This is another conversation like Crash & Burn or Tales of Payback that really should have happened. The trouble here, of course, is that most of this stuff is too basic for X to really get that he has to spell it out for people.

Regarding X: he was put into ethical simulations for a century. Think about that. In other words, 'ethical simulations' may sound all nice and fluffy and meant to raise X to be a goody-two-shoes, but IRL, 'ethical simulations' means things like iterations of the Prisoner's Dilemma, or, 'this is how to win at life.'

The thing about the rules of ethics is that they exist for a reason. For instance, trade allows everyone to benefit (that's the definition). If people can trust each other, then they can just walk over and get stuff without having to worry about it, but if they don't, then they need to defend themselves, and distrust eats up resources, or they get killed, which is even more of a waste. Consider how much we have to spend on armies, for example (the basic econ graph of guns vs. butter). Or that if you lie to someone a few times, they're not going to trust you and they'd rather deal with someone trustworthy, or make you sign complicated paperwork. The study of this is called game theory, which a Meaningful Name. They're not approaching it in terms of trying to prove that it's nice when people are nice: this is the study of how to win. A lot of people have put a lot of effort into finding a case in which the 'unselfish' strategy isn't the best one, and they're basically failing.

There's the question of how 'the selfish' genome evolved altruism, and it has two answers: one, unselfish behavior isn't, and two, altruism is just that goddamn good a strategy. It optimizes people's ability to make use of the resources (especially people) around them for their own benefit.

Ethical behavior/enlightened self-interest is the zen of Magnificent Bastardry. You get all the benefits of constantly manipulating the people around you to work for your benefit, and none of the downsides of them getting pissed off that you're using them and no longer wanting to do stuff for you. Not to mention that by helping them out, you not only earn gratitude but ensure that they're still in a position to be of use to you, instead of dead.

And then there's the fact that most reploids are infants, chronologically. Babes in the woods. Who have some idea of what's right/nice and think the opposite is what's easy/pro-survival. They just haven't had enough life experience to be able to see for themselves that actually, it is a good idea to share for actual reasons. No wonder they don't get/can't deal with X, who has been playing the goddamn metagame for a hundred times longer than they've been alive. Or more.

And he can't deal with them because he honestly can't grasp that anyone would really be that stupid.

Cake or death: is it really so hard to tell that one of these is better than the other?

This is taking place sometime in X4, dealing with Repliforce. Think it as kind of fitting the two game paths, X and Zero's, together, and this is who X fights instead of Colonel. Repliforce had three main branches, at least according to the game intro's colors.


X didn't recognize this specific reploid, but he recognized the design, a slightly-personalized version of one of the three standard Repliforce types. Dr. Cain was getting older and older, and when Sigma didn't destroy research projects, infighting did. There hadn't really been anyone else with the clearance to check Dr. Cain's work, not when these were reploids specifically designed to fight the mavericks and Sigma knew the value of intel, and he'd managed to find the time to get a little more data on his own movement programming, even if they hadn't been able to fix that particular bug.

When X woke up, he'd seen everyone around him as people. Fascinating, multi-faceted… He was grateful for Zero's training, really he was. He had never regretted helping Dr. Cain study Dr. Light's technology, to help reploids.

But now, when he looked at someone, part of him noticed things like their pride and determination and youth, and another part catalogued all their weak points. Not just regretting all the things he couldn't help them with, the reason that this was a reploid and not an android, but also noting, with equal sadness, how to kill them.

How easy it would be to kill them.

The reploid didn't attack immediately but gave a speech about the honor of Repliforce. Words that mattered so much to it, so X had to listen, even if he wanted to shake his head and scream that they were wrong. "Stand down," he said at the end, because he had to, even if he knew that his words wouldn't be heard. He had to try to save this one, just like all the others who died because of Sigma's wars.

His failure.

"If you surrender, you won't be destroyed."

"You think I'm afraid of death?"

"No." It was very obvious that he didn't have the sense to be. "I just don't want to hurt you." He shouldn't have to do this.

"I heard about you. You don't want to fight me? Are you afraid to fight me?"

"No," X said, far too calm. Artificially calm, in fact. He was very lucky that he had this much control over his emotional programming, otherwise he would be crying. "I came here to try to stop this and clear Repliforce's name. I didn't come here to fight you." The truly terrible thing was that, "I have no intention of fighting you."

"Are you going to let us leave in peace, then? Or are you just a coward."

"I'd love to leave you in peace, but Sigma won't. If Final Weapon withdraws out of sortie range of earth, the virus will come, and Sigma will infect all of you. Even if you aren't afraid for yourself, think of your comrades. Do you want the virus to take them? Do you want their hands to be stained with blood?"

"We can protect ourselves!"

"No. You can't." X raised a hand when the officer moved to ready his weapon. "I'm not saying that you're weak. If the virus was something that could be fought with force of arms, you'd be right. You'd be safe. If it were that easy, the hunters and Repliforce would have beaten Sigma long ago. You and General are honorable. The virus isn't. It will creep in the air ducts. It will take your comrades, the people you're trying to protect," by running away like this, "and they will smile and seem to be the same as always, until it makes them stab you in the back. Do you know that sometimes the victims of the virus are still alive in there? Still themselves?" Dr. Doppler. "Watching in horror, as it makes them do the things they would have given their lives to prevent? Uses their own hands to kill the innocent, to kill their comrades? Are you really willing to let that happen to your friends? I'm not willing to let that happen to all of you. And that's why I can't retreat, and I can't let you retreat."

"So we fight," the newbuilt said, grimacing, trying to ignore X's words. It didn't want to hear them, X knew. The child just wanted to believe that there was such a thing as safety.

But there wasn't. "No. We aren't going to fight. Could I ask," X paused, to regain control, "what your name is?"

"Lieutenant."

"Lieutenant." Ah. "You're one of those models…" The prototypes for each division of Repliforce. "That would make you… three months old?" Instead of the two and a bit the common soldiers of this type were.

"Three months and six days." He seemed a little annoyed by the error.

"You still haven't worn the rough edges off your armor…" Colonel had, but Colonel enjoyed fighting as much as Zero. Zero had insisted on fighting him, X really wondered if it was right to let him… "Three months and six days… The six days matter to you, don't they? They're an eleventh of your life. Almost a whole week." Like a human parent with a toddler saying their son was three and a quarter, not bothering to note the weeks. An adult human would say they were thirty-four if their birthday was the day before or the day after. Or 'early thirties.'

But to this child, that six days seemed like such a long time. "I'll remember your name," X promised. He remembered them all.

"You're mocking me."

"No." Oh no. This was not something to laugh about. This was one of those times that made him wonder if he could ever laugh again. "You're an officer, aren't you? Isn't it your duty to perform an accurate tactical assessment of the opposition, for the sake of those under your command? You know who I am. You know who built me. You know how old I am. Most of that time was spent in a capsule, but it wasn't spent just sleeping. And then I helped Dr. Cain, who built you. So I know all about how reploids work. How to build them, repair, them and take them apart. Then, I joined the field hunters, and I was trained by Zero. You've probably seen Zero fight, yes?"

"I did study you. You're only rank B." Although here 'studied' just meant, 'paid attention to the general knowledge downloads.'

"Yes, because that's the minimum rank for a commander's post. Do you know how long the tests for rank A and S take? The different combat scenarios, the command scenarios, having to explain every decision I made? There are better things to do with a month, don't you agree? The ranks are just there to assess the theoretical skills of newbuilt commanders. I've demonstrated mine. They're just… something on paper. In the real world, they don't really matter." But this newbuilt hadn't had any time to learn about the real world and how different it was from what they were shown on paper, what they were told. "The only measure of a hunter's skill that matters is how many people they can save." And X didn't know if he could save this Lieutenant. If he could save any of Repliforce.

"Then why don't they just say that you're really rank… Whatever you are."

"Because the ranks are the grades on the tests, and I haven't taken the tests," X explained. "Most people who have seen me fight know that I would be rank S, if I wanted to waste that much time." Not really that much time from his perspective, but so much from this child's. "Zero is rank S, but that's because he had to impress people so they would give him the position he deserved. I don't really care about appearances." Except maybe he should, if it would make people even a fraction more willing to listen when he warned them. "In any case, you have seen Zero fight, yes? He was my instructor. He worked very hard, and still does, to make sure that I can take care of myself. He's still technically better than I am, but when we spar, we tend to trade victories, when it doesn't end in a draw. Can you guess why?"

"He goes easy on you."

X gave him a look. That was beneath him. "No. I was built by Dr. Light. Zero is a very powerful model, better than the best Cain Labs can produce," far better than Colonel, "but he still has several problems with his design."

"So you cheat by taking advantage of them."

X wanted to wince, imagining Zero's response to a statement that idiotic from a trainee. They'd get beaten into unconsciousness by way of demonstration, revived, and have it happen again to make sure it sank in, in front of the rest of their unit. "No. When we spar, we're training. Sigma knows Zero's weaknesses, and the virus will take advantage of everything it can. The virus has no honor. By helping Zero overcome them, I'm helping him survive. In the same way, Zero doesn't go easy on Colonel, he forces Colonel to recognize and try to find ways to compensate for his design flaws. We don't improve just by honing our strengths, but overcoming our weaknesses." X looked at him steadily. "Have you been doing that?"

"Of course I've been training!"

"Do you know the average kilograms per square centimeter of pressure your armor can withstand, and what the three worst weak points are? Note that I said your armor: I'm not talking about the areas it doesn't cover. Your visual processor is set to automatically note certain types of movement and shapes: do you know them? Do you know what it won't automatically inform you of? Do you know that the range of motion of your arms is fifteen degrees less than that of a standard hunter rookie model, why, and what that means? Are you aware of the fact that your top speed is significantly less than that of a human and why it can't be raised without ruining your agility?" What agility you have. "Do you know what kinds of weapons will do what damage to you, so you know what threats to react to first? You're going to say that none of that matters compared to fighting spirit, right? And determination. But you'd say that I have no fighting spirit, right? Then how do you explain that I'm still alive? If armor didn't matter, we wouldn't have built you with it. If skill didn't matter, you would have been put on a battleground the day you were turned on instead of told to train. And that's why I'm not going to fight you."

X shook his head sadly. "A spar for fun, where people follow rules, isn't the same thing as training, where people prepare for the worst. Neither of them is anything like a real fight." Now X looked up, met his eyes again. "And neither is what will happen if you don't do your duty and save the lives of your comrades."

Lieutenant glared at him. "From you." From humans, that was General's rhetoric, and they couldn't hear the echo of Sigma in it?

"From the virus!" X wanted to yell, scream, stamp his foot. "Didn't they show you footage, before and after, of how much it changes people? General Sigma was once Dr. Cain's greatest creation, a great hero who fought to save people!" And your General, hiding cowardice between arrogant foolish pride wouldn't have been worthy to lick his boots! "And it turned him into that!" That monster, that parody, that blasphemy. "Any hunter, anyone with any right to call themselves a hero would rather die than become that! Would die to protect people from it, instead of handing over their own friends, your own comrades! Forget your pride! You are throwing away their lives! The lives of people you are responsible for!" Except he hadn't chosen to take that responsibility.

He'd just been built with it.

He just had no idea what any of this meant.

There was no point in screaming at him. He couldn't understand a word.

"Pride isn't something you have just for existing! For being in Repliforce, for following orders! You are an officer! You are a defender of this world! Your pride should be in protecting your people! That should be your honor! And if you can't even do that…" X's voice gave out. He knew this was pointless. This entire thing was pointless. Sigma knew what they would have to do, that was why he wasn't infecting Repliforce now to give them a justification. This entire thing was a charade, a hollow play.

The only part was real was that innocent people were going to die. He should just attack.

He took a deep breath, and began again. One last try. "…then you have no honor. And I'm not going to fight you. Because it will not be a fight. A fight implies that both people have a fighting chance. This will not be a fight. This will be a slaughter. If you keep on this path, if you stand between me and the people I still have a chance to save, then I will have to go through you. We will not fight. I will kill you." To call it a fight would have let this child keep his dignity, but it would have been a bald-faced lie. Just like calling this a war, when it was executing traitors. Like calling the struggle against Sigma a war, when it was the futile effort to contain a plague, to minimize the damage until a cure could be found. "And I don't like killing innocent people. So stand down. Now."

"Or what?" Lieutenant demanded, raising his buster and charging it. It was clear that he was going to start shooting now, talking with buster shots instead of words. Really, hadn't X just explained what the, 'Or what?' was going to be?

He fired, but X was already moving.

Or X was going to use the shot he'd been charging all this time behind the cover of the bust at the side of the door on the chain holding up that showy chandelier Lieutenant was standing right under (proof of an absolute lack of situational awareness), kick the couch (that wasn't even bolted down) into the resulting pile of metal rods and slightly-impaled commander (what was it with Repliforce commanders and showy offices full of antiques?) and dash over while he was still trying to process what had happened.

Kicking the back of his head kept him disoriented while X's buster finished charging again.

When it had, he fired, at that same spot.

Only then did he let himself say, "Goodbye." Because pausing once the fight had begun to say a few words, to make himself feel better by giving Lieutenant that opening, that mockery of a fighting chance?

It would have been wrong.

But what part of this wasn't?

His optics were dry, he noted as he smiled. "Rest in peace." He shouldn't let them get this bad, but at this point, shutting down the flow was the only way to prevent tears from falling. "I hope that you can have your Elysium." The peace Repliforce was so desperate for that they'd tried to flee a struggling world.

He couldn't close Lieutenant's eyes. His head had been blown off.

Zero would have approved, X thought. Of the fight, of the speed. Not of trying to talk him out of it, or the mourning afterwards.

X wondered how Zero would feel, after Colonel. No, Zero wasn't weak. He'd fought Sigma, when Sigma was the one who had rescued Zero. Zero had looked up to him so much, been his protégé as Colonel was now Zero's. It wasn't anything Zero couldn't handle. It wasn't really any different from what he'd already managed to do.

Just like this wasn't any different, really. All of this was killing innocents in order to stem the tide. The fact they weren't infected yet, did it really make any difference? Better a clean death, quick and as painless as possible, than the virus.

And X could try to tell himself that all he liked. He could listen to what Zero said all Zero liked.

He still knew better.

Knew how very wrong this was.

The fact there was no alternative didn't make it any less wrong.

Killing an innocent person who hadn't stood a chance in cold blood.

What word was there for something like that but murder?

Oh, there were technical terms. Like infanticide. Only a few months, so little time to live, who could live with something like that? Except Zero, who didn't let himself think about it, and already considered himself damned for the hunters he'd killed as an irregular. Him, and the others, who were all so very young.

Dr. Cain didn't have either of those luxuries.

This would kill him, X knew. The man who had found him and taken him in had already been dying. The grief? How he'd blame himself for this?

There must also be words for fathers that killed their own children. Yet no words were, no technical term was, terrible enough to describe this.

And he couldn't even stop to mourn, because then Repliforce might escape and even more would die.

This was wrong.

But there was no choice.

He couldn't save Repliforce. It was only a matter of how they would die. He couldn't even save his own second in command, or his own unit from that second in command.

The only thing… more terrible than this…

But Zero wouldn't promise to kill X, if X ever became a maverick, and X knew as soon as Zero hung up that he shouldn't have asked. Not when Zero was returning from fighting Sigma, from fighting him and once again failing to kill him. Failing to free him.

What made it worse was that people wanted to congratulate him. Saying he was a hero for murdering innocent children…

This was wrong. So very wrong.

Sometimes he envied them, really, for not being able to see that. For not knowing anything but this.

Sometimes it made him want to…