You never remembered your name.
It was all you had before codenames, before losing your identity, before becoming one of the world's best war machines. Before you took the paper empire you built and burnt it all for a distant shot at redemption that could only belong to someone you let die long ago for the sake of power. It was your name, the only thing you could take with you, and you left it behind.
But there's one name, one real name, that will always catch your ears. Even god-knows-how-far away, over an endless stretch of golden and green, even before hearing the word Lash, you would recognize the name Cadence anywhere. Cade, the black-clad gadfly, the gleeful anarchist, the reckless pixie of destruction with kamikaze hair, porcelain skin, and a razor sharp grin that could cut down a forest.
Most birthright names became meaningless to you. Essentially the same as code names. Code names, a thin character to hide someone's true identity. Flak was just Flak, a thick-skulled violent commander relied on only for freakish strength, and you could ignore the clear lack of forethought and maturity for his thirty years that made you hesitant to follow Sturm's orders to promote him from private. Adder was just Adder, a slimy, strangely charismatic, strange-looking tactician, not a disenchanted, dislocated member of indigenous populi Yellow Comet did its best to brush under the rug. The names were chosen by the self to create the character needed.
You remember finding yours of all the planes you shot out of the sky, watching it go down in flames, carrying the lives of complete strangers in it, fascinated at the explosions, at just how quickly a mighty instrument of war could cease to be, it and everything associated with it torn to ribbons and up in flames, disintegrating before your very eyes. Human life was just a hawk's catch.
A professional veneer was required to function in a career where you threw human beings at each other for necessary evils, and more than a few unnecessary ones. You thought you were the only one who could conceal all of your humanity to the point of burning it in a fire, but almost everyone you met, fought, or aligned with were at least incredibly skilled at creating a mask.
Then there's Cade.
You could only imagine how similar Cady's start was to you. To Adder's. To Flak's. You hear of a militia from a few people at the corner dive. Or a few goths at the high school table. A few people at an Orange Star Supremacist meeting. A meeting of radical Yellow Comet natives. A militia, an independent movement, one that defied all colors, all nations, and put forth one new color, to start a new environment, a new world, for people who were downtrodden. A noble concept by a wicked being.
The new color was black. A mix of every color whirled into complete nothingness. With loss of country comes loss of identity, and that's when the codenames start in. Whatever intentions got you in there were lost. The scars of a tumultuous, loveless childhood disappeared. Flak lost his hatred for the Bluski natives and transferred it into empty rage at no one. Adder was no longer a dislocated Yellow Comet aboriginal thrown aside by the imperialistic empire, he was just a Black Hole Strategist.
Cady defied that loss. She would not be silenced. She came in with baggage and she turned it into gold.
If anything, that might have been what made her stand out.
It's not hard to be the only person in Black Hole with a personality.
It's very easy and immediate to figure out Cade. In the three years that you knew each other, there is likely not one thing she successfully hid from anyone. That's always caught you off guard. There was no false identity. Lash was just a fun pen name she wrote her symphonies of blood-stained ink with. It gave her life, to be not just a mad scientist, but a mad scientist with a mad scientist name. She was the kind of girl that you knew immediately would happily spend an afternoon zapping ants with magnifying glasses just to see them react, giggling the entire time. Most people were frightened by such a demon child, but you saw potential and you cultured it in a cultureless world.
Power was something that you worked for. Militia attacks, a soldier in a shadow of a cancer that did not exist yet drained the color out of nations. No matter if they were Orange Star, Blue Moon, Yellow Comet, or Green Earth. The growing Black Hole would pull away at their golden castles and green fields slowly, surely. When humanity means nothing, you mean nothing, which is probably the point of war. It certainly seemed to be the logos of Sturm. A human being once upon a time, now a mighty, intimidating figurehead in a mysterious orange metal mask, a symbol for the symbol-minded. On the surface indifferent to humanity, a personality-devoid machine of war like the ideal soldier should be. Crush, destroy, build an empire.
You were the one who brought Cadence's dossier to Sturm with high recommendations. Black Hole had a fine army but it needed superior firepower for Sturm's next plan. Flak didn't do plans, and Adder was a superior tactician who focused on finer details. You yourself just wanted the job done right. Lash's name typed much too formally on typewriter ink, photos and reports of her rebellious capabilities and scientific intellect. She was rough, she was immature, she was spiteful, she was uncontrollable, but war could sand down anyone into the same being.
Foolishly, you suggested she become the army's weaponry expert. It was the best and worst decision you ever made.
One thing made very apparent is that Lash was high-risk and high-reward. You rediscovered wonder by looking at her beautiful abominations of science. So swiftly and so precisely she slammed together the plans for the Neotank, to the point where you didn't believe it would work until you commanded that the engineers build it. They looked at you like you were intoxicated for insisting they build the fantasy of a sixteen year old girl, but when they put it together and it outraced the medium tanks and outgunned battleships, you knew that you had struck gold. The smirk on your face was the most joy you'd shown since you joined.
The greatest joy in life was a plan gone right, and for the first time you weren't planning alone.
You would walk in on her several times as she schemed in manic glee, indulging in her greatest joy so intimately that you felt intrusive. From a distance she looked everything like the archetypal mad scientist, plastered shit-eating grin, diabolical black lab coat as she clawed sketches into her blueprint pad. When you dared to step closer, however, you realized the truth. The cartoonish handwriting, the chirping giggle and overbearing onomatopoeias, the sketches straight out of a comic book, the way she would skip through the lab as she showed you her brainchildren, black coat swishing behind her over short shorts and a top that concealed little of substance.
She was a genius. She was a military boon. She was going to save Black Hole.
She was just a child.
You could read the notes and feel nothing but muted wartime optimism and the anticipation of plans going your way, the closest feeling to lust that you could remember. Then you would see her face, hear her voice, observe her gait as she twirled the keys to world destruction around her finger like a cat's toy. Read the notes, observe the drawings of monster tanks crushing stick figures. You remember that she's just a rebellious teenager who may never know what kind of power she's been handed.
As every laser cannon fired far out of human sight, as every black cannon decimated the armies that ran ahead of it, as every neotank ran roughshod over the faceless enemy, slowly the battles became synonymous with the girl you turned into a killer. It seemed so easy to do, until you did it, then it was impossible to do with the same detachment. You knew something bad was bound to happen when you heard news that Lash had out of mirth destroyed the hometown of Blue Moon's Prime Minister, never considering that the worst thing to happen was the plan gone right.
War was easy to block out from the distance of the war room of the headquarters. When human lives were dots on a map, you never had to see the hawk catching its prey. War had made you a machine that concealed the human being for its own good. In some ways, the endless, heartless, emotionally stunted strategizing made you as naive as the named child you once were. The child she was. When she was captured after the fall in Blue Moon, you were more surprised than she was.
You were just a child that time forgot. The same child whose childhood had been forcibly blocked out by traumatic reaction and desperation to be normal, and more than your fair share of alcohol. You had changed, you had given it all up, but you had never grown. A one track mind is easy to cut off but hard to change.
"Youth are easily manipulated," Sturm told you once through his mask, as if you didn't know this from personal experience, as if Sturm didn't know exactly what process made a twenty-one year old abuse victim alcoholic his second in command in seven long years. "Easily manipulated, but boundless in potential. Having a loyal child prodigy is a better weapon in combat than an endless armada."
You agreed, and you actually meant it. In those moments you could almost believe Sturm had a soul beneath the concealing mask and robes. At the very least, you experienced something close to feeling. For fleeting moments, you wondered what made the man beneath the mask.
With Sturm already likeminded, a rescue mission was easy to plan, especially considering all that she produced, like the machine you were. It was hard not to imagine the processes that turned you into who you were melting off of you and transforming her no longer into the wunderkind savior but into the stone cold killer you thought you were proud of.
When she returned the differences were subtle. She locked the lab doors. She changed the conversation. She left counselors with deeper scars than yours. She didn't regard Sturm's threats with any severity more than a dismissive nod. She falsely thought you saved her. You stopped locking the office. You changed the conversation. You talked to the counselor who forgot you existed. You assured Sturm that even losing the stronghold in Blue Moon didn't lesson Lash's value. You forced yourself to realize you were the one who condemned her in the first place.
You were more than a mentor to her. She was more than a scientist to you.
She gave you a gift, the closest thing to one that you'd ever received. Of course, being Lash, it wasn't a bouquet of flowers or a thank-you card. It was a hazmat mask and a vial of something indistinguishable that set your hair on edge. Grinning like the star student who knew to expect high marks, she introduced you to the Black Storm. Slow to arm the planes with, quick to unleash biochemical warfare on the enemies who didn't have the helmets Black Hole soldiers sported. You tried to hide your astonishment. For the first time, you failed.
The hawk was coming in for supper.
After the gift, you never mention the kidnapping again, but her skirts getting longer and her jacket closing up said more than she thought. Maturity did not come in peace for the military. Every plan she had was now locked solidly behind safes and coded vessels, unlocked only by her touch and your authority. You were her safety net but you knew you were strangling her.
The end of your reign in Green Earth would not come quietly. While Lash left Blue Earth too war-torn to participate, every nation around you stormed the factory base you thought you'd hidden too far into the ocean's nothingness to access, quite resemblant of its operator. When the factory fell, you knew it was over. All of your best efforts and your biochemical warfare couldn't stop natural progress. Life found a way through death.
You were on the run from a machine that couldn't stop working, one bigger than even you. The anomaly in the orange mask was going to destroy the world and all you could do was hide in plain sight, watch the battles unfold. Some would say bravery kept you in the line of fire, waiting for the perfect time to strike. In truth, you knew it was cowardice. This was your way out. This was how you saved your soul.
Word claimed that thirty days was all it took to fix the missile. You knew with Lash on duty that was far too long. Concealed scars and all, she was still the same genius you hired. You were never good at reading people, but you knew when to take a message when you saw one. Tracing the war efforts was easy when you realize as a human being you were too empty, too nondescript, to be recognized even as a war terrorist and deserter in your own battlefield.
When the Allied Nations were set to strike the platform, you were ready in many ways. You set your plan in stone hiding behind walls that orange tanks were waiting to bomb. You knew how to ensure Lash's future while staying out of sight of the blue-clad soldiers who you knew would die to unload a round into the chest of the girl you set into the line of fire. You made your peace with God in empty hillsides while yellow copters flew overhead. And as the final green plane made its way to the laser to end the conflict once and for all, you were ready. Your prayers were said, the damage was done. Now it was just time to give them a show.
You knew history was written by the winners, and when you lost you became the villain. In truth you felt too far removed from reality to be any sort of creature cognizant of morality. This wasn't revenge. This wasn't redemption. This wasn't salvation. This was the natural conclusion. Even as you saw Lash chained to the missile platform, desperately trying to save the deus ex machina, you knew that there was no god in your machine.
This was just the man.
Sources at the event would claim that you said "Chance is a fickle thing. You never know when it will come your way". That's one of the few reports they did get right. No propaganda lean, no mistranslations, nothing but the unbiased recording of the most pivotal sentence not only for you, but for all of Black Hole.
The sentence was never said to Sturm. It was your eulogy.
From there, the recordings are fuzzy, often grossly overexaggerated. Some say that you injected Sturm beneath his wicked trenchcoat. Some say you smashed the vial over his mask and forced him to breathe it in. Some even say you used the witchcraft Black Storm could only be comprehended as to overcome him with the powerful spell. It is so much easier to explain than a long, drawn-out brawl on the missile platform while other commanders watched two specks destroy each other from a distance, than Lash watching from the broken control panel, jacket over her face except for two panicked, understanding eyes, than removing Sturm's mask from his head and seeing no longer the God with the galaxies as a weapon; only one ordinary, pathetic outcast who clawed from the dirt to the top of the anthill only to see that there was nothing but empty destroyed plains to rule.
Taking his life was so easy that it shook you to the core.
It is easy to pretend everything will go as normal. This explains the newspapers, explaining that the Black Hole army would withdraw for now. That war will ever be over. That even commanders leave the battlefield with pride intact. That people can look back on all the lives they took and find the only redemption for it all is to give one back. Of course, suicide was never the priority, only the reluctant inevitability. Sturm had consumed the vial, but as you pinned him to the ground like the pitiful worm that he was, you were too close to leave unscathed. As you gave Sturm his parting glass, you were setting your final table as well.
It is easy to pretend everything will go as normal. This explains you telling the Allied Nations that you were going to withdraw your troops. Why Green Earth didn't let its chief seek revenge even when it was right there. Why you claimed you were interested in nothing save yourself. Why you returned to headquarters of a rebel base that you knew would last only a fraction of the time they stole from the world.
Of course, pretending can only go so far. This explains why you set in actions that would disband Black Hole, covertly rehome all of the soldiers, and find escape plans for the remaining commanding officers. In failing health, you released Flak, who as expected, genuinely had no clue what was going on, wishing you well since he didn't know you relocated him to Blue Moon. Adder was smarter, never one to lie to himself about anything save his own skill. When he gave you the threat "Send me to the country of my people or you will see me again soon" you knew he meant it, and he was home within hours. You erased the names "Randy Weston" and "Otakebi" from your databases. It was as if they never existed.
The last you talked to was Lash. In her laboratory, using a cane and explaining it away as battle wounds, you saw her packing away cabinets full of blueprints and sketches that would never see or destroy the light of day. Her jacket was gone in place for an uncharacteristically pink lace shirt over messy slacks, and her hair was in two buns to the side. She looked human. It gave you hope for the child you saw, not the monster you created.
You arranged for her to go to Green Earth, and she responded in kind.
"What in the hell?"
File cabinets were left open as she swerved towards you with a fierce crosswind nearly knocking you over. You assumed she didn't have any national pride, like the rest of the zombie leaders. You coolly explained "Yes. It's unsafe for you to return to Blue Moon. After the incident in Prime Minister Olaf's hometown, I think you'll understand."
She glowered, arms crossed, wonderfully petulant. "This sucks," she says. "I was ready for the snow and everything." She walked over to an already packed box and started leafing through the papers. "See?" she insisted. "Now I gotta throw out plans and everything."
You tried to hide unease much like you tried to hide your illness. "Plans?"
She nodded, tossing papers into a cluttered, unkempt pile. "I had all kinds of plans for a new lab. I was gonna hide out in the snow all stealth-like and make all kinds of new things. It was going to be awesome."
You shook your head too fast. "I'd recommend you stay away from heavy lab work until time passes by. Odds are, they'll be on the lookout for us."
"Yeah, yeah," she replied, still not facing you as she closed the box, crushing the pile of abandoned sketches beneath her boots with a satisfying crunch. "Hawke, you can take the girl out of the lab but it's far too late to take the lab out of the girl." She faced you, pulling up her rolling chair and collapsing in exhaustion. "I mean," she continued as she span around listlessly, as if the idea of fun was a chore now. "What am I supposed to do? Get suntans and become a barista?"
The question hit you harder than you expected. You dug the cane into the concrete floor. You knew that you'd saved Lash from the immediate future. You only now realized you couldn't save her forever. You looked at her, and every rotation she met your gaze for fleeting seconds that escaped faster than you could remember she was there.
You realized then and there that you knew nothing about Cadence. You knew she was a girl, and you knew she was a genius, but anything that led her into the lab and anything that would take her out of it was something you never considered. You tried to save her from a destiny that might have been the only one she ever wanted, and it never crossed your mind. You didn't understand people as people anymore, and you knew you never would. All you could do was hope you made the right decision.
All you could say was "You'd be surprised at what time will do for you."
Unsatisfied with the half-answer, she sighed, but didn't press the matter. Finally, the spinning stopped, and you'd traced it so long your stomach spun with it. She stood up, not the least bit dizzy, as unfazed as ever, and walked over to you.
"And what's time gonna do for you, big guy?" she asked, far too quiet to be able to claim ignorance.
"Whatever is necessary," you replied.
She nodded, but didn't move, holding your gaze. "Look," she finally said, her breath catching. For all the time you'd spent with her, you'd done nothing but look, but you still held her gaze. Beyond caution's grip, she cleared the last bit of distance and wrapped her arms around you. You didn't return, couldn't return, but you hoped she knew that the fact that you didn't push her away to return to the numb sea you'd lived in for too long meant that you were as grateful as she was.
"Cadence," you finish. "We've got a lot to fix."
For once, you left the lab with a sign of hope. Even as every step felt like your last, your tired body shutting down with every last one, you finally had a sense of hope. Even if Lash couldn't change being a scientist, you could see Cadence change as a human being. It was slight, and maybe it was delusion driving the hope, but you saw it. You wondered if she could ever fix the sins you used her to commit, but for once, the command was no longer in your hands.
Newspapers the following day claim that you succumbed to your wounds. A final glass of liquor, the type that made you gutsy and angry enough to join a militia, spiked with the storm you helped create, was enough to finish what you'd started far too long ago. Even as your mortal coil ended there, and your consciousness soon to follow, time would change too much to explain. The only thing time could never change was the headstone in a veteran's memorial, one amongst all the rest, no better, no worse, no different.
If you saw the name Matthew Corridan on that tombstone, and one black rose from the girl you never knew signifying a last goodbye, would you recognize that you were finally human again?