A/N: In order for some elements of this tale to make sense, one must remove from canon Zero's nonsensical, unexplained hibernation at the end of Mega Man X6. Likewise, the entire plot of Mega Man Zero must be considered elseworlds. Unfortunately, I do not own Mega Man X or any related characters, nor do I work for Steiff. All feedback, including constructive criticism, is welcome. Let me know what you think. The more you tell me, the better the next one will be. Thank you.
As long as the reploid known as Mega Man X could remember, he had loved snow. It always struck him as unique how pure and beautiful it was, oftentimes in stark contrast to the world around and beneath it. Ever since his activation, he enjoyed watching it fall. Watching it cover the land in a white blanket that made everything seem so magical and peaceful. Long ago, he'd learned to cherish whatever peaceful moments came his way; Fate didn't see fit to hand him many.
It was for that reason that he found himself particularly contented on this, the first day of December, sitting alone in a park covered in white velvet underneath a clear, sunny sky. The Hunter had just finished some personal business in downtown New York and decided to enjoy the scenery for a while before getting back to Tokyo, where mounds of paperwork and several Hunter Evaluation Forms (the bane of every Commander) awaited him. Half a dozen young children skated on the large, frozen pond in front of him, and the air was filled with the crisp smells of winter. The area around the ice was occupied by parents, guardians and those, like him, who just wanted to enjoy the atmosphere for a while.
X had been in the park for about fifteen minutes, and no one had yet recognized him, just as he wanted. Being identified as the one of the world's greatest defenders in a public place was not generally helpful in enjoying a relaxing afternoon. Of course, he really didn't expect anyone to give him a second look. Thanks to Dr. Light, when he wasn't in his trademark blue armor, he looked almost exactly like a normal human in his late teens – as long as no one looked too close at his feet or wrists. And even his abnormally large lower legs and forearms could be hidden by the proper clothing.
To that end, X was currently clad in heavy blue jeans, a light blue suede shirt with reindeer on it, and his heaviest – and favorite – coat: a brown bomber jacket with fur trim along the collar. Black, unruly hair blew freely in the mild breeze. Hands that could be instantly transformed into devastating twin X-Busters rested snug in black leather gloves. He ran a hand over the box he had traveled thousands of miles to retrieve. Inside was a one-hundred-and-fifty year old Steiff bear that had managed to survive six Maverick Uprisings completely intact. He still wasn't sure how he managed to find it. One minute, he was cruising the Usenet forsale groups looking for something interesting, and the next, he was looking at a thirty second old article from a man in New York City looking to sell the item he now held in his lap. It still amazed him how much money the man didn't want for it. Not that I'm complaining. Such is the advantage of buying antiques from snobbish billionaires who have use for neither money nor ancient toys. Good thing, too. He smiled sardonically. Not like they pay us much for keeping the world in one piece, after all. He was picking it up personally, because in his opinion only a fool would trust something so old and valuable to the mail system. Then again, no one should be doing it for money.
He snapped his attention away from the placid scene before him as he heard someone approaching his bench from the side. Turning his head slightly, he caught sight of a girl who looked to be in her mid-teens walking with two younger children on either hand, both carrying ice-skates. His mind, trained by decades of combat to be always observant, noted that she was about five-foot-two, with lightly tanned skin, green eyes, and shoulder length brown hair. The one on the left was about four feet tall, male, with alabaster skin and irises that reminded him of his armor. The other was an exact copy, only female. He smiled. Twins. Cute kids. They were all in their heaviest winter clothing, and it occurred to the second Blue Bomber that he probably appeared very under dressed. He had no reason to dress heavier – he was designed to handle extreme subarctic conditions for long periods of time, and the cold never really bothered him. He wore the coat more because he liked the way it looked than anything else. Looks like they're coming this way. The Hunter slid to one end of bench just as the three humans arrived. The smaller ones were busy chatting amongst themselves, and he was quite sure neither of them realized he was there even as they sat down to put on their skates. The girl, on the other hand, was quite aware of him and was staring at him intently as she came up behind her companions.
"Hi," she ventured, after getting a little closer, "good afternoon." She began to supervise her smaller companions' efforts at tying their skates properly.
"Good afternoon," the incognito Hunter returned warmly, mentally noting that he was due back at headquarters in half an hour. "Beautiful day, isn't it?"
"It is. It's not often you see such sunny days in the middle of the snowy season."
X paused for a moment, as if remembering something. "I'm sorry," he began, putting forth his hand, "I forgot to introduce myself. My name's X."
Rising from her last minute inspection of the children's laces, she took his outstretched hand with a smile. "Nice to meet you. I'm Terrel." She motioned to her companions, who had by now figured out that there was someone else sitting next to them on the bench and that their escort was attempting a conversation with him. "And these two are Allie and Sam." Upon hearing their names, the two children spouted out short greetings of their own, before turning to Terrel, whom X was beginning to think was their sister.
"So, can we go now? Please?" Allie asked. Sam nodded his head in agreement with her suggestion.
Terrel giggled. "Alright, alright. Be careful, and play nice." They nodded and started for the pond, leaving a smiling Terrel and a bemused X in their wake. The former promptly sat on the bench. The Hunter noticed approvingly that her eyes never left her charges.
"Cute kids," he spoke after a moment, giving voice to his earlier sentiment. "Seems like they were anxious to get out there."
Terrel gave a sigh. "You have no idea. They've been bugging me all week to bring them. It's like they were afraid the ice would melt or something."
X found himself smiling again. He had to admit, it was kind of nice having a conversation with a human who didn't realize who or what he was. Try as they might, most people, excluding his friends, couldn't look him straight in the eye without betraying a small amount of fear or intimidation. "You picked a good day for it. Doesn't seem too crowded." There were twelve people in their section of the park, including himself: eight on the ice, including Allie and Sam, with the other four scattered around on benches surrounding the giant bronze statue of some ancient figure X couldn't recognize.
"It never is. Most people would rather go to Central Park. More ice and stuff." She gave him an appraising stare. "I've never seen you around here before. Did you just move here?"
"No," X replied, quickly formulating a response that wouldn't give him away. "I'm just passing through. I'm waiting for a fight back to Tokyo, actually." True enough.
"Oh." After a moment, she grinned. "Aren't you a little young to be country-hopping by yourself?"
It took a great deal of mental control for X not to let loose with a powerful smirk. Sometimes he forgot that he looked like a seventeen-year-old boy when he was in civilian clothes. He briefly considered telling her he wasn't human. Deciding he really didn't want to risk making a scene, he came up with another creative way to hide the truth without lying – something he'd found himself to be disquietingly good at. Been hanging around the spooks in Intelligence too long. "Actually, I do a lot of traveling alone. I usually fly myself."
Terrel's eyes lit up. Cool! He's a pilot. This park's always filled with such interesting guys ... not to mention cute. Wait a minute. If he's flying himself, why's he waiting for a flight? "I thought you said you were waiting for a plane."
The Commander of the 17th Unit mentally kicked himself ... hard. Blast it! Zero's right. I'm a bad liar. I can't even bend the truth well. "I ... uh ... have to wait a little while for my appointed lift-off time."
The girl seemed to buy his explanation, and eventually asked, "So, what brings you to New York City?"
X gestured to the box on his lap. "I'm picking up a gift for someone."
Now it was Terrel's turn to raise an eyebrow. "You flew yourself several thousand miles for that little box? Must be something pretty special."
"It's a birthday present for a friend of mine. She collects antique stuffed bears, and I found one over here that was perfect." He chuckled. "I decided to pick it up personally since I've had almost everything I've ever tried to ship destroyed in the process."
He flew halfway across the world to get a present for a girl? Why can't I find a boy like that? Well, another one ripped from my grasp. Darn it all.
X's face and voice betrayed concern. "Did I say something to offend you, Terrel? You look upset."
"What?" Her cheeks flushed slightly. "No, no, not at all. I was just wishing I had a boyfriend that got me presents from halfway around the world."
X blushed and found himself momentarily without words. He still wasn't completely sure what to make of his growing feelings for Alia. Zero – who was always able to read him far better than he would have liked – had bluntly informed him that if he was developing feelings for her, it was "about time" and that he "better not play stupid too long and let his opportunities slip though his fingers." He didn't mention it again, though the azure Hunter was pretty sure he was seeding rumors among the other Commanders. Signas had been giving him what could only be described as creepy, knowing looks.
X had taken his best friend's advice seriously, even if he was speaking in one of his most teasing tones and smirking at him the whole time. Even though the Crimson Hunter had long since reconciled with himself his role in the Repliforce War, the Blue Bomber knew he was still bitter about the fact that he only admitted his feelings for Iris when she was dying in his arms – dying after fighting him in a battle that never should have happened. X often wondered if Zero's recount of that event was the reason he found the thought of Alia ever being infected with the Sigma Virus so terrifying. There was a part of him that found the idea of being forced to kill her nightmarish.
X shook his head, forcing his thoughts away from such morbid memories and went back to Terrel, who was now awaiting his response with an almost evil glint in her eyes. Evil little girl, aren't you? "Well," he began nervously, "we've been good friends for a long time. I always get her something nice for her birthday." Terrel was about to say something, when her younger sister called to her. They looked up just in time to see her siblings perform twin single axles. She flashed them a thumbs up and they sailed back into the fray. "They're pretty good," the incognito Hunter spoke from her side.
"Yeah," the older girl returned, a not-so-small amount of pride in her voice. "I taught them myself. I've been bringing them out here for four years, since they were two."
"You taught them to skate when they were two? Isn't that a little dangerous?" Yeah, an amused little voice called from the back of his mind, This coming from someone who goes up against deadly lunatics with every kind of weapon imaginable for a living.
"Nonsense," she audibly scoffed. "As long as someone's there with them on the ice, you can train them as soon as they're able to walk. Not that we haven't had our fair share of bumps and falls. Mom and I only started letting them go on the ice by themselves a few months ago – Hey ... are you alright?" Terrel had looked back at her new acquaintance to find him seemingly staring off into space, totally ignoring her. She traced his gaze to the pond, but didn't see anything strange there.
The azure Commander was no longer listening, and as to why, the reason was simple: X wasn't looking at the pond. He was instead focused on his internal radar system, tracking a teleporter event a quarter of a mile north of his current location. Normally, that wouldn't have tripped any mental alarms; a great many reploids used their internal teleporters to get around. However, whatever just beamed in was no reploid, if his sensors were to be believed. The footprint's too large and dense, even for an animaloid. Schematic isn't matching anything on file. Man, that thing is huge! It looks like it's starting to move ... this way. It took all of two seconds for these thoughts to run through his mind, and the girl next to him was still looking expectantly at him. He was about to open his mouth, apologize for zoning out, and go check out whatever was in the dense growth ahead of him, but at that moment his auditory sensors detected a far off sound, coming from the north. A chill ran through his body. It was a rhythmic sound, a discreet pounding of something large and heavy in an unerring pattern. Given what his radar had shown him, he now knew exactly what it was. Ride armor. Must be a Maverick. Humans can't teleport, and they never deploy armor in civilian areas during peacetime, anyway. But then why didn't my radar pick up a reploid signature? Some kind of cloaking device? This isn't good. The machine was still too quiet for any of the humans around him to hear, but that would change soon – it was coming straight for them. His eyes darted around, taking in the scene. There were still eleven humans in the area. He wasn't really worried about taking down the armor, but there were far too many civilian targets around for his liking. I've got to get them out of here. That thing'll be here in sixty seconds at its current speed. Crap. He looked at Terrel, who was starting to get slightly unnerved by his sudden, five-second long silence. She started upon seeing his face, which now wore an almost emotionless, serious expression. When he spoke, his youthful voice, while retaining its kind underpinnings, carried a tone of authority that had been missing mere moments before. Sitting his package to his side, he spoke softly. "Please call your siblings back and get out of here. Now."
"What are you–" she began, but he cut her off, standing up and addressing the area in a much louder voice.
"If I may have your attention please," the Hunter boomed, part of him hoping the robot in the armor would hear him and turn tail. Forty seconds – please don't let him have long range weapons. If he does, he's probably already in range. Everyone, even those on the ice rink, stopped and looked at the tall, yet slight boy beckoning them. "Please leave this area at once in a calm, orderly fashion. There is a possible Maverick reploid coming this way from the north, and remember, don't panic." To his chagrin, the only people that moved were Allie and Sam, who were now plodding quickly and confusedly back towards their sister. The other six skaters went back to trying to outdo each other. At least they aren't panicking. But then again, they aren't moving either. For her part, Terrel was looking at him like he was insane.
I don't get it. One minute I'm talking to him, and the next minute he jumps up and starts crying Maverick. What's the deal? Some practical joke. Dumb kid. By this time Allie had managed to drag her brother, who really didn't to get off the ice, halfway back to their sister.
"Hey, kid!" A man in a very expensive looking suit called angrily from one of the benches, "I don't know who you think you are, but where do you get off trying to scare all these people with this Chicken Little routine, you little creep?"
X mentally smacked himself. Jumping up and recalling his armor without warning was sure to cause panic among the people around him, so he'd decided to wait until everyone was out of the area. The fact that he looked like a strangely dressed high school student with unruly hair, not the model of authority he needed to be at the moment, had slipped his mind. They don't have time to just stand around. Alright, then. Here we go. With a mental command, he tripped his armor recall.
Intense blue light engulfed him. When it cleared, the jeans and jacket wearing boy was no more. In his place stood the blue armored, white gloved defender of humanity known as Mega Man X – the reploid who had taken Sigma and his lieutenants down in each of his six uprisings and was recognized by nearly every human on the planet over the age of two. A metal patch bearing the symbol of the Maverick Hunters was wielded to his right shoulder. Catching the sunlight, it glittered brightly. His fists clinched and hanging at his sides, he turned his attention again to the people around him, ignoring the sudden silence that had fallen over the crowd and the girl behind him, who was finally starting to gather her siblings up to leave, all the while mumbling something he didn't have time to figure out. The younger children were too mesmerized by what was going on around them to do anything but cooperate with her. He had everyone's attention now. Twenty-five seconds. This is going to be close. "I assure you I am not lying. Now, please leave this area at once. Head for the south exit." He noted that the people were acting remarkably calm as they moved. Three decades of dealing with Mavericks had taught the populace that it was usually best to simply obey Hunters when their orders were reasonable.
X stood looking at the pond. It was still a problem. The six people still on it were doing their best to get off. He wondered why no one was helping them, but realized quickly that most were old enough to be out by themselves. Four people had already disappeared down the path to his rear, which left only him, the man in the expensive suit, and Terrel and her siblings on land. The man wordlessly scooped up Allie and her brother and beckoned their sister to follow him, but she never got the chance.
X was about to dash to the body of ice and help the skaters off, but even as he started to move, a sound akin to lightning striking filled the air, and two pink balls of plasma bigger than X's torso smashed through the trees and slammed into the pond. There were screams and an explosion, then only silence and a tremendous gust of heat. X's eyes widened. "No!" But there was no time to lament, not if he expected to get the survivors out alive.
"What happened?" Sam called from behind him. The man carrying he and Allie was miraculously still standing, and was taking great pains to keep them from looking back to the pond, after seeing horror etch itself onto Terrel's face. She had been looking right at it when the plasma hit.
"Don't worry about it!" His older sister returned in a shaking voice, starting to pull herself up from where the force of the blast had tossed her. "Don't look back, either of you!" They nodded, too much in shock to speak. The man pulled the four of them behind the statue in hopes of finding cover. He and Terrel dared to glance at the unfolding scene. We've got to get out of here ran though both their minds, but neither of them tried to move. Running when some unseen foe was sending out giant balls of superheated plasma was suicide.
X still stood between the remaining humans and the ruined rink, right forearm now a charging buster. They can't stay there. That statue isn't made of anything remotely protective. The ride armor was louder now, and he could see its outline through the debris. "Listen!" he yelled, not taking his eyes from the approaching behemoth. "As soon as I give you the word, I want you to make a run for it. I'll keep the Maverick busy."
The armor itself was bigger than any model he'd ever seen and had a humanoid design. Ten feet tall and five feet wide, it easily dwarfed the six foot Hunter. X noted grimly that it was a cockpit model – the pilot was completely sealed in. So much for throwing him out of the pilot's seat. Even through the steam, large canons could be seen on either shoulder. Where those blasts came from, most likely. There were no hands. Instead, the arms ended in what looked like rail guns; each easily as long and wide as one of X's arms. Probably fire armor rendering rounds, from the look of the barrels. Just gets better and better, thought the Hunter, leveling his fully charged weapon at the approaching shape. It finally cleared the steam by air dashing over the remains of the ice and stopping about twenty feet from him. X sort of wished it'd stayed hidden. The black armor attached to it had to be a half a foot thick, broken only by an array of laser gatlings built into the chest. Either hip sported what looked like a miniature missile system. That thing could incinerate this entire park. Perhaps the most disturbing element of the machine was the emblem of the United States Army painted on the pelvis. An army ... commissioned that? Great. The Hunter found himself disquieted by the fact that the humans would build such a machine, but quickly pushed the thought out of his mind. Time to get this started. "Maverick!" he began in a commanding voice, "Stand down or be destroyed!" Silence reigned, save the plasma crackling at the mouth of his buster and the sound of rapid breathing behind him.
"A Maverick, am I? And if I don't give up, you'll kill me?" The voice, obviously belonging to a male, didn't sound nervous at all booming from some unseen speaker. It was more bemused than anything else.
X felt a chill go down his artificial spine. Something was very wrong. Ride armor or not, he shouldn't be acting so ... invincible. It's like he thinks I won't attack him. "That's exactly right," X returned coolly. "You have violated the First Law of Robotics; a capital crime."
"I don't think so." Still bemused, but now cockier. X made a fist with his left hand, ready to activate his second buster if necessary, but kept his face serene. "I have a surprise for you. I suggest you use your sensors to do a heat scan of this armor. Go ahead. I'm not going anywhere."
Is this some type of delay tactic? For what? At least he stopped shooting. If I can get him to put his back to them, those people can get out of here. Keeping his weapon trained on the thing's abdomen, he activated his internal thermograph and looked where he expected the cockpit to be. Almost instantly, his skin paled and a look of horror far worse than Terrel's crossed his face. "You're ... you're human..." But how? He teleported in. Humans can't teleport. It causes neural damage. So this guy's insane. What now? I'm forbidden to attack humans. He couldn't see the shocked looks on the four faces behind him, but he could all but feel their eyes boring into his back. Allie and Sam wondered why the great Mega Man X was backing down instead of protecting them, while the older humans, who were both very aware of the First Law of Robotics, felt fear cascade through their minds.
"Bingo," the pilot deadpanned. "The Hunter wins a prize." With a second thunderclap, another plasma shot was zooming at the shellshocked X. Shaking off his stupor, he managed to dash backwards as the blistering energy impacted the snow and sent up another cloud of steam, dissipating his buster's charge along the way. The mecha's speakers let loose with a dark chuckling. "That's what I thought, reploid. You and I both know that statue is no shelter. I could take all five of you now, but dragging it out like this is kind of fun. Aside from you, there's nothing in this city that could possibly so much as slow Excalibur down, and you won't be doing anything to stop me. You can't."
X growled, barring his teeth in silent fury. His shock was mostly gone now; reason had reasserted itself. Still, he wasn't quite sure what to do. The goal was still the same: get the four innocent humans behind him to safety. However, the implementation was now far more complicated. He knew he could neutralize the armor. In fact, there was no doubt in his mind that he could rip it to shreds, despite its vast weaponry. The fight wouldn't be pretty, but they never were.
But it wasn't that simple. Actively radioing for human, non-Hunter aid (his organization was only supposed to intervene where reploids were involved) was likely to set the guy off and get the people behind him vaporized. Starting an attack meant the possibility of injuring the pilot. Even so much as a light bruise would be considered a violation of the First Law of Robotics. Though his kind had free wills and Asimov's rules were no longer hardcoded into their brains, the first still existed as international law. Breaking it meant being declared a Maverick, unless the injury was completely and totally accidental. If he was labeled a Maverick, no matter what the circumstances, there would be no recourse: he would be executed immediately. Even for X, who had long ago decided he would give his life if necessary to defend the human race, the idea of being put to death simply for protecting innocent people – not even necessarily killing the maniac in front of him – was hard to accept. Oh, wait a minute. I forgot. We aren't killed, according to the humans. We're deactivated. That was the real source of the fury raging in his eyes, the fact that this handicap was imposed by the very people he swore to protect, and for that reason alone, he was still looking desperately for another way out.
There was one thing he could do immediately, without notice. He activated the communicator in his helmet, set the microphone for maximum range, and opened a link with Hunter Headquarters. He would have tried to contact the Army, but the Maverick Hunters weren't given direct access to those frequencies. All communication with them had to be routed through a dispatcher. If they heard what was going on and understood, they would be able to get help. As long as I don't say anything to them, that guy shouldn't think I'm trying to call anyone. Hopefully he's wrong, and there is something close that can deal with him. If not... He let his thoughts trail off as he heard a beep. His call had been answered, and it took everything he had not to grin. He looked directly at the mecha in front of him, which had thankfully stopped moving. The pilot was no doubt enjoying the control he had over the situation. X didn't mind. The longer he waits before he starts trying to kill people again, the better. He knew he had to give the humans an opening to get out, but so far he couldn't see a way to do that without engaging the enemy, something he couldn't help but dread. Let's see if I can't keep you talking long enough for Alia to bring the army down on your head, murderer.
On the other side of the world, Alia sat idle at her console in the Command Center, surrounded by various other techs and spotters. No one in the 17th or Zero's unit was active at the moment, so there wasn't anyone for her to monitor. She often pitched in when another unit needed an extra spotter, but everything was amazingly quiet for the moment. She had just finished coding a new version of a Sigma Virus antidote and submitted it to the research team for testing, which left her for the moment with nothing to do. Not that she was complaining. She smiled, pleased, and ran a hand through her hair. Nothing to do meant none of her friends were in the field fighting for their lives, and that was the way she liked it. The door hissed behind her.
"Afternoon, Alia," spoke a familiar voice. The Huntress slowly spun her chair around. The Crimson Hunter, in full armor, stood leaning against the doorframe, trademark smirk on his face.
"Good afternoon, Zero. What's up?"
"Not much," he returned in the quiet, serious tone that made all but his friends slightly nervous. "I'm on standby and," he narrowed his eyes conspiratorially, "have come to raid Signas' private coffee machine."
Alia raised an eyebrow and let the corner of her mouth raise a little. This should be fun to watch. "Really? What happened to the one in Unit 0's rec room?"
Zero's face fell slightly. "I ... um ..." his voice dropped to a whisper. "I blew it up," he finally mumbled, almost too fast for Alia to understand.
"What?" she managed between barely suppressed giggles. "How?"
"That's not important," he shot back quickly. "What is important is that I find coffee, and then get Douglas to get me another machine before my unit decides to mount an insurrection. I've got a few humans in my unit. They're nearly useless without their caffeine. I'll not have operations failing on the count of my sniper not being able to keep his eyes open," he finished with a devilish smile.
"If you say so. I don't see why you bother to drink the stuff. It's not like the caffeine does anything for us."
"Point. I like the way it tastes, though. I tried to get X to like it for ten years, but it never took. He maintains that it tastes like 'hot, dirty water with nasty flavoring.'"
Alia smiled. Sounds about like X. "Well, he's right. Where is he, anyway? His transponder's not activated. He usually always leaves it on so we can find him if we need him."
Zero would have sworn, but that would have given him away. Aw, crap. Why did I have to bring him up around her? He'll kill me if I tell her anything about what he's up to; it's supposed to be a surprise. Good thing I'm a much better liar than he is. Zero looked his friend straight in the eyes. "He said he had some errands to run." I may be able to pull off lies, but that's weak. "Last I talked to him, he had his transponder off because it was acting up. Douglas is supposed to look at it tonight." Better. He made a mental note to tell X and Douglas there was something wrong with the Blue Bomber's tracking unit.
Alia was about to say something, when a beeping sound interrupted her. She turned around to see an incoming communication request on her console's display ... from X. His transponder was now active, showing him in New York City. Zero, looking over her shoulder, slapped his forehead. He mouthed "busted" but otherwise said nothing as he stared over Alia's head. X told him earlier he wasn't turning his communication system back on for anything short of an emergency to keep Alia in the dark, so something had to be up.
"Damaged transponder, hmm?" the Huntress snapped at him. Zero frowned slightly. Alia was known for being calm in crisis situations, but getting caught lying to her was one of the best ways to put her in a bad mood. He knew from experience that her bad moods could be very unpleasant. "Once I answer this call, you two have some explaining to do." She pressed a button and spoke into her headset. "Hunter Headquarters, Alia here. Hello?"
"What's wrong?" Zero asked, not liking the confused look on her face.
"He's not saying anything. The line's quiet. See?" She flipped a switch from "headset" to "terminal" and the background noise of the com system burst from the speakers, but there was no traffic save what sounded like the whistling of the wind. Alia felt a hollow spot start to form in the pit of her abdomen, indignation forgotten. Something felt off.
"So," X's spoke gently after another second, "you seem to have us at an advantage."
"There he is!" Alia all but exclaimed, a slight pleased look moving across her features. She brought a hand to the transmit button on her headset. "X! Alia here. What's going on? What are you talking –"
"That I do, reploid," a second voice, fainter yet forceful, interrupted her.
"What the hell?" Zero whispered, moving to the side and leaning over Alia's desk in an effort to hear better. "Who is that?!" He fixed Alia with a grim look; she wore one of her own. Something was definitely going on. "Can you get a visual of his current location? Trying to figure out what's going on from their conversation isn't going to work. For whatever reason, X isn't talking to us."
"Already working on it," she said, typing furiously. So much for everything being quiet. "Give me a few more seconds. As to why he's not talking to us, I doubt he can. That's why he opened a channel without saying anything," she concluded, her tone clearly indicating she didn't like the implications of what she was saying. "He needs us to figure out what's going on, 'cause he can't tell us."
"Damn it," he rasped, hoping they weren't drawing too much attention, yet. The situation was stressful enough without a crowd of panicky rookies swarming around them.
"What now, then?" asked X's disembodied voice, his tone unchanged. "You could have killed all of us already, if you'd wanted to. You're waiting for something." Alia paled, but only issued commands faster.
"Commander Signas!" Zero yelled almost angrily into his own com unit, still with no idea what was going on but knowing it was now officially not good. "This is Zero. You're needed in Command at Alia's station, immediately. We've got something big in progress involving X. Don't ask for details, sir. We don't have any that make enough sense."
"I'll have a live feed in thirty seconds. We have to wait for the satellite to come into position. Could this have anything to do with what he's really up to, Zero?" Her tone changed only slightly, but it was enough to let Zero know she wasn't happy with the idea.
The Crimson Hunter shook his head sharply. "No. Nothing at all. Aw, screw it. He's –" Zero was stopped short of spilling the beans on his oldest friend by the unknown foe's voice, once again emitting from the speakers.
"Simple, X. Oh, don't bristle like that; like I wouldn't recognize the great Mega Man X, legendary Hunter Commander, when he's holding a plasma cannon to my face. Well, when he was holding a plasma cannon to my face. Funny, how the roles reversed." There was a brief, dark chuckling. "You're only half right. Yes, I could have already destroyed you and killed them, but I'm really in no hurry. Like I said, no one knows I'm here, and even if they did, there's nothing aside from you that could take me on for miles. And it'll take time for them to get their forces here. I'm going to have plenty of time to do what I need to." He stopped again, just as Alia's monitor beeped, signaling the satellite uplink was on line. Hunter and Huntress exchanged glances.
"If he's a threat," Alia hissed, "why hasn't X engaged him?"
"I was thinking the same thing. Maybe his weapon systems have been disabled."
"Lovely thought," the spotter said dryly.
"Not really. I'd already be off to help him if we had any idea what was going on, but charging in blind might make things worse."
"I know, Zero." She sounded barely exasperated, which, when dealing with Alia, translated into a very high level of stress. Zero didn't react; he understood perfectly. "Do you think you'd be standing here if I thought you should be in the field?"
An image filled her screen. It was a blue background covered almost completely with swirls of white: the western hemisphere of earth as seen from close orbit. Almost immediately, the zooming process started. In less than a minute, the two Hunters would have a full picture of what was going on. In the meantime, X's voice returned.
"Alright. Why? What's your goal in this? If I'm going to die today, I'd like to know the reason."
"I wish he'd stop saying things like that," Zero mumbled. Alia gave what could best be described as an affirmative grunt.
"Alia! Zero! What in blazes going on?" a new voice demanded from behind them. Signas had just blown through the doors at a speed quite impressive for someone not equipped with the Emergency Acceleration System, and now stood behind the dirty blond Huntress, concern creasing his brow. Before either of them could answer, however, the evil voice of the hour flared to life again.
"Those who consider you a hero are right, Commander X, and for what it's worth, I'm impressed. I honestly thought you'd turn and run the second you figured out what was going on. There's no reason for you to stay. Nothing you can lawfully do to stop me. But even now, with the facts staring you in the face, you refuse to yield. The light hasn't gone out of your eyes, you haven't given up hope yet." His voice no longer held the cocky edge it had earlier. It was almost admiring. By now the satellite video feed was about thirty-thousand feet over New York and heading, much to Alia's confusion, towards the direction of Cossack Park and the medical district as it continued to zoom in. Signas just listened, having less of a grip on the situation than either of them. "I wish some of the people I used to work with were more like you. You still think there's a way out of this." He laughed again, this time with real humor. "You wouldn't back down from Satan himself. That's why you're called a champion, X. There's only one problem with that," he concluded, just as the image made the final zoom and revealed to the three assembled Hunters a top-down view of X, four humans cowering behind a statue to his rear, and a positively gargantuan, nasty looking ride armor that resembled nothing any of them had ever seen. "Satan isn't human. I am."
"Human? There's a human piloting that mecha?!" Signas roared, attracting the attention of several other people in the room. "Someone tell me what the hell is going on!"
Alia moved her mouth as if to answer, but no sound came out. Her hands quivered over her keyboard.
"Oh, shit," was Zero's dazed contribution. "He can't fight a human. He knows that." Yeah, he knows, and if it came down to keeping those civilians in one piece, that might not stop him.
"Oh ... What are we doing?!" Alia all but shouted, her composure effectively cracked for once, "it makes sense now. We're supposed to send help. And we've ... I've just been listening for minutes like an idiot! How could I be so stupid?"
"Calm down, Alia. Get NORAD on the line." Signas was doing his best to fill his role as calm, collected Grand Commander, but it wasn't going well. His voice sounded small and unsure. "And tell X we've got the message."
In response, Alia nodded and depressed the transmit button on her headset again. Her voice regained a little confidence as she spoke, and her hands stopped shaking. Can't lose it. He needs me focused right now. "X ... we understand the situation. We're sending help. Stand by, we're moving as fast as we can." There was no response from the Blue Bomber as she ended the transmission. "Don't get yourself killed," she whispered, "not like this."
As Alia tried to get an open channel to the only people that could legally intervene, Signas reached over her shoulder and panned the image so that he could see behind the ride armor.
Zero watched closely, all the while trying to contain his rage at the scene that was playing out before him. X's hands were tied. The act of injuring the human would get him killed, no matter what the circumstances or the extent of the injuries he caused, if any. Hell, even attacking that guy would probably be considered a violation by some idiots. Zero knew from experience that it was almost impossible to neutralize a mecha without harming its pilot, especially when dealing with such heavily armed models. There was just too much that could explode. By law, X couldn't do anything. But Zero knew his oldest friend too well, and for that reason, felt a horrible dread growing in his stomach. If he's pushed far enough, he will push back. He couldn't know Alia was feeling almost the exact same thing, or that Signas was wondering how the late Dr. Cain would have handled this. Human bastards.
Signas finally got a stable image of the pond behind the mecha, and gasped, color draining from his face. Zero spoke one word behind him in a pained voice: "no." Alia forced herself not to look, not wanting to be distracted from her task and afraid of what her eyes would show her. Clear on the viewer was the image of a ruined, steaming wreck of a once frozen pond, with six unmoving, in some cases unwhole, human bodies littering the area. The huge reploid blinked back tears. There was no doubt in his mind that they were dead. "I fear this isn't going to end well, my friends."
"This is Maverick Hunter Headquarters," Alia suddenly barked into her headset, "We have a developing situation and need your help. Connect me to one of your superiors, now, Private." Zero pumped his fist in the air as his commanding officer nodded approvingly.
The last creation of Dr. Thomas Light stood unmoving, idle buster hanging limp at his side. They got the message, he thought wryly, now we see what happens.
"Alright, X. I'm getting tired of talking. You understand, I hope. I have plenty of time, but I didn't come here to have a staring contest. Without sounding to cliched, I hope, I came here to kill as many people as possible. It's over. According to the law you yourself uphold, you have two choices, the situation being as it is."
X's expression didn't change, but he tensed. Not yet! The military can't move that fast! I guess it would have been too easy, he thought glumly. He knew he was about to lose control of the situation, and for the sake of the people behind him and in the medical district surrounding the park, that was something he couldn't allow.
"One: Leave now, and I won't kill you. I sincerely doubt you would be disciplined by my race, seeing as you wouldn't be doing anything illegal. Don't even think about running those people out. They're not fast enough, and if you carry anyone, you're nothing but a moving target, and you know it. Two: Stay here, and die with everyone else. Surely that isn't very appealing. You have two minutes to decide, but if you ask me, there's no decision to make here."
Behind the statue huddle four humans, listening to the conversation between defender and destroyer. Terrel sobbed and held her trembling, confused siblings tightly. "We're going to die, aren't we?" she asked the older man. He only nodded sadly, having no words to speak.
Just as she finished speaking, Alia's voice buzzed in X's ear. It was clearly disappointed. "X! Ground units have been dispatched, and should reach your location in fifteen minutes. They aren't sending air support, but I don't know why. The army's the only group handling this. That's the best I can do. Signas, Zero and I tried to get them to authorize you to act, but they flatly informed us that if you take that thing on, you will be condemned as any other Maverick would be, and cut the connection. I'm sorry. There was a pause. "We don't want you to die, X, but we're with you, no matter what." She stopped transmitting, just as her voice started breaking.
X stood stock still, absorbing not just the killer's ultimatum, but Alia's final message, which was a far greater blow. So that's it. No help. There really is, he thought, his ears picking up the sound of sobbing behind him, only one thing I can do. He deactivated his buster and let a single tear fall down his cheek for the situation; a nightmare become reality. "I agree," he finally spoke with a slightly bowed head, all the forcefulness gone from his voice. "There is no choice for me to make. But," he raised his head and fixed the mecha's camera with a grim look, his tone sporting a hard edge and regaining confidence and speed as he continued, "you're wrong. I've never once fought for the sake of supporting the law. Laws can be, and often are, flawed. I fight when I know it's just and necessary. And I would rather be executed for doing what I know to be right, than live knowing I did nothing but watch while more innocents died at your hands."
Almost instantly, X was in motion, dash boots screaming. Leaping over the mecha just as it started to react, he twisted his body around in midair and came down behind the monstrous machine, wrapping his arms around a leg and pulling the appendage off the ground. Having ruined its balance, he slammed his shoulder into it with all his might, knocking it to the ground. Got to move quick. The Hunter pinned it as best he could given its bulk, and directed a powerful shout at his protectorates. "Get out of here, now! Go!"
Terrel blinked, extreme disbelief visible on her face. "Oh ... Oh, my God."
Allie cheered. "I knew he'd save us," she said knowingly, all traces of fear gone.
"Yeah!" Sam agreed.
"You heard him," the man said, awe in his voice. "Let's go!" As fast as he could, he again gathered up the younger children and ushered Terrel down the path to safety, following right on her heels. "Thank you," he said under his breath. The mecha was already beginning to struggle, but X's strength seemed to be enough to keep it down.
"Damn you, machine!" The crazed pilot roared from Excalibur as Terrel and the others disappeared around a bend at breakneck speed. "I didn't think you were this stupid! This will be your end."
Nothing was said for a few seconds. X brought up the humans on his radar. They were moving remarkably fast in the right direction. For that he was grateful, though he didn't allow himself to smile. He had made his decision, and now he had a battle to win. Suddenly, he heard a faint hum, and his eyes widened. Oh, crap. Before he could so much as lift his hands the machine's hull flared with ribbons of electricity. He found himself screaming in pain, unable to move as what passed for his nervous system was flooded with a few thousand volts of electricity. After a few seconds, the charge built enough to throw him off and send him flying to the ground, where he lay in disarray waiting for his systems to recover from the shock.
Alia, Signas, and Zero had nothing to do but watch helplessly as X made his dash. Zero's fists shook in fury – as illogical and insane as it was, he wanted to help his friend, but Signas had firmly ordered him to stay. As the Grand Commander put it, "I can't risk losing both of you." Signas had considered moving human Hunters in, authorized or not, but there simply weren't any that were anywhere close enough to do any good. So the situation stood bleak as X expertly brought the Excalibur to the ground and ordered the humans to escape.
"Damn you, machine!" The demonic voice cried from the Huntress' station. "I didn't think you were this stupid! This will be your end."
Alia wretched, but before she or anyone else could speak there was a tremendous crackling and her speakers went dead. X was hurled off the mecha, writhing violently and landing in a motionless heap.
"What just happened to him, Alia?" Signas demanded, worry in his voice.
"Whatever that was," she breathed, "must have taken out his communications system. We're deaf and mute now," she finished lamely, Zero's tightening grip cracking the back of her chair.
That was like rushing a forceshield. Mechas aren't supposed to have enough power for those kind of defense systems. What the heck is that thing?! X wiggled his fingers, noticing his opponent was starting to stand back up. Oh, boy, here comes round two. He called up his system status. Everything looks okay, except the communication system; that's totally fried. Not that it's really useful anymore. There's no reason to talk to Headquarters now. Generator efficiency seventy-eight percent ... wonderful. I'll not be letting that happen again. He rose shakily to his feet, moving slowly as his body continued to deal with the effects of the energy pulse, right hand forming into a buster and beginning to charge. Partially draining one of his four subtanks to offset the remainder of the field's effects, the Azure Hunter assumed a fighting stance. Playtime's over, bastard.
Suddenly, his enemy was up. Excalibur's torso whirled to face him. There was no remark from its pilot as four tiny missiles erupted from its hips and moved in on the Blue Bomber. X dashed backwards and activated his second arm cannon, jumping into the air spraying the projectiles with plasma bullets. Almost instantaneously, they exploded. Reaching his peak height and activating his hover boots, he brought his still charged buster up and sent two blue fireballs into one of the mecha's shoulder launchers. Those have to go. Sparks flew from it as the plasma ate away at its armor and bit into its inner workings, causing a small explosion. Good. The armor isn't that thick. One more shot should do it for that cannon. He seems to be taking a speed hit for all that bulk. Should make it easier to take the thing apart.
X hit the ground in time to roll out of the way as the lasers came to life. He wasn't quite fast enough, however: a stray beam caught his shoulder armor, vaporizing a chunk of of the blue alloy. He came up to his knees with two fully charged busters, firing one supershot at the already weakened plasma cannon, destroying it in a blaze of blue fire, and sending the other three at its counterpart. Only one connected. The pilot of the monstrous machine managed to dash out of the way, spraying the area with a volley from his rail guns as he started to strafe. X was forced into doing nothing but dodging the armor renders and lasers, narrowly avoiding losing several vital pieces of his anatomy and for the moment completely unable to retaliate.
Blast it, he thought, feeling sharp pain as a laser brushed his hip, I can't dodge forever. He'll pick me apart. With a somersault, he air-dashed over a flurry of armor renders that would have taken his legs off. Enough. X stopped and turned on his heels, activating his Nova Strike System even as lasers began to eat his armor. A few more seconds and his internals would be exposed. And the remaining plasma cannon wasn't even in play.
But that was not to be. The Hunter's body was encased in a sphere of energy as his dash boots hurled him forward and into the air, his overloading busters sending out shot after overcharged supershot at his slowly backpedaling enemy. Not a single laser breached the protective white field surrounding him; every armor rendering round dissolved on contact; missiles were swallowed by weapon plasma.
X's attacks, on the other hand, went unchallenged. The second shoulder cannon melted to slag before his narrowed eyes as the the monstrosity's massive layer of armor began to bubble and dissolve. The explosion of the right missile battery took half the hip assembly with it as one of the rail guns began to bend out of shape. And that was all before the Hunter himself made contact.
That impact sent several panels (and sparks) flying in all directions, detonated the remaining missiles, and sent the stumbling Excalibur backwards into a clump of trees, where it remained, sparking and sizzling. X landed on one knee, flattening his palm against the ground in attempt to balance himself. Steam rose from is now pitted armor. He pulled up his system status again. Nova Strike use left system efficiency sixty-four percent. "Expensive," he mumbled, eying the mecha and readying his buster. If I got lucky, I just knocked him out. Nah, luck doesn't seem to be my thing today.
Eyes roving slowly from side to side, he surveyed the area as he approached the still mecha. The once beautiful white landscape was now a pockmarked, steaming, charred pile of slush. He frowned in disgust as he neared what he was hoping to be the cockpit hatch. What purpose did any of this serve?! Once he was close enough, he tapped the hull with the toe of his boot, wary of anymore surprises from its defense system. He was rewarded with a dull thud. Scanning the cockpit with his thermograph revealed one unmoving, slumped over, yet still alive madman. Time to pry you out, he thought, setting his visual system back to normal mode.
X sunk one foot into Excalibur's pelvis and dug his fingers into the most damaged part of its chest, quite pleased that the laser gatlings were now fused and inoperative. The ruined alloy creaked as he started to pull it back. He was so involved in the task that he didn't notice the remaining rail arm moving until it slammed into his head with enough force to split his helmet and disrupt the magnetic seals that held it in place. It fell to the ground in pieces as dark red coolant – X's lifeblood – began to ooze from the gash in his scalp, some dribbling down his face. Still stumbling backwards from the blow, he was too disoriented to have any chance to avoid the armor renders that began to fly as Excalibur used its dash thrusters to slide away, still on its back. The Hunter had barely enough time to press his forearms against his abdomen in an effort to protect his generator as the rounds slammed into his body. Coolant gushed from his neck as a chunk was ripped from the side of it. Doing his best to ignore the pain, X fired his dash boots and moved towards the bronze statue. Weak or not, it was the only thing that could provide him the slightest bit of cover.
Inhumanly fast as he was, however, outmaneuvering rail gun slugs at close range was simply beyond his abilities. He let out an agonized howl as his right arm, and his active buster, was severed just below the shoulder. A few rounds ripped through his abdomen, some wounds gushing fluid. His diagnostic system bluntly informed him that his generator had been damaged at about the same instant that a spray of bullets shredded through one of his feet, exploding the thruster. He started to fall, only three yards from his goal. No. I don't allow myself to die. Not yet. Pushing off with his good foot, he managed to dive behind the statue, and promptly collapsed, searing pain coursing through his body. Damn it. He didn't have to call up a damage report this time: his systems wanted attention badly enough that they flashed status messages across his HUD in rapid succession. "System efficiency at thirty percent and dropping due to generator damage." X drained his first subtank, leaving three full. That's not going to hold. It can't maintain power anymore. As if to prove his point, his efficiency level dropped to ninety-nine percent, but the drain seemed to be slow. Auto-repair's prioritized stopping leaks and rerouting coolant. Good. Overheating at this point would be insulting, and the nanobots really don't more fast enough to fix anything else in the time I've got. No way tall, wide and deadly's staying still too much longer. Emergency Acceleration and Hover System offline – logical, considering half of it isn't there. Nova Strike System on standby ... how great. Using it now would send my generator over the edge and rip me apart. Why isn't he moving in for the kill? He peered around the statue and suddenly realized he was starting to have trouble focusing. He brushed his fingers against his temple, and proceeded to pull out a small blue shard. Wiping it in the snow, he realized it was a piece of his helmet. That would explain the horrible stinging. Wait a second. He ran his hand over the side of his skull impacted by the railgun. It was caved slightly. X couldn't help but wonder how long he had before his vision system failed completely.
Thinking he now held the advantage, the pilot stopped firing and began to right his mecha. It didn't take nearly as long as it had the first time. More than half the armor, the heaviest part of the vehicle, was now atomized.
"I ... can't believe," X breathed from his would-be cover, "that thing's still ... able to stand." Some of Sigma's forms have fallen to less punishment. His voice entertained various degrees of distortion; his severely damaged vocal system no longer able to accurately render sound. And I'm a mess because I hesitated to destroy that last rail gun. I didn't want to risk blowing the bastard up unless it was absolutely necessary. Because I was trying to keep from ... killing him. Idiot! The Blue Bomber formed his remaining buster. That still works. The mouth of the cannon let off a series of sparks, and he grimaced, more out of disappointment than pain. Sort of.
"You shouldn't be surprised," his enemy barked. "It was designed to take a lot of punishment. Unlike you, it would seem. Though I have to admit, you're far more resilient than I anticipated. You've put up a good fight, X."
"You've got ... to be kidding," X spat up coolant as he spoke, "All that, and I ... didn't blow up the speaker?!" He took a deep breath, ignoring the laughter coming from the mostly crippled death machine. Its pilot was seemingly back in his cocky mood. "Well," he said, "at least you won't be going on any murderous rampages. Your toy is in less than perfect shape. Not only that; the Army will be here in five minutes. I imagine they want their ride armor back ... or at least what's left of it."
"I'll have to settle for taking out the greatest Hunter in existence, then. It won't be as messy, but it should send my message quite nicely. Wait a minute. The army?! What in the hell are you talking about?!"
"I'd ask you what your message is, but I generally care little for the motivation of homicidal maniacs. You don't think I was trying to conduct a conversation with you earlier because I was enjoying your riveting diction, do you? The people at Hunter Headquarters were very happy to notify the army for me, once they figured out what you were up to. It didn't take them long, considering your initial inability to keep quiet."
Hearing his voice, X could just imagine the shocked, unbelieving look on the human's face, and smiled in spite of himself. "But ... but if you knew they were coming, then why stick around? Just to get yourself killed?"
"You could have murdered an awful lot of people in fifteen minutes with all that firepower," he said simply, attempting to stand. "You proved that quite well with the pond, bastard." What he came up with looked more like a bad imitation of Frankenstein's Igor, but he was on his feet. "Innocent men, women in children are in the medical district. I wasn't going to allow them to come to harm." He began charging his buster, ignoring the pain shooting up and down his arm as energy started to gather, slower than usual. Probably going to overload if I keep charging shots. This'll have to be it. "I did make a mistake, though."
"What's that?" asked the madman, railgun coming up to strike the final blow.
"I've been trying not to kill you. One other thing."
"Yes?" He was lining up the barrel of his gun, now.
"You're far too confident. I'm not through yet," X stated without emotion, spitting up more coolant as he stumbled out from behind the statue. His damaged weapon loosed two shots at the mecha's remaining arm, protesting the effort with violent sparking. The railgun fell to the ground with yet another small explosion. "You're out of weapons," X stated, limping towards the ride armor, "Get out, with your hands up." There was no movement.
"Or? Going to try to pry me out again?"
The Hunter Commander actually rolled his eyes at this point. He was right in his earlier mental assessment. The man's obviously insane. He doesn't even care that he's lost all his weapons, can't escape, or that I just indirectly threatened to kill him. On one hand, he acts like he has a goal, but on the other, he's so ... erratic. It's got something to do with the teleport, most likely. "No. I never repeat a mistake, if I can help it." a flurry of plasma bullets left his cannon, cutting a hole in the chest armor. The carved out metal fell away, finally revealing the pilot to X's increasingly blurring eyes. The most he could tell was that it was a white man of average height in military fatigues. Wonderful implication, that. His entire head, and all distinctive markings thereon, were hidden by a black full-face helmet with an oxygen mask. "Now, get out, hands in the air. Then I want you on your stomach."
"Or what?" the maniac inquired indignantly.
"I don't think you understand this. I'm getting you out of and away from that mecha before you decide to try and make it explode – one way or another. You don't get to win here." Anger began to creep into his broken voice. "I'd pull you out myself, but I have a feeling not keeping a weapon trained on you would be very stupid. Now ... get ... UP!" Somehow, even with a chunk of his vocal system torn from his neck, he still managed to convey his fierce will to win.
Deactivating the buster and pulling him out wasn't appealing at all. All X's instincts screamed that his enemy was carrying a sidearm, and he certainly wasn't fast enough or whole enough to defend himself well. As for shooting him – plasma bullets, especially from a cannon as powerful as his, were nearly always fatal to humans, and he still didn't want to kill the man in front of him. Taking a life when it wasn't absolutely necessary was totally antithetical to his nature. As powerful and deadly as history had proven him to be, he had always been reactive, never applying more force than was absolutely necessary to accomplish his mission.
For that reason, he had to use all his willpower to keep from sighing in relief when the pilot stood with his hands on his head and stepped out of the cockpit. "Alright, machine." X didn't have to see his face, he could hear the agreeing, yet furious tone and know that he wasn't smiling anymore. "You win. Now what?" He fell to the ground as ordered.
"Now," X said, trying to check his internal radar and realizing it was gone, "it looks like we wait for the army team to arrive." He fell to one knee again and found himself draining another subtank to restore his energy (though his nanobots managed to slow the power drain to a crawl). "Then this'll be over."
"For both of us."
"I'd guess we have about three minutes."
"Think you'll last that long? You may have stopped leaking, but you don't look so good. And I must say, the asymmetrical head look doesn't suit you."
Oh, so that's the plan, now. Get all talkative again and wait for me to exhaust my energy supply. Nice as sleep sounds right now, I don't think so. "Don't get your hopes up. Like you keep saying, I'm a machine. I may not be at my best, but I'm not about to keel over. I can go without repairs for ... five hours, and nothing you've done is permanent. You've neither beaten nor broken me."
"I guess not."
"And stop trying to inch away. I can still see you perfectly well, and there's nothing at all wrong with my ears."
The man stopped moving. "Why didn't you kill me?"
X was surprised by the question. "What?"
"You didn't press the attack like I know you could've. You tried to disable Excalibur."
The barb was ignored. "Trashing the generator would have been much quicker and easier. Not to mention I wouldn't have been able to thrash you nearly as much. Is it because I'm human?"
"If you were a reploid, I would have already killed you. You know it's because you're human. I'm too sore and tired for stupid questions."
The maniac actually chuckled. "Alright. So, you didn't want to kill me because I'm human. Is that the only reason? Did you think if you left me alive they'd let you off?"
"Nothing will change the rules for me. But no, that's not the only reason. I'd explain it, but I don't think you're sane enough to understand. Besides that, the army's here. " X blinked slowly and suddenly felt anxious, but pushed the feeling to the back of his mind. Here we go.
Two transports, each carrying four heavily armed and armored soldiers, were coming up fast on their position. The large guns mounted on their hoods shined dully. A tank with a very large plasma cannon on the turret brought up the rear. Heavy weaponry. That's nice. A little late, though. The Blue Bomber slowly shifted so that he was on one knee again.
The transports stopped about fifty yards from them, as did the tank. Troops began filing out and forming a defensive line, though X could tell from their movements that they were confused and unsure of what was going on. Why not? No one told them I was intervening. They probably expected to have to come in with guns blazing. He couldn't see any of their faces: opaque visors attached to their helmets hid every feature. Heavy assault gear.
After a few seconds, a man X assumed to be the commanding officer started pointing at them and issuing orders. Three of them broke off the line and advanced with their commander towards the idle combatants, rifles trained on the rogue pilot. X stood and let his arm fall to his side, neutral expression on his face. "Don't move," he whispered.
Two subordinates quickened their pace and closed in on the pilot. Neither of them said anything as they pulled him forcefully to his feet, frisked him (finding nothing) and bound his arms behind his back. One did, however, cast astonished an glance at X and the ruined ride armor. The Hunter paid him little attention, more focused on their superior. The two soldiers handling the pilot retreated with the third – who had been covering them with an assault rifle – back to the line, as their commander slung his weapon over his shoulder and began walking towards X. The Blue Bomber was able to recognize silver Captain's bars wielded to the neckline of his body armor.
The Captain stopped about a foot from the Hunter and removed his helmet – something X recognized as a gesture of respect. Sort cropped blond hair framed his face, which looked to be that of a man in his late twenties. Brown eyes met X's crystal blue irises. "Captain Daniel Winters," he started briskly, "United States Army. And you are ..."
X blinked. I must look worse than I thought. And he did. Most of the hair on the side of his face hit with the rail gun was saturated with coolant and stuck to his skull. His trademark blue chest armor was cracked, marred, and covered in dried circulatory fluid. Combine that with the lack of his helmet, and he didn't look anything like the image of the Blue Bomber most people were used to."You don't recognize me?" With obvious discomfort, he morphed his cannon back into a hand and crisply saluted before rotating so that his shoulder-mounted crest was visible. "Mega Man X. Commander, 17th Unit of Maverick Hunters."
Now it was Winters' turn to be surprised. His eyes widened and his face flushed in embarrassment, if only for a moment. He snapped back a salute of his own. "My apologies, Commander. You don't look too good. Or sound too good, for that matter. I'm afraid we don't have anyone trained to treat you with us."
"Call me X, please. As for my injuries, gruesome as they may appear, they aren't life threatening for the time being. Besides," his voice lowered and turned grim, "if that maniac is so much as bruised, my current state of health matters very little."
"Well, then, feel free to call me Daniel. I've got a medic checking him over now."
"I assume you did that, yourself, X?" He motioned at the ruined mecha. X nodded. "Incredible. That thing was supposed to be unstoppable in combat with a single reploid."
X actually smiled, very thinly. "Nothing is unstoppable, Captain. I'm guessing you can't tell me what that thing is. I've never seen a mecha like that. Its power and weapon systems are far more advanced than normal ... well, were. Something tells me I'm not supposed to know about it."
"You're right. The program is classified. I can't tell you much about the pilot, either."
"He's bent," X observed dryly.
Winters grinned. "Yes, he is. Commandeering a teleportation pad didn't help matters. Were there any casualties? When I was dispatched I was told there were civilians in the area."
X's mood turned solemn again. "I managed to get several people out. But ... six children were on the pond when he hit it with those blasted plasma cannons – his first strike." His voice grew tense with a mixture of anger and guilt. "I couldn't even see him yet. They were all killed. I haven't ... I haven't had an opportunity to pull them out. After that, the four people that were still here took cover. After I realized the pilot was human, I managed to get Hunter dispatch to call you in by leaving my transmitter open and letting him run his mouth off until they figured out what was going on. I took the mecha on so the civilians could get out unharmed. That, and he was claiming he was going to hit the medical district, and you weren't going to be here fast enough. I had no choice but to act."
Winters paled. "Oh God. I'll ... I'll get someone to get the bodies out immediately." He pressed a button on a wrist communicator. "Lieutenant Greene, I want to you take someone and inspect the lake."
"What am I looking for, Captain?"
"Bodies. Six of them. I really don't think you'll have to do much looking." X grimaced.
"X," Winters was very serious now, "Given your circumstances, what you've done very brave. If I were in your place, I'm not sure I would have been able to do the same. Nevertheless," a note of something close to shame entered his voice, "you know what I have to do if he's injured, don't you?"
"I knew from the beginning, Daniel."
"Just know, please ... if it comes to that, I don't agree with it. Not in this case. It's wrong and shouldn't happen."
"I know," X repeated solemnly. "But if I crossed the line, it will be done, no matter what. You're in the minority. I was informed by your superiors through dispatch that if I injured him, I would be considered Maverick, no matter what, and dealt with accordingly." The Hunter didn't miss the surprised look that flashed across the human's face. "The joy of not having any real civil rights, I guess. I can tell you're a good person, Daniel. Don't let your career be destroyed by trying to prevent it. If it comes to that, and you don't do it, plenty of other people will step up. I don't want to die, but I won't hide from reality."
"Captain Winters!" the human's wrist-com came to life with a female's voice, "Our radar shows two transporter signals incoming ... they're about to land at our current location."
Before he could respond, two pillars of light could be seen zooming down from the heavens. One was blood red, the other a crème maroon, and shorter. "What now?" Winters muttered, reaching for his rifle.
One side of X's mouth turned up almost imperceptibly. "Don't worry Daniel. They're friends of mine. I recognize those energy pillars even without my radar." My friends. The beams touched down right after he finished talking. Zero and Alia (whose presence was more of a welcome surprise to X than he wanted to admit to the Captain) immediately began running towards them. Zero got there first, with Alia close behind.
"X!" Zero started, honestly worried eyes dancing over his friend's body. Alia was for the moment too stunned by the scene, and X's body, to speak. Looking at it from from a satellite feed and being a part of it were were entirely different. "Damn! You didn't look nearly this bad from a hundred feet up. We would have been here sooner, but Signas wanted us to wait until the army got here so ... so it wouldn't be assumed that we were in the fight. I won't tell you you did the right thing. You already know that. But there was no way we were letting you face this alone. Like I said before, I'm with you, bro, always. Where's the guy that did this to you?"
"Good to see you, too." Both the Crimson Hunter and Alia cringed at the sound of X's voice. "I'm glad you're here. Both of you. That thing's," he jerked a thumb at the ruined battlemachine, "pilot is in custody and being checked over by a medic from Captain Winters' unit."
Alia's eyes widened as the color drained from her face. "You mean you hurt him?" That sounded smart. Great first thing to say him. Still, this made it real.
"We're not sure yet, miss," Winters provided, breaking into the conversation. "We'll know in a minute." There were grim nods all around.
"I think I'd like to sit down. I feel a little dizzy." X began walking back to the bench, flanked and supported on either side by his friends.
How can he be so calm about this? Alia was thinking, X's arm slung over her shoulder. Odds are they're going to kill him ... and he's just accepting it. They sat, with Captain Winters maintaining a respectful distance, watching, feeling as though he was violating their privacy but unable to take his eyes away from something his common sense told him wasn't supposed to be happening. Some of his earliest memories were of watching clips of Mega Man X on news programs. It was in part because of the blue robot that he entered the military. X never did anything for any reason than that it was right. Even a child watching television could figure that out. And now Winters was here, doing this. He fingered the Captain's bars on his collar and wondered if by the end of the day he would still feel honor in wearing them.
"There's nothing I can do but accept what's going on, Alia," X said sadly. The spotter realized she'd been looking into his battered face for the last few seconds and was apparently very easy to read. "You watched the whole thing. From the moment I fired my dash boots and tackled that coward, I knew exactly what would happen if I injured him. You know me. You know I never do something without considering the consequences. You heard what I told him. I've done what I set out to do: what had to be done to protect the innocent. You've known me for years: would I be the same person you've come to befriend and trust if I did anything different?"
"No," Alia conceded, eyes moist. "It's just ... they'll kill you for little more than nothing. You shouldn't die like this." Zero sat silently, eyes closed. He'd known X longer than anyone. They were like brothers – completely different, but exactly the same: the wisecracking, severe Crimson Hunter, a demon of the battlefield, and the kind, mellow, peace-loving X, whom the media had dubbed the second Blue Bomber. Both fought for what was right. One enjoyed combat and lost himself in it, the other hated it but was nonetheless nothing short of unstoppable. Nothing Zero was hearing surprised him, though the fact that he was actually hearing it made him sick to his stomach. He was far beyond wanting to fight to vent his frustration – his usual state of anger. He wanted to crawl into a dark place and pretend none of this was happening.
X brought his hand up and gently squeezed Alia's shoulder, quite surprised that she didn't jump when he did so. He gave her the briefest of closed reassuring smiles, mindful that a few of his teeth were no longer in place. "Please don't think that I want to die. I don't; not like this. I've always thought I'd either die in battle, or live long enough to see the Mavericks crushed once and for all and finally retire in peace with my friends. And besides, we're jumping to conclusions. He may not be injured. That thing's armor was thicker than you'd believe." I hope that sounded convincing. Didn't help that I don't believe it. Alia isn't naïve. I doubt she does either.
"He's right," Zero finally said. We'll get the official death sentence in a minute.
"Yeah," Alia said. Enough. If this is it, I'm not spending my last few minutes with him mourning his impending death. "Mind if I ask you a question, X?"
"Why were you here? Zero said you were running errands. Since he lied about your transponder being busted, I'm guessing he wasn't telling the truth about that either."
Winters' head jerked up, and despite himself, he interrupted them. "What? You mean, you didn't come here because of the mecha? Because you thought there was a Maverick reploid inside?"
"No, I didn't." No lying now. "I was picking up a package, and wanted to enjoy the park before I went home." He reached down and plucked the box off the ground, where it had fallen during the fight. It was damp, but still intact. This thing must be possessed. Survives anything and everything.
Captain Winters' mouth hung open. That was the farthest from the answer he was expecting as anything could hope to get. "So ... if you hadn't been here shopping, no one would have been here to warn us or stop him, and no one would have known until he blew up half of the medical district. I think I'm going to be sick."
"Join the club, Captain," Zero mumbled. And you don't even know the worst part.
Alia was silent again. Part of being a good spotter (and she was the best) was being able to analyze information almost immediately after it was received and figure out how it applied to the current situation. The facts slipped into place. I wasn't supposed to know he was here. He was picking up something in a box. My birthday is in four days. No, that can't be it. It can't! "X, what's in the box?"
X's head drooped as Zero shook his. Captain Winters simply looked confused. Here we go. I knew this was coming. "Alia, before I answer, remember that I came to the park after I got the package, twenty minutes before all this started. I could have come straight home then, and none of this would have happened." She only nodded, wearing what X knew as the "you'd better tell me now" stare. He sighed. "The package is," he mentally steeled himself, "your birthday present."
Winters felt his stomach turn. The longer he listened, the worse things got. Now, not only was X only here because he was shopping, he was here because he was picking up a birthday present for a girl. Unreal. This is just ... it's a nightmare. Like some kind of damned soap opera from Hell.
As bad as Winters' felt, his woe was no match for Alia's reaction. She slumped back in her seat and turned ashen. X frowned deeply. There is no way that could have actually gone good.
She finally spoke, whispering too low for anyone but X and Zero to hear. "So ... so then this is my –"
"No." X cut her off, almost sharply, and she turned to look at him. When he resumed speaking, his tone was back at its normal level. "I won't let you say that. It simply is not true. You had nothing to do with my being here. Nothing. You can't let yourself think that, especially if this goes ... downhill. You know better than that."
"But if it wasn't for that box, you wouldn't have been anywhere near here. I may not be responsible, but part of this is my fault."
"Look me in the eyes and say that."
"You heard me. I've known you long enough to know that if you really don't believe something, you can't say it convincingly looking someone in the eyes. You're smart enough to know what you're saying isn't true at all. None of this is your fault. It's that maniac's and mine alone. His for attacking, mine for choosing to fight. Unless you can look me in the eyes and prove me wrong."
Alia turned on him, almost angrily, and locked eyes with him. She stayed that way for several seconds, looking as though she wanted to say something, but finally looked away and put her head in her hands. "Damn it." She teared up. "Do you know you have an annoying tenancy to be right all the time?"
"Comes with old age," Zero remarked dryly, though he wasn't smirking, and his eyes were slightly damp.
"Hey! I'll have you know I'm only twenty-six – and you aren't that much younger." He wasn't crying yet, but the look on his face could be described as nothing short of very pained. It may have been something he could accept, but there was no part of him that wanted to die.
"I'm sorry I'm acting so quiet, X. I'm ... I'm just not sure what to say. I'll admit this is one situation I never prepared for," the Crimson Hunter whispered, "I never thought this would happen."
"Me neither. Neither of you have to say much of anything. If this had to happen, I'm glad you two are the ones here for it. But given the choice," he smiled, and sat the box next to Alia. She can open it when and if she's ready. "I would do it all again."
"That's why you're you, bro," Zero said, sounding as though he was resigned to what he was saying.
"Yeah. 'Commander X of the Hunters never yields when innocents are at risk. He's a force to be reckoned with, and terrifyingly lethal in combat, but you'll never meet a nicer, kinder man.' That's how Gate described you to me ... before he went insane. He was right, though I'm not sure if I would have phrased it quite like that," Alia smiled just barely. "No offense, Zero."
"Hey," Zero actually let himself smirk a little, "I never professed to being nice and kind. I leave that to X."
"Bah. Take away the armor and the weaponry, and you're nothing more than a big teddy bear wanting to be hugged, and you know it." That was X, the only man alive who could get away with saying things like that to the person some called "the Demon." All three of them chuckled, in spite of themselves. Humor was good. Stewing nervously while you waited to find out if you (or your friend) were about to be executed was not.
Winters stood, decorum forgotten, totally mesmerized by the scene in front of him. While the Hunters were talking, he'd radioed his commanding officer and explained the situation, bluntly requesting that X not be held to the First Law in this case. It made no sense to him to kill someone for protecting others, especially if that someone didn't even take a life. He in fact made an effort to avoid it. Why else would he have cut the pilot out when he could have simply left him in place and gone for the generator?
Winters had said as much in as severe a tone as military discipline would allow. But his superior coldly proved X right, ordering him to "deactivate the machine if so much as a bruise was on the pilot's body, or someone else would. No exceptions are to be made for any reploid, under any condition. Things would get too complicated." The general (the highest ranking man the Captain could get in contact with) promptly cut the connection, leaving Winters wondering if he even cared that six people died and that more would have perished had X not intervened. He knew one thing: however this turned out, he would never forget this day. He had learned more about X, Zero, and this Huntress he didn't recognize than he ever intended to, and in the process, they had become far more alive, more human in his mind.
"Sir," a female soldier could be heard over Winters' comlink, "I've finished the physical. There's a hairline cut on his right cheek, a couple superficial lacerations, and a few bruises. That's it, sir. That armor protected him incredibly well."
"Understood," Winters returned without emotion, "take three soldiers and one of the transports, and get him out of here. There's no reason for all of you to have to be here for ... the rest of this." I guess this is it, then. It's happening.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
"And one more thing," he called drearily into his comm, "you in the tank. Get out of here, now. It's no longer needed. Call a flat bed so we can get the mecha moved. Someone get a rifle ready with neural renders, and report to me." He began what seemed like a hundred mile walk over to the bench, where everyone had suddenly gone silent. X watched his approach with no recognizable emotion on his face. Zero's eyes were squeezed tight, his fists clenched and shaking. Alia stared straight at Winters, mouth agape. For once, the unflappable spotter was without words.
Once Winters was nearly upon them, X spoke. "We heard everything." His voice was different now – it was something the human had never heard in any recording of the blue Hunter. He sounded tired.
"I ..." Winters began lamely, but found he couldn't think of anything to say.
"Does it really surprise you that much that I was right? That they didn't care?" Zero and Alia were looking at him now. There was bitterness there ... something they had never heard before.
Winters had to answer truthfully, the words tasting like bile. "No. No, it doesn't. I'm sorry."
X closed his eyes, and his face relaxed. He was mentally scolding himself for letting his tone slip. He's not the one I resent for this. This is it then. One last consequence to face. "Don't be sorry, Captain." His voice was calm again, all traces of bitterness or tiredness gone. "I know you don't agree with this. That's why you're the best person to do it. Do you understand?"
Winters nodded. "I do."
"Good. Give us a few minutes in private, please. Then we can get this over with."
"Of course." He turned and headed back to his caravan, leaving X, Zero, and Alia alone.
Once he was out of hearing range, X spoke. "This is it, guys."
"Yeah," Zero growled. "I never really thought we'd have the opportunity to discuss it before one of us got blown away."
"We seem to have done a good job of that," Alia said. "Now what are we supposed to do, X? Say goodbye?"
"Only if you want to. Besides, who says I'm gone forever?"
Zero snapped. "What do you mean by that? Surely you don't think you're going to some kind of afterlife? We're machines. Sentient as we may be, as much as I hate to admit it, I doubt we have souls." Alia nodded in agreement.
"Don't doubt something that can't be either proven or debunked, but hat's not what I meant. Are either of you ever going to forget me?"
"Of course not," Zero said quickly, starting to realize where his friend was going.
Alia shook her head. "Never."
"Exactly. As long as someone remembers me, I'll never be completely gone. That's the most basic kind of immortality. I want you both to know that you're more than my friends. We've done too much together. You're my family, and I know my life wouldn't have been the same without either of you." He took a deep breath, noting that his artificial lungs were really starting to work overtime. He didn't need oxygen to survive, but when his cooling system was damaged, his respirators kicked in to take some of the edge off. "I've never been one to exaggerate my own importance, but I know that the circumstances of my death, once they're public, could upset a lot of people. If that happens, don't let it get out of hand."
"We won't," Alia promised.
"Then, it's time." He stood up shakily, followed by his friends. He turned and faced them, catching Zero in a one-armed hug before he could react. The Crimson Hunter returned it without protest. Alia didn't wait, and threw her arms around them both. Maybe it's better, Zero thought, a tear streaming down his cheek, that you two didn't completely figure it out yet, X. I hope it's less painful, for you both. "I'm going to miss you," the blond berserker whispered in a voice that sounded nothing like his own. Alia squeezed X a little tighter.
They stayed like that for what seemed like an eternity to the watching humans, before X broke contact. "Take care of yourselves." He spun and limped towards Winters, who was coming towards him with his four remaining soldiers in tow. They met half way. "I'm ready. How's this going to work?"
Winters showed him a rifle magazine. "Normally, in the case of reploid who surrenders peacefully, we use an initialization procedure to completely wipe everything and restore the factory state."
"That procedure won't work on me. The architecture of my brain is designed to prevent re-initialization or reprogramming. Dr. Cain could never figure out how to reliably copy that part of my design."
"I know. I have to destroy it," Winters said in a small voice. X didn't react. He wasn't surprised. "This is a magazine containing neural renders. They're armor rending slugs designed to send out a pulse on contact that will scramble your entire neural network, programming, memory, and personality beyond recovery. The effects are instantaneous."
"I understand. Don't miss, Captain." Alia and Zero stepped to the side, careful to get out of the line of fire.
"I won't," he said, raising his rifle to his shoulder. He couldn't help but make eye contact with the legendary Hunter. He would never forget the look on his face, as long as he lived. His features were relaxed. Hair that wasn't matted to his scalp whipped in the wind. But his eyes ... his eyes were wide open, calm, locked on his executioner. They were untroubled, Winters noticed. They were the eyes of a soldier who had seen far too much, but knew he had always done the right thing, orders and regulations be damned when necessary. The eyes of a man who had no regrets. May God, and the world, forgive me.
There was no sound as the bullet flew from the barrel. Nor a noise as the slug hurled through the space between X's eyes and exploded out the back of his skull. It wasn't until the Blue Bomber's limp body started to crumple to the ground an instant later that the rifle's deafening crack filled the air. He fell half-curled on his stomach, face down in the snow. Mega Man X, the legendary Hunter champion, was dead.
Winters shouldered his rifle with shaking hands. "I ... it's done."
"You did what you had to," a female voice answered from behind him. He turned to see Alia, tears streaming down her face. "If it wasn't you, it would have been someone else who pulled that trigger, and he knew from experience that it was very likely that person wouldn't mind it at all. Remember what he told you. He was grateful that you cared."
"But what am I supposed to do now? I just killed humanity's greatest champion for the sake of a few bruises and lacerations."
"That's up to you," Zero murmured, appearing next to Alia. It was obvious he had been crying, but he had forced himself to stop for the time being. "You have to do whatever it takes to resolve this for yourself. Otherwise you won't be able to do anything but wallow in your own self-pity and shame."
"What ... what about the two of you?"
"We're going home," Zero stated firmly. "Alia," he called, waving her to follow him, "let's go."
The two reploids turned and started heading back towards their fallen friend. Zero knelt and gently turned him over, his own face unreadable as he brought his hand up to his old friend's eyes, shutting them for the last time. He stayed there, looking at X's face, saying nothing.
"Sir," a young soldier whispered from his position next to Captain Winters, confusion in his voice, "what are they doing? They said they were going home."
"They are. All of them."
"Should we allow that? Regulations say any Maverick reploid must be disposed –"
Winters didn't move, but cut his subordinate off sharply. "I just killed Mega Man X, Corporal. The man who singlehandly saved the entire human race from extinction before either you or I were born. I shot him because he scratched a man who murdered six people. Regulations demanded that. He's dead, Paul. Unrecoverable. If they want to take his body home, I won't stop them. I've followed enough regulations for one day." He received no response other than a quick nod.
Alia watched all this solemnly from where she stood, and once it was done dropped to one knee and gathered up the pieces of X's blue battle helmet. As she started to walk back to X's corpse, she stopped next to the bench they had been sitting on mere minutes before. Her birthday present was still there. She looked at it dumbly for a moment, as if confused by the sight. Finally, she reached out and gently tucked it in the crook of her arm before walking back to X's body and kneeling opposite the Commander of Zero Unit. She laid the fragments on his chest and ran her hand along the contours of his face. So cold.
"Alia," Zero managed to say, softly grabbing X's wrist without looking up, "are you ready?"
The spotter placed a hand on the Blue Bomber's shoulder, over his Maverick Hunter crest. "I am." The three forms disappeared as a single, massive beam of light raced to the heavens.
Winters followed its path until he could no longer see it. "Let's go." The people around him fell away, heading back to their transport. The Captain looked to the sky a few more moments before bringing his hand up to his neck. Rest in peace, X.
He turned to follow his men. No one noticed his right fist open as it fell to his side, or the pair of silver Captain's bars that fell from his hand. They disappeared, his boots burying them in the snow.