1 Prologue-Hidden Evil

Faster, faster! Don't quit now! Look, you've almost got him! Oh, that last one took him by surprise…now, before he regains his composure! Go for it…YES. Now for the next one…hmm, you're getting up there in rank, and they're getting better at this…okay, there he goes. Watch him, figure out why he's jumping…oh, Lord, it's because…

The young Reploid's thought process was abruptly shattered by the realization that his competitor was dodging training mines, devices used by the Hunters to symbolize land mines without actual damage to any poor fool wandering into them. They were used for training, after all. But for now, they were just one more obstacle on an elaborately laid course.

Running jump, that'll take you past most of them… The crimson armored Hunter quickened his already breakneck pace and kept his eye on the flat silver discs that might well mean the end of his race. A golden ponytail flapped in the wind behind him, like a trail of fire at the end of the comet. Almost there…gotta wait till the last moment, or I won't make it far enough…wait for it…now!

The "minefield" was covered an area of about thirty feet, and try as he might, the Reploid knew he'd never be able to get all the way across in one leap. Still, he'd deal with that problem when he came to it…and it didn't take long. His well-timed leap took him the majority of the way over the danger below. He curled up his legs to see below him, picking out a place that didn't have many mines nearby, and steered himself in that direction. He extended his feet at the last minute, pushing off the ground and leaping a second time like a jackrabbit over the remaining mines, and then it was off to the next challenge.

Good! All right, don't get cocky, the next one's a bitch, but you'll be able to take it! Such pep talks with himself had kept him going through the fatigue that had set in by now, and while he was sure he'd laugh later at his repeated conversations with himself, they were needed now to keep him focused.

The next obstacle was indeed unpleasant. "Rooks" stood at their posts on either side of a track, their poles at the ready. The point here was to force the competitors to maneuver. Seriously maneuver. The Rooks, as they were called, were just other Hunters in rubber suits that were attached to the ground and had only one armhole. That led to a pole that was maneuvered into place to try and stop the competitor from getting any further. In simpler terms, it was like a limbo, only the pole kept moving.

The crimson Reploid smiled to himself as his target, the competitor closest up, flew face first into a raising pole, causing momentary disorientation. He decided to capitalize on that, and threw a deliberate grin at the two Rooks who were first in line. He started to bend his knees as he approached, as though ready to jump. The Rooks predictably raised their poles to block him in the air, and he barreled underneath instead. The second Rook immediately threw his pole down to try and cut the competitor off, but, expecting this, NOW he jumped, clearing the first two enemies. All he had to do was get past the next three.

The stunned competitor ahead of the crimson one had by now pulled himself together and outwitted the final Rook, taking off towards the last checkpoint: the finish line. His pursuer doubted the Rooks in front of him would make the same mistake as the first two, but he didn't have the time to develop a new strategy. He instead decided to simply reverse it, coming in as though preparing to go underneath the poles, and jumped at the last minute, clearing the first two. What he'd failed to notice, though, when he was clearing the minefield a few minutes back, was that his target had done the exact same thing, and that was why he'd wound up with a pole in his face. History repeated itself as the last Rook, laughing at the fact that two of these dumb rookies would make the exact same mistake, cut the crimson Hunter off just like the last one.

The impact surprised him, but the rookie didn't let it cripple him. He allowed himself to fall, and slid underneath the pole. Those few precious seconds had cost him his race, he knew. Even though he now put all his effort into making it to the finish line, he knew the other competitor would beat him, so his race was over. The "real" race had been over for a while, with the first, second, and third places already taken.

But he'd finished in the middle, and that was good enough for him. He slowed his pace instantly as soon as he crossed the line, absorbed the cheers of the onlookers—who clapped politely for everyone, of course—knowing the real cheering had gone on for the winners, but he hadn't expected to win anyway. He'd barely been in the ranks for a year, after all.

"Almost, Zero!" said a panting Reploid in green armor. This was the one he'd been trying to beat in the end. "But I'm afraid I'm just a little bit faster."

"Aw, hell!" Zero replied with a laugh, grabbing a can from an open cooler. The oil inside helped Reploid systems function easier, and in this case would allow Zero's cooling systems to get to work in a timely fashion. "You were just lucky those rubber pricks kept me busy, Gradient."

"Bastards," Gradient agreed, polishing off his own can. The Rooks, in reality, were mostly hot, sweaty Hunters who didn't want to be there, and found great joy in taking out their anger on the Hunters competing in the obstacle course event in any way possible. No doubt the last one would be laughing for weeks about the way he'd nailed two dumb rookies in the forehead, one right after the other. "So, what's next for you?"

"Oh, I'm done," Zero replied quickly, brushing lengthy strands of his hair out of his face, "One event is enough for me."

"Well, you're no fun," Gradient said as he stretched out his recharging limbs, "I've finished my two. But I'm going to keep an eye on the weapons matches. Those should be fun, eh?"

"Sure," the blonde agreed, crushing the empty can and tossing it nonchalantly behind him. On a normal day, he might catch hell for that from the groundskeepers, but today there was certain to be enough trash that no one could single anyone out. This half-assed Olympiad was a way for the Hunters to, bluntly, see who was on top of their shit. The event had been held all three years that the Maverick Hunter organization had been in existence, and it pitted rookies and veterans against each other in a variety of competitions. Of course, the "veterans" would only have been on duty for a max of three years, and in that time they'd all likely seen very little actual combat, since many of the Maverick attacks were small and contained, and the Mavericks themselves were merely malfunctioning units that would have been scrapped in a few years anyway to make way for more advanced Reploids.

There were very few Hunters who didn't turn out for the event, and so Zero could be fairly certain he'd be able to seek out the other friends he'd made in his short time training with the semi-army that was the Hunters. One face he didn't see, as expected, was that of the Commander.

Though the Maverick Hunters in general were funded and presided over by a sixtyish scientist named Dr. Cain, the forces were led in combat by a formidable Reploid named Sigma. A rising star in the combat community, Commander Sigma had proven so effective that not giving him command of the Hunters would have been a mistake. He didn't have much of a personality, but he was quite efficient, and even though he tended to take a lax attitude towards his job and the behavior of his soldiers, Zero knew deep down that if things got sticky, Sigma would quickly change into a ferocious drill sergeant.

Everyone wanted Sigma to come out and join the competition, but each year the Commander had declined, opting to merely observe. Maybe he didn't want to spoil all the fun, Zero guessed, since Siggy would most likely defeat everyone at everything, except maybe the obstacle course. Sigma was agile, of course, but his height and build made it difficult for him to be especially nimble or inconspicuous.

One face he did see, however, was that of his friend Mea. The silver plated Reploid had her sword out and at the ready, taking practice swings at imaginary targets. She was going into the weapons match. She'd probably win, too, Zero knew, as she was a regular demon with a lightsaber. Mea turned and met his gaze, waving and returning her attention to her business.

Zero had met Mea while in the training program. She was slightly his senior and had taught him most of the finer points of combat, things the other rookies might not learn. They had become acquaintances fast, but that was as far as it went. Her swordplay was arguably the best in the ranks aside from Sigma himself, and Zero had little doubt she'd come out on top in this competition. Zero himself had decided he'd have no chance. He was pretty competent with his arm cannon, and he'd begun to fumble with lightsabers at Mea's urging, but he didn't consider himself good enough at either to defeat some of the more seasoned Hunters. That's not to say he wasn't worth his salt, though. There were few Hunters who would dispute that rookie Zero was something special, and though he didn't know it then, it'd become more obvious once he started fighting real Mavericks.

But for now he was content to watch. He and Gradient went over to the makeshift arena where the combatants were preparing. There would be no actual bloodshed here-at least, that was the plan. The sabers issued were manufactured only to stun, and the arm cannons of those participating with them had been equipped with a safety of sorts to keep them set on stun.

It wasn't long before Mea met them, looking confident as ever.

"What's wrong with you guys?" she asked with a laugh, "You got smoked back there."

"They cheated," both men suggested in unison.

"Right." She looked towards her competition. Most of them were rookies she herself had had a hand in training. There was little to no doubt she could beat them. Soon enough, the call was made for the contestants to assemble. "Well, wish me luck!" she said with a wink and disappeared into the crowd of fighters.

The contest was, as Gradient had expected, quite a sight. The soldiers enlisted in the Hunters weren't remarkable fighters yet, since they had no real reason to be, but they were certainly people you didn't want to piss off at a bar. Each individual match-up resulted in a well fought battle. The system was simple: the winners of the matches would all go against each other at once to determine the true winner. Mea made it to the final round, of course, and immediately went on the offensive, dropping two of the six remaining fighters by herself immediately, and then focusing her attention on a third. Everyone was focusing themselves on Mea, knowing that since they probably wouldn't be able to take her out alone, they should get rid of her now and duke it out amongst themselves. However, try as they might, Mea would not fall, and one of the fighters fell for a trick maneuver and found themselves stunned and out of the running. 3 on 1.

Zero looked on fondly, wishing to himself that he were able to perform such feats. Being a Reploid, his physical capabilities didn't have many limits, so he may well be able to achieve that goal if he kept at it. Though Mea was probably the best with a sword, those with guns were making good use of them, trying to pick off their enemies from afar, but the remaining fighters were by now used to swerving out of the way. The Hunters were indeed a powerful, if young, army, and should be able to suppress any Maverick attacks. Zero, of course, was only thinking about the malfunctioning drones he'd been trained to deal with. At this point in time, a Maverick humanoid was a very rare occurrence.

Mea had finished off all but one foe, and now charged at him with her weapon in mid swing. Since he used a gun as a weapon, he wasn't able to do much except raise it to defend against the stunning blade. Mea simply dropped and swept his legs out from under him, whapping him upside the head with her sword to finish the fight.

The crowd cheered for the winner, though half of them had no idea who she was. They were pissed drunk. Mea just grinned and gave a curt bow before running off towards Zero and Gradient.

"I am invincible," she said with a cocky grin.

"Damn, woman!" Gradient laughed, slapping her on the back, "You gotta teach me that stuff!"

"What, so you can beat me? Can't have that."

"But we do have to go get drunk later," Zero pointed out, "Else you'll be sober on your big night, and we CAN'T have that."

Mea gave her underling a playful whap on his helmetless head and started off for another group of acquaintances. No one was wearing full armor today, as there was no need for it in their minds. A unit of Hunters that weren't participating were on call in case a Maverick attacked, so the rest of the team was covered.

"So," Gradient asked as he and Zero walked back to the restocked cooler, "I'll ask again. What are you gonna do when you leave this dump?"

Zero frowned. Gradient seemed to like this question, though the blonde himself hadn't given any real thought to it. Scientists were scrambling around the clock to contain the malfunction that created Mavericks out of normal Reploids, so no one really thought the Maverick Hunters would be needed much longer. Once there was no fear of Mavericks, the Reploids could go off and live with the humans again, as Cain had originally intended, pursuing lives of their own. Of course, the Reploids would never have all the rights that humans did, because, put simply, the humans were afraid of them, but no one really cared when they thought of it, and they certainly weren't thinking about it now. The drunken Hunters were getting ready to call it a day, mingling in large groups and doing things only drunks could dream up, and since they WERE on call the next day, both Zero and Gradient figured they'd better make sure they didn't stay out too late.

Zero turned to look for Mea, intending to figure out if she really did want to go get plastered before turning in. She was walking with the judge for the weapons match, probably confirming her victory. She glanced up finally and their eyes met just before Mea's head exploded violently into a cloud of scrap and coolant.

The air around Zero crashed. For a second he was paralyzed, not quite sure if what he saw had been real or not. Maybe the coolers were getting to his head? No, that wasn't so, because everyone, drunk or not, seemed to be freaking out. Groups became frantic mobs, rushing for safe cover, but Zero still wasn't moving. He just stared at the spot where Mea's body had crumpled, and where the judge she had been talking to was now frantically trying to figure out what the hell had just happened.

"JESUS!" Gradient finally exploded, snapping Zero out of his trance, "Mea! My GOD!" He was already running to that area, and Zero sprinted after him. Though he'd lost to Gradient in the obstacle course race, he beat him this time, making it to Mea's hopelessly lifeless form a few seconds before his counterpart.

A lot of rookies don't become anything but rookies until after they've had a brush with death. Usually, it's the first time they've ever seen something die, and the experience was different for each person. Gradient looked like he was trying to get a hold of the situation, demanding information from the judge, who could only stammer that one minute she'd been walking next to him, and he'd felt something pass very close to his own head, and suddenly Mea was a goner. She'd been shot? But by who? Who would do such a thing?! Immediately, Zero looked for some of the competitors he'd seen fighting Mea, thinking sensibly that maybe one of them had been a little angry at being defeated. But those that were left were running in to help, and Zero had seen nothing but sportsmanship from them to this point, so they were out. As far as he could tell. He was still sorting out his emotions, still not understanding that one of his first real friends had just been killed in broad daylight, for no apparent reason, right in front of his eyes.

Gradient listened up for any sudden calls of "Maverick!" or "Sniper!", ready to address such calls with great violence. Hearing nothing, he returned his attention to Mea's body and Zero, who just knelt by her side in a daze, as though waiting for her to wake up. Gradient had seen death before joining the Hunters, and though no older than his crimson comrade, he'd at least had some experience with this sort of thing. Zero apparently hadn't, and was taking it badly.

"Hey," Gradient spoke up finally, shaking Zero slightly, "Did you see anything? What happened? Did you see it?"

Zero only stared numbly, telling Gradient that he didn't know any more than he did. The jade Reploid finally slumped to his own knees, looking over his fallen friend and allowing his frenzied brain to absorb everything.

"Dear Lord…" he whispered in disbelief, "She was just alive not five minutes ago…how did this happen…why..?!" He was asking no one in particular, which was fine because Zero wasn't really hearing. The crimson one finally took some intelligent action, standing bolt upright and looking furiously through the crowds of retreating Reploids. Many were still trying to get out of the area, but by now the excitement had settled down somewhat and people were letting their curiosity get the better of them. Zero didn't exactly have any idea who he was looking for, but he knew he had to look. Somewhere Mea's killer was probably trying to mingle with the crowds and escape.

His gaze fell, for absolutely no reason, on the confused face of a youngish Reploid that couldn't be any older than Zero himself. He was wearing generic black armor, and his forearms and forelegs had an almost purplish coloration. He was looking around in confusion and distress, just like anyone else, and seemed anxious to get off the scene. He merged with a group of other Hunters planning to do the same thing. Surprising himself, Zero followed.

He had absolutely no reason to suspect the Reploid in dark armor, but he pursued him anyway. It wasn't something he could explain to himself or anyone else; he just knew this was the killer. He'd never seen this Reploid before, but then, he hadn't seen half these Reploids here today before, so that wasn't valid evidence. The Reploid carried no weapon, or at least seemed not to, and was generally just another passerby to anyone but Zero. If he'd been thinking clearly, the blonde would have considered the fact that chasing random people and labeling them as killers could have…dangerous consequences.

But he was not thinking clearly, and he kept following. The dark Reploid never got out of Zero's eyesight, and was definitely heading for an exit. The more Zero followed him, the greater the sensation was that he had found Mea's assassin.

Then, finally, for one brief moment, the hunted Reploid turned and met Zero's gaze, and there was realization in his eyes, as though he knew he'd been caught! Zero almost broke into a full run, but at that exact moment, a very large crowd of retreating Hunters passed in front of the suspect, and he wisely integrated himself among them. Zero pushed and shoved his way through the crowd in growing desperation, finally letting out a moan of defeat. He'd escaped. Assuming he was really the killer. Maybe the realization Zero had detected in the dark one's eyes was that he'd realized that a crazy Reploid was FOLLOWING him, and had gotten the hell out of there. But in Zero's mind, there was of course only one possible explanation, and that wasn't it.

He turned and went solemnly back to a shaking Gradient, who was carrying Mea's body back to the HQ. The judge who had been nearest to her in her last moment, no doubt getting over the fact that death had come not two inches from his own head, followed, obviously a man who'd seen combat before and wasn't afraid to "clean up", so to speak. He had Zero's respect immediately.

Quickly wiping a resentful tear off his face, Zero rejoined his friend and walked with him the rest of the way. In the background, he was vaguely aware of Commander Sigma's yelling for everyone to shut the hell up and tell him what happened, but he wasn't about to trek back and do so.

In the same HQ, but years later, the now Commander Zero's eyes opened as he came out of his troubled sleep, both grateful and tormented at the same time. Grateful that his dream hadn't been the all-too-familiar one featuring a strange old scientist who wouldn't shut up about killing a blue guy, and tormented because his subconscious had chosen to replay that particular day the day before another Olympics would be finished, the first in a long time since the wars got serious. Security was rock solid, but then, when had that ever stopped the Mavericks? Zero laid his sweating head back on the pillow and tried to relax, forcefully pushing his first real friend's death from his mind. He couldn't dwell on that if he wanted to be productive.

The weapons match was tomorrow; Zero would not be participating.