This was another attempt to fill the request for a Zero series horror fic that was determined not to turn out to be horror. Instead, it ended up a fairly straight missing scene, showing the end of the first game, how Phantom became a cyber elf and started finding things out, why Zero was wandering around in the desert after MMZ1, and so on.
Disclaimer: I don't own Megaman/Rockman Zero, or any related trademarked or copyrighted properties. No infringement intended or money made.
The cliché thing to ask in this sort of situation was 'where am I?'
However, Phantom could never mistake cyberspace for anything else, even though it had been years since Master X had experimented with it. The more pressing question was 'why am I still alive?' After all, he had blown himself up trying to take Zero with him and protect Master X.
Except that he had decided to model himself on ninja, who were silent, and unlike the others, Master X (when he had just been X) had managed to impress on him that it was a good idea to think before he spoke.
That, and he got fewer odd looks for comments that seemed to have come out of nowhere that way. Being quiet made people consider you silent, mysterious, and cool, which was much better than being considered out of it and just weird.
Especially in a general or other commander.
Since he did take a moment to think of it, while trying to adjust his stability (he'd always reacted atypically to cyberspace), everything became fairly clear.
Phantom, and the other three, had been built, or at least X had started to build them, during the end of the research that had created the Mother Elf, and completed, or mostly completed, during the brief period of peace before Dr. Weil had betrayed all life on earth. They were all… rather atypical, which was why they were still superior to current models even though Master X hadn't worked on them in years.
Phantom, especially, had been designed while the Maverick Virus was still a real threat, and he was aware that Master X, who had lost so many companions, had been determined to make all four of them hard to kill, even in peacetime.
So, when he died and then woke up as an Elf in what had to be cyberspace, the explanation was obvious after a little thought. This had to be the result of one of Master X's precautions. Of course he hadn't told them about it, that would have encouraged risky behavior on their parts. Or perhaps Phantom alone had this ability: X had been especially secretive about his plans.
"Are you alright?" The voice that spoke contained an odd mixture of parental concern and a general's demand for a status report, now soldier, that he knew in his bones.
"All status indicators are showing green, Master X," Phantom reported, feeling a knot of worry in his metaphorical stomach uncoil. Yes, Master X was here, still alive, and still knowing things that… surely he had only pretended to forget. Yes, surely.
"Good. Stay there, and don't do anything else stupid." The familiar presence disappeared from the space around him, and he was alone.
Reploids weren't scared of the dark. They could see in it. Fear of the dark was fear of the unknown, of what could be hiding in it. Phantom didn't know how to navigate this environment, he couldn't even examine it closely without his thought processes aborting in self-defense, and what he could sense?
There was something here. Ancient and deep, cold and hungry, dark and pitiless, as though someone had taken the ravenous void between the stars (he'd been in space once, in those fleeting peaceful days) and given it a mind to think with. Eyes to see them with, like in that long-ago book of children's stories. A great beast that hunted.
He could feel it dimly, with new senses tuned to this place, and his only comfort was that it didn't seem to see him.
It hunted other prey.
When he was new, he would have gone out there, because Master X was out there and what if it was hunting him, the way Zero was?
But he had his orders.
Phantom tried not to feel relieved.
When Master X returned, his presence and familiar energy signature blanketed the area, mostly obscuring that other presence. Now that Phantom knew how to look, though, it was still there, even if it was withdrawing from combat mode and leaving this area.
Done with this hunt, but there would be another.
"Ciel's Copy-X has been terminated." Finally. "I wish I could still be disappointed that she fooled so many people, but she had her mother's notes on my unique features," Ciel's mother had worked in the team that had studied Zero and X to create immunity and a counter to the virus in the cyber elves, "and all of you wanted to be deceived."
Phantom wished that X's voice was just disappointed. There was still a trace of that there (the way there hadn't been for so long…) but there was no surprise, not anymore. Just resignation. "The Resistance leader built a copy of you? To replace you after Zero killed you."
"Phantom." Now there was more sternness to that judgment, green eyes meeting his, staring him down. "I'd buy that from the other three. Not from you."
Phantom froze, feeling that flight-or-flight instinct that shouldn't really have surface. But it wasn't instinct, was it? He'd already decided to run and hide from the truth, to try to argue down any evidence that something was deeply wrong. He'd been doing it for years now, hadn't he? All those signs, all those little things that were not the same at all, that spoke of a person whose very foundation was different, not just one who had gathered themselves up after nearly being broken by the world. "Why not?"
"Because I built you to be immune, and I did that by basing you on Axl. Not by copying him the way the way those idiots tried to do with Lumine, of course." Mass-produce edited copies of an intelligence designed to violently resist all attempts at editing or reprogramming: that had been smart. Building more of that race had been forbidden after Redips (built to replace Signas) had not only turned against humanity but made edited copies of himself with unique personalities specifically so that his original personality would eventually take them over. To the reploids of 21XX, the sheer squick value of what Redips had knowingly done to Spider rivaled that of the maverick virus itself.
The hunter Axl had redeemed newtype reploids in the eyes of many, but it was no wonder that X hadn't mentioned to anyone that he was designing Phantom to be one of that reploid sub-species, or perhaps even species in its own right.
"I succeeded, the same way I succeeded in using cyberspace to created backups for all of you. The others had the luxury of making assumptions and then just not examining them, using them as a theory and just ignoring anything that contradicted them. You don't work that way. Your mind constantly reevaluates all of your behavior patterns and those of other people as well." To better detect the signs of infection. "You knew that he wasn't me, and yet you served him anyway, even when he ordered innocents killed. What I want to know is, were you honest with yourself about this or not?" Were you knowingly murdering innocents for a false X or were you lying to yourself and saying those were valid orders?
Phantom knew that if it was the first option, X would kill him, here and now, as he'd had to kill so many. The second would spare his life for now, but criminally stupid was still criminal. "I have no excuses. He had to be you, he just had to be."
"Even when you knew Ciel's capabilities and the data she possessed. Even when you knew me. Even when innocent lives were at stake."
Phantom had nothing to say to that. All of it was true.
X, not Master X but the true X, sighed. "This is one of those times when I should be asking myself where I went wrong. If only I was still asking that question, I wouldn't have had to leave."
"Why did you leave? You must have known that…" Phantom spread his hands helplessly, remembering that helplessness. They'd fallen apart without him, no one had known what to do, reploids watching humans for another Dr. Weil, humans watching reploids for another Lumine or other person who claimed this was all the fault of humanity (and there had been several, and all they had to do to justify themselves was point at Dr. Weil) and no one knew who to trust, who could lead them to the peaceful future that had been snatched right out of their grasp.
A few precious years of Elysium, and then came a nightmare.
No one had been able to believe in peace anymore, not with their symbol gone.
"I could say that only my systems were enough to seal the Dark Elf, but I could have given her to Zero, even though trying to purify her as well would have delayed his reawakening. As it was, Ciel woke him up early and his memories are scrambled. I could say that I truly believed that all of you would be alright on your own, but I knew better by then than to think that. I knew that the alliance I pulled together would fall apart without me." No excuses.
Phantom bowed his head, feeling ashamed. They had all been weak, he had been weak. Any of them could have at least tried to come forward as a leader, instead of searching for X like abandoned children.
"I left because I found that I didn't care anymore. I could kill someone taken by the dark elf or order a murderer executed without feeling anything but… It didn't sicken me anymore. I was just sick of it. I didn't care anymore about the people that I was killing. I wasn't trying to find a way to save them anymore. I was just fed up. Tired. Wanting to just take care of things, and a permanent option was starting to look really attractive. Without that compassion balancing me, without… An easy option was starting to seem like a good idea instead of a monstrous one. I left because if I had stayed, I would have been dragged down, inch by inch. Compromised my principles one step at a time. If I had stayed, I would have eventually become just like Copy-X."
As much as Phantom wanted to deny it, he'd known that was true all along. Had used it to tell himself the lie that Copy-X was X.
"There would only have been one difference between the two of us: I would have been better at it."
Copy-X didn't know anything about how reploid technology worked compared to X, who had built the first reploid alongside Dr. Cain. Who had worked on the Mother Elf.
Copy-X didn't know anything about people, either, and how to get them to follow you. How to get them to think it was their idea. How to lead.
"So I couldn't stay, not without ceasing to be myself, or at least whatever's left of me, and causing a genocidal reign of terror, remaking the world and its people in a peaceful, controlled image. Eternal children in a world without humanity." X smiled, or at least his lips curled up, and it was a terrible thing to see. "And if I was capable of letting myself become something like that, the virus would have taken me centuries ago."
"I'm sorry." That was why he'd wanted to become the perfect obedient warrior, willing to live and die for him. Because he'd seen this burden, seen his face when Dr. Weil broadcasted his announcement and the world came crashing down. Phantom knelt, pledging his fealty and hoping X still wanted it.
But then, he'd never wanted it. He'd wanted children, people to live happy lives, not soldiers to die.
"You should be. You could have revealed the deception, even if no one would have wanted to listen. Or you could have stayed and given that newbuilt someone to lean on, since Ciel was leaning on him. You could have tried to be a leader, with or without him as a figurehead to reassure people. The world is in this state not because of evil people, like Dr. Weil, but because of good people who sit back and do nothing." Albert Einstein had said that, and X had said once that he found it ironic that Dr. Wily had been named after him, because he'd taken some of the man's ideals to their most terrible extremes.
Good didn't come from the buster, but the open hand. To kill was never a good deed, all it could be was the lesser of two evils.
All Phantom could do was remain kneeling. He'd failed. There wasn't anything more that he could say. It was pointless to try to defend his actions.
And if he had, if he'd tried to claim that what he had done was right, that he would be willing to do more of it, then he knew X, the real X, well enough to know that his builder would kill him, here and now, rather than letting him go to let more innocents be killed.
"I need you to keep an eye on Zero," X said finally, and Phantom knew he'd passed. "I've been burning up too much energy keeping the virus from spreading while he's around other people."
"He's actively spreading the virus?" What? Zero had infected another person exactly once. "Did that mad scientist scramble him that badly?"
"Yes. He's not knowingly spreading it, but Zero is the virus. That was why he had to go into hibernation. He couldn't just remove it from his systems, he had to transform himself entirely. Something like a butterfly." A flash of old whimsy there, of a mind that saw the world as a beautiful, wondrous place and wanted to share it. "Except Ciel had Passy rip him out of the cocoon before the process was complete. He's stuck in between two states, and the transformation was meant to take place in a capsule, not in combat. He couldn't divert resources to figuring out the next step of the change even if he remembered that he needed to, and he's been actively trying to call up old memories and old system configurations so that he can regain his past, his fighting techniques, and his full strength. The oldest configuration he has, the time when he was strongest, wasn't when he was a hunter, after Dr. Cain and I modified him to allow him to function as a 'mere' reploid."
"Omega." That terror, that juggernaut, that god of destruction.
"Not even close. Dr. Weil's Omega was a newbuilt, old body or not, who could barely put a sentence together. He had to keep him that limited in order to have any chance at controlling him. Omega didn't have the programming to use Zero's systems instinctively, nor the brains to figure out how to take control of them. Or think up creative ways in which to use them. The virus might not be able to control me, but it's still nanites. If Omega had true control, no one would have been able to go within a dozen meters of him without being swarmed and disassembled into a small pile of dust. Except Zero, of course."
"What are your orders, Commander?"
"I'm going to have to get him to leave the Resistance somehow. He needs to stay away from other people for at least a year. If he avoided combat that would be ideal, but this is Zero we're talking about." Not likely, not in this world. "With the copy gone, Harpuia might start restoring older policies…"
"That's not likely," Phantom had to report. "He's had to justify 'your' actions to himself often enough that he now truly believes they're the right thing to do."
X shook his head, chuckling wearily. "There's still some idealism left in me. I'm glad."
"Why didn't you appear before now and tell us all of this?"
"Because when I withdrew from the world, I withdrew from the world. I knew that if I kept in contact, something would happen and I'd be forced to help you." By his own nature. "I couldn't remain connected to all of you and refrain from fighting at the same time. I was woken up by the alarm I'd left to tell me if Zero woke up, and I was right. The instant the world intruded, I got caught up in a war yet again. At least there's no temptation to fight in it. At this point, I really am the only one who can seal the Mother Elf. I can't retrieve my body from its current location. So I'll have to use what power I have in this form as effectively as I can… and resist the temptation to trigger the other three's self-destructs. Thank you very much for reminding me that I had that option, by the way."
"…They wouldn't mind if you killed them." Not if he'd accept them back, but he wouldn't kill them unless he truly meant to kill them. Even so, Phantom was willing to die rather than betray X. He'd triggered his own self-destruct after the battle with Zero, proving it.
"I should mind. If I don't mind killing them, then I can't kill them." A necessary prohibition. "Zero's different. He's never cared about what the right thing to do is, just the necessary thing. It's why he can kill without losing himself, but it's also why I'm worried. The virus is already in his systems, and he's lost the memories of why he should resist the virus. And… most of those memories are of me. The people he fought for were Sigma, Iris, Axl and I. I'm the only one that's left, and if he knew… If he knew how tired I really am, how much I want peace… he might give it to me." And X could not, must not, want that. Not when the cost would be so high.
But X had stopped caring about the cost, in lives and souls, of peace.
That was why he'd had to leave.
"From the databanks, most people don't have a clear idea of much of anything. I'm not sure that Ciel even knows that Zero was the origin of the virus: that was heavily classified and she was young at the time. No one should know whose body Zero is wearing now, and you're not going to tell them."
"It… you don't know? Nevermind. There isn't much time. You're a cyber-elf now. What they call 'dark elves' these days, but that's nothing to be ashamed about either."
The original elves were those built to counter the virus. In a very real sense, they had been made from the virus and were akin to it. They had to be, to hack reploids' minds in order to detect and cure the virus. After Dr. Weil's betrayal, they had been used to spread madness, and become known as dark elves. Modern elves didn't use the virus' technology as a base, and were therefore far more fragile: for one thing, they lacked the ability to retreat to the strange dimension that had been labeled cyberspace (even though 21XX cyberspace was entirely different: X had told him about fighting in it) when their energy was drained.
Instead, they just died. People said that they weren't really intelligent, but Phantom knew that was a lie. They were born to serve and die.
Like the ideal he had modeled himself on.
"Can you feel it?" X raised an arm, pointing in a direction-that-wasn't, the center of that powerful hunger.
X began to float towards it, warping space around them so that Phantom was pulled along. "That's Zero's presence here." He pointed to a dark cloud shot with purple lightning that somehow gave the impression that it was trying to coalesce into a humanoid figure but kept forgetting what it was trying to do, failing to pull itself together and giving off random, lost fragments of itself in its confusion. "If you feel a second presence, that's an infectee. You'll have a window of a few hours before they go actively, consciously maverick: the virus takes its time. If you can't cure them before that happens, than terminate them. If people realize that the virus has returned, they might connect it with Zero, and he might connect it with himself. If the world attacks him, then without anyone to protect he'll just fight to protect himself. If that happens, the virus will win, and there's nothing I could do to stop his original personality with all his original powers."
"And you will be restoring your energy?"
"No, I'm going to be trying to keep the Mother Elf from waking up. She was made to oppose the virus, and it's disturbing her sleep. If they're both active, then… We couldn't use the Mother Elf to modify or cure Zero for several reasons, some more urgent than others." The lights circling X, like electrons an atom, dimmed. "I'll… try and visit Zero. When I can, to remind him. But visiting him when I'm too… tired would be worse than not visiting him at all. He'd know if I was trying to fake being ok. I just need to keep him from finding out just how bad things are."
"Is there anything else I can do to assist?"
"Guard Zero." With your life.
"Of course, Master X- Sorry." X didn't like that title.
X shrugged, not because he didn't mind, but because he didn't care anymore.