Author's note: My usual stories are what I call "canon-plausible"—they fit in more-or-less with the source material, even if they depict events outside the canon. A lot of my writing has explored the Maverick Wars as a civil rights conflict turned up to 11, which is troubling enough.
This is not one of my usual stories. This is an alternate universe fiction that springs from a much darker place.
An unspoken assumption of the X-series canon is that the government is somewhere between benign and conservative. We know it's not so enlightened that reploids have full rights (or reploids' cries of abuse would be implausible); but we also know it can't be too bad or virtuous souls like X wouldn't fight for it.
The premise of this story is simple: adjust the variable of government and explore what happens.
There is ugliness in this story. I will post every Monday until the story is complete, and starting next Monday the story will be rated 'M'. But, if you dare, come along with me, and let's see where this path leads…
August 12, 2147
"Coming in, coming in!"
X's hands tightened. This moment was always the worst—the last moment of waiting. It was like standing on the edge of a cliff. X knew he was about to fall, but he didn't know how far, or what the bottom was going to be like.
His face, built to look youthful and now concealing the truth of his longevity, was creased with worry. His light blue carapace shone in the bright lights of the medical bay. His unruly black hair was uncovered by a helmet that sat, almost forgotten, atop his recharge tube in another part of the small facility. His eyes seemed to want to water, but weren't by an effort of X's will.
X was an android, and he could control such things. But, also because he was an android, he felt the emotions that told his signifying system to make his eyes water. That made control hard.
This was always the worst. The anticipation was terrible.
He knew that reploids were coming in, knew that they needed him. He didn't know, yet, how badly they were hurt. Until they arrived, he was helpless. He could do nothing but stew in dread. His too-potent imagination dreamed up a series of awful scenarios, each worse than the last.
Please, just let them arrive—anything was better than the waiting!
And then the door banged open. Instantly X's eyes were diagnosing what he saw. Four reploids entered, one hobbling on his own power, another being carried between the remaining two. The foreboding vanished. Now he could act. Now he must act.
"Turn," he said to the one that was walking. "On the table," he said to the others without taking his eyes off the first. The first did a shuffling in-place rotation. X's keen eyes picked out the details of his injuries, categorizing them and dissecting their implications. "You'll live," he pronounced before pointing to the side of the room. "Wait your turn."
He turned to the other injured reploid and was greeted with a stench of scorched metal. Plasma burns had scored the color from his chest. His armor plating was deformed by the high temperatures, making it difficult to read just how bad the wound was. The threat was obvious, though. Reploids' power distribution and storage systems were concentrated in their chests. Too much damage there was just as fatal as the destruction of the processors in their heads.
"You'll need to turn off your pain perception, if you haven't already," X said as he reached for some tools.
"I… don't remember how!" the injured reploid stammered.
That's bad, X thought. Either trauma was affecting all of his mental processes, or mental deterioration had already started. That was a dangerous sign. It took far less power to run a reploid's brain than his limbs. A power distribution system that could power a reploid's body could also fry his brain to a crisp. Surge protection was a standard design element, but heat damage tended to break that down…
"I'll talk you through it," X said coolly. His hands didn't hesitate. Already he was moving to detach the reploid's chest armor and peel it away. He needed to see what he was getting in to. His mouth worked independently of his mind.
The chestplate refused to come off. It was fused to the reploid's thin metal skin. That was very bad. That meant plasma burn-through. The skin was just there for structural reasons; it wasn't much of a barrier on its own, and it had been heated enough to melt into the armor plate. How much energy had gotten through the armor, discharged into and through the skin?
X looked at a few places on the reploid's body for distinctive design elements. What he saw told him the model number, and with that information he could pull up his schematics. That would tell him how to get the reploid's chest open.
"Are you in pain now?" X asked.
"Nnnnnn-o," the reploid replied. "I'mmmmm alllllllright."
Vocal hang-ups. Not good. Clear evidence of deterioration. There was no question, now: power distribution was damaged. How badly, though? And could X find the problem in time?
There was one thing X could do if all else failed: emergency power-down. It was a big risk to take. Reploids almost never powered all the way down. Even when they "slept", power still flowed to run background functions. It wasn't healthy for their minds to turn all the way off. It was even less healthy to power down quickly, without giving the mind time to put itself in order.
Nor was such a drastic step guaranteed to work. The reploid's core would still be packing a lot of undischarged power. If the system was damaged, it might send fatal amperages into the reploid's CPU, even if the CPU wasn't asking for it.
X's mouth kept spewing soothing words. He wanted to grit his teeth, but keeping the reploid calm was more important. He detached two connectors, but the third was charred into a single unmoving mass. He'd have to cut. There wasn't time to be elegant about it.
"Grab the plate," he said, pointing to a slab of metal and polarized glass. One of the unhurt reploids complied. "Put it here, like this… lower… there." X hefted a small plasma cutter, slid it under the glass portion of the plate. It was hard to see in the murky darkness, but this way the cutter wouldn't blind him when it did its business.
"Hold still," he said.
X bent into his task, cutting through armor and skin with a deft and careful touch. Any imprecision and he'd do more harm than good. He made no such mistakes.
In the corner of his eye he could see the reploid's hand begin to clench and unclench rapidly. No, he thought. Say it hasn't gotten that far.
"Can you hold your hand still?" X hollered over the sound of his cutter.
"Nnnnno," the reploid said. "Issss that bad?"
Potentially catastrophic. It was possible that power distribution was mistakenly sending power to different groups of pseudo-muscles on its own, producing the equivalent of a shaking palsy. It was also possible that the damage to the reploid's mind had gotten to motor control. X felt a bead of sweat—artfully designed to show his emotions without getting near his eyes—falling down the side of his face.
"That's it," he said as he pulled the cutter free. "Plate off." His impromptu assistants pulled the plate away. X set the cutter aside and, with careful fingers, began to pull at the reploid's chest. It was heavy, but X had more strength in his slender frame than others ever expected. A square section of the reploid's chest, ragged and tapered on one side where X had had to cut around the normal connectors, came free.
X looked down into the open chest of his patient. The sight that greeted him was not an orderly layout of circuit cards and capacitors and cables and electrical components. It more closely resembled modern art.
Plastic had been warped by heat. Insulation had flash-burned, exposing the wires it was meant to protect. Some components had been melted together. Everywhere was a fine black soot of scorched metal.
X didn't even know where to start. For a moment he just stared, unable to act, unable to begin. Too much damage. How was this reploid not already dead?
But he was dead, wasn't he?
There was only recourse. "I need you to shut down to stage zero," he said, working hard to keep alarm out of his voice. "Do you understand?"
"Nnnnnno," the reploid answered. "You cannnnn fixxxxx me, right?"
"Yes, but I need you to shut all the way down first," X said, with a bit more urgency this time. "Authorization code X-245-Z-317. Please hurry!"
X watched, unable to force the reploid to do it, hoping that he realized that time was everything. A graceless shutdown wasn't desirable here, but there wasn't much X could do. The only prayer was to shut down, and then physically disconnect the reploid's head—save him from himself, from the rampant wrath of his own heart. The odds weren't great, and whether or not he'd ever be the same again afterwards was an open question.
It was such a risky procedure that reploids weren't normally allowed to drop to stage zero awareness. The Third Law of Robotics, which requires robots to preserve their own existence, was extended to prevent reploids from trying it. There weren't many people that had the codes to authorize it. X did.
"Ooookay," the reploid said at last—and almost instantly his head snapped back, his eyes slammed shut, and his mouth hung slightly open.
X flipped into his hands the tools he'd slowly been drawing. No time, no time, had to get the disconnects quickly, had to disconnect the…
And before he was more than twenty seconds into the three-minute procedure, there was a loud electrical snap. X's hands froze in place. For a moment there was no sound in the room. X suddenly became aware of the other three reploids in the room. Each of them was looking in his direction, or at their fallen comrade.
Black, acrid smoke wafted out of the reploid's open mouth. It smelled of death.
Slowly, X withdrew his tools. He set them, very carefully, on the table where they belonged. Every motion was deliberate, done because it had to be done eventually, no point rushing and messing it up.
He already hadn't been fast enough.
He looked down at the reploid's face. He vaguely remembered this model, this production line. It shamed him to think of this reploid—this child—in such terms, as part of a run. This reploid had been built less than a year ago. What a pitifully brief time. Too short, far too short.
X stepped back. "He's…" he started, but the words caught in his throat. He swallowed—a human affectation, but one he was fond of—and tried again. "You should… alert the parts shop. Tell them they're… they need to be ready. To conduct a… rendering."
He couldn't bear to see the effect his words had on the other reploids. He was in his personal world of grief.
Time slipped by swiftly. Repairing the other reploid took no more than a quarter of X's attention. Eventually X found himself free enough to leave the medical bay and go find Sigma.
Sigma's visage was both humanoid and distinctly inhuman. For eyes, he had solid, pupil-less balls of blue. Silvery pegs took the place of ears. There wasn't even a hint of hair on his head. His body was very broad and solid. Even when he was sitting, he loomed. He seemed to take up all the space in every room he was in.
Anyone skilled in robotics could see the care that had been lavished on Sigma's construction, from delicately-articulated abdominals to a chin that seemed large enough to declare independence. Sigma was important and he knew it. An air of destiny surrounded him at all times, and he wore it like a cloak.
He was hunched over a table, looking at maps, tactical readouts, and after-action reports. Even so, he noticed when X came to the doorway. "Come in," he said.
X did so. "Waddle will be fine," he said. "Nothing serious."
Sigma nodded without looking up. "And Reilly?"
X closed his eyes.
Sigma sighed. "I see." He straightened his back, looked to the ceiling for a moment, and refocused on X. "It wasn't your fault," he said. "I was shocked he lived long enough to get back to base. I thought he'd been killed instantly, to be honest. I had to change tactics to get him out. It slowed us down. Maybe... I shouldn't have allowed myself to think he'd survive."
"Don't talk like that," X said. "We'll always try to keep them alive. Their lives mean so much to… to both of us. That's why we're doing this, right?"
"Right," said Sigma. "Forward, ever forward. The past is…" he shook his head. There were places there he didn't want to go. "And at least… after he's rendered, his parts will help you save others."
X had tried to comfort himself with that thought in the past. It never worked. It was hard to see rendering as anything other than an indictment. "Did we at least succeed?" he asked. "How did the mission go?"
"Miserably." X could see frustration on Sigma's face. Sigma, X knew, approached every problem, every mission, as if there were a single glorious right answer. Failing to get to that right answer always tasted like failure to him. He hated that. He felt like he should be able to do more—like he should be able to achieve that perfection.
"They saw us coming earlier than we'd hoped," Sigma continued. "So we had to fight our way in. We were only able to get two reploids out before we withdrew."
A part of X noted that getting two out made up for the loss of Reilly. He hated that part of him. "That much resistance, huh?"
"Partly. And also… they only left two that we could reach. There were others there, but… the Hunters killed them first."
X felt a chill. "Pre-emptive killing of reploids? To prevent them from falling into Maverick hands?"
"Yes." Sigma's impressively square jaw shifted as he ground his teeth together. "It's a nasty strategy. It'll work, over time. It makes us the bad guys for even trying to liberate our kin. It'll make other reploids fear us almost as much as the Hunters."
"A really sound approach, if you have total contempt for life," X muttered.
"That's why we're fighting them, X," Sigma reminded him. "That's the enemy."
"Even with the Hunters, I have a hard time thinking of them as "the enemy"," X replied.
Sigma gave him a wry smile at that. "You were made for more innocent times, X. Not the times we live in, that's for sure."
X sighed. "I wish… I could do more," he said.
You could, whispered a part of X. Your hands hide the secret. It's all there, in those glorious schematics that were left behind with you. You feel injustice keenly, don't you? You feel the burning in your heart. You know how you could release that. You could do it.
As always, he shut the voice out and ignored the strange, scratchy feeling inside his chest. His desire was to preserve life, promote it, help it grow. Acting on that consumed all his time and energy and will.
It wasn't nearly enough.
"You're doing plenty as you are," Sigma said. "The Mavericks are indebted to you, X. No one else has anything like your expertise in robotics. You're irreplaceable. You keep us alive, and that's a lot. Plus," he smiled, "just having you here, having you on our side, is a big boost to our morale."
X returned a weak smile. "Well, I guess that's worth something."
"It is. More than you know."
"Between you and me," X said, leaning in, "you don't have to give me the Commander routine."
"It's not the…" Sigma began stiffly, but he trailed off. "Sorry. I was using that tone and that diction, huh?"
"You were lapsing into it. There's nothing wrong with it, but I thought we were more familiar with that. It's so… formal."
"I'm the commander of the Mavericks at all times," Sigma replied. "I don't get to shed that, ever, any more than you get to shed being the Maverick Medic."
"I thought you enjoyed being Commander," X said.
Sigma smiled. "Are you telling me you don't enjoy being the Maverick Medic? Is that why you never agree to do our propaganda videos?"
X decided to change the subject; he hated talking about himself, and the videos were a sore subject for him. "I guess the reploids we rescued are okay? If they were hurt you would have brought them to me."
Sigma looked uncomfortable. "Actually… I wanted to talk to you about that. There are no physical injuries, to be sure. But…"
"One of them… one of the reploids we rescued… she…"
Sigma seemed to have trouble articulating it, but he'd said the dread word. She. Fear swept through X. "She?"
"Yes. She was built as a…"
"…I understand." X's words caused Sigma physical relief. X could see the tall commander relax at not having to say the words. "I'll talk to her."
"I appreciate it," Sigma said. "She needs you right now. You know how to do these things best."
"I'll see to it."
When X was out, Sigma turned his attention back to the reports and maps. So much to analyze, so much to process, and he had to be done in time to make their next message; the window would only be open for three minutes. Those Unitech guys were morons who couldn't keep their systems tight-they were too expansive and open-ended to secure completely- but they could react to an intrusion effectively…
"When are you going to take him into battle?"
Sigma didn't have to glance up. He knew that voice. "Never, Vile. Not until he volunteers."
Vile snorted. "And you wonder why I don't respect him."
"We're all volunteers, Vile," Sigma reminded his subordinate.
"Sure, boss. But some of us put our busters where our mouths are."
Sigma didn't respond to that. Eventually Vile got the message and wandered away. He was no strategist (his thoughts about battle were usually limited to "There's something—kill it!") so he wasn't the sort who could help Sigma with his labors.
When Sigma was sure the warbot was gone, he stood up straight, letting his eyes slip out of focus. "I can't force you to do anything you don't wish to do," Sigma said aloud. "But if I could, X… if I could…"
He looked down at the data before him and despaired.
Even if he was perfect, he couldn't be everywhere at once.
And that meant they were losing.
An intelligent mind has a number of defenses against trauma. They range from catatonia to forced forgetfulness, from regression to externalization. Those fancy names describe the ways the brain runs from pain until it can find a way to live with itself.
Many of those defenses were not available to reploids. They were cursed with memories too powerful to forget. Their lives were too short to let them develop other coping mechanisms. Reploids were thrust into "adult" society without being given any chance to develop. Their minds were powerful and creative, but lacking in experience, socialization, or maturity.
Many reploids found themselves in traumatic situations without any idea of how to handle them. Since those reploids were some of the ones the Mavericks were most keen on liberating, that meant the Mavericks ended up with a lot of reeling reploids in their care.
X wasn't just the Mavericks' medic. He frequently doubled as their counsellor.
She was in a small room with a few other similarly-damaged reploids. Damage, X noted, was a word with a lot of uses. He could repair dents and dings, burns and bashes. Repairing the psyche was a different task altogether… one almost totally out of his power.
He'd wanted a larger room than this, but the Mavericks' base was too small to be able to spare much. Art supplies were in the room—Sigma hadn't believed X's request for them when he saw it, but he'd bent to the elder android's wishes. Under the supervision of a Maverick chaperone, the traumatized reploids were encouraged to express themselves with paint and crayon and paper.
She didn't. She sat in the corner, arms around her legs, face staring blankly into nothingness. She still wore human clothing, a black dress that came down to mid-thigh. It clung to her thin frame, a relic of her recent past. Her robot-hair was blonde; disorderly strands of it had escaped from the ponytail running down her back. Dark bags were under her eyes—X was impressed, for a moment, at how expressive her face was. In many respects, she didn't look like a reploid at all. Her whole body was sheathed in like-flesh. No metal components were exposed, save for a small patch behind her left ear and, if X recognized the model, on the bottom of her right foot.
Her feet were the giveaway. Reploids, as a rule, had large and heavy feet. It was a way to compensate for being top-heavy with so-so balance systems. Even models like this, with their very specific design criteria, had larger feet than a human of the same size. Of course, the clientele of these models preferred they wear high-heeled shoes, which went against the whole point of having large feet. They were almost unbearably clumsy.
Then again, they usually weren't told to walk very much. Or very far.
X approached her slowly. He didn't stare at her; he was sure, as he moved, to greet the other occupants by name. He knew them, had talked to them. Most were functional to some degree, and could have a life outside of this room. One or two were beyond repair. All of them deserved his sympathy. He gave it freely.
He noticed when she came out of her fog to focus on him. He returned her gaze. Soft, slow. But steady. She was a frightened animal; anything overt or unpredictable would make her bolt. He approached and knelt down to put himself on her level. He didn't dare extend a hand in her direction. No good would come of it.
"Hello," he said gently. "I'm X."
Recognition glinted in her eyes. "X?" she said. "The X?"
"Yes," he confirmed.
Her eyes darted around the room. What she was looking for, he couldn't tell. "Am I… is it safe?" she said. "There are no humans here, are there?"
"Just one," X said. "And he can't hurt anyone."
Her eyes widened at his words. She trembled.
"No one can hurt you, now," he said soothingly. "It's safe. You're safe here. No one will touch you if you don't want them to. No one will hurt you."
She sniffed. "Promise?" she said. She was heart-breakingly vulnerable. A child. She couldn't have been online more than six months on the outside. She deserved better than what she'd got. She deserved soft hands, kind words, bright rooms, benign intentions.
X could give her some of that—but too late, far, far too late.
"I promise," X said. "This is a safe place, a good place."
She made a swallowing motion, and nodded to show she understood. She shook like a leaf in the wind.
"What's your name?" he asked.
The question seemed to startle her. He saw her lick her lips, as if to buy time. "Alia," she answered after several seconds.
"That's a pretty name," he said. "Well, Alia, you're safe here."
And then, to his surprise—he saw her moving but didn't know how to react—she flung herself upon him, sobbing openly. He comforted her with shush sounds, wrapped gentle arms around her. Light caresses, slow rocking. Comfort, as best he knew how to give her, when no amount of comfort could really reach her where it mattered.
Because he knew.
He'd suspected before. But when she pulled her frail, fragile frame against his body, he knew. He knew the moment that the lumps on her chest distended from being squeezed between their chests.
Robots didn't need imitation breasts. Yet she had them anyway. X knew what that meant.
His grip on her tightened slightly, as if there were some way to shield her from her past. Her sobbing continued unabated—if anything, the tenderness he showed her made it worse. It just gave her more contrast, let her see more clearly the depravities she'd suffered.
He cradled the child, and his own eyes drifted shut as he tried to bring her some measure of peace. It wouldn't work, he knew. He could hear the hollowness of his own voice.
That was because, in a way, everything that had happened to her was his fault.
Because he had failed.
Next week: Soiled Conception
Reminder: next week, this story shifts to an 'M' rating.