A Collaborative Collection


By Patrick "Magus523" Frazier

It had been a long time since the days of film noir, but some things never changed in Seattle. The weather was among them; anybody who'd lived there for long could tell you that it was a good day when it didn't rain up. Today wasn't one of those days, judging by the amount of water that poured off of a middle-aged man closing the door of one of the city's older office buildings behind him. He looked to be in his late thirties, average in both height and build with thinning brown hair and fairly handsome, though unremarkable, features. Once he was as close to dry as he was likely to get, he took the elevator up to his office.

"Morning, Near," Debra said without looking up from her desk as he walked in. She was a tall- statuesque blonde with a serious, businesslike attitude; the joke around the office was that she was the only one of them who was an actual professional. The fact that she was the only one there who bothered to wear an actual suit coat to work most days only made it worse. Fortunately, she had a better sense of humor than she let on, and was willing to put up with the occasional incident from her more erratic coworkers.

"Morning, Dane," Jim replied, hanging up his raincoat and hat near the door. "Blake. Dixon. Anything interesting come in so far?"

"Two cheating husband cases," Henry rattled off from behind his newspaper. "With each other,though the wives called 'em in separately. Three lost dogs-gave 'em the form reply. And one stolen wallet." A huge, grim-faced black man, Henry Blake was the veritable definition of appearances being misleading. By far the most literate of the four of them, he was a history buff, particularly when it came to the Robot Rebellions of the previous century. He was also the oldest of them, and was greeting middle age without much enthusiasm.

"So basically, nothing yet." Jim shook his head. "A wallet? Seriously?"

"Apparently it had a property deed in it," Dixon explained. "We're still waiting on more information on how that happened." The only reploid in the office, Dixon was the newest addition to the office as well as the youngest of them there, both in age and appearance. Short and slim with close-cut dark hair, he was easily the most optimistic of them all, something they all ribbed him about constantly. Regardless, his cheerfulness never became obnoxious, and he knew how to temper his outlook with realism when he needed to.

"Huh." Jim raised an eyebrow. "Okay, maybe that's not so bad after all. Still, let's hope something better comes in." Sitting behind his own desk, he blinked as the phone immediately began to ring, shrugged, and snatched it off the hook. "Hey, speak of the devil. Let's see what this is, and hope it's not more of the same. Near, Blake, Dane and Dixon, private investigators, Jim Near speaking. What do you have for me?"

"Mr. Near?" The voice on the phone was young, male and cultured. "My name is William Martel. I'd like to hire your services on a missing person case. My uncle, Walter Martel, disappeared some time ago."

"Martel, Martel..." Jim tapped his fingers on his desk. "Name sounds familiar. Famous for anything?"

"You could say that, yes," William replied. "He was something of an eccentric. I'd think he would be best known for his years as an explorer."

"That's right!" Jim snapped his fingers. "That rich adventurer. Used to see newspaper articles about him every now and then when I was younger. Always wondered why those eventually stopped showing up."

"He eventually grew more reclusive," William explained. "The rest of my family... well, it's complicated. That's the thing, really. They're all claiming that he's only gone off on another one of his expeditions, like he used to do, and they've managed to convince the police of it as well. I'm sure that's not the case, though."

"That a fact." Jim leaned back, trying to keep the skepticism out of his voice. "How much concrete proof we talking here, son?"

"Not much," William admitted. "But I'm not just guessing, either. I've done my research before I called you up, and this just doesn't read right. It's not like him at all. Look, can we meet somewhere and talk about this in person? I can come in to your office, if you'd like, or else... are you free for lunch in an hour? I'll pay, of course."

"You just said the magic words, kid," Jim told him frankly, smirking. "Just tell me where, and I'll be there."

"At Cagliostro's, then." William replied. "I'll bring all the information I've compiled. Until then, Mister Near."

"Handling it personally, boss?" Dixon asked as he hung up. "Must be something better than everything else here today, then."

"Not all that much." Jim shook his head. "Missing persons case, but the kid didn't sound all that credible on what we'd have much luck with." He shrugged. "Still, as long as he's willing to pay us, might as well give it a shot."

"Ah, the PI's credo," Debra drawled. "Accept any case, no matter how unlikely, so long as it pays."

"Martel, you said," Henry remembered, glancing over his newspaper. "Not the Martels, right? The rich ones?"

"They might just be," Jim replied. "The guy we're looking for is that one eccentric, Walter Martel. And the kid calling it in-he'd be his nephew, I guess-is shrugging off lunch at Cagliostro's like it's nothing."

"Damn, I wish a client was willing to take me to Cagliostro's," Dixon chimed in. "Why'd you ask, Blake? Wait, wait, no, no-"

"You know, that family was pretty big back in Rebellion days." Henry told them, ignoring Dixon. "Guy named Edmund... think he'd have been old man Walter's grandfather? He was head of the U.N. Council for pretty much the duration of the Rebellions. Went through a lot of shit over all those Robot Masters, and how society was accepting them. Good guy, though. He came down on their side, every time. He was never one of Doc Light's inner circle, but he was on good terms with the family all the same."

"Thanks for the history lesson, chief," Jim told him, raising an eyebrow. "Anything that's actually relevant?"

"Yeah." Henry gave him a direct look. "You're right about the rich part. That's old money there, Jim, and getting mixed up in it might be tricky. Folks like that... hell, you know what I'm saying here. Just watch your ass."

"Don't have to tell me that," Jim replied, no longer feeling very flippant. He knew what Henry was saying; they all knew it, though the others also knew better than to talk about it much, at least around him. "I know what I'm doing."

"Nobody said you didn't," Debra told him, still not looking up. "Purely as a side note, then, Cagliostro's is on the other side of town, and the parking around there is even worse than the public transportation."

"Yeah, yeah." Making a face, Jim glanced out the window, then reluctantly stood back up. "I'll be back in a couple hours, and we'll figure out where we go on this one from there once I have more info. I'd tell you all what to do while I was gone, but you all know what you're doing, too. Well, most of the time, anyways."

"Gee, thanks a lot, boss," Dixon said sourly. "I'm never gonna live that Cadillac thing down, am I?"

"I wouldn't count on it happening any time soon if I were you, kid." Jim chuckled as he headed for the door, grabbing his coat, hat, and copy of the news before leaving.

As it turned out, he made the right choice in not dillydallying. The parking turned out to be even worse than usual, and the rain hadn't helped matters. Fortunately, judging by a quick examination of the clientele once he'd walked in, he'd still arrived ahead of his client, and that was what was important. Muttering noncommittally about waiting for somebody to the maitre'd, he took a seat in the lobby and began going over the news.

"Mister Near?" Somebody asked after about ten minutes, peering over the top of the newspaper. The man addressing him was older than he sounded, though still younger than Jim. Tall and lanky, he was wearing an expensive-looking suit and heavy glasses that looked natural on his sharp, serious face. "I'm William Martel."

"Jim Near, but you know that already," Jim replied, putting down the newspaper and shaking the other man's hand. He was slightly surprised by how strong his grip was. "Nice to meet you." He'd only been waiting a few minutes; parking was even worse than usual, and the rain hadn't helped matters. Still, at least he'd arrived ahead of the client. That was what was important. "We gonna be waiting long?"

"Not at all." William glanced at the maitre'd, who nodded slightly and led them forward without a word. "I'm a regular here."

"That's convenient," Jim noted. Once they'd taken a seat in a booth, and both of them had ordered coffee and sandwiches, he leaned back and gave the other man a direct look. "All right, I'm listening. You said you'd bring the details with you."

"That's correct." William took out a datapad, but he didn't hand it over just yet. Instead, he paused, looking thoughtful. "The first thing I think I should explain is that my uncle is a very complicated man. My family, as you've probably figured out by now, has been wealthy for many generations. As the eldest son, uncle Walter knew he was likely to inherit that one day."

"There's a lot of ways people react to that," Jim replied, glancing away. He hated it when a case struck a familiar chord.

"Indeed there are," William agreed, looking slightly uncomfortable as well. "Uncle Walter chose to both revel in his position, and rebel against it, at the same time. He quickly acquired quite the reputation for troublemaking, one that only grew worse as his life proceeded. Obviously, becoming the head of the family didn't exactly help matters, especially once it became clear that he had no intention of ever marrying, or of fathering children."

"I begin to see why the rest of your family is trying to play this off as if nothing's wrong," Jim said, eyes narrowing. "He wasn't stupid enough to actually put provisions for this down in print, was he?"

"I'm afraid his sense of duty got the better of him in this case." William shook his head. "He did tend to take risks every so often. If he doesn't reappear after a year since his disappearance, he's directed that he's to be declared legally dead, and for his will to be carried out. For obvious reasons, the rest of my family is trying to proceed to that point as smoothly as possible. They want to avoid complications at all costs."

"But not you," Jim pointed out as their coffee arrived.

"No." William's eyes hardened. "I'm sure it's a novel concept to the rest of my relatives, but I like my uncle. He's the only one of us who's a decent human being, when you get right down to it. He deserves better than to be written off the first chance my father gets." He paused, then relaxed, the anger fading as quickly as it had come. "But then, I wouldn't have much luck convincing a lot of people of that."

"I'm sorry, Jim. I wish I could believe you were a better person than the others, but it's just been too long. I tried, and I can't do it. I'm not perfect either."

"You might be surprised," Jim told him, banishing the unpleasant memories after only a moment. "All right, kid, I'll hear you out. You've got yourself some snoops. What do you have to get us started?"

"Analysis on all of my uncle's past adventures, the patterns involved, and why this disappearance doesn't match up, to start," William explained, sipping at his coffee. "In short, even when he was at his most reckless, he always left word when he was taking off. It might have been a post-it note saying 'attempting to confirm suspected Maverick activity in Vegas via jury-rigged RC Metool, be back sometime next decade,' but there was always something. Not this time. One day, he was just gone. Vanished. Disappeared."

"Not a good sign," Jim admitted. "You looked into this a little already before you called us in, I take it?"

"Correct," William confirmed. "And what I found only made me more suspicious. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say what I didn't find. No tickets, vehicles, or any other means of traveling for the past several months, well around the time period in which he disappeared. Unless he hitchhiked clear out of the United States, there's no explanation for how my uncle left his home either. And he certainly didn't teleport."

"Yeah, nobody's that eccentric." Jim rolled his eyes. "I still remember how that last try they made at a teleporter that was safe for human use went. Wouldn't have wanted to be that place's janitor, let me tell you."

"Blunt, but accurate." William winced. "Anyways, I kept all the details I compiled. They're all on here." He indicated the datapad. "I also put together an account of my uncle's behavior and activities over the last year from memory, then looked up as much as I could to corroborate that as well. It might be related to why this happened."

"You never know what'll get you a lead." Jim shrugged as their sandwiches arrived, immediately tearing into his. "Might give us somewhere to start, anyways. We'll look it all over. That it?"

"So far," William admitted, starting in on his sandwich as well. "I'll call you up again if I find anything more."

"Sounds like a plan." Jim nodded. "And speaking of plans, let's talk about payment. You're already familiar with our rates, I take it? You look like the kind of guy who'd look into that too before you called us in."
"I am, and I am," William admitted readily. "Your standard rates are perfectly acceptable. Go ahead and start billing me. At this point, I'll accept anything, as long as somebody's actually trying to find answers."

"I can understand that sentiment." Jim set his sandwich down for a moment and gave him a direct look. Despite his instinct to avoid thinking about the personal note the situation was striking, he knew better. "One question, then, and don't take this as implying otherwise previously, but I'm gonna need honesty here. Why us, kid?"

"Your agency has something of a reputation in the field," William replied calmly. "One I quickly learned of once I started looking."

"Aw, shit," Jim joked, pretending to wince. "Look, that thing with the ballroom was totally blown out of proportion, okay?"

"Not that kind of reputation," William assured him, then paused. "Although I would be interested in hearing about that. It did look... interesting. No, what I was referring to was the fact that you're apparently known for being honest, reliable, and most importantly, willing to look into incidents outside of your usual territory if necessary. It's entirely possible that this will require investigation far away from Seattle, after all, knowing my uncle. I needed investigators who would be willing to keep going at that point."

"Yeah, we send Dixon out on most of those." Jim kept eating, thinking it over. "The rest of us will head out if we need to, but we charge extra for that, so most employers don't spring for it. That's the only reason, then?"

"Was there another one I should be aware of?" William asked politely.

"Nah, nah." Jim shook it off. "It's got nothing to do with you. I'm just a little paranoid about some old business, sometimes. Don't worry about it. Anyways, I assume your number's in here too. We'll call you up as soon as we've got something for you, and then we can probably go from there." He resisted the urge to say "if" rather than "as soon as," with some difficulty.

"Excellent." William raised his coffee mug. "I'll look forward to that, then. Now, you were saying something about a ballroom?"

"Yeah, yeah." Jim groaned. "All right. We'd been hired to look into this sleazy lawyer who was giving a friend of ours in the same profession a bad name through some unfortunate trends of association..."

"...And so he just looks at me for a few moments, and then right when the bill comes he tells me that he knew one thing, now, and that's that he chose the kind of guys who'd get along great with his crazy uncle if we did manage to track him down alive." Jim told the other three, taking a sip of his whiskey. "Whatever that means."

After he'd left William, Jim had spent the rest of the day trying to track down an overdue debtor who'd gone to ground, most likely over some unrelated gambling issues. Unfortunately, he hadn't had much luck, and returned to the office at the end of the workday in a less than optimal mood to drop off William's datapad and meet up with the other three. As usual, they'd stopped by the Poe Club around the corner once they were done for the day; they'd been coming most evenings for long enough now that it was just another part of the routine.

"I still can't believe you told him about that ballroom incident." Debra shook her head. "I thought we agreed we weren't going to try and spread that one around. It's a miracle we got paid for that one."

"The real miracle is that we weren't arrested," Henry corrected her, signaling the bartender for another beer.

"Can't argue with that one," she admitted, rolling her eyes.

"I think you're still just cranky because I had a nicer dress than you did." Dixon slurred, waving his glass around in the air.

"You certainly looked fabulous on Blake's arm," she retorted.

"Don't remind me." Henry rolled his eyes. "You would not believe how much crap I'm still getting from the ex-wife because of that one."

"She's still at it?" Jim asked, wincing sympathetically.

"Does the sun still come up every morning?" Henry replied bitterly. "I don't know what I ever saw in her."

"She had a great ass," Debra pointed out. "Still does, last time I checked."

"You would be." Henry chuckled, relaxing. "How're you doing on that front, then, if you're feeling so witty about it?"

"Not much to say." She shrugged. "It's over with me and Lana, and that's all she wrote. She's already packed up her stuff and moved out. Don't ask me who with, and don't tell me either. I don't want to know."

"It was that bad?" Doyle asked.

"Worse," she told him bluntly. "For a moment or two I thought I'd end up having to bug the apartment so I'd have evidence if she tried to burn the place down. I really need to use better judgment for my next relationship. I'd even say I was almost ready to go straight for a while, but we'd all know I was lying."

"At least you can get a girlfriend," Dixon pointed out. "Three years since I broke up with Rain, and not even a date. I am officially pathetic."

"What about that one girl?" Henry asked. "You know, the one you met on that train job. Rebecca, right? Weren't you gonna ask her out?"

"Sure I did." Dixon slumped over. "And then it turned out Dane would be more her type than me."

"Don't go giving her my number," Debra said wryly. "No offense, Dixon, but I don't date reploids."

"None taken." Dixon shrugged. "I feel the same way about you biological meatbags, after all. Make me sick, the lot of you."

"Ah, can it, tinman." Debra smirked. "At least we come with all our parts."

"Can we change the subject before this goes somewhere nobody in this building needs to hear about?" Jim interrupted. "Thank you in advance."

"I don't know, boss." Dixon gave him a look. "You're the only one of us who hasn't told us how you're doing in the field these days."

"Shut up, Dixon," Henry growled.

"No, no, it's a legitimate point." Jim waved him down. "And the answer's the same as last time. Still nothing."

"Shit." Dixon's smile faded. "Sorry, boss. I forgot. Listen, uh, me and Dane didn't mean anything when we were saying-"

"Not your fault I can't get over it and move on," Jim cut him off. "It's easy to forget. Don't worry about it, huh?"

"She was really something, huh?" Debra asked, toying with her martini. "Must have been, if it's been this long. Wish I could have met her."

"You're a child, Jimmy. Do you really think it's that easy? That we can forget everything that's happened between us, just like that? That's a fairy tale, Jimmy, and you're old enough now to know better than to believe in fairy tales."

"Yeah." Jim stared down into his whiskey glass. "Yeah, she was really something. That's one way of putting it."

"Let's hear it for women." Henry raised his mug, and the other three all followed suit. "To hell with 'em all. Present company excepted, Dane."

"After the breakup I just had, I'm with you, believe me," Debra assured him, lowering her drink and sipping at it.

"So how's that new case looking, Near?" Henry asked after a long moment. "That kid you met today."

"Blake, if this is an excuse to go on about how his ancestor saved Mega Man from the evil politicians from Mars or whatever..." Jim scowled.

"Nah, nah." Henry shook his head. "I just wanna know what we're getting ourselves into, that's all."

"Close as I can tell, it looks like a real mess, to be honest." Jim shook his head. "I haven't gone over all the info he's got for us yet, but from the way he told it, he's had a lot more success with implying that the old man really is MIA than he's been able to dig up on why he might have vanished off the face of the earth."

"Well, that's what he's paying us for, isn't it?" Dixon pointed out. "We going to start working on that tomorrow, then?"

"Unless something bigger comes up, which I tend to doubt." Jim nodded. "Nice thing is, he's not really expecting much, so as long as we get anywhere we'll keep on getting paid. No need to bust our asses scrounging up answers that aren't there."

"But we aren't gonna stop there, are we?" Henry guessed shrewdly. "Kind of like you, when you were that age, isn't he?"

"Nope." Jim tossed back the last of his drink. "To both questions. He's a good kid. He deserves better than the run-around, and he thinks the old guy does too. As far as I'm concerned, they're going to get it, and screw what the rest of that family has to say on the matter."

"Might get in trouble with the police," Dixon pointed out.

"Wouldn't be the first time," Henry reminded him. "And if we do, I've still got enough friends in the Hunters I can call up for a favor to get us out of hot water as long as we don't do anything stupid." He paused. "Well, stupider than normal."

"Why don't we all just try and keep our acts clean until further notice?" Debra suggested dryly. "On general principle."

"Works for me," Jim agreed. "As of tomorrow, the hunt is on for Mister Eccentric. Let's hope his luck is better than ours. But for tonight, I'm heading home."

"Sounds like a plan," Henry said as they all stood up and made their way to the exits. "See you maniacs tomorrow."

The drive home was as wet and miserable as the one away from it in the morning had been, but Jim was used to that by now, so it didn't really register. He didn't bother turning the lights on in his cheap apartment as he walked in, heading over to his phone setup and computer to check them first thing, like he did every evening when he came in. Also as usual, there were no messages waiting for him on either.

He spent a long time staring at the single old photo he kept hanging on the wall before going to sleep.

"Walter Martel, age 67. Born the same year as the first 'complete set' of Robot Masters, including Rock Light, aka Mega Man." Debra read to the other three in the office the next morning. "A child of the Robot Rebellions, and a lifelong activist of both human and robot rights, as well as of environmental issues. A talented inventor, personally responsible for building several reploids. Billionaire, philanthropist, ecologist and explorer, known for crackpot expeditions to corners of the world nobody sane would go willingly, and sometimes even succeeding."

"In other words, a real piece of work," Dixon summed it up. "Is this guy for real? I thought folks like that went out of style a century ago."

"Apparently not." Jim shook his head. "From what the kid told me about the old man, it's entirely possible he did it all on purpose, just to prove to the world that he could. He sounds like that kind of guy."

"So maybe not quite as altruistic as he looks on the surface, huh?" Henry guessed. "All right, that makes more sense. I don't like it when something sounds too good to be true, and that story was setting off all my warning bells."

"Maybe, maybe not." Debra glanced at her computer again. "He's thrown a lot of money away to charities and such. Even founded a couple orphanages. I hate to say this as much as you would, Blake, but we might actually have an honest-to-god good guy on our hands."

"I hate when we have to search for good guys," Jim muttered. "All right, I've been looking over everything the kid's collected. Seems like the old man really only spent much time around two or three places, usually, at least when he was in Seattle. His house, a bar called the Pyramid Club, and every now and then a baseball game, always with front row seats. Seems he was friend with the management. Now then, the way I see it, first thing we should do is drop by all three and see if we can find anything helpful."

"This one's our top priority, then?" Blake raised an eyebrow.

"Until something bigger comes along to top it, and that's not too likely." Jim nodded. "Blake, you take the stadium, see if they can tell you anything. I'll look at his house, see if there's anybody else there. If there's not, the kid'll probably be able to get me inside. Doyle, watch the office until I get back, then try the Pyramid Club once it opens."

"Leaving me to twiddle my thumbs?" Dixon complained. "Come on, Near."

"Never said that." Jim smirked. "Congratulations, Dixon. You're going on a little field trip today."

"Aw, no." Dixon put his head in his arms. He was the only one of them who could teleport, and Jim never hesitated to make use of that ability. "Not again. Where am I shipping off to this time? Not Florida again, I hope."

"How's the coast of Romania sound?" Jim asked. "That's where the old man's last expedition before this one-if it is one-took him. He got back a month before he disappeared. Chances are something happened over there that's significant, and I want to know what it is. Turn over some rocks until you can find out."

"Exactly how much trouble is acceptable?" Dixon raised an eyebrow. "Pretty important to know, after that thing in Venice."

"We're still getting calls about that one every now and then, you know," Debra commented dryly.

"Don't care, at least as far as this is concerned." Jim shook his head. "Open season, Dixon. I want answers, plain and simple. Get 'em for me, and we'll worry about fallout if and when it comes. Worst case scenario, we'll ask the kid to lend us a hand on that part of it too." He tossed Dixon the datapad. "All the info on the expedition's in there. Gotta hand it to the kid, he knows how to do his prep work for something like this."

"Mind if I ask what he was doing over there?" Henry said curiously.

"Get this." Jim had to smirk. "Looking for Atlantis."

"You're joking." Debra stared at him.

"Not even." He shook his head. "Guess he figured that since it'd been so long since anybody else had, the time was right for somebody to finally pull it off, or something."

"Whatever, Jim." Dixon grinned, checking the datapad for the exact coordinates. "All right, I'm off. I'll look this over once I get there. See you tonight, folks." Melting into a blur of blue and gray light, he shot through the ceiling and was gone.

"He didn't actually aim for where the old man thought Atlantis was, did he?" Henry asked after a moment.

"If he did, he's the one in for a wet landing, not us." Jim shrugged. "Got the right idea, though. I'm heading off." Retrieving his coat and hat, he went back out again.

It was raining again, as usual; by now, he barely even noticed. It still didn't make driving to the outskirts of the city any easier, though. Considering his wealth, it wasn't surprising that Walter Martel had lived in a private residence away from the grid. What was surprising was how humble it was, all things considered; a simple two-story on a street full of other like it, pleasant but hardly the picture of wealth.

No answer came when Jim knocked on the door the first time; shrugging, he tried again, ringing the bell as well. The house remained unresponsive. After a cursory search for a spare key unsurprisingly turned up flat, he was about to turn away when a speaker set in the wall next to the door crackled.

"Are you from Near, Blake, Dane and Dixon?" The voice was flat and blank, obviously altered to hide any trace of the person's identity.

"That's right." Jim nodded, producing his badge; he was almost sure there was a camera watching him. "Jim Near. I'm here investigating the disappearance of Walter Martel." There was a long silence before the speaker continued, as the door swung open.

"Come in."

"All right." Jim did as the voice had said, shaking the rainwater off under the overhang before stepping inside. There was an old-fashioned coatrack stand next to the door; he hung his, along with his hat, as he looked around. The living room was pleasantly decorated, but not obviously expensively, much like the exterior of the house. Two doors set in corners at the far end of the room led further into the house, and a staircase led up to the second floor. A humanoid reploid in an expensive-looking suit was descending the latter at the moment.

"Good morning, Mr. Near," he said politely, though his face held a disapproving frown. He'd been built to resemble an elderly man, tall and lean with close-cut white hair and a sharp mustache. The only things identifying his species were his heavy boots; aside from them, he looked completely human. "My name is Hawkins, and I'm one of the caretakers of this domicile. Please, come up to the office. The others are waiting there."

"Sounds good to me, chief." Jim replied, following him up. The first door on the left took them to a room much more bizarre than the rest of the house he'd seen so far. It was a study in contrasts; half of it was old-fashioned, with two wooden desks and bookcases lining the walls. Straight down the center of the room, however, it was divided into a modern, high-tech zone, the bookcases replaced with monitors and other strange devices whose functions mostly escaped him, the desks stark and metal. Each side had two chairs to go with the desks; two of four were occupied.

"Sorry we took so long to let you in," another male reploid told him, standing up to shake his hand. He was just as tall as Hawkins, but significantly broader in the shoulders and chest; the suit he wore and his bald head gave him the unfortunate look of a high-class bouncer. Despite that, his eyes and smile were warm and genuine. "The vultures keep stopping by to try and kick us out of here, so we've started just ignoring them. We're kind of holed up here, to be honest. Name's Hyde, and this is Catriona."

"William told us you, or somebody else from your firm, might be stopping by," the third reploid said quietly. The only female of the three, she looked to be about twenty, with dark hair and eyes. She was wearing a white skirt and sweater, which made her look more like a resident than a servant, and her smile was shy. "Hawkins still didn't think we should let you in, but we outvoted him. We'll be happy to help you however you can."

"I assure you, it's nothing personal." Hawkins sat down in the remaining wooden chair, next to her, leaving the other metal one for Jim. "In these times, I find myself less trusting of strangers than normal, and I was never the most friendly man regardless."

"Can't blame you for that, chief." Jim shrugged, taking the last seat. "Hope you don't mind if I ask you a few questions about Mr. Martel, though."

"By all means." Hyde nodded slightly. "That's why we let you in, after all. Anything that poses the slightest chance of bringing him back."

"Well then, let's not waste any time." Jim glanced at them in turn. "This might be a bit strange to ask, but... could you explain what you meant by 'caretakers' a bit further?"

"Exactly what you'd think, Mr. Near," Hawkins replied. "We ensure that the house remains neat and orderly, and assist Mr. Martel in his daily life."

"I see." Jim kept his gaze on him for a bit, then turned to the other two. "I'm aware that this is very rude of me, but I'm afraid I have to ask, all the same. I'll be blunt. Did Mr. Martel build you himself?"

"Why, you-" Hawkins snarled.

"It's all right, Hawkins," Catriona said quietly before he could finish the sentence. "Mr. Near has a point. It is important to his investigation." She met his gaze firmly. "The answer is yes. Mr. Martel did indeed build us all, and has employed us ever since. Before you proceed to your next question, however, no, we're not in his will."

"Interesting." Jim raised an eyebrow. "Mind if I ask why? It's obvious you were more than just servants as far as he was concerned. This house isn't nearly big enough that it would need three of you to keep it up. That's just a blanket explanation, isn't it?"

"For various reasons, Mr. Martel's never been able to have children of his own," Hyde admitted. "Draw your own conclusions. Regardless of what they are, however, his actual family has never approved of us, with one exception. Mr. Martel's always known there was a possibility he might disappear one day. Should the three of us have anything to gain by that, well... 'suspicion of Maverick activity' is often enough, especially when somebody wants it to be."

"All right, I think we can leave that line of inquiry behind us now." Near glanced at Hawkins, who had gone silent, but was clearly still angry. "And I'm sorry for bringing it up in the first place, but I wouldn't be investigating the case properly if I didn't follow up on every angle. Now then, were the three of you here on the night Mr. Martel disappeared?"

"I'm afraid not." Hyde shook his head. "We'd all been given the night off. Hawkins and I went to the Pyramid Club, and Catriona was out with... a friend."

"A friend, huh?" Jim glanced at her.

"Yes." She looked down, blushing slightly, in total contrast to the cool way she'd answered his previous question. "A friend, Mr. Near."

"Gotcha." He frowned. "Seems kind of a coincidence, that he'd send all of you out on the night he disappeared. He do that often?"

"Not at all," Hawkins spoke up again. "He always kept at least one of us here with him, whenever he was home. Always. We thought it strange ourselves, and when we returned, he had vanished. Young William has already told you that him leaving intentionally doesn't mesh at all with his previous behavior, I assume?"

"That's right, and I'm inclined to agree with him, as far as guesswork goes," Jim told him. "Which makes me think he knew something was going to happen that night, but it wasn't going to be voluntary."

"You think somebody made him disappear, then," Hyde said cautiously. "His family?"

"They're the obvious answer, all right," Jim admitted. "But obvious isn't always correct. You said he'd never send you all out on the same night. Were there any other ways he'd been acting strangely before that happened? Different?"

"Yes, he'd been behaving oddly for the previous few months," Catriona replied quietly. "Paranoid, edgy. He would always ask us if we'd seen any traces of anybody else in the house, and tell us to run checks on the security, both physical and electronic. It was like he was afraid of something, or somebody. We all thought it was his family, but I'll admit... it was too much, for them. Like he thought he was always being watched."

"And when did he start acting like this?" Jim asked, already guessing at the answer.

"After he got back from his last expedition," Hawkins told him quietly. "Where he tried to find Atlantis. You believe there's a connection?"

"I'm not ruling it out," Jim replied frankly. "I'll probably have a firmer opinion once Dixon gets back from taking a look over there. What about his family? How long did it take them to find out he was gone?"

"Several days," Hyde said, both him and Hawkins turning to Catriona, who closed her eyes. "William's a good friend of ours, but he's not very good at keeping secrets, I'm afraid. Once Catriona told him, it wasn't long before the others knew as well."

"This friend you were out with that night," Jim said, the ghosts of his own past drawing even closer in his mind. "Was it him?"

"Yes, it was." Catriona met his gaze coldly. "I hope you're not implying anything about him, Mr. Near. William is the only one of that family aside from Mr. Martel himself who's a decent human being, and if saying that counts as 'Maverick tendencies,' then I don't care."

"Catriona!" Hawkins snapped.

"So what do we do, then, Jimmy? Just run away from all of this, the two of us against the world? You're dreaming, Jimmy. You're lying to yourself. You'd never make it like that, and you'd never want to."

"On the contrary, Miss Catriona," Jim told her quietly. "He's a good kid. That's about all I can think of, but if we come across anything else..."

"We'll be here." Hyde smiled briefly. "At least, until his family inherits. They can't kick us out of here until then, but once that does happen... well."

"I'll just have to do my best to find him before that happens, then," Jim said with more confidence than he really felt. "Thank you for your time."

"I'll see you out," Hawkins offered, rising again.

"Thanks." Jim stood as well. Snooping was obviously out of the question with the three of them in the house anyways. The two of them left the other two, descending the stairs again in silence. Only when they opened the door again did Hawkins react, and with good reason; several very large men in suits were standing there, flanking another who looked much like William would were he several decades older.

"Mr. Martel," Hawkins said coldly. "Before you ask, our answer remains the same."

"I wasn't expecting it to change, reploid, and I wouldn't care if it did," the newcomer replied. "You had your chance. Now it's just a matter of time. I'm here to speak with Mr. Near. You can go on back inside to hide in your corner now. Won't change a damn thing."

"Mr. Near?" The reploid asked quietly.

"I'll take care of it," Jim told him, forcing calmness. "He probably won't go away until he gets his say anyways." Walking towards the man, he feigned a smile, but didn't extend his hand. "Peter Martel, I assume?"

"Correct." Peter nodded firmly. "And you would be Mister Jim Near, of Near, Blake, Dane and Dixon. The private investigators my eldest son, William, hired to look into my brother Walter's disappearance."

"That's me," Jim agreed. "I was planning on stopping by to ask you some questions about that soon anyways. This should save some time."

"I'm sure." Peter didn't smile. "My car is right this way, Mr. Near. We have many things to talk about."

"Nah, right here's fine." Jim leaned against the wall, conscious of Hawkins locking the door behind him. "We're out of the rain. That's good enough for me."

"Hmph." The older man frowned deeper. "Very well, then. Let's cut to the chase, Mr. Near. I think my son may have been hasty in contracting your services. My brother's simply gone off on one of his ridiculous wild goose chases, just as he always does. There's no need for you to waste your time searching for him."

"That a fact." Jim glanced upward. "Unfortunately, we do have bills to pay, Mr. Martel. Quite a few of them, too. If somebody's willing to hire us, as long as it's worth our time, we generally don't tell them not to."

"If that's all that matters to you, I can ensure you'll be more than adequately compensated," Peter replied calmly. "Much more so than my son's paying you."

"Shame that we've also got these little things called professional standards," Jim said off-handedly. "I sure would have liked to say yes to being bribed off."

"Really, now." Peter's eyes narrowed, and he actually smiled faintly. "I would have thought the eldest son of Nicholas Near would understand the way the world works better than that."

"That a fact." Jim's head snapped up to glare at him before he could stop himself. "Maybe you thought wrong, then. In case you hadn't noticed, my family's rich. I'm not."

"I'm perfectly aware of that." Peter kept the smile. "Which means that you no longer have your father's protection, boy. You might want to keep that in mind when deciding who and who not to cross."

"He's not pretending, Jimmy. He's not hiding anything, and he's not going to change. You're property to him, just like we are. You and your brothers are all just a higher class of property, as far as he's concerned. He thinks he owns you. And as long as you play to his tune, he does."

"And you say I need to learn how the world works?" Jim snorted derisively. "Why don't you call the old man up and ask him about that yourself? Go on, try it. And even then, I'm not the one whose past you need to worry about."

"I assume you're referring to Mr. Blake and his time with the Maverick Hunters?" Peter raised an eyebrow. "The Hunters don't scare me, Mr. Near."

"Then you definitely don't know the way the world works." Jim smiled coldly, starting to walk past him. "And I don't have time to explain it to you, so I'll just give you some advice and be on my way. Be afraid of the Hunters, old man. I sure as hell am."

"Did I say you could-" Peter started to snarl, then paused, apparently remembering that the house's cameras were probably recording everything that was happening. Neither he or the goons made any move to stop Jim, but he turned to call after him into the rain. "This isn't over, Near!"

Jim didn't bother replying.

"..and that's about all I got," Jim finished telling Debra and Henry as they sipped their drinks at the Poe Club again, later in the evening. He'd returned before Henry and sent Debra off, claiming he didn't want to have to tell the story more than once. After they'd both came back when it was time to head out for the day, however, with no sign of Dixon, they'd pressed him into it once they were down at the bar. "What about you two?"

"More of the same, I'm afraid," Debra explained glumly. "The guys there pretty much said everything you did. Apparently the old man's been coming there for the last couple decades, and he usually brings either Hawkins or Hyde with him, or occasionally his nephew and Catriona; they always come together with him. That night was the first time Hawkins or Hyde ever came without him, though. Everybody there was sure of it."

"They say anything about his behavior?" Henry asked.

"Same thing there, too." She nodded. "Paranoid, edgy, more and more as time went on. He started coming less and less; seems the last month, up until those two showed up one night, he didn't at all." She frowned. "This might not be all that reliable, but they said that every time something having to do with Maverick activity showed up on the news, it would set him off, and he'd leave as soon as possible."

"I don't like the sound of that one bit," Jim said after a long, silent moment. "If he got mixed up with Mavericks somehow, we're in over our heads." He glanced at the other man. "Blake, what do you have for us?"

"Not even as much as you guys." Henry shrugged. "Talked to the folks there, and they said he's only come once ever since he got back." He paused. "At least, I thought that was all it was. Then I got to talking with the owner. Turns out he's a Rebellion buff, too."

"Look, Blake..." Debra started to groan, then paused as Jim raised a hand.

"This important?"

"Sure is," Henry continued. "'Cause that one time Martel showed up? He was asking the man all sorts of questions about the Rebellions. Bad news for us is, he didn't think much of it, so he doesn't remember exactly what it was he asked, but he says the old man never really had much interest in them before."

"This is getting pretty weird," Debra said after another long moment.

"No kidding," Jim agreed, finishing off his drink and calling for a refill. "Some folks think there's a connection between the Robot Rebellions and wherever the hell the Maverick Virus actually came from in the first place, but they're crackpots, for the most part. Conspiracy nuts. Not sure how I feel about getting involved in something like that. Lot of crazies out there."

"No kidding." Henry snorted. "This turns into a slasher flick, we're shit out of luck with the kind of team we've got."

"A black guy, a lesbian, and a reploid?" Debra rolled her eyes. "Yeah, the only real question is who dies first. Could be anybody, except the boss."

"You never know." Jim chuckled dryly. "Could be me just to throw everybody off. And speaking of Dixon, looks like he finally got back in."

"Whiskey, double, straight up," Dixon told the bartender as he slid onto the stool next to Henry. The reploid's normally cheerful face was looking even more off-kilter than the other three, eyes nervous and wary.

"I take it looking around over there didn't go too well?" Jim guessed.

"Depends on what you call 'going well.' Dixon stared at his feet. "I got a lot of information, but it's not the kind you're happy about getting."

The other three all exchanged glances.

"It's starting to look like that's the way this case is going," Debra said cautiously. "We've all found things we're not too happy with either. Why don't you tell us the story?"

"That sounds like a good idea to me, too," a new voice agreed. The girl who sat down next to Dixon was a reploid in full hot-pink armor, though her helmet was off, long blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. Her eyes were large and blue, giving her an innocent appearance that was completely subverted by her next words. "Name's Suzy. Maverick Hunters, 8th Unit. We've been conducting an ongoing investigation where you just came from, Mister Dixon." She showed them her ID, then turned to the barman. "Midori sour."

"The Hunters, huh?" Jim murmured, all of them turning to Henry.

"Been a long time since I've seen one of you around here," the big man replied easily. "8th Unit, huh? Good outfit."

"We get the job done." She smiled slightly. "Henry Blake, right? Rip from the 6th said he was surprised you were still alive."

"Rip never knew shit back when I was with the Hunters." He rolled his eyes. "Looks like some things don't change. Good kid, though. Glad to hear he's still heading his Unit up. What about my old crew? Bulldog still kicking?"

"Actually, no." She shook her head. "Lost a leg in a skirmish over in the Tsugaru Strait, and that finally got him to retire."

"Bulldog retiring?" Henry replied with obvious disbelief. "Never thought I'd hear that one."

"Trust me, the rest of the Hunters felt the same way," Suzy assured him. "That one-eyed hatchet man's the Commander now-Jack something-but Bloody Maria's the one who's really calling the shots. She'd have made top herself, but she'd only been in for about two months when Bulldog opted out. Probably part of why he did it." She glanced over at Dixon. "Listen, I'd love to trade gossip all night, but we've all got more important things to hear."

"What she said," Debra agreed mildly. "What exactly did you find out over there, Dixon?"

"Trouble," the reploid said flatly. "Walter Martel based his search for Atlantis out of the city of Constanta, on the coast of the Black Sea. During the first few months of his search, he was focused entirely on it; he'd spend weeks out on the water, only coming back to the city when he needed supplies. But then one morning, he came back from his diving looking like he'd just had a drink with Sigma. He spent a few days asking questions around the city, and then took off. The same kinds of questions I asked, and the ones I'm guessing the Hunters are, too."

"For several years now, there's been a rash of disappearances all around the coast of the Black Sea," Suzy continued. "Nothing out of the ordinary, on face value. Sad, but people disappear all the time, even in this day and age. Until you notice that an awful lot of recent disappearances are old men, over the age of sixty. And most of those aren't so much 'never came home' stories as 'vanished out of their homes without a trace.' Not the usual. Not at all."

"Not even close," Jim agreed. "So, let me get this straight. The old man finds something out there in the Black Sea that scares the shit out of him. He comes back, asks about anything weird going on, finds out, and figures he might be next so he runs back home. Spends the next few months on edge, and then one night, he's gone too. Either whoever it is tracked him and took him as well, or else he figured the only way he'd get out of this alive was to disappear. Either way... sounds like what he found out there's what's been responsible."

"If he was taken, why wouldn't they have grabbed the three reploids he lived with, too?" Suzy pointed out. "It seems more likely that he ran away."

"Unless he never told them," Debra pointed out. "If they didn't know anything, there would be no reason to make them vanish and draw even more attention."

"How would whoever this was know?" Dixon asked. "I mean, sure, he was paranoid that somebody was always watching him wherever he went, without ever being discovered, but... that's just conspiracy theory crap. Nobody's that good. Not in real life."

"Not any more, you mean," Henry corrected him. "Back during the Rebellions, the big guys pulled that kind of thing off. Wily, Cossack, Proto Man... they could have done it."

"Yeah, and some people say Darwin Vinkus is still alive, too." Dixon snorted. "Come on, Blake. Even assuming that's not just hyperbole, they're all long gone, and they were something else when they were still alive. I'll believe somebody pulling off the same kind of crazy shit they used to when I see it."

"Does it really matter why he disappeared?" Debra reminded them. "We'll still be looking for him either way, right?"

"Not necessarily." Suzy shook her head. "Of course, the Maverick Hunters don't have any actual control over your actions, but if Mr. Martel was another victim of whatever's behind these disappearances, I'd strongly suggest that you leave this matter to us. They're likely to be more than anybody except the Hunters can handle. No offense."

"None taken," Jim assured her. "We'll take your suggestion under advisement, and I actually mean that. Tomorrow morning, once we're all clear-headed, I think we'd better have a conference in the office about whether we should continue with this case or not. I'm not going to just decide without any input from the rest of you, and an hour into our cups isn't the time and place to do that. But we definitely need to talk it over, at this point."

"Amen to that," Debra drawled, raising her glass, and the others followed suit.

"Well, I suppose that's the best I can ask for." Suzy finished off her drink and stood, smiling at Dixon. "I'd better get back to base, but I'll call you again tomorrow so we can see if any of us has anything else we should tell each other, huh?"

"Sure." Dixon slowly smiled back. "Yeah, that'd be great."

"See you then, then." She winked before walking out, teleporting away once she was outside on the sidewalk.

"Pretty cute, isn't she?" Debra said, nudging Dixon. "Think she likes you."

"You think so?" Dixon kept smiling, glancing from one of them to another.

"If you don't ask her out the next time she calls, you will never live it down," Henry told him seriously. "Long-distance don't mean all that much when you can teleport, after all."

"Don't bother looking for me, Jimmy. I'm going away, and that means far away. So far I'll never see anybody I know, ever again."

"I guess it don't," Jim agreed, finishing off his glass. "I'm heading off, then. And hey. I meant it about tomorrow morning."

"We know, boss." Henry waved him off. "Have a nice night."

"Right," Jim grunted. The drive home was the same as always; dark and wet. It was only when he arrived that things took a turn for the worse; as soon as he walked into his apartment, he saw that somebody else was there, waiting for him.

"Mr. Near," the stranger said flatly. The lights were out, and he was wearing both a duster and a cowboy hat, all of which did a good job of concealing everything about him save that he was remarkably short, barely four feet tall. "You and your friends are all in a great deal of danger right now."

"Is that a threat?" Jim asked cautiously, making no moves; whoever it was clearly had the drop on him. "I don't take too kindly to those."

"Just the opposite," the stranger corrected him. "It's a warning, and it's the only one I'm going to give you. I can't risk being discovered, and this is the last night I'll be able to talk to you without running that risk. They've already found you, Mr. Near. They'll soon be watching your every move, and it will only be a matter of time before they come for you. They're moving in as we speak. As soon as they think you're about to discover their secrets, you'll simply disappear, as will anybody else you've told. Gone, as if you'd never existed at all."

"Say I believe you," Jim suggested cautiously. "What would you advise, then?"

"Disappear by yourself, before it's too late," the stranger continued. "You and the other three. Split up, and head to the farthest corners of the globe you can, separately. New identities, new careers, new lives. It's your only hope, Mr. Near. Otherwise, none of you are going to live to see the end of the year."

"That a fact." Jim's eyes narrowed. "And who are you, then?"

"I can't tell you that, I'm afraid." The stranger shook his head. "I'm taking a significant risk contacting you at all. My people asked me to warn you, while we could, but that's as far as we're willing to go. No matter what the price, we must remain unknown to them, as well as the rest of the world. Goodbye, Mr. Near, and good luck. You'll need it." A glint of light from a passing car's headlights hit him as he stepped back, illuminating what looked like metallic scales, and then he was gone in a blur of green light that shot through the ceiling.

"A reploid?" Jim asked aloud. "Or... was that a robot master?" He stared up at the ceiling for some time, seeking answers unforthcoming, before giving up and turning in.

It turned out to be the first time he could remember since he'd been a child that he dreamed of anything other than her, and that only worried him more.

The next morning, despite his common sense, Jim woke up with the feeling that somebody else was in his apartment again. He tried to banish the thoughts and failed, eventually giving up and succumbing to the urge to search it for any signs of entry. There were none, which didn't help his fears; after all, the previous intruder hadn't left any. Forcing him to get a hold of himself, he showered, dressed and headed into work, stopping only to pick up coffee and donuts on the way.

"Sheesh, Near," Henry said as they all glanced over at him as he hung his coat. "You look like somebody hit you with ten metric tons of shit."

"Had a rough night," Jim explained, crossing to his desk and sitting down. "Thanks to a certain visitor." He filled them in on the intruder and their conversation, to a great deal of surprise as well as dismay.

"It could have just been one of Peter Martel's stooges, coming to try and scare you off the case," Debra suggested once he was done, but she sounded dubious about it herself.

"He wouldn't have sent a reploid," Dixon disagreed. "If that was a reploid. Are there even any robot masters left at all these days?"

"Not many." Henry frowned. "You hear rumors about one every now and then-stories about a Guts Man working a job on a construction site somewhere, a photo of some tourists posing with a Knight Man, all that jazz, but I've never actually seen one myself. About the only place I know for sure that still has any is Doc Cossack's castle, and that place is a total tourist trap these days. After the War of 2090, people just stopped making them, and the ones that were left eventually started wearing out, one by one until there weren't any left."

"That doesn't really make sense, you know," Dixon commented. "I don't know much about robot masters, but I do know those things were built to last. Up until the Maverick Uprisings, there wasn't all that much trouble in the world after 2090, was there? So they wouldn't have been destroyed in any sort of fighting."

"No, they weren't." Henry coughed. "By 'wearing out,' I mean 'a lot of people deciding they didn't like robot masters any more.' I was trying to be polite."


"We're getting off track," Jim told them. "Like I said in the bar last night, I think we should take a vote on if we want to continue this investigation or not. Under the circumstances, I think if we explained matters to Mr. Martel, he'd understand if we wanted to call it quits. He's a reasonable kid, and he knows taking chances like this is a little much to ask of us. We're PIs, not heroes, and we aren't in the business of risking our necks."

"If your friend from last night was being honest with you, that won't be enough to save us, you know," Debra pointed out. "He said we'd have to do a complete cut-and-run if we wanted to live. Just dumping this job doesn't exactly count."

"That's his problem, not ours," Jim said with more confidence than he felt, trying to control the urge to start checking the office for any traces of intruders as well. "I'm not going to just throw away my life because some spook's giving me a cryptic warning."

"Well then." Debra shrugged. "The way I see this, either we're suddenly in a slasher movie or we're not. If you're disregarding that advice, then if we are, we're all basically screwed. And if we're not, I don't see any reason to quit this case."

"Will you cut it out with that slasher movie talk?" Henry muttered to her. "Somehow, it ain't as funny as it was last night."

"Guess not." She frowned. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not too eager to just drop everything because of some freak who breaks into people's apartments either. But something's just felt... off, ever since last night."

"I know what you mean," Henry agreed. "All the same, though, I don't think I want to give this one up either. If you'd asked me before the Hunters got involved, I might have, but now... call it macho bullshit if you want, but I don't like the thought of word getting back to my old buddies in the 11th that I've gone too soft to handle this."

"You're right." Debra smirked. "It is macho bullshit. But I suppose I can kind of see your point, all the same."

"Careful, Dane," he said with a chuckle. "Keep talking like that, I'm going to start thinking you like me."

"Not like that, I don't," she retorted. "Keep dreaming, Blake."

"You two done?" Jim asked dryly. "What about you, Dixon? What's your vote?"

"Well..." Dixon glanced away, trying to keep casual, but couldn't keep himself from smiling. "Suzy did call me up on the way here this morning to ask if I'd be coming back over to investigate some more."

"And you came here to hang out with old fogies like us instead?" Henry demanded. "What's wrong with you? Go on, get over there!" He glanced at Jim. "Unless the boss wants to use a veto on our votes?"

"As if." Jim scoffed. "Truth be told, I was hoping the rest of you would see reason and vote to give this up. What's wrong with you all?"

"Brave words coming from the guy who waited until we voted before chiming in," Dixon joked. "So you aren't voting no either?"

"Nah." Jim shook his head. "Much as I'd like to... this one just feels too personal for me to let go of that easy. On that note, nobody go telling the kid any of this creepy stuff we've found just yet. No point in getting him involved until we have some definite answers for him, you know? Especially if it is risky business." The others all nodded, and he grinned. "Good. Now then, Dixon, get on over to Constanta. Didn't anybody ever tell you never to keep a lady waiting?"

"Righto, boss." Dixon saluted mockingly before teleporting away.

"So, what's that leave for the rest of us to do today?" Henry asked once he was gone. "Not much to look into any more, on this end of things. Sounds like the only way we're going to get anywhere is if we head on over there with Dixon."

"That's what I'll be seeing about, today," Jim explained, glancing around the office again and trying to make it look casual. "If our sponsor feels up to financing a few plane tickets for the rest of us."

"So we'll be heading over to check out the site too?" Henry asked, leaning back. "Sounds good to me. For some reason, I just really want to get out of the office all of a sudden. Don't know why, but it just feels..." He shrugged.

"No, I get it too," Jim agreed, glancing at his screen. "I know this'll sound crazy, but... nobody's been in here today, right? Nobody but us, I mean? Have we, you know... actually checked if anybody has?"

"Are you kidding, Near?" Debra rolled her eyes. "With guys like Peter Martel on our case? I've been sweeping the whole office every morning as soon as I get in. Weird shit aside, that's exactly the sort of thing that guy would do. Don't worry, there's been nothing that I've been able to pick up, and I know my business."

"Never doubted that you did, Dane," Jim assured her. "I'm just a little on edge with all of this, I guess."

"We all are," Henry told him. "And we all know we all are. And that's making it worse, 'cause we all know we don't usually lose our heads like this. Even that time in the warehouse, with those gangsters, we kept it cool until we were out of there. Even Dixon kept it cool. But now, this?" He shook his head.

"It's the feeling like I'm being watched that gets me," Debra explained, glancing down from her screen to stare at her hands. "I know nobody's there. That nobody's here, except us. But that weird feeling you get when somebody's staring at you... it's been there ever since this morning. It wouldn't be so bad, except it just doesn't stop."

"You, too?" Near replied, smiling weakly. "Here I thought I was just being paranoid after that guy broke in last night. You've got a point, though, Blake. That shouldn't have rattled me nearly as much as I am now, let alone the rest of you mugs."

"That's another reason to stay on this case, then," Debra said quietly. "This is sounding an awful lot like what happened to Walter Martel. And if that's the case, then we're probably already in this too deep to back out at this point. Finding our answers is going to be the only way to fix this. We'll just have to hope we live through it."

"Now I remember why we keep Dixon around," Henry commented. "He was the most optimistic one of us sorry suckers. We needed him to keep us from sinking into a bog of gloom and doom."

"Hilarious." Jim walked past them. "Well, the sooner I go over and talk to Martel about that trip to Constanta, the better. Try to keep yourselves from going crazy until I get back, hopefully with favorable news."

"No promises," Debra cracked, sounding like she was only half-joking.

Once he was out in his car, he started driving before pulling out his phone and calling William up. He knew he shouldn't, but the strange feeling of being watched wasn't going away just because he was outdoors, and focusing the urge to run blindly away into driving somewhere instead was the best he could do. As the rain poured down, he dialed up his client, and fought the impulse to throw the phone out the window.

"Mr. Near?" William replied quickly. "I'm glad you called. I take it that you have some news for me?"

"I might, yeah," Jim told him. He started to go on, then paused, conscious of the phone in a way he'd never been paranoid about before. "Mind if I drop by for a chat? Kind of talk we should probably have in person, if you take my drift."

"Of course, of course," William agreed, sounding distracted. "I'm at my apartment in the city. I trust you know the address?"

"Yup." Jim nodded; it had been with his phone number on the datapad. "On my way right now. See you in a few." His sense of anxiety only increased as he kept going through the rain, and his driving ability began to suffer, pushing the speed up faster than he normally would have almost absently. Fortunately, there were no altercations with law enforcement, and he parked outside the gated community William lived in roughly ten minutes later. Getting out, he was about to try and reach him on the intercom when a pair of hulking figures loomed up before him.

"'Scuse us, Mr. Near," one of them rumbled. "We'd like to have a little chat with you on behalf of Mr. Martel."

"Mr. Peter Martel," the other one added unnecessarily.

"No kidding?" Jim asked, backing up. "Unfortunately, I'm afraid my schedule's all booked up at the moment, but next week's completely open."

"That a fact?" The first one asked. "Well, I figure we can open it up some."

"I think not," William said from the other side of the gate, a phone in his hand. "That will do, gentlemen, unless you'd like me to make a few calls I really don't think you do. And don't get any ideas about his car while he's busy, either, or you will regret it. Mr. Near, this way, please."

"Thanks, kid," Jim said, slipping between the two sullen thugs as the gate opened. Once it was closed again and the two of them were walking towards his apartment, he turned his head to give him a direct glance. "Took a bit of a risk there, didn't you? Those two bruisers could have decided they were going to teach you a lesson about mouthing off."

"Unlikely." William smiled bitterly. "They're all too aware of what my father would do to them if they made that mistake. Not out of any sense of concern for my welfare, of course, so much as a running policy on what he considers his business, despite our differences in opinions."

"Know what that's like." Jim shook his head sympathetically as they walked in. "I only see my old man once a year these days, but one time I showed up on the tail end of a brawl and he actually threatened some of his own people's 'encouragement' to try and get me to tell him how it happened and who it was."

The apartment was much like Walter's house had been; expensive more in function than in form, clearly owned by somebody with money but completely lacking in unnecessary frills and costly machines. After hanging up their coats, they went into the kitchen, where a pot of coffee had just finished brewing; without even asking, William poured two mugs and handed one to Jim as they sat down.

"Now then," the younger man said. "What have you found?"

"We've got something of a lead," Jim explained cautiously, thinking over exactly how much to tell him. He wanted to be honest with him, but at the same time, if there was something bad going on because they knew too much, there was no point in getting him caught up in it as well. "All the evidence we've gathered indicates his disappearance has something to do with his last little adventure. Looking for Atlantis, over in the Black Sea. I don't suppose there's anything more you can tell me about that?"

"Not much more than Catriona, Hyde and Hawkins already have, I'm afraid," William replied, shaking his head. "Before you ask, yes, she told me you'd stopped by. It was more of a private joke than a serious venture; he'd been telling my father he was going to find Atlantis ever since he was my age, and it eventually became his favorite way of needling him. His behavior did change after that last trip, though, you're right. I hadn't thought of it that way myself, but now that I am, you definitely have a point."

"Glad we're on the same page," Jim said with a brief nod, then moved on before he slipped up and asked if they were the only people in the apartment; acting unhinged was not the best course of action. "We've already got Dixon over there looking around; he thinks he's onto something, but no actual answers yet. Only one of us who can make it there and back in the same day, for obvious reasons."

"Oh?" William looked curious. "What's he discovered, then?"

"Well..." Jim scratched his head, a plausible lie coming to him suddenly. "Thing is, the problem over in Constanta he thinks might be related to your uncle's disappearance? The Maverick Hunters are on it, too, and they've kind of asked us to keep it under our hats until they give the OK. You're the client, so I'll let you know if you want, but I'm not sure you would want to chance crossing those folks, you know?"

"Oh, no, that's quite all right," William said quickly; his eyes had gone wide as soon as Jim had dropped the name. "I could go my entire life without drawing their attention quite happily." He went pale then, apparently realizing that what he'd said could be taken the wrong way. "I mean, I'm aware of all the good they do, and that we'd all be dead several times over if it hadn't been for them, but... well, they scare me."

"That just means you've got common sense, kid," Jim assured him. "Blake's an ex-Hunter himself, and there were guys back in the outfit that scared him. Anyways, you're the client, so how far we take this is up to you. I'll be honest with you, getting the other three of us over there with Dixon would be the best way to do it. It'd go faster, be more efficient, and we'd have better chances of success. But plane tickets over there ain't exactly cheap, even in this day and age, and it'd make sense if you didn't want to spring for 'em. Your call."

"There's no question at all," William replied calmly. "I'll arrange for them immediately. It's nothing I can't afford, and you've convinced me that you're on the right track." He smiled faintly. "I'm tempted to use my family account for it, but I'm fairly sure that would ensure beyond a doubt that my father would hold a grudge against your firm even after this case is settled. I'm afraid it's still rather likely, but there's no point in making it worse unnecessarily." He sighed. "He's rather petty like that, especially when I cross him."

"If he's anything like my old man, eventually he'll just get sick of dealing with you and give up," Jim advised him. Against the urging of his paranoia and nervousness, rather than leaving as soon as business was concluded, he took another sip of coffee and glanced at William, seeing his own past. "I'm guessing you've got siblings he likes a hell of a lot more than you. Sooner or later, he'll probably just cut his losses and focus on them."

"A younger brother, yes." William nodded. "I can't say I'm very fond of him myself, but I have to admit, what he likes in morality he makes up for in intelligence and talent. He'll probably handle the family's business better than I would anyways. Yourself?"

"Two brothers, one sister, all incompetent shitheads," Jim said dryly. "You're lucky; I'd give a kidney for just one of them to be capable of looking out for the other two. The only reason I stay in contact with the family at all these days is because of them; they can't deal with the whole mess between our parents by ourselves."

"I believe I've seen that on the news." William winced sympathetically. "They're still settling the divorce, I take it. Bad?"

"Oh, yeah." Jim made a face. "Seems finding out they hated each other brought out their best feelings about us, too. Hard to say what's worse-mom telling it to our faces, or dad telling other folks behind our backs. I can deal with it, but the others? I'd feel sorry for them if they weren't such jackasses." He sighed. "Still, they're my brothers and sister. Some things you gotta do, no matter how much you don't want to."

"I suppose if my brother required my help in any way, I'd feel the same," William conceded. "I'm lucky, then, that he shouldn't. I'll be able to cut my ties with the family completely and go my own way, one day."

"You and Miss Catriona, right?" Jim shook his head, chuckling. "Man, looking at you really is like a mirror into my youth."

"You had somebody like that as well, when you were... still with your family, then?" William asked after a moment.

"That's right." Jim nodded. After a moment, he pulled out his wallet, flipped it open to the line of photos he kept in there, and showed him. "Name was Coral. 'Cause of her hair color, see? She was one of the servants at the family house. Took care of the younger ones a lot; I helped her out when nobody was looking, before they all started going bad. Nobody else in the family treated her, or the other reploids, very well, but... I always liked her, even back when I was kind of an entitled shithead myself. She ended up opening my eyes to that."

"Can I ask what happened?" William said quietly, looking at the photos. "I'm assuming it didn't work out."

"Bingo." Jim closed his eyes. "Like I said, I was an asshole myself for a long time, and I was slow to change. By the time I was legal, we had something, but I wasn't ready to just let go of the family money and make an honest living on the street level. When I finally figured it out, it was too little, too late. We gave it a shot; moved out, got a place in town together, got jobs to make ends meet. Before too long, she decided she just couldn't do it; I'd dragged it out too much, and she wasn't able to let go of all the bad memories."

"So she left," William guessed.

"Yup," Jim said bluntly. "Came home one night to find her on the way out the door. Haven't seen or heard from her ever since; I've been looking, but no luck. Never been able to bring myself to try for another girl since, either."

"My family's been harassing Catriona and her... brothers, I suppose the best word would be... ever since they've been built," William told him after another long pause. "I'll always be grateful to them for looking out for her. She's brave, but that kind of continual abuse... I'm afraid it'll do that to her, eventually."

"Then don't wait for it to happen," Jim suggested. "Look, kid. This thing over in Constanta... I can't be sure, but it might be bad. If we..." He took a deep breath. "If we don't come back from this, then call it off. Your uncle wouldn't want you throwing away your life like that. Before it's too late, take Miss Catriona, and get out. Prove to her that she's all that really matters to you, while she still needs to know that. The other two might come with you, but if they don't, they're tough guys. They'll be able to handle themselves. What's important is her. Don't make the same mistakes I did, okay? You deserve better than that, and so does she."

"I suppose if the Hunters are involved, asking if this lead you have is really that dangerous would be a bit redundant," William noted calmly, though his eyes were wide again. "Perhaps you should tell me what it is, after all."

"Don't really think so, boss," Jim disagreed. "That's what you pay guys like us for, isn't it? Taking the risks. And in this case, knowledge is dangerous. If we disappear like your uncle did... well, that's all you need to know, isn't it?"

"Indeed it is." William slowly nodded. "You've given me a lot to think about, Mr. Near. I suppose I should thank you."

"Don't bother," Jim told him, cracking a smirk. "I ain't no angel, kid. Only reason I'm going on like this is because it's personal. Otherwise, I never would have bothered. I meant it, though. Whether we come back from this one or not, the longer Miss Catriona has to put up with that, the worse your chances of it working out are gonna be. If your uncle's gone, you don't have anything at all tying you down. And if we do bring him back?" He shrugged. "Talk this over with him, and I'd put twenty bucks on him agreeing with me."

"It does seem likely," William admitted. "Perhaps I have been avoiding that problem for too long. I'll talk with Catriona, and we'll decide what we want to do with our future."

"You do that." Jim finished his coffee, stood up and shook his hand. "I'll call you again if we find anything else. If not..."

"Those tickets will be ready tomorrow morning," William promised. "I should be able to get them for later this week."

"Then we'll take a look around, and see what's down the rabbit hole." Jim nodded, heading out. "Good luck, kid."

There was no sign of the elder Martel's goons when he returned outside, fortunately; they'd even left his car unmolested. Even better, the rain had actually stopped, though he wasn't counting on that lasting for long. All the same, he saw no reason not to enjoy it while he had the chance, and drove off in better spirits than he had been all day, despite his still-present paranoia. Even if the worst happened, at least he'd done something right, and stopped the past from repeating itself in one small way. Again, once he was on the road, he dialed up a number on his cell phone, this time calling Henry.

"We good?" He asked as soon as he picked up.

"We good," Jim confirmed. "We'll have tickets by tomorrow. Until then, probably not much we can do on this case, except for Dixon."

"We can try researching it on the 'net," Henry suggested. "That won't take all of us, though. One, maybe two." His voice was turning anxious, and it was fairly easy for Jim to guess the cause of that.

"Why don't you two stick around the office today and do that, then?" He told him. "I'll stay outside and work on some other stuff out here. The Handleman account, for starters, I think; give running him down another try. Kill some time, and then we'll see what Dixon has to say when he gets back."

"Sounds like a plan, boss," Henry agreed. "We'll be here if anything comes up. Give that bum one for me if you catch him, right?"

"Can do." Jim chuckled. "See you later, Blake."

The rest of the day seemed to pass in a blur. He went about his job like he was running on autopilot, doing what he knew how to without thinking about it any more than was absolutely necessary. By the time the sun was setting, he didn't really remember much of the details, and that more than anything else made him pause in concern; in his line of work, that was something of an essential skill. He gave up at that point; it was close to his usual quitting time anyways. After a mental debate, he decided to just skip going to the Poe Club and headed straight home; in his current state, there was no real point.

The nervous feeling only increased once he'd returned to his apartment; the sense of being constantly observed was joined by an unreasonable feeling that intruders had been there while he was gone, even though nothing was out of place. He even went so far as to begin searching the apartment for anything that was visibly different, and the fact that absolutely nothing was only served to make him more worried about whether something completely ordinary was in fact only a couple inches off from where he'd left it.

Eventually, he forced himself to go to bed, but was still too keyed up to sleep. Turning on his television, he flipped through channel after channel, finding nothing to watch at all. Some of the shows were staggeringly out of date, and not in the sense that they were being replayed by popular demand, either. No matter how many channels he went through, nothing caught his attention in even the slightest way. It did fulfill its goal, though; everything he saw was so boring, he eventually drifted off to sleep.

His last thought, as he nodded off, was that despite the subject matter of his conversation with William, today had been the first day in more than ten years that he hadn't heard Coral's voice inside his head even once.

The next day was the first in a long time that Jim arrived at the office before any of the others. He hadn't come in any earlier than normal, either; when he walked in at his usual time, the room was dark and empty, with no signs of life. After a few long moments, he forced himself to turn the lights on and start the coffee brewing, as if nothing was wrong. It could just have been that everybody else was running late, after all. There was no reason to panic just yet; that could wait until after he'd given them some time to come in, and checked up on them himself.

Powering up his computer, he poured himself a mug and began checking for any news over in Romania that would be relevant. Unfortunately, the internet connection was shoddy on the best of days, and today didn't seem to be one of them; after several minutes of wrestling with it and barely getting anything, he gave up for the moment and started playing solitaire. Soon after that, his patience was rewarded, as Henry walked in, looking irritated, with Debra on his heels.

"Sorry we're late, boss," he said. "Slept like shit. First time I've snoozed through the alarm since I was a snot-nosed brat."

"Ditto," Debra added. "Blake's couch was surprisingly comfortable."

"You spent the night at Blake's?" Jim asked, raising an eyebrow. "Something I should know about going on here?"

"Doubtful," Debra replied as calmly as ever; only the way her eyes darted around the room betrayed her mental state. "I haven't been interested in men since high school, remember? And even that was mostly bluffing."

"Neither one of us felt like being in the place alone would be a good idea, I guess." Henry shrugged, trying to make it look just as casual. "Don't even remember who asked who. Just kind of happened." He frowned, growing more serious. "Probably after we figured out neither you or Dixon were coming by the club that night. Heard from him?"

"Dixon?" Jim blinked. "Now that you mention it, nope. Figured he'd stop by the office or the club and check in with you guys again once he was done for the day. Sorry about bailing on you, by the way. Just didn't feel up to it."

"Well, he didn't," Henry growled. "We haven't seen or heard from him ever since he headed off yesterday."

"Could be he got lucky," Debra suggested. "With that Hunter girl, remember? She was pretty cute."

"He'd have called ahead to let us know if he had," Jim pointed out, then paused. "Probably. I guess this is Dixon we're talking about."

"Somebody call him up then," she told them. "Dixon's a little flighty, but he's not stupid enough to ignore that."

"I'll do it," Henry offered, grabbing the phone and dialing as he sat down.

"I'm guessing you slept like a log?" Debra asked as she took a seat behind her own desk. "Some guys have all the luck."

"As if." Jim snorted. "Took me forever to drop off. Eventually had to turn to watching baseball to do it. The game was the least boring thing on, thanks to all those repeats."

"You noticed, huh?" Debra smiled faintly. "At least I know enough about the game to figure out why New York stomped Boston so badly."

"What?" Jim frowned. "You must have dozed off before the end of the game. I might not know shit about baseball, but I can follow a scoreboard, and Boston were the ones who were ahead at the end of it."

"Channel 42?" Debra asked slowly. "Around ten?"

"That was it, yeah," Jim said, nodding. "Let's... let's ask Blake. He actually keeps up with this stuff. Hey, Blake, who won last night? New York or Boston?"

"The Yankees edged out a win, according to the newspaper I picked up today." Henry replied without putting down his phone, a frustrated look on his face. "You must have been sleepier than you thought, Jim."

Jim and Debra exchanged a long look.

"Maybe I was," Jim admitted cautiously. "But I wasn't sleepy enough to confuse the Yankees with the Dodgers, Blake."

"What?" Blake dropped his phone, turning to stare at them. "The Dodgers haven't played for New York in nearly two hundred years! Were you two watching the history channel?"

"No chance," Jim replied, fighting the urge to panic. "It looked like it was supposed to be last night's game to me."

"Same here," Debra agreed, clutching the edge of her desk so hard her knuckles began to whiten. "What the hell is going on?"

"I don't know, but Dixon's not picking up." Henry threw the phone into the wall in a sudden burst of anger.

"We're screwed, aren't we?" Jim asked after a long, silent moment. "Should have run for it when we had the chance."

"Not yet, we aren't." Henry picked the phone back up again. "I've got one last bolthole. My old buddies in the Hunters. We call them up, tell them the story, and ask them for help. Maybe they'll even 'haul us in for questioning,' if we're lucky."

"Ask about that girl, Suzy, too," Debra replied, eyes narrowing. "With Dixon MIA, I'm suddenly a lot more suspicious about her story. Did you ever hear about anything like that going in around that part of the world?"

"Nah, but that don't mean much," Henry replied as he fiddled with his phone. "Whole lot of shit that I didn't hear about. I was just a grunt, remember? This piece of shit can go... wait, is Romania over near Russia?"

Jim and Debra exchanged another long glance.

"Relatively," Debra told him. "In that they both border the Black Sea, yes."

"Just how many seas are there around that country, then?" Blake muttered, still not looking up from his phone. "Because I don't know if this is it, but there was something funny about one of them over in eastern Europe I remember."

"Funny how?" Jim asked cautiously.

"Way I heard it, the area around this sea-whether it's this sea or not-had never seen the slightest trace of Maverick activity," Henry explained. "Not once. Infected or natural. Not one single time, ever since Reploids were created."

A moment later, the lights went out in the building.

"Shit," Jim snarled, head darting around even though he was completely blind in the dark. "Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit! That does it, grab your hardware! We're getting out of here! Now!" Pulling open a desk drawer, he grabbed the magpistol he kept in it and checked the safety by feel, keeping it in his hand as he stepped back from the desk.

"Fire escape?" Henry asked, rummaging around in his desk.

"It's our best chance," Debra agreed. "We're still probably dead, but a slim chance is better than no-" She fell silent in mid-sentence, and the noise of her movement was gone as well.

"Doyle?" Jim asked, voice quickly rising to a shout. "Doyle?"

"They got her!" Henry roared. "They'll get us too, but I ain't going down without taking-" His voice cut off, just like Debra's had, and what sounded like his own magpistol clattered to the floor, echoing in the darkness.

Without another word, Jim bolted for the door, and made it within two feet of it before unseen metal appendages snatched him from the ground in midstep, as efficiently as well-aimed butterfly net. In the same moment, a gag was stuffed into his mouth and the magpistol was pried from his hand, to be discarded just like Blake's had. He struggled, despite the harsh angularity of whatever limbs were grabbing him, but to no avail; the mechanical assailant had him bound as tightly as if he were wearing a straitjacket.

"That's all three of them." A dead, obviously mechanical voice unlike any reploid he'd ever heard spoke from behind his head. "They're still our only targets, yes?"

"At the moment," an identical voice replied from the direction of Debra's desk. "They've been smart enough to refrain from telling others anything hazardous. There may be further activity from those who know what they were doing in the future, however."

"If that happens, then we'll deal with it when the time comes," a third voice, just like the other two, chimed in. "Corrections must be kept to a minimum, in order to preserve our invisibility. The time has not yet come to return to the outer world. For now, we have our current task to complete. We will return home immediately."

"Agreed," the other two voices replied. A moment later, some sort of gas was released into Jim's mouth from the gag, and against his will he inhaled it.

The darkness swam around him, and then it was gone.

Stirring, Jim slowly opened his eyes.

He was in a steel cube a hundred feet or so square, lit from overhead, with one window that took up the entirety of the wall, apparently made of transparent plasteel. Through it, he saw dark water, so deep that its inhabitants were only the barest flickers of distinguishable motion. Judging by the movement he was feeling, the cube was descending even deeper; how long it would do so was anybody's guess.

Henry and Debra were both in the cube with him, along with their captors, who still held them; their eyes flickered over to Jim's, taking in his awakening, but there was no spark of hope at all. Their abductors were mechanical monstrosities, amalgamations of limbs and tentacles like combinations of octopus and spider, on top of humanoid legs with no traces of anything resembling a face or head at all. Looking down, Jim could see the limbs of his own captor still tightly wrapped around his body, holding him in the air.

He had no idea how long it was, but eventually, after even the last flickers of light had faded from the water outside, the elevator ground to a halt, and the wall opposite the window raised itself, revealing what looked like a delivery room on the other side. Crates were all that it contained, aside from a single door and the ceiling lights. At least, so they thought, until the robots carried them inside, and they saw the room's other inhabitant.

"Go ahead and let them go," Suzy, the Maverick Hunter in the hot pink armor with the huge, pretty eyes told the robots coolly. She was leaning against one wall while standing on a crate, idly tossing something spherical up and down in one hand, and she seemed to be chewing on something, muffling her voice. The robots obeyed her instantly, dropping all three unceremoniously onto the floor. Watching them, she raised an eyebrow as they all remained silent and motionless. "Well? What are you waiting for? Aren't you going to ask what's going on here?"

"What's the point?" Debra replied quietly, staring at the floor. "We're fucked. It's fairly obvious. Why pretend otherwise?"

"Oooh, sharp," Suzy said mockingly. "You're right, of course. But I was really looking forward to this part; it's one of my favorites, after all. And if we're not going to do it... well, there's no reason not to just take you on through there, now is there?" She indicated the door; it was blank and featureless, absolutely unremarkable in any way, but something indefinable about it scared Jim more than the robots, or the facility, or even Suzy. "If I were you, I'd do anything I could to put that off as long as possible. But hey, what do I know?"

"Quite a bit, I'm guessing," Henry growled. "Pretty impressive work, for a fake Maverick Hunter."

"And who said I was fake?" Suzy smirked. "I'm a real member of the 6th Unit, Mr. Blake. I kill Mavericks for a living, just like everyone else in my Unit. What I do with my vacation time isn't anybody's business but my own... for now, anyways." She made a face. "After that disaster with Joe in the 7th Unit, we can't take any more risks."

"Joe?" Jim glanced at Henry.

"Traitor," Henry said after a long moment. "Tried to take out Commander Signas. Nobody ever figured out why. We all thought he was just some lone nutjob. Looks like we were wrong." He raised his eyes to glare at Suzy. "Just how many people do you have inside the Hunters?"

"Now that's the kind of information I probably shouldn't be giving out, even to a bunch of dead men." Suzy waved a finger. "Besides, it's not like that matters to you down here."

"Down here, huh?" Jim chuckled weakly, without any humor. "I'd ask where 'down here' was, but I've got a good guess. This is it, isn't it? The Black Sea, out that window. Where we were investigating. You pulled us in because we were finding out too much. If we're just killing time, I have to admit, I'm kind of curious as to how exactly you got us here. I can't imagine these freaks buying plane tickets like everybody else." He inclined his head towards the abductor robots, who'd gone silent and motionless after dropping them.

"Oh, that's easy," Suzy replied cheerfully. "They teleported. Come on, you can do better than that."

"Teleported?" Jim yelped as Henry fell backwards, swearing, and Debra's head finally snapped up, eyes wide with a new fear. "You crazy bitch, what's wrong with you? We're human! Why don't you just blow our heads off and get it over with?"

"Oh, stop." Suzy rolled her eyes, still chewing whatever it was. "Relax. MI9 cracked the secret to safe human teleportation decades ago, and we picked it up a few years back. You're fine-at least for now. As for that other question..." She looked them over, and Jim shivered. "That's because we've got uses for you, and it's better that we keep you as fresh as possible. Two of you, anyways." She glanced at Debra. "You, I'm afraid, are useless to us. We'll probably just draw lots on who gets to kill you in the end."

"And Dixon?" Debra asked, voice amazingly calm, considering how much her hands were shaking. "Was he 'useful' too?"

"Oh, him?" Suzy scoffed. "For spare parts, I guess. And unlike with humans, they keep. We went ahead and dismantled him yesterday. Ninety-eight percent of poor old Dixon is in some storage area or another now, I'm afraid."

"And the other two percent?" Jim asked warily, knowing he would probably regret doing so, but unable to stop himself.

"A little reward for me," Suzy told him smugly, swallowing audibly. "I really did kind of like him, after all. And maybe it means I read too many old 20th century comic books, but I've always had this thing for eyes." She finally stopped tossing what she had in her hand around, and they saw what it was.

"Oh, god." Henry choked. "You're sick!"

"Maybe." Suzy shrugged. "I really don't care." She started to pop it into her mouth, then paused as the door swung sharply open, and all three of them flinched back from the scowling nightmare who walked through it.

It was a face that everybody on the planet, human or reploid, knew by now. He stood nearly seven feet, built like a brick wall, in heavy, blood-red armor. That meant nothing, though; he'd changed bodies so many times that this one was probably as temporary as fashion among teenagers. It was his head that identified him as the world's greatest monster. Bald, with a heavy jaw and twin, vertical scars over his eyes that he kept through every incarnation.

"Done?" Suzy asked, eyes suddenly glittering with amusement. "That was fast. Then again, your little meetings with him usually are. Maybe you should be careful, Sigma. He might start thinking you don't like him, if you keep that up."

"Oh god, no..." Debra whispered, staring at Sigma, who regarded them all with slight curiosity. "That's who you work for? Him?"

"Huh?" Suzy blinked, surprised, then laughed mockingly. "That's a new one on me! Us, work for him? No, no, no, he's just... visiting." She stopped, then glanced at Sigma again. "Although... you are useless to us, so I suppose we might as well let him have you. What do you say, big guy? Free human to kill, no charge. Call it a present from the Faithful. Looks like she's just your type, too. Terrified. That's how you like them, right? Go on, have some fun."

"You bitch, I'll-" Henry started to snarl, rising from the floor, but his captor robot jumped him, binding and gagging him once more.

Jim watched, furious but powerless, as Sigma walked over to Debra, who remained sprawled where she was, so scared that she wasn't even able to move. Bending over, he raised one huge hand to her, stroking her throat almost delicately. It would only take one, quick twist of his fingers to snap her neck, they all knew, and Sigma held her for a long, silent moment, staring down into her eyes with a blank face.

Then he stood again, and with a lightning-quick movement, whirled and pinned Suzy to the wall by her neck instead, lifting her off the ground.

"You forget yourself," the Maverick King told her flatly, watching her struggles without any sign of emotion. "I am not one of your Faithful, little girl. Your master holds no power over me, and I have no need to worship him. Our association is due to common interest, nothing more, and if I were to tear you apart here and now, he would care nothing. You are nothing, little Faithful. I suggest you not try asking me to take your trash out for you again. My patience has its limits, and you are very close to breaching them."

Throwing her across the room as easily as if she were a ragdoll, he turned back to Debra and examined her clinically before speaking again. "I thought you were people were all about practicality. Efficiency. If the human is useless, just dispose of her. One shot to the head, quick and clean, and then throw the body in the incinerator. Simple." He chuckled sardonically. "Unless you want him to think you're wasting time, that is?"

"You heard him," Suzy rasped, clutching her throat, as she stood back up. "Do it. Kill the woman."

One of the captor robots unfolded a gun barrel from among its mess of limbs, and executed Debra with one shot.

"Bastard!" Jim yelled, standing up to rush at Sigma himself, only for his own abductor robot to snatch him up as easily as Henry's had.

"She died quick and clean, as I said," Sigma told him, turning his head to look at Jim. "I doubt she felt any pain at all, and if she did, it was only for a moment. That's more than I would have given her, had she been mine to kill." Turning away, he walked towards the elevator. "In time, you two will wish you were as lucky as she was. You may even wish you had fallen into my hands. I would simply have killed you. Not quickly, or cleanly, but it would have ended in a relatively short period of time. What awaits you now will make even a slow death seem a mercy."

It was a ridiculous notion, but as the elevator door dropped, Jim almost thought he saw something remotely akin to pity in the eyes of the Maverick King.

"Drop them, already," Suzy snarled once Sigma was gone, her playful mood clearly spoiled. "They're not going anywhere. You take the garbage to the incinerator. You two, come with me. We'll bring these ones in to see the master." The robots complied, dumping Jim and Henry on the floor again, as the third one moved over to gather up Debra's remains.

"And if we don't come?" Jim asked with the last of his bravado.

"Do you really want me to answer that?" Suzy shot back, walking over to the lone door and opening it again.

Sharing a hopeless glance, the two of them followed her, the robots following close behind, as the third one carried the corpse back into the elevator.

The facility was a maze of hallways, many of them equipped with ridiculous features, apparently as security devices, though Jim soon concluded that they were simply signs of the architect's diseased mentality. Suzy led them past every one without comment; at one point, she summoned a hoverlift to carry them across a mile-long passage in which every surface was covered with electrified spikes. At another, she pressed a panel in the wall to activate a set of stairs that would take them past a series of block platforms that appeared and vanished in the air in a complicated pattern.

More than the facility's layout, it was the sheer size of it that staggered Jim as they continued to move through it. He'd expected an outpost, a hidden lair, but this was more than that. It was practically a fortress buried in the Black Sea, containing everything from robot factories to garages containing every kind of vehicle imaginable. Most of it seemed to be automated; he saw no other reploids aside from Suzy, but there were plenty of lower-level robots like the ones that had kidnapped them, in dozens of shapes and forms, all horrific.

What he did see was a strange emblem that seemed to be everywhere; in the dim light that seemed to be prevalent throughout the facility, he couldn't make it out clearly, but it looked like a circle with jagged lines running through it horizontally. The closest thing he could compare it to was the teeth of some horrific monster, something that didn't improve the feeling of despair. Henry took it even worse; every time they passed it, the larger man blanched, and before long he was muttering to himself under his breath.

"Hey," Jim hissed as they walked across a balcony over another spikepit. Briefly, he considered hurling himself into it, but only for a moment; deep inside, he knew he'd never have the guts to actually do it. "You recognize that thing?"

"Can't be," Henry murmured, not looking at him. "Got to be some kind of sick joke. Can't really be that."

"Can't really be what?" Jim demanded quietly.

"Shut up back there," Suzy called back sharply. "We've almost arrived." A steel shutter was up ahead; on either side of it stood a humanoid reploid in a fanciful, white-and-gold uniform consisting of bodysuit, cloak and helmet. Both were tall enough to loom over even the abductor robots, but that was where their similarities ended. The one on the left was lean and pale, with a hideous leer and empty eyes, while the other was larger than some vehicles, with shoulders spanning at least three feet and blocky, tanned features.

"All hail the eternal," both of them said in unison as Suzy stopped before them.

"All hail he who is both man and machine," Suzy replied clinically before glancing over her shoulder. "Got those two from the last incident in. Went off without a hitch. The master always likes to talk with them at first."

"We are aware, Suzy," the thin one said in a high, sing-song voice. "There were supposed to be three, though." He cackled then, a staccato screech without any trace of humor. "Perhaps it didn't go as well as you think it did?"

"The third was a woman, Lord Mantisk," Suzy said firmly. "Useless for the master's experiments. I had her disposed of."

"That was well done of you, Suzy," the huge one rumbled. "It was a correct judgment, and you were efficient in carrying it out without seeking unnecessary verification."

"Thank you, Lord Kelverian." Suzy bowed her head. "How is he today?"

"Whimsical," Mantisk murmured, rolling his eyes. "I can't say I'd like to be your two boytoys today." He laughed again.

"And who are these two?" Jim asked her sarcastically. "Laurel and Hardy?"

"Huh?" Mantisk blinked, uncomprehending.

"Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy," Kelverian said after a moment. "20th century human comedians. It was a joke, you dolt." He waited a moment more before continuing. "Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha."

"Oooooh, a funny one!" Mantisk drawled, then disappeared in a blur of movement before a sharp pain pricked at the side of Jim's head. He didn't turn to look; he knew that if he did, he would move his face right into the edge of the blade being held there. "I like the funny ones. Will you still be funny after I slice you and dice you and put you back together the wrong way around?"

"That's enough, Mantisk," Kelverian growled. "The master will want to see them. And to use them. He can't do that if you kill them first."

"Oh, fine." Mantisk stepped back to his previous position, holding a ridiculously huge scythe for a moment before it vanished into a blur of light. "That's always the most fun of all anyways! Hee hee hee hee hee!"

"May we proceed, then?" Suzy asked formally.

"Go," Kelvarian replied, and the shutter raised open. Suzy led the two of them and their captors through, and it closed behind them.

It was like an auditorium; level after level of seats descended down further and further from the back where they'd entered in a rough semicircle. There was no stage or podium at the bottom and center, however; instead, the entire far wall, top to bottom, was made of transparent plasteel like that in the elevator. Also like the elevator, on the other side was dark, unlit water, although in this case a floor and walls beyond the other side seemed to indicate that it was an enclosed tank rather than a window into the Black Sea.

"Nice try," Suzy told Jim as they descended. "Good instincts; pissing off one of the Judges really is a good way to get yourself killed, and get it over with. Almost a shame it didn't work." As they reached the bottom, she turned towards the tank. "Make them bow." The captor robots forced Jim and Henry to their knees, and Suzy fell to hers as well, head down before the tank.

And then, in the dark water, something moved.

"Ah, here you are..." A speaker set in the base of the tank crackled to life. It was an old man's voice, rough and creaky, and it somehow conveyed both an ancient, tired weariness and a manic sort of energy at the same time. Whatever was in the tank was slowly coming towards them, only barely visible, as it continued to speak. "James Near, son of Nicholas and Marianne Near, refugee from the upper class and private investigator. And Henry Blake, son of Joseph and Jolene Blake, former Maverick Hunter. It's nice to meet you both. I rarely have guests here, you see."

The light was dim, but Jim thought he could see something now; squinting, he stared into the tank's depths, and quickly wished he hadn't. The thing that was speaking was a biomechanical abomination, a mishmash of mechanical parts and human meat that shouldn't even have been capable of moving, let alone speaking. It was like somebody had tried grafting human flesh and muscle onto a reploid interior, then mixed and matched organs and parts and systems on whimsy, before the entire mess had started melting off.

In one moment, he saw a twisted limb, its flesh open from the wrist down, revealing veins and arteries and nerves interspersed with circuitry and coolant tubes. Another glimpse showed him its head, an old man's rotting features frozen in a psychotic grin below obviously mechanical eyes and exposed brain tissue under a plasteel dome. Wires and tubes seemed to be attached to its back, rising to the top of the tank, hundreds of them.

"What are you?" Jim asked as Henry stared in frozen, speechless horror, his crazy mumbling finally cut off.

"I?" The abomination asked mockingly. "I am the only thing that is truly eternal in this world. I am will incarnate." It seemed to regard Suzy, who hadn't moved since it had started to speak. "My Faithful, bring some... tea for our guests."

"As you command, my master," Suzy said quietly, rising and quickly moving towards the back of the room.

"You'll forgive us if it's hardly the best quality," the old man told them. "As I said, we rarely have visitors, and as for my Faithful... well, I try not to encourage robots to act like you humans, unlike the outside world."

"Reploids," Henry said dully, something in that statement apparently having gotten his attention. "Reploids, not robots."

"Oh?" The old man asked sardonically as Suzy came back down the stairs. "Is there a difference, then? Not that it matters. She, and the rest of my Faithful, are not reploids at all, for not a one of them was born from Mega Man X. No, they have another legacy to follow."

"It's canned," Suzy said quietly, placing two sealed containers down before them. "It should still be good. Finding hot water to brew fresh tea would probably have taken me a while."

"Very efficient, my Faithful," the old man told her with mocking approval. "Although I must ask you... where did you find those?"

"The last one, my master," Suzy replied after a short pause that spoke volumes about her mental state at the moment. "The explorer, who these were searching for. He had these in his supplies. I remembered, and dug them out."

"Is he here, then?" Jim asked. "Walter Martel?" Despite the fact that they would never escape to complete the case, and that the remainder of their lives would almost certainly be nasty, brutish and short, it somehow seemed important to learn of the explorer's fate.

"Oh, yes." The old man seemed amused by the question. "Although how much longer he'll remain alive is questionable. He's, shall we say, somewhat closer to his expiration date than you two are." He regarded Suzy again. "Very well. You may go, then, Suzy."

"Yes, my master," Suzy murmured, leaving once more.

"So you're not a reploid, then, I take it?" Jim guessed, ignoring the tea.

"Me?" The old man paused for a moment, then laughed, and it was even more horrible than Mantisk's. "Hee hee ha ha ha... you couldn't be more wrong if you tried, boy. As a matter of fact, you could say I'm almost the exact opposite of a reploid. If a reploid is a machine that seeks to be a man... well, I am a man who has become a machine, and now seeks to be a man once more. To surpass the line between the two completely, the way my oldest, best friend failed to do."

"No..." Henry whispered, returning to his terror-stricken state, as he stared into the tank; not at the monstrosity floating there, but beyond it. "Please, god, no... not him, anything but him... mother forgive me..."

Against his better judgment, Jim looked into the tank again, squinting his eyes to try and see what was there. There, against the back wall of the tank, was the same emblem that had been all over the facility, the circle with the jagged lines inside. There was something else as well, though, something that he hadn't noticed before, in the upper left corner, just beyond the circle. Letters, two of them, and the jagged lines were a letter as well, he suddenly realized.

And as he read the letters, and recognized the emblem at last, Jim Near knew the name of the abomination that had taken them into its lair, and the terror he had felt before was nothing compared to what he knew then.

"You," he whispered. "They... they said you were dead. That you had to be. It's been... fuck, it's been more than fifty years! Half a century! How the hell could you still be... this is impossible. This has to be impossible." He heard his own voice rise into a pitiful whine, and hated himself for it, but could not stop it. "It has to be..."

"My old friend said it best, I suppose," the old man replied slowly. "What was it he said... ah, yes. 'Nothing is impossible.' At the time, I thought him naïve. Foolish, even. And yet, it seems that he was right. Nothing is impossible, boys. An important lesson for you to learn. You'll have a great deal of time to think it over, here with us. If there's one thing we have on our hands here, it's time. I suppose it's for the best, really. As you can see, it's taking me a while to get the hang of my current project. But then, trial and error is the heart of science."

"Please, god, no..." Henry continued to moan, staring at the floor.

"You're wasting your time, you know," the old man advised him. "Not that I'm prepared to claim knowledge of whether God is real or not. To be honest, the matter means nothing to me. You see, even if there is a God, it's become quite apparent that he had no intention of doing anything at all about me. Otherwise, he would have done so a very, very long time ago already."

"Yeah, all right, you like to hear yourself talk," Jim snapped, forcing one last, tiny spark of rebellion to the surface. "We get it. We've got the concept. That's the only reason you brought us in here, isn't it? So you could ramble for a while. Anything else interesting to say, or are we done here?"

Absolute silence followed that statement, as Henry turned his head to stare at him in horror, and the old man in the sea remained quiet as well. Despite his despair, Jim took a tiny glimmer of satisfaction in that; it might have only been for a moment, but he'd succeeded in shutting the old man up. That was something. It wasn't much, but it was something.

"When you put it that way, I suppose I might as well show you to your rooms," the old man finally said, as the abductor robots snatched them up once again. "You're going to be staying there for quite a while, as I've said; I'll have to wait for you to age a little more before... using you. They're a little on the small side, I'm afraid, but you'll get used to them; you don't really have a choice in the matter. The next time I see you... well, you'll still be alive for a great deal of time, but you'll probably wish you weren't fairly quickly. All in all, boys... I'm afraid you've come to a rather dreadful end, now haven't you? And you didn't even touch your tea."

They took them, then, and carried them away to another part of the facility, to a row of vertical canisters. They stripped them, separated them and shoved them down into a canister each, so tight that Jim couldn't move his arms, or legs, at all. Tubes were inserted into his mouth and attached to his nose, and then the canister was closed, and he knew without even trying to shout that it would be absolutely soundproof.

And then the waiting began.