61: Ashes to Ashes

Vengeance stood in one of the doorways of the factory, gazing silently over the wreckage that lay within. The remains of Maelstrom's bike had long since stopped smoking, now blending into the rest of the hulks of metal as if it had been there for as many years as they. He took a step forward. His thirst for revenge was sated.

But he knew he could not stay.

Nor could any of this.

The factory had to go.

He raised his arm cannon, searching for a place to fire -- somewhere that would set the entire thing aflame.

"Vengeance."

He didn't turned, lowering his arm cannon. "What are you doing here?" he asked his sister.

"I followed you."

"I know that," he snapped, turning his head. "But why?" He sounded angry. "You should have stayed with them."

She laughed bitterly. "What for? They would have destroyed me once they were finished with Sigma."

Their eyes met, and Vengeance backed down.

"You know why I'm here," he said, turning back, "I'm going to die."

She folded her arms across her chest, turning her head uncomfortably. "Not if we just leave."

"No."

She looked up at him sharply.

"My . . . purpose," he said, "was to seek -- vengeance -- against those who opposed Mrs. Holcomb."

"They still live," Joon said softly.

"But she does not."

Juniper stared at him, eyes widening with terrible understanding. "You have a free will!" she hissed. "You don't have to die with the death of your purpose!"

"I choose to."

"A fool's choice," she said bitterly.

"The factory must be destroyed. And I will destroy it." He pivoted to face her, suddenly crashing to his knees. "My wounds . . ." he laughed, strained, "are a little more severe than I thought."

She stepped over to help him, but he waved her away, getting to his feet.

"You have to leave," he muttered, voice a savage gasp.

He tumbled forward suddenly, and she caught him. He managed to lift his head up next to her ear, muttering, "Someone . . ." He shuddered in pain. "Someone has to . . . has to tell them -- you have to show them . . . show them that -- we can change."

He stood on his own then, moving toward a power generator. Joon stood staring at him, tears filling her eyes, strangely enough. His vision was similarly obscured when he faced her for the last time. He stood tall and coldly proud. "Go now," he said, strength filling his voice. "It must be done. I must do it." When she still stood there, he snarled, "GO!"

She took a step away from the door, anguish washing over her features. Somehow -- inexplicably, she was unable to abandon him. Your final gift, Diane Holcomb, she thought. I must work with him as one . . . I must love my brother.

He had turned away from her, grimly at work on overloading the generators that ran power to the factory. Unable to do anything else, she began walking slowly down the hall, step measured and steady. Vengeance looked up at her once; she did not see him. He smiled silently. The final switch was pulled, and the last knell of doom had sounded -- for him as well as the factory. He only hoped she could outrun the explosion.


Juniper heard the shattering noise behind her. The factory trembled beneath her every step. A burning heat grew around her, punctuated by an occasional, fiery blast of wind that whipped her hair fast in front of her face. Still she walked slowly. The door outside, her portal to safety, appeared before her, and yet she refused to go any faster.

The heat scorched around her, a sudden blast throwing her forward, almost to the door. Oddly, she felt no pain, almost as if her body welcomed the idea of death. She could not escape. The thought was no threat to her now; she was resigned.

But suddenly, arms were around her waist, dragging her toward the doorway, and a strangely familiar voice was saying to her, "Not yet, please. I just found you -- I can't lose you now!"

Turbulence.

She immediately began to struggle, but they were outside -- cool, gentle breeze -- and he was laying her on the ground. Flurry and Tourian stood near her, Tourian checking her vital signs, Flurry taking her hand comfortingly. "What happened?" she asked, eyes sorrowful, as though she knew.

Juniper gave a low sob. "He -- he told me to leave him." She turned her head to one side, tears spilling down her face. "I . . . left him there."

Turb suddenly shoved the other two out of the way, fiercely protective. "Leave her alone," he said shortly. "I can take care of her."

Tourian and Flurry backed away, walking to where X and Zero stood with Maelstrom and the two scientists, watching the factory burn. Flurry, suddenly insecure, put her arms around her brother's waist, gazing up into his eyes, which turned curiously down to hers. "Would you have left me there, Tourian?" she whispered.

He smiled sadly, reached over to ruffle her hair. "I would have stayed," he said with a faint grin, "or I would have dragged you out by your hair."

She answered with a tiny smile, turning her gaze to Dr. Kreyin.

I honestly don't know, Flurry. With luck, I'll never know.

X cleared his throat suddenly, watching Turbulence helping Juniper to her feet. "We should go," he said. "We can . . . think about what to do now -- later."

Zero nodded in agreement, eyes still locked on the burning factory. The fire didn't appear to be spreading anywhere, so he turned to Maelstrom with a half-hearted grin. "So much for that bike, huh?" he said, "Guess we'll just have to build you a new one."

Maelstrom nodded slowly, not really hearing him, and walked over to his brother, helping him carry the half-conscious Juniper away from the building. Turb looked up at him, blinking in astonishment, then gave an uncertain smile of thanks.

The mech were still in the building, where the robots had left them in their rush, but no one saw fit to go and get them. Flurry and Tourian walked up with the scientists, X and Zero close behind, both curious about the two men who had managed to completely fuddle up their lives . . . simply by creating a couple of robots. Turbulence and Maelstrom walked in the back, made slow by their burden.

"Turbulence," Maelstrom said uncomfortably, "I . . . apologize."

Turb glanced at him. "For what?"

His eyes clouded momentarily. "You know."

Silent for a moment, Turb said, "I understand. There's nothing to apologize for."

Juniper stirred, murmuring something incoherent, and Turbulence caught Maelstrom's gaze. "Promise me you'll help take care of her," he said.

Maelstrom's brown eyes blinked once, not wavering from his brother's blue. "Yes. I will." He glanced at the black-haired beauty who had so stolen Turbulence's heart. "I promise."

Up ahead of them, Flurry fell back behind Tourian and Dr. Kreyin, who were relating to Scott one of their old adventures, almost as if nothing had happened that day. She stepped in between X and Zero, taking one of their arms in each of hers. They glanced at her, startled.

"I wanted to thank you," she said simply. "You've helped us . . . more than we can ever repay."

X stammered for a moment, unable to think of anything to say. Zero gave her a narrow-eyed stare, wondering what she was really up to.

"I'm not up to anything, Zero," she said, as if reading his thoughts. "That's really all I wanted to say -- and I think I speak for everyone." She shrugged, falling silent. Then, "And -- if you wanted to . . . to go your separate way, I think we'd understand."

She made to pull away, but Zero caught her arm, laughing. Smiling in spite of himself, X said, "I wouldn't understand. We've . . . gotten used to you all."

"He's trying to say that we actually like you guys," Zero grinned. "And besides -- we don't know anything about your world." He let go of her, putting his hands back behind his head. "It'd be kinda dumb to just run off without learning anything about it."

Flurry's smile was dazzling, and she suddenly threw her arms around them both. "I'm so glad," she said, barely keeping back tears. "I almost offered to let you go home -- but there isn't any way for us to do that anymore."

X smiled sadly down at her. Home.

But she was gone before they could say anything, she had darted up to Tourian, a smirk on her face. "Pay up, bro," they heard, "I told you they'd stay on."

Zero choked so hard that X suddenly turned to pound him on the back, and Flurry turned in surprise, hand suddenly covering her mouth.

"I'm such a loudmouth," she said, chuckling, and the two Reploids knew that she had meant them to hear every word. Then she turned back to the scientists, linking arms with them.

"She's a complex little person," Zero remarked drily.

X felt no need to comment on that, staring about the empty city almost sadly. "We could have prevented all this," he said.

"How?" Zero asked.

"By staying alive," X answered, shrugging.

Zero paused, glancing at the moody sky above them. "I don't know," he said soberly. "Maybe . . . maybe it just had to happen."

X grinned faintly. "Destiny, Zero?"

Zero grimaced, shaking his long hair silently. "Maybe. Maybe there's something to destiny, after all." He stopped, gazing grimly ahead. "But if it's my destiny to join Sigma, I'll fight it with every inch of my will."

Thus declared, he was silent.

X could find no words to say. The war would go on, he knew, and they would have to be doubly -- or even more -- careful now. Such a small group against such a mighty force. But they had won another battle.

He looked to the sky, to the clouds that hung silently overhead, watching them as they went. It began to rain, a gentle drizzle, washing over them in a pleasant hush.

This life was all he had now. And it was good enough.