Author's Note: I was going into first-person withdraw. It's my favorite viewpoint to write from. I also am not liking Zer0 too much in Borderlands 2 - I love the sniping, don't get me wrong. I can't bring myself to play anything else. But the generic 'mysterious assassin' thing is a trope I'm not too keen on. This is my attempt to give Zer0 some personality so I won't spend the rest of Borderlands 2 wishing Mordecai was a playable character. Also, I refuse to write his dialogue in haiku. Absolutely refuse. It's not happening.
I woke the moment she stepped into the room. For a moment she did not move, standing in the doorway, waiting – for what, I was not sure. Then I closed my fingers around the pistol I kept up near my head, at the edge of the bunk, and she knew that I was awake by the movement.
"No need for that," Lilith said easily, "I'm not going to try to kill you in your sleep. At least, not tonight."
She waited a moment more. I remained where I was, my back to the entire room. I disliked not having my own quarters to sleep in, but Roland's apartments in Sanctuary were limited. I made do and instead slept facing the wall and slept lightly. The other three had largely left me alone. Lilith, however, failed to be intimidated by my demeanor, a situation I found most frustrating. I thought that perhaps, once this was all over, I would have to test myself against her. When there was time. When we did not need her so desperately.
I sat up, slowly easing out from under the rough military blanket. I still did not face her and I knew that from the angle of the room the lights from the hallway would not fall on me. I was simply a slender shadow in the corner of the room. The air felt cold against my bare arms.
"I could turn on the lights?" she asked, knowing full well what my answer would be.
"Should I come back after you get your suit on?"
"Fine. I'm not going to care what you look like, you know. And it's not going to ruin this assassin mystique you have going to let just one person see your face, especially one person that really doesn't give a damn."
She didn't understand the point of it all. I frowned in displeasure even though she would not see the gesture and waited until the door clicked shut behind her. Then I swung myself from the bunk-bed, pistol still in hand, landing without a sound on the metal floor. My suit was hanging on the back of a chair and my helmet sat on top. I dressed quickly, relieved by the feeling of the cold mesh against my body. Our last outing had been difficult. There was an incident involving a slag barrel bursting a touch too close to where I was crouched and between that and the usual bloodshed, we had all come back to Sanctuary a frightful mess. Tannis had washed my suit while I slept. I had heard her come in and leave again, all without touching the lights, as I had demanded. She, perhaps, understood. Either that or her sudden generosity had been a guise to simply get a better look at my gear and in proxy, the holograph system I used. I suspected the latter.
Lilith was waiting just outside. She had the perpetual irritation about her since Roland's disappearance, which I only knew was temporary for the moments a different Lilith broke through the surface. When she actually appeared happy, for one brief second, before she remembered and her eyes grew tired and worn again.
"I'm splitting you off from your team," she said, "There was a mishap with one of Hyperion's weapons shipments. By the time we got there, the bandits had already looted it all. We shot a couple and I recognize their insignia – they all belong to the same gang, some distance south-west from Sanctuary. They've been a minor threat for some time but with this development, they could actually become a real problem for Sanctuary. I need you to infiltrate their base and kill every single one of them."
It was a cruel barb. I saw the lines at the corner of her eyes tighten for a moment and I wondered if that self-control was finally starting to crack. Then she drew in a deep breath and looked up at a point somewhere past my shoulder.
"That's why I'm only sending you," she said quietly, "The other three can keep working on getting him back."
"Very well. Send their location to my map. I shall see it done."
I brushed past her. She did not give way and so for a moment we were in physical contact. Her hand snapped up and closed around my upper arm. I could feel the strength of her fingers through my suit, digging into the skin beneath, and felt the desperation beneath that grip. She was slipping. There wasn't much time left for her if Roland was not recovered.
"Zero," she said tightly, "Make it fast. It won't be long before they can make their move and they will need you."
They. I was an attachment to their team, an accessory, someone that followed but was not truly part of the Vault hunters. I supposed that was my own fault, that this 'mystique' – as Lilith termed it – had created a divide from the start.
"It will be quick," I said, low, and then pulled free from her grasp. She did not turn to watch me leave.
The bandits were holed up in a derelict building that looked to be a warehouse at some point. There were some auxiliary buildings but they had been gutted long ago by fire and the bandits hadn't bothered to repair any of them. Snow drifted through the crumbled roofs and settled against sloping walls. I saw all this from a distance, crouching at the crest of a swell in the land. The bandits had set lookouts but they were incompetent and would not see me – I was too far and my suit had shifted colors to blend in with the arctic surroundings. The cross-hair of my rifle danced across the ruined buildings as I mentally marked the location of each lookout. There were three. I would take them down in quick succession so that an alarm couldn't be raised. Then I would enter their base and kill everyone inside.
I rose to my feet, keeping myself in a low stance as I ran down the swell, my knees bent and my weight on my calves. It felt good, being alone like this, the world stripped down to just me and my prey. They would not even see me before they died. Once, I had thought this a waste, a failing on the account of my victims. I had recently begun to reconsider this, that perhaps having a target die without ever having seen the hand that killed him was not a weakness of my opponent, but rather a measure of a different set of skills on my part. Pandora was a direct place where force and violence was done on personal levels and excuses like 'orders' or emotions like 'revenge' were not even necessary. Brutality existed for the sake of brutality. Subtlety was a lost art, it seemed, and so I found myself gravitating to it. This was why I fell to one knee at the farthest point of the burned complex, settling the stock of the rifle against my shoulder. I could only feel the pressure of the gun against my body, the cold did not penetrate my suit. I raised the gun and sighted down the scope, the green cross-hairs replacing all the information my HUD displayed in the peripheral of my vision, cast around the edges of my helmet. I saw only my targets and the pinpoint that would send them silently to their deaths. I remained there, focused, feeling the absolute calm that came with what I did settling in. It was a coldness, I thought, a deadening of the soul and of the sensations. A weight on the mind that suppressed all thoughts save those directed towards the weight of the gun and the small movements of the figure that rested underneath the cross-hair. My shield could shatter, bullets could tear red rivulets through my body, and yet I would remain here, waiting until that perfect moment. This was my art.
My breathing reached the exhale and for a second my rifle stabilized, the barrel floated across the head of my target. He was perpendicular to me and I could see the straps that held his goggles to his face, the weave of the scarf that covered his nose and mouth. My finger made a quick gesture and all this dissolved into a fine red mist. The scope was already moving, swaying to the right, and as the pinpoint floated over my second target I fired again. I barely felt the recoil of the rifle. My nerves were deadened to everything except the touch of the trigger. There was a flash of movement, from outside the scope, and I pulled my head back to readjust. Then I put my eye to the scope once more and as the last bandit leveled his gun in my general direction, I fired for the third time.
This time, I watched. I watched as the body slumped to the ground, a leaden weight that seemed ponderously slow to fall. I saw the bloody mist drift to the ground, melting the snow where it touched before freezing to become like bits of blown glass. Death was a marvel. I wondered why people were so careless with it.
The warehouse waited for me. I slung my rifle back over my back and jogged into the complex, scanning the area for an approach. There were some shacks built up along one wall and from those, I could reach the roof. There were windows high on the walls and although they were boarded over, I suspected there had to be at least one that was carelessly done that I could slip through. I leapt and grabbed the beam of the roof of the first of the shacks. The wood groaned under my weight, slight as it was, but held. These had long been unused and neglected. I hauled myself up, hooking one leg and bringing myself up onto the thin plywood roof in a crouch. I stayed close to the wall of the warehouse, testing each step I took, and I only relaxed once I was onto the next roof made out of sheet metal. This was far more stable and I stood and walked freely once more. There was another jump – a small gap, and I made this with ease, pausing a moment at my landing to see if anyone had heard the thump or if the bodies of the lookouts had been discovered yet. The only sound was the whisper of the falling snow. I pressed on.
I circled the building twice, but apparently the bandits had actually done a good job on boarding up the windows. I suspected they needed to insulation to keep the warehouse warm enough in this climate. I would have to find another way in. Or... I could make my own. I crouched, settling back on my heels and considered this. It was inelegant, but I was not so restricted in my manner of killing that I couldn't consider other options. It might be... entertaining, even. Yes. I would try this. I reached back to my belt, my fingers closing around one of the grenades. This, I placed in the groove of the roof, held in place by a mound of snow. Then I retreated. The countdown of the grenade flashed across the faceplate of my helmet. No one was there to see it, but that wasn't the point of it. When the countdown reached zero, the grenade detonated, and the force of it shook the roof I stood upon. I remained steady, easily adjusting my balance even as the sheet metal peeled back like an orange and a hole appeared in a welter of fire. There was a sublime pause and I allowed the bandits to survey my handiwork. Then they started firing. It was crude, reckless abandon from creatures drunk with their own imagined power. The Hyperion weapons had made them think themselves gods. I was here to remind them of their mortality. I snapped the rifle up against my shoulder and side-stepped to the edge of the hole. I did not have much time to sight. I gazed through the scope and let it drift across a trio of men. As soon as the pinpoint wavered past a head, I fired. I saw the blood splash against the two men he stood with and they both recoiled, seeking cover. Then I backed away and let the bandits retaliate with a hail of renewed fire. Curses drifted up at me. They were insulting only in their simplicity – feeble minds that did not understand the death that walked among them and their own capability for the beauty that was in our primal natures. They did not understand. They did not see that fine line, that point where all the complexities of life were stripped down to a contest of blood and bone and reflex and will. I could not say what they saw in this, what meaning they found in the feel of the guns in their hands, but I would share with them my vision.
Perhaps they would understand it, there at the end of things.
I stepped forwards, dropping my rifle sight into the hole once more. The bandits had taken some cover behind crates, but it was not enough. I had the high ground. One fell, then a second. Then a series of shocks rippled through the roof around me and there was a bright flash in the corners of my vision as my shield absorbed the impact of bullets.
"Clever," I murmured, the helmet distorting my voice.
They'd started firing through the the roof itself. One of them had a shotgun and it tore through the metal like it was nothing. I could not remain here and retain my sniping position. I holstered the rifle back on my back and reached a hand to the hilt of my sword, the blade digistructing with a flick of my wrist. Then I darted forwards and just as I reached the edge of the hole, I activated my hologram. My vision darkened, an unfortunate side-effect of the hologram necessary to conceal my true location. My own hand took on a mirror-like appearance, dancing in my vision with the images of what was around me. I fell, the world opening up under my feet and for a moment I felt like I was floating. Then my feet hit the ground and I snapped my head up. My holograph was charging a handful of bandits and all fire was concentrated on it. I had only seconds left. I lunged forwards, exulting in the feel of my muscles throwing me towards my goal, and then there was the rush of a body coming into contact with mine, the sharp jolt at the tip of my sword that carried all the way down to the hilt. I could feel the warmth of the blood through my suit now, could feel it twinging down my wrists like a caress. The bandit jerked uselessly, his body twisting up and I saw red bloom at the edges of his mask, just at the bottom of his chin. I wrenched back, twisting my body and bringing my elbows in close to my torso. The sword slid free and I transferred it to my left hand, drawing my pistol with my right and bringing my arm out straight at a second bandit. I fired, three shots in rapid succession, and the first landed in the man's belly. The recoil put the second in his sternum and the third in his face. There was a flash of white as bones shattered as the bullet traced its path through.
Then my shield was flashing again and I broke into a run, ducking behind the nearest of the crates. I was still within the line of fire from some bandits near the back of the warehouse and I temporarily dropped both sword and pistol in favor of my rifle. Bullets smashed into the metal of the crates all around me and I felt the impact against my shield like the blow of a fist against my body. I exhaled. I would not be rushed for anything. The rifle settled into place, a familiar weight, and I narrowed the zoom of the scope in.
"I bring you mortality," I whispered, and fired. It took three bullets. Then the back of the warehouse was empty of life and my holograph was signifying it was recharged.
That was also when I realized what I had taken shelter near. The crate was already open and a number of guns remained unclaimed on the panels. I hesitated, my hand hovering near one in particular, painted a garish orange. I suspected what it was. I decided to test my suspicions and caught the pistol up. The bandits were moving to flank me and I rose to greet them, raising the pistol and centering the barrel on the chest of the nearest. The recoil was slight, a gentle nudge against my braced wrist, and the bandit staggered back from the impact. Then brilliant light – the wash of orange-red – and his screams of horror were added to the chorus of bullets I was conducting. He burned, falling to the ground, his screams turning to shrieks as the fire spread and enveloped him, his thrashing growing weaker as the heat ate into his flesh and muscles, licking at his bones.
"Give in," I whispered, "Embrace it."
I walked sideways, strafing the remaining bandits, until the pistol clicked empty. Two were down, also burning, and two remained standing. I saw no need to reload. I activated my hologram once more, my vision fading and leaving the men only as glowing silhouettes, highlighted by the lines of code that created this simulacrum of myself, weaving a dance that entranced my enemies. I ran forwards, skirting to the left, and came up behind the first of the two remaining men. I snapped my sword in an easy arc, bringing it around his head just as the hologram faded. He saw for one beautiful second the sword blade positioned directly in front of him, then I brought it back and aside, slitting his throat in one gesture. I leapt over his falling body, one hand reaching for the last bandit. He staggered back and the bullets impacted against my chest. The shield faltered for a moment and I felt the slugs sharp against my ribs. They did not have enough force to pierce the skin, the shield had absorbed most their momentum, but it was enough to drive the air from my lungs and send scarlet motes of pain blossoming in my vision. I caught up the bandit by the neck and spun him around, slamming his back against the crates. He almost dropped his gun. I stepped forwards with one foot, using the motion to send my momentum tracing up the length of the sword. It was such a slight gesture, but I multiplied the force of it with a twist of my shoulder, an extension of my elbow. Strength was not so much a factor here as was the elegance, the transference of movement from one entity to another. From the ripple of my muscles to the path of my sword. It only traveled a foot, tracing down, and the edge buried itself into the bandit's body, starting at the right shoulder and carrying through the breastbone to rest in the midst of his left lung. His gun fell from his hands. I leaned forwards, stretching out my free hand, and gently removed his mask. He stared back at me with wide eyes, the pupils small, and he opened his mouth, lips trying to speak. Maybe he was trying to tell me he understood, in this moment of his death. Saw the perfection in it all. The reason.
He coughed. A bubble of blood swelled and broke, pattering to the ground like rain. I twisted the sword and ripped it free. He fell dead at my feet, the impact splashing up drops of his own lifeblood. I watched them land on my legs, little flecks adorning the mesh of my suit.
There should be more bandits than this. It was too easy. I wondered then, if perhaps this wasn't their outpost, but merely a holding way-point until they could transfer the guns elsewhere. It certainly was a large cache of them. They would help, once they were brought back to Sanctuary. I would have to ECHO in to Lilith once the area was secure. In the meantime, I had to see to the rest of the bandits. They would come soon, I was certain of it, with their vehicle to move the guns to another location.
I would be waiting for them, ever patient.