Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
Adrian's boots sent up small puffs of dust as he glided through the dilapidated outskirts of Iassor, his armoured silhouette stark dancing as it travelled across the ruins. The decommissioned Secronium mines on the outskirts of Iassor loomed like a haunted graveyard, their rusted machinery telling tales of prosperity long gone. A bitter smile played on Adrian's lips beneath his helmet as memories of overseeing the bustling operation flooded back - a time before King Arthur's iron grip had crushed more than just the mines.
The mines were located on the surrounding asteroids of Iassor. Separate colonies of miners were constructed with domes of their own but they had been long since abandoned, the workers either chased from their land or killed. The surrounding asteroids were bridged by a high-velocity catapult slipstream, HVCs for short which flung the approaching cargo or workers through a concentrated slipstream created in the vacuum of space. Upon reaching the boundaries of the child asteroids, the barrier would be temporarily deactivated to ensure maximum security both in and out of the colony.
He passed the skeletal remains of what was once the largest Secronium infirmary on the Asteroid Belt, the hulking mass of rusted shafts and dismantled electronics now serving only as a testament to decay. Adrian's thoughts drifted to the countless individuals who had relied on this facility, their livelihoods snuffed out with the abrupt closure of the mines. He clenched his fists, anger and sorrow churning within him as he pushed forward.
Since the shutdown, the mines had lost their connections to the local power grids, having to rely solely off remaining nuclear power cells and solar energy. All but one: Adrian's place of exile. He was given nothing by the government to survive his exile, but that was not of any concern to him. He could enter and exit the city any time he wanted to so long as nobody recognized him. That was his three-way pact between Earth, the Belt and him.
A faint wind howled mournfully through the desolate landscape, the chill seeping through the cracks in his armour. Adrian's gaze settled on an old, abandoned cottage that stood defiant against the ravages of time. He approached it cautiously, scanning for any signs of life, though his instincts told him the place had been untouched for years.
"Home sweet home," he said with a hollow chuckle.
Once inside, Adrian closed the rickety door behind him and removed his suit of armour piece by piece, each clang of metal on the floor reverberating through the empty space.
His armour now fully removed, Adrian surveyed his surroundings - the peeling wallpaper, the crumbling fireplace, the remnants of lives long abandoned. Exhausted from his trip around the city, he collapsed onto the sofa in front of the lit fireplace.
Quiet footsteps approached him. "Dammit, Adrian!" an irritated voice hissed. "You know you're not supposed to go into the city, right?"
He opened his eyes at the sound of his wife's voice, sitting upright to face her. "Emily, I had to go—"
"Did you ever think about what could have happened if someone had removed your mask, even by accident?" she interrupted, her eyes glistening with concern. "What would happen if anyone recognized you after you were resoundingly declared dead a few years back?"
Adrian sighed heavily. He stared at the blackened hearth, his thoughts racing. "You know that will never happen."
"You're all too ambivalent about this vigilante thing, you know that?" she hissed. "You just up and leave in the middle of the night, spend the entire day away and come home close to ten," she said dramatically, throwing her hands in the air. "I turn around and I see you're missing and so many worse things go through my head. You're supposed to be dead. What if someone actually killed you or dragged you away while I was asleep?"
He rubbed his hands together, feeling the rough callouses earned from years of battle. The weight of his decision settled upon him like an unseen force. She had a point. He hadn't placed the armour on since the day he was exiled. Since the Congo Massacre. It had been something around five years since then... or so it felt. He never kept track.
"I'm sorry," he relented out of exhaustion rather than agreement. "I should've told you before leaving."
Adrian began cautiously. "If I told when and where I was going at least the night before, would you be okay with me leaving the house?"
Her face turned from rage to frustration. The fire crackled, casting flickering shadows across Emily's face. Her eyes were damp with unshed tears, and her hands clenched into fists at her sides as she tried to steady herself.
"We spoke about this the day you went into exile, Adrian," she said. "You had a deal with Arthur that you'd disappear and now you drop someone off at his front door in broad daylight?"
"That deal was on condition that he wasn't a dick to his people," Adrian said with frustration brewing in his eyes. "A riot that culminates in the blasting of one of his statues with dynamite does not happen because people are happy and chuffed with their government."
"You really are looking for every reason to stay in this, aren't you?" she said despondently.
Adrian nodded in agreement. As much as he would've liked to stop, the corruption and greed rife within the upper ranks of Iassor had gotten to a point where it was actively causing chaos within the kingdom. That chaos would certainly be harshly and unjustly dealt with if it threatened the nobility's power. That was what he could not allow.
"I can't lose you again," she said, her voice strained with emotion. "If the police focus on finding you, they'll catch you eventually. And this time, they won't hesitate to execute you."
Adrian rose from his seat by the fireplace, the warmth of the flames leaving his back as he approached his wife. He reached out, cupping her face with a gentle touch that contrasted with his rough hands. In her eyes, he saw the fear she held for him, and it struck him deep within his heart.
"Em, I will always return to you," he murmured. "But you know as well as I do that I have to do this. I can't just stand by and watch my world burn."
"Why you?" Emily muttered.
"Why not me?" he countered. "I got a life. I got a chance. I got the means to help them and I'm going to sit around and watch the very things I have been gifted with be taken away from others? Nah... Not even if hell froze over."
"Fine." Emily blinked her tears away and swallowed solemnly. She placed a hand on his chest. "Promise me one thing, dear."
"Everyday... When you come home, like you said you would... I want to see inside you the man I fell in love with. Don't try and save everyone at the cost of losing yourself, yeah?"
With a soft sigh, Adrian leaned into her, their foreheads touching as they sought solace in each other's presence. In that moment, Adrian knew that no matter the cost, he would continue to fight for his people - but he would also fight for the life he shared with his wife. For only in her arms could he find the strength to bear the world's burdens and emerge victorious.
He never made hollow promises. But for her, he'd make an exception. He knew that at some point or another in this crusade of his, history will repeat itself and he will have to make another choice and another and another and another until nothing was left of his soul.
It was nearing midnight and his wife had drifted off to sleep. Adrian always had trouble sleeping. His mind didn't tire as easily as his body so as long as his mind was awake, his sleep would be restless at best. Adrian looked at his reflection in the steamed mirror. He looked tired... no, exhausted. But Adrian had always been a fighter. Even before he had donned the armour and become the vigilante, he had been driven by a fierce determination to do what was right. It was that same drive that had led him to join the alliance, to fight for his country, and to ultimately sacrifice everything for the greater good. For the world.
After ten years, the suit's weight had taken a toll on his body physically. Due to his very limited knowledge of the suit's architecture, he was unable to remove the unnecessary linings of lead that blocked out radiation; something that he was already accustomed to being a Secronium miner initially.
The room was dark, save for the faint glow of the moonlight filtering through the curtains. A distant memory of happier times danced at the edge of his mind, but he pushed it away, focusing instead on the present. He reached for the remote, turning on the wall-mounted TV screen. The news channel flickered to life, casting harsh shadows across his face. A somber-faced reporter detailed the horrors of the day – riots, arrests, and violence that had erupted across the city. Adrian's jaw clenched, anger and frustration bubbling beneath the surface.
Despite his efforts to make a difference, to protect those he cared for, it seemed he could only do so much. And yet, there was no mention of his return – a fact that both relieved and concerned him. He was sure the king had been made aware of his presence but had refused to allow the media outlets to cover it; it was only a matter of time before the hunt began.
As the images on the screen continued to paint a grim picture of the world outside, Adrian's thoughts turned inward. His resolve hardened with each passing moment, fuelled by the love he held for his wife and the promise he had made to her.
His thoughts shifted to the two people solely responsible for his and the Belt's situation. Duncan and Arthur. He stood up straight pushing his shoulders back and stared into the mirror, his face slowly being over whelmed by the mist. A shining jade green light emanating from Adrian's eye shone furiously through the misty mirror.
Adrian realized that there may come a time when he would not be able to keep that promise to Emily. Vigilantism will lead to resistance, resistance to war. War would lead to peace. That is all he ever wanted. He looked over to the suit hanging in front of the window, reflecting the moonlight. She was right. He couldn't do it alone. Not this. There were far too many people to watch over and there was only one of him.
Suddenly, a flickering shadow swept across his gaze. His heart skipped a beat. A darkened silhouette seemed to materialize from the dimly lit alleyway beside him. The fear that the secret police had found him already surged through his veins like ice water. Already?
Adrian's hand instinctively reached for the concealed weapon at his waist, but he paused, recognizing the figure that emerged from the shadows. It was a man, his face obscured by the hood of his cloak. He stepped towards him, and he could feel the weight of his gaze on him.
"Who are you?" Adrian asked, his voice low and cautious.
The man hesitated for a moment before responding. "You don't remember me, do you?"
He sounded like the desert, like a howl in the wind. The man was silent, but that was not to say he made no sound. He carried the rusting smell of stone and metal, indicating that he had spent hours, perhaps days, among the ruins of the mines.
Adrian furrowed his brow, searching through the thousands of faces he had met over the years, all flashing by like pages in a book. A few stood out with clarity—his friends and comrades in arms, some men who had betrayed him to their deaths and others who had helped him in dire need. Then one face rippled into view like the waters of a pond settling: a man with cold eyes that stared at nothing materialized. Perhaps...
"Should I?" he asked.
The figure pulled back his hood, revealing his face. His features were sharp and angular, and his eyes were dark and piercing. For a moment, Adrian was taken aback by his presence. But then the memory hit him like a ton of bricks.
"You..." he said, clicking his gun into place. "How did you find me... Jim."
He chuckled softly, raising his hands in surrender. "I had help."
A second cloaked figure, this time bearing the shape of a woman, emerged from the shadows. This one he recognized almost immediately. "Helena?"
She removed her hood revealing her pale, freckled face with deep brown eyes. "Long time, Adrian."
Adrian closed his eyes and shook his head, unsure if what he was seeing was a hallucination. "What the fuck? Why the fuck are you with him?"
"I haven't come to kill you. I've come to confirm my suspicions," Jim said.
Adrian cocked his head, eyeing the man closely. "What suspicions?"
"Something only a select few know. Something I can only confirm from you..." Jim said almost in a whisper.
"Say it then," Adrian taunted as he raised his gun to Jim's head. "Everyone here knows what you're talking about so blurt it out and I'll kill you swiftly."
"October 16th, 2554. The Congo Massacre. Operation Crimson Pulse."
Adrian's eyes widened. In an instance, everything turned black, a single message projected before him by his cyber-eye.
Code phrase detected. Initiating neural shutdown.
"No, no, no...override."
Override blocked. Subduing cranial activity.
The message disappeared and Adrian fell into a deep sleep uncertain if he would wake or not.