mundane and the ordinary, the simple things in life that remind us of who we are and how tiny our place is in the grander scheme of things. At least that’s what MotherMelissa12StepsToHealing.com said, a self-help website I skimmed through during the long walk from Liar’s Berg. There were also several mentions of something called ‘chakra’, and how ‘YOU’ could learn to turn the stormy waters of your inner turmoil into a serene ocean of peace with Mother Milessa’s lectures of eternal harmony, all for only 24.99 a month!
Despite being an obvious scam to extort money from vulnerable people searching for answers to their grief, the good mother’s advice worked wonders for me so far. Recently life had been moving far too fast for my tastes, like sitting in the backseat of a car which I had no control over and that was also speeding at 60 miles per hour into a brick wall. I had been meeting far too many new people and having far too many meaningful experiences.
Though there were still the routine flying body parts, spouts of blood, and all the other timeless Pandoran traditions central to everyday life, it can be hard to appreciate those precious little moments with so many… well, distractions for lack of a better word, buzzing in and out of my head like a thousand angry hornets. When I found whoever went about poking their nest, I would be having some very choice words with them, because this swarm certainly wasn’t of my creation.
The blade slid into the bandit’s flesh beneath an already torn spot on his moldy jacket, burrowing down past his ribs to reach that sweet, forbidden spot. The voiceless terror that dwelled within those few anguished last breaths, the moment in time where he realized that this is the end of everything, of everything he ever was and ever would be, and that only nothingness follows, all before culminating in that final shutter… it really was my port in the storm. Mother Melissa was right, I did just need some person to person interconnectivity.
It happened again, like it had always happened and always would happen. I felt those shadowy hands resting on my shoulders again, long oily fingers caressing my skin, and from beneath its nails, a black ooze bleed down across my body, swallowing me like a long-dormant dream.
The drear frozen land melted away, and in its place, a warm sea-breeze washed over me, bringing with it a sense of pure, complete release. The grains of hot sand press between my toes, the sun hangs low and setts the horizon ablaze with shades of pink and gold, sending silvery ripples of sparkling light across tranquil waters - although it did not make that hollow place inside of me any less empty, it did feel less cold.
The crash of waves answered my long silence, they climbed the shore and stretched out to meet my feet. The water was a shade of black darker than any night sky, and somehow I knew it wasn't oil or any other kind of waste, somehow I knew it was blood. I jumped back out of horror, out of fear a truth that I’ve carried with me my entire life: something lived in the blood. It wanted to pull me in even further, to drag me down with the retreating tides towards a bottomless deep from which I know I won’t return. So, in a moment of singular panic, my primal instincts pushed me out of the warmth, and back into the black suit, where everything was cold.
All that was left was the suffocating chill reclaiming its lost territory of my flesh and the single question that drowned out all the other frivolous sounds of existence: How do I get back? But of course, I know exactly how.
I wasn't sure how Mother Milessa’s steps to “rebalancing my inner chakras with positive thinking and creative problem solving” would help with this particular condition. Still, as blood leaked freely from the gap my sword left in the bandit’s torso, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that returning to the foundations of my rules, rituals, and routines had been quite helpful.
I would have preferred to write the last few days off as a simple single misstep in an otherwise long and mutually beneficial relationship between me and the empty part of my brain, which normally would generate empathy. Surely such a small slip in my alienation from the rest of the human race wasn’t enough to put me up for review. Seriously, I needed this job. I didn't know who I’d be without it.
“I am a shelf upon which you place your eyebrows!”
I felt the tip of the buzzaxe’s saw prick my suit, and for a brief moment the sensation tempted me to use to the deadly weapon as a back scratcher before remembering that just because I had caught this one didn’t mean the psycho lacked others. I resolved to return the buzzaxe to its original owner via the magic of physics.
He must have still been registering the fact that his weapon was not buried in my right trapezius, because the ax found him square between the two blue, glowing sockets of his mask.
A silence, pristine and perfect, fell over the cove, the sort that only comes when all remnants of life have been eradicated, and left in its stead stood only the faint creak of wood and the soft rush of the waves. The image of my first look at Blackburn Cove returned to my mind: jagged glacial peaks drifting peacefully far across the water, the giant bones of long-dead creatures half-buried beneath the snow, and most of all, and the still-living ones inhabiting that ugly mishmash of wood and metal some must have called home.
Another temptation tickled my prefrontal cortex, this time to tip over one of the flaming barrels and find a quiet spot, perhaps atop one of those cliffs by the shore, to sit back and watch the fireworks. Alas, I had other reasons for being at Blackburn Cove besides ‘venting’, a term I now know thanks to Mother Melissa, upon a clan of bandits. I struck a deal with my savage subconscious and made my way over to the dead psycho, and the buzzaxe implanted between his eyes.
It hadn’t been long since I was asked if it felt good to be helping people instead of hurting them for a change. I really don’t know what gave her the idea I felt anything, but I was sure whatever mistaken impression of a real person she got from me would rub off soon enough. Then she and the rest of them would realize that from all the vast array of lifeforms that inhabited our universe, there was only one particular specimen I found myself to have anything in common with, and judging from the lack of breathing or bodily movement and ax between his eyes, I killed them the same way I killed everything else.
I got up and pulled the buzzaxe from what might once have been considered a pyscho’s mask and ran its circular blade along my back. All and all, with the ninety-seven lives I took today, along with having found something that could reach that bothersome itch on my back, I was finally starting to feel feeling… well, like me again. I suppose it was a fun little experiment, like dying your hair some ridiculous color for a week or wearing clothing that is not entirely black and grey. In the end though, the whole feeling of having feelings was just not for me.
And so Zero, the real Zero, tried, tested, and true, stood victorious above all foes ~ vanquisher of monsters, bandits, and basic human emotions ~ holoblade in one hand and makeshift back scratcher in the other! I could hear the faint sound of a marching band composed of my victims, all missing various limbs, heralding my victory with Beethoven's Fifth. If I had a heart, it would have been very much warmed by the band’s inclusive one-armed drummer policies.
“God damn it, Zero... what did you do?!” a familiar voice shouted, gruff and always so commanding.
The four of them crossed the bridge without me noticing; had to leave one behind to guard the town, I suppose. I glanced upon their faces as they examined my mural: bandit body parts small and large strewn like celebratory ribbons all across the harbor, a head here a set of feet there. Not that I arranged them in any particular manner, beyond the fact that I was the one who shot, stabbed, or dismembered each and every one of them.
“I couldn’t sleep,” I explained simply, dropping the buzzaxe. It certainly wasn’t a lie. I didn’t sleep at all the night before, and to be even more honest, I didn’t the previous three nights either, but last night was different. Last night was the night when the need came knocking, beating on the walls of my brain with an eager fist that exclaimed: ‘Hey there, old pal. You didn't forget about me, did you?’
“We all agreed to move out first thing in the morning,” Axton furrowed his brow and strapped his DAHL rifle behind his back, “as a team.”
‘Team’? Now, what made him think that it was okay to use language like that around me? Frankly, I felt attacked. After all, there is no ‘i’ in ‘team’, so how was ‘I’ possibly supposed to be apart of it?
Instead of arguing and agitating further whatever petty rivalry seemed to be forming between the two of us, I continued to observe my fellow vault hunters’ reaction to my morning workout.
Both Salvador and Krieg had seen worse, the latter of the two probably being responsible for most of it. Gaige too looked unphased, or at least that is what I would say if I had only taken the crash course of faking emotions.
Unfortunately for her and her desired emotional smokescreen, I was a very diligent student, the teacher’s pet really, so I was able to notice the way she forced herself to look at the bodies and how tightly she clenched her jaw, as if she were afraid that any noise that escaped would surely be a scream.
A hand clasped my shoulder. “Hey, look, I get it,” Axton said, his voice low and lenient. I really doubted he did.
I had no idea where this man had come from, most likely a woman, but I was curious who it was in the history of his home planet that decided physical contact was to be the cultural signifier for intimacy. I was also reminded of an ad I once saw outside a strip mall for a time travel device and made a mental note to research the effects that removing someone from a past timeline would have on the present one.
“You’re a lone wolf kind of soldier. I’ve worked with dozens of guys with the same mindset: you do things at your own pace, and you don’t really think about anyone else. It’s not your fault, it’s just who you are, but you have got to make adjustments.” He brought his face close to the blank visage of my helmet, a gesture I suppose was meant to further emphasize his following words, but the only real difference was that I could see where he cut himself shaving last night.
“For the sake of survival, you know,” he pointed a finger at nothing in particular, “for the sake of stayin’ alive long enough to get revenge on that mask-wearing asshole who tried to leave us for dead in the middle of a frozen wasteland… we gotta work together.” His green eyes searched my visor, desperate for any sign that his words had reached across the vast chasm that existed between me and everything else that has ever lived or will live in this universe. “You get me?”
“Yes.” I alternated between lowering and raising my chin, communicating through body language my comprehension of his speech. Hopefully, such a human motion would get him off my back. Underneath my mask, I really was smiling, just not the way he hoped.
No, yours truly was back in the saddle again, and whatever parasite had crawled inside me and begun to morph and corrode the walls of my inner sanctum wouldn't get a second chance. I would need to take precautions to ensure I was safe in the future; if it happened once, it could happen again. Whatever it takes, I would retain that which was rightfully mine and hold total dominion over my-
“Nice work,” Salvador whispered as the others dispersed to loot what's left of Blackburn Cove, and though he seemed rather inexperienced at lowering his voice, some part of me was sure I didn’t entirely hear him.
“What?” I asked, moving closer to the small man, the wooden planks below squeaked out a single scream against my step.
Sal snorted, shaking his head. “All due respect to our glorious leader, or whatever it is he thinks of himself as now, but you cleaned up out here. Might have been easier if we were all here, but hey,” he shrugged, “now we got more time for the real bad guys.”
“So yeah, don’t worry if Lord Fuckpants has it in for you,” he reached up and patted me once on the back, “you did well.” The attempted whisper broke into a hearty chuckle, and he started to walk away before turning back one more time. “And if your nighttime adventures ever require a second pair of trigger fingers, I don’t mind getting up early for a good cause.”
Why didn’t I see it before? That look in his eye, I missed it before, too eager to see the glimmer in Krieg’s eye and the unease in Gaige's, I stepped right over him. It was… respect?
In naked daylight, he gazed upon the bloodstained works of the thing called Zero and did not rear from the sight. He didn’t wildly admire my broad strokes of red and quick dabs of pink the way Krieg did, but there was a sort of… acknowledgment. He accepted what I did and weighed the scales to see whether my actions ought to be praised or scolded. He chose to believe what I did was worthy of applause, even if he didn’t see the grotesque pattern of strings and stakes holding back everything inside me that’s inhuman and corrupted from spilling out. In fact, on some level, he wanted to take part in it with me. I was flattered.
And there it was: the slightest upward twitch of my Zygomaticus Major and Minor. It was only a moment, but just one moment was enough. One single spontaneous fleeting moment was all it took, where control eludes me, and something strange, shapeless, and unknown grips the wheel in my stead.
A low growl drifted out from the darkest reaches of my mind, it was the master of those shadowy hands, my trusty driver on all those long midnight trips to the beach, and by the sound of it he didn’t like being stuck in the backseat.
I scribbled down my second mental note for the day: craft a strongly-worded negative review of Mother Milessa’s 12 Steps and report them for false advertising, maybe even find a lawyer to file suit.
The Blackburn boats were more than enough to carry us noble vault hunters two apiece, along with the remaining population of Liar’s Berg, across the lethal waters of the Frozen Waste. Furthermore, as if to package-seal this truly horrible day of mine, I found myself sharing a ship with none other than Liar’s Berg’s last and latest newborn, and his two doting parents.
‘Love on Pandora.’ If I believed in religion, the punishment for the heresy of simply using those two words in the same sentence would be death by electric chair. Or maybe guillotine, or actually, one of those horrifying torture devices they used back when everyone else carried swords too. The good ol' days.
“They’re eating below deck if you’re hungry,” my blue-haired boat buddy greeted, sliding up to me on the portside railing, crushing all my hopes and dreams of finding the one truly isolated spot on our tiny boat.
She was the one, the one whatever fungus growing on my brain first responded to, and ever since it had spread without concern for thriving community of emptiness already living there. I don’t mean to sound - God forbid - bigoted, but honestly, why couldn’t it just accept things the way they were?
“Uh, hello?” Maya nudged my arm, pulling me from the sea of strange thoughts that rocked the once steady vessel that was Zero.
“No, thank you.”
She looked at me for a second, then another. Two seconds too many for my taste. “You do… eat, right?” she asked, vaulting her eyebrows.
She doesn’t say anything then, just stood there and watched the waves with me. The moonlight glimmered against the rhythmic surge of the water, where no other reflection could be seen, and for the first time, I found myself sharing the silence that was so sacred to me.
“You’re really stuck in that head of yours,” she commented without turning from the waters, the same way you would tell a person of a fly resting on their arm.
“Just a bit,” a voice spoke.
“Has it always been that way?”
The moon hid behind the clouds, and suddenly I wasn’t talking to Maya or wishing I was somewhere, something, or someone else. In the obscurity of total darkness, I was simply existing. I felt my definitions begin to form, harden into thoughts, and then into words.
“For as long as I can remember,” I said, “but lately, there’s been this… I don't know what it is. It comes and goes so fast you’d miss it if you blinked, but I know it’s there. I don’t know how it got there or where it came from, but it’s there, and when it’s there, I feel different… connected.” The word felt almost acidic in my mouth, rolling off my tongue awkwardly.
“How does that make you feel?”
“Afraid,” I breathed, long and uneven, shivering as the air left me.
A softness touched my hand as I was pressing it against the rail, a warm blanket to cover my fears.
“I remember being like that,” she chuckled, “well, at least something like that. As far as I knew my place in life wasn’t up to me, my fate was sealed the moment I was born with these tattoos, nothing I could do but play the hand I was dealt. Then… something happened.”
“Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. You’d think there would have to be some unique set of circumstances for that kind of realization, that everything you knew was a lie, but… for all the horrible things they made me do, but it wasn’t. It was the only life I’d ever known; who was I to question it? But one day, somehow, I just knew I couldn’t be the person, or ruler, or god, or whatever it was that they wanted me to be. I didn’t want to be either.”
“What did you do then?”
“I left and came to Pandora. I wanted answers about sirens, why I was chosen from countless other people to be one. The whole almost dying in a trainwreck thing kinda set me off-course, but a good sailor knows to work with the tides, not against them.”
The clouds shifted, and the moonlight returned. I quickly pulled my hand out from underneath hers, examining it briefly for any signs of injections or planted devices.
Thankfully, before either of us could get a word out, a crash echoed from deep within the ship’s hull, and though I was more hoping for a particularly well-hidden iceberg to break the air, I’m not the sort to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Halfway down the stairs, a scream followed another crash, and Maya began to take the steps two at a time. I had seen people die in less dignified ways, so I paced myself. The other occupants of the ship had already crowded around the source of the screaming: three lumps of blood, flesh, and bone, all of whom had developed the sophisticated means to walk, talk, and cause bodily harm to one another. Only two of them seemed intent on using the last of those three critical faculties, however. The third only hid behind the taller one of them.
There was something wrong though, there was something about this picture which made absolutely no sense at all. After all, why would the mother of Fillion’s child be hiding behind this stranger and not Fillion?
“Cunt!” Fillion shouted, and while I didn’t know the woman too well, I was almost certain that was not her name.
“Everyone back to your rooms,” Maya commanded. “Show’s over. Done. Shoo!”
And it seemed as though they might have done so, but a shimmer of reflected light cut through the murky clouds of dust floating among the ship’s lower deck, and the scream came once again.
There is a common misconception that good is the opposing force of evil. Maybe in theory, but in reality, evil tends to clash the most with other evils, partly because the universe never seems to be in short supply of it. Therefore people tend to get this crazy notion that, for some reason, one of those evils has to be the better of the two. Whether it be some arbitrary measurement of external conditions or utilitarian mental gymnastics, they trick themselves into believing there will always be a good guy that they can root for. Really, I found it all to be somewhat immature.
And so I grabbed Fillion’s wrist and twisted until the knife hit the floor, I wondered if the bystanders were running me through that same silly moral equation in their heads. Given my competitor's intention to bury his knife in another person, I must have I won that round. Yippy.
Maya appeared behind Fillion and wrapped an arm around his neck, grabbing on to bicep of her other. I let go of his wrist and waited as he passed out in Maya’s chokehold. After a few seconds, she released her grip, and his body slumped to the floor.
“Get back to your rooms!” she exclaimed, clearly not in the mood for repeating herself to the lingering bystanders, each of whom quickly fled the scene. “You two,” Maya fumed, turning to Fillion’s partner and her defender, “explain to us just what the hell happened here.”
Maybe the way both of them turned to each other was supposed to explain it all for them. Personally, I preferred the spoken language, and I guess when the woman began to sob uncontrollably, it was a step closer to actual words.
Finally, after enough time passed for Maya to come to the conclusion that she should in fact not yell at the woman who only moments ago was almost stabbed by the father of her only child, the man spoke.
Rarely do any series of events have such a neat, logical bow tying them together. I stared down on Fillion’s unconscious body, it would have been easy to mistake his comatose state for a peaceful slumber if not for the fury I knew must have burned inside of him.
Eventually, Maya let the two go and turned to face me. “You know this guy, right?” she asked me, gesturing to the man sprawled out on the floor.
“We had a beer,” I lied, only he drank that night, and it was more than one.
“Well, you know him better than me… what do you think we should do with him?”
I tore my eyes away from Fillion and looked at her. “You have rings forming underneath your eyes. The thought of seeing her face blemished by dark circles offended me profoundly. “You need to sleep. I’ll talk to him.”
In a far off corner of the narrow hallway, a pile of rope rested against a barrel missing its lid. When Fillion woke up, he found himself tied to the hallway’s center pillar. He blinked his eyes open, and when he realized that he and I were alone, he let his head hang.
“You know why you’re here,” I addressed him. “Anything to say for yourself?”
Fillion’s unkempt brown hair covered the upper half of his face but still could not reach far enough to cover the shame in his eyes. He had nothing to say, no justification or reasoning to prop up his actions, so powerful were his emotions that they alone propelled him into action.
Not so long ago, I might have seen this man as nothing more than the end result of a tragic misstep in the evolution, so hopelessly consumed by all that is human, but now…
“Is this what you wanted?” I asked, looking down on him. “All that talk about turning over a new leaf, about change, and a second chance, did you mean of it?”
“‘Course I did,” Fillion spoke, his eyes meeting my own, “but that was before… fuck, before… FUCK!” Fillion slammed his head back against the pole. “Not my kid, man. Not even fucking mine.”
I couldn’t feel his pain, that was always outside the realm of possibility, but for the first time, I could understand it.
“So, what now, Fillion?” I squatted down in front of him, his face just a few inches from my mask. “Just go back to the way things used to be? Pretend like nothing happened? You think that’s possible?”
He snorted, his brow narrowing. "Why not? My sole goddamn reason turned out to be bullshit."
"Because you did change. I saw the way you looked at that baby. Whatever it is that gives someone like you, a drunk with a bad temper, the potential to change-”
“My potential was my chance to be a father,” he said through gritted teeth, “to be there for my son and not pull the same shit my old man did with me. That was my ticket to change, that was the reason I would’ve gotten up every morning sober. What the fuck do I have now?”
The only light in the hall was an old lantern that hung above us, swaying with the tides, and its dim light glinted off the darkness of Fillion’s pupil. In that darkness, I could see my own mask reflected back at me, showing me clearer than any daylight all that I was, and all that I could be.
“A choice,” I began. “You can pretend that spark was never there and go back and try to recreate the past, the things in life that are familiar and easy to fall into again, or accept that the image you always held of yourself doesn’t have to be.”
People tell themselves lies all the time, lies that help them wake up in the morning and fall asleep at night. It’s just human nature. I never understood that until then, and maybe I still didn't, not entirely, but I was starting to get it. Maybe the reason we tell ourselves those lies is so one day they might be true. Are they still lies then, or dreams?
Fillion would never be that child’s father, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t follow through on his promise to be better. Even monsters deserve second chances, don’t they?
I had to wait until Fillion stopped crying to cut him loose, he’d swat my hand away whenever I got near him with the knife and ask for a few more seconds. I thought it’d be a good idea to get some fresh air before he went off to bed, but Fillion just shook his head.
“Nah, I’m… I’m good,” he sniffled and rubbed the mucus from the cavity between his lips and nose. “I’m just gonna rest for a while, lay my head down and think for a bit.”
“Also a good idea,” I concurred. Sleep usually was a good idea, and it was only at that moment I realized I had gone almost 72 hours without it. Fillion had opened the door to the only room without anyone else sleeping in it when he looked back at me.
“About the other day, when we sorta exchanged a glance, and I, well, I gave you a kinda sour look,” Fillion admitted. “I don’t even know if you noticed it, but I… I’ve never really done this before, talked like this, with anyone. I didn’t know if it was really something two men should talk about, but now I think I get it.” He looked down at his feet and pinched his lips together. “Self-acceptance.”
“Something like that.”
We parted ways then, and when I reached above deck, the entire ship was asleep once more. Any trace of cloud was gone by then, and I stood for some time at the bow in perfect stillness beneath the light of the moon and the quivering stars.
It was not long before I was joined by another. I heard the creak of footsteps behind me and waited to hear Maya’s voice, but suddenly the footsteps stopped, and that made me turn my head.
“Guess you wanted some air after all,” I greeted Fillion before noticing the basket he carried with him. “What is that?”
He smiled, and I distinctly recalled him wearing the same smile first when he was first told that his child had been born, and a second time when he crossed from the docks onto the boat carrying… that same basket. Fillion walked up to the bow, placing the basket by his foot before peering across the water.
I could smell it, I didn’t need to look at his hands or the stains on his jacket, but I needed to know why.
“Self-acceptance,” he said, drawing out each syllable as he folded his arms upon the railing. “You were right about that, just not about me. I laid my head against my pillow and looked inside myself real hard for something better. All I could find was anger, waiting at the end of every hall.” His were features fully illuminated by the moonlight, ask if to say ‘Now do you see?’
The heaps of blankets covering the newborn in the basket shifted. He was stirring in his sleep as if he already knew something would be forever missing from his life when he woke.
It was another strange new feeling for me to behold - the feeling of having belief thrown back at me and to be left only with the bare truth of my actions: an orphaned child and a man I let free to turn into a killer. Hope alone was hard enough to find on Pandora, but for me… I should have known better than to put faith in something as fragile as the future.
I deserved it. After all, if anyone should’ve known how easily life could pull the rug out from under you, it was me. Instead, I trusted in something I knew could never be true - that, if given a choice, a monster would ever choose a happy ending.
Fillion used the same knife as before, only this time it was still dripping with blood, and some of it flew on to my visor when I caught his forearm. A quick thrust sent his arm back, and the hilt of his knife smashed against his throat. He almost fell back on the makeshift cradle before I caught him and laid him down gently beside the baby. I didn’t want to wake the poor thing.
Given the fact that he was already choking out his last breaths, I didn’t think it was possible or necessary that Fillion and I share a final conversation. I unsheathed my holoblade and hovered it over his chest. Fear seized him as he struggled to breathe, to stand, to do anything but be forced to watch and wait for the end. I guess he wasn’t that big of a fan of acceptance after all.
“Thank you,” I whispered, and drove my blade deep into his heart until I felt the tip reach the wood below him. Blood flowed from both ends of the wound, spreading out across the deck like black snakes slithering out from beneath a stone. It almost touched the basket before I lifted it off the ground and waited.
The moon seemed to glow even brighter, shining bewitchingly, full and high in the night sky. A cursed moon it was, casting its revealing light down on all my failures.
It came as it always did, the only constant remained to me. Gentler than usual was the touch by the hands that were not hands, as if to comfort me, to tell me it wasn’t all my fault. I let it take me.
I sat down and dug my hands into the sand, needing the warmth more than I’d ever needed it before. I was not alone; besides me, the basket and the child it carried swayed in the salt breeze. I reached out a hand to steady him. He certainly didn’t deserve to be here, not like I did, and yet here we both were, sharing the same view of the same nameless blood sea, and the cold that followed it. When did ‘deserve’ ever have something to do with anything?
We reached Three Horns Divide around noon of the following day and left the people on Liar’s Berg on the boats while we scouted the safest path to Sanctuary, but not without off-loading some unwanted cargo first.
“Fucking scumbag,” Maya spat as Krieg dumped Fillion’s body in the snow. “You did the right thing, Zero.”
“Should’ve done it without letting him kill two people first,” Axton answered for me.
I had done enough talking for the day, really for the rest of eternity if I had the choice. I would have been content to live out my days in punitive silence, but it was clear that what I wanted didn’t matter. I began two cover the three bodies in snow, it was more of a grave than most got on Pandora.
They say to really know someone all you have to do is look and see what sort of friends they keep, and it's only as I kick the last of the snow on Fillion’s grave that I realized that he was my first. My first friend, once moving, breathing, laughing, drinking, crying, and in all his darkness, so invariably human, was now just an empty shell. I suppose all friends should have something in common.
Even then, I thought I knew who Fillion was: a lost soul, trapped in the clutches of his past, suddenly and violently exposed to a part of himself he didn’t know existed. But I didn’t, no more than he did up until the final hour of his life. It made me wonder whether I really knew how the game was meant to be played, whether the choice of knowing or not knowing was even mine to make, for Fillion, for me, for anyone.
And so here was the first picture in my scrapbook of the new me, and like most snapshots of my life, it featured dead bodies. They say that in times of great distress, we are most comforted by the mundane and the ordinary, the simple things in life that remind us of who we are and how tiny our place is in the grander scheme of things. What they won’t tell you is those comforts are only temporary, and no matter how hard you plead for them to stay, they fade in time like everything else, and you’ll be left alone with that part of yourself you spent so long running from.
Everything on the surface can remain the same as long as you pretend. To the passing stranger, nothing would seem different, but inside, inside… everything’s changed, and the only thing you can do is accept and turn the page.
Gaige and Salvador returned from scouting not long after. I was still standing over the burial site when they told Axton and Maya what they’d seen. Whatever it was, it made the Commando quickly turn and call me over.
“We’re heading out, gonna check out this destroyed bandit camp you two saw,” Axton began. “Hammerlock’s gonna stay behind, keep the civilians safe from bandits, bullymongs, and whatever else is out here.” He looked over the jutting arctic landscape and then at me. “And if you don’t mind, don’t run ahead this time.”
I nodded. We trekked across the snow and remarkably made it all the way to this supposed ‘destroyed camp’ undisturbed by a single one of the many bloodthirsty creatures Pandora was famed for.
“Look, like I said,” Gaige pointed at the sky in front of us, “smoke.”
She was right, there was smoke, more smoke than a simple campfire to keep the cold away would create, much more. It rose high into the air above a row of apparently empty bullymong nests that we passed under while climbing a steep hillside. At the top of the hill, a busted Catch-A-Ride station and two functioning vendors for ammunition and medicine were waiting for us.
The camp was hidden behind two walls of sheet metal covered in barbed wire and bullymong traps that merged into a single gate that was hidden within a skull of some giant, probably long-extinct creature.
“Woah,” Gaige breathed as we passed through its mouth, “imagine the size of this thing.” She was so busy staring up that she almost tripped over what was surely a body buried beneath the snow.
“A neat tip when exploring a former camp of murderers and psychopaths is to always be to keeping your eyes forward,” Salvador pointed out as the mechromancer steadied herself and looked to see if anyone else had seen her stumble.
For most people, there would be some merit in his advice. Looking forward and all that, but I’m not most people, and I couldn’t help but think that I was going back.
What did that mean? Back?
“Something’s not right,” Axton noted, and he was right. He examined the single body lying limp against the gate and gave it a push. “The fuck?” he exclaimed, reaching for his pistol.
It wouldn’t do him any good; they were already dead, every last one of them shot, stabbed, or dismembered. I don’t blame him though, any sane person would be at least a little shaken by the sight of a dead body somehow remaining totally and utterly still even as it was pushed over.
“Cold got to him,” Salvador theorized, walking up beside Axton, but he was wrong.
“Are you even looking at this guy?” the Commando tugged at the dead boy’s arm and, as if it had a mind of its own, it refused to move.
Salvador crouched down to get a closer look. I imagined the jumbled thoughts running through his head like a horde of chickens with their heads cut off.
If the body was frozen, where was the thin layer of ice that ought to have coated its skin? And just how could it have completely frozen so quickly when the fires in the camp were still burning?
Axton stood and with on hand on his gun, shoved the gate open. I already knew what was on the other side.
“Fuck…” Maya gasped, pulling out her submachine gun. I could have blinked and missed how quickly each of them reached for their weapons at the sight, even Krieg, but I was far too busy staring in wide-eyed awe at the same thing that made them clutch their guns so tight with fear.
“Holy shit,” Gaige shuddered, her pale complexion growing even paler.
While I had never been a fan of that kind of language or the way everyone on Pandora seemed to find a way to include it in every other sentence, I found myself shorthanded of words better fit to describe the scenery. In fact, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I was as still and silent as the dead bodies scattered throughout the ruined camp.
“Some sick fuck must have frozen them alive and… posed them somehow,” Axton shook his head, scrambling for words that would explain what was displayed before him, but this time he was wrong.
The bodies hadn’t been touched and none of them were alive at the moment time froze for them. Their positioning was all-natural. I knew, because that was how I killed them. Whether they were fighting, hiding, begging, or fleeing, that was how they stood or sat or laid there as the last lights flickered and I stole away their life's warmth for myself.
I recalled each cut and every shot as I toured the camp. I was tempted to reenact the motions as well, but I didn’t know whether I was supposed to let the others in on my little secret, or if I even wanted to.
The motions played themselves back in my head regardless. It was nothing short of a trip down memory lane, with the side entertainment being that I got to watch the other vault hunters investigate my antique sculptures, utterly oblivious to their origin. I don’t blame their ignorance; how could they understand the lyrics to my song without hearing the music?
The end of my tour brought me back to the beginning, back to the skeletal jaws of the long-dead beast that sat guarding the camp’s entrance.
He did not beg for mercy or cry out for god or his mother, even as he knew his end was upon him. I respected that, I remembered. A short and simple ‘fuck you’ was all he granted me before I buried my sword within his torso.
I kicked the snow off the body Gaige had almost tripped over. A hole just the size of my holoblade greeted me just above his aorta. Just where I left it.
There was something else left too. At first, it brought me only revulsion, this single imperfect sticking out like a sore thumb against this otherwise perfect portrait, but my mood shifted when I looked closer and saw what it actually was.
The envelope was as white as cotton, hidden in the snow like a final secret present for my eyes only. I tore it open like a present too, as eager as a child on Chrismas morning to see what was waiting inside.
I had seen postcards like this many times before, there was always a cute little electronic shelf selling them in the corner of every major space-station. A 3D pop-up on the inside of the card sprouted of a planet I did not know of when I unfolded it, and printed in bold text below it was a single sentence.
“GREETINGS FROM THE PLANET EZRA 5-1263, TURNS OUT YOU’RE NOT ALONE!”
Under the words was a drawing of a man with bulging eyes staring up at the 3D pop-up art. It was only then that I noticed the other man, standing atop the ocean world that was speckled with only a few landmasses. A grin reached across his broad, cartoonish head as he reached out with one arm, reaching out to the man below him with the very same postcard I held in my own hands.
Whoever designed this card must have thought it was some clever play on the classic, now-answered question of whether humanity was alone in the universe. I didn’t imagine they ever thought their cutesy doodles would ever be used for this. Still, I got the message.
I had someone, someone watching me, someone who knew my trade, knew it by heart, knew it so well they too appreciated the importance of their dying breath. They even kept them like that, locked in time, forever showing to the world who they were in their final moments. This could mean only one thing:
I had a new friend.