It was just morning but I was knocking in front of Scarlet’s door. When she finally opened it, she looked very surprised, even in her drowsy face.
“You’re… up early,” she murmured, rubbing her eyes. “It’s 8 on Sunday morning…”
“What?” she looked blank. “I don’t know what you’re getting at.”
“I’ve had a thought on the past couple of days and I’m sorry for making you feel tired of me looking all hopeless,” I said.
“Are you drunk?” she asked me, frowning. “Or is there something wrong?”
“I’m perfectly fine. It’s just that… I know now that Michelle wouldn’t want me to do nothing. She would have wanted me to keep on going,” I said. “It’s what she wanted too… so, I just need your help to make it come true.”
“What are you planning? I hope it’s reasonable,” she said, still looking incredulous on my behavior.
“I’m going to do, what I think is best; making a better world,” I said.
It was Sunday morning so not much people were inside the office. Scarlet led me through the cubicles in the office and into a large computer room. She activated the computer and began searching for the files I needed.
“What are you looking for again?” she asked me as she scanned through the numerous files displayed on the monitor.
“I want the entire list of Crusaders mobilized for the Hornet Nest and another list of the survivors and the list of the survivors’ family,” I told her. “You are sure it’s here, right?”
"You don't trust me?” she questioned me.
“No, of course I do,” I answered quickly. I stared at the monitor as she continued scanning through. “There. Those right there in the middle.”
She confirmed them and printed the three data. When the list was completely printed out, she handed the papers to me.
“Now, tell me, Leon,” she said before I exit the room. “What are you doing?”
“And you don't trust me?” I asked with a smile.
“I just printed you a classified data. I can’t really help you when I don’t know it,” said Scarlet.
“I’m making my own line of power,” I said. Flipping through the survivor list, I took out a pen and circled the ones I needed.
“Scarlet,” I said closing the door. Then I stepped closer to her. “Michelle is dead and you’re the only one I’ve got. I beg you… trust me just this once, even if you decide never to help me again in the future.”
“I trust you,” she said, lightly embracing me. Her soft body was warm when she hugged me by the waist. “But promise me you will tell me everything one day.”
“…” I smiled. “I promise.”
“Then,” Scarlet released herself. Her small hands grabbed mine and pulled me out. “Let’s get to work. What’s next?”
“I need to go to Han.”
We exited the building with haste. No announcement has been made publicly for the past few days – nothing that was huge. That meant something was going on within the council, and god knows what they are planning… Current of time was moving fast as it carried whatever happening it was bound to occur. Every hour I stood idle was a waste. I had to move faster to make it happen.
Han was inside the Crusader command center as always. He looked taken aback to see me at this time and even more surprised to see Scarlet with me. As we burst inside, he dropped his magazine on top of his desk and stood from his chair.
“What a surprise,” Han said. I made my way in front of him.
“You authorize any Crusader activity right?” I asked him. He looked calm again and sat back on his chair.
“Unless the president demands something for himself, yes I do,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“I want you to organize one scout mission for tomorrow,” I demanded. He laughed, almost mockingly. “I’m serious, Han.”
“And when did you follow my orders?” he asked me. “In addition, the last I heard, you were, again, nailed inside your house.”
“What you heard was the past,” I said. “And you were right, Han. Michelle would never have wanted to see me like this, so I decided to go for a change.”
“By scout the area?” he smirked. He stared at me as if reading my expression. Then he sighed and typed something in his computer. “Fine; I don’t know what you’re up to but… anyway, I’ll make you a team tomorrow. The scout will start at 9.”
“Wait, I want to organize my own team,” I said. Then I showed him a list of 20 people. “I want them in my team. I want no one more, no one less.”
“Who are these…?” he went through the list. “Numen, Kale, Mia, Tyson… You personally selected these people?”
“They are like the strongest Crusader we are left – if you get them killed or –“
“Do you really think I’ll just let them get killed when I personally selected them?” I asked him, tiresomely.
“Very well. I’ll make sure you have your team.”
“One more thing: I don’t want them or anyone else to know that I chose them,” I warned.
Now that was done, all I had to do was waiting until the next day. After running around here and there even after visiting Han, the watch on my wrist was already counting 12. The sun was high up in the air and Scarlet and I fixed up ourselves something to eat.
“So who are they?” she asked me when I was finishing up a bowl of noodles. “The 20 people – who are they?”
They all experienced and survived the Black-out incident and the Hornet’s Nest. As you heard from Han, they are what you can call ‘veterans’,” I explained. She looked much more curious as I explained. “But at the same time, they all went through some kind of trauma or some kind of tragedy from whatever battles fought. Do you know what the best part is?”
“Those traumas all happened after the establishment of Earth Union. It means they happened either during the Black-out or the Hornet’s Nest,” I said. I couldn’t help a smile, but Scarlet looked at me nervously. “It’s all right. I’m not going to do anything stupid. I promise. I told you, everything I’m going to do from now on is to make the better world for you and me.”
“And what kind of world is better for you and me?” Scarlet asked me.
“A world that can keep the people around you safe,” I said sternly. “A world that doesn’t let hypocrites rule; a world where the people actually respects those who did something for them; and a world where people deserve what they deserve – that is the world I am going to make.”
“Don’t get me wrong but… if anyone could make a world like that, we wouldn’t be here,” she said with a sigh. “I hope you are not doing anything dangerous…”
“I can protect myself.”
“That’s not what I mean,” she cried. I held her soft hands and tried to calm her down. I recognized she has become very anxious ever since Michelle died, and what her death had done to me…
“Don’t worry. Nothing bad is going to happen. Even if something does, I will not let it touch you or myself,” I said confidently. “All you need to do for me is to be the pilot to carry us on the scout team.”
I woke up early the next morning. The weather was gloomy and thick blocks of greyish clouds swallowed the blue sky that I expected. As I stepped out of my house, I looked up to see if it was raining; it was certainly very unfortunate if it did for I couldn’t allow any deviance in the plan if I were to complete it on the time I wanted.
I ran to Scarlet’s house. When I arrived, she was just stepping out of her doorstep. She greeted me with high-heart. She caught me up and we started up the street toward the command center.
All twenty arrived on time; it was 8:30 when I counted all my team members in the command room. I gathered everyone up for a briefing.
“As you heard from Director Han, we are going to scout the area for anything useful or information,” I announced, turning the screen next to me on. “The area we are scouting will be west of the city.
“When will it end?”
“I decide that,” I answered. As expected, there was a series of complaints.
“Did Han have to drag us from our rest?” Mia lamented, and many others started to murmur in agreement. I glanced at Scarlet, who looked back at me nervously.
“Han didn’t drag you to a scout team,” I said. They all looked at me at once. “I did. I personally chose every single one of you.”
“For a damn good reason,” I argued. I scanned the twenty Crusaders. “You’re happy to leave if you insist, but note that defying direct orders from the directors is not tolerated and I could use force if I had to.”
Nobody spoke out to complain anymore.
“Now that it’s settled,” I said as I changed the slide. “Our objective is this: HCZ-2.”
“Are we going to attack that thing?” asked Numen.
“No, we are going to ‘scout’ the area and kill any Hunters that get in our way,” I said. “Although it’s not really accurate since we’ve only found a handful of lairs in these areas, this lair is classified as Level 3, which means it’s a relatively small lair. The Hornet’s Nest lair, by the way, was Level 7.”
“So we scout the area and come back?”
I nodded and ordered everyone to pack everything they need and meet up at the airfield in 10 minutes. And as I expected, everyone arrived in time just when Scarlet finished readying the aircraft.
“This is it… whatever you are planning to do out there, you better be sure about this,” Scarlet whispered as the team buckled up.
“Don’t worry. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”
We landed after a two hour flight west from the city. Scarlet killed the engine and armed herself up and grouped with the rest of us. The lair was not as big as the first one I saw but it was high enough to inform us that it was near.
“We’re in extreme hostile zone. The lair is small but the garrisoned Hunters are not in small numbers,” I warned. This is it… “We are going to skirt around the lair and search the perimeter. Numen and Mia take half and go right. The rest follow me. I’ll trust on what you do when combat is necessary. Let’s do this.”
Mia’s group disappeared into the woods just surrounding the lair and I started toward the opposite direction as soon as I confirmed they were off to work.
“Keep low profile.”
It wasn’t raining yet, but I expected some pouring anytime. The good thing was that the coolness of the air made me feel more comfortable and lighter. My company moved swiftly through dense bushes and shrubs. We stopped by time to time to check our positions and make sure nothing was about to ambush us.
“Leon! There,” Kale whispered from the back. He was pointing at the direction of the lair. Scarlet handed me the binoculars and I searched for anything unusual. After some time, I finally saw what Kale was pointing at: Hunters.
Two commanding units stood on a higher land. In front of them, and looking up on them, were some dozens of basic units. The purple ones were waving their arms in a bizarre way – presumably ordering something to the Hunters. I glanced at Kale and he nodded as if reading my thought. When I returned to looking at them, the entire group of basic units disappeared and only the two purple ones were left. The two commanding units left the area and headed back to the lair.
“Shit,” I cursed.
“Kale, did you see?” I asked him. He nodded again, but this time, his eyes were filled with anxiety.
“We have to meet up with the others –“
A chilling, screeching sound alarmed everyone. This wasn’t supposed to happen…
“Everyone with me!” I signaled the Crusaders and started my way back.
“Leon… what now?” asked Scarlet from my side.
“I need to make sure none of them dies. I need every single one of them alive and unscathed,” I said.
“There! I heard something!” Neal shouted from behind my back. I turned around and saw where he was pointing. Sure enough, I heard a faint scream or a yell but absolutely human.
“Everyone charge in! Engage at will and help them out! As soon as everyone is confirmed alive, we get the hell out of here!” I ordered. Then I turned to Scarlet. “Make sure you never leave my side.” She loaded her rifle and nodded.
I unsheathed Prima and the sword rang in crystal-clear cling- as if it was eager to drink the blood of Hunters for the first time. I didn’t hesitate to unleash my ability.
Soon after running toward the yelling sound, our group found the others madly fighting their way out of dozens of Hunters surrounding them. Everyone picked their targets and charged fiercely to their doom. The silent woods soon became total mayhem with swords clashing and blood sprouting.
“Leon!” shouted Numen as he ran towards me.
“What happened? Ambush?”
“No, two Hunters were in our way and we tried to kill them quietly but one of them managed to scream out for help,” he said. He swiped his sword and dismantled the Hunter that was chasing him. “No one is dead. Mia is hurt but it’s only a scratch.”
“Well, drawing attention of the entire lair wasn’t in the plan. Get everyone to retreat,” I said, killing the last Hunter in the area. “Let’s move before any purple one arrives.”
“Full retreat! Full retreat!” Numen shouted through the woods. Soon, everyone ran back toward the direction of the helicopter.
The Hunters did not pursue us all the way. Perhaps they were specifically ordered not to. Perhaps they couldn’t. Or perhaps they decided they had a more pressing matter. It didn’t matter anyway. What I needed was a little bit of show that can justify the purpose of establishing a scout team. I smirked to myself as I read through the three lists Scarlet had printed out for me. Well, the show did almost ruin everything. Scarlet was getting ready for lift off and the others were quietly waiting. As soon as the engine started to roar, we all aboard the aircraft and the helicopter started to fly back.
“So… in the end we didn’t pull up anything,” murmured Mia as she stared out into the scenery. The others looked just as blank, as if all the things that happened half an hour ago occurred too fast. Meanwhile, I looked down at the thick forest.
“Scarlet, land here,” I said through the microphone. I was looking at an open space with a beautiful lake beside it. As the aircraft descended, I realized the area had more fields than woody areas. Small hills and endless carpet of grass was enough to exclaim as a masterpiece of nature.
“Where are we? This isn’t the city,” asked Numen. I glanced at Tyson Vanz whose eyes went wide in amazement.
“No it’s not. But this is why we are really here.”
When the helicopter landed, I led everyone to the lakeside. Everyone was mumbling to each other about the view and why the hell they were here when no Hunters seemed to exist in the region.
“Leon, why are we here, really? Back there, even retreating from combat wasn’t something you would do,” Neal started to demand. The others, apart from Scarlet who was standing just next to me, agreed.
I turned around, facing the twenty Crusaders I have picked myself to carry on my plan.
“Now… what do you make of all this?” I asked them. “It’s fabulous isn’t it?”
“Leon, I asked you a question,” he demanded. I smiled lightly.
“The answer to your question will not be answered until I can guarantee that you’ll never speak of all this to anyone,” I said.
“Why not?” Mia asked. Her expression went rigid. “What are you planning to do?”
“You’ll know what I’m going to do in a second if you swear not to tell anyone what I’m about to say,” I repeated. I could see some of them were getting frustrated. They began having a sort of mumbling debate. Then, they agreed.
“Good… then,” I said turning back to see the magnificent vista the world has given. “Listen carefully because you’re about to hear something you’ll never hear twice.”
“Mr. President, your report for today,” said Charles. He handed a small bundle of paper to Jerrod, who in turn laid it on his desk. He then returned looking out the window, ignoring the papers. “Aren’t you going to read it?”
“I believe you’re work here is done. You can have the rest of the day off,” snapped the president. Charles bowed and left the room. It’s about to rain. He did not remove his sight from the window, nevertheless. A rainy day had its own appeal and to Jerrod, today was one of those days when you just want to do nothing but staring out in the open. And until he moved to receive the paper from Charles, it was all he did the entire morning.
A flash of lightning illuminated the planet. A roar of thunder followed with a deafening noise. Within the minute, rain showered down, bashing the window glass like whips.
Jerrod Hamel was the rightful president. In fact, he was more of a king – with superior power over every aspect of the Dominion. He was elected by the people and so far, everyone liked him and remembered him as a hero for dealing with the Black-out incident and Operation Hornet’s Nest.
Ironically, however, Jerrod himself never felt like a president. He felt like a puppet – a scarecrow – unable to move as one’s will. He was rather happier when he was the commander of Sector 3. It was when Vincent Greg re-stepped into his life that everything started to spiral downhill. He had already messed with my life in the Ark, when Jerrod realized something began to go wrong, that bastard had already fled to the 1st Ark; now, Jerrod thought, he was trying to do it again and unfortunately, he was doing very well so far.
Where was Michelle? Was she still alive? Jerrod wished someone could just answer those two questions. She was the closest companion, a friend that could have helped me when I was in dismay. But I abandoned her. Han McCline would know, by now, that I was at least partly responsible for her death… and Leon…
Vincent was the enemy from the very first. Michelle was gone. Han… Jerrod knew he wasn’t going to help him. Leon… well, Jerrod himself knew better.
So none of the people that lived to see it is on my side…
“Vincent, are you ready?” Jerrod asked. Vincent Greg smiled triumphantly.
“The work is done. All I need to do now is to wake him up and synchronize him to the real world,” said the doctor.
“I’ll be there soon – I need to get Han and Michelle to see this.”
“They’re already at the lab,” smirked Vincent.
“Oh,” Jerrod said surprised. He shrugged. “Great, let’s see what we have then.”
The two went down the stairs. Jerrod had specially emptied his schedule for the day to see this. Vincent Greg, his old friend had been working on this for nearly a decade. He finally confirmed his first success.
“The Crusader Project will change the paradigm of war when any of it happens as we divide up our own land at Earth,” explained Vincent as he and Jerrod continued to the lab. “The Crusaders are fighters, designed for close combat. Their extreme physical ability makes potential power unlimited. And they have human emotions, which mean, without their ability, they are like normal humans.”
“But won’t the opponents be armed with guns?” inquired the captain of the 3rd Ark.
“Ah… my friend. Guns cannot embody ‘supernatural’ powers can they? But with swords or weapons that simply transfers direct physical power of the wielder? The destruction that can be caused is favored in the latter,” said Vincent. “Besides what are enhanced physical abilities for if they cannot approach the gunners even before they can shoot from range?”
“So far, I think it’s fantastic,” commented the captain. They finally arrived in front of the lab where Michelle and Han were waiting. “Michelle. Han.”
“Mr. Hamel!” exclaimed Michelle. “It’s been a long time.”
“And I’m glad to see you too.”
“Now, we don’t want to waste time greeting do we? There’s something even greater behind the door,” said Dr. Greg as he opened the door and led everyone in.
The lab was like an over-sized room with all kinds of state-of-the-art technology at hand. And right in the middle of it, was a huge glass cylinder. Numerous tubes were attached to it as it was filled with some liquid.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” announced Vincent excitedly. “I present you – the first Crusader.”