By Eric "Erico" Lawson

2012: Story for a Princess

Cossack Memorial Orphanage

Neo Arcadia

February 8th, 2110 C.E.

7:09 P.M.

"Marcus Henderson." The reploid doing bedchecks paused and glanced up from her datapad, sighting the energetic 8 year old scrunched up on the end of his bed. "Here." She nodded, and marked his name off, then swept the room again. "Simon? Yes, you're here too. Good."

The nursemaid tucked her datapad away and nodded to the children with a smile. "Now you all sleep well, okay?"

"Yes, Missus Nova." The boys all echoed back at her. Sighing, the new model reploid smoothed out her pale green smock and exited the room, turning off the lights as she went. Like all reploids in Neo Arcadia, Nova's physical structure was slimmed down and weakened to more human-like levels of ability. That change in philosophy had been a long time in coming; a hundred years ago, humanity had opted to make reploids bigger, faster, stronger, more durable, and more powerful depending on their presumed needs. Apparently one reploid had even been made two stories high, though there was little left of the historical record to support that ridiculous claim. No, reploids of the 22nd Century had been built to a different standard; power over efficiency.

In the 23rd Century, with an ongoing shortage of precious Energen, the lifeblood for almost every piece of machinery and most reploids, efficiency had been forced to the forefront of concern.

Nova moved across the hallway of the orphanage's second floor to the quarters for girls 9 years and younger. Unlike the boys' section, this room had only three occupants.

"All right, you three, it's time for…" Nova called out as the door slid open to grant her access. She paused after a quick mental headcount. Sarah was here, as was Keiko, but…

With a sigh, Nova tapped the button on her wrist communicator bracelet to activate it. "Youth Caretaker Nova here. Ciel Seria has disappeared again."

"Neo Arcadia Central Authority speaking. We're running a trace on her RFID tag now."

Nova waited impatiently as the CA watch officer ran his trace. A few seconds later than she expected it to take, the operator responded. "Caretaker Nova, we are not receiving a signal from your missing child."

"What?" Nova frowned. "At all? Well, she couldn't have gotten far."

"Her permanent record shows a remarkable aptitude for understanding and manipulating Neo Arcadia systems. Don't worry, we'll find her, even if…"

"This is X. Central Authority, stand down from your alert. I'll find her."

"I…" Both Nova and the operator from CA were stunned at the intrusion over their comm line. To have the hero of the Maverick Wars and the founder of Neo Arcadia suddenly take a personal interest in anything but the larger issues he usually was faced with was unusual. Still, he was the ultimate authority in the idyllic enclosed metropolis, and one didn't go questioning the orders of a living legend.

"Confirmed, Master X. We leave it in your hands."

"Very well." The oldest robot on the planet replied, chuckling. "Don't worry, Nova. I'll get her back to you."

"Yes, Master X." The caretaker reploid stammered. "I…I know you will. But how will you find her? Her RFID signal is offline!"

"I have a pretty good idea where she might have gone." X answered cryptically, and the connection dropped out.

Nova lowered her wrist communicator away from her head and glanced at the two giggling girls left in the room. "All right, you two. That's enough for one night. Get into bed."

"Oooh, Ciel's gonna be in so much trouble…" Sarah singsonged, pulling on the sleeve of her pajama top.

"Oh, like the trouble you two will be in if you don't listen to your Nanny Nova?" The caretaker reploid demanded.

Sarah and Keiko slid under the covers faster than Nova had ever thought possible.

Most of the world lay in ruins. A century of fighting, which was more like two centuries after all had been said and done, had exacted its horrible toll. The oceans were polluted, the earth was barren and desolate, and most places seemed more like a graveyard than the world of humanity.

The damage was not yet irreversible: Eurasia could have hit harder than it did, certainly, and the battle that had followed that unfortunate, desperate, gambit had been muted until the last gasp of Sigma and his Maverick followers. Damage had been done, though. It would be generations before the earth looked as Mega Man X remembered it, back when the world was green and full of life. Now, even Treeborgs struggled to stay alive.

At least in Neo Arcadia, a city build on top of the ruins of New Tokyo, life went on. Here, there was power, utilities, parks and gardens. Protected by Mega Man X and his followers, humanity and reploidkind were sustained. Here, they finally co-existed with a degree of success no other settlement had had in a century's time. Nowhere was that miracle clearer than in Falcon Park, a smaller Treeborg laden spot of tranquility on the city's west end.

A young girl in a pink shirt, pink pants, and pink shoes to match sat beside an old man. A bag of birdseed rested between them, and they took turns throwing out handfuls to the pigeons that wandered in front of their park bench.

"Yes, the world has certainly changed, little miss." The old man sighed. He pulled on his white beard, then adjusted his auditory pickups. This was possible because he was not human, but reploid.

"For good? Or bad?" The young blond-haired girl asked innocently.

Her friend chuckled. "I think you meant to say for better or worse, Ciel."

"Oh." She wrinkled her nose up as she considered the new words. "So…better or worse?"

"A little of both, I'd suspect." He answered humorously. "There's still that scuffle with the Dark Elf going on, but I've heard Master X and his three guardians will end it soon enough. It's quieter these days, compared to when I was younger."

"I thought reploids didn't get old."

"Oh, we all get older, little Ciel." He hummed. "It's just not everyone wishes to show their age like I do."


"Well, I…that is, erm…" The old reploid scratched at his chin thoughtfully, and was spared an awkward answer when a rustling in the trees overhead caught his attention. A green armored and winged reploid crashed through the foliage and landed gracefully in a three point stance. The pigeons scattered at the disturbance, and the newcomer rose to his feet.

"Ah, perfect timing, Mr. Halperia." The old reploid clapped his hands together.

Coolly, the green reploid glanced back at him. "My name is Harpuia, Andrew. You know that."

"Oh, yes, yes." Andrew sighed, touching his forehead. "My mistake."

Harpuia's expression softened as his gaze settled on Ciel. "Ciel, have you been listening to Andrew's tall tales again?"

"Nuh-uh." Ciel replied indignantly. "They're true!"

Harpuia sighed impatiently and tapped a recessed button on the side of his helmet. "Harpuia to X. I've found her. Localize on my signal."

The little girl pouted. "Am I in trouble?"

"Yes." The duelist of the skies said curtly.

"Oh, no she isn't, Harpy." A chiding and distinctly feminine voice offered in reply. Out of the shadows strolled a voluptuous reploid woman in dark blue and turquoise highlights. She smirked at him, resting one arm across her other, which had the intended side effect of accentuating her bosom.

Harpuia scowled. "I've told you to stop calling me that, Leviathan."

"Oh, you're so cute when you pretend to be angry." She went on, winking at Ciel. "He likes to think he's the boss of us, but he's just a big softie, Mistress Ceria."

Harpuia drew his face in close to hers and glared. "Shut. Up."

Leviathan smiled, craned her neck slightly, and kissed his cheek. The winged Guardian recoiled, wide-eyed. "What the Hell was that?"

A blue beam of warplight crashed behind Harpuia as he swore, and the leader of Neo Arcadia himself, Mega Man X, appeared. Like most reploids, he had undergone a retrofit. His new body was slimmer than his former battle-hardened armor, though he maintained the same height. As a mark of his office, he dressed in a long blue smock that resembled a laboratory coat. Only his helmet remained unchanged, as much an emblem now as it was in an older, more hopeful age. "Watch your language, Harpuia. We do not swear in front of children."

"My apologies, Master X. Leviathan…she kissed me." Harpuia sheepishly explained.

Amused, X looked to Andrew and Ciel. "Is this true?"

"Yup!" Ciel chirped. "On his face!"

"As your second in command, Master, I demand to know what disciplinary action you intend to follow!" Harpuia hotly shouted.

X scratched just under the rim of his helmet. "Well, I could tell you two to get married if you're going to go around kissing each other."

Harpuia blanched as Leviathan laughed. "Surely you're not serious."

"Don't call me Shirley." X replied. "And no, Harpuia, I'm not. You're serious enough for two people. You need to lighten up." He looked to Leviathan. "And you could stand to turn down the charm every now and then."

Harpuia shrugged, easing off his hackles a little. "I will take your advice under consideration. For now, I must return to my previous rendezvous with Fefnir."

"Fefnir?" Leviathan put a finger to her lips and angled her waist. "Where is that firecracker, anyhow?"

"Helping Hyleg to seal one of the Baby Elves away. Fefnir has reported anomalous readings he wishes me to investigate."

"The Dark Elf?" X questioned.

"Perhaps." Harpuia nodded. "If the lead pans out, I will call in reinforcements." In a flash, Harpuia launched himself into the sky and flew off.

Andrew chuckled, tapping his walking stick on the ground. "You young people. Always rushing this way and that."

X turned to the old-looking reploid, and he smiled. "Hello, Andrew. How've you been?"

"Oh, I can't complain too much, Mr. Mega Man X." Andrew said back cheerfully. "I'm still alive, after all. Thanks to you."

"And you get to fraternize with Ciel, which you always enjoy."

"Immensely so. Not every person likes to hear me prattle on about the past. I'm surprised you don't do it more often, X."

"Never felt the need to." X mused. He glanced to Leviathan. "Levy, could you make sure Andrew gets home safely? I'll take care of Ciel."

"As you command, Master." Leviathan stepped over to Andrew and helped him up. "Come on, old man. Let's get you back into bed."

"Bed already?" Andrew rambled on. "My how the young women are forward these days. Still, if you were looking for someone experienced, you're with the right man."

"Oh, brother. Were you always this much of a pickup artist?"

"Actually, my dear, I was a baker…"

Leviathan and old Andrew disappeared into the night, leaving X alone with the young girl.

"I like Andrew. He's silly." Ciel smiled.

"So do I." X agreed softly. "Tell me, Ciel, how is it the police couldn't find you?"

Guiltily, Ciel looked down.

"Ciel." X repeated. "How?"

"I made my headband sing different." She mutedly answered.

X blinked at her admission. "You reprogrammed the RFID tag in your headband?" Though he tried to sound disapproving, his amazement at the young girl's technical skill rang out clearly. "How…I mean, why did you do that?"

"I wann't to see Andrew." She looked up at X. "Are you mad at me?"

"No, I'm not angry." He reassured her. "But I was worried. You left the orphanage, nobody knew where you were."

"I don't like it there. Wanna stay with you." She pouted. "You're my daddy."

X ruffled her hair good-naturedly. "Ciel, I'm not human. I can't be your father, remember?"

"You love me?" She asked, demonstrating remarkable logical thought.

X sighed. "I take care of you, don't I?"

"That's what daddies do, X." Ciel insisted. "Don't take me back to the orph'nage. Please?"

Still not sold on the idea, but too soft-hearted to deny the innocent request, X stepped back from the bench and held out his hand. "Fine. But just for tonight. Tomorrow, we'll see what happens."

Grinning in victory, Ciel hopped down and took X's hand, letting the legendary hero lead her out of the park. "Can I have ice cream?"


"Can I watch a movie?"


"Can I…"

"Ciel." X sighed, and she let the matter drop.

"Sorry, X."

"Just what am I going to do with you, girl?"

"I dunno. Pancakes?"

The founder of Neo Arcadia laughed again. "Maybe tomorrow morning."

The Guardians had often remarked to each other how strange their master's habitation preferences were. His private quarters had an energen restoration bed to normalize his microfusion tank's power levels, but more often than not, he forewent it in favor of a plush mattress in the corner of his room. It was strange for reploids to imitate a human's sleeping habits, and Harpuia was especially doubtful of X's claim that many reploids preferred it a century ago. Still, X had never shown any deleterious effects from the tradition, and his age still commanded more respect than concern.

Outside of the bed, X also kept a hardlinked workstation that let him overlook Neo Arcadia, and a fishbowl made out of a turtle shell. He seemed to smile whenever he looked at the goldfish circling around in it, though he'd never shared the joke with anyone. Now it was the 4 year old Ciel Seria which was being put to bed underneath the warm blankets.

"Did you brush your teeth?" X asked her quietly.

"Yes." She fidgeted under the covers.

"Did you comb your hair?"

"Yes." She said, exasperated.

"Good." X leaned back and sat on a small chair beside the bed. "Now, I'll tell you one bedtime story."


"One." X refused her, raising a finger to silence the argument. "A good one."

"Mmph, fine."

"How about Snow White and…"

"You did that one!" Ciel blurted out.

X blinked. "Oh. Well, then. How about Cinderel…"




X put a hand to his forehead and sighed. "All right, which one would you like to hear?"

"Tell me one about you, X."

"About me?" He repeated, amused.

"Yeah! When you saved the world!"

"Oh, that's boring stuff." He dismissed the notion casually. "You wouldn't want to hear it."

"Uh-huh! I would, too!" The young girl insisted.

"Hm." X thought for a moment. "Well, I don't exactly like to talk about myself." He paused, and before he had time to consider the decision, he blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "Would you settle for a story about someone else?"

"Who?" Ciel asked suspiciously. She sat up and crossed her arms.

A subtle shift overtook X as he argued with himself. Should he carry through on his first thought, or deflect it, bury it, where the past belonged? The shadow of darkness a century old loomed out from his face. X wobbled back and forth in his chair, caught up in the currents of his memories. It took a solid measure of concentration to pull himself out of it, and it was the firm weight pressed against his thigh that served as the catalyst. He decided.

"I am going to show you something." X told Ciel, his tone guarded. "And you must promise me that you will tell no one of it."

As all children did when an adult expressed high importance and great secrecy, the wide-eyed girl nodded slowly. Satisfied, X reached inside of his blue longcoat and reached for a metallic object magnetically clamped to his leg. Though he hadn't removed it for years, it detached easily. He pulled it from underneath his robes and displayed it to Ciel: a silver-white cylinder with a recessed grip, which he wrapped his hand around reverently.

"This was the weapon that belonged to the most powerful Maverick Hunter that ever lived."

Hesitantly, Ciel stretched a hand out to it, pausing to look at X for reassurance. The venerable leader smiled and opened his hand so she could get at it. "It's all right, you can touch it. It has no power cell in it now."

Ciel picked it up, frowning at the simple looking device. "Is it a…a beem saver, like Harpuia has?"

"I think you meant beam saber. And no, Ciel. This one is special. It was called the Z-Saber."


"Because it belonged to a ro…to a reploid whose name started with Z. His name was Zero, Ciel. And he was my very best friend."

Caught up in the smell of his storytelling, Ciel eagerly handed the Z-Saber back to him, as though possessing it might jog X's memory.

"Zero was…a born fighter. While I took to it with reluctance, he never doubted. He never hesitated. When he saw an enemy, he cut it down. His name commanded respect among all the Maverick Hunters. The whisper of it brought the fear of oblivion to the Mavericks we fought against. But there was more to him than a warrior's spirit. He had a spirit of mercy in him as well…and he could be as gentle to the people we were trying to save as he was merciless to our enemies."

X rolled the beam saber between his hands, reassured by its weight. "Come to think of it, there was one mission where that was exceptionally true." Mega Man X smiled and closed his eyes. "The year was 2127. Eighty years, ago, Ciel. There was a tremendous crisis happening in a place that no longer exists. A place called Dopplertown…"

September 17th, 2127

Southwest Cambodia, Dopplertown

Madrigal Homes District

One didn't expect to see snow at this latitude, but buildings that had never felt the touch of it before were now plastered with the white and sticky powder. Feet of it was piled up in places, and snowdrifts ran even deeper. Structural fatigue was starting to become an issue in some buildings, and parts of the highway system through it was collapsed. Cyclones of snow and ice swirled angrily upwards from around the district, blending into depressing gray clouds and descending with equal fury.

Two beams of warplight, one red and one blue, burst through the clouds and slammed to the ground. Snow kicked up away from the impact in all directions. When the beams reformed, Mega Man X and Zero Omega stood at the landing site, resplendent after a rush patch job from their medical officer, Hazil.

Zero reached up to his helmet and activated his transceiver. "We've arrived at Point Alpha."

"Roger that, Commander Zero. Good hunting." Chirped the on-call radio operator at the MHHQ, hundreds of kilometers distant.

X lifted his right arm up and summoned his Buster. The bulb quickly and seamlessly took the place of his forearm, and he nodded to Zero. "All right, I'm ready."

"Hell, when aren't you?" The Crimson Hunter joked. "Frankly, I don't understand why you need me here. We still have to secure the airfield, before they ship out any more weapons."

"Because, Zero, locating and rescuing civilian hostages takes precedence, and this sector had the heaviest concentration of civilians."

"According to Dr. Doppler's last released census, and you'll forgive me if I don't take that Maverick bastard's word for it." Zero complained.

"Well, we know one thing for sure. The Maverick in charge here calls himself Blizzard Buffalo, and he's responsible for the climate change." X pulled up a small holographic emitter, displaying the cumbersome reploid's image.

Zero squinted at it. "They didn't build him for looks. What did he do here before things went to heck?"

X checked the Maverick's records and cringed. "Of course. He was an ice sculptor."

Zero slapped himself in the forehead. "I hate goddamn artists. One bad day and they decide to blow up the world. All right, how do you want to handle this?"

X did a double take and glanced to his friend. "Don't I usually ask you that?"

Zero gave his head a shake and summoned his own Buster, larger and more powerful than X's Mark 17. "X, at this point, we're equals. I think you've got enough authority and experience to make the decisions. You're in command of the 17th Unit, for Chrissakes, so command."

X smiled thinly. "Fair enough. All right. I'm going to follow the region's jammer signal. If Doppler and his commanders are following the usual playbook, Blizzard Buffalo should be sitting right on top of the thing."

"Decent plan. So what am I doing?"

"Search and rescue."

"Hang on a second." Zero protested. "How come you get the fun job?"

"Are you arguing with your orders, soldier?"

Zero sighed and conceded the point. "Nice to see you've grown a pair."

"These dickholes played us all for fools and nearly wiped out our base." X growled. "I want to draw blood."

"Then get to it, Commander X." Zero saluted, mindful of the rage his friend was feeling. "I'll see if I can dig up any survivors."

X nodded, and was about to run off into the storm when Zero stopped him. "And X?"


"Call me…if you need backup. These guys are playing hardball."

X nodded again. "I'll remember that." He dashed off before Zero could interrupt again.

On his own, with a whiteout swirling around him, Zero Omega braced his systems with an additional jolt of circulatory antifreeze. One of the benefits of being a reploid, he incorrectly told himself.

"Now where the Hell do I go first?"

Even the GDC's spy satellites proved useless in the search; a jamming beam being produced by the airfield cut off any electronic intercepts, and worse, the aftereffect blinded their thermal sensors. Zero was left with the maddeningly slow method of venturing into one structure after another and using the tried and true method of calling out for survivors and then getting blindsided by patrolling mechaniloids. He kept his Buster and beam saber fully charged after the second ambush, which allowed him to neutralize threats quickly. Hazil would have to replace his plasma capacitors sooner than the medical reploid would like, but the old fellow's grumpiness was the least of his worries.

"Let's just see what's behind door number seven." Zero said to himself. Removing his beam saber from his backpack recharge port, he unleashed an overpowered wave attack through the heavy garage doors of another residential building. The roiling green plasma caused the door to buckle on its hinges and the one-two punch of his double Buster shot finished the job, smashing it open.

With snow blowing in behind him, Zero stepped through the opening and walked down into the darkness. His beam saber cast a faint luminescence, and being careful not to stare directly at the weapon, Zero used the makeshift torch to guide his way.

"All right, Mavericks. If you're going to start shooting at me, now's the time." He called out warily. Only his echo and then dead silence came back at him. Zero paused a moment longer, then made a run through the space…a parking garage, by the look of it. There were plenty of personal hovercars and one minibus that bore the markings of the Dopplertown public transportation fleet. In comparison to other buildings he'd gone through, this one seemed untouched by the ravages of conflict.

"I guess nobody's home." Ready to call it a bust, Zero started to turn for his self-made exit. The sound of an old-fashioned latch clicking shut stopped him in his tracks. He whirled towards the sound and sighted a metal door on the side of the garage. A quick burst of dash thrusters and a kick with all his inertia broke it apart, and Zero found himself at the bottom of a stairwell.

A loud click overhead made him raise his Buster, and the Crimson Hunter found himself in a standoff with a lone reploid in soft green body armor. Male and humanoid, albeit one without a helmet. The weapon in his hand got Zero's attention: A magpistol. It was relatively new technology, and deadly at close range. The reploid knew what he was doing with it, too; held away from his body by both hands, his arms were braced in a shooter's posture. If Zero could guess, the weapon's electromagnetic acceleration barrel was pointed right at his forehead.

Zero kept his Buster pointed up, but uncharged. "Hey there." The reploid, his black hair trimmed short, offered a single short nod in reply. "Are you a Maverick?" Zero asked innocently.

The reploid didn't move. "Are you?"

"Hardly. I'm with the Maverick Hunters." Zero's eyes adjusted a bit more, giving him a better look at the fellow. The color scheme reminded him of that MSWAT officer in New York, but this one was taller, lankier. Not a brawler by any stretch of the imagination. "Who are you?"

"I was a painter." The gunman responded evenly. "What's your name?"

"Zero. Commander of Special Unit 0, Maverick Hunters."

"Yeah, I've heard of you." The reploid finally started to lower his gun, and Zero mirrored the stand-down, dismissing his Buster. "So what are you doing here?"

"Looking for survivors." Zero said. "Have you seen anyone else?"

"Yeah." The reploid nodded his head up the stairwell. "I've gotten everyone I could find up on the fourth floor, away from the windows. We're just hunkered down, waiting for this storm to blow over."

"Hate to say it, Bob, but this snow is going to be a problem for a while."

"Bob?" Zero's counterpart questioned.

"You didn't give me your name. I just picked one that was easy to remember. And you kinda look like a Bob."

'Bob' grunted. "Fine. Well, come on then. Let's show you who you're trying to save."

Up the stairs and through another doorway, Zero's new friend Bob led the way. In a minute's time, the Crimson Hunter was looking at a pitiful assembly of humans and reploids huddled in blankets and doing everything in their power to keep warm. A headcount revealed thirty altogether.

"This is everyone I could find, Mr. Hunter." Bob said coolly.

"Could there be more?"

"Doubtful." The green reploid said gravely. "The Maverick sentries were…very thorough." The huddled survivors looked up at Zero, searching his face for some signal of hope.

"Don't worry, we'll get you out of here. I'm with the Maverick Hunters." Zero reassured them.

"That's doubtful." Bob dampened the mood. "None of us reploids have warp generators, and the only vehicle big enough to get us out of here doesn't have any energen left in its fuel cells."

"That minibus down in the garage?" Zero asked. Bob gave him a nod, and Zero pursed his lips. "All that means is we have to get a fresh one. Anyone know where we could find a spare?"

"The central bus depot would have a couple." A patchwork reploid offered. "But it's three kilometers away, deep in Maverick territory."

Zero brought up his holomap of the region on his armband and walked over to the survivor. "Show it to me." The reploid indicated the depot on the map, and Zero logged the location. "Thank you. Don't worry, we'll have you all clear of Dopplertown real soon."

"Please hurry." A middle-aged woman begged him. "We're freezing, and we don't dare use any power to start up the heaters."

Zero knew why they took that precaution; any watchful Maverick keeping an eye on the Dopplertown power grid would instantly know where to find them. He gave the civilians one more salute and went to the stairs again.

Bob stayed on the path with him, looking displeased. "You must be crazy. You plan to traverse three kilometers of hostile ground, infiltrate a facility that is by now heavily guarded, and come back alive while lugging a bus-sized fuel cell? Alone?"

"Hey, I do this kind of thing every day." Zero retorted, stepping into the darkness of the garage. He went to the minibus and noted the battery model, then veered for his self-made entrance. "And besides, Bob, I'm not doing this alone. You're coming with me."

Bob blinked. "Pardon?"

"You heard me."

"That doesn't mean I agreed with you."

"I saw how you held that magpistol." Zero told him, stepping outside into the blizzard. It had slowed a bit: One or two of the storm generators must have been shut down. "Something tells me you're more of a fighter than you care to admit."

"I told you, I'm an artist. Paintings and the like."

"If you say so." Zero squinted his eyes and stared out into the distance.

"Just what are you doing now?"

"Looking for our ride."

"We've been cut off from help for a full day. Where do you think a 'ride' is going to come from?"

Zero ignored the question and readied his Buster. He fired off a single small plasmaburst that vanished into the distance, then ignited his beam saber. "Three, two, one…" He countered down slowly. As he did, a faint thrum grew louder, shifting into the roar of an engine that masked the howling wind.

Finally bursting through the clouds of snow, a Maverick Snow Rider patroller on his Snow Slider snowmobile aimed the nose of his machine at Zero for a ramming attack. Effortlessly, Zero sidestepped the blow and swung his saber in a horizontal slice.

The Rider's head flew one direction, and its body and the snowmobile went another, crashing into a snowbank.

Bob irritably stepped around Zero and headed to the snowmobile, pulling it out of the drift. "You could warn me when you're doing to do a stunt like that."

"Ah, sure." Zero smirked and stowed his saber, then righted the vehicle and removed the corpse. "Watch out the next time I light my saber. It means somebody's going to die." He hopped into the driver's seat of the snowmobile and glanced up. "You coming?"

Bob shook his head, but climbed on behind Zero. Together, civilian and Hunter rode into the storm.

Even though the blizzard had died down somewhat, visibility was still poor. Squinting over Zero's shoulder, Bob could only see seven meters out. At the speeds they were going, that meant the Crimson Hunter would only have a fraction of a second to react if something suddenly appeared out of the gloom.

If Zero was concerned about that, he didn't show it. His hair whipped back behind him, and only by keeping a hand up to block that tied golden mane did Bob keep that limited perception. "Did you ever think about switching to a regular helmet?" He shouted at the back of Zero's head. Zero turned around slightly and grinned.

"And ruin my perm? Not hardly!" The Crimson Hunter lifted his left arm up and brought up his map of the region. "We're about 200 meters from the depot." He slowed the snowmobile to a leisurely 50 kph and made a hard right turn, bouncing them off of an iced-over snowdrift. Finally, the large central transportation hub of Dopplertown loomed out of the darkness, a silent behemoth that stretched out to the sides farther than they could see, and stood three stories tall. A row of shutters, plastered by the snow, blocked the entrance to the bus yard and service bays.

Zero stopped the snowmobile at the first shutter and he and Bob got off to examine it. Bob ran a hand over a nearby access panel and cringed. "This place has power, but they've rewritten the access codes."

Zero held his arms down at his sides and started to glow, charging. "Not a problem." Amazed, Bob watched as the aura around Zero went from blue, to yellow, to purple, and finally, an ominous eldritch green. Zero stepped up next to the blocked door, raised up his left arm, and fired. Almost immediately after his first Buster supershot hit, his right hand matched it. A vicious overpowered slice of his beam saber annihilated the weakened metal, and the shutter collapsed. Zero stepped through the hole he'd made and glanced back to Bob. "You coming?"

"Now I see why you never bother looking for a key." Bob remarked, joining him. "How come you don't do that move more often?"

"It takes me seven seconds to charge that attack up." Zero said. "How often do you think I have seven seconds to spare?"

Inside the building, they found the power was still on, and a handful of sentry mechaniloids were slowly coming towards them. Zero brandished his saber again and gestured with the blade. "Case in point. Do you know what you're looking for, Bob?"

"Yes." The other reploid said suspiciously. "Why?"

"Because I'm going to have my hands full cleaning this mess up. Get going."

Taking the hint, Bob ran away from Zero, then kicked his boots up and ignited the dash thrusters. Zero snorted and looked towards his own challenge. "Just an artist. My ass, Bob."

The nearest aerial sentry dove down on him, and Zero lifted up his Buster and fired. The snap shot impacted on its port wing and sheared it off, sending the drone tumbling to the ground in a wild spin. The rest came at Zero en masse, forcing the Crimson Hunter to backpedal. Charging his Buster and wincing as a few lucky shots smashed into his back, Zero set his sights on a tall, deactivated bus.

It would have to do.

"Come on you bastards, keep up!" Zero snarled. They did so, though likely not because of his remark. Dash-jumping at the last, just as his charge aura went purple, Zero bounced off of the bus, backflipped over his pursuers, and landed behind the mad rush.

Stowing his beam saber, Zero fired a Buster doubleshot and annihilated the entire response team. The blasts went on to leave a sizable smoking crater in the bus he'd used as a staging point.

Silence overtook the garage, and Zero nodded approvingly. "That takes care of the Mavericks."

The sound of a single metallic footstep caused Zero to spin around, and he locked stared with a normal-sized, but well-armored Maverick, clad in gold.

"Not quite." His Maverick counterpart remarked, pulling off a reinforced tower shield from his back.

Zero drew his saber and ignited it again. "Seven seconds takes too damn long." He said to himself.

Maverick and Maverick Hunter circled around each other, sizing up their opponent. Outside of his shield, Zero could also make out the curved hilt of a specialized beam saber, and the construction of his hands and wrist gauntlets made possible glowing orange plasmic discharges that he hurled at Zero to keep the Crimson Hunter off-balance. Zero replied with quick low-level shots of plasma, but the tower shield his opponent wielded blocked them effortlessly.

"So who in the devil are you supposed to be?" Zero demanded.

The gold Maverick smirked. "Pisses you off not knowing, doesn't it? Your dossier on the rebellion here a little blank? But I know all about you, Mr. Hunter. Zero, Commander of the Hunter's elite death squad. At least, up until our surprise attack gutted your base. Combat capabilities include a double Buster system and a beam saber capable of overcharging. No air-dash, though."

"Haven't needed one yet." Zero snipped back. "So what do I call you? Goldbug?"

"Call me Bit." The Maverick bowed slightly being sure to keep the wily Zero in his line of sight. "Technically, I'm not even supposed to be here, but two separate trails of destruction in an area does get our attention."

"Really?" Zero mused. "Sounds like payback's a bitch."

"I wouldn't swagger so much if I were you." Bit snapped. "No doubt, you expect Mega Man X to defeat this sector's Maverick general. I'm sorry to say that he will lose. The age of peace Doppler's so-called vaccine was responsible for has made you Hunters soft! You have forgotten how difficult it is to fight an infected Maverick."

"It doesn't matter to me if a dog is rabid or just plain mean." Zero twirled his saber around, then threw it up into the air and fired a surprise supershot he'd been charging at low power, which masked the sound and the telltale glow.

Bit reacted quickly, ducking behind his shield. The reinforced, plasmaburst resistant surface blunted the attack, scattering tendrils of supercharged gas around and off to the sides. Zero used the momentary distraction to weave in close with a roar of his dash boots, green beam saber raised high for the killing stroke.

"Shit!" Bit leapt backwards, and Zero's saber dug into the ground he'd been standing on, gouging out a massive crater.

Zero rose to his feet, a hard stare on his suddenly stony face. "Rabid or mean, Bit, it's all the same to me. I'll put you down either way."

"Just try it." Bit hissed, drawing out his saber. It glowed a soft purple as it came to life, curved so far back it went beyond a scimitar's tilt. The Maverick leapt into the air and dashed at Zero's head, saber and shield angled to prevent any counterattack. Zero made the attempt anyhow, running at Bit and then sliding underneath the soaring skirmisher. He lashed up with his saber as they passed each other, but the glancing blow only nicked the surface of the irritating tower shield.

Bit landed far away: He'd used quite a lot of boost in his attack. The Maverick turned around and repeated the move again, going low enough that Zero would be gutted if he tried to slide again. Smiling, Zero dashed along the ground to build up speed and then jumped into the air. To Bit's astonishment, he then jumped again, as though he were standing on a platform instead of thin air. His second jump easily cleared Bit's charge, and the Maverick howled as Zero's saber cut into his back, punishing him.

Again they came to rest with space between them. Lurching slightly from his wound, Bit stared at Zero. "How did you do that? A double jump? Nobody can do that!"

"Hey, a man has to have some secrets." Zero lazily swung his saber in front of him, as though he were loosening up before a game. "Care to throw in the towel, Maverick? It'll only get worse from here."

"Never!" Bit came at Zero again, running along the ground.

Zero sighed and drew back his arm. As Bit came in for another charge, Zero let the weapon draw in particulate matter at an accelerated rate. By disabling the safety limiter, he forced his Z-Buster to overcharge. All the power that would have normally been confined to both arms was instead shunted through one, and when Bit was within ten feet, with the air around him screaming for mercy after being drained, Zero fired.

The blast wave engulfed Bit and overwhelmed his golden tower shield. The Maverick screamed as he was flung backwards like a rag doll in a hurricane, and the reinforced wall of metal he had relied on was warped and then snapped in two.

A now smoking and charred Bit slammed into the side of another bus and slumped heavily to the ground. The two halves of his shield impacted the craft on both sides of his head.

Grunting in pain, Bit lurched up to one knee and hurled a globe of plasmic energy towards Zero, keeping the Crimson Hunter from dashing in for the killing blow. Zero tumbled clear of the homing orange energy bolt and raised his Buster. The weapon embedded in his arm was more bark than bite: His last shot had redlined his plasma capacitors and left microscopic fractures in the ruby quartz focusing rod. He couldn't manage more than a level 2 shot, the so-called "Green sizzler."

"What kind of demon are you?" Bit wheezed.

"The kind that gives Mavericks like you nightmares." Zero said, advancing on him. He fired off a low grade plasma bullet, striking Bit in the shoulder. "I died once. I got better." A second shot went into Bit's knee, slagging the armor over the joint. Bit howled, and Zero blasted him dead center in the chest. "I've been stabbed, blown up, mutilated, shot at, stomped on, and none of that has slowed me down. I keep coming no matter what, Bit." Zero stopped when he stood over Bit, his saber pointed at the Maverick's neck. "I never quit."

Bit smiled, and Zero spasmed and felt his body go rigid. Mustering up control of his eyes, he glanced down and saw a ring of paralyzing energy squeezing his torso. "Well, that makes two of us."

"Cheating…bastard." Zero grunted.

"Against the great and terrible Zero, how else should one fight?" Bit hummed. He drew out his purple saber and ignited the blade. "I was told that restraining you was an effective strategy. Nice to see that he isn't completely insane. It must really chafe your hide, having this happen to you a second time. And this time, there's no Mega Man X to save you!"

Bit raised his saber for the killing stroke, only to have the weapon shot out of his hand by a lightning quick bullet. The noise of the shot came a fraction of a second later.

"What the…!" Bit snarled. It was all he mustered before Zero broke free of the confinement field and slashed up with his own sword. He left a thick gash across the Maverick's chest, and Bit screamed. "Damn you, Zero! You'll pay for your insult! You all will!" He disappeared in a beam of warplight, off to lick his wounds.

With the threat ended, Zero stowed his saber and looked behind him into the shadows. "You can come out now, Bob."

The reploid accomplice stepped into the light, a curl of smoke rising from his magpistol.

"Good timing there." Zero complimented him.

"You didn't need my help." Bob argued. "You could have broken out of that field anytime you felt like it."

Zero's respect for the deadeye marksman grew at the shrewd observation. "True. You beat me to the punch by a quarter second. It worked out, though." He gestured at Bob. "Did you find the power cell we needed?"

"Yeah. It's loaded up in the snowmobile already. And the blizzard's started to die down. Looks like the other storm generators were taken offline."

"That's X for you." Zero smiled. "No style, but he gets results. Come on, Bob. Let's go. We've got a busload of civilians to get clear of this mess."

With the visibility restored, Zero and his helper made it back to the survivors in record time. A quick battery swap was all it took to get the bus ready, and with Bob doing the ushering, the Dopplertown civilians were soon loaded up.

The bud idled outside the ruined building as Zero and his green-armored friend shook hands. "Thank you. They really thought that there was no hope left." Bob started.

"It's why we're here. Protect the innocent, neutralize the Mavericks." Zero shrugged off the praise. "Just drive straight east. Once you cross the border and are out of Dopplertown territory, GDC search and rescue will be standing by with air support to get you to a refugee site."

"That's good to hear." Bob exhaled. "But something tells me I won't be painting for a long time."

"Now that you've stepped into a pair of old shoes, you mean." Zero inferred. "What were you before? GDC? A sniper in some military?"

Bob hesitated. "If I told you, they'd find me and drag me back for disciplinary action."

"Maybe." Zero conceded. "But if you joined the Hunters, I'd personally guarantee any desertion charges you're facing would be stopped."

"Are you really that hard up for Maverick Hunters?" Bob raised an eyebrow.

"We're starved for them." Zero chuckled. "It doesn't change the fact I'd love to have you on my squad."

"I'm really more of a solo artist." Bob said. "But I'll think about it. Right now, I have to get these people out of here."

"If you change your mind, just get to New Tokyo." Zero crossed his arms. "One thing, though. You never told me your name. What do I call you?"

'Bob' thought about it for a moment. "Call me Guernica."

"Guernica?" Zero echoed. "Is that your real name?"

"It's my name now."

"What does it mean?"

"It's from an old painting. Look it up; you'll find it ironic."

Zero nodded. "All right. Take care of yourself, Guernica."

"You too, Zero. You've got one Hell of a mess here to deal with."

"Don't I know it." Zero grumbled. Guernica gave him one last nod and headed for the bus. The door closed a few seconds after he got aboard, and the transport rumbled and drove off on the ice-covered road.

Zero straightened up a bit and watched the bus disappear. He waited until the rumble of its driveshaft faded, and then spoke. "Hey, X."

Behind him, footsteps that had failed to be silent gave up the ruse entirely, plodding to stand beside him. Mega Man X sighed. "How did you know I was there?"

"That's my little secret." Zero chuckled. "How was Blizzard Buffalo?"

"Big, slow, and heavily armored."

"In other words, an easy kill."

"Oh yeah." X said, before he caught himself. "If any kill is easy, I mean. And my dad left another one of his upgrades for me to find."

Zero finally looked to his partner and blinked, sighting the red and white boots. "Really? You went shoe shopping at a time like this?"

"Shut up, Zero." X retorted. "How did the search and rescue go?"

Zero motioned ahead. "That bus contains all the survivors in this region. The GDC is set for escort duty. But I bumped into a pretty tough nut of a Maverick named Bit."

"Bit?" X thought for a moment. "I don't think there's anything in our files about him."

"I guess Doppler's been busy. Bit escaped, but you should be okay if he runs into you. I destroyed his shield."

"He had an energy shield?" X asked.

"No. A metal shield."

X rubbed at his eyes. "Of course. So what's next?"

Zero brought up his holographic map of Dopplertown. "You should have a look at the mining operation in District Beta. There may be survivors. As for me, I'm going to recon the warehouse district before I head back to base for repairs."

"So, we're back to you giving the orders again. And you? Repairs? Did this Bit character get the jump on you?"

"No, I overdid it. I can't overcharge for a saber throw anymore. Hazil's got to do a quick refit before I'll be at the top of my game."

"Heavens. You oughta give up this overcharge mechanic of yours and just focus on your swordsmanship alone, you know that?" X pointed out.

"Not this Uprising." Zero scoffed.

"You know, Zero, you could always give me your saber and take a break." X suggested innocently.

"You can have this saber when I'm dead. Er, again." Zero quickly retorted.

X waved off the remark. "It's yours. And you're not going to die on me, Zero. Not again."

"So, I don't die easy, and you won't let me." Zero Omega smirked. "I guess that's why we make such a good team."

"For as long as we're needed, Zero." X agreed quietly. "For as long as it takes."

Master X's Quarters

Neo Arcadia Core

February 8th, 2210 C.E.

8:24 P.M.

X was still for a moment, feeling the shadows of the past vanish back into the night. Once more, he found himself in the small and weary body of his current incarnation, sitting vigil as Ciel grew tired and sleepy. He squeezed the handle of the Z-Saber one last time, and then tucked it back away under his blue robe. "Our first mission was the easiest. After that, it only got harder, and there were times we fought tooth and nail. Zero never gave up. It was his unwavering strength that gave me the courage to press on…and it was he who saved me from Sigma at the last."

Weary, but enraptured by the story, Ciel looked at X hungry for more. "What happened to Zero?"

X closed his eyes. "I told you that Zero had died before. I lost him a second time, but it was all right. He deserved a rest."

"He's not dead?"

"No." X exhaled. "He's sleeping. He's been sleeping for a long time, because he was tired. The last thing he said to me was that if I needed him…he would come. And Zero always kept his promises."

"Do you need him now?"

"No." X smiled sadly. "No, not right now."

Ciel snuggled deeper into the blankets and yawned again. "X, if I needed him, would he wake up?"

"If you absolutely needed him, Ciel, yes." X leaned down and kissed the young girl's forehead. "If you could find him, if you were in danger, he would save you. I'm sure of it."

Ciel smiled with a child's innocent happiness. "Good." She closed her eyes and turned over. "Night, X."

"Good night, Ciel. Sweet dreams." X got up and left the bedroom, closing the door behind him.

He went into the living room and was about to sit down when his communicator chimed. He pulled it out of his pocket and thumbed it on; it was on a Guardian frequency. Fairy Leviathan was calling. "Yes, Levy?"

"You busy?"

"Not anymore."

His front door slid open with a quiet hiss of hydraulics, and Leviathan stepped into X's quarters with an impish smile. "Good." She said, tapping the communicator on her helmet off.

X sighed and stowed his own comm unit. "I wish you'd stop hacking my security passcodes, Leviathan."

"Oh, come on. Can't a girl have a little fun?" She pouted, flopping down on the couch opposite of X's large comfy chair.

"Sure, as long as it doesn't involve a felony." X sat down with more care than his subordinate and breathed out. "Any word from Harpuia yet?"

"No. But it's still early." Leviathan reminded him. "What will you do if we ever do find the Dark Elf?"

"You leave that to me." X said, looking past her to the wall. The strange, resigned lilt in his voice unsettled her slightly, but she didn't force it.

"So, how's Ciel?"

"Asleep, finally." X folded his hands together. "She's quite a bundle of energy. Talented, too. I think when she gets older, she'll really be something special."

"What story did you tell her tonight? Sleeping beauty?"

Stunned at the remarkable guess, and unwilling to part with the truth, X settled for a halfhearted chuckle. "Something like that. She liked it. You know, she said that she thinks of me as her father?"

Leviathan pointed an accusing finger at him. "Considering the hand you had in her birth, that's not far off. Why is it you became so obsessed with breeding superior humans?"

"My own father was obsessed with creating superior robots for the good of humanity." X reminded her. "I suppose…I'm just taking a page from his book, in my waning years. I'm tired of fighting, Fairy." The weariness in his eyes strengthened that statement. "I won't be around forever, as much as everyone would like to hope so. When I do go, it will just be you Guardians and her. Promise me you'll look after Ciel for me."

Leviathan pursed her lips, and X looked up pleadingly. "Please. Promise me." He repeated.

She sighed and caved in, nodding. "All right. I will. Have you asked the others that as well?"

"Just Harpuia. But I have a feeling you'll do a better job of it than he will."

"Oh, arguably." She said in a stuffy tone, putting a hand to her chest and lifting her head up. "That wind-blown fuddy duddy is just too serious most days."

"Because he has to be." X laughed at her comical posture. The humor didn't last long, though. She lowered her hand down and stared sympathetically at the founder of Neo Arcadia.

"Why did you give Ciel that particular appearance when you were programming her genetic markers, X?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"Yes, you do." Leviathan saw through his bluff. "Why?"

"Does it matter?" X asked tonelessly. Leviathan almost said yes, but she thought better of it. She knew the answer, just from what he had said already. X was tired, and there was no one left from his old life as a Maverick Hunter.

Ciel was the daughter he'd never had…a reminder of the love he had lost. And forcing him to admit it might well break him.

Leviathan stood up and gave her head a shake. "Never mind. Good night, Master X. We'll take care of things."

"You always do." X agreed quietly. Leviathan strolled past him, and let her hand rest on his shoulder for a moment before she faded away, as quietly as she'd come. The front door closed and locked behind her, leaving Mega Man X alone with his memories and his shadows.

He went into stasis, enduring another dreamless sleep. And in the bedroom, the little girl he cared for, the princess of Neo Arcadia, dreamed of her knight in shining red armor.