"Zero!" There he was, finally. X had thought he was some sort of enemy mechanaloid at first, since the outline was so different at a distance, not to mention the color. Yet despite the purple glow and the fact his usually neat hair was fanned out in all directions, this was Zero.
Kneeling down on the ground, eyes closed with an expression of intent concentration, the figure did not respond. X slowed his rush towards him. "Zero?" Was he okay? "Zero, I brought some medical drones. Go back to HQ, I'll take it from here!"
When he crossed some invisible line in the sand, the figure's eyes opened and his whole body tensed to spring. "Shit." Zero winced. "Really bad timing, X. Really fucking bad timing. You have to get out of here. Now." So urgent, but this wasn't a screamed order. It was forced out through gritted teeth as though Zero couldn't spare the energy to yell as he desperately fought to hold something back.
"Zero, you have to go back to HQ! They think you're going to go maverick. Let me take over here, you have to back and prove them wrong!"
"X, I am fucking saturated with the virus right now. It isn't controlling my body, but you being here is not helping with that!" Zero's words matched the results the drones gave when they came in range. "You're the one the virus was programmed to infect, I can't get it to self-destruct and keep it from hijacking my systems to create a virus capable of infecting you at the same time!" Every line of Zero's body radiated the intensity of the effort this took. "Leave the med drones, I'm this close to processor overload, but get the hell out of here right fucking now!"
"Self-destruct the virus?" Lifesaver's voice came over X's com.
"Short version, Dr. Wily made the virus, and me, to wake up a bit after X. That was supposed to be in thirty years or so. Only we both ended up hibernating for a century and the extra time made our personalities too strong for the virus to overrun. So I woke up with the virus in control of my body and my self very unhappy about this. I was fighting for control until Sigma, trying to be helpful, bashed me over the head and the virus decided to use him instead.
"I ended up with amnesia and Sigma ended up with a virus targeted at something very different from you modern guys. That's why he's been trying to keep X and I alive. Remember the clone, when he kept my parts after I blew up and you had my chip? He used it to create the 'Zero virus,' which is targeted at modern reploids." Zero's hair shivered, shifting towards X. "Shit. Well, Sigma finally managed to trigger my memory, only instead of joining him like a good little maverick I was even more 'hell no' about killing X than before I met him. So Sigma's dead, I'm trying to get the virus to self destruct, and X is being really fucking distracting."
"Do you think you can destroy the virus?" Alia's voice was excited: X could almost picture her pushing Lifesaver away to talk directly into the intake.
"No fucking clue. It does not want to be deleted without accomplishing its purpose. With said purpose in range like this, it's barely registering my commands even though I managed to destroy about fifteen percent before X showed up. The med drones will help, X getting back to safety would help more. It has a lock on him now, and I can't break it. X, you need to get under cover, someplace it can't get to. Move!"
X didn't want to leave Zero alone like this, but, "If you say so, Zero." He turned to go.
The next thing he knew he was on the ground, Zero's body holding him pinned. "Shit. Sorry, X the virus is not letting you out of range. I don't think I can regain veto power over motor functions now. Damn it."
"It's okay, Zero." Zero managed to pull back enough that X could turn around to face him: his body didn't prepare to move against Zero's own will unless X did something that looked like a possible escape attempt. "Remember what I said at the end of the last war?"
"X, killing you is not an option for me or the virus, sorry." Zero closed his eyes. "Damn it. I don't know how long I can keep it out of my memory banks."
"What does it need your memories for?" Out of the corner of his eye, X saw the med drones keeping closer. If he could keep Zero busy enough he didn't notice them they might be able to knock him out, although it wasn't Zero that would stop them. Zero wanted a way to stop this.
"The reason why hibernation lets us resist is that it allows the personality to develop strength. The regular virus tries to make you kill innocents and you refuse and delete it. I know you, though, so it could use that knowledge to design a set of compulsions that would be able to control you without your core personality being triggered to defend itself. Damn it." Zero pulled the strands of his hair away from X by an act of will, but then they suddenly became all too eager to switch targets. The med drones turned off for no apparent reason. "I'm considering self-destructing," Zero told him, and X knew that those had been Zero's last hope as well., "but I don't think I could get a replacement built capable of taking out the virus before it's too late. It's mutated crazily beyond baseline and this body is used to dealing with the mutated version but a new body with baseline systems would need way too long to adjust."
X had an idea, a wonderful, awful idea. "If you let it infect me, could you destroy it afterwards?"
"Not the virus in you."
"In everyone else."
"I am not going to let you die because of my father's insane vendetta against yours." That was, X saw, what was triggering Zero's self to reject the virus' control. He would not allow X to be hurt. Period.
"Would it kill me? What would it do if you let it?" It couldn't be worse than what was happening to the entire world. "I'd rather die than become a maverick because I don't want anyone to be hurt because of me, Zero."
"That's what it would use. It wants you to be unable to oppose me. Mandatory pacifism is one of those things you can't fight that I didn't want it to know about." Yet now that Zero had spoken it must. "Actually, within the basic requirements, I have a lot of control. I was supposed to control it, I just don't want to. It wants you to take orders. You wouldn't let the virus tell you to kill people, so maybe I could set up something about limiting valid order types, and it would let me if I use the argument that it's to avoid defenses. It helps that you're my friend and trust me, so I could avoid any outright attacks on your willpower, since if you're on my side willpower's an advantage. Then I could just not give you orders."
X nodded. He trusted that Zero wouldn't abuse that power and Zero knew that.
The easing of the pressure the virus exerted on Zero was visible. "Non-infectious is a given. An army that can't shoot isn't any good to it. Since you're the main target, I can argue that all other virus forms except the one in you are useless failures that should be deleted. Oh thank god. It's listening to me and self-destructing now that it thinks I'm not a traitor. Wily had a robot named King go rogue. He took precautions." Zero sagged a bit now in relief.
"So this would actually work?"
"Don't celebrate yet, there are a few other requirements I have to find a way around. The virus does a lot with a sort of psychic web. Sigma survived by uploading himself into it as his bodies got destroyed until I deleted him from it. I'm trying to figure out what I can do to get around… No, I don't think I can keep myself from knowing everything you do. I could with anyone else, which is why I'm not looking through the eyes of… 324 mavericks left now since I'm going for the active virus first. You're Dr. Light's creation, not just anyone." Zero shook his head, unhappy with this.
"Maverick activity is down to almost nothing," came Signas' careful voice over the com. They were talking about infecting X, after all.
"We're going to keep getting infections, and re-infections, until I can delete all the atmospheric virus, so stay under cover," Zero warned.
There was a muffled expletive and Alia started scrambling to retract orders putting Hunters back into the field.
"So I'll be as hard to kill as Sigma?" X didn't see that as a bad thing.
"You already were. Light had backup stations for you. You just haven't needed them yet." Zero blinked. "Backup tech. I know how it works, and one hell of a lot of other stuff. I have the copy of your design that Forte stole for Wily."
That was like saying he had the holy grail. X's gasp was echoed by others through the com.
"Later. I don't know how much longer I can stall on this before it starts thinking I'm disloyal again and goes right ahead and infects you. I'm really not okay with the voyeur thing. Any suggestions?"
X shrugged, indicating that it really wasn't an issue compared to the fate of the world, but whatever made Zero feel better.
"I can't make it a total one-way street, your processor would burn out, but I can give you access to whatever you want if I pitch it as making you more effective. I guess it would, since you're the one who gets the technical stuff and that way you can look through my files and know what's important."
"That's a good idea." He would have been uncomfortable with that, but it was useful and would make everyone else feel better about this.
"Let's see… You won't let harm come to me: that's nothing new so I don't think I need to edit it. If I die you do. Can't get around that. Thank goodness for backup stations… No, that's not destruction of the body, that's permanent death. I die and stay dead, you will too. There is no way to loophole that. Not for you. And I do not have a knack for self-preservation. But that's all the problem ones."
"I'm fine with all of that. Alia,, Lifesaver? Anything you can think of?"
"Which variety of the virus are you modifying?" Alia had spent some time studying it.
"Like hell I'd use one of the versions of the maverick virus. I'm using the baseline, which was not meant to drive people insane." Zero frowned. "I don't think it was just Sigma getting messed up by the virus adapting itself in his systems. Since I never became a maverick their psychic web lacked a focal point. It needs a network administrator to do upkeep and instead they had Sigma. Not only was he insane but he just didn't have the ability to do it."
"So the virus was for more than just X?"
"Signas," Zero said slowly and clearly, "We are talking about Dr. Wily. I was meant to use this to take over the world. The man was utterly crackers at that point."
"Why did the mavericks want to wipe out humanity?" Alia again.
"Wily again. Yes, he wanted to wipe out his own species. Did I mention he was crackers? He was a mad scientist of the talking to people who weren't there variety, not actually the megalomaniac variety. He kept calling my capsule Blues, and I wasn't responding since I wasn't on yet but that didn't seem to hinder the conversation. It's just in the intent logs, which are optional in any case and are being deleted as soon as I infect X, get stage three access, and can do that sort of thing."
"Does anyone have anything relevant?" X amended his request for input.
"Because the sooner the better, frankly. There is a limit to how many games with loopholes I can play with this before it catches on and wipes my personality." That would be bad, Zero's voice warned. They would not survive against these capabilities in the hands of a newborn in Zero's body that couldn't oppose the virus's will.
Silence for a moment until X calmly told Zero to "Do it."
"Here goes." Zero leaned down and touched his forehead to X's, hair falling around him.
X waited patiently until Zero pulled back to look at him, frowning. "What's wrong? Why can't you do it?"
Zero blinked. "I did." He paused. "You don't feel anything? It's not pushing at you? Well, that was the idea." A few moments more. "It's buying this. Stage three's kicking in… come on… rogue virii deleted." With a sigh of relief, he lay down on X.
X heard cheering over the com as someone announced that the sky was clearing. He wanted to see the blue again, the shadow the virus had cast gone for good. "Zero?" X shook his shoulder a bit. "Zero?" No response. Was Zero okay, he wondered, and instantly knew. He looked at the medical drones. Thank goodness they were on again. "Lifesaver, could you have the medical drones get to work? He was not kidding about the processor overload. Oh, and my side of the mental link seems to be working."
"Roger." They were there in a second: Lifesaver wanted readings. "Li…" Remembering that it was X's father whose name he was about to take in vain, he cut it off and continued, "I've never seen burnout like this."
"I'm so sorry, Zero." X sat up carefully, shifting so Zero's head ended up in his lap without being jarred.
"For what?" Alia didn't understand why X could possibly feel like the guilty one. "We're sending transport."
"Most of that was from trying to keep it from infecting me the way it wanted to without triggering the Regency Protocol and being erased. If he had been it would have created a blank slate who would do whatever the virus told him but wouldn't know how to make a virus that could control me. That was walking a tightrope." Shaking his head, X sighed. "It was very, very close. He should have just let it do what it wanted and then killed me. Not that I don't like being alive, but his stage two capabilities make Sigma look like nothing! Thank goodness the clone only had stage one access." Looking around, X tried to find Zero's helmet.
"How do you feel?" Signas asked, making the scientists be silent with a look since this was more important than hopefully academic curiosity.
"Calm." X thought a little more about it. "I'm not sure what effect the virus is having since this isn't exactly a normal situation. Sigma is finally gone for good. No more people will have to die. I'm incredibly happy, grateful, and proud of him."
"'Have to die?'" Alia brought up the idea of mandatory pacifism.
"Hmm. I don't think we can test that unless something as terrible as the virus happens. I've never liked killing. I did it because the people they once were would have wanted me to stop them before the virus made them kill anyone else, as I asked Zero once to stop me if that happened. I don't know how that would tie in with not letting him be hurt. I always have been rather protective. Since this is supposed to work within my natural personality… I can tell it's there, now I know what it feels like from using it to check Zero, but it's mostly establishing minimum levels for things that my natural levels are already above." Zero's hair, which was always preternaturally neat, had fallen every which way. X gave up on finding the helmet and did his best to correct that.
"Aren't you worried?" That was making Lifesaver suspicious.
"Lifesaver," sighing, X tried once again to straighten him out. "I've been working with Zero since I joined the hunters, and I already knew him since I was working with Dr. Cain before that and assisted with his recovery and several of his check-ups. He has sacrificed his life for me. I know that you didn't get much of an impression of him before the Zero virus, and it probably was a bad impression. After the circumstances of his capture several of the Irregular Hunter medical officers tried very hard to find an excuse to kick him out if not have him killed. Several of their 'tests of his mental stability' were thinly disguised attempts to either drive him mad again or simply things that would have made anyone angry. He has never trusted a medic other than Dr. Cain. And myself, although I'm not a medic anymore."
X's sadness at how Zero had been mistreated and how terribly those medics had betrayed their calling mingled with regret at the loss of his step-father and those mostly peaceful days. "Then you were suspicious of him and that made him suspicious right back. Do you know how hard I had to push to make him drop everything and go to all those checkups? And every time it became even more difficult to convince him. Alia, didn't you pass on my requests for Lifesaver to alter his bedside manner?"
"Um…" Alia seemed to have not considered that important enough at the time.
"Alia, do you remember when you were unable to contact me for fifteen minutes and I told you I had been talking to Zero? The call actually lasted thirty-eight minutes. I really don't like nagging and I hope this doesn't come up again, but when I ask you to do something and say it's very important three times that's generally because it is that important. I brought the med drones because I thought Zero would refuse to keep humoring Lifesaver after so much evidence that he was crying wolf. There was a very real possibility I would have had to knock him unconscious and have the drones bring him back to base. If Zero were human I would consider his aversion to all things medical a phobia." X put his head in his hand. "I thought you read his psychological profile, I know this was in there."
They'd thought it was yet more evidence.
"He'll charge into battle against anything and I kept having to follow him around until he'd come to Dr. Cain's lab just so that I would go away and stop being cheerful at him." X sighed. "If I didn't know that I could trust him even with the maverick virus itself I would have hard-set my self-destruct and taken us both out with the blast."
"Zero knew I would rather die than become a maverick and murder innocents. If I hadn't been very, very sure he was in his right mind…" X shook his head. "I would rather die than murder. The real Zero would too. If he'd truly become a maverick I would have owed him this.. He triggered his to save me once, after all."
"I still want to run tests." Lifesaver stood his ground.
"Of course. Zero will insist on it as soon as he wakes up. He did his best, but this is Dr. Wily we're talking about."
"You can get that sort of thing through the link?" Alia sounded intrigued.
"I've known him for years. I don't need to use a psychic link to read his mind." X checked, though. "No, he didn't think of it before going into sleep mode."
"Fifteen minutes until the drones restore his systems enough to initiate startup safely," Lifesaver reported to Signas, his words containing a question. Should he heal Zero that much, or keep him dormant?
"No, closer to a minute and a half," X reported. "He has rather odd systems. Why on earth would anyone need that much processor space? Oh, his design is a fusion between mine and Blues'. A theoretically non-sentient robot master would have needed that much space, true, but a sentient reploid? Oh, the network administrator position. Well, it did come in handy. I know I couldn't have thought fast enough to pull this off. In any case, he's focusing on restoring a subsystem that's actually larger than my processor… He'll do startup there and then startup others as they heal."
"Why the rush?"
"Paranoia. He's worried about me. He tried, but he's never made a virus before and he was having a hard time using those systems to control the one that was already out there. Not to mention he was having to not only rush but split his concentration." Thinking of one possible error that could be very, very bad, X frowned for an instant before relaxing. "Thank goodness, there's a mechanism to avoid feedback loops hardwired into the virus."
"Can you see what he intends to do?" Signas was already planning.
"I'm glad I'm already sitting down. That," X stated carefully, "is a very odd way to find out that someone loves you. Thank goodness there's feedback loop prevention."
"Are you alright? You sound a little dazed."
"I think I am. He was my patient, then my instructor and military superior, then we were celebrities under microscopes as well as soldiers in wartime and then we met Iris. Afterwards, he was in mourning and I didn't want to intrude with my own grief because he was the one she chose in the end and had more of a right. She would have been quite upset with me for that. And now I realize we didn't need to force her to choose between us at all. We wanted to be more than friends all this time, but there was never a good time to risk disrupting whatever professional relationship we had by bringing it up so we didn't even think about it. I feel rather silly now."
The com was shut down for a moment as Signas, who was new to the organization and not really in the gossip loop yet, tried to find out if this was real or X was being manipulated. He quickly turned it back on after Alia, who was constantly being hit up by people wanting inside information, dryly informed him of the amount of zenny involved in the betting pool on when those two would get a clue as of this morning. It had probably gone up significantly since then. Wartime always changed the odds, not to mention that people already gambling with their lives and minds could go a little nuts with something as insignificant by comparison as their paycheck. Alia noticed one of the operators reviewing the com logs to try to figure out the exact second and told them to get back to work.
"Well," X said finally, "That's going to make it difficult to figure out what effect the virus will have, if any, on the upcoming changes in my behavior patterns. Good luck to whoever is stuck trying to sort that out."
Zero yawned. It was amazing how many human habits were useful in reploids. By doing this, Zero was verifying his vocal cord equivalent was in working order as well as alerting the people he probably would need to talk to that he was awake. Then he blinked, although the sensory system he was trying to verify the input from wasn't the visual one. He looked up at X, who looked back, although again most of the looking wasn't visual. "I say we shoot the com and the drones and make out until the transport gets here."
X truly did wish Iris was still alive. For one thing, he wanted to thank her for taking a wrecking ball to Zero's reservations about emotional display in general and PDA in specific. Still, "They'll worry if they lose contact."
"I don't want to wait any longer." It had been too long already. "And thinking about a threesome is just cruel."
"I didn't object to the second part of your plan."
"I'm not corrupting you, am I?" Zero let himself pay attention to more of what went on in X's head, then grinned. "Oh yeah, Iris was the one that corrupted me, actually. You short brunette pacifist types only look innocent and harmless."
"Love is a wonderful thing and should be celebrated," X agreed. "After all, 'this world is made of love and peace!'"
"Normally I don't like the classics or anything sappy enough that you'll quote it, but that actually looks good."
"Stop looking in my memories!"
"Too late, I already know how it ends."