Megaman and associated characters are copyright Capcom.
Preface: my AU longfic, Abyssal, examined what might happen if we take the X story and adjust the variable of government. What if we were to adjust the same variable in the other direction?
We get a much shorter story, for starters.
Wah-wah, wah-wah, wah-wah.
Wah-WAH, wah-wah, WAH-wah.
"Ehhh?!" said Dr. Cain, cupping his ear. The face on the screen was getting redder and redder. Dr. Cain suppressed a giggle. It was so hard to stay in character, sometimes.
"Can you give us a moment?" interjected a third voice. A hand pushed a button, freezing and muting the video conference. "Dr. Cain," X said reproachfully, "why are you tormenting this poor man?"
"Because he's a slimeball and deserves it," Dr. Cain said crisply. "He needs a good wire-brushing, and you know it."
The corner of X's mouth ticked up. "You're being mean," he said, not as critically.
Dr. Cain laughed. "Mean? I'm having fun. You haven't seen me be mean- I haven't had a reason to be, not since you came along. And I noticed you aren't denying that this guy deserves a little mean in his life."
"We could be done with this meeting already."
"Fine, fine," Dr. Cain grumped good-naturedly. X, he noted to himself, still hadn't denied that the sap deserved this. "He hasn't said anything that would change our usual stance. Why don't you break the news to him?"
"Sure," X agreed.
Once X's eyes turned away, Dr Cain tilted his head back and let his jaw drop.
"If you start to drool, I'm not wiping it up."
With chagrin, Dr. Cain closed his mouth, but he retained a vacant sort of look.
X unfroze the vidcon. "Sorry about that," he said earnestly. "We appreciate your company's interest in reploid technology, we really do. There's a reason we made that technology open to all. But I'm afraid there's no out on the liability clause. If you use this technology to create life, you bear some responsibility if you do wrong by that life."
This was one of the reasons Dr. Cain loved to let X do the talking: he got to watch people squirm. Even today some people had trouble with the idea of robots as life. X confronted them with that fact most directly. That put people in a pickle, because people had trouble telling X to his face that he wasn't alive. That resulted in squirming.
The squirming was delicious.
"Reploids are responsible for their own actions," X went on, "which is why there are reploid police. But if an examination reveals that there was negligence in the design, then the designer isn't free from guilt."
The businessman shifted uncomfortably. "Who gets to make that decision?"
"That's at the discretion of the court," X said. After a moment, he added, "Typically the court defers to Cain Labs."
"Ha!" the businessman crowed. "I knew there was a profit for Cain Labs in there somewhere!"
"Profit?" X said, wearing a guise of confusion. He looked at Dr. Cain. "What was Cain Labs' operating profit last quarter?"
"Ehhh?" Dr. Cain said, cupping his ear.
The corner of X's mouth twitched again, but he played along. "What was Cain Labs' profit last quarter?"
"Profit?" Dr. Cain repeated loudly. "Profit... prophet... did you mean, eh, Isaiah or Jeremiah?"
"Thank you for your perspective," X said graciously before looking back at the businessman. "Cain Labs isn't a for-profit venture. If we were in this for profit, we would have patented reploid technology and sold licenses. You'd be calling us with a business case, not a legal question. That's not what we're about, though. Our priority is to ensure that, if you give me more sons, those sons are well cared-for."
Dr. Cain wanted to smile. There was a reason he sometimes called X "Mother Hen". X's phraseology never failed to take industry by surprise. It would be out of character to say so, so instead he said, airily, "Mohammed was a prophet."
"Very insightful, Dr. Cain," X said. The businessman's mouth opened and shut, but no sound came out. "Any questions?" X prompted, showing mercy.
"Not right now," was the reply.
"If you're unsure, you can always send us schematics to review before you commit to building," X offered. "That's a practice we see sometimes."
"We'll consider that, thank you," said the businessman.
Dr. Cain brought his head level and said, clearly and lucidly, "No, thank you for your interest. And if you do decide to build, don't bother with Mason Corporation's components. They have a history of defectives. We've had to sue them thrice."
The businessman could garner no response. When control returned to him, he could do no more than hang up.
X's self-control slipped. "You're awful!" he said, laughing.
"Yes, I can see how much you hate my antics," Dr. Cain said drily.
"You're scaring developers off, you know," X pointed out.
"Pfft. If they can't stomach my act, they don't deserve to build reploids." X rolled his eyes at that. "But more importantly, turning people away? My whole life I've been trying to help people to advance robotics when it was hard. Now that it's easy, there are so many try-hards that I get to be the gatekeeper. I can be the guy who says, 'No, you're stupid, you don't deserve to build reploids.' That's awesome."
"It does let you play the curmudgeon," X agreed. "But aren't you worried that the senility act will cause people to not take us seriously?"
"It's the opposite," Dr. Cain said. "It makes them look to you more. And it nips in the bud any attempts to corrupt us. We're not visibly interested in money, power, position, or sex. They wouldn't know how to approach you, and if I'm senile there's slim chance of getting me in line. That means the only way to pass muster with us is to have all your ducks in a row, technically speaking. That's where we want to be."
"And it lets you do cruel and unusual things to unsuspecting businessmen."
"That too," Dr. Cain said with a grin. "You provide such wonderful top-cover."
"Speaking of... you were able to clear your schedule for today, right?"
"For you? Always."
"Great!" X said, face giddy.
"Sigma's coming, right?"
"He's coming," X said, and it was his turn to smile. "He just doesn't know it yet."
Being chief of the reploid police suited Sigma. He was a good fit for the job, and the job fit him. He was strong, smart, reliable, consistent, and competent. He had an air of authority and natural leadership. They'd never find a better person for this role. In turn, he was unlikely to find a better role for himself. The job gave him plenty of opportunities to show off his strengths. He was a pillar of the community, honored and respected. He had the loyalty of others and the satisfaction of doing an important job well.
He was the very model of modern reploid success.
So what was the short in the circuit that made him feel like he had no control over his own life?
His desk phone rang. Caller ID pegged it as X. Sigma sighed. Why had he wondered where the short was? He knew where it was. He even knew its name.
He picked up the receiver. "Yes, X?"
"Good morning, Sigma! It is a lovely day today. So lovely, in fact, that it would be a crime to waste it. Dr. Cain and I are going to have a picnic in the park at lunchtime. We would be tickled pink if you joined us."
Tickled pink? Sigma felt a sort of mental nausea so strong it rocked him back in his chair. Who tickled a robot? He, Sigma, was certainly not ticklish. (At least, he really hoped he wasn't ticklish. There was nothing less dignified in the world than being tickled. With any luck, tickling was one of those purely human things, like sex, that he'd never have to deal with.) "I can't make it," he said, automatically.
"Of course you can. The park is three minutes from your office. You can meet us at noon, stay for an hour, and still get back with an hour to spare before your next meeting."
How did X know so much of Sigma's schedule? Sigma checked his calendar as a sense of dread descended upon him. Oh, good. "Can't do it," he said almost smugly. "That time is blocked off as "do-not-schedule"."
"I know. That's how I told your secretaries to mark it."
Sigma felt like he was caught in a hydraulic press. "You set this up?" he said.
"I don't know what you mean by that. I ensured you had a little free time, and a chance to get away from your responsibilities for a moment. I was looking out for you."
It was so absurd Sigma couldn't even fight it properly. When he said nothing, X continued. "It's healthy to interact with other people, especially in low-stress and low-stakes settings, and it's always useful to reinforce family bonds. And, of course," his voice dropped and became more modest-sounding, "it would really make me very happy if you came."
X was entirely too good at this. It wasn't fair. The last thing Sigma wanted to do was disappoint X. X knew that, and played on it whenever he felt the need. Which meant Sigma was going to get dragged to yet another stupid picnic. Light's tights, if X had his way they'd probably end up feeding the birds again. As if those filthy creatures needed any help finding food in this city. Why, Sigma wouldn't be surprised if they lost all flight in a generation or two due solely to weight gain...
The whole line of reasoning revealed to Sigma that he'd already lost. Closing his eyes, he said, "Yes. I will go to the picnic."
"Wonderful! Dr. Cain will be happy to hear that. I'll be sure to tell Zero, too."
Sigma's eyes popped open. "Zero? No!"
"Now Sigma," X chided, "you already agreed."
"I changed my mind. If Zero's going, I'm not."
"Don't punish me for being nice."
"Putting me and Zero together isn't being nice."
"Telling you about it is. I didn't have to do that. If I hadn't told you, you would have shown up and been surprised. This way you're ready. You're forewarned."
"Are you trying to say you did me a favor?" Sigma said incredulously.
"Absolutely. I'm helping you not miss a chance to do something that's good for you."
"Being around Zero isn't good for me! I thought you said this was supposed to be low-stress, low-stakes!"
"What, you're saying Zero makes it not low-stress?" X said innocently.
Sigma couldn't manage anything beyond an offended scoff.
"You're not still upset- you are, aren't you?" Sigma's pride wouldn't let him answer, so X said, "He wasn't well. But he's better now! That right there should show you how far a little tee-ell-cee can go."
Sigma refused to look the acronym up. He didn't want to know. "If Zero's going to be there, I'm not," he said again.
X's voice was serious. "Sigma, we live in a world where people live in peace. They can understand each other, at least a little. They can work together. Surely you and Zero can learn to get along. I believe in you. You're strong enough to forgive and forget, I know you are!"
Sigma allowed himself to sigh. "So you know, just because I'm going doesn't mean I have to like it."
"That's okay," X said cheerily. "When you're there you'll start to like it. Trust me. See you soon!"
Sigma had lost. Again. Could he ever win against X?
Zero was trying hard not to twitch.
This occupied a lot of his attention. It made it hard to follow the conversation, which would have been challenging enough on its own. Dr. Cain was talking- telling some kind of elaborate story. Zero had lost the thread long ago.
"...so I said, Of course it'll get better. It can't get worse!" He and X started laughing. Zero got the sense that he was supposed to be laughing, too. He tried. Honestly, he tried. His mouth split and broadened as he tried on a smile. A coughing sound erupted from his mouth as he imitated the beings around him.
He didn't think he succeeded. He saw and heard X's laughter. He didn't need a tactical evaluation to sense the difference between his "laughter" and X's laughter. Zero could learn, swiftly, from enemy attacks to either copy or counter them. The trouble was that this wasn't an attack, so tactical didn't quite know what to do with it. Part of him wanted to copy it anyway. He grasped it as a form of camouflage, the hunter imitating his prey. Another part of him understood that there was a reason X and Dr. Cain were laughing. He recognized that he didn't "get" that reason. He was missing some vital information.
This made him anxious.
Dr. Cain went on. "So John and I go outside, and he turns to me and says, I didn't realize you only know the natural numbers. And I say, Come on, I'm a scientist too, I've done my share of math. And he says, Bullshit, you don't even know integers, because if you did, you'd know... it can always be worse!"
He laughed again, and X laughed with him. Zero wanted to, and couldn't, and couldn't figure out why not.
At least he wasn't the only one not laughing. Zero's eyes fell on... whatever his name was. The reploid was large, strong, and hairless. Zero knew he'd seen him before. He felt like he ought to remember this reploid's name. As if the reploid could sense Zero's confusion, it said sourly, "The name's Sigma."
Oh, good. Yes, Zero had heard that name before. He associated it with violence. Zero felt suddenly hopeful. Maybe this reploid (Sigma, he reminded himself firmly) was willing to fight. He looked capable enough, and he had a weapon on his hip- the only other, besides his own, that Zero had seen openly carried. Maybe if Zero provoked him he could get... the big reploid... to fight, and that would be fun and good.
"Now, now, Sigma," chided X. (Sigma! Of course!) "He's doing his best. Be nice."
Sigma grunted, and Zero's hopes died. Did X not approve of Sigma's tone? He definitely wouldn't approve of fighting, then. Well, Zero had already known that. X was in human garb and looked quite vulnerable, which expressed an extreme confidence that he would not be attacked. Very odd. Zero's tactical pegged X as a mortal threat, but Zero couldn't see how that was possible, so he'd written it off as yet another system bug.
No fighting, then. Zero felt a touch of despair as his anxiety returned. No fighting meant the picnic would continue, and that meant...
Zero shuddered in horror. If X noticed, he made no sign. Instead he reached into the picnic basket, which in turn rested on a red-and-white plaid spread. X's hand reemerged with... some sort of food, it had to be. It was bright red, conical, flecked with black spots and crowned with green leaves. Zero had presumed the food was just there for Dr. Cain. It was with great surprise, then, that he watched X bring the food to his mouth and take what can only be described as a dainty nibble.
He nodded vigorously afterwards. "You were right, Dr. Cain. These strawberries are delicious. A little tart and very flavorful."
"It amazes me, some of the things Dr. Light did with you," said Dr. Cain. "How big is your stomach?"
"Pretty small," X replied. "It's just large enough to let me sample things."
"It's still a luxury."
"Not at all," X countered. "It's very practical. It's another dimension for me to understand humans and share their experiences. And," he added sadly, "Dr. Light didn't know what the world would look like when I woke up. If I'd had to hide, being able to eat and talk about taste would have helped me maintain cover."
He brightened, and the difference was like the sun emerging from behind clouds. "But we live in a much better world than that! So I get to taste food purely for pleasure. And," he added with a gesture to... the large reploid, "that capability is on the list of technology to retrofit into reploids. Soon, you'll be able to taste things, too!"
The large reploid did not seem to appreciate this.
"What about you?" X asked, turning to Zero. "Can you taste food?"
Zero's anxiety spiked. "Uh..." he said, trying to buy time while he furiously searched through his databanks. "I think so?" he said hopefully.
"Wonderful! Try the strawberry!" X enthused. "It's delicious!" And with that he stuck his hand out, leaving no space for Zero to block or dodge the attack. This was an offensive Zero didn't know how to defend. He had no choice but to accept X's terms. Tentatively, he took the strawberry from X and brought it to his own mouth. Imitating X, he poked it into his mouth and carved a piece with his teeth.
It was cold and wet. The texture was interesting- firm yet yielding- his dictionary was able to associate the term "fleshy" with it. As he continued to toy with it, he tried to figure out how the word "tart" applied. X had used that word. It meant something, Zero knew.
He couldn't discern it. With growing urgency he chewed, releasing more of the strawberry's contents. Surely there was something- anything that would give him a clue! He felt the sensation of different temperatures, yes. He could make out different textures and feelings- not well, his mouth was nowhere near as sensitive as his fingers, but some. Yet, with panic, he realized that there was nothing there that he could identify as "tart".
Zero had no taste, did he?
No! He wanted to taste it. Taste was something X had and valued, which meant Zero should have and value it, too. He tried- he chewed- there had to be something!
"How is it?" X asked.
Zero's free hand clenched until metal ground against metal. "Ert tashtesh..." He shut his mouth while he moved shreds of the strawberry away from tongue and lips. That gave him a little time to think of something. "It tastes... cold?"
It wasn't supposed to be a question. He couldn't make it not a question.
"Hm," murmured X, too thoughtfully for Zero's liking. "Did you like it?"
That was a much easier question, a binary yes-or-no- and Zero could guess the right answer to this one. "Yes," he said.
That earned him an affirming nod from X. It was enough to make Zero relax- which ended when the pulp hit the back of his throat. He tried to move it around, or... do something with it.
Nope. There was nowhere for it to go.
Dr. Cain seemed to notice. "X, could you grab me a napkin out of the basket?" the human asked.
"Sure," X said affably. When his eyes were averted, Zero silently spat the pulp out and onto the grass. Dr. Cain gave Zero a wink. The large reploid was not so generous. Its face was drawn in disapproval.
Zero knew he shouldn't ask this. He knew he shouldn't. He turned to look at the large reploid again. He saw him scowling at him in a silent dare, and he could not help himself. Zero looked squarely at him and said, "What's your name again?"
Merciful night had come at last.
Once, Sigma wouldn't have let himself be given a house. X had insisted. The Chief of Reploid Police had social responsibilities, he'd said, and to meet those responsibilities he needed more than a tube to call home. That he'd paid for it out of Cain Labs' budget had made it impossible for Sigma to refuse.
And, in the end, X was right. As usual. Sigma's house had become a natural meeting place for the Mavericks. They were already there waiting for him when Sigma returned.
Well, they weren't waiting for him, exactly.
"Take it back!" Vava snarled.
"Nuh-uh," said Chill Penguin, smug at having found a weak spot. "It's true. You aren't a real Maverick."
"I've done far more than you."
"Don't make me laugh. None of that counts."
Vava was shaking with anger. "Rust you, it counts!"
"No, it doesn't," and Chill's voice swelled as he reached his point, "because you did it all in that stupid purple armor! What screams 'I'm going to destroy you' about purple?"
"It's not my fault," Vava mumbled sullenly. "It's the color I was made with."
"Oh, yes," said Chill with a sarcastic eye-roll. "Meekly submit to the will of your creators. That'll prove your independence and boldness."
"I'll prove it when I break the beak off your face," Vava growled.
Chill wasn't impressed. "You're so proud of your spray-paint graffiti- why don't you spray-paint yourself for a change?"
Sigma saw Vava vibrating with anger and felt the time had come to intervene. Either he did or this was about to become a tussle. "The furniture you two are about to break is mine," he warned.
The two would-be Mavericks snapped in his direction. Vava did so with such force that his mask slid partially out of place. He moved it back as Chill snickered. Sigma found himself barely able to stomach the two of them. He waved a hand dismissively. "Go wait for me in the lounge," he said.
Perhaps the junior Mavericks understood his mood, for they retreated with a minimum of bickering. Sigma finally had a moment to look into a side room, where a fourth robot was standing in an aura of discontent. "And what's your problem?" Sigma demanded. The robot didn't reply. He was mumbling incoherently, too low for Sigma to make much out.
This wasn't altogether surprising. In the short time Sigma had known him, this robot had acted erratically and oddly. His appearance, too, was odd, featuring a mix of mismatched parts. The face in particular was disturbing, with one red eye much larger than the other and haphazard shards of metal jutting out like the worst kind of human hair.
"Are you even paying attention?" Sigma said.
Serges muttered, more loudly this time, "Can't believe him... picnicking... all that power wasted, beautiful engineering put to trivial use... the grandest disappointment..."
Sigma had no grounds on which to respond, especially since Serges wasn't actually talking to him, which left him feeling most awkward. But then Serges seemed to sigh and give in. "Well, he's not in any danger, and... he seems... happy..." He gave one final harrumph, then pushed past Sigma and out the door, seemingly without uncrossing his arms.
He left the door open. When Sigma looked out after Serges, he was nowhere to be seen.
Unnerved, Sigma shut the door and looked back inside. Ugh. Now it was back to babysitting two petulant but ultimately harmless malcontents. Back to giving them a place to feel proud and rebellious without causing any actual damage, since keeping the peace was Sigma's ultimate mission and this was a peace worth keeping.
It was like he was still at work but without any of the job satisfaction. Maybe there was something to what X had said. Compared to this, Sigma would have preferred the picnic. Which, when he thought about it, was like preferring the loss of an arm to the loss of a leg.
"And how hardcore can Sigma be?" Vava was saying in the other room. "He was having a quaint little picnic in the park. Were the flowers pretty, hm? Was it a nice day? Just thinking about it makes me sick!"
Sigma sighed to himself. Thanks for nothing, dad.
Happy Father's Day.