A/N: This is a sequel to "The Just and the Law." Parts of it will not make sense unless you're familiar with that story. In order for some elements of this tale to make work, 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, or own Tetris. All feedback, including constructive criticism, is welcome. Let me know what you think. Thank you.
"Game over." The words taunted the woman, flashing across her terminal over and over in bright red letters. She groaned, bringing a can of soda to her lips. There would be a day when she could beat the twenty-fifth level of Tetris, but she was fairly certain there would be flying pigs around to watch her triumph.
Leaning back in her chair, Audrey Silver, Hunter Intelligence Analyst, ran a hand through short-cropped, ebony hair. Her lunch break would be over in fifteen minutes – which was good; she could get back to work. Whoever came up with the idea of locking out access to project related files during lunch breaks (a "mandatory relaxation period") was a complete idiot. Well, at least it means we don't have a productivity problem. That, and no one's terribly worried about getting blown to atoms, for the moment. Still, the sooner she finished her analysis of the surveillance satellite data waiting in her queue, the sooner she could go home. She couldn't wait. It was Friday, she had the weekend off, and her husband had, by some miracle he refused to explain, gotten them tickets to The Gyrating Tamales' Tokyo concert – the fifth, supposedly sold out, stop on the American rock band's world tour. Audrey didn't mind the secrecy, even if she'd only found out a few hours earlier. It was, after all, December 1st, so she just counted it as an early Christmas gift and decided to enjoy it. She glared at her clock, as if by will alone she could speed up time.
The chrome picture frame's built in chronometer defied her efforts. Perched on the back corner of the desk, the birthday gift from her daughter reported that time was still passing at its normal, mundane rate. What joy. It was obvious watching the clock tick wasn't going to do anything for her anxious mood, so she shifted her attention to the picture nestled carefully in the frame. She and her husband stood arm-in-arm, wearing matching jeans and tan t-shirts, both grinning at the camera. Her green eyes stared forward, brimming with laughter; crème skin seeming to glow. Her unfortunate husband had managed to get caught staring off at something that was certainly not the camera, blue eyes bulging somewhat. She smiled. Part of the picture's charm was its value as a goading tool. She had no idea what he was looking at, but that was half the fun, seeing as he couldn't remember. Her eyes moved down slightly, focusing on a much shorter figure, a girl looking about six. She stood between them in a dark blue dress, smiling, an arm wrapped around her father's leg. It would have been obvious to almost anyone that the child was theirs – she enjoyed her mother's skin tone, but her eyes were most certainly her father's. Her hair was a crisp brown, shoulder length and pulled into a pony-tail. And in about three hours, Audrey would be seeing them both again.
Her reverie was interrupted by a high-pitched ringing. Her attention snapped to her videophone. She activated it, and was rewarded with the image of her smiling husband. "Hey, Danny."
"Hello, beautiful. How's your day going?"
Audrey shrugged. "Fine. Not much exciting going on – which is good, I guess. I've spent the last twenty minutes being humiliated and belittled by little devil blocks."
Daniel smirked. "I don't understand why you play Tetris."
"Mixture of hand-eye coordination exercise and addiction, I think." She waited for the inevitable chuckle, and then continued. "What's up?"
"Not much. I called 'cause I just heard on the news they're shutting down three lanes of Interstate 710 for maintenance tomorrow night."
Audrey's face twisted into an annoyed frown. Seven-ten was a nightmare when it was running smoothly. When it wasn't – well, fear of tardiness gave way to fear of never getting off the road again. "That's just wonderful. You think we're going to have a problem getting to the convention center?"
Daniel shook his head emphatically. "Of course not. We just might have to leave a little bit earlier. Say ... half an hour."
"Oh," she replied, realizing where this was going. "I'll see if I can get him to come earlier. It shouldn't be a problem. He already told me all he has to do tomorrow is finish filling out Hunter Evaluations, so his schedule should be flexible. I'll send him an e-mail and ask him about it. I think he's off the compound right now, though. Of course, he lives here, so he'll have to come back eventually."
Daniel shook his head wistfully, grinning. "It's still weird to me that the Mega Man X, of all people, is our daughter's favorite babysitter."
Audrey giggled and fixed him with a faux-critical look. "So I assume you're over the illogical fear that she is somehow unsafe around the greatest Hunter alive?"
He flushed slightly. "I never thought that ... exactly. It's not like I work with him. It was hard – it's still sort of difficult – to imagine him taking care of Angie. If I hadn't seen how well he did with her, I couldn't be made to believe it."
His admission was met with a lopsided grin. Before Audrey could voice her reply, however, the door to her office flew open, admitting a younger woman of African descent that looked absolutely horror-stuck. Brown eyes darted around wildly; her face was flushed, and she was visually trembling. She seemed to be in the middle of an anxiety attack. "Audrey!"
For a single moment, Daniel felt nothing but absolute panic. He couldn't see this new arrival, but it was perfectly clear from her tone that something very wrong was afoot. His first thought was that the compound was under attack, but his mind almost immediately discounted that possibility. He was sure some sort of alarm would be blaring if Mavericks had managed to get in ... right? He forced himself to stay silent, instead listening intently when his wife spoke again.
Audrey looked at the girl, confused. Her name was Lucy Brooks, an analyst-in-training. "Lucy? What's wrong with you?" The girl attempted to answer, but only a few unintelligible squeaks escaped her lips. Audrey rose, took her hand, and led her to a chair. She couldn't help but feel like she was pulling dead weight. "Lucy, dear, try to calm down. What happened?"
Lucy didn't respond at first, but made an effort to slow her breathing and regain control of her rebelling body. Audrey finally managed to look her in the eyes, noting for the first time the tears brimming on their lids. They weren't under attack, she knew, if only because it was far too quiet for that. Finally, Lucy spoke. "He's ... he's gone."
He's gone? What's that mean? Audrey did her best to ignore the odd chill that went down her spine. "Who's gone, Luce? Tell me what happened, from the top."
"It was horrible. I ... I had a headache, so I went to the infirmary to get something. Lifesaver gave me a few pills, and I was about to leave and get back to my cubicle when they came in." She shuddered, but managed to continue after a few moments. "It was Alia and Commander Zero. She was crying and the Commander just looked ... wrong. He was holding someone in his arms and yelling for Lifesaver."
There was that chill again. Anyone with half a brain that hung around her long enough knew Alia harbored significant feelings for the Commander of the Seventeenth Unit. Zero was with her, carrying some wounded person, and he looked "wrong." The spotter was crying. Audrey knew she had to find out what was going on before her imagination decided to go somewhere very dark. No, that wasn't it. She was already bordering on that dark place. She needed something to fling her away. "Lucy ... who was he carrying?" This is it, she thought, sitting down. She was about to find out what was going on. It was too late to decide whether or not she actually wanted to know.
The younger woman took another deep breath, and then continued with, "I ... couldn't recognize him at first. He was totally beat up. His armor was cracked and broken everywhere. I couldn't even tell what color it was supposed to be. Everything I could see was covered with blood, even what I could see of his face – I didn't even know reploids had blood. There was ... so much. It even looked like his hair was full of it. One of his arms was just ... gone, like something had ripped it clean off. He wasn't moving at all ... totally limp." Audrey felt her stomach knotting. She couldn't know that her still listening husband was experiencing a similar reaction. In truth, she'd forgotten he was there. Lucy spoke again. "Then, Lifesaver appeared, and led them to a diagnostic bed. It seemed like he was expecting him, but he was still really tense. They hooked him up and started scanning, I guess. A minute or so later, Lifesaver stopped watching the screen, looked at Zero and Alia, and said 'the Captain was right. He's ... he's dead. I can't recover anything. It's ... it's all gone.' I'm ... I'm not sure exactly what happened next. Alia slumped against the wall and put her face in her hands, Commander Zero was kneeling next to her ... I think he was crying. Lifesaver started yelling for everyone who didn't need medical attention to leave. I was turning to go, and I got one last look at the table where they'd put the reploid down. I," she started to tremble more forcefully, but didn't stop speaking, "saw his shoulder. I saw his crest."
Audrey winced, feeling sadness overcome her – someone had died ... violently, and they couldn't be recovered. But there was more to the story. A field Hunter's crest depicted not only the agency's emblem, but also his unit assignment and rank. "...And? What was on the crest?"
"It had ... it had Commander's pips." It was clearly getting harder and harder for Lucy to speak, but she had yet to completely give in. "And ... and the number 17." Across from her, all the color drained from Audrey's face. "Someone ... someone killed Commander X. They ... tore him apart." With that, she finally gave in, and the real sobbing began.
Audrey sat, beyond stunned, beyond disbelief. A numb feeling washed over her body – like each of her senses was immersed in pure nothingness. She wasn't aware of anything going on around her for the next few moments. Not even her alarmed, shocked husband's voice, calling to her from the videophone's speakers. Gradually, the world came back into focus, but her first thought was that it didn't feel the same. How could it, with the impossible made manifest? She knew, in that instant, that the world would never be the same again.