"No matter how repulsive the peace, it's still vital to guard it. It may be an immoral peace, it may be an unjust peace, but an unjust peace is still better than a just war."

- Kiichi Gotoh, Patlabor 2: The Movie

Phase 12: Acceptable Losses

Baengnokdam Lake, Jeju-do

December 12th, 2133

"So. Erebus enters Russia, without informing us here in Washington, in order to try and prevent all of this? And you supported this action?" General Culverson did not sound as livid as he probably felt, surprising Lenneth. Considering his known opinions of reploids, she expected that Erebus' secretive actions would have gotten him to request Vanguard be disbanded outright within the next few minutes. Despite that, the emergency video conference with the White House was going much better than Lenneth had anticipated. Culverson was the only one of the presidential cabinet to be as antagonistic as he was. At the same time, he had a right to be. Technically, Erebus was required to give first priority to keeping Vanguard's handlers in D.C. updates that kept them as informed as possible on their activities and the reasoning behind them.

"That is a short summary, and yes, sir. I ultimately supported his decision."

"Even reploids can feel desperation." Culverson mused, leaning forward towards the camera built into the flatscreen display in the Oval Office. "Did you believe he could have changed anything?"

"I doubted his chances, but we decided expedience and decisive action were preferable to the alternative."

"That alternative being to not have made public all of the classified information Vanguard had gathered on a whim? Through the Maverick Hunters, a GDC organization?"

"They do not seem to consider themselves a part of that problem."

"If you're trying to get a rise out of her, you're not doing a very good job, General." President Souther's offhand remark seemed to pour water on Culverson's fire. "What are your intentions as interim commander of Vanguard, Lenneth?"

"We are continuing our investigation at Jeju-do regarding the Mavericks encountered on the island. Team Leader Hilde is working in conjunction with the 21st Maverick Hunter unit to recon a facility found on Mount Hallasan."

"You are not leading this effort?"

"I have been coordinating local dataflow with the Hunters, though it seems they will have deployed equipment to take over the local networks within the hour. Afterwards, I-" She stopped herself, considering what she was about to say, feeling surprised that the thoughts had ever crossed her mind to begin with. "The current situation may not allow for this, but as soon as the Hunters assume complete control of the local nets, I request permission to deploy myself to Moscow to locate and retrieve Erebus."

"Request denied." General Culverson replied, before anyone else could. "We cannot risk you in the battlezone, nor can we risk the possibility that you be located and captured by hostile forces. It's simple math: a US Army combat reploid in Moscow could provoke the Chinese."

"If you did not want to provoke the Chinese, you would not have publicly announced the deployment of two carrier groups to the South China Sea." Lenneth said cooly. "This situation has already escalated to a worst case scenario. We can ill afford the possibility of his capture by the Chinese. I can prevent this."

"Your concerns are warranted, but I'm inclined to agree with General Culverson." Defense Secretary Bachmann sounded sympathetic, but like a skilled actor it was impossible for Lenneth to gauge his sincerity. "There is a key difference between deploying carriers, and your direct intervention in Moscow: the carriers are not in immediate danger of hostilities with the Chinese. You would find yourself in the middle of a city at war, surrounded by combat units already engaged in fighting. A fool's errand, even if you managed to slip through the localized jamming and EM fields that have been deployed. There is a greater chance that you would spark an incident that would draw AmeriCanada into the fighting earlier than we are prepared for."

"I acknowledge the potential effects on your own deployments. However, he is a Commander-class reploid like myself-"

"Former. He hasn't been officially within the US military since 2126. Vanguard is, for all intents and purposes, a civilian organization specializing in Maverick terror. You, however, were officially military until the 10th of this month."

"So it would look bad if I were to go, because of my own recent history. You would rather risk civilian reploids, strictly for plausible deniability. Sirs, I am built for this, my people were all built for this, we can-"

"He likely is already dead, and you would be risking yourself and the interests of the nation you serve for personal reasons." Culverson shook his head. "We've already enacted a contingency measure to prevent his capture."

"Contingency? Without informing me?" Lenneth couldn't keep the shock out of her voice. "This is absurd, you've already placed assets in Russia to escort him to safety? All of this going over my authority as the second in command of this unit?"

"It's much less complicated." Bachmann turned toward the President. "Sir, shall I brief her now?"

"Let me preface this by saying that it is not out of spite that I agreed to this." Souther's words sent chills through the reploid's body. "I understand that special forces reploids in particular hold a great deal of respect and loyalty towards each other."

What the hell are you saying- No. No no no no, they wouldn't, he wouldn't agree to-

"Commander Lenneth," Bachmann began, clearing his throat several times. "You are aware that command-class military reploids are fitted with remote detonation systems to prevent capture by hostile forces. When Four left the military, he'd originally had the system disabled. As per an agreement made during Vanguard's operational approval process, he re-enabled that functionality. Should Four be compromised, he would be retired via remote command, in order to prevent his physical body from being possessed by...unapproved organizations." Bachmann made it sound clinical, like a doctor explaining a diagnosis, a professor explaining to a student the failings of their thesis. "The situation in Moscow is highly volatile. If he hasn't been destroyed by the orbital bombardment, he could be in enemy hands, his information networks, and consequently your information networks, our networks, are at risk. It's not an acceptable scenario."

"There is no way for you to even confirm if he has been compromised, the Chinese are jamming every electronic signal going in and out of Moscow, EM barriers are making it impossible to gather any real intelligence."

"Indeed, there is no way to confirm if the signal was received by his body."

"You already transmitted the command." She trembled with the realization. "You knew well before this meeting that he was in Moscow, and you acted. Without informing him, or I, that you were planning to do so."

"Ten minutes ago to be more specific." Culverson said.


"If the Chinese found him in Russia, what would they do?" The President refused to look her in the eye. "Would they turn their orbital weapons on our cities?"

"Over a single reploid?" She was shouting now. "You can't possibly believe they would escalate-"

"Look at what is happening over there, right now." Souther remained firm. "Those two nations are in the process of setting each other back by decades. It's the 2090's all over again. We can't predict what the Chinese will do, we haven't been able to accurately predict a single thing since this crisis began. I must err on the side of caution, my responsibilities are to millions of AmeriCanadian citizens, not to any single man or reploid. We cannot provoke the Chinese to use their remaining orbital mass drivers on our soil. Erebus is, or was, a potential liability. He understood the risks, and he made a gamble that did not pay off. I'm sorry, but what's done is done."

"Without his consent." The enormity of what had happened hit home now, her voice threatening to break. In the real world, thousands and thousands of miles away from the Oval Office, she struggled to remain seated, to remain calm. "I suspect he never expected to give it, and you never intended to ask."

"You forget, he did give his consent. As part of the agreement for allowing Vanguard to exist." Culverson frowned, as though confused by her distress. "One reploid isn't worth more than millions of civilians at risk of joining the countless others who are actually dead. It's that simple."

A part of Lenneth could follow the same cold calculus they had, could understand why they followed it. She could see how it had all made sense to them, and she hated being able to sympathize whatsoever with them. A reploid wasn't worth millions of lives, but in an instant, one reploid could conceivably become a worthy excuse to justify mass murder.

"For what it's worth," the President said, "I regret issuing the order, and I regret forcing you to stand down."

"Well, there's no need for the latter, Mr. President."

Lenneth severed the connection, her mind racing back through the network. She could not electronically access any servers or 'sites' in Moscow, as far as she could tell, not through traditional means. She could still use the eyes in the sky to keep searching. All subtlety was gone now as she accessed a geosynchronous AmeriCanada orbital surveillance platform, performed the necessary calculations, and made a series of precise course corrections. NORAD was probably pitching a fit, but if the government had never intended for her to use the command key overrides on their spysats, they'd have stripped that capability away from her on the same day she'd lost her command.

Part of her was afraid that they'd issue the same remote command to her that they'd done for Erebus, but being who she was, she understood why they'd do it. She wanted to believe they'd wait to confirm any wrong doing on her part before turning her to slag where she stood, but they didn't have to wait.

What frightened her more was that she was seriously considering what she would need to take with her to safely arrive in Moscow, and fight her way out of the city with Erebus in tow, alive or dead.

"Holy shit, could we be going any slower?" A Maverick Hunter groaned into the tactical net, his frustration echoed by others aboard his submersible craft. The descent to the lake bottom was being handled as cautiously as possible, a fact that chafed the Hunters immensely. They were not shy about vocalizing their discontent. It was all they could do; the two submersibles were not actually theirs. They were the property of the US government, 'borrowed' by Vanguard for this joint operation.

Hilde sympathized with them. When Apollo's Rebellion had occurred in September, she had wanted nothing more than to leap into action as soon as possible. She'd felt dark, potent hatred for the Mavericks who had threatened her friends, threatened her Ricardo. Had he actually died on that day, she was certain she would have followed him in short order. In the short time since Vanguard had been proposed and she had been named one of its leaders, the importance of calm, rational thought leading into action had been imprinted upon Hilde. Few in number, Vanguard could not support ill-conceived plans that guaranteed casualties.

Aggression was permitted, even encouraged. Initiative was highly valued, it just needed to be backed by analysis and intelligence. Vanguard did not have long lines of recruits to choose from, no simple way of replacing the losses. Before the addition of Commander Lenneth and her former RSF soldiers, every member had been hand-picked by the unit leaders, and then approved by the Captain himself. The few deaths they had sustained thus far could not be easily replaced, and likely would not be any time soon. Every action had to be taken with that in mind. They could not allow their anger to force their hand. Thus, the twenty reploids from Vanguard kept their feelings to themselves, worried more about what awaited them in the target facility.

"Forgive the enthusiasm of my Hunters." Gavin was a leader caught in an awkward situation. He did not wish to snap at his men and women for their words, he knew that it was their way of releasing tension. Coming from one heated battle to this waiting game while stuffed inside a small vessel was not going over well.

"I know where they're coming from." Hilde wanted to leave it at that. She had a lot on her mind, particularly with Asia destroying itself only hundreds of miles away, her Captain somewhere inside that mess. Her human boyfriend, somewhere over the Pacific.

"Well, we've all got worries of our own for the moment. No sense trying to compound it all, right?" He stared at the extra equipment that had been strapped to her standard armor, the tactical webbing, the additional mag-pistol ammunition, the beam saber in its charging port mounted to her back, a mag-rifle collapsed into storage mode next to it. "You remind me of a reploid we had join the Hunters a while back. He favored mag weapons too."

"I don't prefer them, Vanguard tries to avoid recruiting 'specialists' in the traditional sense. Regardless of our original intended function, we have to be ready to fill as many roles as possible." She regretted her tone, thinking she may have come off as sounding dismissive of her counterpart. "We like to be ready for bear all the times, yeah?" Emphasizing this, her left hand converted to its Buster form briefly, then shifted back.

"Explains a lot. Your whole crew looks like they are ready to fight in the war."

"Hopefully it doesn't come to that, but we're trained for it."

"I don't suppose you have any extra information about what is going on. Anything we need to know?"

"I'm not quite sure I follow you."

"A lot of good Hunters died today." Gavin leaned in closer. "Some of them were in my unit. Then there's the attacks in New Tokyo and New York. We're a little tired of being given the run-around by these bastards. If you know anything we don't-" Realizing he was raising his voice, Gavin cut himself off. "It's nothing personal. I'm sorry."

"We're all tired of the chase." Hilde said evenly, not bothering to look at him. "You know as much about these particular Mavericks as we do. That's why we're going down to this place to find out more. A clue on their whereabouts. Something we can all use."

She didn't show it, but Gavin knew right away that he stepped on a nerve. Unsure of what to say, he simply relaxed in his seat. Silence dominated the rest of the descent to the target structure.

The approach to the facility had gone surprisingly unchallenged. The slow rate of descent had been to help sniff out any defenses that were trying to remain hidden, but nothing was ever found. After roughly a half hour of circling around the moon pool entrance, it was determined safe to enter once the remote probes finished confirming a distinct lack of booby-traps There may as well had been signs welcoming the teams aboard. It was paradoxical, being relieved that the shooting had yet to start, that they'd entered the facility safely, yet almost wishing that the Mavericks had been lying in wait. At least there wouldn't have been time to think about what had happened, what was happening.

It was an obvious trap. Nothing had been left behind to guard the physical facility itself. EOD experts from the Hunters had been brought along to handle any disposal or disarmament, but it would only take one well-placed bomb to compromise the whole structure and expose everything within to the lake waters. That wouldn't be enough to stop the reploids, but it would most likely ruin any electronically stored intel they could retrieve. It'd also make getting back to the submersibles a real hassle.

Vanguard had split off from the Hunters immediately. Hilde had been given command of both of Vanguard's Alpha and Bravo teams, as her interim CO, Lenneth, was busy on the surface playing the part of local data hub. She did not seem phased by the new level of responsibility, ordering her Bravo team to remain close to Gavin's own team. She intended to dive deeper into the facility with Alpha, ahead of everyone else. She'd cited that her smaller unit could work faster on its own to seek out any potential booby traps. If something were to happen to them, it would give a chance for everyone else to react to it.

I wonder if she's still upset. Gavin was still bothered by the conversation on the way down. He'd known better, but let his own frustrations get the best of him. Vanguard was risking itself just the same as any Hunter, and they deserved the same respect. He ventured over towards her while her squad ensured their gear was ready to go before they prepared to enter one of the nearby pressure chambers.

"I'd like to-"

"Next time you see us, we'll hopefully have some information you can accuse us of holding back from you." She followed her team beyond one of the pressure chamber doors, not looking back as they slammed shut behind her.

That answered that.

Moscow, Russian Federation

12:38 PM Local Time

No words exchanged between them. They'd said their goodbyes to eachother and to the others aboard the Olympus, they'd long rehearsed the plan collectively with their minds over a shared network, connected via laser links or fiber optic cables that could ignore the jamming in the airwaves. Surrounded by thousands of potential direct threats, they could not afford to anything but act like the machines they were. Four of the six reploids carried a container bearing no small resemblance to a coffin and moved deep into the creaking, moaning structure that had been picked out in advance for their mission. The other two took point, investigating every space the team was to pass through thoroughly. In their wake, they'd left a score of Chinese machines dead and in fragments just large enough to allow for some identification. There had been some unfortunate humans, civilian or otherwise, who'd been confirmed to have seen them, and they'd also been forced to pay the price for that. The word couldn't get out just yet.

Timing their entry into the city to blend in with the Chinese reploids emerging from warp had been tough, but it was work that had been left up to Nike, and once again her mind had been up to the task. The PLA counterstrike against Russia had been expected, but to have actually send in their vaunted reploids into Moscow, a response so brazen as this, was nothing that could have been predicted with total accuracy. For Nike to have taken advantage of the situation as deftly as this was the very thing that had defined her existence back when they'd all played the role of the 'good guys'.

It became the perfect cover to take advantage of, though the insertion had been dicey. In addition to the massive EM field the Russians had activated, covering much of Moscow, the Chinese had deployed localized jammers. Dozens of these high tech lances now dotted the city, one of whom was within three hundred meters of their current position. Then there had been the hostile reploid garrison near the theatre itself. They'd put up some resistance, but only after it had been too late. They hadn't been prepared for immediate combat. They'd been stacking human corpses, then arranging them in rows for identification by authorities. That had given all of the combat team a moment's pause before they'd begun the slaughter. Had it been something they were ordered or programmed to do? Had they taken some measure of pity on the innocent?

"It really is a rather pretty construction," one of the six remarked as they entered a grand hall. Hundreds of seats stretched out in rows before them, red cushioning matching the carpets underfoot. The roof to much of the structure had collapsed inward, and the seats before the main stage had been crushed flat by masonry, but the stage itself had miraculously avoid a similar fate, though the grand crimson curtains now lay on the stage itself, having fallen while the earth had shaken around the building. Much of the balcony seating on the lower levels had also managed to remain intact, inspiring visions of the well-to-do sitting in the cushioned chairs, applauding politely as the grim performance began.

A moment after the coffin had been set down at center stage, a pneumatic hiss issued from the casing, and the Geiger counters built into their bodies began to click, containment around their cargo broken. The jamming could deny most forms of communication they had available from inside the structure, it could deny them easy escape, but it could not hide the distinct byproduct of a weapon that had lain in storage for nearly a century, denied its purpose through two world wars.

It wouldn't be long before the Russians knew, and soon enough so would the rest of the world. No man, no reploid, no god could hope to stop what would follow.

The Russian Federation had suffered immensely in the 2090s, while causing great suffering to its enemies in return. In addition to the war with China, terrorists both foreign and domestic had sought to forward their own causes, and their efforts continued to the day. The worst of their attacks had struck Saint Petersburg. Sympathizers within the Federation land army worked alongside of survivors of what had been called Chechnya before it had been forcibly returned to Russian control, smuggling a warhead from a disassembled ICBM into the city in the twilight of the 2090's. The official death total was counted at 350,000 human lives turned to ash in an instant. It was considered to be the key event that ultimately ended outright hostilities between China and Russia. Neither side wished to lose more than they already had.

For the Federation government, the terrorist attack proved to be mixed blessing. The Russian people openly supported increasingly intrusive security measures, all in the understandable interests of national security. Arguably, the surveillance networks were the most extensive of any nation, and while there were voices that occasionally rose to challenge the need for such things, the advent of reploids, and more specifically Mavericks, silenced many critics. Such were the times.

The surveillance network of Moscow had been badly battered throughout the Chinese bombardment, and the wide range jamming further reduced its effectiveness, but there was one function it was designed to fulfill under any circumstance, and it was the detection of radiation. All throughout the devastated city, from hidden storage bays and micro-hangars, thousands of bee-like drones no bigger than a basketball in wingspan took to the sky. Silent, and masked by optical camouflage, they'd been intended to remain deployed for days at a time, and the public would never have been the wiser. These drones spread over the city, taking up their assigned posts, all the while noting that today, the great city certainly looked different. It took roughly an hour, but soon the drones had been evenly dispersed, and they began their surveillance.

In minutes, their findings were being transmitted via fiber optic cables or laser-links back to their control centers, and these findings soon found their way to members of the Presidential Cabinet. Minutes after that, decisions were made, and orders were given.

"Well, that's disappointing," Erebus grunted as Arseny helped him climb into the smoke filled daylight of the city. His gaze was directed towards the sky, searching for something.

"Disappointing?" Arseny snarled. "It's an atrocity."

"Yeah, that too." Erebus muttered absently, unheard by his companion.

Retrieving Erebus' arms had gone without incident. Unlike the civilian population, government and military personnel were trained and prepared to evacuate any location quickly and efficiently, and so the facility had been left to the corpses of unlucky humans and reploids, valuable information servers burned out by self-destruct protocols, and the surveillance systems destroyed alongside of them. The underground bunker had been rendered essentially worthless, so there was no need for any guards to have stuck around to challenge a pair of reploids who'd been left behind.

It was strange to think that only an hour before, Moscow had been one of the largest cities on the planet, untouched by the war that had started hundreds of miles away. The vast majority of the skyline had reduced to ruin within minutes. Few streets even appeared recognizable, landmarks and famous structures marked by the piles of debris that had pieces still resembling what the undamaged whole once looked like. Massive fires from ruptured natural gas mains dotted the city, casting dark plumes into the sky. A low roar filled the atmosphere, punctuated by the reports of weapons fire, mag-rounds whistling through the air, the distant pops of explosions. It was still possible to see ionized contrails reaching high into the sky, marking the passage of kinetic lances.

"What is the current tactical and strategic situation? The few nets I can access, I remain heavily restricted from proper access."

"Accessing laser-link communications..." From Arseny's back, a small array unfolded itself and angled toward the sky to the east. Traditional radio and network communications were mostly locked out due to the EM barrier deployed across the city, but that couldn't stop laser-line communication. Despite the cloud cover and the smoke, relays for laser-lines dotted the Russian Federation, and some still remained active within the city despite the bombardment. It was enough to keep him updated on the general nature of the situation, unfortunately it did not allow him direct communications access to any units that did not have their own array to deploy...which was the vast majority of friendly forces within Moscow. Their desperate cries for help were being transmitted to units that did have a laser-line array, who then relayed it to anyone else who could receive and act on the information.

"We know Chinese reploids have entered the city, the exact number remains undetermined. There is no unit cohesion at this time, groups of disorganized hold-outs trying to maintain defensive positions around the remnants of key government facilities throughout the city, but they cannot possibly survive without reinforcements, and there are none that can arrive at the speed needed, nor at the strength required to handle such a threat. Current military assets available in the area of operations based on last known biometrics transmissions: 604th Red Banner Special Purpose Center, 6,207 known active combat ready human personnel. 15th OSN battalion, 2015 humans, 409 reploids. Vehicle asset data unavailable at this time, assumed that most facilities for vehicle maintenance and storage were struck first by orbital weapons and hostile ground units." Arseny pointed to the north. "Civilian evacuation efforts are proceeding surprisingly well. The enemy focuses its efforts on military and government targets. I assume they are attempting to burn through as much intelligence as possible while the opportunity presents itself."

"What is your government's plan to dislodge the invading units?"

"Once classified information is secured, or destroyed, and key officials have been confirmed KIA or evacuated, limited orbital bombardment with low-kinetic yield weapons will commence on target facilities-" Arseny paused, 'hearing' something that Erebus could not. "Radiological warning, confirmed by satellite and local surveillance mobile terminals. Available assets en-route to the following coordinates."

The wail of air-raid alarms could be heard rolling over the devastation.

Erebus knew the location within a second. "The Bolshoi Theater?"

"What remains of it, so it would seem."

"We're assets, and we're available. We go there now."

"Interesting."Arseny smiled. "Had you not suggested it, I would have informed you that your exit from this city has been delayed. You surprise me yet again."

"You've just suggested the Chinese may intend to detonate a nuclear weapon inside the capital of the Russian Federation. I understand priorities." They both took off in a sprint, headed towards their new objective.

"If you believe this to be a point of no return, I disagree."

"You're right in that we've already reached that point. This is something different."


"Why would the Chinese resort to a nuclear weapon? Alienate a GDC that still supports it? Even after the acts your nation is believed to have committed, they would not throw away any and all sympathy from the world strictly for vengeance. I say they wouldn't. It's Nike, doing exactly what I would do in her shoes."

"Your certainty in your hypothesis, your knowledge of these Mavericks, you must understand why my leaders refused to believe you."

"Radiological detection is hard to spoof with a proper ground sensor network, and there's no reason for the enemy to do so now, and not for something of this magnitude. Nuclear weapons have been a source of contention for a long time, even idle threats by madmen are taken seriously. Proliferation is strictly controlled, no-first-use treaties are in effect worldwide. To join the GDC, the use of nuclear weapons isn't even an option you can have on the table. Most non-aligned nations consider them a defensive option that hopefully one of their allies would resort to first."

"The timing is indeed convenient...and to have a pinpointed location by our network even after all that has transpired-"

"All to draw attention to themselves, to have locals confirm it seconds before they're vaporized. So all of Russia knows who did it. We have to get there as quickly as we can, this is possibly a break for us."

"We are already lagging behind my comrades..." Punctuating Arseny's observation, three transport polycraft roared overhead, engines clearly at the edge of their performance envelope, flying low and weaving between buildings, mountains of debris. A hellstorm of tracers reached out from the ground below, claiming two of the transports even as they began to turn away from whatever it was Arseny and Erebus could not see. The third managed to limp away, trailing smoke and flame while losing altitude. There were likely not going to be any survivors from any of the transports. "Anti-Aircraft batteries or reploid-portable systems, that is likely only the first of many attempts to get to the theatre. What is your plan, Erebus?"

"Confirm whether or not this is what I think it is, and if I'm right, make sure we're the only ones to walk away knowing I was right." Erebus glanced over to his Russian counterpart. "How far are you willing to go for your country, Arseny?"

"It is home." Arseny brushed his left hand against a beam saber hilt clipped to his waist, against the handles to his twin vibroblades resting within their sheaths. "I will fight for it."

"Your devotion is admirable. I have a hard time believing that it's genuine. Will you kill humans, if necessary? Chinese? Fellow Russians?" That gave the Russian pause. Even pondering the idea seemed to crack his normally composed exterior.

"What if you are wrong?" In the end, Arseny could not answer the question, only retort with one of his own. Erebus could not blame him. Despite his extensive modifications and new assignment to the military, Arseny had been, and always would be a Maverick Hunter first.

"Then I was wrong, and that would also be something no one else needs to know about."

Wangqing, China

Oleg Morozoy was now able to claim the 8th OSN's first shots fired in anger of the war, resulting in two dead Chinese soldiers near his squad's point of entry near the perimeter fences. They'd been quick, clean kills, two shots from the AK-108, one to each head. Suppressed as much as it was, the weapon had made less noise firing than the sound of the bullet strikes, and of his armored form landing firmly on the other side of the fence. The pointman spotted these victims as the squad rushed forward, though neither man had been attentive enough to hear the heavy footfalls of the approaching invaders. Morozoy had been in the best position to deal with them, and his suit had performed flawlessly, allowing him to stabilize the heavy rifle mid-leap, centering the holographic sight on each head before trigger-pull. The suit absorbed so much of the recoil that the rifle hardly even kicked in his hands with each shot, and even managed the fine-tuning of his aim to ensure he'd had the second target lined up before the first even reacted to the bullet entering and exiting his brain.

As he'd landed, one of his men was already using an AI-driven program to feed a visual loop to the five intelli-cams in the area that would have captured the grim spectacle. Morozoy and another man sprinted up to the corpses and caught them before they'd even begun to fall to the ground, dragging them towards a small storage shed near the target hangar.

"Heavier than I expected," he whispered, setting the corpse down against a wall, out of sight from most possible angles. Fresh blood had splashed against his armor and their clothes, a macabre piece of modern art. He did not bother to look long at what remained of their faces.

No alarms had been raised at the deaths of the two men, which confirmed an extremely valuable piece of intel: the base biometrics systems did not extend to monitoring the physical well-being of each individual at all times, or that if it did the alarms were silent and ignorance was bliss. The same tech who'd fed the security cameras video loops could confirm no signals being sent to or from the bodies. For now, they were safe as anyone could be while carrying high-powered weapons and classified composition explosives. All throughout the base, other 8th OSN squads reported their insertions had gone smoother, and positions were being assessed for demolition. The actual assault would begin in earnest as soon as the hangars that contained any potential physical transport out of the facility were demolished.

With the bodies hidden, Oleg took the lead position of his squad next to one of the side entrances to the hangar, noting with satisfaction that his HUD marked off other members of the 8th OSN doing the same for nearby structures. Probable contacts began to light up the display as the rest of his team finished stacking behind them.

"Camera drone is up now, Morozoy."

A small, therm-optically cloaked drone hummed free from the hand of the squad tech, a sphere-like device powered by micro-repulsor lifts. It zipped up towards the roof of the structure, its camera view transmitting to the whole squad. After a minute, it became apparent that there was no way for the drone to slip inside the structure to gather visual intel. At most, they had rough positions of humans via heartbeat sensors, with general movement predicted by audio pickups planted against the door itself.


A series of charged were quickly placed against the door frames. Designed to be used to burn through the armor plating on a tank or ride armor's hatches before exploding violently to kill anyone on the inside, it was bound to be the thing that set off alarms across the whole base. Not that it mattered. They were the figurative signal for the whole unit to begin its assault.

"Ready!" Morozoy held his left hand, keeping his right on the grip and trigger to his rifle, signaling a silent countdown.

Three, two, one-

The explosives performed as advertised, burning cleanly through the security bolts and shooting their final lethal burst of shrapnel to anything within twenty meters of it. This left the door freestanding for a split second until the 'kicker' charge placed on its center accelerated the heavy metal mass violently into the hangar. Flashbangs had been tossed in within a second of this, and two seconds after that, the eight men barreled into the hangar.

There were twenty hostiles, all human, scattered throughout the hangar bay. If they'd been prepared, there had been plenty of cover for them to hide behind: parked polycraft, maintenance equipment, racks of replacement parts but none of it could save them from what was coming. The flashbangs that had been tossed inside, five total, were devious little creations that shared the camera drone's repulsor drives, combined with a 'dumb' AI guidance module that determined where the flashbang should travel to for maximum effectiveness. The five grenades flew to optimal positions, and promptly split into three distinct charges, a pattern that ensured there wouldn't be many safe places to hide from their disorienting effects.

The enemy never had a chance. Within the span of seconds, twenty corpses dropped to the floor where they once stood.

"Watchmen 2-1 to Group," Morozoy spoke quickly as he and another man went from corpse to corpse, ensuring that the enemy was as dead as they appeared. "Polycraft confirmed at objective Alter. Preparing hangar demolition."

There was no response on the command frequency. Confused, Morozoy switched to another channel. Then another. And another. And another, until it became clear that only static would answer his increasingly worried calls.


The further away from the wasteland that once was the Kremlin that Arseny and Erebus travelled, the taller the mountains of rubble became, the more buildings they encountered that still bore a passing resemblance to what they'd been before the bombardment. It gave them a slight advantage. The dozens of Chinese reploids they were encountering along the way to the Bolshoi had not detected them as they scrambled from rubble pile to rubble pile, rooftop to collapsing rooftop. The plan was to keep it that way for as long as possible.

The fear both reploids felt, almost certainly surrounded by the enemy, inspired them to remain cautious. The heavy electronic interference that only grew as they closed in on the theatre enforced their silence. They could not even communicate wirelessly, and the time it would take to defeat the jamming to restore their private link would likely mean they'd fail to reach the Bolshoi in time to stop whatever it was that was being planned, something that Arseny was growing increasingly less of a believer in. Despite everything, Moscow was the only home he'd ever known. As a Maverick Hunter, the protection of the capital had been his duty. Now, everywhere he looked, he saw the enemy, saw what their leaders had called down onto his city. He saw these things, and wanted to paint the shattered streets with the artificial blood of every single Chinese reploid he could get his hands on.

Soon, Erebus had mouthed to him. He wasn't ignorant; he could read Arseny's body language easily enough.

The rest of the trip had managed to pass without incident, and now they examined their target. The Bolshoi Theatre still stood at nearly its full height, more out of luck than the strength of its architecture. Camped out atop the remains of a shopping center across the main street in front of the theatre, Erebus had set about scouting the local area for useful intel, his heads-up-display awash with callouts and potential threat indicators.

"One EM jammer tower on the steps leading into the Bolshoi. That explains the increased interference." Erebus spoke quietly. While he was almost certain they hadn't been followed or detected up to this point, some measure of cowardice would guarantee that it stayed that way. "No active Chinese reploids in the area or around the tower. Odd."

"What a shame." Arseny's grip on his paired vibroblades tightened. "It's a trap, though I expect you to know that."

"We'll be springing it. No actives, at least a dozen KIA though. Lots of civilians casualties too, no way for me to determine if there are survivors from here. I'm going to call it at least thirty human bodies arranged in rows, for identification most likely. The combat reploids are dead, dead, and dead." He'd need to get closer to confirm it, and they would, but to Erebus it looked as though the Chinese had been in the process of cleaning up area of casualties when they'd been attacked. "Let's go. Ignore the jammer tower for now. It's preventing us from escaping via warp, but if there are active hostiles they're under the same blanket as us."

"It's Four, and a Russian Federation reploid, nothing in my internal files on it." The leader of Nike's strike team spoke with hushed reverence for the former, sitting cloaked on the roof over the front theatre entrance. He watched as both reploids darted from cover to cover, noting that the Russian hesitated somewhat when they passed near the rows of corpses outside of the building. "It's likely he's onto our plan, and that Russian probably is giving him access to any data the local surveillance drones have on our payload here. Everyone take up defensive positions within the auditorium, and go silent from here on out." The Maverick chuckled, then spoke one last time into their private network. "Alamo, Alamo, Alamo." With that, he severed his fiber optic thread connection to the central hub all the way back in the auditorium. Now he was alone.

Retrieving a rifle from his back, the Maverick studied the Chinese-manufactured Mark 30 Charged Particle Stream Delivery System, a 'rifle' in a loose sense. Most militaries preferred to use kinetic energy weapons, particularly for sniping, but primarily due to the low cost of production. Energy rifles such as this were a rarity among the armed forces. Originally developed in Finland, it had been adopted by the Chinese specifically for use among their reploid forces; it was too large, weighed far too much for any human to wield efficiently, the weapon reaching temperatures during firing that would burn through unprotected human skin.

A single shot, one tightly compressed stream of charged particles, would definitely kill or maim an unsuspecting standard humanoid reploid if correctly placed, defeat protection on certain Light Armored Vehicles or aircraft. The jury was still out as to whether or not allow these weapons for use against human beings directly.

Fortunately for the Russian and Four, killing was not the intent. The Maverick's job was to use the critical flaw of the CPSDS rifle to draw their attention to the balcony. The passing of the shot would leave a glowing trail of ionized gas in its wake, easily traceable to the sniper's location. It would make them come to him. It would help bring Four to the concert hall, where he would see that he could never defeat Nike, that Moscow was already lost.

As far as the Maverick was concerned, the Bolshoi would make a fine tomb for himself and his comrades, in the few minutes it had left to remain standing.

Sighting in on Four, the Maverick thought how easily it would be to take his head and tie up that particular loose end. Nike was insistent, however, that Erebus needed to survive, or at least be given the chance to survive of his own accord.

Next customer, then.

Seeing Arseny halt his progress near the row of corpses, Erebus shrunk further behind his piece of cover: the remains of a decorative fountain that stood before the stairs that led up to the Bolshoi Theatre's front entrance. To his right was the jamming emitter, a foreign spire of metal sitting next to the carefully sculpted fountain that was broken into three distinct pieces. Water continued to pour from the ruptured water pipes that fed the display, soaking Erebus where he sat.

Arseny had knelt near one of the corpses, a boy, no older than ten years of age, his eyes still open, dead as the rest of the humans next to him. He reached out and closed the child's eyes. After another long pause, Arseny dashed forward towards the fountain, splashing down next to Erebus.

"You're lucky and stupid." Erebus snapped.

"Indeed." The reploid managed to say, clearly shaken by what he'd seen.

That was when a portion of his chest exploded outward, an inch-wide orange beam of light passing cleaning through Arseny, just shy of his reactor by inches. The fountainhead behind him shattered only a split second before the beam had reached though him, peppering both reploids with shrapnel that bounced off their armor or stabbed into exposed synthskin.

"MOVING!" Arseny shouted while coughing up deep purple blood, rolling to his right and leaping towards another fountain. A second beam shot grazed his left leg as he crashed into his new hiding spot. Three more beams carved up the fountain, showing Arseny with more debris, but he'd suffered no further direct hits. "STILL EFFECTIVE!"

"BEAM RIFLE! OUR TWELVE, HIGH ROOFTOP!" Erebus called out, already pressing his dash system to the limit as he broke free from cover. "HE'S GOT TALENT!"

Erebus had been able to track where the shots had come from, seeing a shimmering figure atop the pillared archway entrance to the Bolshoi, watching as the reploid's active camouflage gave out as it ejected what appeared to be the barrel to an absurdly large rifle, pulling another from his back and slamming it into place before leveling the weapon at him. Even from this distance, Erebus could tell that this opponent was of Chinese manufacture, even shared unit insignia with the dead fellows they'd come across in front of the theatre. Or at least appeared to be.

Can't be Chinese. Even under this threat, his mind continued to analyze and assess what he was learning, cross referencing it with what he knew. They waited specifically for us to get close. Arseny ought to be dead already, and I ought to be as well.

Buster fire from Arseny forced the sniper to get moving, but kept his weapon trained on Erebus as he did.

Gonna be close- Erebus shut off his left dash thruster, hoping to juke out of the sniper's sight, while also wondering if he even needed to bother trying to stay alive. How far would the Maverick go to sell this farce?

The next beam shot tore off the right half of his combat helmet, burning through synthflesh and a portion of his armored skull plating underneath, exposing his electronic brain casing to the air, a mass of HUD warnings blanketing his vision. As he began rolling out of control, crashing through a brick and mortar planter before sliding to a halt, he was aware that he could no longer see out of his right eye, and not because he was covered in mostly dry soil and flowers. That answered the question of realism. During his uncontrolled tumble, he counted four more shots, two directed towards him, another two aimed at Arseny, who'd broken free from cover and managed to advance closer.

Be nice to just lay down awhile, Erebus thought.

After a few long seconds with no further fire directed at them, Arseny bolted from his new piece of protection, yanking Erebus up from the ground by one arm and barreling through the oddly not barricaded doors of the Bolshoi. Both reploids panted heavily, their internal cooling systems working overtime trying to draw in fresh air.

"We should be dead," Arseny gasped. "Okay, American, I believe there is something to your theory." He managed to grin at Erebus. "You look good, by the way."

"I feel it." Erebus lied, thankful that the sniper had actually been a good shot. Had they miscalculated or misadjusted their shot, he wouldn't be cracking wise about it with Arseny. "That sniper's falling back to his buddies. He could drop down and try to take us both if he wanted, but that's not his game. He wants to show us something."

"Let's go see it, then. I will take point, I still have both of my eyes."

The Maverick ran through the corridors leading to the auditorium, certain that his footfalls could be heard by the two reploids back at the front entrance. He'd ditched the CPSDS rifle off the rooftop, not necessarily to move quicker, but rather because he no longer had any spare barrels. Having fired so rapidly, the weapon was no longer of use. Even now as he ran to rejoin his comrades, both barrels he'd expended now sat atop his former post, melting from the extreme heat

In any situation where they were fighting to win, the loss of that weapon would have been a huge blow.

Fortunately, they weren't fighting to win so much as they were fighting to make a statement.

The other five Mavericks had taken up positions on the stage itself, flanking the nuclear warhead, almost as though they were posing with it. Their leader leapt down from the balcony and rushed to join them. There was still one more act to play out.

Baengnokdam Lake, Jeju-do

It hadn't taken long for Gavin and Hilde's teams to secure the facility, a fact that left the two reploids agreeing on one thing: it had been something of an anti-climax.

Beyond the LED light strips that lined the corridors, blinking indicators on servers and powered down holographic displays, the place looked as though it had been abandoned days ago. There was hardly any evidence that any of the armory beds had been used recently. Racks filled with dozens of weapons, mag-rifles, spare buster pistols, anti-armor rockets, a wide assortment of melee weapons, all sat in perfect order, seemingly untouched. The greatest threat any of the Hunters or Vanguard reploids had encountered were low ceilings near the emergency escape pods. The only part of the base that looked as though it had been used recently was the dry dock where the Maverick airship had once been secured. Automated defense turrets could be seen hanging dormant from various key junctions, and when they were encountered, tech specialists moved into to ensure that they stayed harmless. Power was on throughout the facility, but in was clearly selective.

Despite the best efforts, it wasn't looking likely that they were going to pull any data from the servers without removing them from their current physical locations, and taking them back to MHHQ for a more detailed structural analysis. It was unlikely that they would find any information on how Baengnokdam Lake could have been modified so extensively to allow for a facility of this magnitude to exist in secret, without anyone noticing such work in progress. It spoke to the capabilities of the Mavericks involved with this incident, inspiring no small number of nightmare scenarios.

The Hunters whispered among themselves. They knew it had been only a little over two years since a certain Maverick had raised his head from whatever hole he'd likely crawled into. That was enough to make things particularly tense.

Both teams had brought along explosive ordnance disposal experts, and so far they'd failed to determine the existence of a self-destruct system. That didn't mean there wasn't one, it was just hidden much better than they expected. Not willing the risk their entire force, half of the Hunter and Vanguard personnel had been ordered back to the submersibles to make the return trip back to the surface.

These setbacks didn't stop the Hunters and Vanguard from thoroughly exploring the facility. Splitting into pairs, the remaining reploids were to continue their search for anything that might blow the entire facility out of the water.

This left Hilde and Gavin standing guard over a team of Hunter technicians who were trying to get what they believed was the facility's command center back online. This location was where there'd been the most evidence of recent habitation: a number of monitors had apparently been shattered by high speed blunt force impacts, and there was evidence that one of the bulkheads had been struck on a fairly regular basis. The central holographic projector had also suffered from the frustrations of the prior Maverick occupants, its control panel crumpled inward and sparking intermittently.

Gavin kept sneaking a glance over at Hilde, who continued to pay as little attention to him as possible. He knew he'd come on a little forceful to her, but hadn't quite expected her to be as upset about it as she was. He wanted to apologize, but he wasn't sure that opening his mouth was going to make things 'right' between them.

Suddenly, their eyes met. Gavin instinctively looked away, and Hilde pulled off her helmet, tossing it aside as she stomped towards him. The sound of it clattering against the deck startled the technicians. From their perspective, it looked like Hilde was about to punch their commander square in the face.

"Okay jackass, you can apologize now."

"Right." Gavin decided he would rather study the wrinkles on his gloved right hand. "I am sorry. Look, I wasn't implying-"

"I know you weren't trying to, but you did." Hilde had grabbed Gavin by his head, turning him to face her directly. "Considering what we risked to come and help you guys out, it strikes a whole bundle of fresh nerves." The synthskin on her face flushed slightly. "….Aaaaaaaand I suppose I'm not acting much better about it. That's all you're getting outta me, so you'd better take it or leave it." She let go of Gavin's head, and offered a handshake, which the Hunter gratefully accepted. The two reploids started to laugh, convincing the techs that their leaders were losing their minds, but at least there wasn't going to be a serious altercation.

"I've been meaning to ask you somethin'." Gavin said, once they'd settled down. "Y'know, it's not every day that an offer from Zero to come to MHHQ New Tokyo gets turned down. Guess this Vanguard thing of yours is really something."

"Vanguard wasn't even a thing during the Los Angeles incident; most of Vanguard today was MSWAT during that mess, or still serving the US in the 1st RSF. Besides," she smirked, "I've done my time as a Hunter, way before I went to MSWAT. You guys might go with ability based ranking, but you have way more contact with politicians than I personally care to stand for. Not only that, you people couldn't possibly pay me enough to leave behind the folks I know."

"That doesn't exactly tell me what Vanguard is."

"Sure doesn't." The look on her face said that there wasn't going to be anything gained by pressing her on the subject, sort of grin that proudly advertised secret knowledge that wouldn't be let out into the open any time soon.

"You were a Hunter before you were MSWAT?"

"Yeah…feels like ancient history to me now. Usually, it goes the other way around. I clashed a bit with authority over a promotion, quit in a huff. That's how I met the Captain." Hilde leaned back against a powered down terminal. "The more I think about it, I'm here today because of all that-"

"Holy crap!" One of the techs stood up from her monitors, backing away rapidly, nearly tripping over the tangle of wires that were plugged into her body, getting the attention of both Hilde and Gavin as she barked an order to the other technicians.

"What did I touch?" Hilde asked aloud, moving away from the terminal she'd rested against.

"Disconnect all of our hardware and switch to autistic mode, and keep it that way until we know what we did!" The tech began ripping the connections away from her neck and back furiously, as though touching them would be enough to cause her physical harm, throwing the wires to the ground.

"What's the problem?" Gavin hurried over to the monitors, quickly realizing that the stream of code blitzing across the display was completely incomprehensible to him.

"Every system that was dormant a minute ago just went online. I was digging around the communications system files, more like finally being able to see a file structure." The tech was trying to fight off stammering, and failing. She looked absolutely terrified. "I…I uh felt it, Commander Gavin. E-External access request, and self-diagnostics can't tell me if I… p-picked up anything I sh-shouldn't have. We know who this facility belonged to, wh-what that could mean, whatifI-"

Gavin lifted up a finger to silence her. "Not another word, stay calm. You," he pointed at another tech, "secure her, lock the command center down." Tapping on the side of his helmet, Gavin switched to an emergency frequency. "Commander X, go secure, we may have a situation, Code Black."

"You really, really do." A familiar voice answered. From the seemingly broken holographic projector, the translucent image of Vile's distinct helmet hovered ominously in the air, a single red eye burning fiercely at his enemies from behind his iconic visor. "Don't let me interrupt you, kiddo. Get a hold of X, and when you do, tell him I wanna talk to him. He'll have to come down to you for us to have our talk."

Isn't this asshole supposed to be dead? Hilde kept the question to herself.

"What if I refuse?" Gavin asked calmly.

"Then I detonate a one hundred forty kiloton nuclear warhead buried underneath the facility, and whatever survives spends who knows how long in a plasma matter state before the water in the lake, whatever's left of it that is, comes rushing in to fill the momentary vacuum and snuffs your embers out."

"That doesn't inspire me with a lot of confidence to follow through with your demand."

"I don't want to nuke X, I wanna take him apart with my own two hands! Hell, you wanna die so badly, I'll just press a little button here, and I'll give you a minute to consider how screwed you are underneath all those EM field generators. Your call."

"He's got us." Hilde's hands balled up into fists, but otherwise she restrained herself.

"It's called escalation, girlfriend," Vile said genially. "I'm very good at escalation, y'know, I study it. Believe it or not folks, I wanna help! Now then-" All manner of amusement left the Maverick's voice. "Call to X. Call him now."

"X, you know this is a trap. I know it's a trap. Everyone who left the facility under the orders of the two acting commanders did so knowing that the place is a trap. I'm coming with you." Zero's statements were not falling on deaf ears, he knew X was listening to him but not responding. "Gavin thinks one of his people might have been infected with malware. What exactly that might be, he's got no way of knowing. What if we're dealing with…"

Neither reploid wanted that last thought to be finished.

"You can't come with me, Zero." The Azure Hunter said quietly. "Vile's terms are clear. He might destroy the facility and take everyone left inside with it." He offered a sad smile to Zero. "I don't think the Hunters could afford to lose the two of us at the same time."

"It's crazy."

"It's the best chance we have of getting everyone else out of the facility alive. I can't back out on this one." He motioned to all of the gathered Hunter and Vanguard personnel on the lake shore. "Get them away from here and into the city."

"You got it." Zero nodded. "I'll, uh, I'll coordinate with that Lenneth. Prolly go smoother that way." He gave X a hard, meaningful slap on the shoulder. "You want me to let Signas know?"

"I'll do it on the way down there. The 17th is yours until I get back."

"Sure, I could use the replacements."

The two friends glanced around awkwardly. There was so little time, and already they were being asked to make difficult calls. Neither was comfortable with the idea that only one of them could face the danger alone.

"It's not so bad, really," X mused. "I probably wouldn't feel a thing."

"Like that makes me feel better."

"He juuuust wants to talk." The two Hunters shared a knowing look. X checked the Mark 17 busters built into his forearms for the fifth time in the last three minutes. Sure he does.

Gavin felt as though he'd just asked his commanding officer to show up for his own death. He knew he'd not been given many options, but was still trying to figure out what he could have done differently. For now, he simply paced around the room in silence, brooding. The secured and stasis'd technician, Karin, was under guard by one Hunter and another member of Vanguard, the heavy machine-gunner called Zak. No chances were to be taken there. The other techs were busy packing up their hardware, and Hilde was standing guard near one of the sealed doors. If any of their people wanted into the control room, they would have to be cleared by her first, and that wouldn't be the case unless it was an emergency, or something worse.

The standing orders were for all reploids in the facility to rendezvous back at the dry dock, where X would be arriving via submersible. Jad and Kol were making one final sweep of the facility together to ensure they had a proper head count and that there were no unpleasant surprises waiting to ambush them or X, so far reporting nothing.

"You're all very boring." Vile added a yawn to further emphasize this. Now fully figured, the holographic projection of the Maverick paced around its limited range in mockery of Gavin "It couldn't hurt to talk just a little bit, could it? Aren't you curious? At all? Yes? No?" Sighing, Vile kicked at a part of the projector system, his foot passing through it, and then suddenly whirled on Hilde. "You, tall girl. You are female, right?"

Hilde had the sense of mind to not show any outward sign that she was acknowledging him. It didn't discourage Vile in the least.

"Fine. Be that way. I can find out plenty about you from the 'net, it'd go real nice with everything your target told me." The Maverick snorted. "Really? A human? That's what gets the purple flowing for you? Granted, ol' Ricky's supposed to be a helluva specimen for his kind, but there's a few physiological differences between us and them, you know? See, you don't have a slot B for his-"

That wasn't ignorable. Her expression remained impassive, but her head snapped up to face Vile.

"Don't." It was all Hilde could bring herself to say.

"I can respect a girl's privacy. We all have our fetishes, don't get mad, it's cool, I'm not judging." With that, Vile's hologram disappeared, replaced by a spinning symbol familiar to all that had survived Uprising after Uprising. "When he gets here…when X gets here, you can all leave."


The first thing Erebus did when they entered the Bolshoi Theatre was to access the localized network of the structure. As old as the building was, it had seen more modern amenities added to it over the years. Things like the fire suppression systems were controlled by modern sensors connected to a modern network. Assuming there was still a working fire department, if a blaze broke out somewhere within the building, detectors would send a request to the closest station for assistance. Other systems would determine just how much water would need to be used to contain the fire until help arrived. Another part of the network would ensure all of the emergency lighting would be used to direct guests to safety at viable exits.

The Bolshoi's net had been fractured by the upheaval gripping Moscow, but it hadn't been rendered useless. This wasn't like any security network used by the government. Despite it not being his primary capability, Erebus easily triggered the emergency lighting throughout the entire building, shutting down all other lighting that still remained active inside the structure. Next, he triggered a building-wide fire alarm, causing what remained functional of the fire suppression system to begin dowsing parts of the Bolshoi with a constant curtain of water.

Arseny hadn't been informed of this, so when the lights went out and the water began pouring down on them in the lobby, he'd immediately fallen into a defensive stance. Both knew that the enemy knew they were still alive and inside the theatre now. He was expecting another ambush.

"That was my doing. I'm assuming any hostiles we run into will be equipped with therm-optics." Inside the building, there was slightly less EM interference from the jammer tower outside, and their close proximity allowed them to use private communications once more. Erebus gestured towards a waypoint he'd indicated both on his and Arseny's heads-up-displays. "Let's move."

With only the emergency lighting to guide them, the sounds of water impacting on their frames, falling on quickly growing puddles on the ground, the two reploids ran towards their objective. The building rumbled around them, the sounds of demolition charges detonating elsewhere in the building echoing through the cacophony of artificial rain and the footsteps of two reploids.

The sudden deluge of dirty water did not surprise any of the Mavericks. They knew who they were dealing with, and knew that he knew their potential capabilities. The rain, for however brief it would be before the reservoirs died out, would render any thermoptic camouflage useless, and no reploid-mounted holographic projection system could properly mimic conditions such as these.

"I'll handle the bomb. Take up positions throughout the auditorium, but keep away from the designated entrance."

The orders didn't make sense from a tactical perspective. The advantage in this situation went with those who were most aggressive. There were only so many viable routes from the lobby that would get Erebus and his Russian friend to the auditorium, particularly after the demo charges sealed routes that could take them to the upper balconies. If the Mavericks were operating in the way they knew would be best to eliminate the enemy, they'd have already attacked them in the lobby, had they managed to survive a sniper who was actually shooting to kill. Or they could set up close to the entrance they'd purposefully designated for the targets to use, and taken them as they moved down the corridor. Or attack them the moment they entered the auditorium using only plasma-based melee weaponry.

None of that is what Nike wanted. She wanted him to see the warhead. Identify it. She wanted her men to die at his hands, because at one point, they'd been his men as well.

"I just want to speak with him," she'd said to her men, before they'd gone completely off of the network.

The leader of the squad didn't know how to describe Nike's obsession with Erebus. It was easy to say that she hated him, that she wanted him to suffer through the sensations and emotions while retiring every single one of his former comrades before this was all over. She always spoke as though she had something to show him. As though she had something to prove.

Or perhaps it wasn't hatred.

It didn't matter in the end. Survival was not their primary goal. That didn't mean they were going to make it easy.

They could hear the footsteps now. Two combat reploids, sloshing and stomping through the wet passage towards battle, crushing tiling and expensive carpet with every step.

As the city of Moscow fought, as the city of Moscow died, bleeding out in the streets while screaming for mothers or for lovers or for comrades, the constant since the bombardment fell, since the Chinese reploids came, was confusion, a lack of communication and coordination. It was an advantage that the Chinese reploids pressed extremely hard, though few were capable of vocalizing their thankfulness to those who had set the operation up as such. It was just another factor in a long series of them that were contributing towards military successes, and nothing more.

When that factor was suddenly neutralized, it did not change things immediately for the Chinese. They continued going through practiced and programmed motions.

For the surviving Russian units in the city, it was as though the Universe had once more opened its doors to them. Slowly they began to communicate. Lone soldiers found an ally. Small squads joined with others to form a platoon. Airstrike requests started to go out into the communications networks, and were received by remote piloted drones near the city. The counterattack was beginning in earnest.

Predictably, the fire sprinklers had gone through the majority of their reservoir, simulating a real fire event, where the first minute was intended to control the blaze. The downpour lessened. Most of the sprinklers retreated back into their storage units, or simply ran dry. The few that continued did so at a comparatively light drizzle. Already mist was starting to form in the air.

Perfect, Erebus thought. He imagined it would be more pronounced in the auditorium. It gave Arseny a better chance to live, with therm-optics no longer a factor. Elsewhere in the building, real fires were starting in the aftermath of the charges the Mavericks had set off, but they would likely fail to spread very far. Not that it mattered to anyone involved now.

Arseny held up a hand, motioning for them to stop.

"Erebus…do you read me?" The Russian now spoke over their private link. "I'm no longer registering interference from the nearby jamming tower…or any other source within ten kilometers from here. The emergency communications network is back online."

"The EM barrier is gone from around the city, too." Erebus added. As a precaution, he set emergency coordinates to retreat back to Jeju-do should the need suddenly arise.

"Indeed, but why? It will allow my military to warp in mechaniloid and reploid reinforcements to begin evicting the invading units-"

"It's to maximize the casualty count." Erebus frowned, then he spoke aloud "You're giving us a choice. We can confront this, or we can flee."

"What? What are you saying?"

"It's just a game to her. Keep moving, but hold short of the auditorium entrance."

There was no door to kick down between them and the auditorium. The entrance was wide open, inviting them to come inside. As per the emergency protocols, most of the lighting had been dimmed, and even this far away they could make out the emergency LED lights on the aisles, ushering occupants to the fire exits. They could see a coffin-like device sitting at the center of the stage. There were stairs that would lead them down a lit aisle from the entry way. Outside of one of the stage lights remaining on and pointed directly at the coffin, the only other source of brightness came from the holes in the roof, casting their own rays down onto the seats and orchestra pit. That was all they could see through that open doorway.

Arseny motioned to go first, but Erebus grabbed onto his shoulder and held him in place.

"You have no real experience fighting enemies with therm-optics, all simulated. Read your file. Wait for my signal."

"Do you have a plan?"

"I'm making a run for the emergency exit, opposite corner of the auditorium from us. When I signal, you follow the aisle straight down to the exit that's directly ahead. We meet somewhere backstage."

"That is not a very comprehensive plan."

"Yeah, it really isn't."

"The Russian is holding position. Four's advancing. Gunner, adjust angle, do not let him approach the stage just yet."


"Nexus Lead, Nexus Two, moving to position Bravo. Have shot on Russian." Like his squad leader, this Maverick had come to Moscow equipped with a Mark 30.

"Hold hold hold. Let them in."


"Net is open. Nike, are you watching?" When she finally replied, her voice sounded strained and faint all at once.

"With bated breath."

Erebus threw himself forward, beyond the point of no return. Now inside the auditorium proper, he was committed. There could be no retreat now. Still in mid-leap, he spun around, trying to catch glimpses of telltale distortions in the shape of men, given away by the mist and falling droplets of water and spare lighting.

One, two…six. They have six. He hadn't seen them all. In reality, he only managed to catch three of them with his one working eye. One on the stage itself, the most visible. Another, his form apparently crouching down at the bottom the aisle directly in front of him. The third was almost as obvious as the first, crushing several seats underfoot at the center of the auditorium, a whirring sound issuing from his direction. The rest, he only detected the sound of their therm-optics, something only a reploid or trained guard dog would hear. He had rough positions, but nothing precise, no idea of their armament.

They should have fired. A test, is it?

His feet had just touched the ground, and his right hand had dropped towards his built-in utility belt, unhooking a small, innocuous seeming brick-shaped block from the belt, and flinging it forward. A quarter of a second later, the brick pulsed three times, emitting an increasingly more powerful flash of light each time before detonating. This type of flashbang grenade was meant to force a combat reploid to rapidly readjust to changing lighting conditions, giving the user a chance to evade visual detection for a scant few seconds. Unlocking the restrictions on his dash system, Erebus took to the air once more, and the thrusters built into his legs burst into action, sending him flying across the auditorium, towards one of the balconies to the right of where he'd entered from.

The whirring sound from the figure amidst the seats increased in pitch. The one in the aisle emitted a whine, and in the moment that Erebus looked back with his one good eye to see what was coming his way, he saw the two reploids deactivate their therm-optics simultaneously.

Rotary cannon, beam rifle-

Stomping forward deliberately, the reploid armed with the five-barreled rotary cannon unleashed a torrent of fire that was off target by several feet, ripping massive gouges across the beautifully decorated wall to Erebus' right as he crashed through a wooden guard rail, through cushioned seats, through a wooden support beam and the metal rebar that reinforced it, rolling once before crashing into a wall. The rotary cannon continued chasing after him, firing what Erebus estimated to be twenty millimeter rounds. Scrambling to his feet, he ran along the second floor balcony, everything exploding behind him.

Before him was the first of the three he hadn't been able to see previously, his therm-optics still active, the illusion broken by water beading up on his frame, debris clinging to it. The humanoid shape raised its left hand at Erebus, an angry blue light emitting from it accompanied by a high pitched roar.

But Erebus was already on him, his left hand on the Maverick's throat, tackling him to the ground, batting the buster-hand aside hard enough that the charged shot it was building fired involuntarily, destroying the next three sections of wall before the plasma fizzled away. They slid forward, the 20-mike-mike still devouring whole sections of restored history behind them, sliding off the balcony and towards the 'cheap' seats below. Erebus raised his right hand, the orange fury of his wrist-mounted plasma saber trailing in the semi-darkness as they fell.

One stroke through the Maverick's forehead, through his control chip as they landed, the featureless helmet that had protected his face splitting into even halves. The rotary cannon gunner was still trying to adjust his aim, fighting the recoil of the weapon to bring the rain of fire down towards Erebus.

Number Five-Six-Five, that's who you were.

In that moment, with the Maverick's face revealed, he knew he had been vindicated. He'd been right. These were Nike's people, disguised as Chinese combat reploids. The shaven head, the artificial blue eyes, the perfect teeth.

He'd knew this man, this reploid, and the death smile on Five-Six-Five's face gave Erebus a moment's pause before he pushed off from the Maverick, still being chased by the rotary cannon barrage. A half second later, the sniper in the aisle fired, searing some of Erebus' back plating. In sympathy to the burning sensation that prompted a mass of warning displays on his HUD, the dead Maverick's corpse ejected its reactor vertically, a safety feature to prevent friendly casualties from a reactor overload, and the body exploded, flattening a dozen rows of seats and opening a jagged hole in the wall next to it. The spherical reactor was propelled back towards the balcony the Maverick had occupied, while Erebus was propelled forward, towards an emergency exit door. He crashed through the door upside down, landing hard on his back.

The rotary cannon stopped firing, a loud hiss replacing the basso growl that accompanied the flood of bullets. A short reprieve while the barrels cooled? A mechanical failure? Erebus could not be certain.

"Arseny, sniper, first floor aisle, your twelve, nownownownownow-"

The Russian had been unable to see what exactly had transpired, and was surprised to hear Erebus speak over their network, but did not hesitate when he'd been given the target. Charging forward, dash thrusters blaring, Arseny spied the sniper, who was already turning to face him, the barrel of his Mark 30 already emitting an ominous glow, spitting arcs of electricity along its length-

And Arseny threw one of his prized vibro-daggers as hard as he possibly could, not at the Maverick, but at his weapon. The Maverick had yet to bring the rifle to bear entirely, giving Arseny a perfect profile of the Mark 30 to place his dagger. He struck a box like extension that was nestled between the barrel and the trigger guard-

The results were immediate and catastrophic. The Maverick had noticed the problem immediately, but was in the process of priming the weapon for a snapshot on Arseny. It had already built up a full charge, and now the capacitor had been damaged. Sensing the danger, the sniper tried to discard the Mark 30 just as it exploded, taking off both of the Maverick's arms, much of his chest plating, helmet, and face, and sending the corpse tumbling into the orchestra pit.

"Sniper down."

And now the Maverick at the center of the auditorium whirled 'round, with surprising speed and dexterity, the rotary cannon barrels glowing a faint orange, but still spinning-

The Russian was still moving towards the smoking crater left behind by the sniper as the rotary gunner tore a new gash across the auditorium, collapsing the entrance behind Arseny as he ran forward as quickly as his legs could take him, the burst of speed from his thrusters fading away.

The math was clear, it was all just a matter of physics now: he was not going to make it. He'd just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. His emergency dash system was not as powerful as the one found on Erebus. He'd not anticipated the speed of these Mavericks, despite his own predictions of their superiority. There just wasn't enough preparation in the world to make up the difference between himself and the enemy.

A twenty millimeter round caught Arseny in the right thigh as he sprinted, and burst clean through it and the left leg. The change in his momentum was almost instantaneous, almost comical, both legs blown off, leaving a second, third, and fourth rounds to flatten themselves against his heavy chest plating, gouging enormous divots in the armor and spraying his artificial lifeblood into the air. It as was though he were yanked towards the wall to his left suddenly, body spinning through the air and wall, into a side hallway as another twenty rounds exploded all round him before the barrage stopped.

Coming to a rest against the ground, Arseny believed in small miracles thanks to the knowledge that despite the loss of his legs and further damage to his torso, he was still in one piece and his reactor had yet to suffer an immediately critical breach. Had that been the case, he wouldn't have been around to be analyzing his situation. There was news scrolling across his HUD, none of it good. If he didn't go into cold stasis within the next half hour, his new role would be about occupying many places all at once, along with whatever else was within fifty feet of him. There was just the slight issue of there not being any convenient facilities he could warp to at this time, what with his warp generator offline permanently.

Over the ringing sound in his skull, Arseny could hear the rotary gunner stomping in his direction, the sound of a death march.

"I am out of position and combat ineffective. Erebus, I cannot sustain-"

"Play dead. The enemy is not Chinese. I confirm: the enemy are Mavericks, former elements of the United States Army Second Reploid Special Forces Battalion." Even over their private network, Arseny swore he could hear the grinding of teeth. "Goddamned Second Battalion."

"But the device on the stage-"

"Leave that to me, and play dead. It's four on one now. What's your state? I need to know how much time I have."

"I have a category three containment breach on my microfusion generator. Twenty, maybe thirty minutes before the emergency containment system fails."

Erebus stopped responding.

Erebus was disappointed that Arseny was already down, not because he expected more out of the former Maverick Hunter, but the additional body would have been really useful. The reality was Arseny, while skilled, had just been unlucky. Had Erebus been given the option, he'd have taken out that damned gunner first. Had things not gone the way they did, it could have been him in Arseny's place.

Arseny had less than half an hour to live. Under the circumstances, that didn't add any additional pressure. The nuclear device, if there really was a nuclear device and not just something to make him and the Russian Federation believe there was one, could be detonated at any time.

He was no longer certain if these Mavericks were only toying with him. Perhaps that was the point of all this.

Getting to his feet, Erebus avoided going back out into the auditorium through the emergency exit he'd flown through, listening to the sound of the gunner marching away from him, towards Arseny's position. Damn.

There was an odd foomph sound from the auditorium, followed by a hiss. Erebus dashed to his right, and a moment later an RPG flew through the exit and struck the ground where'd been, the ensuing blast collapsing part of the low roof and blocking the emergency exit. Debris and water from still running sprinklers sprayed all over him.

"Didn't wanna go back that way anyway…" Erebus grunted as he pulled himself up from the ground once again. He checked a floor plan of the Bolshoi in his mind, and worked out a flanking route to his next destination. In the brief moment that he'd observed the RPG strike, he had been able to work out a general trajectory of the shot.

Stay moving, stay on the attack-

Pain receptors would have been dulled by shock or unconsciousness, had Arseny been born human and by a miracle managed to survive a similar level of punishment. Reploids did not necessarily follow that standard. Unwilling to be distracted by such things, he simply shut down the majority of his artificial nervous system. He could still hear and see, badly, but it would be good enough. He could now make out the rotary gunner's features. The weapon was almost too big for the reploid, but he'd clearly not been hindered by its size.

He certainly appears Chinese by design, Arseny thought.

The Maverick was at least as tall as Erebus was, surprisingly thin given his preferred weapon. Looking directly at Arseny, the Maverick continued towards the crippled reploid, rotary cannon still spinning and leveled at his head. Arseny had tried to halt any processes that may have hinted at his continued function, but there was no way to hide the fact that his control chip crystal has miraculously remained undamaged, nor could he hide the developing breach in his microfusion core's containment systems. The Maverick was clearly not an idiot. He was going to be thorough.

An execution, then.

An explosion on the other side of the auditorium froze the gunner in his tracks, and he spun away from Arseny to investigate it.

With the first RPG shot clearly unsuccessful, Erebus knew that the Maverick in question was likely networking with the other surviving hostiles in order to track his position by means that extended beyond mere visual tracking. He could expect nothing less from those derived from the basic design that had spawned him.

Almost all reploids designed for combat had a suite of software that gave them a variety of ways to maintain a tactical advantage on the enemy. They could cross-reference a target based on physical design, and use that to locate weaknesses. A comprehensive movement prediction system could show a myriad of possible maneuvers based on their target's body position in real time. More sophisticated combat reploids came with more sophisticated variants of this, making targets rarely unpredictable, turning combat into a test of specifications. Motion trackers were standard issue, and getting more accurate by the day. Coupled with high sensitivity audio pick-ups, and the fact that there were still four hostiles in the auditorium, they probably knew exactly where he was going. The RPG user certainly did, because Erebus' footsteps grew louder as they got closer to him.

Leaping up the final flight of stairs to reach the fourth floor balcony service corridor, Erebus flung a cluster of four flash-bricks towards a service door with his left hand, while his right hand slagged the door wide open with bolt of charged plasma.

The response was a second foomph. His dash thrusters flared brightly, burning the carpet beneath him and leaving a trail of steam behind him as water from the fire suppression system fell on the scorched material.

Erebus had predicted that the Maverick would know that the four flash-bricks thrown through the newly slagged door were a decoy, that he would never charge right through that obvious point of entry to simply eat a rocket to the face. That Maverick knew that Erebus had access to a certain amount of acceleration in mid-air or on the ground. He knew that Erebus would wait to the last possible moment to use his dash system to avoid a direct hit, so he lead the target based on sound and his motion tracking sensors.

Both reploids knew that the RPG he fired would likely pass through the wall easily, likely continue flying until it exited the building, so the Maverick would compensate for this by setting the warhead on the rocket to detonate on his command.

What the software failed to predict for the Maverick was Erebus switching directions in mid-air to fly almost directly at the rocket propelled grenade, using his speed and the new weakness on the first wall to crash through it as the shot whipped past his head by a quarter of an inch, an action that surprised the Maverick enough that it delayed the manual triggering of the RPG shot to put the blast just outside of effective range of Erebus as he charged forward. The software also failed to predict Erebus continuing to sprint forward as the Maverick dropped his launcher to try and draw a plasma saber in self-defense, firing a second charged shot from his left hand now converted into a buster. It failed to predict all this ending with the Maverick's head reduced to a mass of glowing molten alloys where his neck began

Three on one. No response from hostile on stage. Not leaving his position, hasn't fired a single shot yet. Two hostiles positions confirmed, no position on number three.

The decapitated reploid body ragdolled to the ground, and Erebus stopped sprinting, allowing himself to slide past the corpse and pick up the RPG launcher as it slipped from the Maverick's grasp, and one spare shot from a stockpile the Maverick had set up. His back now against an ornate marble sculpture of Alexander Nevsky astride on horseback, ancient sword drawn and held high, Erebus calmly loaded the rocket into the weapon, and waited and listened.

The response was halting at first, but soon grew confidence and fury. Alexander Nevsky shattered as a short burst from the rotary cannon forced Erebus to roll away from his position. A second, longer barrage from the cannon prompted Erebus to scramble on all fours, lighting up his dash thrusters just as several shots struck the cluster of RPG's lying on the ground. The conflagration was joined by the Maverick corpse ejecting its microfusion generator and self-destructing. Much of the fourth floor balcony simply vanished in flames and an expanding cloud of dust and debris.

Battered, but still in one piece, functional and now on the third floor balcony half covered in debris from the collapsed fourth floor, Erebus decided now would be a good time to call in a favor.

Baengnokdam Lake, Jeju-do

"Lenneth, I don't have much time. We should chat."

His voice, suddenly playing inside her mind gave the former general a shock. She considered it possible that he'd survived, she considered it possible that he would have subverted the remote-kill command in some way, but she was still surprised by the sudden communication. She had so many questions, doubted any would get answered, but was compelled to ask anyway. They had both appeared in their private shared space, without armor. His image flickered, either from interference or something else. She could not help but smile at him.

"They told me that they transmitted a remote-detonation protocol-"

"They did, as far as I'm concerned I never received it." He grinned roguishly. "What I'd give to see Culverson's face if you told him I was still alive."

"It must be important if you are deigning to even inform me of your continued existence."

"It is. It doesn't hurt that the EM fields and jamming towers that would make communication impossible went off line quite suddenly. I suppose somewhere along the way I felt obligated to inform you of developments that may affect you shortly. I may also need a favor, a fairly big one." He chuckled. "Possible Broken Arrow at the Bolshoi Ballet."

"Interesting, we are evacuating Lake Baengnokdam due to a nuclear threat at that hidden facility we discovered. Are you more certain about yours than we are about ours?"

"Fairly. I've encountered resistance around the target, six reploids. I have confirmed them to be 2nd RSF Mavericks."

"What's your status?" Lenneth knew that the avatars they used in this controlled environment never reflected their true appearance. Part of her was afraid that he was lying, that he was actually out of the fight, and waiting for the end.

"Still in one piece. Three hostiles eliminated. I'm still combat effective. I had help in the form of Arseny, the former Maverick Hunter Commander based in Moscow, but he's currently incapacitated."

"I can help you," Lenneth said quickly. "I could send a team covertly, or only deploy myself to limit the blowback against Vanguard-"

"No. Judging from what you've already said to me, I assume you spoke with the Joint Chiefs and the President, so they know I deployed. I imagine they already know a lot of things that have drastically cut short the lifespan of my little group. Let's not make things worse."

"You wouldn't be contacting me if you weren't in need of assistance," Lenneth snapped, growing more upset with Erebus. "Let me repay our debt, my debt, to you."

"You can. If I don't contact you in five minutes, request a mass driver strike directly onto the Bolshoi Theatre in order to contain the Maverick Erebus, who has stated his intentions to join with Nike's forces and detonate a nuclear device in Moscow, framing the Chinese for its use. I'm certain you'll have no issues with getting the authorization."

He'd said it so matter-of-factly that Lenneth was at a complete loss for words. Seconds passed in the real world, but in this electronic space, the silence between them lasted for what felt like hours.

"You can't expect me to do that." She managed to protest weakly. "I couldn't. Everything you've ever done would be tainted by this."

"If things go badly, and I am unable to stop them here in Moscow, Vanguard is yours." He sounded at peace with his orders, the sort of calm serenity that came with accepting death as inevitable. "You'd have an excellent second in command in the form of Hilde, and I've already set up orders that effectively seal you as my immediate replacement if it comes down to it. There will be some grumbling, but they are good soldiers. They will follow orders, mine and yours." Again, silence in their shared space. She could only stare at him, unable to believe that this was the decision he'd come to.

"Five minutes, Lenneth. I've got to go now."

And with that, his projection dissolved into a cloud of pixelated motes of light.

"X, you old sod! It's been ages!" Vile's jovial greeting of the Maverick Hunter was overwrought, almost painful to listen to, but X endured it with a mask of indifference. He was growing very, very tired of this game.

"All other Hunters have been evacuated, as per your instructions. I'm the only person down here. You wanted to talk, here I am."

"Anything to protect the many at the cost of the few, or the one." Vile's hologram sat down on an invisible seat. "It's just like Sigma said to me those years ago, you've done a real good job staying exactly as you always were. He said you had something like…potential. I want to believe it, I just can't. I don't understand intangible bullshit like that." He pointed to a chair that had been moved in front of the projector by Hilde under his orders before she'd been forced to vacate the premises. "Don't waste her services X, have a seat! She's a real good seat-mover, that blond one, best in class as they say. Of course, when you start life purposed to be a waitress, you get all the software that probably entails. Maybe she kept that shit installed, ya know? For old times' sake?" Laughing softly, Vile suddenly squeezed his helmet between his hands, hard enough to cause a crack to spiderweb across its curved shape. "Right, talk, exchange of information. Sorry. Ah ha ha. Ow."

"Where are you?" X demanded.

"Nowhere near ya, near as I can tell. By the way X? That whole thing with the nuke? I lied. Gotcha." Vile guffawed, almost falling out of his seat. "I gotcha. I gotcha! I beatcha!" It took him almost a full minute to stop laughing, and when he did, he was almost wistful in tone. "I finally beat you again at something, somehow."

"I suppose you did."

"There's no nuke. Not here anyway. I just wanted you to come down here so we can talk. I do have information about those Mavericks you're looking for. It's important." From the control console between them, a small memory stick protruded from a slot at its center, the red LED around blinking intermittently. "It's all there, a detailing of all transactions between one Nike and her band of merrymakers, we'll call them 'The Few, The Proud', and Kill All Humans Limited Liability Corporation, I'm sure you know who the CEO of that is." Vile stood up suddenly from his seat, kicking the invisible chair across the room he sat in thousands of miles away. "For your eyes only though. Anyone else tries to analyze it…poof! It's gone. Self-deletes, and you lose all that valuable intel. It's only for you. You can tell everyone you want about it after you've accessed it for yourself, but only you can read that data directly. Go on, take it."

"And why should I trust you?"

"Because why the hell would I want to kill you with a virus or a cheap trick that doesn't involve me personally putting my own ten fingers through your green eyes and skull?"

"I suppose there is that." X reached towards the memory stick, then hesitated from pulling it out at the last moment, just as his fingers reached it. "Why don't you tell me everything yourself, Vile?"

"Because there's a chance that she is listening in on us." Under his breath, Vile muttered to himself. "Crazy hacker angel bitch…" He pointed emphatically at the memory stick. "WILL YOU TAKE THE GODDAMNED THING?"

The sudden shout startled the Hunter, but he did as was asked.

"Y'know X, she's pretty serious about all this. She thinks she's gonna change the world, all it'll take is tossing a few million more bodies to the growing mountain. But she's wrong, X. The last person that really changed to the world was James Cain, and that's only after he discovered you, and created the means by which life could be given to such upstanding achievements like myself and Sigma and Doppler and Bit and Byte and Serges and Agile and Violen, and I could go on. Praise to that dead fossil, he gave the human race a new means by which to destroy itself. You notice a problem here? You a student of history?"

X did not answer, for he was trying to contain his own anger at the mention of Doctor Cain. His second father, a man who died regretting what he'd done in life despite the best intentions. History would undoubtedly cast a harsh light on the man, despite his efforts to fight the thing he'd inadvertently spawned.

"World War One was called the war to end all wars. Thirty-eight million casualties. Sixteen million deaths. World War Two, the first deployment of nuclear weapons in combat, ultimately killed almost eighty million people. Maybe, they're not quite sure. Most of them were civilians.

Keep following me here X, this is what they call theming.

World War Three, 2040-2047. The United States of America deploys the GAIDN system in offensive combat operations worldwide. They are considered to date the most successful military drones to ever see combat. Weaponized biological viruses like Ebola see their first use on civilian populations. World War Three kills off forty two percent of the human population. Most human scholars are afraid of trying to attribute numbers that big to the dead, so it's doubtful there will ever be a proper accounting.

The Robot Wars, by the end of those the name 'Wily' replaces that of any other dictator or government to have ever committed atrocities against civilians. I wanna be that guy someday, by the way. The whole world supposedly banded together to deal with his shenanigans. Everything was supposed to be fine now. Everything was supposed to be safe, and peaceful. The world forgot about your brother. The world forgot about Mega Man, and the only way the world remembers Thomas Light is through getting killed by the things his last creation helped spawn!

World War Four, 2089-2095. Described by some as the 'end of land maneuver warfare', the first indiscriminate use of kinetic-based WMD satellites on military and civilian targets worldwide, in addition to the usual mix of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. By the time all belligerents laid down their arms, an estimated four hundred and fifty million human lives were lost.

Humanity is on the uptick when it comes to kill count, X. These days, they resort to scapegoating reploids like me as the biggest threat they've ever faced. X, I dream of killing that many humans over the course of my lifetime. Sigma dreams about it. But you know what? We'll never even come close! You people always seem to be there to stop us, though I'm sure it doesn't hurt that humans have taken it upon themselves to make fewer targets available to us over the years! Is this the potential Sigma saw in you? Is this what daddy dearest wanted you to do? He wanted you to preserve a species that's only gotten more efficient at cooking itself alive? I hear they don't even bother with ovens anymore, they aren't as efficient as plasma busters or kinetic strikes!"

X stood from his seat, walking away from the projector as Vile's rant grew shrill, screaming impotently at the Maverick Hunter's back as he left the control room behind him.

"You can walk away from me X, you can cover your ears and ignore the facts and statistics, but I'm piped in all over the station and I will have my say before you leave!" His voice echoed throughout the corridors as X's brisk walk became a full sprint, running for his submersible so he could leave this place behind.

And despite his anger at Vile's words, he did not stop himself from listening.

"This is who and what you're up against X, and truthfully I really do hope you stop Nike, because she's too goddamned stupid to deserve the right that real history makers like you and Sigma have, the right to make a difference, the right to be a game changer, a rule breaker, a rule maker. The right and ability to shift the paradigm. Right now, Russia and China have started a war based entirely on the gentle urging of one combat reploid who thinks she can save the world by thinning out the population a little bit more, because maybe this time people will finally learn the lesson, finally there really will be that War to End All Wars and humans and reploids and small woodland creatures will all sit in one big happy circle, after the fires die away and the buildings stop collapsing of course, and everyone will sing Kumbayah and the great big space ghost of their chosen faith will come down and save them all. But she's crazy X, crazier than I am, and crazier than you are for thinking you can stop us and save the human race in the end, When It's Alllll Over.

There will never be a lesson harsh enough for humanity to finally learn something of value from it. If Sigma and the Maverick Rebellions can't do it, if humanity itself can't force itself to learn it war after war after war, if a hero like you can't do it, then who the hell does some bit player in the grand scheme of things thinks she is trying to be The One? At the end of the day, she'll be lucky to get an unmarked gravestone. Nobody will remember her for any of this. At best, she might be given an unnamed mention in the history e-books that attribute all this to Sigma. It'll read 'On December 12th 2133, Lord Sigma and his Mavericks used irregular fighters to instigate a regional conflict between the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China.'

And that is all it will say about this, because compared to some of stuff humans have managed to do by themselves, this is going to end up being a bargain breakfast by comparison. It'll be called a tragedy that all should learn from, and it'll be forgotten in time for Christmas 2134. She thinks she's so clever, getting nations go to war, because that never happens, right? Whatever it was she managed to do, I'll give her points for managing to do it cheaply, but it's nothing new, X. Nike got countries to go to war easily because they were prepared to do it. All they ever wanted was an excuse; all she did was to provide them one.

And despite all this, you still side with humans, and Mavericks are the lunatics to be feared. So run back to your friends X, go join the carnival that's about to start. Go and save the world again, for what good that will do. Go and save the world now, so it can tear itself apart later. The will of a few can't stop the collective will of an entire species."

X finally managed to reach the submersible, almost leaping inside to escape Vile's rant. His words echoed in his mind, again and again, and left the Hunter brooding in silence as the mini-sub took him back to the surface of the lake. Vile's last statement was never heard by him, and the Maverick knew this, but spoke them regardless.

"And I will be there for you, Maverick Hunter X, every step of the way. Even if I cannot be there physically, I will haunt your dreams, your memories. Until one or both of us dies, or we just get tired of it all and let the world do as it pleases. I will come for you. I will pound the futility of it all into every fiber of your being, until you understand the hopelessness of your cause, until I understand why I can never defeat you."

His holographic projection laughed and sobbed all at once, howling madly as he scratched and tore at the helmet that forever defined him in the minds of those he'd terrorized.


The auditorium had seemingly frozen in time as far as any of the reploids present were concerned. No one moved a single centimeter. Erebus listened for anything to give away the location of the third target, but was unable to pick anything out. Crumbling sections of the auditorium, coupled with the sounds of war coming through the gaps in the roof made it impossible to discern anything as quiet as a reploid designed for quiet movement.

If anything, they had a better chance of hearing him. It had been a long time since he'd submitted himself to a full standard maintenance at a military facility.

Here we go.

Standing up from cover, with the rocket launcher already sighted at the Maverick rotary gunner, and the gunner already looking right at him, Erebus fired his one RPG shot.

The rocket was fast, almost double the speed of a bullet fired by the rotary cannon upon launch, meant to accelerate throughout the duration of its flight to guarantee a direct hit. In a world where military technology made laser guidance unreliable, where IFF transponder codes could be spoofed by dedicated programs, and even visual guidance was unreliable with the advent of thermal-optical camouflage, the best way to guarantee a soldier could hit what they were aiming at was to just make the weapon so that all the solider needed to do was point the weapon, and pull the trigger.

Despite this, the RPG shot was intercepted, having managed to only make it half way across the theater before a single beam issued from the fourth floor balcony on the other side of the auditorium, striking the rocket dead center and igniting it's warhead. Dozens of seats below the blast were flattened by shrapnel, lit aflame by hot embers wafting down towards them.

Diving to his right and lighting up his dash system, Erebus fired a spate of plasma from both busters, aimed at the sniper who had just revealed his position to save his comrade, and at the saved gunner on the ground floor. The counter fire from both Mavericks annihilated another section of the auditorium, Erebus still managing to stay ahead of the enemy. He cursed that he'd lost his one chance to take the rotary gunner out immediately, but now knew the location of target number six. The trick now was to do something about it.

He crashed to the ground next to the emergency exit he'd initially escaped through.

The rotary gun's terrible buzzing sputtered and choked out, replaced by a loud hiss. Some of its barrels now were irreparably bent, baring the both the full glow of the heat from being fired so much, and the more precise, important bits blasted entirely out of existence by Erebus' plasma fire. Shrugging off the massive ammunition drum he wore as a backpack and dropping rotary cannon to the ground, the Maverick calmly unslung a plasma shotgun from his left shoulder, and unloaded a quick burst of three shots at Erebus, crushing seats as he calmly marched forward.

The Captain rolled to his left to evade the cloud of plasma bolts from each shotgun blast, then leapt back up towards the second floor and boosted himself onto its balcony, unleashing another charged shot from his busters towards the sniper before landing and sprinting towards another pillar for temporary cover. He missed.

Sniper Three opened fire once more, melting off of the armored pauldron on Erebus' right shoulder through the pillar, which exploded a moment later from a five shot barrage from the ground floor Maverick's plasma shotgun. Erebus managed to slip away yet again, the worst of his injuries being sharper chunks of the pillar sticking out of frame.

Hypatia would be so upset to see me right now.

Lying prone on the ground and out of direct view, he came to a singular conclusion after many long seconds of processing as many scenarios as he could think of, and realized that they all ended with him dying before he could reach either Maverick. If the one on the stage itself decided to actually intervene, he would be killed much sooner.

Before he could rise to his feet and fall back towards one of the access corridors on the second floor, the whole building rumbled violently. Sections of the auditorium rooftop suddenly exploded inward, showing the whole room with debris, a cloud of dust pouring down from above. The Bolshoi rattled once more, worse than before, girders and supports throughout the structure moaning in protest. The whole auditorium was now exposed to the sun. Through the dust, the faint silhouette of a drone mechaniloid roared past the theatre at low altitude, its engines shrieking in protest as it took a tight turn at full speed to make another pass on the building.

The only reason any aerial assets would break off from other important fire missions in Moscow to blast a historical monument rebuilt many times over would be if they'd been given a priority request from someone with the authority to do so.

"Two passes courtesy of Frontal Aviation. That is all I can do for you, Erebus." Arseny sounded terribly exhausted over their secured connection. "I cannot even shoot the bastard in front of me, I-"

"Stay. Down."

True to form, the Mavericks did not allow the sudden airstrike to break their focus on Erebus. The second strike did not give them a choice. The balconies across from Erebus seemed to disintegrate from a direct missile hit, that side of the structure collapsing into a pile of rubble that also overtook Arseny. A moment later, a secondary explosion flashed from within the cloud, indicating that the third sniper had not been so lucky.

That was Erebus' signal, and he charged from his position off the balcony, directly at the shotgunner, who'd been momentarily distracted by the death of his comrade. The roar of the passing polycraft overhead, coupled with the thick dust cloud in the air further masked Erebus' movements. By the time the gunner had turned to face the oncoming Captain, it was far too late. The first cut from the wrist plasma blades severed both hands on the Maverick, causing him to drop the shotgun. Catching it before it could hit the ground, Erebus pumped two shots in rapid succession at both knees of the Maverick, causing him to fall forward.

He did not fall far, his chin caught by the hot barrel of the shotgun. Erebus held him upright for a brief moment before firing once more.

Now Erebus turned to face the Maverick on stage, who stood next to the coffin with therm-optics disabled, no weapon in hand. That last fact only registered after Erebus leapt into optimum range for the shotgun, running forward and ignoring the fiery death of the former shotgunner behind him. The first blast bringing the stage Maverick to his knees. The second was to the chest plate, knocking him flat on his back, still showing not a single hint of resistance even as Erebus shoved the smoldering weapon at the center of his black faceplate.

It was over.

Erebus allowed himself to take the breaths his system desperately needed. His limbs felt heavy, his body weak. His head hurt, feeling uncomfortably hot from all the high-speed data analysis he'd performed throughout the combat. He wanted more than anything to simply lay down on a stasis rack and allow himself a week of no movement and no thinking. A look at his Internal Operations Energy Rating told the whole story: 15 percent. A combination of his own skill and the timely assistance Arseny, had saved him from crossing a threshold from which there was little hope of return.

"You haven't changed, sir." The Maverick spoke to him, seemingly unconcerned with his mortal injuries. "You're as good as you always were. I'll see you on-"

The shotgun barked once more, and the Maverick fell silent.

"I have had enough." Erebus snarled, yanking the corpse off the ground by one arm and flung it away from the stage, anticipating that it would self-destruct like all the others. He did not look back at the body as it did exactly that.

His goal, the coffin, was directly in front of him. Stalking forward, he tore off the lid in a single motion, flinging it across the stage unceremoniously. Peering inside, he saw a matte green conical shape, the international symbol for radiation plastered on one side, Chinese text stenciled on the other.

"I was right," he breathed. "I was always-"

His body froze in place, then stood up straight. All of it outside of his control. Not a single warning flashed across his HUD.

"Dong Feng 42 Independent Re-entry Vehicle, one of six, one hundred forty kiloton yield." A familiar ghost from his past spoke those words.

"Nike." It was all he could manage just to speak. Erebus could see her, she looked as though she was standing right next to him. As she walked around him, he felt as though he could actually reach out, beat her, stab her, shoot her, kill her. But she was not present. As soon as he'd gotten close to the weapon, he'd been compromised. It had happened so quickly he could not even detect it, his system's intrusion countermeasures having been bypassed without triggering a single internal alarm.

"Cold and ruthless, as we all remember. A bit of the old Four we all used to see so much of, when we slayed those butchers in return for what they'd done to innocents in Rwanda."

She continued to pace around him, her left hand caressing his chin as she did, fingertips traveling across his battle scarred features, across his armored chest, pausing on his ruined shoulder pauldron. A look of concern spread across her face.

"You did not fare as well as I would have liked."

It's not real, Erebus told himself, feeling a growing sense of panic that hadn't surfaced throughout the battle against the Mavericks. The lithe figure leaned closer to his face, close enough that his senses told him that their lips brushed against eachother as she spoke once more. Long silver hair, tied into a single braid, brushed past his fingers. He could feel every individual strand.

"No, it most certainly is not. I'm very far away, though I suspect you'll be coming for me very soon. Vile has told X everything he needs to know, and that means that you soon will know where you must go to confront me." Nike pulled away Erebus, her golden eyes staring into his own, smiling as she gestured to the nuclear warhead, to the remains of her men scattered around the crumbling auditorium.

"As you see, I've followed your plan more than perfectly. I've taken steps that neither you, nor Apollo, could ever bring yourself to take. Our losses fall within my predictions. Your predictions. My goal has been achieved, and now I cement my victory. Moscow is in ruins, the warhead does not need to even detonate. Its mere existence is enough, Russia will use it as an excuse to unleash their own nuclear arsenal on China.

There is no peaceful end to this conflict. This is the continuation of something that started before you and I were born. Perhaps if my sister had survived the Apollo's rebellion, if she had somehow joined your Vanguard, you could simply warp this device away, bypassing the security protocols that prevent hazardous materials such as this from being transported via the warp network. But you have no such expertise available. I know this for a fact."

What made this so much worse was that he could not even begin to attempt to resist. As far as he could perceive, his body was simultaneously his own and yet not. The concept of even trying to move a finger did not exist in his mind, yet he could feel everything, even through his battered armor and protective body suit.

It was as though she'd taken his mind out of his body, disconnected it entirely, then fed it's sensory data raw and directly to his electronic brain. He could only experience, but not control.

"I have reviewed the plan, time and again. I have reviewed our dialogues, our debates. I have studied history. I have determined the factors that must be eliminated. I have come to a conclusion. I will demonstrate, with finality, the flaws of the current system and those who participate within it, and it will destroy itself or I will destroy it. There is still the role meant for you and you alone. You have said you will retire us all. After our task is done, there is no place for any of our kind in the world to come."

The moment Nike's image vanished from his screen, full control of his body had been restored.

"-you receiving this? Erebus!" Arseny was shouting at him through their private link. "Area secured?"

"Yeah." His voice still shook from the aftereffects of the hacking. He tested his movement, almost not convinced that he was back in reality. "Yeah, secured."

"Excellent. I could use your help getting out of my current predicament."

Arseny, by all accounts, should have been dead. His survival was impressive, a testament to his design but ultimately worthless given the situation. What was left of him had been easy enough to pull free from the rubble, and now he rested against the coffin, compiling a final report of the fighting that had happened here. Next to him, Erebus had torn open the warhead, studying its core intensely.

"I suppose you don't have any ideas on how to solve this." Erebus stated, transmitting his POV to Arseny.

"An implosion-type device, circa…2041?"

"Good vintage."

At the center of the warhead was the payload, tiled sphere suspended at the center of a small chamber by a pair of support rods. Each tile had a thin piece of wiring connected to a box with a timer that counted down. They had less than six minutes, and when Erebus discovered the timer, it had already been three minutes past the time he's given Lenneth to set up the mass driver strike.

"I made the correct decision," was her only response, when he challenged her about not following his orders.

I suppose there are benefits to the loyalty they programed into all of us.

There was no way Erebus could move it by himself, he could not move fifteen hundred pounds on his own. Perhaps if Arseny was in less dire condition they could, but it was a meaningless gesture, neither one would be able to move quickly enough on foot to save central Moscow. As Nike had said, they could not make use of the Warp Network with that thing in their possession. By the time a transport arrived to take the weapon out of the city, they'd be out of time, and that was assuming they didn't get shot down by Chinese units in the process. There was no valid ground transport that could speed them to safety.

All of that assumed they could even move it to begin with. Just tearing open the access panel had initialized the system that would trigger the sphere's inward facing high-explosive lenses. Actually tampering with the payload would likely end up destroying everything within a six mile radius of the theatre.

These were weapons that were meant to detonate under a variety of circumstances, including while coming under fire by the various interception systems the world powers employed throughout the Wars. Nike had modified it to handle more delicate forms of interruption from the likes of Erebus.

"Sorry about your city, Arseny." Erebus shrugged, forcing himself to laugh, a bitter sound. "She really got us."

"She certainly did. However, your performance was magnificent. Perhaps when the theatre reopens in the future, you may play the role of Siegfried. You missed your true calling, American, for having the misfortune of being born a combat machine."

"And perhaps one day, you may play the role of Captain Ivan Danko. I hear that they are still intending to reboot that series of classics."

"It would be a nice change of pace, considerably less painful than my current circumstances." The Russian managed to lift one of his arms upward to offer a handshake, which Erebus accepted. For being so much the worse off, Arseny's grip managed to be vice-like. "We fought well, did we not?"

"I fought well. You got your ass kicked." Their laugher, genuine this time, echoed off the slowly collapsing walls that still stood around them.

"I think I'll have to self-destruct after all," the Captain sighed after they had calmed down. "That may not stop the full chain reaction, but it might force the bomb to fizzle. Limit the effects that way." Sitting down next to Arseny, Erebus looked to the sky visible through the broken roof of the theatre, finding it a fitting last image of the world that he would see. He patted down his chest plating, searching for something that was never there. "No smokes on me. Damned if that wouldn't make for a nice photo."

"There is another solution I am certain you are aware of." Arseny pointed to himself. "My warp generator is damaged beyond use. I am suffering from a microfusion core breach that will end my life soon, and there is no help readily available to me. I do not think I would allow you to sacrifice yourself needlessly just yet." Unable to even move his arms now, he tried to point to the sky with his chin. "You still have access to the Warp Network. You said it yourself today with the President, you intend to retire all of the Mavericks responsible for this."

"I was considering that. I just didn't want to suggest it myself, is all." He lifted the ruined body of Arseny off of the ground. "Would have been rude, given the hospitality you've shown me."

"Just place me over the device and get moving."

The timer now read a little under four minutes remaining before detonation. Taking as much care as was possible to avoid disturbing the implosion core, Erebus gently laid Arseny atop the warhead.

"You should know by now," Arseny said quietly, "that regardless of our success or failure here and now, my government has no intention of halting their aggression towards the Chinese. Despite everything I have shown them."

"Well, perhaps they'll be replaced by something better in the future."

"Something better," Arseny mused, opening up a maintenance window on his HUD.

"It was an honor and privilege, short lived as it may have been." Erebus snapped off one final salute to Arseny, before transfiguring into a beam of gray tinted light that arced into the sky.

"It was," Arseny said to the empty remains of the auditorium, setting about his final task.

CAUTION! Settings not within acceptable operational parameters! Death/Program Loss potential!


Override Command Recognized. Input Keyphrase: _

set the pale horse to tread the path of the sky

Done. Microfusion Generator destabilizing.

When Nike appeared before him, hovering just outside of his reach, he immediately had recognized her from the data that Erebus had provided.

"So, you are his solution." She spoke, admiring the broken reploid lying atop the nuclear warhead.

"And you are my enemy." He smiled at her, just as light swelled from within his chest.

Baengnokdam Lake, Jeju-do

Lenneth had not severed her connection to the tracking satellites she'd subverted once Erebus had contacted her. While she was still managing local data flow, all that had been relegated to background processes. Her focus had been entirely on the Bolshoi.

A bright flash engulfed the building, smaller than she expected, smaller than what had been intended. A second flare of a light engulfed the first, the traditional marking of a double pulse that indicated the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Everything within a mile of the theatre simply vanished, flattened by the initial fireball, the pressure wave. Everything for another mile beyond managed to retain some semblance of its pre-nuclear blast appearance, the shockwave clearly visible, clearly dying well before it potentially should have. A small mushroom cloud bloomed at the hypocenter of the explosion, casting a shadow to the west. Already massive plumes of debris rose from the areas torn apart by the blast wave. The satellite caught all this in detail.

A fizzle, a pyrrhic victory.

A victory nonetheless, considering how much worse it could have been.

Standing next to her in the real world, looking far worse than he had when he'd left, was Erebus. He'd landed a short distance away, bumming a cigarette from a very surprised looking Hunter. Zero had started to confront Erebus, to demand an explanation for where he'd been, but his appearance said more than enough. For the moment.

"Do not ever order me to kill one of my own comrades, not without good reason." Lenneth snapped at him as he limped towards her.

"Seemed good enough at the time to me. I'm only interested in-"

"Results. You say the means do not matter to you."


She finally turned to face him, the smallest of smiles betraying how happy she was to see that somehow, the Captain had survived.

"Vanguard is yours again. I'll leave the explaining of your continued survival to the Joint Chiefs entirely up to you, as a penalty for having broken my trust."

"Yup." He took a drag on the cigarette. "People look cool with these things? How do they manage?" he asked, surprised how much the taste in his mouth bothered him, stubbing the smoke out on his chestplate.

"You don't even smoke." She shook her head, face meeting palm.

"Figured I could start. Wear a fedora, the whole nine yards." He fell silent after that, into stasis while still standing.

He didn't know how successful he'd truly been until he awoke forty eight hours later on Hypatia's maintenance bed.