When Zer0 arrived on Pandora, three years ago, the only thing they had desired was a single, worthwhile challenge.
What they found was the Vault: an ancient Eridian relic of immense power, containing a living superweapon, and coveted by one of the most powerful corporations in the galaxy. It was more than they would have dared hope for.
Zer0 hadn’t planned on sticking around after opening it. They were never the type to stay in one place for long, and back then, they had figured the Vault was all they needed out of Pandora. But the planet proved to be simply too alluring for them to simply abandon. It was unforgiving and deadly in all the right ways, consistently providing the bloodshed they coveted. And, in Sanctuary, they found a haven for all manner of outcasts, criminals, and freaks. For the first time in Zer0’s life, they had a home, and they were perfectly content.
Of course, it didn’t last. Boredom, as alway, caught up to Zer0.
Pandora entered a dry period.
It wasn’t as if they weren’t killing anything. Sanctuary had become a one-stop shop for any Pandoran in need of help, as was only natural for a town known to be home to multiple renowned vault hunters. The bounty board in town square never lacked for job postings, which Zer0 turned to after failing to find anything of interest through their own exploits.
Sometimes they’d get lucky, but the bounty board rarely hosted the most exciting of missions. Usually, it was filled with straightforward jobs, along the lines of “kill so-and-so” or “find this thing for me” or “scout out this area”. Enough to give Zer0 something to do, but usually leaving them unfulfilled.
Their fellow Vault hunters didn’t seem to mind these jobs. Some were happy just for the chance to help people. The rest would kill anything for decent pay (or just for the sake of bloodshed).
The only thing Zer0 ever really wanted was a new challenge.
Pandora was failing Zer0. Everything was falling into patterns.
Most of the bounties were for bandits, of which Pandora seemed to have an endless supply of. Take one group out, another would move in within the month, no tougher than their predecessors. A new bounty would come in once those too became a nuisance, and the cycle repeated.
The wildlife of Pandora wasn’t much different. Kill, wait, repeat. Occasionally you’d get an oversized skag or something, which were usually good for a bit of fun, but the novelty ran out pretty quickly. If you’ve fought one big skag, you’ve fought them all.
The last time they had any real fun was the fight against the Traveler. They remembered that battle especially fondly. It wasn’t every day that they got to pilot a giant robot in a fight (especially not while being fawned over by their biggest fan).
They had only gotten that opportunity because they’d taken that rather unexciting “Gortys core” mission that Moxxi had posted. In their pursuit of the core, they crossed paths with one hapless Hyperion company man, who was quite impressed with their skills, and would, months later, offer them a place aboard the Traveler mission.
That was a fluke, though. More often than not, the jobs that caught their interest were either outright lies, exaggerations, or pure misinformation.
Tips about things like "newly uncovered vaults" would turn out to be poorly-executed attempts at ambushes. People the Vault hunters had “wronged” would occasionally hire low-grade mercenaries to take vengeance. These attempts ranged from pitiful to pathetic.
The targets who got labeled as "warlord terrors" were almost exclusively flashier-than-usual bandit leaders, with average-sized gangs of twenty-or-so underlings. Mostly the sort of opportunists who were unused to their targets fighting back with any measure of success. Easy.
Once, there was a report of the Warrior, returned from the grave. It was a skinny bullymong with a skin disease. Zer0 felt foolish, falling for that, and didn’t bother to follow up with their employer on that one.
They learned to resent these bounty board jobs, but they still took them, even after letting go hope for another coincidence that would lead them to a foe on par with the Traveler. It was better than doing nothing, and sometimes the rewards were worthwhile. Sure, money didn’t motivate them, but that didn’t make it less of a necessity. Zer0 had to eat, despite the rumors saying otherwise. Not to mention there was always the prospect of some shiny new guns.
It was this kind of job that brought Zer0 out to the Dead Sands. An ECHOcomm from the administrator of the newly bandit-free and resettled Lynchwood: a bandit encampment was raiding the town, and a sizable reward was promised to whoever cleared them out.
Boring, but necessary. The sort of job they'd done hundreds of times.
Zer0 reached their destination as the sun was setting. They parked their runner far enough away to avoid detection, continuing on foot to an outcropping of rock that overlooked the camp. Crouching, they peered through the scope of their sniper rifle to determine exactly what they were working with (Not that it mattered so much, they were confident they could handle any surprise that mere bandits could offer).
A pair of goliaths congregated in the shadow of the water tower, on the near-side of the camp. Those two were probably the most dangerous, but that title held little value among a group like this. Another fifteen or so run-of-the-mill bandits meandered through the camp. From experience, Zer0 was able to guess that their leader was most likely the big one, who wore the spikiest scrap metal armor (For some reason, bandits seemed to universally accept spikes as a symbol of power. Zer0 didn’t really get it, it wasn’t as if the spikes made it any harder to put a bullet through their brains).
There was no sign of clan symbols or colors, which tended to be a good thing. Less chance of revenge being taken on the people of Lynchwood after Zer0’s work was finished.
There was no real risk, nothing to calculate, it was going to be a massacre, and they might as well get it over with.
They lined up their first shot.
A bang, the first goliath fell, and the camp was sent into a frenzy. The bandits had been caught by surprise, and were unable to identify where the shot had come from. The confusion gave Zer0 the chance to take the second goliath down, along with another two bandits. This took four more shots (the second goliath had a second or two to rage before Zer0’s second bullet brought him down. In retrospect, it might have been more fun to just watch him tear apart the entire camp. Maybe next time).
When they lined up a fifth shot, their target sighted the glint of Zer0’s helm. He pointed in their direction, beginning to yell something to his companions. He was cut off with a bullet exploding through his skull, but the others had already been alerted.
Now that they knew where Zer0 was, the remaining bandits had the sense to fire from cover. Bullets whizzed past Zer0 and ricocheted off the rock face harmlessly, none of the bandits dared to leave cover for a clear shot at them.
Zer0 could always wait them out, pick off whichever bandits were foolish enough to expose their heads, one by one. It was less risky that way. but that was boring, and this mission was mundane as it was. Better to create their own fun.
Zer0 leapt down from their perch, drawing their sword.
Naturally, it was a bloodbath. Even on easy jobs like this, there was a certain amount of satisfaction that came with some good old fashioned ultraviolence.
"Are there any left / Who wish to challenge my blade? / Or have you all died?" they asked their silent surroundings, as they kicked aside a severed head. It rolled a few feet, leaving a trail of dripping blood.
There was no response.
Sighing, they sheathed their sword.
Maybe there would be some worthwhile loot, at least. Lynchwood was a fairly wealthy town, and its administrator had never requested that Zer0 recover their stolen goods. Finders keepers, and all that.
They turned to enter the nearest shack.
And there was a loud bang and a blinding flash.
Zer0 stumbled, dazed, their vision white. Without hesitation, they drew their pistol, firing off a few blind shots at their surroundings.
The sound of gunshots was muted.
So was the sound of the return fire. They didn’t feel any shots connect, but a notification came up on their helmet’s HUD, clear against the white of their vision, “SHOCK DAMAGE: Shield at 0%. Find cover to recharge”.
They had no chance to act before they were met with the familiar burning pain of a bullet, tearing through their abdomen.
“Shit.” Did they miss a bandit?
A dumpster sat by the shack to their left, and even near-blinded they were able to half-dive, half-fall behind it. They were rapidly recovering from the flashbang’s effects, but white spots still burned into their vision.
While it would put them at a disadvantage to retaliate while still half-blind, their opponent would have time to reposition if they waited for their vision to be completely restored.
Zer0 leaned around the side of the dumpster, scanning the camp for their opponent.
Nothing. Since when were bandits so sneaky?
A sudden icy sting bit into their neck.
They instinctively swatted at it, finding a deeply embedded dart.
"You've become careless, assassin." A distorted voice spoke. Zer0’s hearing was still muffled, and they couldn’t get a read on the speaker’s location.
"So it seems." Zer0 said, and cloaked, leaving their hologram behind.
They just needed the moment to get their bearings. To find their target .
The Decepti0n sensor made everything appear clearly, even at night. The visual information was sent straight to their implants, bypassing the lingering effects that the flashbang had on their eyes.
To their surprise, it picked up not one, but four humans:
A sniper, using the same post Zer0 had.
A thin figure twenty feet in front of them.
A third, indistinct, lurking between tents in their periphery.
And the last, rapidly closing in from their back.
Zer0 swung around, expecting to catch the flanker by surprise.
"You're going to need some new tricks," a feminine voice spoke, and a blade pierced through Zer0’s ribs before they could fire a single shot. "Cloaking tech is kind of old hat."
Blood sprayed as Zer0 yanked themselves away and fired at her, but she’d vanished. Their sensor picked her up a second time, behind them again, before it immediately glitched, every highlighted form pixelating before vanishing suddenly. Their right arm went limp with it.
“And wow, I mean, have you ever heard of an EMP?” the woman laughed.
Zer0 bounded forward, anticipating her attack from behind.
They were fast enough to avoid being pierced again, but the blade slashed their back, cutting them shoulder blade to hip. They let out a cry of pain.
There were more gunshots.
More pain. More blood. Too much blood.
They stumbled, barely managing to keep their footing. Steeling themself against the pain, they retreated.
"Really, now, Zer0? Running isn't like you." It was the first voice again.
They ignored it.
The camp ended abruptly at a steep slope. They had no chance to hesitate or find another route, the tell-tale beeping of a grenade to their back made the decision for them.
What was supposed to be a graceful slide to the bottom turned to a tumble when their leg gave out, earning Zer0 a cracked helmet and at the very least some bruises. Broken bones wouldn’t be surprising, yet they were able to get back on their feet and miraculously, keep running. Shots were fired after them, but they were either spared more bullet wounds or too pumped full of adrenaline to even feel them.
They only dared to stop and take inventory of their wounds when the bandit camp was far out of sight, sparing no more time than was absolutely necessary. They injected the single insta-health they carried with them, not enough to heal them, but enough to stave off death, at least for awhile. They then hastily bandaged the worst of their injuries, before continuing on, slower now.
Adrenaline was fading, replaced by exhaustion, and more pain.
The only thing Zer0 could do to distract from the pain was to recount the ambush, picking it apart, trying to understand what had happened.
The attackers knew Zer0, and had the skill to catch them by surprise. They’d been able to see through their cloak, even had an EMP ready to short out their cybernetic enhancements.
It wasn’t the first time Zer0 faced an enemy who was prepared for their tricks, but it was the first time that knowledge was matched with skill. It was the first time that Zer0 had been beaten without being able to so much as lay a single scratch on their opponent.
These were professionals, specifically targeting them.
Their runner would be watched.
As would the Catch-a-Ride.
And the fast travel.
Still limping, they pulled their ECHO device from their belt, hand shaking. It was broken.
Probably damaged on their fall down the slope. For the best, they supposed. If their attackers were tracking ECHO signals, which wouldn’t be surprising, calling for help would be a big, flashing target over their position.
Regardless, their chances of survival looked bad, even if their mysterious assailants didn't catch up. Pandora had a way of ridding itself of the weak.
Of all the places this could happen, it had to be this remote corner of the Dead Sands. Both Ellie’s Garage and Lynchwood were too far to reach on foot. As far as they knew, those were the only two friendly establishments in the entire region.
They could only hope for a miracle, which was not something they tended to place much faith in.
As far as Zer0 could tell, there were two choices and four likely endings, all of which were death:
1. Rest and regain their strength, only to be hunted down by their attackers. They doubted that a second encounter would go any better than the first.
2. Move. Encounter hungry Pandoran wildlife and/or bandits. They were definitely too weak for a fight, it wouldn’t take much to take them down.
3. Move. Manage to avoid hungry Pandoran wildlife and/or bandits. Succumb to exposure. Pandora tended towards the extreme even in its weather. The Dead Sands scorched during the day, and froze at night.
4. Move. Miraculously avoid becoming dinner, while somehow surviving the elements. Succumb to blood loss and/or infection.
Moving seemed to be their best chance to delay death the longest, at least. So they walked.
Of course, it stormed.
The Dead Sands region, as its name suggested, had been in a drought for years, but when Zer0 was at their most desperate, its skies finally broke. A cold, ruthless downpour.
It was very like Pandora. The pitiless planet went out of its way to kill people.
There was no shelter from the rain, and even if there had been, Zer0 still feared their pursuers catching up to them.
The sands in this part were more of a fine dust, which turned to thick mud in the ran. It sucked at their boots, making each step a struggle.
Zer0 slipped twice. The second time they simply lay in the rain for a while, too exhausted to move.
They didn’t remember getting back on their feet, but an hour later they were trudging through mud again.
The storm ran its course in some hours, only to be replaced by the blistering midday sun. At first, the warmth was a relief, saving them from hypothermia. Then it became a discomfort. It wasn’t much longer before heat stroke rose to the top of Zer0’s list of most likely deaths.
At least they'd be dry.
In the end, Zer0 collapsed, unable to go any further. They had lost track of how long they’d walked for, and they had no way of telling where they even were. Their thoughts were becoming cloudy, filled with only pain.
Giving up and lying down wasn't exactly the way they expected to go. Maybe, if they had the energy, they would feel embarrassed about it.