Chapter 6: "Framework"

"I… I think that worked?" Cadis declared meekly, looking up from the console in the teleport-hub on the ship.

Dr. Cain adjusted some controls on a console just to her right, his cane hooked to the edge at his hip. He nodded thoughtful approval. "Indeed, I believe it has. Most impressive work, Cadis. Your algorithms about the weather control energy patterns were flawless. In fact, this is inspiring mathematics, young one." He held his chin, his eyes sharp with analysis at the view screen before him.

Cadis blushed a little, rubbing the back of her head. "Just remembering what Dr. Gold taught me, sir."

Dr. Cain shook his head, and looked at her, retrieving his cane to properly stand facing the Reploid. "No, Cadis. Simple memorization is one thing. You creatively adapted the algorithms to the transportation matrix protocols. Unless you mean to tell me that's precisely something Dr. Gold already had noted away and given to you?" He raised an eyebrow, but was clearly incredulous.

The Reploid gave a small, anxious laugh. "M-maybe not… exactly for that purpose."

Dr. Cain softened his manner with a warm smile, and put a hand on her shoulder. "You have great talent, Cadis. Thank you for helping us."

She eased with a sincere smile herself. Even Dr. Cain noted how charming and warm the expression was.

With a light nod toward the actual transport hub, he added, "Would you like for us to get you back to the mainland with your handiwork, Cadis? You've been very patient while stuck on this warship."

Cadis shook her head a little, shrugging. "Oh, no. No rush, sir. I honestly…" she cringed a little, "don't have anything to specifically return to. This place has been… was my home for a long time."

Dr. Cain empathized with her heart-ache, and gave her shoulder another soft touch. "I am very sorry for all you've suffered through, Cadis. You have a very good heart."

She blushed again, but smiled a little. "I thought Reploids had power-cores?"

They both chuckled a bit with her comment, and the human eased back to check over some data already on the screen. He nodded to himself again, "Yes, this looks splendid. I'll get a test done immediately just as a precaution, and then we'll get transportation fully operational."

Cadis was about to reply when the door to the hub opened behind them. She fully turned to face them, Dr. Cain just looked over his shoulder. X was walking in, his new boots giving soft whirs and hums. He smiled, waving casually. "Hey. Just coming to check on the progress."

Cadis smiled brightly. "We think we're done! And, uh… nice shoes?"

X was immediately pleased by her first response, then saw her rather adorable blink at his feet. He paused, looking down and lifting one foot to remind himself. "Oh! Yeah. Heh, sorry." He smiled for her again. "Managed to scrounge up an upgrade on a mission."

Dr. Cain tapped a few controls, and turned fully to face X as well. "He's quite resourceful on missions, in fact. I think you've seen that first hand, Cadis."

"True!" she agreed. She thumb-pointed at the transport hub behind them. "I think Dr. Cain was just going to do a test run for safety checks, and then we're live."

X's expression was sincerely impressed. "Wow, you weren't kidding. I assumed this would take a day or two more at the very least. Great work you two!"

Dr. Cain smiled indulgently, and then gestured to his partner. "You can thank Cadis for the speed. Her understanding of the weather-control system was the primary source of our success."

She blushed again, this time toeing the ground. "J-just doing what I can to help…"

"Hey."

She blinked up to see X leaning down to catch her eyes. This made her blush worse, especially as he smiled so happily.

"Great job, Cadis. They'd be proud," he finished more seriously, but still with kindness in his eyes.

Her eyes watered a bit, so she just nodded quietly, keeping her little smile.

X patted her shoulder, unintentionally very similar to how Dr. Cain had, and included both of them in what he said next. "With that so far ahead of schedule, I'll go coordinate with Signas. I think he already had some ideas for the teams he wanted deployed to support the area."

Dr. Cain tipped his head. "Sounds good, X."

X gave an official salute to Dr. Cain, a fresh wave to Cadis, and lightly jogged out of the room with hiss-clicks of his boots.

Dr. Cain watched Cadis as her eyes lingered on the closed door, a hand brushing some of her hair behind on ear with a fond smile.

"I see he made a good impression on you," Dr. Cain chose to poke lightly.

Her blush returned with a vengeance, and she stared at him. "W-what? O-oh, yes. Well he did come to my rescue, after all!"

Though it was adorable, Dr. Cain didn't want to stress her further with embarrassment. He simply kept his smile, and said, "Fair enough. Now how about you go charge up for a bit, my dear? You've been working for long hours for this success."

Soft relief passed over her frame. "That sounds more than good right now. Thanks, Dr. Cain."

He just playfully nodded to the door, and she did exactly that.

Facing his console again, Dr. Cain couldn't help muttering, "So that's why Alia got so jealous…"

Airstrike and Signas stood just a little back from a holomap table in one of the officer quarters of the ship. X was leaning onto the table. The room was mostly dark, only truly lit by the map and their respective armors.

"With teleportation back up, I want to get the others up and running as quickly as possible," X said quietly.

Signas nodded. "Understood. I'll probably be the best positioned to get them setup. Are we getting the… containers from the usual source?"

"Yes. It doesn't look out of the ordinary so far, so it should still get them in under the radar."

X then gestured over the map, pulling up the wreckage of the super-tank outside the city, a mining facility, and a massive factory complex surrounded by junk yards.

Airstrike propped his chin on his fist. "Those are the areas you wanted to check out yourself?"

X nodded. "I need to do this alone, too. I'm hoping scouting missions would provide logical cover, and I might be able to do some good if there are any prisoners still alive."

"Scouting missions seems logical. We're reconnoitering with the teleportation system anyway, it's a good time to gather information. I'll draft up some scouting plans for other Reploids to the other areas, make it look less isolated," Signas offered.

X smiled across at the former Hunter Commander, "Thanks, Signas."

The officer Reploid just smirked.

X pulled a small cylinder out from his storage chamber, offering it across the table. "Keep them safe?"

At that moment, the door opened. All three Reploids looked at it instantly, but other than a faint tension in their frames, did nothing.

Alia was standing there, startled to find all three of them. A datapad was hooked in her arm as usual. "O-oh… sorry, guys. I was just trying to report to Signas…"

All three relaxed, X simply finishing the gesture with the cylinder, saying, "That data you requested, sir," to Signas.

Signas took the cylinder with a nod, storing it away. "Thank you, X. Excellent, Alia. What news?"

"Just the status update on the teams you were coordinating for transport, sir," Alia answered easily, but her eyes were dancing around the room, especially noting the holomap's details.

"Perfect," Signas replied. "You got the update from Dr. Cain, then?"

Airstrike interrupted as politely as he could with a salute, saying, "I'll return to the bridge, sir, ma'am."

Nods were shared, and Alia eased out of his way to let him pass. She replied to Signas, "Yes, just a few minutes ago. I know this deployment is high priority, so I started gathering the data immediately."

"That's why you're the best," X offered with a light smile.

Alia flushed, giggling a little.

Signas chuckled, and said, "Very true. In fact, I trust your work, Alia. I think X could use some input on a scouting mission I'm sending him on." He came around, and offered his hand for the datapad. "I'll implement your plans myself. I need to organize some scouting missions based on it anyway."

Alia was sincerely surprised, but quickly readapted, handing him the datapad with a soft salute. "Yes, sir."

He smiled warmly, tipped his head, and walked out as well.

X was a little confused at Signas' choice of leaving him alone with Alia in that specific moment, but focused through it, and smiled at her. "If you don't mind, of course. I just need to confirm some concerns in these areas," he explained, gesturing at the holomap.

Alia walked over, smiling back. "No problem. It's kinda my job, after all." She focused on the map, and quickly seemed a bit puzzled. "The wreckage of the tank?"

X tipped his head. "Because it's so close to the city, Signas was concerned it might have secondary defense systems or even secondary mechaniloid drones. Unlikely, but with civilians right there…"

Alia nodded. "I see, yes. That would make a logical starting point for the same reason then." She pointed to the junkyard. "I'd probably examine the junkyard next. It's less directly secure than the crystal mine. That mine is built like a fortress. If I didn't know you could handle yourself, I'd be advising you against that part of the job," she finished with a faint smirk at him.

"As long as I don't body-slam anymore missiles, right?"

She reached up and tapped his helmet with a knuckle, "Exactly."

He playfully winced as if it actually hurt. Their eyes met, and they both laughed softly.

Looking back to the map, Alia added, "I can draft up some suggested entry points and map out the likely communication blackouts. How quickly do you need it?"

"ASAP, if that's alright. I should already be out there."

Alia rolled her eyes. "Of course. I'll try to have something within the hour then."

His hand touched her shoulder, and she tried to dismiss how much of an affect it had on her. "Thank you," he said, quite serious.

A wan smile lit her face, and she tipped her head. "Welcome." Curious then, she asked, "Can you tell me what data Signas had you retrieve?"

She caught the fractional freeze in his manner, then he smiled with a shrug as he walked to the door. "Just some data from my missions. Especially the desert base. I think he's curious about how this team of Mavericks is coordinating land forces."

Alia frowned while he couldn't see her face. "X?"

He stopped, hearing her more somber tone, and faced her again, concerned.

"…You know you can talk to me, right?"

This time she saw the sadness wash over his eyes. That was real. He wasn't hiding anything in that moment. "…Sorry, Alia. I'm not trying to be… difficult," he finished awkwardly. "It's really nothing bad. No harm would come from it."

Alia let her disappointment show fully. "…So you can't talk to me."

His face fell, and he looked down to one side. A dark gravity had sucked the warmth from his manner, and she realized it made him look somehow frightening. There was a silent roar of power in that unmasked pain, a tension in that surprisingly small frame. His jaw clenched for a moment, and then he whispered, "I want to."

She stepped forward. "Then talk to me, X! Do you think I can't see it? That something's weighing you down constantly? And it's not just Overdrive! You're always hiding pain, or dodging questions that get too close to what's bothering you. You're not alone, X!"

X drew his eyes up to hers. "I know I'm not. I know you're… the…"

Alia eased closer. "The what?" Her voice was a gentle whisper, not an accusation.

X's face shivered, constricting. His eyes squeezed shut, his lips twisting into a cringe. Alia froze, her eyes widening. She'd seen him hurt, seen him fight. He'd never shown such a tortured, wracking pain in his expression.

Slowly, his face untwisted, and he looked up at her again, guilt hollowing his eyes. "I can't say," he breathed.

Her eyes were watering subtly. "…Why not?"

His eyes couldn't meet hers anymore. He only shook his head slowly, starting to cringe again.

Her frame deflated. Whatever it was, he considered serious enough to tear his own core out. Her head bowed, and she came forward. Without a word, she embraced him. He gasped softly, but his arms quickly wrapped around her.

"I'm sorry, X… I shouldn't have pushed like that. I just… worry."

He shook his head, squeezing. She could feel him shaking in her arms.

After a moment, she eased back, and he released her immediately, his eyes still aiming down.

"…I'll get that data for you, okay?" she whispered, trying to put some normal cheer into her voice.

"Thank you," he managed quietly.

She patted his shoulder, swallowed her own emotions, and left him in privacy to control his own. As she went down the hall, her face fell again. …I just want to help him… What's scaring you so much, X? What could be worse than the things we fight every day?

Dr. Cain sat back in his chair in his office on the ship, his eyes locking on X across the small metal desk. "It's a very aggressive scouting plan, X. Signas forwarded me his full plan. I won't deny we need knowledge of the situation on this island, but this is very dangerous."

X remained standing at attention, but his expression was stoic. "I understand your concerns, sir. I still think these missions are important enough. It also is a very useful expense of our time while we get the transportation hub fully up and running again."

Dr. Cain rubbed his forehead with one knuckle. And I need time to study that part of Zero's body he recovered from the X-Hunter… "…Very well. I approve. Deploy immediately, Megaman X."

X saluted, and twisted to run out of the office.

When the door sealed in his wake, Dr. Cain sighed heavily. "I hope this isn't a mistake…"

Blue light ripped down through the air and almost splashed across part of the inactive super-tank near the city. X poured out of it, his white and gold boots thrumming as he looked around for a moment. Then he closed his eyes, and focused on the sensor pings Dr. Light's programming gave him. The capsule wasn't too far from where he'd sensed it originally. "Well that's something, at least," he muttered, and started running.

He dropped down through angled access halls and crooked paths, some partially sheered apart from the battle between the cruiser and the tank that finally halted it. X rather ominously stepped over one of the mechaniloids he'd had to destroy on the way in to battle Wheel Gator, and finally dropped down into the odd junction of vents and maintenance shafts that was directly under where he'd first sensed the capsule.

Looking up at the vertical shaft a good eight meters over his head, he cringed, setting his hands on his hips. It was such an awkward combination of angles… Then his eyes lit with realization. "Oh! Of course!"

He quickly ran to the far wall, wall-climbing up along the lines in the metal plating. He twisted and leapt over, latching onto the side of the vertical shaft he needed to get into. "This is going to be… interesting," he muttered, and swung down, just under the lip of the shaft, and his boots ignited their new thruster engines.

He ripped across the opening of the shaft, and slammed into the inside of the far wall of it. "Hah!" he couldn't resist declaring, and quickly scrambled up the shaft.

It surprised him that he wound up popping out onto the roof of the tank, which made the whole process seem a bit foolish. He paused, looking around, honing in on the sense Dr. Light was giving him. There was an overhang of metal near him, and he stepped toward it. The moment his boots came within a meter or so, the metal shifted sharply, and burst open. X reflexively ducked back, but immediately eased as he saw the capsule's energy field glowing before him. A faint smile lit his face, and he stepped up to it, touching the field with his hand.

The field faded, and a hologram of Dr. Light appeared once more. "Enter this capsule, X. It contains an upgrade for your buster. I know battle has remained constant for you, and I'm sorry. This upgrade will allow your body to not only double the stored amount of power, but you'll also have full functionality in both arms."

X's eyebrows rose up. "That's… a lot of firepower."

Dr. Light nodded grimly. "I trust you to keep it in check, X. I must."

The hologram faded, and X exhaled, closing his eyes. He agreed with Dr. Light's mood. This kind of power wasn't something to be happy about. With a fresh breath, he turned, and backed into the capsule.

Energy rushed over him in streaming waves, and he felt his form become faintly numb and detached, his arms tingling intensely.

With a blast of air and soft chime of the energy dispersing, X looked down at his arms. White armor with gold and blue highlights, now mingled with some red. He stepped out onto the tank's roof again, and then started to build power, energy writhing over him.

His eyes actually widened. He could feel how much energy was coursing through his systems, drawing it in from everything around him. It was almost terrifying. He turned, aiming at one of the bulkheads, and let both arms convert. Aiming and bracing, he fired with both arms.

Air snapped and howled, power roaring behind him in a massive shockwave of purple and blue light. A wall of it ripped ahead of him, and flash-melted a line clear across the roof of the tank.

X was left staring at the molten metal with wide eyes. "…I don't need that much power in a single blast…" He looked down at his arms. "Maybe one at a time, hm?"

Clenching his fists out of the busters, he looked up, and focused. Energy thrummed around him, and pulled him back up into the air.

A flicker of blue light shot down from the sky again. It rushed down past a pile of junk a safe distance from the facility that spread across the landscape beyond. X appeared from the melting energy at a crouch, his hands on the ground, their new gauntlets glistening. First, he attuned his audio receptors for any patrols that would be investigating the teleport stream. None were approaching close by at least.

He eased around the small mountain of junk, staying in cover until he could get his optics on the facility itself. Ducking down near the remains of a ground vehicle, he zoomed his focus on the entrance he could see.

There were shield-toting mechaniloids at key watch points, and they seemed to have discus-like devices ready in their spare hands. Milling about the closest junk piles were other mechaniloids that looked like simple workers.

With a faint smirk, X built energy over his system, and activated an old weapon. Sting Chameleon's camouflage system. With a pulse-rush, he shimmered out of sight. With barely a puff of dust in his wake, he shot in, lightly hopping around a few workers, and walking past one of the shield-guards to keep his motions silent.

The sense of the capsule was very strong already, which surprised X. He knew it was near this area, but he assumed that it would be deep underground, possibly near the core of the facility (so like in the case of Flame Mammoth's factory…). This signal was barely twenty meters below him. Further, his internal map of the facility pulled from Alia's work showed no actual halls or passages leading to the point he needed. Was this another case of happenstance? Facilities being built around the capsules Dr. Light placed decades ago?

Without much time, his system only able to hold the camouflage in place for a dozen or so seconds, he dashed through a few more workers under the magnet roof-conveyor. It made movement awkward, as he nearly flew off with each hop or jump, but he adapted quickly.

X crouched under a platform with steps leading up to a slightly higher level of the conveyor system as his camo wore off. His main reason for stopping was that he was now directly over the signal he needed, at least within a few meters.

The grinding of metal-mashers and the conveyor made the whole facility loud and raucous, and there were no specific guards in this area. Just the workers milled about, hefting junk closer to the conveyor to make sure it caught them.

X's colors shifted, his right-arm buster converting into the plasma-saw generator. I need to thank Wheel Gator. This weapon system is turning into a life saver.

From experience, he fired two saws. They quickly dug into a circular formation, ripping down with astonishing precision and speed. X was able to drop down after them after barely a few seconds, riding the jagged wall of torn metal, rock, and dirt into an open chamber below. The metal here was older, and it was dimly lit from an old, self-contained power-source.

There was a short wall before him, but X scaled and flipped over it easily. Waiting before him was the shining blue power of the capsule. Taking a breath, he walked up, and touched it with his hand.

As always, the light melted down into a vision of Dr. Light. This time, the good doctor looked grim. "X, this set of capsules has activated because your systems registered a consistent and dangerous threat. I can only imagine war or some terrible force has appeared before you. My system has acknowledged that you've already acquired the Buster and boot parts of this set, so I have more information for you this time."

X's expression grew more concerned as he listened. "…You've got my attention, Dr. Light."

"This is an upgrade to your core armor system, but it's by far the most devastating weapon I've yet prepared for you. This system will divert portions of incoming energy attacks into a secondary storage system that it will also add to you. When fully charged, you will be able to unleash all of that energy in a single explosive attack. The full specs of the range, power levels, and other details will be added to your internal data system so you'll have full knowledge of its dangers and uses. This is a last resort weapon, X. When you are alone, surrounded by death, and have no other escape. Please, use it with utmost caution. …And forgive me for making it for you."

X's eyes closed as his head bowed, and he felt the soft hum of the hologram fade away. "So even you didn't like where this was going," he whispered. With a steadying inhale, he moved forward, turning his back into the capsule. "Well, looks like I am my father's son after all."

Like all the previous capsules, he was washed over into power, his systems downloading new data as much as his body was being reconfigured and modified with point-transports and matter transitions.

After a few seconds, X stepped out through some falling mist, and raised his head. His body was glistening along white, gold, red, and blue plating, on his helmet unchanged now. His chest featured ridges and layers of plating in much greater detail than before.

His hand touched his heart, a faint wince passing over his features. "Thermobaric ignition along jets of plasma in an accelerating matrix… I can't test this." His hand came down. "At this point, I hope I never have to use it." His face remained solemn. These were tools of death, when the point of peace was all but forgotten. That wasn't the threshold he wanted to cross.

His comm signal chimed, startling him. X quickly gestured to the capsule, which now obeyed him, and powered down completely. Then he touched his comm. "Alia?"

"Thank G'd, I was worried I wouldn't get through. Yes, X. I need to warn you. Your next scouting location?"

"The crystal mine?"

"Yes. One of the X-Hunters just ported there. I've checking for any information or network leaks now, but this could be a trap. Do you want to abort?"

X glared down at the flooring. "…No, I'll stay the course. Thank you for the update. If this scouting mission means getting another part of Zero back, it'll be all the more worthwhile."

"X… you know how heavily fortified that mine is, and those crystals have properties no one fully understands yet. Honestly, that place is half the reason this island was ever turned into a brain-trust in the first place!"

"Alia, I understand your warning, and I'd normally follow it, but I have to do this. For Zero, if no other reason."

She slumped her shoulders at her console on the cruise. "X, you don't have to fight all this alone. We can get a team in there with you!"

"We'd need an army to punch through. One unit can infiltrate, hit the right points, and get out. You know that, Alia. I'll be as safe as I can be."

"…Understood. You better."

A little smile formed. "Will do. X out."

Alia looked at her screen sadly, the comm winking off. "How safe do you think you can really be in an enemy fortress, X?"

From the first moment, X was taken with the oddity of the crystals. He'd expected to see some hints of it rock walls in the mine. What awaited him was an alien landscape of glistening surfaces and glass-smooth edges. It was as beautiful as it was dangerous. He'd teleported down into an open shaft, completely bypassing the surface facilities, but it was obvious why that was so easy.

The mine itself was a deathtrap. No sooner had he arrived, then X had to plant himself against a crystal wall, and watch strange, diamond-like scanner arrays pass sweeps over the area he'd just been. They were embedded in the walls, but at odd angles, constantly scanning. His optics tightened, watching their internal structures, just visible enough to hint at refracting lenses and plates, mingled with glowing power cores.

Uniquely designed defense turrets. This place practically IS a weapon, yet alone the crystals. What is Crystal Snail doing down here?

Waiting for a pattern in the sweeps, X shot out, dancing over the glassy floor, and finally hand-flipping over a ledge, just ducking past a slope in the ground quickly enough to avoid a final sweep.

It also had him hurtling down to a blind drop at near full-dash speeds in a core-pulse. "Whoa!" he hissed, and his colors snapped to shades of lavender, his buster warping and articulating into an alien claw. He fired it up at the ceiling just as he reached the ledge, and the wire-claw shot out, grasped the roof, and swung him across the chasm. He landed neatly on the far side, standing braced for a moment to let his respirator cycle.

"Bit more exciting than I bargained for," he muttered, and then glanced ahead, over his shoulder. Something caught his eye.

With a little run and hop, he ducked down beside a boulder of crystal on the next tunnel, watching a mechaniloid perform maintenance on a battle-suit rigged for mining. It's 'hands' were massive, smashing spike-drills.

Handy, but I'm not trying to blow the place apart. There is definitely more going on here than I thought. I need to find that capsule, deal with that X-Hunter, and get out before this gets out of hand.

Using Sting Chameleon's weapon again, X camouflaged, and flitted past the working robot. He quickly slid down another decline, and stayed at full speed to take advantage of his temporary invisibility. He dropped into a large, deep chamber, which was lined with the diamond-turrets. He dash-hopped from point to point, descending steadily, and finally dove out of the opening at the bottom just around a few spikes that lined the base. His camo wore off that same moment, and he caught his breath against the outer wall for a moment.

The capsule was deeper still, and the signal Alia had given him for the X-Hunter was just a little further ahead, above his current level. "I doubt I can stay hidden after a fight, so let's get the capsule first," he muttered, and recharged his invisibility.

X could feel his systems stressing from using the invisibility so much in even a short period. His busters were both getting uncomfortably heated, his respirator cycling heavily to try and compensate, and his new armor was actually venting steam in a few places around his flanks.

He was at the precipice of a chasm deep in the mine. It was a blind spot between diamond-turrets, and he saw why. The only way across was a full on leap across the chasm, where a cluster of turrets waited. If the drop didn't do the job for them, there were plenty to handle an intrusion team.

However, the capsule was below him. Surprisingly far below him. X frowned, and then climbed down onto the side of the chasm, and started to slide down as carefully as he could manage. Even for his practiced grip, it was an arduous task. He saw his destination soon. A gap in the wall several meters further down, in the dark reaches of the mine.

With a little swing down, X dropped into the tunnel, and instantly jerked into an acrobatic dive through it. Diamond turrets were there waiting for him!

He weaved through their scans, rolling around one, diving just past another, and finally flattening himself behind a slightly raised chunk of the floor at the end of the tunnel when he couldn't see another path.

Able to 'rest', he glanced around, confused. His sensors confirmed the capsule was practically beside him, but there was an undisturbed crystal wall there. Surely the crystals hadn't reformed so quickly as a few decades?

At first, he thought to throw a plasma-saw at the wall, but then he stopped, frowning. Assuming violence… no. He watched the diamond turrets for a moment, and when they were all scanning away from him, he shot over to the wall, and pressed his hand to it. Something reacted to him, causing him to smile. The crystals split along a hair-line between them, almost perfectly centered, and opened as a door. X leapt through, and let the door slip shut behind him, barely making a sound.

The capsule waited beyond, nestled amidst crystals and some simple mechanical plating, likely to power to the door system he'd just used.

Moving up to it, X touched the capsule, and eased back.

Dr. Light's image manifested, and smiled a little. "Thanks for not blowing open the door."

X chuckled.

"I'm glad you've remained perceptive as well as powerful, X. This upgrade will directly benefit your sensor system. It has a hybrid array of sonic, radio, multi-wavelength and multi-spectrum scanners integrated to allow you to detect things would otherwise go completely unnoticed. May it give you a path to follow, even when all you see is obstacles."

"…Thank you, Dr. Light," X replied gently. Especially after the violence and destructive power of the other upgrades, this one was a relief to him. It was still the Dr. Light he remembered, still the one he felt he knew in his heart.

The hologram smiled, and then faded away.

X entered the capsule, and let the change wash over him.

When he stepped out, he was at last fully realized in his new armor. The white plating flowed around his head like a crown, rising up in three spikes, with red, blue, and gold patterns layered back over his brain-case.

His eyes dilated, his pupils glowing gently, and he looked up, through the crystals above him. Data was pouring into his sensors in ways he'd never imagined. Light refracting in rainbows of colors he'd never known, vibrations singing the world into a layered masterpiece of form and motion. It was impractical for use while he was fighting, it would be too much, but for searching… he could see the X-Hunter looming in the chamber so high above.

Deactivating the full sensor sweep, X looked ahead, his fists clenching, but not with tension. He was determined. "I still owe you, Zero."

Agile's optics slid open slowly, his thin lips peeling into a sneer. Leaning off the wall, a large capsule to his left holding the unmistakable form of Zero's torso and arms, the X-Hunter stepped toward the center of the large, cube chamber, his gaze on the slowly opening gate beyond.

X stepped into view, from ivory boots to glistening crown, his eyes still lit with determination. "Sorry, I'm late."

Agile chuckled a bit. "My, my, but you do clean up well, don't you, Megaman X?"

"I have generous loved ones," X chose to reply. His eyes focused on the storage unit, and he let his new sensors partially activate. The room was rigged in several ways, including a seal on the door behind him. A teleportation nexus was available above the room, security locked (likely to Agile's signature), and wall behind the X-Hunter had a hidden door. Directly beneath Zero's parts was a trap door waiting to drop the pieces down into an abyss.

"Serges was sloppy in his execution," Agile began, drawing a beam sword in a smooth, savored flourish. "You'll find me far more… precise."

"Were you going to say 'agile' first?" X had to taunt, smiling faintly.

Agile's eyes sharpened, and he lunged.

X had to admit, the hunter was fast. He was able to dive and roll, but Agile was flying through the air and cutting a groove in the back wall in almost the same instant.

Rolling to one knee, X started to build power over his frame. "Fast and precise, agreed," he began, letting his right buster form. "I've fought faster, however."

"Overdrive, you mean?" Agile asked without looking, and suddenly wrenched backward, flying at X with a back-slash searing the air.

X burst-dashed ahead, past Agile across the center of the chamber, and fired away from the Maverick. A shock-wave of plasma ripped along the flooring, and danced under Zero's parts, washing over the wall there briefly.

Agile had to chuckle as he twisted, watching X stand up after the dash. "What was that?"

X started to shimmer with power again, facing Agile. "Sealant."

The Maverick's brow creased, and his optics locked on the ground beneath the capsule. At last, wariness appeared on his face, and his gaze found X again. "…I see how you challenged our master before."

X turned firm. "Stand down or retreat now. I came for the parts, not death."

Agile sneered, flowing down into an absurdly stretched stance, his sword aimed down along his own cheek, the tip resting against his leading hand below. "How about I give you both!"

With a shattering of metal floor and shock of air, Agile was upon the Maverick Hunter that instant. X twisted just under the swipe, stumbling aside. Yet Agile instantly bounced back slashing again.

X barely wrenched himself out of the path, just avoiding the bisecting slice.

Agile twisted with his attack, coming around for a second swipe at X's neck. X's face showed fear as it felt back, just falling under and twisting down from the burning edges of the blade in time.

With a twist of hand and pivot of his feet, Agile instantly had his blade reversing into a stab down at X's chest. "You can't dodge forever!"

X's buster snapped up, firing point-blank into the blade as their eyes locked fiercely. The plasma blast wrenched Agile's arm out with the weapon, but Agile grinned, and used his free hand to grab X's buster beneath the wrist area, yanking it out and open.

"Got you!"

X's left hand was suddenly a buster, aimed directly into Agile's chest. Agile started to realize something was wrong, but saw the dark, yet dry eyebrow X raised in that same instant. "It was Kuwanger, actually."

Agile was confused for a core-pulse before a full-charge plasma blast engulfed him.

The X-Hunter was well-built himself. He slammed into the back wall, still very much alive, but scorched and smoking, his optics wild with frustration and shock.

X simply walked over, and picked the capsule up in his arms. He gave Agile a look of dismal anger. "We're done, or do you need me to drive the point further?"

Agile seethed, but eased away, sheathing his sword. "…You're not what I had calculated for."

X formed one buster, keeping the capsule up with one arm. "Leave."

Agile shimmered, and warped out of the room.

X had activated his sensor system with his new helmet, and smirked faintly. "Thanks for the teleportation key," he muttered, and focused on the matrix in the roof, transmitting the correct signal. He and the capsule were engulfed, and warped out of the chamber just as easily.

Agile, still smoking, stood in another part of the mine. A large console was arrayed to his right, brightly lit crystals filling the rest of the large chamber. The doorway beyond opened, and a bulbous shape smoothly strode into it.

"Where were your defense systems!?" Agile snapped violently.

Crystal Snail eased to a halt, his whisker-tendrils coiling slowly as his crimson, armored shell turned with his faint steps, facing Agile with steady, unmoved demure. "You told me to focus on my work here. I did. Our special guest disrupted none of my operations, and you knew he was coming by invitation." The relatively short Maverick slowly straightened his frame, and though his pale blue skin was not an intimidating color-tone, he suddenly became a daunting figure. His voice was a fluid, thick current through the air, deep and steady. "Failing your own job is not my concern until you make it my concern, X-Hunter. Are you adjusting my orders, or not?"

Agile growled, leaning down into Crystal Snail's optics. "I won't forget this."

Snail's optics sharpened to slits without fear. "Nor shall I. Your tactical failure was abysmal. Every advantage, and you failed utterly? I would dismiss you from my class were I still at the academy, child."

Agile shivered, but teleported away once more.

Crystal Snail eased down, and simply trundled along to his console, starting to work again. Data screens about the crystals were visible, but they quickly filed down to the sides. What was revealed beneath them was an analysis of the Sigma Virus itself…

And he simply continued working.

Author's Note:

A slightly off-schedule update this time due to my moving cross-country! I am posting this while surrounded by a mountain of boxes. It's not as 'box-fort' fun as you'd think. Bad news: Next Update will likely need 3 weeks rather than 2 weeks. Good News: the next chapter is mostly complete, and there should be no further delays!

Again, thank you all for the lovely reviews, PMs, watches, favs, etc. Everyone is a little nudge to keep me going, and it gets the story written!

I'm a little more pressed for time than usual, but I did want to add a comment here for the interaction between Alia and X in the map-room. I enjoyed the emotional tension of the conversation, as well as the hints it drops of the deeper issues between the two. You can look forward to THAT little story line getting more attention later!