This part of the Area 00 was eerily quiet.

Megaman X had entered by stealth and moved cautiously for a time, but had given it up. There was no opposition. It was uncanny.

Maverick strongholds weren't supposed to be this quiet.

Had they sortied all their robots to oppose him earlier? He'd already dispatched the so-called X-hunters, and myriad of their minions. No… they had to have at least one more.

Plus Sigma, if he was up and running yet. There was no way to be sure. X doubted the Mavericks would have struck if their god-hero wasn't close to rebirth.

The corridor he was walking on dead-ended into a door; but even as X began to turn away, the door opened. X sighed. It was so storybook, so obviously staged. He hated these theatrics. War was bad enough without someone orchestrating it for his own amusement.

On the other hand, given X's assessment of the place's architecture, this was the most likely location for Sigma's rebirth lab. There was nothing for it. X walked through the door. Predictably, it slammed shut behind him. Loud, blunt noises issued from the door as it was secured in place.

X gasped.

Sigma stood across an open space. No… not Sigma. A hologram. X was able to spot the projector easily. But the sight of his nemesis was not what made X react. It was the figure standing next to him.

Red and white armor with gold highlights. What looked like long blond hair but was actually a set of sophisticated sensor elements. An overall build similar to X's own, but noticeably different.

"Well, Mega Man, look who I found wandering around!" said the hologram. Sigma's projected face was sneering at him, but X paid it no mind. His eyes were locked on Zero.

Zero… who had died in combat, saving X in the process.

Zero… the Maverick Hunter par excellence. Reassembled by his enemies, their tool, their great defender now. The aegis they desired to ward X off.

"My friend here has a small problem with you," said Sigma. "It seems you let him die, and he's not too happy about it. I think it's time he returns the favor!"

There was no point in shouting at Sigma that that's not what had happened, that there was nothing X could have done… it was just another mind game, another layer of deception. Alone of the Mavericks, Sigma seemed to appreciate the value of mind games. Knowing that helped steel X against their impact.

But that white-and-red figure across the room was no lie, no deceit. It was X's partner, resurrected and vengeful.

It's come to this.

The hologram disappeared, leaving Zero and X alone in the arena.

Did you forget, Sigma? Did you think I wouldn't be able to do this? You know that I think of Zero as a brother, that I owe him my life. Is that why you wanted him as your pawn? To paralyze me? You forget. I have a conscience. But I can act against it. I have that power.

That's what you wanted me for, once, when you tempted me with power and position. The power to decide my own destiny. Now I turn that power back against you. To stop your many crimes… I will commit one.

Zero said nothing. Apparently the Mavericks had thought his personality wasn't worth giving expression to. They were using him as a guardian and little more.

X sighed. Zero was stronger, faster, had better armor and more modern weapons. He was bigger, heavier, and had more reach. His reflexes were flawless, his acceleration right at metal's tolerance. His targeting was uncannily precise. He carried two beam sabers on his back. To use them, all he had to do was reach up next to his head, then swing down in a lethal blow. X had seen the sabers penetrate the reinforced armor of Vile's juggernaut suit.

Zero was a better robot in every category.

X would not enjoy killing him.

His advantage: close range. I have nothing to match the power of those sabers, so he'll try to close. My advantage: medium range. His weapons are better, but I'm more versatile and it's my style of fighting. Control the range, control the battle.

Zero darted forward, every stride devouring the distance between the erstwhile allies. Even watching and waiting for it, X still had trouble keeping up with the burst of acceleration. He swapped to magnet mines for starters. He fired a spread onto the floor where Zero was headed.

Zero diverted, turning impossibly tight. X anticipated it. Wheel Blades tore across the floor by the side of the mines, right where Zero was headed. Zero leapt over them. Perfect! X knew where Zero would land. He shot a Sonic Slicer at the spot—the heaviest Maverick weapon he carried.

Zero backhanded the projectile away.

"I am first amongst the Maverick Hunters," said Zero. "None of their weapons will work on me. You should know that."

X nodded. He'd expected it, but it was still an unpleasant finding. It was X-Buster or bust from here on out.

Zero waited no longer. He dashed forward again, but this time his starting point was much closer. No time to counter-fire, no time to—

Zero swung down with a saber. It was a blow intended to slice right through X's chest armor, into the power storage and distribution centers that were his "heart".

It missed by the barest of margins.

X had dodged backwards as quick as he could—barely enough to stay ahead of the saber. Zero attacked again, this time with a lateral sweep. X leapt up and backwards, flipping to the wall. His toes touched against the wall as he cleared 270 degrees. X pushed off hard, firing forward parallel to the ground. He went over Zero's head. He continued to rotate; when he was perfectly upside-down, he drew his X-buster in line with Zero's back.

A lesser Maverick would have been destroyed instantly. But before the shot landed, Zero had both arms in front of him. Pressed together, his forearms covered his head, neck, chest. X's shot dissipated against the armor there.

X rolled to his feet, extended his arm again, fired again. Too soon for Zero to dodge; he was forced to block again. That shot, too, had no effect.

X fired again, and again, and again, trying to keep Zero pinned in place, looking for any opening.

He realized too late that Zero was charging his own weapons.

Immediately after one of X's shots landed, Zero extended both arms. The charged shots from the Zero Busters overwhelmed everything in their path.

X landed ungracefully on his side, narrowly avoiding the ravenous energy. No! Zero was closing now, while X was vulnerable. X fired a couple of shots, which Zero evaded casually. He closed in, preparing for the lethal swing. Desperate, X fired a Magnet Mine from his right arm as he fired a Buster shot from his left.

The two shots collided, detonating the mine. Zero was thrown back by the explosion, but without noticeable damage. X did not come away so clean. Nothing he couldn't survive, but not something he could afford to repeat.

The two began firing at each other at medium range. Dodge, shoot, shoot, dodge—neither able to get a clean shot in, firing enough to keep the other on the move, each dashing between shots to make accuracy—on both sides—impossible. Their busters grew hot with the exchange; their legs screamed as they were pushed to their limits.

This can't last. I can't beat him like this. The longer this stalemate drags on, the more Zero's advantages will tell. But if I can influence the direction Zero dodges… encourage him to go *that* way…

Zero made another move to his right, but as his plant foot landed, he suddenly jerked it out of the way. X had steered him back to where he'd set the minefield earlier. Zero tumbled to the ground.

X set his feet and fired.

This shot hit home, in the upper left portion of Zero's chest. It was enough to knock Zero onto his back and burn into his armor. X had worked hard for that shot, and now it seemed like it would take many more like it to end the fight.

X charged his capacitors to maximum and let fly, knowing Zero couldn't dodge.

Zero pulled himself up and punched the floor with all his might.

The flooring was made with metal tiles spread over a lattice. Zero's punch made one such tile flip up into an instant shield. The large Buster Shot obliterated the tile, turned it into a million bits of shrapnel, but none would be damaging to the monster that was Zero. And, in that crucial moment of impact, Zero was lost to X's sight.

X dashed to his right again, and good thing, too. Zero was now moving so fast that his saber cleaved the air where X had been half a heartbeat earlier.

Too fast! thought X. I can't win at close range, and I can't escape close range!

X's legs jetted him forward again, but he could not get away. Even as he turned to face Zero, Zero lunged. Both sabers swept out, covering the full 180 degrees. X ducked under it and zipped forward under Zero's arms. He was smaller, so if he could stay inside—but no. Even as X tried to flee, Zero flailed wildly. One of the sabers cut through the back of X's right leg.

X cried out in surprise and "pain", stumbled, fired blindly over his shoulder. Zero too cried out; X heard him dash away. X gathered his leg under him. The damage analysis played out in his head. It wasn't pretty. 50% of the leg's strength was gone. If exerted to its utmost, the leg would probably lose function altogether.

A crippling injury. Self-repair would be able to work around it, but far too slowly.

X found Zero. Zero had backed off. Another blast mark was visible in his armor, this one in the lower right. Too far away from the first hit to matter. It hadn't penetrated the armor. Zero was still at his full, lethal capacity.

He'll try to end it here. Shooting wasn't getting it done. He's wary after getting hit again, that's why he's not rushing immediately. But he'll close, and use the saber.

And I can't stop him.

The thought hung in his mind for a moment as he contemplated Zero. Zero stood close by, watching X carefully, alert. One hand was out in front so his arm armor could shield him. The other rested on the hilt of one of his beam sabers.

I can't stop him. My Maverick weapons aren't enough. Could I get a charged shot in? Maybe… but he'll sacrifice that front arm if he has to. Too much armor… the X-Buster won't beat him, and he'll kill me in return.

Zero has killed an awful lot of Mavericks this way.

The idea came to X suddenly.

But I'm not a Maverick. I'm the greatest of Dr. Light's children.

There is a way.

Zero came.

On he came, maintaining the position of his arms, taut as a bowstring, death his intent.

X sprang forward on the strength of his left leg alone, meeting Zero closer than he'd planned. Zero swung late—too late. X caught Zero's right arm with his own, used his left arm to blast at Zero's hand. The hand blackened as the blast impacted it; he dropped the beam saber.

Zero brought his left hand around to deliver a point-blank Buster shot, but X flung him past him like a square-dancer, pivoting on his right foot. Zero dashed away to avoid another blind shot from X, but X had no such intentions; instead he grabbed the beam saber out of the air.

Once more he sank to his right knee, making sure to nurse it along. Zero doesn't know how hurt I am. That's my only advantage right now. I have to keep him thinking the leg is useless…

"My beam saber won't work for you," said Zero. He flexed his hand, testing its functionality—it looked damaged, but still worked completely well. "They only activate for me."

"I guessed as much," said X. "And you have one left."

Zero could have nodded, but didn't. He simply assumed the same pose as before. This time he began to creep in closer, so that he'd start the charge closer—too close for X to try the same tactic again.

Complete. Ready for use.

X discarded the beam saber and began to charge energy. He even suspended self-repair processes. This would take every watt he could muster.

Step.

Charging.

Step.

Charging.

Step.

Capacitors above rated levels.

Step.

Insulation in danger of breakdown.

Step. And…

Zero lunged, swinging down in a decapitating strike.

X stood suddenly, coming forward on the power of both legs. From both his arms erupted new lights—coherent blades of energy, identical to Zero's beam saber.

X's counterstrike, aimed at Zero's hand, arrived first. The two beams he wielded made an x; as Zero swung down, they cut through his hand at the wrist and fused shut the Zero buster behind it.

The hand fell to the side, and the beam saber blinked out as the grip slackened. X couldn't hesitate for a moment. He drew both beams back and plunged them into Zero's thighs. He drove forward, hoping to finish the attack before his leg gave out. The beam sabers emerged on the far side of Zero's legs. X's momentum pushed Zero backwards, pinned him to the ground.

The left saber flickered out. X rerouted everything he had left to his right arm, needing it for a few more fractions. He withdrew it from Zero's leg. Zero was reaching around with his left arm, angling it to get a shot in. X struck first. He slammed his left forearm into the front of Zero's face, took advantage of the moment of disorientation to impale Zero's shoulder. Zero's arm fell limp, useless, just as the light sword faded.

The room was suddenly silent, aside from the sizzling of cooling metal.

X observed as Zero tried to struggle. No good. The wounds X had inflicted had immobilized Zero's limbs. He eased himself off from atop his enemy. Zero was helpless for now. X began searching his memory banks—he needed to call up Zero's schematics.

"How?" said Zero.

"I'm Megaman X," X responded. "Of all people, you should know."

Zero blinked. "You used the Weapon Copy System to duplicate my beam saber."

"I had no other option," X replied. "The Maverick weapons wouldn't have worked, and my weapons weren't strong enough. I know why your sabers are external, now. Their power requirements are severe. And the output is so high it almost damaged my arms."

There. He turned Zero over, began probing for the correct panels.

"I thought you had to defeat a Maverick to take its weapon," said Zero.

"That's because most Mavericks' weapons are internal," said X. "There's no way to get at them while the Maverick is alive and kicking. Now hold still."

Remarkably, Zero complied. Perhaps he'd determined he could no longer accomplish his mission to destroy X. X opened a panel in his own left leg and removed a few miniaturized tools. Wielding them with superhuman precision, he opened a panel in the rear of Zero's helmet.

Just as Doctor Cain had predicted. The Mavericks hadn't had much time after stealing Zero's control chip. There was no time to reprogram the chip itself, so they had added an external filter, another interface, between the control chip and Zero's neural net. That extra piece allowed the Mavericks to control Zero.

X deftly removed the additional interface and repaired the connectors to the control chip. Zero's eyes blanked when the control chip was disconnected, but came alive and active when all was restored. "Tell me you crushed the X-hunters!" he snarled.

X nodded. "I already did."

"Good," Zero spat. "No one uses my body like that."

"Hold still," X chided. "I have to finish putting you back together."

Zero went stock-still. "You really did a number on me," he said. "My self-repair won't let me move for a while yet. I won't be able to help you against Sigma."

"Don't worry about it," said X. "Just find a way for me to escape this place when it self-destructs, which…" he sighed, "…of course it will. Sigma's very predictable about some things."

"You're not looking too sharp yourself," said Zero.

"I was fighting you, after all."

"But to take on Sigma in this condition…"

"It'll be fine."

Zero paused, hesitant to say what was on his mind. "I never imagined that you would win," he said, sounding embarrassed. "I know your abilities better than anyone. I've fought with you."

"But you've never fought against me," X pointed out.

Zero considered this for a moment. "X," he said slowly, "would you have killed me?"

"Would you have killed me?" X countered.

Zero had no answer, so he let the silence deepen. X remembered something Doctor Cain had told him once. He said that there was no point hating Doctor Wily's robots, because they were programmed to kill; they were little more than animate machinery. Mavericks, though, chose to kill. X looked at Zero and wondered about him. And about himself.

He completed sealing Zero up. "There," he said. "Do you need materials for your self-repair to process?"

Zero shook his head. "Deactivate those mines and I should be able to use them."

"Done." X began to walk towards the hole Zero had punched in the floor.

"X," said Zero.

"Yes?" he replied without looking.

"I'm glad you didn't kill me," said Zero.

"So am I," X replied. He stood for a moment, but neither of them could think of anything more to say.

Rust and verdigris, Sigma, for making me do that. You didn't even want him to kill me. You just wanted me to suffer through the fight. You wanted to tarnish me. It wasn't bad enough for me to kill your Mavericks, you wanted to stain my hands further. You wanted to show we're not so different.

But we are. Even if I had killed Zero, we'd be different. You forced my hand. I've made my share of kills; this is war, after all. I'm not proud of it. I yearn for peace, yearn for a world where Reploids and humans live in harmony. I take no pleasure in this, as you seem to, rust you.

It's not just your dream that's perverse. Your method of chasing your dream is equally perverse.

So I stand by what I said earlier. To stop your many crimes, I will commit one more.

"Excuse me," said X at last. "I have to respond to a message."

"What?"

X raised an arm; fist turned to X-buster. "Sigma sent me a message recently."

"What was it?"

"You."

Zero shivered. "What's your reply?"

X-buster turned back to fist.

"Me."

X dropped into the hole, down into the darkness, alone.


Megaman X, Zero, Sigma, and all other characters and situations in the above story are copyright Capcom. This story copyright Bryon Nightshade, a.k.a. Sam Durbin.