Copyright 2020 by Eric J. Juneau. All rights reserved.
This story is in no way intended to infringe on the established copyrights and trademarks of Capcom Co., Ltd. It is for entertainment purposes only and is not intended for sale. It may be freely distributed providing that no alterations to the story are made.
The characters and incidents portrayed and the names in this story used herein are fictitious and any similarity to the name, character, or history of any person, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental and unintentional.
by Eric J. Juneau
The following takes place before “Mega Man X”.
Commander Sigma did not need an office. Offices were human constructs to provide private space to focus on work. But a reploid accomplished most job tasks by connecting to a computer terminal. They executed at speeds beyond any organic life form’s reaction time.
But it appeased the human politicians and militarists to give him an an office. One with a wall-to-wall window behind his desk overlooking the city buildings. They thought it befit his station as leader of the Elite Seventeenth Unit of Maverick Hunters. An office symbolized status--I get one, you don’t. Therefore you are inferior to me.
Zero did not have an office.
Which was why he was standing in Sigma’s.
“In my time as commanding officer... no, as a Maverick Hunter at all... I have never seen such a blatant disregard for property,” Sigma said. “Do you know what was salvageable from the fire?”
Zero pursed his lips. “Judging by the disaster recovery brief, I would say ‘very little’.”
“I’m glad you had the mindfulness to at least consider the damage you’ve done.” Sigma picked up the data PDA and held it out. “Nothing. Nothing was salvageable. As one would expect when a geothermal reactor becomes engulfed in flame.”
“Sir, I didn’t have a choice. One of the mavericks’ stray shots hit the fission shielding.”
“But you didn’t have to add fuel to that fire. You turned a manageable blaze into a raging inferno. The entire district had to be evacuated.”
“There were no human casualties. Besides, the plant was a lost cause anyway. The fire was controllable. So I let the natural process of destruction do some of the work for us. As far as I know, we have no standing orders to apprehend mavericks. Correct?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean actively trying to destroy them. Those mavericks could have been rehabilitated. Reprogrammed. We need soldiers in this war, Zero. There are more of them than there are of us.”
“We don’t know that, sir. Mavericks hide, stay undercover. There may be more of them, but they don’t have a unifying force-”
“Until one day when they do. Dammit, Zero. You have clearly learned nothing from this incident. Since day one, I’ve been barely able to suppress your brutality and mania. Therefore, I’m demoting you, effective immediately.”
Zero gasped. “You can’t take away my A-Class. That’s verified through independent eval-”
Sigma held up his hand. “No, not that. That can’t be changed by your commanding officer. But your mission allocation can. From now on, you are only cleared for epsilon-level assignments.”
“Epsilon? That’s the lowest there is! It’s for privates and emissaries, not hunters of any rank.”
Sigma leaned in and pointed his finger. “Until you prove you can handle combat with a calmer head, this is your fate. These lower level assignments will teach you there’s more to being a Maverick Hunter than violence and destruction.”
“There will be no argument. Your first assignment is already in progress. Get to it, hunter.”
Sigma didn’t have to tell him he was dismissed. Zero turned on his heel and left the office. The door slid shut behind him.
In the corridor, Zero accessed his account. Sure enough, the only tasks on his assignment queue were epsilon-level. Everything else had been filtered out.
Worse yet, all epsilon-class missions required a partner. Zero didn’t see who the second delegate was on his current assignment, but it didn’t matter. The system would notify him or her that the prerequisites had been filled. Reploids didn’t need downtime--didn’t need sleep, didn’t need food, didn’t need to relax. When an assignment was ready, so was the hunter.
Whoever signed on must have been a real go-getter if they didn’t care who the senior officer would be. He or she was probably hopping at the door like a puppy.
Zero headed to the transportation bay. Nearly as he predicted, his partner chased after him, waving his hand. He was a blue reploid with angular limbs and a young face. Zero recognized him, though they had never met.
“You’re Mega Man X, right?” Zero asked.
“Yes. Although everyone calls me ‘X’. Honored to be working with you.”
Zero nodded. They walked down the corridor, while Zero discerned first impressions. “So you’re the original reploid?”
“Yes, sir. Although I’m not technically a reploid, since all existing reploids are based off my design. You know, since ‘reploid’ is a portmanteau of ‘replicated android’. I’m considered the original prototype.”
“But you’re with the Maverick Hunters now. Why?” Zero asked. “Aren’t we essentially killing your children?”
“Well...” X rubbed the back of his head as they walked. “I don’t think of it that way. It could be some kind of programming error, or a fatal bug that makes them violent towards humans.”
“Then why have they got you pushing pencils? Taking epsilon-level assignments? You should be with the tacticians and intelligence. You know the most about the vulnerabilities and flaws in your own design.”
“Well, one is inexperience. I only joined up recently. Another is... I’m a pacifist.” X hung his head.
Zero stopped in his tracks. “You’re a pacifist? And you joined the Maverick Hunters?” Zero threw back his head and laughed, yellow hair swishing behind him.
X nodded. “But I realized that I could still do something about it. I wasn’t intended for combat but I was designed for it. Every one of them is like me. So if they wreak havoc and I just sit there, I’m as bad as them.”
Zero nodded. “Noble,” he said as they walked into the elevator. At least he couldn’t question X’s loyalty. Even if he seemed a little wormy, a little naive for a Maverick Hunter, they’d get along fine.
The elevator dropped them off outside the transportation bay gate. Gristle, a hunched reploid with red bug eyes, was manning dispatch.
“Zero, what’s shaking?” he said in a gravelly voice. “Whatcha got going on today? You got a chum?” Zero could almost feel Gristle’s datacrawler oozing around his mission log. “Whoa, epsilon-class? What’d you do to get the garbage run?”
“Don’t ask,” Zero said. “Don’t want to talk about it.” Zero headed into the bay toward the teleportation capsules, with X following. A long row of booths stood against the wall, similar to restoration chambers. Reploids could use these instead of their own internal teleport circuits, which saved on energy and lifespan.
“Hey, hey!” Gristle shouted. “No, no, no. Not for you. Teleportation’s only for delta-class assignments and higher. You take a manual.”
Zero looked where Gristle pointed. Small personal vehicles--like ride chasers, cruisers, LUVs--lay scattered in the bay. They were necessary to humans who couldn’t teleport. But to a reploid, he might as well have been told to ride a tricycle.
“Ha, ha. I recommend the Little Sultan.” He pointed to a two-seated streamlined hovercar. “It’s a fine day for a ride anyway, isn’t it?”
Gristle’s laughter followed them to the hovercar. They both got in and took off through the garage’s open maw.
True to Gristle’s statement, the day was fine—blue skies with crisp, clean air. But weather control systems will do that for a city. The bright sun certainly didn’t match Zero’s mood. But X drank it all in, like he had never left Maverick Hunter HQ. Perhaps that was true--rookies tended to get stuck in the bowels of labs and workstations.
“Look, a dog park,” X pointed out.
To their right a fenced-off square field enclosed humans with dogs, humans with robot dogs, and robots with real dogs, all partaking of the sunny day.
“Sure is nice to see the city without all the destruction. Something to remind us what we’re fighting for. What to look forward to when this is all over,” X said.
Zero nodded. “What do you know about our mission?” Might as well make conversation, since the vehicle was self-driving.
“We’re delivering an encrypted data package to IngeniVox, a technology manufacturer and innovator.” X held up a tiny black rectangle.
“You know what IngeniVox does?” Zero asked.
“Primarily, they make the energen capsules reploids use to restabilize their reactor cores. The data we have is the updated hardware design for the power port interface, so IngeniVox can integrate it into their work.”
Zero nodded. “Exciting stuff.”
X fiddled with his fingers. “Well, I guess, since it concerns reploid power generation, it’s sensitive enough they couldn’t risk transmission over the HyperNet. So they needed a courier. And since all assignments require a backup...”
“Only epsilon-level,” Zero said. “This mission doesn’t need a delivery boy, it needs a mailbox.”
X cocked his head. “I take it you think this mission is beneath you.”
“It’s not my typical fare… but you probably love this.” Since you’re a pacifist, Zero added in his head.
“Well, it’s a safe mission. No one’s going to come to any harm or be put in harm’s way.”
Zero barked a laugh. “I like your optimism, kid. ”
X muttered “Kid? I’m older than you. I’m older than every reploid,” as the hovercar curved around a corner.
Zero did feel a little lighter as they entered the venture district. Here, manufacturing mixed with business development--the epicenter of progress for the city. Every diamond-glass building glowed in the sun, from skyscraping towers to wide aquaponic fortresses.
The hovercar decelerated into the driveway of a small building shaped like a tulip bulb, covered with mirrored paneling. Maybe fifty people worked there at any given time. A modest logo was stenciled next to the door.
Zero and X entered the reception area. Several flat-panel screens displayed a slideshow highlighting “cutting edge” and “hyper automation” among smart looking humans and teal-and-orange backdrops. The couches and tables looked barely used. But there was no one in the room, not even at the reception desk.
“How do we meet our contact?” X asked. “I expected the entrance to be monitored.”
Zero checked the reception console. “Computer is locked due to timeout.”
“Is the office closed?”
“It’s normal business hours,” Zero shrugged. The door to the building proper was secured by a thumbprint reader. Zero wasn’t about to violate that policy--he was in enough trouble as it was.
X grimaced. “Something’s… off. I don’t know anymore than that. It’s just... a funny feeling.”
They waited for five minutes. X picked up a thermoplastic pyramid that was some business award. Zero examined an abstract painting and a potted palm tree. Surely someone would return after a given amount of time. Security logs would record that the door had been opened and there were occupants in the reception room.
Zero tapped his communicator. “Ophi, are you picking up my location?”
“Loud and clear, Zero. You’re at the IngeniVox building right now.”
“What’s the net traffic look like coming from my location?”
“One second.” Zero’s eyes darted around the room while the operator examined the input/output transmission at their location. “Seems normal. E-mails, phone calls, internet transmission, all within expected parameters.”
“Hmm, okay.” Zero shut off the comm. “There’s still signals from the building, so people are here.”
X didn’t answer. He was listening. “Something doesn’t seem right. I’ve never felt anything like it.”
Zero again turned his eyes to the door. Authorized Personnel Only.
“X, your buster operational?” Zero asked.
“Yes, sir. It’s not as powerful as yours, but...”
Zero waved him off. He approached the door, examined its structure. The electronic lock was a basic “prox” card reader with RFID and 512-bit RSA encryption. Nothing special. A coffee maker could have hacked it. Zero emitted a brute force attack via radio signal and the door opened.
Inside was a typical office building--dispersed cubicles, thin carpeting, uniform desks and chairs. The hum of running machines filled the air. But the lights were off--only the windows lit their way.
“There’s people here somewhere,” X said. “Maybe they’re at a company-wide meeting?”
“I doubt it.”
The cubicles occupied only a small area on the way to the manufacturing center. Secure labs, glass windows showing big boxy servers. X peeked in one of the conference rooms. A display screen shuffled through natural landscape photographs.
“Maybe everyone is sick?” X asked. “Or has the day off?”
Zero didn’t dignify that with a response. They looked in break rooms, conference rooms, computer rooms, closed-off lab stations, and personal offices. No reploids, no robots, no humans. The only moving object they encountered was a motorized vacuum crossing the floor. It sensed them, avoided their feet, and rerouted to the other hallways.
They stopped and listened, but there was nothing to hear. Nothing but some sinister feeling they couldn’t figure out.
“Hey!” Zero shouted. “Hey, anyone!”
“Look,” X pointed to an open door. “They wouldn’t leave a laboratory open like this. It’s a sterile room. And that little box has the chemical symbol for ranmatine. That’s highly corrosive.”
Without meeting a soul, their sojourn was halted by the other end of the building. They descended the fire stairs one floor.
“Never quite had this feeling before,” X said. “I think humans would call it the heebie-jeebies.”
Zero smirked. “Leave that out of your report,” he said. Assuming we live to see the end of this.
The next floor down was much like above, although missing some of the niceties and human touches. No conference rooms. Just a small reception area with wooden floors and an airlock into the manufacturing floor.
“I’ve seen abandoned buildings before, but not like this,” X said. “Not one that seems so recent. Still full of life-”
“Hold it, X.”
The two of them froze.
“Did you hear something?” X asked.
“Thought I heard a... something like crying. Human crying.”
X cocked his head, listening for the phantom noise. They waited for the sound to come again.
“HEY!” Zero shouted, startling X. “Is there anybody here?!”
“Let’s look in here. This looks like their outbound router.”
Inside a closet, taking up all the space, rested a silver and ebony server rack brimming with red, orange, and green lights. The rack was chilled to the touch from the running coolant.
But what caught Zero’s eye was a device on the floor--a six-inch black box with an upright cylinder. The top of the cylinder beeped softly every three seconds. A human might have missed it among the snaking wires and conversion boxes. But this didn’t fit with the setup. Especially when Zero turned it over and found it had no bottom, just circuit boards and loose wires.
“What is that?” X muttered.
Zero was about to respond when his comm board lit up with an incoming signal. From Ophi. “Zero, can you read me? We analyzed the network traffic coming from the building. It’s there, but it’s garbage. Random strings and repeated requests. Electronic messages from three days ago sent over and over. Like it’s sending mock signals to resemble a normal amount of communication.”
Zero turned the device over in his hands. “That’s what this is. It’s a transponder. Sending simulated network traffic.”
“Because if it all stopped, an alert would trigger from the service provider,” X said.
“But why? You want to make it seem like humans are still at their desks working. What could-”
Zero’s and X’s eyes were still on the transponder when they turned from the closet. That was why they didn’t see the two reploids standing in front of them. Zero recognized their designations--Phase Crane and Chain Buffalox--and that they were mavericks. But that was all his reaction time would allow.
Phase Crane held some kind of rocket launcher on his shoulder. He fired it as Zero and X raised their buster arms. Two globes of milk-colored glop flew out. The blobs made perfect impact with the apertures of their arm cannons, covering them in sticky biscuit dough.
Phase Crane shifted the launcher tube off his shoulders. “I don’t recommend you try to shoot us. That’s liquid ceratanium. Well… it was liquid. It hardens quickly.”
X tried to pry it off with his fingers, but true to the maverick’s word, it had already solidified. Ceramic titanium was the only substance that could repel plasma energy. And his arm cannon was clogged with it.
“If you fire now, the shot’ll bounce back in. And probably blow your arm off.” Phase Crane cackled. “But if you want to try, go ahead, by all means. I’d like to see that.”
Zero’s lip twitched as Phase Crane laughed. He reared his fist and ran forward, screaming. X followed a split-second behind. Phase Crane and Chain Buffalox didn’t move.
Halfway there, Zero’s and X’s legs tripped a taut chain across their floor. Their bodies convulsed with violent electric current, paralyzed by bands of yellow energy. Then they collapsed on the ground.
Zero and X’s systems rebooted from the catastrophic shutdown as their bodies were thrown on a concrete surface.
“Maverick Hunters...” someone said after their heads hit the floor.
They were in a lab or product storage room. The air radiated with energen.
Zero and X stood. They were surrounded by six mavericks in total--the two from before, plus Grabber Kangaroid, Grease Caribou, Bullet Frog, and one hulking gorilla-dog in the center: Drill Mongrell. Mongrell sat on a makeshift throne made of old chassis and plastic parts. His fists were the size of industrial pistons.
“Maverick Hunters… hey... hey, you’re Zero,” Mongrell pointed as if he had seen a celebrity. “This here is Zero.”
“No, he isn’t,” said Bullet Frog.
“Sure he is. Red and white armor, blond hair. Only A-class in the hunters. The Elite Seventeenth, right?”
“That’s right,” Zero replied.
Drill Mongrell stepped forward. His fist embedded in Zero’s torso, crackling with energy. Zero rocketed up and smashed into the ceiling. Gravel and gray dust rained down with him as he fell like rotten fruit.
“You barbarous-” X started forward. Five arm cannons leveled at him.
Zero struggled to one knee, his limbs trembling. “Enjoy that, Mongrell.” Zero glowered from under his helmet. He grinned. “It won’t happen again.”
“We’ll see, Zero… pride of the Maverick Hunters. But later.” He turned to Grabber Kangaroid. “Put them with the others.”
“With the humans?” she asked. “Why not just get rid of them? We could-”
“Not yet. They might help us out yet. Hostages and such,” Mongrell said.
As Chain Buffalox grabbed X’s arm, he turned to the other mavericks. “Imagine that. Maverick Hunters helping us.”
“They’ll be begging to help in no time,” Drill Mongrell said.
Bullet Frog and Grease Caribou picked up Zero and half-carried, half-dragged him away. The other two marched X at cannon-point.
They were in a sub-sub-basement, deeper underground. The floors were made of smooth concrete and shiny plastic, like a garage. It was cool and dry, had few lights, and no decorations.
The four mavericks took X and Zero to a room with a mechanical hatch covering the floor. Blinking servers stood against one wall in glass cases. Bullet Frog typed some commands into the standing console at the corner of the hatch. It hummed and slid back like a pool cover.
Bright light spilled out from an in-ground vat. Inside was an ultra-clean server room, indicated by the grid of black computer boxes. And people. About fifty people standing within the illuminated walls. They looked up and began moaning and pleading to be let out.
The mavericks tossed X and Zero into the pit. They landed on their faces, clanging on the semi-metallic floor. The other humans surrounded them, helping them up, checking for damage. Women and men, ages from young twenties to eighties. Everyone spoke at once.
“Guess we found the people,” X said. “Are you all here?”
“We think so,” said one of the humans. All looked dressed for a day at the office--some with lab coats, some with collared shirts. Most were roughed up, but uninjured.
Drill Mongrell stepped up to the rim of the pit, his allies on either side. “Shut up! Shut up, all of you!”
The group hushed down, except for one woman in the back who couldn’t stop sobbing. Phase Crane leveled his arm cannon at her. She cried like her atoms were breaking apart.
“Lady, I told you to keep quiet. Shut up or I’ll shut you up.”
A man came to comfort her, holding her around the arms while whispering “sh-sh-sh-sh-sh...”
“Zero...” X said.
“Quiet,” Zero said.
“Now that we have some new guests here, maybe you’ll be more willing to talk. I’m going to ask you again. Which one of you is responsible for that energen bomb?” Drill Mongrell asked.
The humans remained as disconnected and frightened as before, clammy skin and glistening eyes. No one said anything.
“You know what I’m talking about. Which one? All right. Maybe you know these two I just dropped in. They’re Maverick Hunters. Zero, in particular. Finest hunter in the Seventeenth Elite Unit, headed by Sigma. What you do from here on out, any consequences that come to pass, he’s accountable. That’s his purpose anyway, to protect you from reploids like us. Ain’t that right, Zero?”
Zero ground his teeth. “You could say that.”
Drill Mongrell bent to one knee, addressing Zero. “One of these weaklings killed Terror Mongrell. Same model, same system software as me. You could call him my brother. I did. Someone killed him with an explosive energen capsule, right when his back was turned. I want to know which one of these flesh-bags did it, so I can treat them to the same fate. And until I find out, there’s going to be more death coming. So you talk to them, Zero.” Drill Mongrell stood. “You explain to them what’s at stake. Take a couple minutes.”
Drill Mongrell walked away. His maverick gang followed.
Without the sight of them, the IngeniVox employees closed in.
“You guys got to help us,” a man said. “Please. You don’t know what they can do.”
“Is anyone hurt? Does anyone need first aid?” Zero asked. The people shook their heads.
“Are you really Maverick Hunters?” asked a woman.
“Yes. Mega Man X and Zero,” X said. “We came to deliver some engineering data regarding energen capsule ports.”
“Oh, that would be Hadleigh Wilkins.” The man pointed to a nearby heavyset Black woman in a white lab coat. Her crispy hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She looked dumbfounded at being called out by name.
X took the little plastic nubbin from the storage compartment in his armor and handed it out. “Thanks, I guess,” she said as it went into her pocket.
“Mister Zero, sir?” asked a scared looking blond boy with lean features. He touched Zero on the arm. “H-hi. I’m Ryan Shetler. I-I’m a software developer. L-listen, you’ve got to do something. Those mavericks are gonna-”
“All right, Shetler. Calm down. We’ll-”
A woman with long pink hair approached. “We’ve got people who don’t even belong to the company down here. Maintenance managers and even the coffee shop guy. We’ve got to do something before they come back. Evelyn wasn’t even supposed to come in today. She just came to pick up-”
“We’re going to handle it, all right?” Zero snapped.
“Hold on! Hold on!” X said as they crowded in.
“We’ve got to stop them!” the others shouted. “They’re going to kill us!”
“If you try and attack, they’d kill you all, get it?” Zero shouted. “Humans are nothing to a maverick. Your lives--all your lives--are on a very thin thread right now.”
Shetler interrupted again. “We were thinking if we all rushed... I mean, there’s fifty of us. Some of us might get hurt, but all fifty at once-”
“You ever seen flesh against a plasma cannon?” Zero sneered. “It’d go through you like a bullet through a garbage bag.”
That quieted them down. Except Shetler, who meekly said “But... we’ve got to do something.”
“We will. But someone needs to explain to me what’s going on,” Zero asked.
The crowd shushed then. Hadleigh sighed and stepped up. “They came in this morning. Burst in, corralled us up. I think they were looking for energen. The kangaroo one broke into the lab where I was, pocketed everything I was working on.”
“There were no signs of forced entry,” X said.
Hadleigh nodded. “They might have come from underground. Or the roof. I don’t think they were looking for a spectacle, just the energen. They searched the building top to bottom, waving their cannons around. Weren’t paying much attention to us.”
“What happened to Terror Mongrell? How was he killed?” Zero asked.
“Some of the team in R&D, they call themselves ‘rogue squad’. I guess they rigged some of the energen capsules to reverse polarity and implode. Snuck up and threw them, then ran away. One of them picked it up. Exploded right in his face. Whole torso disintegrated. I guess it was the big one’s twin.”
“That’s when the havoc started?” Zero asked.
Hadleigh nodded. “They pulled any of us they could find, using us for hostages. Human shields. Interrogated us. Found every last human in the building. It was easy. We all gave in--no one wanted to get hurt or see anyone hurt.”
“And you’ve been trapped here ever since?”
Hadleigh nodded. “The ‘rogue squad’ is here too, but the mavericks don’t know that.”
“Why doesn’t he just kill you all? Then he’d have his revenge,” X asked.
Zero shrugged. “Because it’s personal. He must want to do something special he can’t get from indiscriminate killing. We aren’t dealing with mavericks like we used to. They never used to roam around in gangs, terrorizing humans for pleasure. They used to fight alone, popping up here and there. I’ve learned never to hold any expectations for a maverick.”
“Anyway, we’ve been trapped here since,” Hadleigh said. “Mongrell keeps threatening us unless we give them up. Even the guys in rogue squad don’t know which one of them did it.”
A woman gasped and covered her mouth as her watery eyes flashed. Drill Mongrell had returned, along with his cronies.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen? What’s it going to be?” When no one spoke, he eyed Zero. “You get any answers out of them? Did you tell them to do the right thing?”
“The right thing would be to accept that your brother got what he deserved.”
“Not on account of some human cowards.”
“He was a moron who broke in somewhere and picked up a strange energen capsule tossed his way. If you’re dumb enough-”
Mongrel’s arms lit up as bright as his eyes. “I’m not gonna take a lecture from a servile thug like you about right and wrong. Now give ’em up.” Mongrell held up his barrel-sized fist and cocked it like a shotgun. A surge of ocher energy rippled through. “Who did it? If I have to wipe out every mealy-mouthed meatbag here, I’ll find out. I will.”
“You think that’s going to bring Terror Mongrell back?” Zero sneered.
Drill Mongrell growled under his voicebox. “Grabber, take two of them. That one...” He pointed to a rotund Indian man with meaty jowls. “And that one...” He pointed to Shetler.
“No!” X shouted.
“Mongrell, when I get out of here I’m going to tear you apart. There won’t be anything left of you but dust,” Zero said, fighting the urge to raise his useless arm cannon.
“You gotta get out of there first,” Mongrell said.
Grabber Kangaroid stepped up. Her belly split across the middle and a large claw emerged. The claw, attached by a chain, hurtled out and clamped around the first victim. The clamp yanked back so hard, his neck wrenched hard enough to snap. Kangaroid caught him and threw him to the side.
Three others clutched onto Shetler’s body, but that didn’t matter. He flew out of their hands and into the mavericks’.
“Well? Anybody got anything to say now?” Mongrell asked once the cries had settled. No one spoke. “All right then. You can live with your decision.” Mongrell stepped back. The mavericks dragged the dazed humans out of view.
Everyone stood in hushed sobs, like trembling zombies. Zero and X could do no more than the same, staring at the space above.
There was no charging of cannon, no hum of a power surge, no voices, no crying or pleading. Just two shots, with no way to shut out the sound. Some weeped louder, but otherwise, the death chill had frozen everyone.
“We’ve got to do something,” muttered Hadleigh.
“We will,” Zero said.
The hatch advanced, becoming their ceiling and shutting them back in a vault. Bright light from the paneled walls and floors irritated their eyes like gnats. Zero didn’t know why the mavericks didn’t come back and capitalize on the fresh fear. Maybe Mongrell was more gutless than he let on.
X had gone to circulate among the others, maybe to gather information. That suited Zero fine--he could stand against the wall and contemplate the situation. Strategize. Six mavericks, once seven. Still too many to take on, even with a buster that worked.
X returned. “Did you ever send out a distress signal?” he asked Zero.
“Have been ever since they threw us in here,” Zero said. “Signal’s being blocked. I can’t even connect to you. Something’s mangling it. Probably whatever lines this room.”
“Lead-corbosite,” Hadleigh tossed in. “It scrambles all wireless signals, prevents external hacking. These servers are for data-processing. They’re only ever supposed to talk to each other. That’s why they put us in here. Easier than trying to grab everyone’s phones, PDAs, whatever.”
“I found the members of ‘rogue squad’,” X said. “That’s just a nickname they gave themselves. They’re the top engineers for the company, innovators. Two of them are willing to submit themselves, but two aren’t.”
“And they shouldn’t,” Zero said. “We don’t deal in lives. We should be thinking about escape.”
“Even if we do, we’re useless without our busters,” X said.
“I know,” Zero said. “We’re just arms and legs.”
“There’s some vorticular acetinol in my lab. It can dissolve ceratanium. If we can get out of here,” Hadleigh said.
“Eventually we’re going to register as missing, either us or the humans,” X said. “Then they’ll send reinforcements.”
“Too much time passes, they’re going to come back here and kill another one of us. Or we’ll just start dropping,” Hadleigh added. “Haviland has an implant that sends neurosignals from his heart to his lungs and it’s not working in here. If we don’t get out of here soon, he’s going to drop dead.”
“Reinforcements?” Zero turned to X. “We are the reinforcements.”
X, Zero, and Hadleigh spent an hour brainstorming plans, huddled in a corner. Many began shivering from cold, walking around, rubbing their arms and legs together. The vault wasn’t meant for human habitation.
“Do they always come in the same way? Stand in the same spots?” X asked.
“Yes, right there.” She pointed.
“How many approach at a time? I figure Grabber Kangaroid will always be one of them.”
“The only time there’s more than two is when the big one is with, the leader.”
X’s eyes brightened. “Here’s what we could do. Zero and I could press against the wall under where they stand. That hatch opens slow, so they’ll be waiting. Probably not paying too much attention. We’ll wait until we see them. Then we jump, drag them down. Once they’re in, we swarm, all fifty of us.”
Hadleigh drew back.
“Just long enough to keep them down and confused while Zero and I disable them,” X said.
“What’s to stop them from signaling from help?” Hadleigh asked.
“Same thing stopping us.” X gestured to the illuminated corbosite all around them.
“You don’t think they’ll be on a higher alert now that we’re here?” Zero asked.
“Not without our blasters.” X held up his arm cannon, still covered in hardened goo. Zero nodded.
“It’s risky,” Hadleigh said.
“Life is risk,” Zero said. “If we’re to have any chance at all, we have to take one.”
“You’re telling me,” X said. “If the heaviest reploids show up, we might be screwed. I don’t think I can take that buffalo one down.”
“Surprise will be on our side,” said Zero. “We’ll also need everyone’s help. Every last body.”
“I’ll start telling the others.” Hadleigh stood from her crouch and sauntered toward the others.
X and Zero assumed positions where the hatch opened, comparing data about where they would approach from. Then they pressed against the wall to stay out of peripheral vision. After that, all they had to do was wait.
“Gotta admit, X, you’ve got a mind for method,” Zero whispered. “Me? My central strategy is to rush in and start shooting.”
“That’s why you’re an A-class hunter. You never hesitate on the battlefield. You have the skill that keeps you alive,” X said.
“Could also be luck. I may take action, but it’s not always the right action. You figure out the right action. There might be a place for you in the tactical division.”
X looked down. “I could get people killed.”
“You can get people killed doing what I do,” Zero said.
“No, I mean I... may not be ready... yet.”
“Well, with some training-”
“No, you don’t understand.” X’s voice trembled. “You know my story. When Dr. Cain found me, I was sealed inside a capsule. I was supposed to be there for thirty years so it could test out my neuropsychology. Run simulations and correct the AI network. Make sure I wouldn’t pose a danger to humans.”
“So when Dr. Cain analyzed the capsule’s computer, he couldn’t find the date I was sealed in. The data was either corrupted or erased or... something. So no one knows how long I was in there.” X gave Zero a desperate look. “What if it was less than thirty years? What if every maverick is my fault because they’re all based on me? Because I was disconnected too early. And they all have it, Zero. Every reploid has my faulty programming. And there are so many of them, we could never stop them all, and they keep making more every day-”
“X, X, calm down,” Zero said. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t make anyone go maverick. Whether it’s a virus or a design flaw, you didn’t make any of this. Besides you’re doing everything you can to stop them.”
“I’m doing everything I can because it could all be my fault,” X said in a low tone.
Zero grimaced and huffed, unsure what to say.
A loud thud sounded, followed by grinding metal. The hatch was opening.
X and Zero hunkered down as the ceiling’s shadow slid across the floor. The humans couldn’t hear, but X and Zero, with their ultra-sensitive audio receptors, picked up conversation. Mongrell wasn’t one of them.
“What do you think?”
“Mongrell. His whole… thing. They were close, I guess?”
“I never saw it. How many should we grab?”
“I don’t know. He said to take one or two.”
“Well, which is it? One or two?”
“How should I know? They all look the same to me.”
“Maybe he meant we take one big one or two little ones.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works. Each human’s an individual unit.”
Around Zero and X, the people trembled like chickens in a hen house. Hadleigh made a V sign with her fingers. “Two,” she mouthed.
“The bigger ones might be more valuable.”
“But more of them means more loss. Humans have a higher reaction to large numbers of dead.”
“That’s true. Maybe we take one small one and one big one. Like that one standing over there, he looks big enough.”
“Hey, you. Step forward. Are you important?”
The silhouettes of the reploids crept over the rim of the wall, shadowed by the overhead lights. Zero and X aligned themselves directly under each.
In perfect synchronicity, they leapt up, kicked off the wall, and bounded over the pit. With Zero and X floating before them, Grabber Kangaroid and Bullet Frog stood stunned.
Zero seized Grabber Kangaroid by the shoulders. X grabbed Bullet Frog’s bulbous head. As they fell, they dragged the mavericks down with them. Everyone landed scattered from each other with loud clanging.
The humans mobbed the prone reploids. They held them down anywhere they could squeeze in and get a hand on some metal. The mavericks appeared dazed, making little effort to get up as they were overrun.
X and Zero sprang up, no time to spare. They scrambled toward the mavericks, each heading toward one.
“Voice box,” Zero said. Simultaneously, X and Zero plunged their free arms into Bullet Frog’s and Grabber Kangaroid’s mouths. They clutched the biggest chunk of equipment they could find purchase on and ripped it out.
“Arm cannon,” Zero said. The humans spread apart, giving access to each maverick’s right hand. X and Zero tore them off with as much strength as they could muster. Grabber Kangaroid and Bitter Frog convulsed in pain and terror. Taking away a maverick’s weapon was like ripping out their soul.
“There.” Zero sat back. “Can you hold them like that for a while?”
The humans nodded, while the mavericks flailed beneath them. “All of us together, we can do it.”
“All right, let’s get out of here.” Zero turned to Hadleigh. “Where is your lab?”
“I’m coming with you,” she said. “You need my keycode to get in. And ‘rogue squad’ told me there are more of those rigged-up energen grenades in there.”
Zero should have said no, but time was of the essence. “Fine.”
“Get on my back.” X hunched down.
Hadleigh wrapped her arms around X like a human backpack. The two wall-kicked and jumped out of the pit, landing on concrete floor. In a darkened corner, they saw the two bodies that had been shot. Holes torn through their chest cavities, crispy flesh bubbling around the edges.
Hadleigh let herself down. “My lab’s on this floor. South wing. Come on.”
As they headed south, Zero said to X, “I just sent a message to HQ, but they won’t be here soon enough.”
“There’s still four of them and two of us,” X said.
“But we know that and they don’t.”
Hadleigh led them to a laboratory with a darkened door window. She entered a code on the keypad. The hydraulic lock behind the door whooshed open.
The lab was a mess--equipment scattered on the floor with sparkling glass and instruments. Rubber stoppers, vials, blue stain, frayed wires, along with the strong smell of latex and ozone.
Hadleigh reached under a standing table, where towers of differently-sized canisters were stacked. She placed one on the table. It hissed as she unscrewed the top. “Crap,” she said. “There’s only enough for one.”
“X, you take it,” Zero said.
“But your buster is more powerful. Mine’s only a Mark-17.”
“I can handle myself. I didn’t become a Class-A solely because of this.” Zero held up his arm.
A light entered Hadleigh’s eyes. “I think I know something you can use.”
X poured out the canister on his arm and rubbed the viscous goo in. In a few seconds, the ceratanium began hissing and smoking, emitting a foul chemical odor. Meanwhile, Zero followed Hadleigh to the corner of the lab. She bent down to a chest. Inside was a palm-sized gold stick.
“Try this. Hold the hilt away from you and energize it.”
Zero did so. A needle-thin ray of green light extended out three feet. It crackled a bit, then stabilized.
“It’s a laser sword,” Zero said.
“It’s an irradiated plasma ray with a hydron blocker attached to an output impedance. And an extended amplitude regulator to control the length. But yes, it’s a laser sword.” She shrugged. “What can I say? We’re nerds. Problem is, no one can use it, because we’d chop off our limbs. No human at least--we don’t have the dexterity or control. But a reploid...”
Zero stood clear of any objects. He swooped the sword around, stabbing and slashing. Each swing made a vrrrp-sound that increased in timbre with velocity. He grinned.
“I could get used to this.” His mind raced with ways to refine it for combat. The hilt was clunky. It could be longer and have an added guard. Maybe increase the blade width. Make it swing in a more fluid arc. And make it green. Or blue. Both? He couldn’t decide.
“We’re ready,” X said. He brushed the remaining chunks of ceratanium off his arm cannon. It had a discolored stain, but nothing that couldn’t be cleaned. Assuming they survived this.
“I’m ready.” Hadleigh zipped up a squarish bag with a vendor’s logo and shoulder strap. It was full of small round globes, each with a band of prismatic light around the center.
The three of them made their way to the grand conference room where X and Zero had woken up. Its windows were made of frosted glass and they could see the mavericks’ silhouettes inside. They were talking, scheming, hoarding the energen, searching through computers for data.
Zero and X stood a ways from the room, out of sight. “If we could pick them off one by one, we’d be fine,” X said.
“Don’t think we’re going to have that option,” Zero said.
X’s eyes traced a path along the ceiling. “Is there a maintenance shaft that cuts across that room?”
“I think so,” Hadleigh said. “It’s always cold in there.”
“You thinking about sneaking in?” Zero asked.
“I’m thinking about a three-pronged assault. Surprise them. I can get through the vents--I’m lighter than I look. You bait them out the door. Hadleigh stands to the side and chucks her explosives at them.”
“I don’t know if we can take that chance-”
“I’m willing,” Hadleigh said. “I think it’s a good plan.”
“We gotta do something now. They’re going to get suspicious when those mavericks don’t come back,” X said.
“All right. I’ll get their attention on me. You drop behind them. Then we all unleash hell.”
X nodded. He climbed up some boxes to the ceiling, tore the grate out, and climbed in.
“We’ll wait a bit for X to get into position. Let’s get ourselves ready.”
With quiet steps, Zero and Hadleigh approached the conference room door. Without lights, they wouldn’t be seen, as long as no one looked too hard. Hadleigh stood on the other side of the door frame. She silently unzipped her bag. Zero stood a few feet from the entrance. From here, he could hear the dialogue inside.
“It’s all about psychology,” Phase Crane was saying. “You use fear to motivate them. Humans eat up fear. And you know what they fear the most?”
“Uh, snakes?” came one of the answers. “The dark? Squishy things?”
“No, no. The unknown. That’s why I told Mongrell to put them in isolation. They don’t know when we’re coming. They don’t know who’s going to die. They don’t know where we are. So they stew in their little gray brains for hours thinking of the worst case scenarios. Intimidating themselves. Building up their fear. They do the work for us.”
There were murmurs of assent and approval.
“I don’t care. I want them to pay for what they did to my brother,” came Mongrell’s voice. “Go find out where the other two are. Tell them to grab the two reploids, the Maverick Hunters. They’re harmless now. Kill ’em outright. Let them know there’s no one protecting them.”
“Don’t be so sure about that!” Zero shouted.
The chatter inside halted. Zero held his sword across his chest. Hadleigh shifted her feet.
The door burst open. Chain Buffalox stood there, steam emitting from his nostrils. Phase Crane behind him.
“Kill him!” Mongrell shouted.
Mega Man X dropped out of the ceiling behind them. Everyone but Buffalox turned around--he was rushing Zero. As soon as he cleared the door, Hadleigh started throwing metal balls of energy inside, one after the other. The room filled with explosions. The other mavericks darted around chaotically as X targeted them one by one.
Buffalox tried to punch Zero, but he side-stepped, severing the arm at the elbow. But that didn’t faze the buffalo-reploid--a chain burst out of his arm cannon, embedding into Zero’s chest. It lit up with an electric surge, stunning Zero, sending pain through him like red hot spikes. Chain Buffalox retracted the grapple. Zero held out the laser sword as he was brought into Buffalox’s range. The green ray impaled the maverick through the chest. Sparks and smoke puffed into his face, and the maverick fell over.
Zero rushed toward the conference room. Smoke and screams and explosions saturated the area. Flames crackling and flashing, glass breaking, a gummy acrid smell that burned the nose. Zero pushed himself through the fog. “X?”
Zero’s foot made contact with something outside the door. A body. He waved the smoke away. It was Hadleigh. Her eyes were closed, charred skin and blood above her left eye. Body covered in ash. Dead by explosion, not a stray plasma shot. Maybe one of those jerry-rigged capsules rolled back to her.
“X?” Zero shouted again.
“I’m here!” X said.
At Zero’s feet, Drill Mongrell’s shape crawled along the floor through the smog. Zero gripped under the maverick’s chest armor and spun him on his back. Mongrell cried out. Zero stomped a foot on Mongrell’s torso and held the sword to his chin.
“It’s over, Drill,” Zero shouted.
“Ain’t nothing over. They killed my brother, I’ll kill you too.”
“There’s been enough killing today.”
Drill Mongrell stopped struggling. He grinned toothily. “All right, Zero. That’s fine, then. I surrender.”
Zero remembered what Commander Sigma had said. Those mavericks could have been rehabilitated. Reprogrammed. We need soldiers in this war, Zero.
He plunged his sword deep into Drill Mongrell’s chest cavity, into the power core. Mongrell gasped as liquid plasma and oil eked out. “I’d rather become a maverick myself than have to work side-by-side with you, rehabilitated or not,” Zero whispered.
When Drill Mongrell stopped twitching, Zero unsheathed the sword and turned it off.
“You okay, Zero?” X asked, getting closer.
“Just fine,” Zero said.
And it was over.
Zero and X rushed back and disposed of the two mavericks held in the pit. The humans had held up their end of the bargain, so X and Zero held up theirs. Shortly thereafter, HQ sent in the cavalry. The humans were treated, the building locked down, and order restored.
X and Zero were standing in front of the doorway when the medical gurney slid out. A body lay under a shroud, carried by the anti-grav lifters.
“A human willing to sacrifice herself, so that us Maverick Hunters could live...” Zero muttered.
“I’ve learned never to hold any expectations for a human,” X replied with a small smirk.
Zero took a breath. “I’ve always thought of humans as characters in the background. Like sheep that get in the way. I think... I think that must be how the mavericks think too.” Zero began to walk away, back to the troop transport. “You know it could be more,” he called back.
X turned to him. “Huh?”
“It could be more than thirty years… that you were in the capsule. If they don’t know the date, you might have been in there the full duration and you’re fine. You were tested fully and the reploids go maverick because of something else. Maybe they get ideas in their head or their programming gets hacked.”
“I suppose,” X said. Maybe not convinced, but less burdened. “I’m going to stick around, in case they need help with clean-up.”
Zero nodded. “See you at headquarters, X.” And he walked off.#END#
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