Night's calm had been disturbed at Cain Labs.
Startled and sleepy-looking lab workers – humans and reploids alike – poked their heads out of doorways and gathered in small knots, talking anxiously, appraising passerby to see if they might know something.
As the commotion outside his quarters reached a threshold, X was jerked out of standby and into wakefulness. He sat up gingerly while his peripheral systems came back online. Slowly, the interior of his recharge capsule came into focus as his optics adjusted to the darkness.
The capsule's monitor flashed 02:14.
X frowned in confusion. Cain Labs never exactly slept – a small crew of hunters patrolled the grounds every hour of the day – but the human staff almost universally took their rest during the night hours. The reploids who worked alongside them, X included, had learned to synch their recharge cycles with their human partners.
And yet, the entire complex seemed to be coming to nervous life around him.
A soft chime at his ear signaled an incoming message. "This is X," he answered, popping the hatch on his capsule and climbing out. The overhead lights sensed his movements and brightened.
"X, Cain here. I'm sorry to disturb you in the middle of your recharge, but I need you in the transporter room as soon as you can get here."
"I'm on my way, Dr. Cain," X said as he worked his door controls. He paused before venturing out into the busy corridor. "Can you tell me what's happening?"
"Well, I'm still trying to iron out the details myself. What we know so far is that earlier tonight, the Gamma unit came across an unfamiliar artificial life form – not one of our models - hiding in a mine shaft."
X stiffened in surprise, attracting a few curious glances. Cain's voice continued.
"The life form turned out to be very dangerous and we've labeled it as a maverick for the time being. Sigma has managed to deactivate it and it's being brought back to the lab for us to analyze. I'm not quite sure what we're in for, but I wanted you to be here when it arrives."
"Yes, sir," X said, and Cain ended the communication.
X hurried towards his destination, his thoughts buzzing with questions. The advent of mavericks and Dr. Cain's reploids had gone almost hand in hand – soon after the first models were introduced, isolated reports of malfunctions and erratic behavior began to surface. Cain had corrected each design flaw as it became apparent, but he was entering unfamiliar territory, fiddling with a technology that was so new to him. This new life form, though . . . it wasn't one of Cain's. Was somebody else experiencing the same design difficulties? An even bigger question troubled him: who else was building artificial life forms?
As he approached the transporter center he was surprised to see two imposing Centurion-model guards, members of the 17th Elite unit, keeping watch outside the door. Their black blaster rifles gleamed cruelly under the corridor lights.
There were more Centurion guards stationed inside. Cain was hovering behind the lone navigator on duty, a newer female model with long pink hair.
"The satellite reception inside the mine shaft is very poor," X overheard the navigator explaining to Cain, "so our communication and teleportation capabilities have been hindered. I have directed the recovery team to a location above ground where they may teleport safely."
They turned around and X realized he had voiced the thought aloud.
The aging scientist smiled wearily and walked toward X, placing a hand on his shoulder.
"X, I'm glad you made it," Cain said, then his face darkened abruptly. "Yes, I think I understated the facts when I told you that the maverick was dangerous. I've just found out that every member of the Gamma unit was ripped limb from limb while trying to contain it."
Grief. X was familiar with that emotion. He'd even shed a few soundless tears over Dr. Cain's early prototypes that had sputtered and died after being activated only a moment or two. Thinking too much about the suffering of other reploids stung like a blow to his core.
"I don't understand," X said in quiet dismay. "How is it possible that a single maverick could hurt so many of our hunters? Mavericks are supposed to be defects, barely even functional. They aren't supposed to be . . . malicious, are they?"
Cain closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "I'm afraid I have more questions than answers at the moment, X," he said. "Until we've had a chance to analyze this monster, your guess is as good as mine."
Monster. X turned the word over and over in his head as his data center supplied a slew of gruesome images to go along with it – insatiable hunger, distorted features, eyes devoid of warmth. Madness. A rivulet of dread coursed through him.
Cain turned back to the navigator. "Any news yet on Sigma's condition?"
X's memory brought up a video of the burly maverick hunter leader – supremely calm, wielding his beam saber with the precision of a surgeon. Dr. Cain's not-so-secret weapon and masterpiece. The ultimate anti-maverick.
The navigator typed away at her console. She paused, and her voice shook slightly as she spoke. "Commander Sigma received extensive damage to his right arm and face, and has requested direct teleportation to the maintenance center along with the other injured personnel."
Cain frowned deeply. "It appears that even Sigma has met his match," he observed. "Such power, and we don't even know how long this maverick lay inactive before the we found it." He looked at X strangely as he spoke. "It's possible that it whoever left it down there was waiting for the time to be right before it made its appearance."
X wondered at that, but before he could respond a flurry of chimes issued from the transporter hub.
"Stand by, two hunters are on the way from the recovery operation," the navigator announced. "They have the remains of the maverick with them."
"On your toes, everyone," Cain warned. "Inoperative or not, this thing may still be lethal."
With that, the guards leveled their rifles in the direction of the transporter. X steeled himself for what he was about to see.
A flurry of keystrokes, then the navigator touched her headset. "Transfer!" she ordered.
The air within the transporter shivered, then dissolved into brilliant pixels as two stocky hunters appeared. X recognized them instantly as early model Enforcer units, almost buried beneath heavy armor and beetling brow plates.
The taller hunters held up a limp figure by the gauntlets.
X stared, transfixed. Whatever nightmarish creature he had been expecting, nothing could have prepared him for the sight before him.
The unconscious reploid was a humanoid like himself, slender and streamlined. Its flawless facial features looked positively serene, as if it was simply in repose and not knocked out of its senses. It was clad in sleek black armor, with sturdier red plating protecting his lower limbs, chest, and head. The most remarkable sight was its hair – over a meter of it, thick masses of spun gold that nearly kissed its ankles.
"Who is that?" X whispered, at a loss.
Cain stepped forward to get a better look. "It's our maverick," he declared, unable to contain a measure of awe in his own voice.
X felt his eyes widen in astonishment. This being, this supposed homicidal monster, was a vision of brilliance – there was nothing visibly disfigured or defective about it. Someone, somewhere, had to have spent many painstaking hours over its design and assembly.
He let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. The inconsistencies screaming in his head were flooring him.
The Enforcer who held the golden-haired vision let go of it with obvious distaste. X winced slightly as it slumped to the floor like a broken doll.
"Well done, both of you," Cain was saying to the two hunters. X turned and saw the shorter unit step forward and press a small device into Cain's palm, which X recognized as similar to the fail-safe devices that Cain installed in his own models – when removed, a critical circuit would be broken and the reploid could not spontaneously activate.
"I take it that this maverick won't be waking up any time soon?" Cain asked.
The Enforcers stood smartly at attention as one of them spoke. "No, sir. Commander Sigma debilitated it with a blow to the head, but we found and tore out its fail-safe just to be sure."
Cain turned and dismissed the Centurion guards.
X's gaze flicked back to where the maverick lay, oblivious. What would happen if they ever allowed it to wake up? Would its eyes fly open filled with awful rage, would it lunge at him brandishing only its hands, would that lovely hair become stained with X's own circulatory fluids?
"I'd like you to come with me to my office and tell me everything you know about the maverick," Cain told the two hunters. "I'll have Sigma do the same once his repairs have stabilized."
X wasn't sure why, but he felt a twinge of regret at the thought of never seeing those frozen lips curving into a smile, or those long slender limbs becoming infused with life. He frowned slightly. His thought patterns were becoming erratic. Was this what happened when he wasn't able to recharge completely?
He straightened at the sound of his name. "Yes, Dr. Cain?"
"Take the maverick over to the R&D testing lab and start running a scan. I'll be with you as soon as I've finished interviewing the hunters. We must learn everything we can about it, before . . . "
Cain's voice trailed off, as if he'd become lost for the moment in his own thoughts.
X looked at him curiously, then kneeled over the fallen figure. His fingers drowned themselves in gold strands as he slid his hands under the knees and torso and hefted it easily.
"Dr. Cain?" he asked, rising to his feet.
The scientist nodded slowly to himself. "This maverick will redeem itself for its wrongdoings, and put its tremendous power to better use. X," he said, watching him keenly, "we're going to reprogram it. The hunted should become the hunter, don't you think?"
A soft smile bloomed on X's face as the meaning of those words became clear.