Hank’s father, Rick, had taught Hank and Alan three things.
The first thing was that you only apologize if you mean it. This lesson came in the form of a rough shove after Hank had taken a cookie, and then blamed his brother for it. When they were caught, Hank eventually broke and apologized.
“Are you really sorry?” Rick asked. Hank had hesitated, then shook his head. After all, he had gotten the cookie, when they weren’t supposed to. If he was being honest, he was proud of himself.
Rick grinned. “Being honest is best. Time to make sure you told the truth about tonight.”
At first, Hank expected his father to punish him. But he just continued to hum and smile, until Alan got home from a friend’s house. Then Rick had locked Alan in his room without dinner, so that ‘Hank would learn who he should truly apologize to’. It was a long night.
Hank never forgot his little brother’s sobs, after he had stopped pounding on the door. If anything, the silence was more difficult to bear than the earlier cacophony.
The second thing Rick taught his boys was that Clint Eastwood was the greatest actor in the world, and everything about being a man could be learned by watching his movies. This lesson the boys took too with more alacrity, pouring over the entire filmography on VHS during their childhoods.
Much later, when the System had arrived, Hank felt almost like he was returning to his childhood when he obtained his Class, Gunslinger. Everyone initially was disappointed, because Hank had done so well up to this point, and his Class was so… mundane.
Yet time and time again, Hank came out on top of monsters and men alike, all who would threaten the Zone’s new laws. One time, the first time he met Ghost, Hank had asked Ghost why he had given him a Tier 3 rating when his Class was clearly one of the least powerful Classes on record.
Ghost’s hologram projection had laughed at him. “It’s because you believe in it. You’ve spent your entire life dreaming of it, Hank. How could it not be more powerful than these shallow, recently acquired toys?”
The third thing that Hank and Alan had learned from Rick was how and why to love a country.
“You can’t think of your country as a physical place, that’s not the important part.” Rick had said, waving a hand. “Think of the Native Americans. They have one of the most powerful and iconic cultures, even to this day, even as that way of life is dead. Think of the Greeks, of the Romans. Your country is the dream you are building for your children. It’s the desire you instill in them to crave freedom and open sky. It’s the sense of responsibility they feel when faced with moral dilemmas.
“To nurture your country’s soul is to build a future. A flag is a map, and to forget it is for an entire nation of souls to grow lost. There is a certain pervasive disdain for patriotism that I’d like to inoculate you boys against personally. Your country is the sum of your actions; therefore, if you don’t care for your country, your actions have been insufficient to satisfy the implicit responsibilities of citizenship that you hold in your chest. If you don’t care about your country, you also don’t care about yourself, or your future actions.
“When the murky swamp of apathy has risen above the heads of a country’s citizens, they cannot be bothered to right small injustices. Their skin grows numb to the innumerable ticks and pests that infest them. These people become sleepwalkers, in a slumber only surpassed by death in permanence.
“Do you think a dictator could rouse them from that unshakable grip? Do you think such people will be spooked by genocide when their hearts have turned disdainful towards the plight of their fellow man?
“No, they will be carried forward by inertia in their blindness, allowing their country, their true aegis of justice, to decay around them. That’s how America will die, boys. Good men will stop believing in the dream of our nation’s virtue, and no one will willingly take up the mantle to make it so. Without that amorphous defense… we will all perish.
“Something precious you cannot truly describe… that’s what a country is.”
“You are describing it now,” Alan had pointed out. He was 9, and Hank was 13 with enough sense to keep his mouth shut.
Rick chuckled, and Hank slowly relaxed. It was one of his dad’s good days, it seemed.
“You’re right. All I’m trying to say is that when you make a decision regarding your country, remember your children, your future. If you take an oath, stick to it. Fight for that oath. Become the reason that other men feel emboldened to endeavor to become a hero. After all, do you want your children to dream of a place where words aren’t worth the air that keeps them afloat? Or do you want them to dream of tenacity and responsibility, of determination and destiny?”
The boys looked solemnly up at their father, committing the words to memory as best as they could.
Rick fancied himself as something of a poet. Which was probably why he had taken the barrel of a revolver, put it on his temple, and then slowly clenched his hand into a fist. The day that Hank found the body was three weeks before his 18th birthday. At that moment, he had a hard decision in front of him: report the death now, or wait the three weeks so that he would be allowed to care for Alan, who was still a minor?
Lost in his thoughts in the present, Hank reached down and ran his fingers along the cool metal of the revolver left to him by his father in the hastily scrawled will. It was not for the sake of sentimentality that Hank still used this revolver, it was due to familiarity. Even as a child, before the weight of his father’s life hung on the trigger, Hank was fascinated by its strange weight, its smooth gears, and motions.
Although he had rejected his spoiled brother’s plea that he assist with the third expedition, Hank was not a man who would easily reject an order from the President. They were currently at odds over what Hank considered a meaningless torture of a child, Hank knew that both were…. relatively defensible positions. He would not let it get in the way of his duty to his tiny, Zone-locked nation.
After all, Hank had learned his lessons of virtue by staring at the profile of Eastwood, silhouetted by the sunset; a man protects, at any cost.
And Hank couldn’t deny that a threat was coming. So he silently accepted the dossier from Alan, and took the short train from East Providence to West Providence, in order to meet the rest of the… group.
Like Alan had promised, expedition three was a relatively small force. East Providence would be supplying two individuals, but the second of which had not yet been chosen, as this was only recently approved. Ezekiel was West Providence representation, who Hank now went to pick up from the Containment Center.
Grimacing, Hank wondered whether he would need to put a few slugs of lead in this man before he would behave. The Containment Center was essentially a place where Classers who were too powerful not to be used against monsters and hadn’t committed truly heinous crimes were kept. Often, placing them there did more harm than good, as some of the seedier prospects spread their very negative attitude to other prisoners who had previously just had a short temper.
Hopefully, Ezekiel wouldn’t be too much of a blockhead. According to the dossier, he was an all-rounder, but specialized in stealth and long-range Skills. Hank read that and whistled.
Long range Skills usually referred to things that would have been traditionally considered as “spells” in the world before the System. Ghost made it clear that basically, anything was possible within the System, but he believed that Mana was much more efficiently used with the Mana Discharge Skill that people used to power their plasma weaponry.
The results spoke for themselves. A Level 10 Mana Bolt would stumble a creature briefly, but do no lasting damage to it, especially as its Levels increased. A plasma bolt fired by someone who had just obtained the Mana Discharge Skill would melt the monster’s head.
Of course, there were diminishing returns for the Mana Discharge Skill, especially over Level 50. The general populous just couldn’t get access to the guns that could utilize higher Levels of Mana Discharge; the technology wasn’t to the point that they could be mass produced. You needed to be at least Tier 3 before you could be considered as a useful individual to be given a prototype. Hank had just one such plasma pistol.
But in addition to the diminishing returns, there was also much less utility given by focusing on Mana Discharge. Hank’s other Mana Skills very quickly passed Mana Discharge, and he was now happy to simply use his old metal slugs to kill monsters.
Plus, Hank had seen a man open a hole in the ground the size of a house, just swallowing up 20 or so monsters. Then the ground had closed back up, and the screams of the monsters were cut off with a wet crunch.
“A real mage type, huh…” Hank said, flicking over to the other two dossiers. Mordecai Heath was a big man with the brain of a chihuahua. Twice in the past the two had fought, and both times Hank had laid the man out. But that was before Hank’s fall from grace, and now Heath had a state of the art Exosuit that made him look like a Decepticon.
The final member of their group was a member of the Temple on the Hill, which made Hank’s frown deepen. Not that he minded the people who swore allegiance first and foremost to their Zone’s Champion. If anything, the opposite. They were usually uncannily competent, which is why Hank had no choice but to be serious around them.
Sighing, Hank looked around. But unfortunately, he saw no attendants to bring him a drink.