Part 29: Twisted Vine

Inside Legion Tower was as dead as the city had been. The hallways and offices were littered with the bodies of Legion workers killed by any manner imaginable. Clearly at some point Thomas had sent his mavericks down here to clean everyone out, but those forces had since been pulled out, as Vent and Ashe saw no living enemy forces as they stealthily made their way through the myriad underground corridors.

"DO YOU THINK THIS IS ANOTHER TRAP?" Ashe asked as quietly as she could.

"I don't know," Vent replied with a shrug. "If they expected to catch us in the previous one, how would they ever know we'd get down here?"

"The lack of security is worrisome," Model X agreed.

"I believe it makes sense," Model P argued. "Albert has no enemies inside Legion, and no worry of any of his forces being double agents. This deep in his territory there is little need for security. By his logic, if any enemy forces reach the Tower, they will have already defeated the bulk of his armies, and defending the basement levels of the Tower would not be a high priority. If there are any security forces in the Tower, they will be blocking the route to the upper levels, where Thomas is based.

"That being said, we should still be wary of automated defenses placed in peacetime as standard security measures. While I am sure you are both more than capable of handling any that may be present, it would be inconvenient if either of you were to sustain injury at this point in the mission."

"RIGHT," Ashe agreed with a nod. "SO WE'LL JUST KEEP DOIN' WHAT WE'RE DOIN'."

"Yes, which means you need to learn how to whisper," Vent told her.


"Then...just stop talking."

Ashe huffed in silence, and they continued their silent journey downward.

Relative to age of reploids, the current age had been - until recently - a century of peace. Few of those living had seen destruction on the level that Zero was used to seeing every day of his life as a Maverick Hunter...which still paled in comparison to the carnage that was taking place in the streets of Legion City. It had been over a century since the God of Destruction had freely roamed the world, and it appeared he was attempting to make up for all the lost time in a single afternoon.

Mindless maverick soldiers lay all over the streets, all sliced in half, blown to pieces, or just riddled with holes from plasma bullets. Some were crushed beneath the remains of larger mechaniloids: tank-like contraptions with giant spiked balls for arms, something that resembled a flamethrower with legs, and others that were so scrapped they no longer resembled anything at all - all reduced to scrap and piled in the streets like garbage.

The buildings lining the streets were hardly better off. More maverick bodies hung limply out the windows from where they had set up assault positions, only to be blown from cover by Zero's overwhelming firepower before they could even fire a shot. A few lucky ones had likely managed to fire no more than a few shots before being blown to pieces or melted by a massive plasma blast, as evident by the many holes melted through the walls of concrete and steel.

The mixed troop of Guardians and Hunters were left in awe as they followed along in Zero's footsteps. They traveled quickly but carefully, though there wasn't really anything left for them to fight. The God of Destruction had been very thorough, and up ahead they could heard the faint sounds of his continued progress. The fact that he was destroying all these mavericks faster than the troop could simply make their way down the streets was another testament to how powerful Zero was.

"Why does a reploid this strong exist?" One of the soldiers idly wondered aloud.

"That's the kind of question you don't want to know the answer to, soldier," the reploid captain replied. "Just be glad he's on our side."

"Do you really think it's wise to trust him?" Another soldier asked. "He could just as easily turn around and rip us to shreds."

"We don't have much choice. He's here, and if he wanted to kill us all..." he gestured at the mechaniloids strewn about the street. "I doubt we'd even make him break a sweat. You'd better just pray to God that never happens."

"You believe in God?" One of the nearby humanoid Hunters said incredulously. "It's rare to find a reploid who's a believer."

"I didn't, but after the things I've seen today, I'm seriously beginning to consider it. What kind of normal reploid could possibly have this much power?"

The question went unanswered as the point man called back, "Sir, movement ahead!"

The entire troop was suddenly on high alert, their rifles ready to fire as they dove for cover behind the plentiful wreckage that littered the street. They waited for a few tense moments before they saw what was approaching.

"It's a girl!"

One lone girl, about fifteen years old, emerged from a nearby building and began stumbling through the wreckage. If she realized the troop was waiting for her, she gave no indication of it. She just stumbled blindly forward across the street.

Every man there had been debriefed about the attacks in Legion, so they knew the girl could be Infected. But she could also be a survivor, trying to make a run for it now that the mechaniloids were gone. The troop's primary goal was to reach Legion Tower, and both an encounter with Infected and having to escort a civilian would make meeting that objective significantly harder, but the captain knew he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he didn't at least find out whether he could save the girl or not.

"Hey! You there!" The captain yelled. The girl turned her head, but continued stumbling forward.

"I'll check her out!" Yelled a Guardian down the line, then ran forward.

"Dammit, no! Get back here!" The captain yelled, but the lone soldier didn't listen. He quickly crossed the distance to the girl, but wisely came to a halt a few steps away from her. She ignored him and continued stumbling across the road.

"Hey, are you all right?" The soldier asked. The girl finally stopped at the sound of his voice, then slowly turned to look at him. "It's all right, I'm not going to hurt you. What's your name?"

"Where's my mommy?"

The captain saw the soldier stumble slightly and shake his head, as though disoriented, then fall to the ground. The girl's face split in an evil-looking grin, then she made a weird hissing sound as she ran towards the other soldiers.

"Fire!" The captain yelled, but several soldiers already had. Merely a civilian body, the girl had no hope of dodging the crossfire and was quickly riddled with bullet holes, going down within seconds. Soldiers immediately ran towards their fallen squadmate, but before they got more than a few steps ahead they were blown back by an explosion that ripped the fallen soldier to pieces.

"What the...?" The captain exclaimed, covering his eyes from flying bits of pavement. When the dust cleared, all that was left was Zero standing in a small crater, beam saber brandished. "Zero! What did you-"

"He was Infected," Zero replied calmly. "The virus is transmitted through communications. As soon as the girl opened her mouth he was gone." He turned and fired a powerful blast from his buster at the nearby corpse of the girl, vaporizing it. "It can linger for a short while after death, as well, so try not to get near any Infected corpses, either."

"I thought Fleuve gave us a vaccine? How do you know he was-" The captain began to protest, but Zero cut him off with a stone-cold, emotionless glare.

"The vaccine was never guaranteed. In this case, it didn't work. He was dead before he hit the ground, and in a few seconds he was going to get up and starting infecting the rest of you, who would then tear apart any they couldn't infect. In the space of a few minutes, our entire assault force would be dead, and there would be a few dozen new Infected crawling through the city.

"There are reasons why you were given the orders you were." Zero turned to look at the rest of the soldiers, not just the captain. "This is not a rescue mission. We're here to put a stop to this, and that means we have to make sacrifices along the way. Your first and only priority is to get to Legion Tower, even if that means leaving people behind to die. This is war, and war doesn't care about innocence."

He heard grumblings of acceptance from the group, but that wasn't enough for him. "I came back to tell you that the Infected have caught on to us. Pretty soon they're going to swarm at us, and if you can't handle this, you're going to die.

"These aren't mechaniloids with guns and body armor. They're people, not soldiers; people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They'll be wearing jeans and t-shirts, running shoes and baseball caps, and they'll be coming at you as fast as you can fire your rifles.

"The virus only has one objective – to survive. It does that by infecting as many things as it can, and we're currently the only things left out here to infect. So if you see a little girl running at you, you shoot it. Not her, it – because that little girl is already dead. That's the only way we're going to get out of here alive, and the only way we're going to keep this monstrosity from spreading any further." He spun on one boot and headed down the street, not even bothering to check if the Guardians were following after him.

As much as the captain wanted to argue, there was an ugly truth to Zero's words. And even if he did have a problem with it, he should have brought it up before entering the field of battle – they all knew what they were getting into beforehand. It was just that when confronted with the reality of what this war was about, it was a lot harder to deal with than he'd expected.

"You heard him," the captain yelled, readying his rifle again. "Keep your eyes peeled and shoot at anything that moves! Move out!"

They trailed behind Zero for only a few minutes before the Infected started to appear. At first they began stumbling out of alleyways, trying to cut off their progress, but soon they were coming out of the buildings as well. They all looked like completely normal humanoids, except they all had the same half-drunken gait. They quickly moved past the initial groups they encountered, but soon their path was cut off by the slowly shambling army.

"Blast anything that gets too close," Zero said, "and don't stop moving. Your rifles will run out of power long before you run out of things to shoot. I'll try and keep the larger groups off you."

Zero dashed forward, and the carnage began anew.

The lower levels of Legion Tower were a pretty boring place. Most of the walls were shades of white or grey - now occasionally smeared with blood - with plain, unremarkable doors leading to plain, unremarkable offices lit by plain, unremarkable overhead lights. Some rooms were decorated with placards reading things like "Maintenance" or "Access 21B", but most of them were unlabeled. The building had been constructed for efficiency over aesthetics, and it showed.

Model P had a full map of the bottom levels of the Tower, so he guided them down through the levels with short, curt instructions. His path took them through air ducts, maintenance passages, and two-doored offices, until they eventually came to an elevator. The only direction listed was down, and it had a card scanner beside the call button, along with a keypad. Vent touched his palm to the pad, and a few moments later Model X had cracked the security and the door slid open.

"Modern security systems weren't designed with biometals in mind," Model X noted.

The elevator moved relatively slowly, as it only had to go down about twenty feet before opening onto a long, empty corridor. Plain white doors dotted the sides of the hallway, with a T-intersection straight ahead of them. Four bodies were slumped against the walls, red stains blotching their shirts, but the two Mega men had become so accustomed to the sight that they barely even noticed them.

Following Model P's directions, the pair made their way farther into the subterranean levels of the Legion Tower in search of their goal. They ran across several security stations, each one filled with bodies and destroyed security guns. Model X easily bypassed all of the remaining card scanners, keypads, retinal scanners, and fingerprint markers that they came across, but most had been forced open or destroyed.

"OKAY, THIS IS DUMB," Ashe said, then changed back to herself in a flash.

"Ashe, what are you doing?" Vent exclaimed. "We're trying to be stealthy, remember?"

"I know, but it's not going to make a difference," she replied, spreading her hands. "We are the only things alive down here – heck, we're the only things moving. No matter how hard we try and sneak around, we stand out like a sore thumb. If anyone was paying attention, they'd know we were down here already. So I'm guessing it's more like nobody cares."

"She has a point," Model X said. "If they wanted to stop us from sneaking around done here, they'd have done it already. I guess Thomas just doesn't consider anything down here a threat."

"I find it more likely that after purging the lower floors he required the troops elsewhere," Model P argued. "Regardless, I concur with Ashe. Despite our care, if Thomas was watching for intruders down here, he likely already knows we're here. We may as well hurry on to our destination."

"How much farther is it?" Model A asked.

"It is on the floor below us, roughly fifty meters to the southwest. The elevator is at the end of this hallway."

They arrived a few uneventful minutes later at a huge security checkpoint. This one was by far the most advanced they'd seen, and according to Model P, there was another set of doors beyond it that contained yet more security.

"Normally these hallways would be lined with armed guards," Model P explained. "There are two kill rooms on the sides that look out onto the interior security room but they are currently unoccupied."

The outer security was limited to a scanner and what would normally be a manual checkpoint, but with nobody there to man it, they simply walked through it. Some lights on a nearby security panel flickered red, but nothing actually happened. Under normal circumstances, Ashe supposed they would currently be getting shot full of plasma from the kill rooms, but instead there was nothing.

"I never thought the easiest break and enter I'd ever do would be on the Legion database," she remarked casually. "It just seems so...anti-climatic."

"Sorry to disappoint you, but I for one appreciate the break in our luck," Vent replied. "I know explosions are your thing, but typically I like them when they're not directed at me, far away from small, enclosed subway tunnels."

The inner security door was by far the most impressive of all the impressive-looking security doors they had seen so far, eight feet tall and four feet wide, made of a thick metal alloy and likely weighing some ridiculous number of tons. It was hooked up to a computer panel with no discernible connections to anything. Luckily, Model X didn't need physical connections to do his thing. Most notable was the fact that the entire system was completely intact.

"This one's pretty complicated," Model X informed them, "and actually has a few defenses that can stop me. It's going to take a little while to get past it."

"It is?" Ashe exclaimed. "Come on, it's a Remington 1667. These things are next to useless."

Vent blinked. "They are?"

"Yeah, they've got a bug in them that lets you bypass the keypad completely. Without a place to break into it I'm not sure how to do it, but I can't imagine it's all that hard to do the same thing digitally, right?" Ashe looked expectantly at Model X.

"Well, I You're right. Just set this switch here and it skips right past that part. All right, that gets the door open. I should be able to get the rest of it working in a couple seconds. Good catch Ashe."

The girl grinned. "Pays to have a Hunter along, doesn't it?"

"I know Hunters take on a lot of different types of jobs, but I...uh...didn't realize you had such expertise."

Ashe waved him off. "Ah, this is nothing compared to what some of the other Hunters could do. The Remington exploit is pretty well-known, though I'm not surprised you've never heard of it. There aren't really that many of these models around anyway, since Remington found out and quickly released a new model that fixed it. Unfortunately you can't update the the older systems - they lock the firmware for security reasons - and it'd be pretty bad publicity if right after buying one of these things they said 'Oh, wait, we did it wrong, here's another one'. So they basically just kept their mouths shut and hoped no one found out. Honestly with the amount of security we've already had to go through I doubt anyone would get this far to notice."

"Except that now it's all gone," Vent pointed out.

"And now we're in," Model X said as the door latches clanked and the gigantic mass of galvanized steel slowly swung open.

"Yeah, funny how sometimes life just works out for you, huh?" Ashe replied as she strode casually into what was once the most highly-protected room in the entire world.

"Please don't jinx it..." Vent pleaded, then followed.

The inside of the vault was nothing but racks and racks of grey, featureless boxes – he recognized them as data storage devices. There were more rows of them than Vent cared to count.

"There has to be a terminal in here somewhere," X said. "It would be the only physical place with direct access to the database."

Vent and Ashe both nodded wordlessly, then split up to look for the terminal. It wasn't long before Vent called out, "Hey, Ashe...I think I found it."

"You think?" Ashe said dubiously.

"Yeah, well...we might have a problem."

Ashe hustled over to Vent and, upon turning the corner, remarked, "Yeah, that's definitely a problem."

The terminal was quite large, with at least a dozen different displays arrayed around one central chair, which sat in front of three keyboards. Clearly it was designed for one person to be able to do multiple tasks simultaneously. However, at the moment all the displays were blank. Several cables extended from open panels beneath the keyboard and were plugged directly into the brain of the person sitting in the room's lone chair...

"Master Mikhail!" Model A yelled as the duo rushed over to the sage.

"Or what's left of him," Vent said grimly.

Mikhail was sitting awkwardly in the seat, as though he'd just been thrown there. His robe was gone, along with most of the lower half of his body – cables that would normally be attached to the rest of his body extended down from the bottom of his head, but ended after only a few feet. The ends of some were cut cleanly through, as though severed by a beam sword, while others were torn and shredded, like they'd been ripped out. The cables from the terminal were attached to an open panel in the side of his head.

"Master Mikhail! Wake up! It's me, Ashe!"

"I don't think he can hear you," Model X informed her. "He doesn't seem to be conscious."

"We have to get him out of there!" Model A said frantically.

"Remain calm," Model P said. "Removing Mikhail from the machine may cause permanent damage to his mind. First, we should figure out why he is here, then we should determine his purpose."

"I think it's pretty obvious why he's here!" Ashe yelled. "Thomas wanted him out of the way!"

"There are far more efficient ways of eliminating someone – even a Sage – than decapitating them and plugging their head into the most secure console in the city. Furthermore, placing him in such a secure location indicates that whatever Mikhail is doing, it is central to Thomas's plans. Therefore, it is imperative that we learn as much about what is taking place here as possible."

"Can he really still be alive, though?" Model A asked. "I know the Sages have reploid bodies, but they were human once. Can his mind really live through this?"

"I don't know," Model X said. "The bodies of the Sages are some of the most sophisticated pieces of technology ever made, blurring the line between human and reploid to the point where it barely exists anymore. No one's really tried decapitating one before."

"Well if you can't wake him up, can't you at least find out what he's doing?" Vent asked.

"Yes," Model P said. "If we connect to the terminal we may be able to identify some of the programs Mikhail is executing, from which we may be able to glean a purpose."

"I'll check it out," Model X volunteered. "Vent, touch one of the keyboards for me."

Vent touched the nearest keyboard, and Model X went to work. They waited a few minutes in tense silence before Model X spoke again. "Well, that's interesting."

"What is?"

"Well, Mikhail is plugged into the database and is currently executing a few thousand searches simultaneously. He's also holding on to a few thousand connections leading outside the building. But there's a section of one database server that's blocked off and isn't executing anything. It's like one whole processor cut itself off from...wait, it's doing something...Master Mikhail?"

"Model X, what's going on?" Vent pressed.

"It would...I think...I found Master Mikhail."

Ashe blinked. "What do you mean? He's right there." She pointed dumbly.

"No, I mean I found his mind. It's not in his body anymore. It's in here, and it's talking to me."

"Well, what's he saying?" Model A inquired.

"All he said was it's dangerous and we should leave. Hold on, I'll try and get more details."

There was another long silence, then Model X spoke again. "Well, this could be bad. Mikhail's body is infected with the Maverick Virus. He says Thomas used him as the first test subject before releasing it into the public. He managed to upload his personality and parts of his memory before it could completely overwrite his mind."

"How'd he do that?" Vent asked. It was Ashe who answered.

"The Three Sages all have direct access to the central Legion database," she explained. "He probably used that to copy himself over."

"That's correct," Model X replied. "Now Thomas is using Mikhail's mind to filter information received from all the Infected. He's basically connected to every single Infected in the entire city."

"That's how he's spreading the virus," Vent realized. "He only ever infected Mikhail. Then it spread out on it's own through Mikhail's connection to Legion."

"What kind of information is he gathering?" Model P asked.

"Everything – visual, audio, tactile...anything an Infected can experience, Thomas can observe. Every Infected is basically a surveillance drone for him."

"Isn't that a ridiculous amount of information to be receiving all at once?" Vent asked. "If he was receiving that much data, how would he ever be able to do anything else except process it?"

"He isn't receiving it, Mikhail is. That's why he's hooked up down here. Anyone who gets Infected sends the information to Mikhail – or his brain, anyway – who processes it and stores it in the database. Then Thomas can tap into the stream of information from anyone who's caught the Virus and stream the data they're sending back into his own mind."

"So he can control the Infected without being Infected himself," Ashe said. "Well, we knew Thomas was using the database for something. That is why we came down here to destroy it, after all."

"Yeah, but now we've got a problem," Vent said. "If we destroy this database, what's going to happen to Mikhail?"

"He would be wiped out as well," Model P said very matter-of-factly. "It would seem he no longer has a physical body. He is purely a digital being now, much like a biometal."

"Well can we get him out of there?" Model A asked anxiously. "He's the only Sage left who hasn't tried to destroy the world! We can't repay him by deleting him!"

"That is, in fact, what he is requesting," Model X informed them. "I told him our plan and he agrees it's the best course of action. Removing Thomas's access to the Legion database will severely cripple his ability to fight the Guardians, as well as preventing him from releasing new mutations of the virus without putting himself at risk of contracting it."

"We should hurry, before Thomas reacts to our presence," Model P said. "Vent, connect me to the terminal."

"No way," Ashe said, turning a pleading look at Vent. "Come on, there's got to be a better way! Let's think about this for a minute!"

"I'm with Ashe," Vent said. "After this is all over, the survivors of Legion are going to need a leader. Mikhail would be the perfect candidate for that role."

"Assuming any of them will ever trust one of the Sages again," Model P replied. "And it will be difficult for him to lead without a body."

"I'm sure if the Guardians back him up no one will have a problem following him," Ashe argued. "We can deal with the lack of a body later. At the very least he's a very valuable source of information. Why are we just tossing that away?"

"But Ashe, we don't have much time before-" Model X started, but the irate Hunter interrupted him.

"I know that! So why don't we use that time to try and find a solution that doesn't involve writing him off, rather than sitting here arguing about it?!"

The group was silent for a few moments in the wake of the argument. Model X was finally the one to break the silence. "Would it be possible to separate the section of the database containing Mikhail from the rest before deleting it?" He asked Model P.

"I am not sure. It is unlikely that the blocks of data in which he resides digitally are contiguous. If I can find all of the pieces and copy them to one block, then disconnect that block from the rest of the database before deleting it, he should be safe until we can retrieve him."

"Why don't we do that then?" Ashe asked emphatically.

"Because I do not know how fragmented his data has become, nor do I know which parts of the database can be safely disconnected. Also, as scattered as the pieces may be, there is the possibility that I do not recover them all, resulting in severe degradation of Mikhail's data. It may damage his mind, or render it completely unusable altogether.

"The risks are many, and the longer we wait, the more likely we are to fail. I do not think this is a wise course of action."

"Wise or not, I think it's the right one," Vent said, backing Ashe up again. "Some chance is better than no chance at all. I think it's worth a shot."

There was another short silence before Model P finally agreed. "Very well. I gave you my powers because I trusted your judgment, and thus I must accept your decisions, even if I do not agree with them."

"Thanks, Model P." Vent broke their Megamerge in a flash, leaving him with just Model X. He held Model P up to the terminal and a faint light surrounded the biometal as the connection was formed. Now hovering on his own, Vent stepped back and let Model P do his work.

"It is not quite as bad as it could possibly be," the biometal said after a pause, "but it will still take some time. My best estimate would be approximately twenty minutes, but that is an approximation."

"That's twenty minutes longer that Thomas can use Infected as surveillance drones," Model X reminded them. "Are you sure you want to do this? It could cost many more lives than necessary."

"I think they would all want to give Mikhail this chance," Vent replied solemnly.

"Very well. I am beginning the extraction process. Please do your best to ensure that I am not disturbed."

Despite his best efforts, by the time Zero and the soldiers reached Legion Tower he was down to twenty-eight men. The majority of them had fallen to laser fire from ambushing mavericks that were taking advantage of the distraction the Infected were causing, but several had fallen into the clutches of the mob that followed behind them. Immune to the effects of the virus, Zero had taken it upon himself to end the suffering of those who were caught. Fleuve's antivirus had protected some of them, but any of those that got caught were ripped apart instead. It was a brutal way to go, and Zero did his best to make sure none of them suffered more than they had to.

They finally reached the bottom of Legion Tower, it's six-sided base stretching off in both directions. Acting as the central hub of the city, the roads approaching the Tower were exceptionally wide, with several raised highways nearby that entered the tower at floors above ground level. They were all empty, and the roads were pockmarked with small craters and other grisly aftermath of the first Maverick assault on the city. It wasn't a pleasant sight, but they were all numb to it by now. It was pretty clear by this point that Legion City was done for.

Lucky for them the mavericks had thinned out for the past few blocks, along with places to be ambushed from, making their travel much easier. Most of the Infected were in the city as well, so they had effectively broken through the ring of the enemy's defenses and were now approaching the stronghold.

Zero yelled back orders from his position at the front of the group. "Get inside and set up a defensive position in the main lobby. Barricade the entrances with whatever you can – destroy them if you have to – and hold out as long as possible."

The captain nodded and waved acknowledgement, then replied, "Just try not to take too long, eh? I don't want to spend more time here than I absolutely have to."

"No promises." Zero glanced around quickly, surveying the road. "This looks like a half-decent choke point. Everyone, deploy the mines and scanners!"

Every member of the attack force had been given two small plasma mines. While inactive they were small disks about an inch across with one purple button on the top, small enough to fit inside a pocket. The remaining Guardians all grabbed their mines and, after spreading out across the wide roadway a bit, pressed the button and threw them on the ground. Small claws emerged from the disks and they quickly dug their way into the ground, then covered themselves up again afterward. Fifty-six mines weren't going to do too much against the number of Infected that were after them, but anything to buy more time for Zero to stop Thomas was worth doing. The scanners were simple motion-sensing devices so they would know where the Infected were coming from.

They blasted down the doors to the front lobby and found that, much like the time Vent and Ashe had first arrived with Prairie, it was completely empty. The Guardians quickly went around the room and destroyed all other entrances, then began setting up defensive positions behind makeshift barricades of collapsed concrete and steel. As expected, the entire building was without power, so the only sources of light were the lights on the ends of their rifles. Zero forced open the doors to the main passenger elevator and looked up and down the shaft – the elevator was nowhere to be seen.

"You're off, then?"

Zero turned to face the squad captain. "Yes. I'm sure I don't need to tell you, but there's nowhere to run from here. You need to hold out as long as possible."

The captain nodded grimly. "We knew the situation when we signed on for this. We're setting up the best defenses we can, so don't worry about us and just deal with the big badguy, like you hero types like to do."

Zero grimaced at the captain's word choice, but saw no point wasting time arguing semantics. "If you're lucky, Vent and Ashe will be up to join you shortly. If Aile manages to unblock our communications you should be able to contact them and get an update, but for the time being I think you should assume they're either not coming, or not coming in time."

"You're just full of sunshine and happiness, aren't you?"

"Sunshine and happiness doesn't keep you alive the way preparing for the worst does."

"True. Well then, good luck, and we'll see you back at the Base." The squad captain threw him a half-salute, then turned back to oversee the soldiers and their preparations.

"You'll need it more than me," Zero remarked, then jumped into the shaft and began the long climb to the top.

"You'd think storming the enemy's Fortress of Doom would be know...Doom-like," Ashe said nonchalantly. "Traps, lasers, unholy rains of fire, actual badguys. That kind of thing."

"Why is it that every time something good happens, you feel the need to question it?" Vent asked.

"Hey, I'm just saying, this seems kind of easy."

"I'm inclined to agree with Ashe," Model X said. "As much as I'd like to think we're just waiting for the trap to be sprung, we've been here long enough that even I'm beginning to think we've successfully outsmarted Thomas for once."

"As I am still not detecting any movement on this floor, I find I am agreeing as well," Model P added. "In fact, I would go so far as to say that both of you are no longer required to guard this position – one of you would likely suffice."

"You want us to split up?" Vent asked.

"Affirmative. Considering the lack of activity on these lower levels, your abilities would no doubt be put to much better use assaulting the upper floors. The Guardians and Hunters could use a Mega Man in their defense of the tower base. More importantly, the Model F Mega Man is still unaccounted for."

"Yeah, things would probably go smoother if one of us were there to keep her busy," Ashe agreed, then turned to Vent. "So, me or you?"

"I'll go. If anything does go bad down here, you're currently better equipped to handle it than I am. Model X and I can handle Atlas."

"All right," Ashe said with a shrug, "can't argue with that logic. Gonna be dangerous either way, I guess." She and Vent embraced briefly, then she gave him a quick kiss on the lips. "Be careful, yeah?" she said, with a rare flash of sincerity.

"I will," Vent said with a smile, blushing slightly. He was really having trouble getting used to this girlfriend thing. "You too. Hopefully I'll see you shortly." Then he dashed back through the vault door and took off around the corner, heading for the elevator.

Ashe let out a deep sigh. "So, here I am, stuck on the bottom floor of a robot-zombie-filled office building, guarding a floating rock as it tries to detach someone's mind from a database, all while a massive battle for the fate of the known world wages in the skies above."

"Your point?" Model P asked.

"That this is going to be one hell of a story for my grandkids."

"The thought of you having kids is both adorable and horrifying," Model A said.

"Oh, shut up."

Zero was just starting up his second elevator shaft – honestly, why did they need two elevators? Couldn't they just have made one that went all the way to the top? - when he was struck by a sonic boom so massive the entire building shook down to the foundation, followed shortly afterward by the sound of a gigantic explosion.

In the brief amount of time it took him to think of what it could possibly have been, his communicator sprung to life. Aile had successfully destroyed the ship carrying the jamming device. "-ile, Vent, Zero, can anyone hear me?" Fleuve's voice said, sounding tense and worried. "Are you there?"

"I'm here, Fleuve," Zero replied. "One of their ships was blocking our communications, but Aile just took it down."

"Oh thank goodness," came the reply. "It had been so long since we'd heard anything we'd have begun fearing for the worst, if we hadn't been picking up all this combat on our scanners. What's going on in there?"

Zero gave Fleuve a quick status report as he jumped up the sides of the shaft, bringing him up to date on all the latest events. He was just finishing up when Vent's voice came over the communicator as well.

"I knew there was blocking up above, but it looks like there's some down below too," Vent said. He had apparently not heard anything until just then. He told them about what he and Ashe had found in the basement, and how he was on his way to join up with the Guardians on the first floor.

"Has anyone heard from Aile?" Vent asked when he finished.

"Actually no, we haven't," Fleuve replied. "I am still getting a signal from her, but it seems she has turned her communicator off."

"If she took out the jamming ship she can't be in too much trouble," Zero replied. More likely she's found Aeolus and doesn't want to be disturbed. He could understand that sort of mentality. It didn't matter – she'd taken out the jamming and was keeping one of the Mega Men occupied, which was all she needed to do. All she had to do now was stay alive, which she was perfectly capable of doing without her communicator on.

Zero reached the top of the shaft and blasted open a door. He walked out and found himself in the middle of a foyer, with four different elevator doors all meeting in one area. To his left and right the foyer ended in hallways, their outward facing walls covered floor to ceiling in glass windows. On a normal day they would have provided a spectacular view, looking down upon the shining white buildings of Legion. Today they showed only chaos and destruction.

Zero didn't have time to take in the sights, however, as he found Atlas staring back at him from the other end of the foyer. He readied his saber and prepared for a battle, but said, "I'm only here for Thomas. I don't have time for you."

"Hmph," she sneered, crossing her arms. "You want to get by? Fine. I won't stop you."

Her answer took Zero by surprise, though he was careful not to show it. "You'll just let me pass? Didn't Thomas put you here to stop me?"

"Yeah, but I don't really like him," she replied with a shrug. "I do what he wants as long as it gets me what I want. But the last time we met, back in the energy mine, you had a chance to kill me,and you didn't. That means I owe you one. I hate owing people, so this evens us up.

"Besides, what do I care if you beat him? I don't need Thomas to make myself stronger, he's just a means to an end. If you can beat him, that means I don't need him anymore."

Zero had practically forgotten about the mine. It had only been a few days ago, but so much had happened in the interim that it seemed like years. "I see. What about the others?"

"If anyone else comes through here I'll rip'em to shreds. Especially that other red dweeb – he got away before I could prove I'm stronger than him. And don't even think about telling him not to come – he doesn't show up soon and I'm gonna get bored, which means I start dropping parts of this building on your little Guardian friends."

Zero nodded, then spoke quietly into his communicator. "Vent, you're going to have to leave the Guardians on their own. I need you on floor 108. Atlas is here."

"She's up there?! Got it, on my way!"

Zero looked at Atlas again. "He's on his way."

The Fire Mega Man grinned eagerly. "Awesome. Now get out of here so I can fight him properly, and get one step closer to proving that I am the strongest Mega Man!"

As much as Zero hated to drag Vent into a battle he could have fought on his own, getting to Thomas was a far more important objective. Besides, it wasn't like Vent wasn't capable of winning – even without Model Z he was a very capable fighter. Even if he just kept Atlas busy until after Thomas was dealt with, that would be enough. He just had to trust that Vent could handle it.

Zero ran down the empty corridor as it circled the outside of the Legion Tower, and found another elevator at the far side. It was the last one before the top floor, where Thomas waited. Without wasting another breath, he blasted the door open and began to climb.

Author's Note

It's not dead yet! :D

"Twisted Vine" is the song that plays in the tower in ZXA, with the flower boss at the top whose name currently escapes me.

I wrote an entire other fic in the time it took to write this chapter. I can't post it until I get farther in this story though, which should give you a guarantee that I do finish this, since I'd hate to waste a perfectly good fic otherwise. :)

Thanks to all the reviewers and PMs who continually poke me about this thing. I may have missed some because I recently found out that my email has been putting fanfiction alerts in my spam folder, but I appreciate it all the same. :)

Next time, the climactic battle between Aile and Aeolus! It's so climactic, the chapter title will be in ALL CAPS! Exciting, I know.