MEGA MAN X: THE ZENITH INTERLUDES
By Eric "Erico" Lawson
"Three things cannot stay hidden for long: The sun, the moon, and the truth." –Siddhartha Gautama
Dr. Cossack's Citadel
September 3rd, 2131 C.E. (2 months after Demons Of The Past)
Dust Man slowly made his way up and down the main corridor of the old and somewhat dilapidated castle. The loud, powerful suction of his turbine induction particle collection system left a dull drone in his wake, as loud as the vacuum cleaners of the previous century, but substantially more powerful. The few errant bits of debris from the last tour group were swept up in his approach, drawn in through the large slot at the top of his head, and smashed against the rest of the day's dust.
Inside the gift shop, Kalinka Cossack idly painted her nails, looking up every so often to check the digital clock on the side of the wall, or to watch Dust Man's progress. She rolled her eyes after he strolled by one troubling piece of garbage that was stuck to the floor for the fourth time in the last eight minutes. The robot finally seemed to catch on that it wasn't going to budge, and tilted his body at the waist, leaning down closer to it. He applied the full force of his powerful suction against it, and still, it wasn't moving. Finally, Dust Man disengaged his "Dust Buster" as it was commonly nicknamed, and reached for the scrap of paper. Pulling it up, the reason for its stubbornness was finally revealed; a half-chewed piece of gum had turned into a powerful adhesive. He stood back up and stared at the pink, rubbery blob between his fingers that stretched when he tried to flick it off.
"Perhaps we should prohibit chewing gum on the tour." Dust Man observed.
"If we did that, we'd never get any visitors." Kalinka told the robot. She was pushing towards her sixty-fifth birthday, but still was quite attractive. "Face it, we're more than a little off the beaten path as it is. If it weren't for all the allure about the Robot Rebellions, we'd be strapped for spending money."
Dust Man looked at the only permanent human resident in the drafty old citadel. "Gum chewing has been routinely listed as an unattractive habit among your species. Why do young people insist on it, when it has a deleterious effect on their chances of reproduction?"
Kalinka lifted an eyebrow. "What makes you think I'd be a good candidate to answer that question, Dust?"
Dust Man shrugged, a rather bizarre gesture given his unusual construction. "You are human."
Kalinka rolled her eyes and got up from behind the gift shop's counter. "The last group cleared out twenty minutes ago, I'm closing the shop up early. Think I'll go downstairs for a while. Will you be all right up here by yourself?"
"Of course, Mistress Kalinka." The robot replied. "I love to clean the castle."
"You always did." Kalinka walked past him and headed towards a thermostat set against the wall of the corridor outside the gift shop.
Dust Man revved up his Dust Buster again, but quickly shut it off after a second. "I'm full." He stated to nobody in particular, and a low chunky rumbling sound came out of his joints as he began to rattle in place. Kalinka held back the grimace and calmly unlocked the plasteel covering over the thermostat that kept curious button pushers at bay, then tapped in a sequence on the numeric keypad to unlock the controls.
The second combination had nothing to do with changing the temperature at all. The wall panel beside the thermostat receded slightly, then slid to the side on a hidden rail. Behind her, Dust Man expelled a thick, compacted cube of garbage and hardened dust, which thudded to the ground with all the acoustical cheerfulness of a brick.
Kalinka sighed and marched through the secret doorway, towards the first of the Citadel's Sub-Basements. "And this is my life."
The first Sub-Basement, what had once been the Fourth Ring of Cossack's lair, was kept hidden from the general public. The Sub-Basement contained the lodgings for all of the eight Robot Masters designed and built by Doctor Cossack, as well as the power, water, and communications infrastructure that kept the castle running.
Besides all of that, it also held Dr. Light's "Information Capsule", a last encyclopedic inheritance the father of modern robotics had left behind for the son he never got the chance to know while he was alive.
And beyond that, even...
Kalinka Cossack stepped out of the elevator and marched into the Sub-Basement's central command and communications complex. Pharaoh Man, now goldenrod and silver instead of his original goldenrod and black color scheme, glanced up from behind the main monitor. "Kalinka." The robot master blinked twice, then nodded respectfully. "Business seemed slow today."
"You know how it is." She sighed. "Interest waxes and wanes for this old place. I'm the owner and guardian of a monument to my father's role in an age of madness."
"And his greatest technological achievements." Pharaoh Man pointed out.
Kalinka raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms. "You're lucky, little brother, that you added technological to that statement." She looked around the small complex, which was normally buzzing with activity...at least in the last few months. "Where is everyone, anyhow? I thought they'd be busy."
"Oh, they are." Pharaoh Man got up from his seat. "They're all working in the Sub-Sub-Basement, getting it set up."
Kalinka smiled. "Hmm. I suppose it wouldn't do to have X or Zero warp in for a visit and stumble in on their little operation."
"That's a given." Pharaoh Man tapped a button on the main console's keyboard, and brought up a videolink with the Sub-Sub-Basement's command center. The smiling face of Bristol looked back at him. "Bristol, I've got the local network protocols established. You should have access to all Citadel communications and outbound Electrosphere links."
"That's fantastic work, Phare. Oh, Miss Cossack! How've you been?" Bristol exclaimed.
Kalinka smiled, one blonde to another. "Well enough. Can I come down for a visit? I'd love to see what you've all been doing with the place."
"Certainly, but I'll warn you, it's a bit messy. My husband and that Allegro've marred the walls of the sparring center with their constant duels, and Horn and Hazil...well, they got a hold of your father's private cache of Vodka. They've been recuperating in what's left of the Medical Bay, and they haven't even finished it yet."
Kalinka laughed and looked towards the ceiling. "Oh, God. I can imagine. Well, I'll tread carefully, then."
A noise on the monitor caught her attention, as well as Bristol's. The reploid engineer glanced to her own main monitor in the Sub-Sub-Basement and blinked. "Eh? What's this then, an E-Mail?"
Pharaoh Man brought up the inbox, and quickly identified the presence of an arrived electronic message. Kalinka glanced at the inbox briefly, and blinked when she thought that the Sender box was marked Unknown and the Subject line read Your Presence in Moscow. When she opened her eyes again, the message was gone.
Pharaoh Man eased his hand back from the keyboard and glanced at Bristol's image. "Junk mail, Bristol. Don't worry, I've taken care of it." Without waiting for a reaction, he swiveled his Nemes headdress and face back to Kalinka. "Shall we head down, then?"
"Phare, what was that E-Mail about?"
"What E-Mail?" Pharaoh Man replied innocently. "It was junk mail, that was all."
"Well, could I look at it, at least?"
The robot shook his head firmly. "Impossible. I've deleted it and overwritten the sector it was stored in."
"But you could still get it back if you tried. Why can't you..."
"Kalinka." The robot narrowed his eyes, and seemed to grow taller than his diminutive stature normally allowed for. His voice came out stern, almost growly. "Drop it."
Not quite sure what had taken place, and feeling more than a little disoriented by the strange event, Kalinka nodded mutely and followed as Pharaoh Man guided her to yet another hidden doorway in the already secret Sub-Basement that would lead them to the new base of operations for the Scion's Zenith.
Pharaoh Man, who had survived Mind Freeze, escaped the confines of the Laws of Robotics, and fought with the reploids of the newly formed Zenith to save reploidkind from the threat of Ice Beacon, had always been a somewhat surprising entity to her.
That one small moment planted a seed of doubt in Kalinka's heart. There had been times she had despised him, but she had always trusted him. But there was something about that E-Mail he had wanted to keep away from her.
The question was, her naturally curious mind wondered...
"You're doing it wrong." Willow accused him.
Hanging with one wristclaw and both feet pressed against the side of the wall by the ceiling, Wycost turned his head around and raised his eyebrows above his sunglasses. "What, you wanna come up here and do it, sweetie?" He taunted her.
The red-haired "Irish Banshee" laughed at the comeback and bit her teeth at him. "I just don't want it hanging crooked, is all."
"Well, it looked straight to me!" The Bronx Bomber countered.
"Of course it would. You're hanging almost upside down."
Scowling, Wycost readjusted the large picture of Bastion and Bristol at their wedding, evening out the corner so the framed still image hung level. Not waiting for his significant others' yea or nea, he let go of the wall and fell back down the eight feet to the floor of the Sub-Sub-Basement's main residential suite. "There, done. You want it any better, you should have called Bastion to float up on those freaky wings o'his."
Willow reached a hand out and briefly ruffled his short black hair before she pulled him in for a quick kiss. "What, and miss starin' at your bum again?"
"You're insatiable, ya little fiery..." Wycost growled, stepping inside of her long legs.
The elevator leading up to the first of the Sub-Sub-Basement's hidden entrances opened with a quiet ding, catching the two lovers in the act. When Kalinka and Pharaoh Man stepped off, Willow was slung underneath Wycost with one leg wrapped around his back.
Kalinka blinked several times, then made a show of covering her eyes. "Don't let me stop you two."
Wycost and Willow detached, and Wycost managed a good-natured chuckle. "Sorry about that, Missus Cossack. I guess we get carried away sometimes."
"Clearly." Kalinka looked around. "I see you've been doing some redecorating. Weren't you going to be out on patrol today?"
"Yeah, I was." Wycost shrugged. "Bastion thought it'd be a good time to take Allegro out for a little hands-on training, so they took my place today."
"The lads'll be fine." Willow reassured their benefactor. "Bastion can handle himself, and the other one is shaping up all right too."
"So, came to pay us a visit?" Wycost asked Kalinka. The old woman smiled.
"Well, I thought I might. Is Bristol still in the control room?"
"Last time we checked." Willow nodded. "You know how to find your way there?"
"I'm old, not senile." Kalinka reminded the reploid gently. "We'll leave you two alone so you can...well, you know."
Wycost wrapped his arm over Willow's shoulder as Kalinka and Pharaoh Man wandered off.
"I think she got a little jealous, babe."
"You're a pig." Willow shoved him off.
"Only on the weekends." The ex-Hunter grinned.
Bristol pushed her seat away from the command console when Kalinka and Pharaoh Man arrived. "Ah, there you two are. For a bit, I was afraid you'd gotten lost."
"Hardly." Pharaoh Man said. "We were distracted by Willow and Wycost in the main foyer."
"They were snogging like mad again, weren't they?" Bristol laughed. "Don't worry, they'll get over it in another month or two. Bastion and I did." She pointed towards the screen. "And speaking of m'dear husband, they're off in Nairobi. Surveillance is coming through, loud and clear."
"So you did get those new signal scramblers working after all." Pharaoh Man slightly widened his eyes. "That's some good news."
Kalinka glanced between the two. "Is this something I should know about?"
"Well, it's not a secret." Bristol explained. "The way things are, MI9's probably infiltrated every sizable military and law enforcement group in the world. It's just a security precaution to make sure they don't listen in on us."
"Now, hold on a moment." Kalinka frowned. "You took out their main headquarters. You blew up their doomsday weapon. I thought the rest of this was just cleanup."
"So did I, at first." Bristol sighed. "But as it turns out, my old "Employers" kept their leadership scattered. Some of the old frequencies have been active with new orders. There's likely more remnants than we know about, which is why we've spent more time listening in and setting out feelers than running into combat. Putting an end to their little conspiracy's going to take work and patience...Something that they have a five decade head start on."
"We'll do it, though." Pharaoh Man promised the strawberry blonde reploid. "There will come a time when the world will be free of MI9's schemes."
"I hope you're right." Bristol sighed. "Say, Phare, be a dear and go see if Horn and Hazil are up and moving around yet, would you? I needed to run some scans on them for the warp buffer."
"As you wish." Pharaoh Man gave a parting nod to his Creator's flesh and blood daughter before vanishing into the corridors of the Zenith's secret base.
Bristol swiveled around in her seat and pressed her fingertips together, evaluating Kalinka. "All right, now what's bothering you?"
Kalinka blinked. "You've gotten better at reading people." She moved closer to the lead engineer of the Zenith. "There's something going on with Phare that he's not telling me. You remember that weird E-Mail that came in right as you two finished connecting this place to the castle setup?"
"Yeah, the one he deleted?"
"Well, the message didn't have a "Sender" and the title was just really bizarre. When I pushed him about it, he got defensive. For him, anyways." Kalinka explained. "It's got me worried. It might be nothing, and he was just having an off day, or I could be imagining things, but..."
"But you'd feel better if I dug into the main server's memory banks and tried to recreate that message from the junk data?" Bristol finished. Kalinka nodded slowly. Bristol smiled again. "Well, I'm always up for a decent challenge, love. I can't make any promises, but I'll see if I can't come up with something."
"Thank you, Bristol." Kalinka said, relieved.
Bristol clucked her tongue. "You took us in, knowing that our mission would brand us as Mavericks. We're still working off that debt, Kalinka. It'll be my pleasure to do this. Besides, it'll flex a part of my skills I haven't worked on in a long time...hacking."
She rolled her chair back to the main console and started her search subroutines. "Come to think of it, this might be something that Wycost could help me out with. His skills as a police officer in New York's MSWAT division came with a dose of electronic warfare training."
"Like that frequency hacking thing he built on his helmet." Kalinka nodded. "Yes, that's fine. But keep this held close to your chest. I don't want Phare getting wind of this...There's no telling what he might do."
Bristol saluted. "Righto. Though, I don't see why you're worried he'll fly off the handle. When you think about it, he's not much different from a reploid. A very short one."
"You came by your free will naturally. He almost died for his." Kalinka retreated for the exit. "I'm heading back upstairs. Come get me when you find something."
"If I find something." Bristol corrected her.
Kalinka paused by the door of the second hidden elevator.
"When." The Russian princess clarified. The elevator doors opened, and she stepped inside.
September 5th, 2131 C.E.
Though reploids could function longer than humans before requiring a period of stasis, their performance could quickly become sluggish the longer they did without it. Stasis powered down most of a reploid's systems, allowed the nanobots within their bloodstream to recharge, repair, and restore their Internal Operations Energy, and converted memories and experiences from short-term to long term memory storage, clearing their buffers.
Simply put, Wycost thought to himself, he got groggy, cranky, and bent out of shape.
The Bronx Bomber yawned loudly and stretched his arms out to the sides again. He flipped his sunglasses back down out of habit, protecting him from the glare of the massive flatscreen monitor that Bristol was scanning over. She had a stubbornness to her, and that part of her personality was dominant.
"You know, sweetcakes, I still don't get why you had to drag me out of bed for this." Wycost grunted. His eyes lidded half-closed as he leaned back in his chair.
"Don't fall asleep on me, Wycost." Bristol berated him. "You may be best friends with my husband, but that doesn't mean I won't sock you in the arm to wake you up again."
"Gee, izzat a promise or a threat?" Wycost glanced up towards the ceiling. "What are you doing up at this Godawful hour anyhow? Bastion hogging the blankets?"
Bristol laughed airily, a soft little noise that snapped through the cold depths of the Fourth Ring's Sub-Sub-Basement with crisp intensity. "Not exactly. Miss Cossack came to me with a request. A bizarre E-Mail came in two days ago. Pharaoh Man intercepted it and deleted it from our servers, claiming it was junk mail. Kalinka asked me to track down the footprints of that message. Something about it, and how Pharaoh Man handled it, didn't sit right with her."
"So you're taking the message out of the garbage bin, then? That's easy enough."
"Not exactly." The blond shook her head. "Pharaoh Man deleted the message and overwrote the section of memory it had been stored in."
Wycost said nothing for a bit as he raised his glasses back up. His fatigue was momentarily forgotten.
"Well. That's unusual, isn't it?"
"It's excessively paranoid, is what it is." Bristol replied. "Even for one of us. Anyhow, it took me a day, but I've compiled what I can. I don't know what the contents of the message were. I can't access it, but I know he made a copy to his personal memory before he destroyed it."
"And if we felt like trying to hack his positronic network, we could find out what it said." Wycost finished easily. "Of course, y'probably don't feel like doing that. Neither do I, actually. So, what's all this got to do with me?"
Bristol froze the image on the screen and swiveled about to face Wycost. "I've done what I can here, but we're at the edge of my expertise. The fact is, Wycost, you're the best analyst and data-tracker we have in the Zenith. I can't tell you who sent the message. I was hoping you might be able to figure it out."
"Aah, Christ." Wycost sighed. He ran a hand through his tousled black hair, then got up and strolled to stand beside Bristol. "You sure this couldn't have waited until tomorrow?"
"I needed to speak to you about this privately, Wycost. You know as well as I do that during the day, we have more people running through here than the New Tokyo maglev hub has trains."
Wycost logged in a few keystrokes and brought up Bristol's file on the elusive E-Mail.
Copied once. Original file lost, irretrievable.
"Hm." He narrowed his eyes. "Smooth work, all right. Mail server's clean."
"I could have told you that."
"Yeah?" Wycost snorted. "Well, I've got one better for you." He shrunk the window, then pointed to the net browser. "Check the IP interactions. He cleaned out the message, but I'm betting he didn't bomb the address exchanges." He leaned forward, a bit more smug than usual. "It's kinda like those old paper letters humans used to write. He may've burned the letter...but not many people burn the envelope. And envelopes have a return address."
Stunned at the sound observation, Bristol set to work following the Bronx Bomber's hunch. A half minute later, she made another pleased noise and beamed at Wycost. "You were right. At the timestamp of the received E-Mail, there's an IP address. The smoking gun." She rubbed at her blue eyes for a bit before sighing. "Can you make sense of it?"
"What am I, a freaking magician?" Wycost focused on the address and frowned. "Hang on a second." He reached past Bristol and worked out another series of commands with one hand. His fingers danced across the console's surface. When he finished, he stepped back, surprised. "Well, that's unusual."
Bristol crossed her arms. "What is?"
Wycost contemplated the right explanation before speaking. "See, if I wanted to keep a message hidden, I'd bounce it off a couple dozen IPs and use an anonymous E-Mail client while I was at it. But this message...It went from point to point. No sleeper nodes. No shuffle. These guys, they sent it straight on. Minimizes the chance of interception, but makes it tough as shit to hide the source. That's the tradeoff. So the IP you see is the one they were broadcastin' from. Follow me?"
"Yes. So far." Bristol said cautiously. "So you know where they are?"
Wycost gave her a look. "You know that IP?"
Humoring her teammate, Bristol stared at the sequence of numbers. They were unrecognizable to her, and there was no flag announcing the IP's nationality.
"No, I don't." She answered honestly. "The computer doesn't know it, either. It doesn't have a known IP area code. But that's impossible, isn't it? You can't exactly hide that kind of thing."
"You don't have to hide what people don't know." Wycost rubbed at his chin, seeming uneasy. "Or what they've forgot."
Bristol could feel a headache coming on. She was also running short on sleep, though with better grace than Wycost was. "I'm not following you. What do you mean?"
"I never would have caught it myself, but...I'm remembering something Doan showed me once. An old piece of tech. Real old. Like, Pharaoh Man's age old. It was one of them old-style laptop things, the kind that ran offa satellites instead of the Electrosphere for its networking."
Wycost walked back to his chair and sank into it. "See, when they switched over to the Electrosphere network in the 2090's, they did away with almost all the old IP addresses for newer, better ones. That's why our system didn't pick up on it; This IP hasn't been publicly used for more than thirty years."
Bristol felt a chill pass through her, as if an icy hand had grabbed the base of her spine. "So where's the message from, then? Who's writing to Pharaoh Man from the past?"
Wycost dropped his sunglasses back down and clucked his tongue. "It's from Japan. Old Tokyo."
Bristol flinched. "But...old Tokyo was buried. There's nothing left of it."
"Looks like that's not the case anymore." Wycost shrugged easily.
Bristol closed her eyes. Yes, the headache was there now. "Can you look into it?"
"Yeah, suppose I could. I was going to be going to New Tokyo to pick up some supplies tomorrow. I could...make a slight detour afterwards, I guess."
"Good." Bristol smiled. "Be as discreet as you can, all right?"
"Yeah, yeah." Wycost lurched out of his chair and headed for the exit. "I'll be a freaking ghost. Tomorrow. Now, I'm getting me some damn sleep. You should too, honey."
Bristol waved him off, and lingered behind long after the door to the Zenith control room hissed closed again. She brought up a map of Japan and stared hard at the region of land where Tokyo had once been. New Tokyo had built closer to the mountain. Old Tokyo had become a rich and volcanic-fertile patch of land.
And somewhere in that tranquil sea of grass, a message had come bearing ill will and trouble.
"Tokyo." Bristol repeated to herself quietly.