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Somewhere on this earth, children laugh and play in the sunshine and toxic waste.

Somewhere out there, a doggy is chasing his little tail...right into traffic.

Beneath this great big sky, an idiot is burning himself with a nice warm cup of McDonald's watered - down coffee.

But none of those happy things are happening here...because it's Auntie Draco's story time!! Huzzah!

Yes, I know we just recently gathered to hear the heartwarming tale of Zero Tolerance. But this 'ere's a new tale! It's fresh! It's 100% Uh - Huh! It's the PREQUEL to ZT! Yee haa! So break out the apple juice (yes, apple juice; when I served you children ale last time, yer parents gave me hell), and listen as I spin my yarn....(Hey! I see you sneaking out! Get back in here! Suffer and perish like a good little child.)

Somewhere on this planet of monkeys and apes, a sleek black and yellow robot wanders, looking for blood. His eyes mean death. His hands could choke you like a chicken. And he has a funky cool helmet. He's an infamous bugger who goes by the name of Bass. Of course, many of you know him deep down inside yourselves. It's an icky, bloody place, somewhere close to your bowels. That's where you know him.

You may be thinking..."Who is this 'Bass'? What does he want? And whatever happened to Pez candy?"

Heh..I assure you, my little hatchlings, that there are logical answers to these questions. Bass is indeed Wily's robot, and he plays an integral role in the creation of....Oops, there I go again, blowing the plot in an intro. So, little uns, buckle your seatbelts, man the lifeboats and pray to your God. Because this is where I take you far away on a journey where we will come to the shocking realization that.....

BASS IS NOT A FISH

a prequel to Zero Tolerance by: Red Draco the Maverick Huntress

Chapter One:

Interview with the Vampire

The wind wailed like a tormented banshee as it wove eerily between the black branches of the skeletal trees. Joining in on the terrible sound, a family of wolves, silhouetted against the huge platinum disc of the moon, raised their noses and howled. Not too far off was the far deeper, more awful howl of a werewolf. Bats twittered and flitted about on the cool night air.

"What a nice day," Bass thought to himself as he took all this in. "It's the kind of day that makes life worth living."

Bass heard heavy, bestial breathing not too far behind him. He was being pursued. Bass, however, did not turn around to challenge his new shadow. He didn't have the time to stop if he was to meet Shade Man that night. It was Gospel's fault; the dratted dog had insisted on bounding from dead tree to tree to smell all the new scents. (We interrupt this story to bring you an important message: I call 'Treble' by his Japanese name; 'Gospel'. Why? Because I gotta!)

Now the metallic canine loped obediently beside his master. When he became aware of the fact that they were being followed, he whined and growled fiercely; however, he still kept up the brisk pace that Bass was setting.

Suddenly, a huge human/lupine form leapt at Bass from behind. Its eyes were lit like green lamps, and its maw of razor edged teeth was aimed right for the back of the black robot's neck.

Not even bothering to turn around, Bass simply pointed his charged cannon behind him and fired the blast. The lycanthrope yelped like a puppy, and collapsed to the ground in a heap of smoking brown fur.

"Now where was I...? Oh yeah. What a nice day..."

Bass noted with a great deal of satisfaction that he was very close to his destination...Shade Man's cathedral. Bass passed through the crumbling stone arch that marked the final stretch to the robotic vampire's hideout. Here, several ravens perched like black spirits. Seeing movement below him, the lead raven unfolded his wings and screeched at Bass. Bass merely turned around and waved at the huge bird.

"Hey Flagg! Kick - butt weather we're having, eh? Do me a favour and don't try to peck my eyes out today, 'kay? I haven't the time." Bass resumed his trot towards the cathedral.

At the entrance to the old church, Bass stopped to admire the two stone dragons that 'guarded' the place. They were forever perched, one on each side of the giant wooden double doors, on huge blocks of stone. Their petrified heads were craned back towards the sky. Their mouths were wide open, screaming a silent warning to anyone who dared to pass them. Their stiff batlike wings were furled, as if they were testing the wind. Bass gave one of the dragon statues a little pat on the neck as he brought his fist down on the cathedral's door. His summons were answered quickly by a small green and grey robot knight that moved about on one wheel.

"Welcome to the abode of the Damned." The knight rasped. "Do you have an appointment?"

"To hell with the appointments! I'm Bass!" The sleek robot snarled.

The knight threw open the door all the way, and bowed his head. "Lord Bass! I'm sorry..the light was bad, and I didn't recognize you. It's truly a pleasure to have you with us...I am honoured to..."

"That's nice, but I really don't care. I just want to see Shade."

The robot knight bowed over and over again. "I shall summon master Shade. Please, come in and make yourself at home."

Bass allowed himself to be lead into a shabby foyer. There was nothing much to look at. Just the same old decaying stone that the rest of Shade's murky territory seemed to be made of. The knight wheeled over to the door that lead to the rest of the cathedral and Shade Man's chamber. Here the knight was presented with a small problem; he had to open the door using a doorknob, but he didn't have any hands. Just two lances at the end of his arms. The knight frowned as he fumbled with the doorknob over and over again.

"Oh dear..."

Bass smirked. "Here, let me help ya." Bass opened the door quite easily. The knight gave his superior a look of gratitude as he wheeled off to search for Shade Man.

Bass leaned against one of the walls and drummed out a little beat on it with his fingers while he went over his plans for the twentieth time. He was feeling very happy with himself; surely his plot would work. Bass seated himself on the dirty stone floor. Gospel came up to him and wordlessly nudged his head between Bass' body and arm, asking for his ears to be rubbed.

Bass looked at the canine sternly. "Stop that. You're supposed to be a fierce attack dog! Sit down."

Gospel cocked his head at Bass and panted.

"Sit!"

Gospel wagged his tail.

"SIT!"

Gospel yawned.

"C'mon...sit! Pretty please?"

Gospel rolled over to have his tummy scratched.

Bass sighed and slumped against the wall again. While Gospel could probably rip out the throat of an elephant, there were also times when he could act like an idiotic puppy. That always drove Bass nuts.

Bass' mental griping was interrupted by the sound of leathery wings creaking above him. Bass glanced up in alarm, and sure enough, there was Shade Man wheeling above him and coming in for a landing. Bass quickly scrambled to his feet to properly meet the vampire. Shade and Bass were very good friends.

"Hey, Shade!"

Shade Man grinned. His fangs gleamed horribly in the moonlight that filtered through the small windows in the foyer. "Good evening Bass," Shade said as he performed his custom little bow. "nice to have you with us today. Did Flagg give you any troubles on your way to see me?"

"Nah, Flagg's a good bird. Usually. So what's new?"

"Oh, nothing's new." Shade said with a shrug of leathery wings. He absently pet Gospel who had come up to greet the vampire. "Seducing women, biting necks, midnight snacks...the usual schlepps that come with commanding an Unholy Army of the Night. Never mind me, how have you been? How's Doc Wily?"

Bass' face fell. " The Doc's not that good, I'm afraid."

"Really?"

"Yeah. This seventh Robot Rebellion is going pretty well for him...the robots he had put into hibernation in case of his capture had activated and broken him out of jail, just like he had planned. Now he has you, Slash Man, Spring Man and Turbo Man working in addition to those four. Yet, he just doesn't seem to...well, care! He had always been so eager during a robot rebellion. But it looks like he's lost his passion for the game. His attempts at attacking Mega Man seem pretty feeble."

Shade Man frowned. "Ah. That's too bad. Perhaps it is his age?"

Bass shrugged. "I'm sure I don't know. You know how humans are always going through mood swings. But I have a plan that might cheer him up. I'll need a bit of your help, though."

Shade Man considered this. "Tell me your plan first."

Bass nodded. Fair enough. "As it stands, Mega Man doesn't know I'm a bad boy. He thinks I'm fighting Wily, like him. I'm sure he suspects deep down that I'm not a good fellow, but he's not doing anything about it. Sooo....I'm gonna pretend I'm hurt. Mega Man will spot me, and, being the compassionate idiot that he is, offer to teleport me to Light's stinking lab for repairs. I'll accept, and when I'm there, I'll find something of value to steal. Maybe some plans for an upgrade, or something. I don't know. Just a little nick - knack that might make the Doc more cheerful. What do you think?"

Shade grinned again. "I like, I like. What do you want me to do?"

"Oh, that's easy. Shoot me."

Shade raised a questioning eyebrow. "Shoot you?"

"Yeah. Just give me a small shot on my shoulder."

"All right. You're da boss." Shade agreed reluctantly. He raised his arm cannon and released a small plasma charge at Bass' shoulder blade. The shot couldn't have made a kindergarten student stagger. But Bass reeled dramatically, holding his shoulder which was bleeding very slightly.

"Oh! You nasty old robot! How dare you? Mega Man's gonna get you for that one!"

Both the evil bots shared a laugh.

"Well, I'm off to meet Mega Man!" Bass said, once he had calmed down. "Thanks, Shade."

"Not a problem. By the way...."

"Yeah?"

"How do you know where to meet Mega Man?"

"Oh. I know for a fact that he's on his way to meet you." Bass said airily. "I had a bit of a rough time trying to keep ahead of him."

Shade's normally bleached face went paler still. "What?"

"Thanks a million Shade! Byes!" Bass said briskly, as he teleported out of Shade's foyer in a shiny black beam.

A few minutes later, Bass kneeled by the dark steps of Shade Man's cathedral, trying his level best to look like he was mortally wounded. Gospel ran in circles around his master, worried that the sleek robot might really be hurt. Gospel was fierce and loyal, but his IQ was that of stale bread.

"Beat it, Gospel." Bass hissed at his companion through clenched teeth. Gospel paid no heed as he lay by Bass and whined. Suddenly the purple and silver robodog leapt to his paws and growled at something in the darkness. Bass grinned; he was almost certain that he knew what Gospel was upset at. Sure enough, as he strained to see further in the darkness, he could see a small blue form making its way towards the two.

"Lights, camera, action!" Bass thought to himself.

As soon as he was in striking distance, Gospel launched himself at Mega Man with a tremendous howl.

"Yikes! Down, Lassie!" Bass heard the blue bomber yelp.

"Gospel! Come here!" Bass commanded. The dog reluctantly bounded back to his master's side. Once Gospel was out of the way, Bass could see Mega Man looking down at him with a questioning expression. Bass recited his lines.

"Damn. I got careless." Bass muttered, clutching his shoulder. "Maybe I should give up and leave Wily to you."

Bass' heart gave a wild leap of excitement when Mega answered him.

"No. We're a team. Dr. Light would be glad to fix you up."

Bass bowed his head so that Mega wouldn't be able to see his wry smile.

"Thanks. I'm glad I have a friend like you...."

Chapter Two:

Of Humans And Robots

"It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day to be neighbors..."

"Hey Proto,"

"Yeah?"

"Would you mind shutting up? Your singing leaves much to be desired."

"We - ll....okay. But only 'cause you're my sis."

Protoman and Roll sat on the porch of Light's lab, soaking in a beautiful spring day. Mr. Sun was smiling, birds wheeled and circled in the azure sky, and flowers bloomed (along with some weeds). It was the sort of weather that made one want to jump and turn cartwheels. However, neither of the bots felt like doing this. They preferred to sit and stare off into the distance, hoping for something interesting to happen.

"You know," Protoman said suddenly in a lazy tone, "Mr. Rogers is one messed up individual. He gets undressed in front of little children."

Roll frowned. "I don't think that taking off your shoes in front of a TV camera counts as getting undressed, Proto."

Protoman shrugged his plated shoulders. "Whatever. Shoes or no, Mr. Rogers still scares me."

Although Roll couldn't disagree with that remark, she decided to change the uneasy topic.

"Isn't it a beautiful day?"

Proto took a halfhearted glance at the nature surrounding him, and shrugged again. "I suppose so. It's not that big of a deal to me."

"I'm not surprised, since you can't see any of it with that visor in front of your eyes."

Proto became offended. "Hey. Don't dis the visor. It's my friend."

Roll grinned. "But how can you SEE anything?"

Proto stood up. "I can see just fine!" He said haughtily. He tried to reenter the lab, but was stopped short when he bashed into the doorframe.

"Ouch." He whined.

Roll fought back the urge to say "I told you so". Instead, she tapped Proto on his metallic leg. "Sit down for a sec. I want to talk to you."

Proto frowned. The heat of the sun was causing him to slowly to cook alive in his heavy silver and maroon armour, but he obeyed. Taking his place next to Roll again, he removed his scarf in an effort to cool off a bit.

"What's on your mind?"

Roll's expression became serious. "I just want to know why you don't seem to hang around the lab that much. True, I see you often, but what about Rock? He'd really like to see more of you."

Proto's face darkened like a thundercloud. "Rock's my brother, and he's a good fellah, but to be perfectly honest with you Roll, I don't need to hear his preaching on what a good team we could be if we joined up and fought together. He doesn't seem to respect the fact that I work best when I'm alone. Everytime I meet up with him, he tries to persuade me to work with him. I've told him as nicely as possible to bugger off and let me do things at my own pace, but no matter how many times I repeat this, he always confronts me with the same question; 'When are you going to stop skulking around on your own? Why don't you stay and help me fight Wily'? And good golly miss Molly, it DOES get tiring to hear that over and over again."

Roll nodded a bit sadly. "Maybe I could have a talk with him."

"Don't bother. It probably won't work." Proto said heavily. Then he sighed and said, "I suppose Rock is still off fighting Wily right now?"

"Uh huh." Muttered Roll while she traced some lines in the dirt in front of her with a broken twig. "Man, that guy is getting on my nerves. Rock's, too, I'm sure."

"I don't see why they don't just give that guy the Chair." Proto remarked as he unconsciously wove a noose out of his removed scarf.

Roll nodded in agreement. "I don't see why Rock just doesn't kill him."

Proto stopped fiddling with his scarf. He dropped it in surprise. He dropped his jaw as well. Proto grabbed Roll by her shoulders and shook her wildly.

"Don't ever....ever....EVER SAY THAT!" He hissed frantically.

Roll seemed confused, and with good reason. "Why...? What did I say?"

Proto regained his composure. "Sorry Roll. It's just that...well...I don't want you saying anything that will give Rock any ideas, although killing Wily is a damned good one. I'm scared that Rock might try it one day. Do you understand what problems would arise then? It would make our lives a living hell."

Roll looked at her brother dumbly. "But why?"

"I take it you don't know too much about the Rules of Robotics?"

Roll had to admit that she did not know very much.

"Well, it's a sort of Ten Commandments for robots." Proto educated her. "Except I don't think that there are ten rules of robotics. Still, there are quite a few, and the first one is to be obeyed without fail: 'A robot is never to harm a human being'. Could you imagine what would happen if Rock killed Wily? He'd be deactivated for sure. Like a dog that bites, a robot that kills humans is bound to do it again. And that is a very dangerous thing. Could you think of Rock on a killing spree? You'd need a bloody army to stop the guy!"

"Oh." Roll said. She seemed to be feeling a bit guilty about bringing up the whole topic.

Proto read her mind. "That's all right." He sighed. "It's just something I don't really like to think about. I'm just worried sick that Rock is gonna lose it one day and blast a hole through Wily. A robot is programmed to follow the rules as closely as possible, but you know how humanlike Rock can be at times. His emotions can sometimes get the best of him. I think he'd try taking a shot at Wily. Then he would be killed, and we'd be surrounded by the media...Oy gavalt, I get such a headache just thinking about it!!"

An uneasy silence was the only answer from Roll. Proto shifted uncomfortably.

"Roll..."

"Yeah?"

"If I told you a secret...would you swear to keep it under your hood? I mean, don't even tell it to Rock? I don't want him to start worrying over stupid things."

Roll's mechanical heart skipped a beat. She wondered if her brother was going to reveal himself to be an alien. That would explain an awful lot. "I swear."

"All right. I trust you. Light told me that he's working on some plans for a new robot."

Roll seemed disappointed. "That's not so unusual."

"No, my ignorant little sibling. Not just ANY robot!"

Roll's interest sparked again. "Go on."

Proto looked at her sternly from behind his visor. "If Light's plans translate into actions, we're going to see a robot that is radically different from any bot you and I have ever known. This robot will have tremendous strength..."

"So?" Roll interrupted again. "A strong robot is nothing to write home to mother about."

"Roll, will you be a dear and let me TALK for ten seconds without being stopped? Thank you. Like I was saying, this robot will also possess emotions that are almost identical to those of humans. It will be able to choose its own path in life, as its programming won't restrain it from

doing anything it wants to do. That means that this robot could break the rules of robotics with ease, if he chose to do so."

Roll still did not seem too impressed. "A robot with emotions? Big deal. We have emotions, right?"

"Yes," agreed Protoman, "but our emotions are somewhat primitive. We're still enslaved by our programming quite a bit. What we possess is really nothing compared to what a human can feel. But this mystery 'bot will have the thoughts and feelings of a human. Think of it, Roll. A robot that can love, hate, feel anger, etc. A robot that follows its thoughts and emotions, not its programming."

"I think that sounds wonderful," Roll said as she took all this in.

Protoman got to his feet. "No, it's NOT wonderful." He said in an annoyed tone. "Don't you see the point I'm trying to get across? Would you like me to use sign language? Let me sum this up for you. A robot that can think, feel, and break the laws of robotics is a dangerous thing! What if this robot DOES decide to kill humans. Do you think anyone could stop it? It would be exactly like an angry human that is almost indestructible. It's bad news. I've told Light that he's sowing dragon's teeth with this whole idea. He just laughed and told me to relax, because he has only made the plans for this robot and he hasn't really had any thoughts of carrying out the instructions for some time, if ever." Proto sighed and slumped down again. "I guess he's right. Maybe I should lighten up. I'm just really worried about those plans falling into the wrong hands, i.e. Wily." Proto paused and cocked his head to one side. "'Worry'. THERE'S an emotion we posses! Pretty funky, huh? Maybe we're not so primitive as I originally thought."

Roll smiled and patted her brother on his arm. "There now. There's no reason to worry about phantom robots. We'll see what happens. Just quit living in the future. We have bigger things to worry about in the present."

Proto gazed off into the distance again and frowned suddenly.

"Yeah. And here comes one of those problems."

Roll whisked around to see what Proto was so upset about. She could see a small black and yellow form making staggering towards the duo. A purple and silver four - footed figure trotted alongside the robot.

"Isn't that....?"

"Bass." Proto growled. "And that miserable mutt of his. I really don't trust that guy, and I only put up with him for Light's sake."

"My, you're so trusting. No wonder you have so many friends." Roll teased him. "I personally think that Bass is all right. Besides, it looks like he's hurt or something."

"Well then, you just have a yabba - dabba - do time with Mr. Bass." Proto told her while getting to his feet. He retrieved the precious scarf that he had dropped earlier. "I don't want to even look that guy in the face. I'll see you later, 'kay? If Bass tries anything smart, just kick him in the groin. That always works for me when I have a pesky human reporter chasing me down for an interview. G'bye!"

Proto was engulfed by a red beam, then gone.

Sometime later in Dr. Light's oh - so - famous lab, Bass skipped about as merrily as a drunk dwarf. He had been admitted to the lab and repaired with no problems. That took care of part one of his plan. Now it was time for phase two. Bass tagged at Light's heels, pestering the old scientest just for the fun of it. Suddenly, Bass stopped and tapped Light on the shoulder while pointing to a curious object that lay on a nearby shelf.

"Hey Doc, what's that?"

"Oh, that's my new invention. It's called the Energy Balancer, and it's function is to --"

"'Energy Balancer'? That's a stupid name. What's that?" Bass pointed to another object.

"That's my laser cannon. It's very handy for --"

"Oh never mind. What's that?"

Dr. Light rubbed his eyes with one hand. "Bass, could you please give it a rest for a minute? I never knew that any robot was capable of asking so many stupid questions."

Bass became offended. "Sorry. I can't help it if I'm inquisitive."

Dr. Light clearly felt bad about telling off the robot. "I'm sorry, Bass. It's just that your questions have given me a migraine."

The corners of Bass' mouth twitched ever so slightly. "Gee. Isn't that a shame?" He patted his newly - patched shoulder, where Shade Man had previously shot him. "By the way, thanks for the repairs."

"No thanks needed. It was a simple procedure."

"Well, thanks just the same." Bass suddenly lunged at a table and grabbed a half completed fragile construction that rested upon it. The creation promptly slipped out of his eager grasp, and shattered to bits on the tiled floor.

"Oh well. You can't win 'em all." Bass remarked with a casual shrug. He swept up the debris with his foot and kicked it under a table.

Light involuntarily winced at the sight of his hard work splattered all over the floor.

"No...and sometimes you can't win AT all..."

Bass looked up. "Hm? What was that you said?"

"Nothing."

Before Light could even stop him, Bass sprung towards a storage shelf that rested in the far side of the lab. As quick as a squirrel, Bass hauled himself to the top of the shelf. His eye fell on a thick notebook that resided there. Bass grabbed it and began to flip through it without hesitation.

"Wow!" The sleek bot called down to Light. "Are these plans for upgrades to Mega and Rush? They're the creamiest! You should....aurgh!"

Bass' last word was uttered in surprise as he began to notice that the shelf was falling...with him on it! Bass went 'el splatto' as the structure tipped over with him beneath it. Light hurried over to make sure that the bot was all right.

Bass managed to lift up the fallen shelf and squirm out from under it.

"I'm alright. Really, I am..."

Light frowned. "Bass, it would please me if you kept your paws off of my stuff." He glanced with alarm at the notebook that Bass clutched. "In fact, give me back that book."

Bass grinned hellishly. "I'm sorry Hal. I can't do that." Bass grabbed a table and lifted it above his head with no problem whatsoever. "Here! CATCH!" He bellowed as the heaved the object towards Light. The table hit Light square and true, knocking him over and pinning him down to the floor.

"Bass...WHAT is...going...on?" Light demanded.

In answer, Bass simply extracted a small bomb with one hand, and waved the thick notebook with the other.

"I said I liked your plans for this little upgrade! So I'm ripping them off for Wily! Isn't that nice of me?" Bass swept over the room with a glance. "I just wonder if there's anything else of value to steal..." Bass walked away from Light and over to the back of the lab, where there was a vault, and a small window. "Well lookie here, Pard! A vault! Gee, I wonder what's inside?"

Dr. Light frantically renewed his struggle to get out from under the table. "Get away from there!"

Bass simply tossed the bomb he was holding up and down like a black baseball.

"I like bombs. Don't you? Bomb Man gave me this one for a Christmas gift. I felt sorta bad about receiving it...after all, all I got Bomb Man was a lousy pair of dollar socks. Now, if I were you, I'd get down low to the ground. You don't want any shrapnel in your eye!" Bass hurled the bomb at the safe and dove to the ground in one smooth motion. Sure enough, the bomb exploded on contact. It blew the door off of the safe in addition to blowing up a good quarter section of the lab. Light was not hurt, but he became utterly terrified to see Bass rummage through the safe's contents. Bass eventually pulled out some materials that interested him.

"Well, isn't this interesting!" The black bot remarked as he shuffled through a bunch of papers and computer disks that he had taken out of the safe. "These look like plans of some sort...." Bass took a closer look at the papers. "Plans for...a 'reploid'. Now what in the sam hill is a 'reploid'? Oh well, whatever it is, I'm sure Wily will be interested in it." Bass collected the papers along with the notebook he had snatched earlier.

"Give those plans back to me!" Dr. Light cried desperately.

Bass snickered. "Okay. Let me get this straight. Here in my hand, I have something that is obviously of great value. In fact, it might even help Wily take over the world. And you, my enemy, is laying there as helpless as a kitten. So you want ME to just GIVE you back the plans? As if I'm just gonna walk over to you and say, 'Here you go Dr. Light. I was just kidding'? I REALLY don't think so! Sorry old chap. It's like those horror movies where the heroine is being pursued by a nasty monster, so she goes upstairs and locks the door. Like a locked door is really gonna stop Satan?"

Bass' fun was interrupted by the sound of the lab door crashing open. There stood Mega Man, his mouth sagging open in disbelief. His gaze went from the destroyed lab to Dr. Light pinned under the heavy table to Bass and back to the destroyed lab again.

"Holy Queen Mother! What's been going on here!?" He demanded angrily.

Bass waved at the blue bomber. "Too late, Mega Man! He who hesitates is...oh, screw it. See you around!"

With that, Bass whistled to Gospel who instantly bounded to his master's side. Bass threw himself out the window that was positioned beside the destroyed safe. Unfortunately for the sleek bot, the window was closed, and jumping through the thick glass caused him a wee bit of pain. Light and Mega could hear Bass' rapidly receding voice float back up to them from below.

"OUCH! Damn, that hurt! Don't you idiots ever open your windows? Let some fresh air in! It'll do ya good!"

Chapter Three:

A Secret Fear of Furry Mammals...

As Skull Castle grew larger and larger on the horizon, Bass stopped his brisk pace to take a moment to congratulate himself. Everything had gone peachy. Now all that remained was to take those curious plans he had obtained to Wily. Bass glanced at the papers he held. He was sadly confused about exactly what they were, but they seemed important. However, when he had tried to read them, they were nothing more than jargon to him. It was probably only stuff that Wily could really understand. Bass shrugged and approached the forbidding maw of his master's castle.

"STOP RIGHT THERE, PRETTY BOY!" Two identical voices boomed in unison. Two small look alike figures suddenly jumped in Bass' path. One raised its arm cannon at the sleek bot and fired a shiny, aqua blue beam. Bass yelped and threw himself upon the ground. The beam whizzed over his head and smacked into a rock with an exploding sound, where it ricocheted at a 45 degree angle and smashed one of the upper level windows of Skull Castle. Another shot promptly followed the first one. This one bounced off of a tree and fried a squirrel. Still, Bass cowered in the dust while opening one eye to try to get an idea of who these new threats were. Bass caught a glimpse of the midday sun flashing off of the rough, crystal surface of his attackers' blade - edged armour. The rain of laserfire still flew thick, but none of it touched Bass. Then Bass understood just who he was up against. He hauled himself to his feet.

"CASTOR! POLLUX! STOP IT, YOU BLOODY IDIOTS!" Sure enough, the Gemini Men withheld their fire and trembled in fear as Bass towered over them. Bass' face was one gigantic frown. He didn't appreciate it when people attempted to murder him.

"B...B....Bass...sss....ss...I...didn't know it was....you..." One of the Gemini Men stammered. The other one looked like he wished he could sink into the ground.

The Gemini Men were robotic twins, and, as a result, you couldn't tell one apart from the other if your life depended on it. To try to lessen the massive cases of mistaken identity that came with the twins, they were actually named after the famous twins in the constellation of Gemini. One robot was Castor. His brother was Pollux. To attempt to lessen confusion even further, Wily imposed a strict rule on the twins: They each must wear a name tag at all times. Thus, since then, Castor has sported a large red sticker that read "HELLO, MY NAME IS CASTOR!" on the left side of his breastplate, while Pollux bore a sticker in the same area that screamed, "GOOD DAY, MY NAME IS POLLUX!". Neither of the bots wore their name tags with a great deal of pride. Still, the twins would never disobey Wily, even if the evil scientist ordered them to stick a screwdriver in their eyes. " Bass, I didn't know it was you!" Castor repeated pathetically. "That's why Pollux and I took a shot at you. You can't be too careful when Mega Man is wandering the streets, you know..."

"Who did you think I was? The Easter Bunny?" Bass rumbled. "I take it that you did. In that case, I forgot to bring you some cheap chocolate eggs, but I brought you something MUCH better, Castor..."

With that, Bass drew back his fist and gave Castor the finest uppercut you ever saw. The poor Gemini Man literally flew a good metre before splattering on the grass, where he lay splayed out like roadkill. Pollux quickly dropped to his twin brother's side and desperately tried to get him breathing again. Bass simply stepped over the mess he had created, and walked over to the small intercom system that was positioned outside of the massive main doors of the fortress. Bass skilfully punched in the code on the number panel that would allow him to talk directly to Wily himself.

As Bass had expected, a heavy German voice floated through the intercom's speaker. "Vhat? Who is zere? Go avay. It'z nap time." Bass gave a wry grin. "It's only me, Doc. Bass. So you can knock off that kooky German accent."

There was a small pause from the other end.

"Really?" Bass nodded, although he knew full well that Wily couldn't see his actions from the other end of the 'com. "Yep."

"Oh, that's a relief." Wily sighed. His voice had smoothed out to a typical Joe - Schmoe accent. "It's really a pain when I have to use that German voice. But it seems to be effective when I'm trying to strike fear into the hearts of..."

"Doc, can you let me in already?" Bass interrupted rudely. "I've returned from ransacking Light's lab, and I have a few things that you might wanna see."

"Oh certainly. Just a sec."

"By the way, Doc," Bass remarked suddenly. "I'm afraid I just whupped Castor's pathetic behind again. I think he might need some major repairs."

"Again? This is the third time this month! Bass, you have to learn to tolerate idiots more."

"I try, Doc. Really, I do. "

"Well, at any rate come in." Wily grumbled in a static - drowned voice. The gates to the entrance of the fortress slowly swung open. Before entering , Bass glanced behind him and saw Pollux gawking vacantly at him in fear and awe. Bass decided to have a little more fun. He pointed at the Gemini twin and barked in a commanding voice:

"Gospel! Go kill!" Gospel liked nothing better than this command. He charged at Pollux with his great mouth wide open in a frightful roar. Pollux turned around and fled, screaming for his mother (obviously forgetting in his frenzy that he didn't HAVE one). He wasn't paying attention to where he was going, and as a result, tripped over the motionless body of his brother. Pollux tumbled clumsily to the grass just as Gospel pounced. Since Bass didn't care much for the sight of robotic blood, he turned around and entered the castle. Gospel could let himself in through the doggy - door when he was finished with his sport.

Bass' good cheer began to diminish as he toiled up the winding stone staircase that snaked around the inside of Wily's tower. The tremendous set of stairs led towards the top of the fortress and Wily's chambers. Climbing them was always an adventure, not to mention a pain in the neck.

"Why can't Wily just put in an elevator?" Bass grumbled to no one in particular. "And for that matter, why are his chambers at the top of the bloody castle? Couldn't he put his rooms on the main floor? No, wait...that would make too much sense for a human."

The last stair was ascended, and Bass found himself in the mouth of a long hallway. It was only a bit further now. He started down the passageway, and almost immediately he met Snake Man, who was coming down the hall from the opposite direction. Bass smiled when he saw the reptilian robot. Snake Man was one of Wily's smarter robots, and, as a result, he had Bass' respect and friendship.

"Ah, hello Bass!" Snake hissed. He approached Bass with a graceful sort of slither in his step. "What's up?"

Bass grinned. "The sky."

Snake rolled his slit - like eyes at the black bot. "That's very funny, Bass. I'm dying of laughter. You should write that up and send it to Seinfeld."

"Hey!" Bass cried out suddenly.

Snake looked at Bass in amusement. "Is something the matter?"

Bass' eye fell on Snake Man's neck. There, draped in massive scaly coils, rested a python. It lifted its head and studied Bass with cold, beadlike eyes.

"Cool! A real python!" Bass remarked.

Snake nodded and grinned with pride. "Yes. He's my new pet."

"What's his name?" Bass inquired as he (carefully) pet the triangular head of the python.

"Monty."

Bass chewed over this. "Monty...Python. Sort of has a nice ring to it. Well, I'm off to see the Doc. See you later!" Bass sprinted down the hall.

Dr. Wily, an evil scientist we all know and love was in his main surveillance chamber with his feet up, dully watching a small TV. Behind him stood Smoky the Bear's worst nightmare... Fire Man. Wily usually spent all day in the surveillance chamber, watching the ongoings around the city. But today, he just wasn't in the mood. He stared silently at the television, bathed in its faint glow. Fire Man faithfully waited for any orders that his creator might give him, while wondering what kind of entertainment humans get from staring at images on a small black box.

A sudden, jarring crash of the room's main doors being flung open announced Bass' arrival. Fire Man whipped around in alarm at the discord, but Wily didn't even twitch.

"Have no fear, Bass is here!" Sang the ebony bot.

Wily didn't even turn around. "Bass, how many times have I asked you not to slam doors around?" He droned.

Bass frowned. "Wily, what IS it with you!? Do you want me to bring you some orange juice and prozac? Lighten up!"

Fire Man approached his superior and lowered his voice, which sounded like a cross between a 20 year old furnace and the infamous cartoon pyro, Butthead.

"Uh, Bass...The Doc's like...really...uh, bummed out or something. I wish there was something that could, uh, like, cheer him up. huh huh..." Bass shoved Fire Man to one side. "I have just the thing!" Bass rattled the plans in his hand. "Look, Wily! Lookit what I found! I think you might like this...!"

Wily still stared at the TV like a zombie. "Will I, Bass? That's nice." Bass' rage began to mount. He felt the urge to throw a hyper spaz. "You didn't even LOOK! You don't even CARE!"

"Wow, you know what Bass? You're right! Now leave me alone. Go water the plants."

"TURN AROUND, DAMN YOUR SOUL!" Bass snarled as he stomped over to the television that had captivated Wily. The sleek bot easily grasped the TV and, with one mighty jerk, tore its plug right out of the socket. Bass then drop - kicked the box out the open door of the chamber. Bass could hear a muffled curse as the contraption hit someone outside of the room. Dr. Wily frowned. "Well now, Bass. That wasn't very nice."

"I have nothing to do with nice!" The bot snapped. "You know that, Doc!" Wily smiled weakly as he sunk back into the wings of his overstuffed chair.

"Ah, Bass. My last and greatest creation. I really outdid myself with you. You're so humanlike.."

"Hold IT!" Bass said sharply. "What do you mean 'last' creation...?"

Wily stirred uncomfortably. "I've made a decision, Bass. I'm old, and I'm tired of trying to take over the world when I really haven't gotten anywhere close to doing so for the past six attempts! I'm not creating anymore robots. I just want to live the rest of my years in a little bit of peace." "No! No no no a thousand times NO!" Bass cried in horror while jumping in one spot.

Wily spoke loudly in an effort to be heard over the din that his assistant was creating. "It's finished, Bass! Done! Over! Finito! Now, here's a little secret; Although you don't know it, there is a tiny chip inside of you and all your brothers that will automatically shut you all down almost as soon as I've bought the farm. You'll never reactivate. None of you. Isn't that a comforting thought?"

Bass stood stock still. "But why?" He finally squeaked. " Why do you want to do away with us? Don't you want us to live on and destroy mankind? Huh? Don't you?"

Wily shook his bald head. "No. I've thought it over. Any way you look at it, I've been a bad boy almost all my life. Right from the time I reprogrammed Light's bots when we were partners!" Wily chuckled at the evil memory.

"Yeah. Those were like, uh, the golden times Doc." Fire Man grunted from behind.

"Yes." Wily sighed. "I need some rest from evil. Sort of a change, if you will. Something GOOD to look at when they check out the records of my life at the big computer in the sky. No need to check them, really. We all know where I'M going once I've left this mortal coil."

"Peace?" Bass gasped. "Doc, watch your mouth! Please, look at what I've ripped off for you! It has to do with...fun!"

"Gee, what could be more fun than eternal damnation?"

"Well, not much." Bass admitted. "But put it this way. If you don't turn around right now and look at what I worked hard to obtain for you, I'll just stand right here and pester you until you do."

"Do your worst." Wily challenged his creation in a growl.

Bass pounced on that gladly. "Very well then. Doc, will you look at these sheets?"

"No."

"Doc, will you look at these sheets?"

"No!"

"Doc, will you look at these sheets?"

"No!!"

"Doc, will you look at these sheets?"

"No!!!"

"Doc, will you look at these sheets?"

"NO!!!!"

"Doc, will you..."

"STOP! STOP IT! A human can only take so much, you know!" Bass beamed with triumph. "So, you'll look at what I brought you?" Wily grunted a response as he snatched the papers out of Bass' outstretched hand. "What are these?"

Bass shrugged. "I know that the notebook you're holding has something to do with upgrades to Rush and Mega...but those stray papers...well, I have no idea what they are, but they seem to be very important. Ol' doc Light nearly had a heart attack when I started to handle them..."

Wily's head jerked up. "You took these away in front of Light?"

Bass nodded with a touch of pride. "Yep. He was pinned under a table that I - ahem! - threw at him. I daresay he was pretty helpless."

A tiny hint of a smile crept up to the corners of Wily's mouth. "Well, isn't that nice?" Wily proceeded to study the papers Bass had nicked for him. Bass watched with a great deal of interest as Wily's eyes got larger and larger as he viewed what was before them. The black bot got quite

a start when Wily suddenly jumped out of his overstuffed chair and began to run in small circles around the room with more energy then Bass could ever remember seeing in the scientist in a long, long time. Fire Man became spooked and hid under a table.

"BASS!"

"Whuuut?"

"Do you have ANY idea what these plans are?"

"Ah...no. I honestly have no idea what they are."

"These are Light's best kept secrets!" Wily was now panting with exhaustion. He was forced to stop his mad whirlabout and breathe. "Plans for a robot...with emotions and free will!"

"Is that good?"

Wily regarded Bass with a vexed look on his anchient face. "Is that GOOD?" He echoed in disbelief. "Bass, it's amazing! Think of all the possibilities, the power..."

Bass smiled wryly. Wily seemed to be getting back to his old, scheming self again.

Wily's huge grin twisted to a frown as he looked at the crinkled plans again.

"That idiot, Light, has already come up with a name for this 'creation' of his. Listen to this name, Bass! 'X'. What kind of name is that? I had a hamster named 'X' when I was a boy!"

Bass pretended to be interested in the old human's ramblings. "What happened to him, Doc?"

"Oh, I got bored with X, so I fed him to my pet alligator." Wily said absently.

Bass grinned. "You're a good man, Doc. You have quite a heart."

"Yes. Well, take my advice, Bass. Never get a hamster for a pet. They do nothing but chew paper at every waking moment, then they run on those little exercise wheels all night. The squeaking can drive you mad. I think that's how I got the way I am today."

"Doc, you mean that you blame your unstable mind and violent nature on a harmless little hamster?" Bass inquired.

"Yes." Wily said solemnly. "And it wasn't an 'innocent little hamster'! It was a MEAN hamster! It wanted to kill me! Every night it would plot my death and scurry out of its cage, wielding a butcher knife...it would climb up my bedsheets while I was asleep, and..and..." Wily's voice trailed off and he began to tremble at the disturbing memory.

Bass was used to this sort of thing from Wily. "There now, Doc. The hamster won't bother you anymore."

Wily's voice began to rise in volume as he continued to rave. "The hamster was AGAINST ME! I bet HE was the one who also turned my GOLDFISH against me!

The goldfish tried to DROWN me! DROWN ME, I TELL YA! But I got the best of little furry X, Bass! I fed him to my alligator! SNAP!" - Here Wily mimicked an alligator's snapping jaws using him arms - "No more X! I could sleep at night again...until my German Shepherd found out where my parents kept the revolver..."

Bass rubbed his eyes in frustration. The doc got more and more unstable as the days went on. Would he really be able to build one of these mysterious 'reploids'?

"Doc..."

Wily paused in his raving. "Yes Bass?"

"Are you gonna use those plans or what? Are you gonna create a 'reploid'?" Wily cast his eyes down to the mysterious sheets. "I don't...know if I could, Bass. Remember, I said that I just wanted peace for the next little while. Besides, It would be too difficult for me to do on my own."

"But Doc," Bass pleaded. "I'm sure that Light's gonna build this 'X' character if he hasn't started already. Look deep in your black soul. You don't want 'peace', certainly not in the future. You want death and destruction. Peace is for wusses. You know it and I know it. If you used these plans to your advantage, you could build your own little reploid to wreak havoc and destruction while you're gone. I mean, I'll admit it. Myself and my brothers wouldn't be much match for a robot like this strange 'X' fellow. I could tell by your reactions to those plans. But if you

used these plans to build a 'reploid' of your own to rival this 'X' and to carry on your dirty work...well then...life would be good for future generations!" Bass elbowed Wily in his fragile ribs. "Am I right? Huh? Am I?"

Wily had his chin resting in one hand, a sure sign that the old scientist was thinking. Bass had a chance to topple the balance towards his favour.

"Of course, if you don't WANT to build this advanced robot...I'm sure that Light will be known forever as the scientist who built the most amazing machine in existence, and you'll just be known as Dr. Wily, the wuss scientist who couldn't compare to Light even though he had a chance to do so. Or, maybe you'll just be known as Dr. Wily, the scientist who couldn't win a bloody war to save his life, so he deactivated his miserable robots and just crawled quietly under the table, like the defeated dog he was..."

"That's ENOUGH, Bass!" Wily roared. "I'm ten times the scientist Light is or will be! I'll build your miserable reploid! But you'll have to help me!!"

Bass smirked and removed his helmet with a sweeping mock bow. "Anything you say, mein Wily!"

Chapter 4:

A Bargain with the Black Demon

"Hey! Hey dad!"

24 year - old Alex Wells had just enough time to turn 180 degrees before his young son tackled him affectionately in the stomach, throwing his small arms around his father. Alex beamed at the embrace. "Hey there, Paul. How's it going?"

In response, Paul merely buried his face deeper into his father's stomach. "Okay, I guess. I just wanna know why you always have to go off to work."

Alex chuckled softly as he ruffled his son's scruffy blonde hair, which was very much like his own long, light ponytail that hung nearly all the way down his back like molten gold. "Sorry m'boy, but I have to work a lot."

Paul looked sulky. "Why?"

"Because we need money to buy things."

"Why do we need money to buy things?"

"Because life's a You - Know - What, and then you marry one!" Alex pried his reluctant son off of his midsection. "Tell your ma that I'll be back later tonight."

"I will," Paul muttered, dejected.

Alex gave a satisfied nod, and resumed getting ready for his departure to work for the afternoon.

Unknown to Alex, a sleek, crested robot was perched on a nearby rooftop, gazing at the human with a steady stare, like a vulture watching its heat - parched prey take its last gasp. Bass observed the encounter between the young man and his son, while, in his mind's eye, he recalled the conversation he and ol' Doc Wily had had earlier that day....

"Bass, we have a slight problem with our 'reploid'.

Bass' heart sunk clear down into his armoured boots at the thought that something might be wrong with the plans he had worked so hard to obtain. "What's up, Doc?"

"It's complicated, but I'll give you the gist of it while you think up some more hilarious jokes. A reploid has emotions and thoughts. According to the plans I have, the parts needed to give a reploid those gifts are complicated and extremely hard to find. I certainly don't have them in this lab."

Frustration welled up in Bass. He leaned against the wall beside him and drummed out a little beat on the hard plaster with his fingers. "Well, that IS quite a pickle. If you want me to, I could ransack Light's lab again and try to rip off the parts. After all, if he's building a reploid, and those plans were his, I'm sure he has the accessories need."

Wily shook his head firmly. "No Bass, you said that Rock returned to the lab just as you were leaving. I don't doubt that he'll still be there, and the last thing that I need at this point is to lose you. Besides, I have an alternate plan, and you'll play a crucial part in it."

Bass' interest flared up again. "What's the plan?"

Wily hesitated for a second. "I could probably turn a human into a reploid."

The quizzical expression glued to Bass' face requested more info.

"If I turned a human into a reploid," Wily explained, "It would still have the emotions of a human and the strength of a robot, like any reploid. It wouldn't be totally mechanical like Light's reploid, but it would be my own special breed."

For the first time since he started service to Wily, Bass looked doubtful of his master. "You really think you can change a human into a reploid without killing the fellow?"

Wily looked grim. "I may as well try. Creating my own breed of reploid would certainly be interesting. It would be a reploid that gets its emotions not from mechanics, but from a real human mind. If we DID carry this out, we would transform the human's body into titanium, but leave its mind intact, but it would still be more machine than man. It would be dangerous and painful for the human, but...golly gosh darn it, it would be a challenge! And I'm up for a challenge!"

"'More machine than man...'" Bass echoed. "Cool! Just like Darth Vader!"

"More or less." Wily said to shut him up. "Now Bass, I want you to go out and nab a human. Make it a strong one...the metamorphosis from man to machine will be physically taxing on the human, and we want it to survive. When you do your kidnapping, stick to an area with low traffic. We don't want to attract more attention than needed."

Flustered with the thrill of being permitted to hunt, Bass excitedly prepared to teleport, but Wily stopped him.

"Wait, Bass..." He said. "It's not bloody likely that the human is just going to go with you! Take a dart gun. If the human gives you any sort of a struggle, just shoot him with this, and I guarantee that it'll settle down in a real hurry." Wily held out a small vial of a strange, clear liquid in his gnarled hand.

Bass studied the liquid with interest. "What is this stuff?"

"One of my newer inventions. I call it 'Nullifier..'"

Bass' thoughts came crashing back into the present as he watched the young man below him separate with his son. The bot's eyes glittered hellishly as his powerful mind devised a somewhat diabolical plan. Like a sleek black adder, Bass waited silently above, poised to make his move. He had chosen his victim.

Alex grumbled as he started on the path to his work. It was a fairly nice day, and work wasn't far, but the wind was behind him and it whipped Alex's ponytail over his shoulder as carelessly as a cat's paw torments a mouse. Alex flipped his ponytail back over his shoulder for the twentieth time. "Stay there, damn you." He muttered. As much as Alex took pride in his tremendously long hair, it was beginning to become quite a pain. Some idiots began to comment on his looking like a girl. Perhaps he would cut off the ponytail this weekend...or perhaps not...then again, he had better things to worry about than hair problems...like when the hell he was going to be able to afford a car!?

A sudden, shrill scream from behind tore clean through Alex's mental moping. Alex recognized the owner of the cry right away:

"Paul!"

Alex spun around so quickly that his ponytail lashed him in the shoulder. What he saw made his stomach squirm violently.

There was his son, who had obviously been on his way back to the house, in the fierce clutches of a robot that was clad in ebony armour with gold trimmings. Paul was crying, trying to lunge towards his father, but the robot held him fast by one arm. What really frightened Alex, though,

was the fact that the black demon had a strange looking gun pressed against the back of Paul's shaking head. Alex's throat went totally dry.

Numbly, he followed his protective instinct and started back to his captive boy. Of course, he was not armed, but that didn't matter to him; he did not trust robots. They were becoming far too human, and there was no telling what THIS particular fellow wanted.

A sharklike grin rapidly spread across the robot's face as he watched Alex lurch dumbly towards him. "Hold it, human!" He snarled. "Don't come any further, or you'll see the blood of your pathetic offspring paint the sidewalk."

Alex's bloodshot eyes leapt back up to the gun pressed against his sobbing son's head. He slowed down to a complete stop.

"Attaboy!" The robot cheered as if he were praising a dog. "Don't make any noise either. We want to be as quiet as possible."

"What the hell do you want? Let him go NOW!"

Despite the forbidding tone in Alex's voice, the black robot respond airily. "I don't want to hurt the boy, and I won't on one condition. I want you to come with me for a bit."

Alex's stomach wall became coated with ice and his feet were cemented in place. He was fairly certain that following this devil would mean death in one form or another. "May I ask what for?"

The robot's face lost its expressions of assurance and cunning. It just became one gigantic frown. "Don't give me any hassles! Remember who I've got!" At these words, the robot jostled Paul, who was silent but trembling. The cold, ominous black steel of the gun that was pressed hard against his head was not lowered for a second. Alex would have to go with the robot for the sake of his boy. What options did he have? None. Nada. Zippidy - do - dah. Zero.

"I'll go," Alex grunted. "just leave him alone."

The robot nodded slightly. "Smart move." He threw the shocked bait away from him. Paul stumbled for a few steps then fell on a neighbour's lawn. Alex saw his chance. He rushed the robot, intending to tackle it. Alex was pretty sure that he could overpower this freak with the element of surprise. After all, this robot was smaller than him, but few people were above Alex's bestial height of 6"5. But even while Alex charged at the robot, panic overwhelmed him; he could tell by the robot's amused expression that it had been totally prepared for this unruly behaviour.

Wordlessly, the grinning bot raised the gun and fired it in one fluid motion. A small, streamlined dart leapt from the short muzzle of the gun. Neatly, it sailed at Alex and stuck fast in the human's shoulder, stopping him in mid - charge. Crying out, Alex wheeled around while he pulled

the poisonous object out of his shoulder, but it was too late. He began to feel a warm tingling at the base of his spine. The strange sensation slowly crawled up his back and spread to his limbs. in place of his fear and rage, Alex felt a sort of sleepy calmness creep over him. He found

that his shaking legs could no longer support him as he wilted to the ground like a dead flower. All the frightening images of his son being he hostage by the black demon fled his mind as he lost consciousness.

Bass inwardly grinned as he watched the big human before him sink to the ground, unconscious. So THAT's what Nullifier did! Pretty handy stuff. Bass slung the human's limp body over his shoulder. The human was so tall and Bass was so short that the humans' hands dangled and

actually touched the ground. Regardless of this comical sight, Bass gave a fierce glance up and down the street. To his relief, the street remained deserted. The only spectator present was the human's son, who silently watched in disbelief as his father - the strongest and bravest man in the

world - was slung over some strange robot's shoulders like a sack of grain. Bass tried to harden his heart against the pitiful sight. Maybe he shouldn't have chosen a family man.

"Sorry kid." He mumbled awkwardly, trying to shake the unfamiliar feeling of guilt that gripped him. A black beam shot down from the sky. It swept up Bass, rapidly taking him back to the lab.

"Hey, Castor!!"

"Yeah?"

"Watch what happens when I stick my tongue in this electrical socket!"

"No Pollux, I really don't think you should --"

There was a sharp, crackling sound like bacon frying. With a strangled yelp, Pollux was thrown a good four feet back from the angry socket. As he lay there, with his name tag now charred and smoking, the faint, acrid smell of ozone began to fill the lab. The robots who had been present to watch Pollux's flight now cheered as if the Gemini Man had done something clever.

"All right Pollux, you da man!" Someone laughed.

Bass growled faintly as he watched these childish ongoings. Anyone who ever said that robots were supposed to have intelligence a hundredfold of humans would have gotten a real shock if they had been present at that moment.

Bass felt something paw at his leg. He looked down to see Gospel. The robodog gazed up at his god while wagging his stubby tail. He had not gone with Bass to nab the human, and Gospel did not like to be separated from his master for even a second.

Bass smiled as he kneeled to pet the dog. "Hey Gospel. You missed me, huh? Let me show you something."

Bass led his companion to the table situated in the middle of the lab. The creature lying there was quite a sight: It appeared to be a human, but it was under such a tangled mass of multicoloured wires that it was almost impossible to tell for sure. The human was indeed Alex undergoing the metamorphosis from a human to a reploid. The Doc and many of the robots had been working for days and nights on this project. So far, they were succeeding. All the wires attached to Alex were needed to keep his biological systems running while vital organs were altered or replaced. It was a very tricky process, and they had come close to losing the victim more than once. But for now, the human's breathing under the oxygen mask was regular. Bass' worst fear was that the human would suddenly awaken and begin to panic; but Alex had remained in a deep swamp of hibernation since Bass had shot him with the Nullifier.

The only other robot present at the table was Snake Man. Monty the python still swarmed over his shoulders. The reptilian bot was carefully observing the monitors hooked up to Alex, watching for any sudden and drastic change in the human's vital signs. Bass and Gospel approached him.

"Hey, Snakester. How's my baby brother doing?" Bass motioned towards Alex.

"So far he's fine. You said that his name was Alex?"

"Yep."

"How do you know that?"

Bass grinned a little sheepishly. "We found his wallet amoung his things. It contained ID that told us everything we need to know about him. Age, date of birth, blood type, and so forth."

"So we know his name." Snake muttered. "But does he have a given name? I mean, what's he gonna be called when he turns into a robot...uh, I mean a reploid?" Snake corrected himself.

Bass grinned wryly. "The Doc and I already picked out a name. Did he ever tell you the name of his alligator? The one that ate his hamster, X?"

"Nope."

"Well, look at the monitor up there." Bass motioned to a radiant screen hanging close to Snake. "That'll tell ya the answer to your question."

Snake Man shuffled around to read the information behind him.

HUMAN NAME: Alex Wells

SEX: Male

D.O.B: 7/20/80

P.O.B: Toronto, Canada

GIVEN / REPLOID NAME: Zero

Chapter 5:

Crimson Birth

Bewildered, Bass stood stiffly in the middle of Wily's lab. The reploid project was coming to a close, and final instructions and questions flew thickly through the air.

"Robotic heart is functioning at 100%, and circulatory fluids are being distributed as needed."

"Titanium X armour has been forged and donned."

"What colours were chosen for the armour?"

"Red and grey are the primary colours of the protective gear. It also sports gold trimmings."

"Those colours suck."

"Hey listen me bucko, if you're so hot, why don't you haul butt down to Robot Depot and pick out the colours yourself?"

"Don't tempt me."

"Okay! The arm cannon is in place. It should correspond with the reploid's battle programs.

"Bass, Shadow Man just said that my mother was a tuna can. Do somethiiiiing!"

In response to this desperate plea from his hassled underling, Bass merely cracked his knuckles. The clamour that surrounded him was both terrible and glorious. Terrible in the sense that it was annoying, but glorious in the sense that, as every second flew past, Alex grew closer and closer to becoming a reploid. Bass walked over to the construction table to see how his baby brother was coming along. Fire Man was there, dully gawking at the reploid before him. To the pyro, it was obviously little more than a heap of metal and wires, while to Bass, it was life beyond his own , and for that reason the crimson figure before him was more precious to him than anything else in the world.

"Amazing, isn't he?" Bass whispered in an awed voice as he stood beside Fire Man. His eyes were alight with admiration.

Fire Man jumped at the sudden sound of Bass' voice. He mumbled his agreement as he gazed at the stoic face of the reploid beneath him. "Yeah, he's okay, I guess." Fire Man paused. "Uh..can I like, set him on fire or somethin'?"

Bass' jaw went slack. "No! Haven't you any idea what's lying here before us? A reploid! A member of the perfect species! Evolution has crawled from single - celled organisms in a prehistoric soup to THIS!!" Here Bass jabbed a finger in the direction of the sleeping reploid. "It's only fitting that the 'perfect race' should be a member of the robotic family!"

Fire Man's head cocked to one side as he listened with unwavering interest to his superiors ranting. Then, he responded to Bass with a simple answer that matched his simple mind:

"I like soup."

Bass beat Fire Man severely before he observed the phenotype of his brother.

Alex did not even resemble a human now. He was clad in stunning, streamlined crimson - and - platinum armour. Large speed boots were bolted firmly to his legs. These would allow the reploid to dash at high speeds with the aid of rocket boosters. On the reploid's right hand was a top of the line arm cannon that, when charged, would emit a huge blast of white energy that would entwine around a victim like great serpents of power, and fry the unfortunate individual. A crested helm rested on the reploid's head. Only one thing remained from Alex's human days: his long ponytail, which hung over the side of the table like a golden relic of the past. The reploid still slept peacefully in the untroubled world of his subconscious. Bass regarded the creation with a strange feeling of protective love. The creature would be powerful, but vulnerable. It would be up to Bass to teach the newborn how to use the skills it possessed. This thought suddenly spawned a concern in Bass' mind.

"Anyone seen the Doc? I want to ask him a few questions."

As if on cue, the massive doors to the lab yawned open and Wily staggered through. He looked like a demon from the ninth ring of hell. He had not slept for days, and his hair stuck out of his head like fine wisps of cloud. A wry, eager smile was propped on his wrinkled face, and ambition burned fiercely in his eyes. Bass involuntarily recoiled at the crazy sight.

"You called, Bass?"

"Uhm...yeah. I have a question. Two, actually. First of all, when the reploid wakes up, will he have any memory of his past life as a human? And secondly, how do we get this guy to hate humans and become the destructive, violent little beastie that we want him to be? I mean, humans are generally violent, but I don't think most of them kill each other for the sake of a laugh."

Wily's eyes looked distant. "I'm two steps ahead of you, Bass. I've thought ahead about those problems."

"Really?" Bass said, a trifle bitterly.

"Yes. I was thinking...a reploid is supposed to have a mind that is very similar to a human's, right?"

"So far as I know."

"I want to test that theory. A human can be brainwashed, right? So, if a reploid's thought process is almost exactly the same...could a reploid be brainwashed to change its views on something? I want to try this on Alex. We could get him to hate humans and to forget his past."

Bass' head was bowed in thought. "You know what, Doc? That's crazy enough to work! It would be the perfect opportunity to test out how 'humanlike' a reploid's mind really is."

"Brilliant idea, isn't it. It's like killing two birds with one stone. We should start the brainwashing now, and continue it when the reploid wakes up, which should be very soon. It will be difficult, and it will take time. Now, one question remains: who's going to do the mind - altering?"

Bass grinned wickedly. "You leave that to me."

Night fell rapidly and silently, and the construction lab emptied in a hurry. Once the last bot had left the large room, the doors swept open again and Bass strode through like an ebony god. His devilish eyes fell on his sleeping brother laid out on the table. Besides the monotone bleep of the machines monitoring the reploid's lifesigns, the lab was dead silent. Bass approached the table slowly and circled it once like a tiger shark preparing to attack a helpless boat. Suddenly, Bass dove towards the reploid's stationary head and whispered to it demonic stories of destruction, violence and blood.

The twisted words penetrated the reploid's mind and seeped into his subconscious like a deadly poison. His dreams shifted to those of violence and greed. He could see himself on the streets of some city that his subconscious had dreamed up, as Spartan - cloak coloured figure. He destroyed and murdered any human unfortunate enough to cross his path. With every life he took, his hatred for humans blossomed. Fond memories of his wife, child and former life dissolved as he preformed these acts. He could feel the peoples' fear: to them, he was the wind of death. A deep throated, devilish chuckle sounded from above him. The reploid stopped in his tracks and glanced upwards. There, blocking out most of the blood - hued sky was a cat - eyed, shapeless shadow that was blacker than a starless night. It regarded the reploid and its laugh boomed again.

"Well done! Well done! See the fear that surrounds you and smell the blood that is puddled at your feet. Isn't it wonderful? Do not regret the killing of all these humans: They're dirty creatures that...uh...carry all sorts of diseases and such. But you are a reploid! A member of the greatest species on earth! You were given life to conquer and rule over those big monkeys. Do you understand? Come, awaken, and take your place in the REAL circle of life!"

A huge, black hand groped out of the void above, snatched up the reploid and yanked him from the depths of his subconscious like a fish on a line. The reploid tried to cry out but his breath caught in his throat as he was pulled into a crashing multitude of colours and sounds. All at once, his body and mind became one, and his eyelids jerked open. The first thing the reploid's maiden eyes focused on was a black figure standing above him with its mouth wide open in astonishment. Then, the mouth snapped shut and formed the first words that the reploid would ever hear:

"Zero."

Chapter 6:

Jurassic Park is Frightening in the Dark...

Night silently swallowed up Skull Castle, and Wily grudgingly decided that he had better tidy up a bit around the fortress before turning in for the night. He was in the process of discarding a half - eaten box of stale donuts just as Bass burst into the room, his face wreathed in smiles. Behind the bot, a red and silver figure stumbled awkwardly, unsure of its steps. Bass skidded to a stop, spread out his arms and began to talk like a madman. "Doc! The reploid woke up! Isn't this amazing? Doc? Doc! Oh man, he fainted. I hate it when he does that. I'd better get some water...no, wait, he's coming to." Bass extended a hand to help the old scientist back on his feet.

"Buh - Bass...the reploid...it's awake?"

"Appears so."

"Holy Mother Takhisis! I don't believe it!" Wily scrambled back to his feet with the aid of Bass. He regarded his creation with narrowed eyes. "Why won't it speak? And why did it move so clumsily when you busted in?"

Bass suddenly seemed proud of the fact that HE would actually be able to explain something to WILY for once. "I think that a newly - activated reploid is a lot like a human infant. It has to get used to its new body, and learn about the skills it possesses. This fellow's progressing rapidly," - Here Bass jabbed a finger at Zero - "he's already walking. And he's not talking, because he's too busy thinking."

Wily's worn heart raced. Thinking? Could that be true? Sure enough, when he looked at Zero, the reploid was squinting at a contraption resting on a small table, as if he were thinking about what use that object might have. Wily slowly turned back around to Bass.

"Thinking?"

Bass nodded as a twisted grin worked its way to his face. "THINK - ING! And who knows what else he can do?"

Wily clutched his chest. "Okay, Wily!" He coached himself calmly. "No time for a heart attack now! We have a lot of work to do." He steadied himself. "Zero!" He barked sharply.

The reploid suddenly snapped out of his trance and whipped around to face Wily. "Sir?"

"Do you know who I am?"

"Yessir. You're the one who gave me life, or so my brother Bass told me. I plan to serve you in any way I can." The reploid punctuated the sentence by performing a little bow. Something else seemed to cross Zero's mind as he grimaced and said, "I plan to serve you even though you're a human. But since you created me, my loyalty is with you."

Wily hardly dared to hope. "Is something wrong with humans?"

"Well...yes. Shortly before I was pulled into birth, some sort of black entity appeared to me in my dreams and explained that all humans are evil, and need to be destroyed." Zero raised his arm cannon above his head for a dramatic effect. "I plan to do just that."

Wily's twisted grin seemed to reach from one end of the country to the other. "Well, isn't this a happy coincidence? That's the plan I had in mind for you! But don't destroy ANYTHING yet. Nothing. There's a time and a place for that, y'hear? Here's what my immediate plans for you consist of: You will remain awake for four months. During this time, Bass will teach you what kind of skills you posses." Wily helpfully pointed Zero in Bass' direction, who waved at the reploid with unworldly enthusiasm. "After those four months, you will be sealed in a capsule where you will become dormant for at least 30 years. When you wake up in the future, nestle yourself in society, then kill all you want once you're comfortable. Did you get that? Do you want me to write it down?"

The reploid's response was a flabbergasted stare. Another reflection of the emotions he was feeling. "Why does my future appear to be so odd?"

"I have my reasons. Now, listen: I hope your weapons work okay." Wily picked up Zero's right hand, the one containing the arm cannon. "This is a pretty damn good shooter, if I say so myself. Are you able to change between your cannon and your hand with ease?"

Sure enough, Zero switched between his hand and his weapon with a fury that would have shamed Inspector Gadget. He felt a strong surge of pleasant energy flow through him as he did this, which would have been the human equivalent of a testosterone - rush. The surge melted away his bewildered feelings.

"Very good, very good." Wily cheered on the crimson reploid. "I hope your emotions work as effectively, too. Let's test." Wily's eye fell on Bass, who was daydreaming while staring at the ceiling, obviously entranced by the thought of what Zero could do to the future world. Wily snuck up behind the black robot and pushed him with youthful energy. Bass screamed as he toppled over like a stack of cans, and landed on the lab floor with a resounding crash. Zero began to laugh hysterically. Humour. Wily then swung a fist into the reploid's jaw. Zero's grin immediately flipped over and became a grimace of anger. He remembered just in time not to retort against his master. Anger.

"Well Bass, what do you think?" Wily questioned of the black bot, who was collecting himself from the fall. "His weapons are fine, and his emotions are fully functional." Bass' pride was a bit hurt after having the experience of being the butt end of one of Wily's jokes. Nevertheless, he responded. "I think he's ready, Doc. It's just a matter of keeping him convinced that humans are evil, and letting him know what powers he possesses. I'll take over from here on. You've done well."

Wily sighed deeply as he turned around. "We've done it. We have a reploid. The future is going to have some serious problems, as will Light's reploid. But that's not my concern. My work is done. I can rest...now."

And so, time passed as it had a funny habit of doing. Spring seamlessly melted into summer and Proto, Roll and Mega could be found on the steps of Light's lab. They'd just been in the process of a rousing game of indoor hide 'n seek, when Proto had accidentally knocked over a few fragile articles while trying to tag Mega 'out'. Light went slightly berserk, and threatened to hang Proto from the rafters by his scarf if he didn't go out to get some 'fresh air'. Proto was upset that such a good game had to be broken up, and when he got outside, he vented his anger by throwing stones at various things. He was still doing this when Roll brought up an interesting question beside him. "We haven't had any trouble from Wily in the longest time. I wonder what he's up to." Proto's heart lurched. The very same question had been ripping around in his mind for ages. However, he had recently pushed it to the back of his mind; it would be a shame to spoil such nice weather by thinking of the evil scientist. Mega piped up. "I don't know what he's up to. Maybe he's slowing down because he's old. I'm not going to bother him if he doesn't bother me first...it would be like throwing rocks at a bee's nest." Proto grinned wickedly as he chucked another rock into the empty air. "I've heard rumours about why Wily has been so silent." "So have I," Roll chimed in. "some of them are pretty wild." "I heard he was abducted by a hoard of tentacled aliens." "I heard that he was killed by the Mafia." "I heard that he ran away to join the circus." "I heard that he was ground up and served as hamburgers at McDonalds." "I heard that he quit the crime game and became a male prostitute." Roll gave her brother a sidelong glance. "Somehow I doubt that." Proto shrugged off Roll's criticism. "Believe what you will, but I think we all agree on this: I don't like this silence. I don't like it at all. Wily could be up to something BIG, providing that none of those wonderful rumours are true. I think I'll scout around the city for a bit and see what's up."

Now, fast forward a bit and cue in on Wilyland's famous Robosaur Park, headed by the infamous Slash Man. It was a huge tourist attraction, even if the dinosaurs within were only robotic. The park itself was large and roomy, a perfect dwelling place for the mechanical T - Rex, Stegosaurs, and Velociraptor pack that resided there. Above the park entrance there hung a crude, hand - painted sign that screamed 'Welcome to Robosaur Park!'. Beside the gargantuan wooden gates of the entrance there was a weathered, smaller sign that welcomed visitors to the park, and listed off several rules to make their stay more enjoyable. Slash Man himself had constructed the sign, and he was exceedingly proud of it:

1. Do not feed the animals

2. Do not make eye contact with the animals

3. Do not taunt the animals

4. Do not expose pregnant women to the animals

5. Do not sing and dance in front of the animals

6. Do not cross - dress in front of the animals

7. Do not quote Shakespeare in front of the animals

8. Do not get into the cages with the animals

9. Do not toss annoying siblings and/or offspring into the velociraptor pit

10. Do not try to ride the animals

HAVE YOURSELF A T - REX - RIFFIC DAY!

Slash himself was parked up in a tower that loomed high above the park, where he could watch the ongoings below him with ease. The dinosaurs were his children, and he watched over them with his life. Today, the wild, spiky orange and grey clawed bot regarded the park drowsily while laying on his rope hammock. There were few spectators to marvel at the wonders of the place that day. Slash secretly didn't like to see the park so empty: he enjoyed having people around to gawk at his dinosaurs, and it was nice to have human company once in a while. Affected by the intense heat of the day, Slash began to drift into a light sleep. He was violently brought back to his senses when someone suddenly swung his hammock back and forth with lust. Slash was spilled to the ground with a hollow clang. Irritated, he glanced upwards to see Bass towering above him. His irritation was immediately replaced by icy terror.

"B...Bass! What's wrong?"

"Have you checked your e - mail lately, Slashy?!" Bass snarled viciously.

Slash was forced to admit that he hadn't. Bass picked up Slash by his scruffy neck and sat him down hard in the chair in front of his computer. "I recommend you check your mail NOW." Bass said in a monotone voice that still managed to be threatening.

Forcing himself to stay calm, Slash began to boot up his computer when his massive claws got in the way. With a mild curse, the orange robot sheathed the deadly weapons and guided his mouse to the email icon on his monitor, as Bass had clearly instructed. Sure enough, Slash had one email message for himself from Elecman, the electrifying robot (bad pun again!) who powered the nuclear power plant on the edge of the city. Bass still hovered over Slash, his eyes boring invisible holes in his back. Slash found it difficult to retain his faux mask of calmness as he read the email:

TO: Slash Man

FROM: Elecman

SUBJECT: Temporary Power Plant shut down..URGENT MAIL

Hey, Slashster!!

Some repairs in the power plant need to be made. As a result, I'm going to have to shut off the power supply to your park for a while. This means that there will be NO electric current running through the fences that outline your place. If you do not want your dinosaurs to escape and wreak havoc on the city, I strongly suggest that you turn on the emergency power generator in the park. I'll let you know as soon as the electricity is back on again.

Best Regards:

Elecman

Slash Man's insides quaked. No wonder the park had been so silent: all the dinosaurs had probably torn down the dormant fence and gone off for a walk in the city!

Bass appeared to be reading Slash's thoughts. "That's right, you idiot! There's no electric current running through your lovely fences, and because you were too damn lazy to read your mail once in a freakin' while, you missed Elecman's warning, and you didn't have a chance to turn on your independent emergency power supply! And you know what I saw on the way here?" Bass snatched up Slash by the collar of his armour and forced him to look straight into his flaming eyes. "TORN - DOWN - FENCES!! Your dinosaurs are having a field day out there! People are going to think that Wily's attacking, when he most certainly is not. If we - nay, if YOU - don't get those miserable reptiles back into the park, Light will deploy Mega - freakin' - Man to go after Wily. Then complications that we REALLY don't need will arise. Wily has far too much on his plate right now to worry about dealing with the Blue guy. Do you understand?" Bass began to shake Slash Man to get his point across and to emphasize each word. "Because - of - your - freakin' - carelessness - we've - got - ourselves - a - major - freakin' - pain - in - the - butt! - if - you - don't - get - out - there - NOW - and - get - those - freakin' - fancy - animals - back - in - this - freakin' - fancy - zoo, - I'll - personally - rearrange - your - freakin' - FACE! Now - get - going - , you - freakin' - FREAK!!" Bass dropped the nauseous Slash to the ground. Wordlessly, Slash scrambled out the door of his tower like a frightened puppy to carry out what Bass had ordered.

Chapter 7:

101 Dino - mations

Like a maroon and silver mouse, Protoman impatiently scurried and jumped between and around the towering building tops that dotted the city. He was looking for something...ANYTHING...that would explain the reason for Wily's uncanny silence. It was a wee bit irritating: he had turned over every rock searching for an explanation, but had come up empty handed. Perched high above the main street of the city, unseen to eyes, Proto gave the passing sea of traffic and general hubabaloo below one last careful scan with visored eyes. He was about ready to call it quits.

"Let's see here." he thought idly. "There's two disgruntled motorists down there shouting murderous threats to each other....not like that's anything new...oh, there's a colourful band of vandals spraypainting wonderful words from the English language on that skyscraper wall. Maybe I should go and stop...naw, nuts to that. There's some kids down there playing ball...there's a bot cleaning up some rubbish from the streets...there's a young human couple who are...uh...okay, that's none of my business. I don't think they want an audience. There's a pack of raptors attacking a bus filled with screaming passengers...there's...hey, waitaminute!"

Proto's alarmed glance swept back over to the bus that had occupied his last thought. Making sure that no one was occupying the rooftop with him, he lifted his trademark visor up a bit to get a more detailed look. Because his eyes were so used to seeing in blue and black, the lights and colours of the outside environment blinded him slightly. Ignoring the protest from his optics, Proto leaned over to get a better look at the dormant bus.

Sure enough, a medium sized pack of robotic reptiles was circling the vehicle, much to the displeasure of the panicked people inside. The raptors came in a dazzling variety of colours, markings, and sizes, very much like a box of assorted cookies. The heat and light of the midsummer sun reflected on their pseudo - scales, causing a near - blinding glare.

"Well now. THERE'S something you don't see every day. Unless I miss my guess, those little fellows are from the Wilyland Robosaur Park. But they should be confined to the park. Who let them out like an idiot?" The rapotrs had tired of the 'circle - around - the - bus - and - scare - the - passengers - to - death' game that they had been playing, so they began to start CHARGING into the vehicle. Some of the robotic reptiles pushed their heads against the bus, rocking it back and forth like a pack of rioters. Proto was about to leap down from his post to help the occupants of the bus when another question crossed his mind. "Are there any more of these dinosaurs?"

As if on cue, an earth - shattering roar sounded from behind the visored bot. Terrified, Proto whipped around and gawked in disbelief at what he saw. A mechanical T - Rex was lumbering around the streets about 10 blocks away from him. Despite its distance, Proto got an excellent view of the behemoth swaggering from side to side as it destroyed as it pleased. Proto valiantly decided that NOW was a good time to help some of the panicked citizens scattering below him.

"I'm pretty sure that this is the work of good 'ol Doc W." He muttered grimly. "No wonder he was so silent. He was preparing to...release killer robotic dinosaurs to terrorise the people in the city." Proto paused. "What a stupid thing to do! Why not just come barrelling down the street in a two - storey tank? It would be easier. I guess humans do dumb things as they get older. I remember when Light's mother was still alive and used to reside in the Old Folks Home, she used to do nothing but knit, even though no one needed any clothes of any kind." Proto fondly touched the scarf that encircled his neck like a friendly python. "Well, she was a good woman. Thanks to her crazy obsession, my neck is always warm. Now, time to play hero!"

Across the city, the famous scientist Dr. Cossack hummed contentedly, even though he was swamped with work. It was such a nice day. Nothing was going to spoil his mood! The red - haired man glanced idly out of the seventh - story window that enclosed his office. He had always loved to look at the city spread in front of him. Therefore, it is understandable why blanched a bit when he saw a giant dinosaur taking up most of his beloved view.

The giant reptile locked its luminant, yellow eyes with the scientist's terrified ones. Man and beast stared at each other for a full minute, neither one moving. Finally, the leviathan lost interest in playing a staring game with a red - haired Russian scientist, and bellowed off to search elsewhere for dinner. When the animal was gone, Cossack removed a fine hankerchief and a small card from one of his many lab coat pockets. He mopped his sweaty forehead with the hanky. Then, shakily, he called:

"Kalinka! Kaliiiiinka! Come here, will you?"

Kalinka, Cossack's daughter, entered. She was a young thing, hardly over ten years old. She was as inquisive as any girl her age could expect to be, but to her life was to be taken seriously. "You called?"

"Yes. I don't mean to worry you, but your daddy has been...seeing things. Yesterday, a carnivorous laptop computer chomped on my ankle, and the day before that the flowers were talking to me. Today, I had a staring contest with a dinosaur. If daddy starts to do something rash one day, like say, oh, throwing bricks at pedestrians on the street below, call this number. I pray you won't have to call it; hopefully, I've just been working too hard." Cossack handed his worried daughter the card that he had extracted from his lab coat earlier. Kalinka studied it with concerned interest.

"Hey dad...what's a 'mental institution'?

"I have a very bad feeling that you're going end up visiting me there soon enough, dear."

"Get back! Back! Away from the bus, I say!"

The leader of the velociraptor pack whipped around to see what individual dared challenged him. Finding nothing more interesting than a maroon robot waving his arms at him like an idiot, the robotic reptile returned to stalking the bus with his cohorts.

"No! Bad dinosaur! I told you to stop! No soup for you!"

Proto was about to learn a valuable lesson: velociraptors, robotic or not, didn't care for discipline. The pack leader, a towering red - and - beige beast, whipped around again with unearthly speed and raked its huge foretalons in the air in front of Proto, missing the stunned bot by hardly half an inch. Proto's heart lurched as he watched certain death pass him by a hair's length. Before he could recover from the shock, he felt something tighten around his neck like a noose. He managed to crane his neck around just enough to see that the raptor had gripped his precious scarf in its deadly jaws and was pulling at it with tremendous strength.

Needless to say, Proto began to feel a slight need for air about 30 seconds after the raptor had tightened the scarf around his windpipe like a hangman. Proto tried one desperate strategy: he pulled, trying to beat the dino in a contest of brawn. In response to Proto's sudden struggle, the raptor emitted a pleased squeak, and pulled back even harder. Tug of War. Proto became enraged: the damnable lizard thought it was a game!! The rest of the raptor pack had lost interest in the destruction of the bus and scattered here and there to cause other mischief. The doors of the bus slid open with a hiss of dragon's breath, and the terrified captives of the raptors surged out of them.

Proto had one last option: He had to get out of his scarf, or die in it. With an expression of utter defeat and regret, he managed to slip out of the ever - tightening noose, then ran. He wanted to blast the raptor to retrieve his trademark scrap of clothing, but then he knew that the rest of the pack would come to the leader's aid. Then there would be big trouble.

The raptor fell back a bit when the other end of the 'rope' went slack. Pleased that it had won the game, it began to shread up the scarf. The creature found out quickly that the scarf wasn't edible: so, leaving the yellow memento on the deserted street, it sprinted off to find something more tasty than wool.

Slash Man ran like a man possessed. He leaped over rooftops on all fours, an uncanny skill that only a jungle animal should have had. His breath surged in and out of his systems rythymatically. Beneath the rasping, he could hear Bass' frightful words echoing in his head: "if you don't get those freakin' fancy animals back in this freakin' fancy zoo, I'll personally rearrange your freakin' FACE!" Slash man paused in his mad sprint and sat upright like a chipmunk. He closed his eyes and listened for an audio clue as to where his children might be. Some twenty blocks away, Slash heard a earth - trembling roar. The T Rex! Slash quivered with excitement.

"Hold on, Sarah! Daddy's coming!"

Slash lunged back into action. His feet barely touched the ground as he sailed over rooftops and jumped over the gaps that yawned between the structures. Very soon indeed, he saw Sarah. The behemoth had obviously just snacked on something (or someone) and was preparing to swoop down on a little child who stood dumbstruck before the beast. Just in time, however, Slash landed on his pet's head with a hardy metallic thump. Sarah instantly reared her giant head, and expressed her displeasure with a bellow. Slash talked calmly to the T Rex:

"It's okay, Sarah...it's me. Now be a good dinosaur, and calm down."

Sarah recognised this soothing voice, and immediately carried out Slash's request, for she loved him. When Sarah had cooled down enough, Slash turned his attention to the frozen child before him.

"Listen kid, I'm sorry if Sarah scared you out of a year's growth. Here..." Slash man dug into his pockets. "Three free passes to my park! Bring the kids! Oh wait..you ARE a kid. Nevermind." The passes fluttered down from Slash's clawed hand and came to rest on the sidewalk before the kid. The child found his voice. He held up a navy blue leash that was frayed at the very end, and stained with minute drops of blood. "Your dinosaur ate my dog!"

Slash man shrugged. "Sorry, kid. They can't all be Barneys."

Proto swore bitterly as he watched a large pack of chicken - sized compies leap and shriek as they closed in on him. Battling robotic dinosaurs was not something one should do single - handedly. One of the tiny but deadly lizards lunged at Proto with its maw open, sharp teeth on display. Proto kicked the scavenger square in its chest. It tumbled backwards like a scaly ball. The rest of the pack surged forward, hissing, claws unsheathed.

"This is it." Proto thought glumly. "I'm dead. It's all over. Killed by a bunch of chicken - sized, robotic dinosaurs. Of all the ways to go!!"

The earth suddenly trembled, and a cheerful voice wafted above the rumbling sound:

"Hullloooooooo!"

Proto couldn't believe his eyes. He watched as the pedestrians (the few that were left on the dino - ravaged streets) flung themselves this way and that to get out of the way of Slash Man, who was perched happily on the head of a giant T Rex. The compies lost all interest in Proto, and surged around Slash and Sarah, squeaking and jumping like children around their father who had just returned from work. Proto hailed the orange - maned robot.

"Hey, Ace Ventura! We usually don't let two - ton pets wander the streets, you know!" His visor flashed in annoyance. "I know." Slash Man called down. "I'm sorry. These fellows escaped from my park when Elecman shut off...oh, never mind...it's a long story."

Proto nodded in understanding. "Want me to help you take these critters back to the park?"

Proto could see Slash Man's distant face light up. "Sure! That'd be great of you. Climb aboard on Sarah." At a word from her god, Sarah offered Protoman her tail to help the bot scale up her back. Proto hesitantly took the Rex's generous offer, and scurried up to Sarah's head and seated himself behind Slash. He looked down from a dizzying height. He could see the compies swarming around Sarah's gargantuan hind paws. Slash grinned as he saw Proto blanch in fear from the height of the drop. "Just hang on tight! Away we go!" Sarah started forward. It was a jerky ride, like riding a ship in a storm. The compies marched in military fashion far below. The whole thing looked like a Jurassic parade. Proto hung on for dear life, but Slash looked as comfortable as a man in an armchair. Proto cursed himself as dull company: He decided to start up a conversation with Slash.

"So...all these dinos yours?"

Slash nodded with pride. "Yep. They're my children. I've named them all."

Proto was impressed. "Every single one?"

"Yes. This here's Sarah." Slash patted the T Rex's massive head. Sarah purred in response. "As for those compies down there..." Slash jabbed a finger towards the green swarm below. "Well, there's Dennis...Brad...Mavis...Brad..."

Chapter 8:

Sweet Intoxications

It's narrator hour! Whee! Hey, I'm sitting here telling this story, I gave life to the characters that you love so much (well, except for those that are actually featured in the games. I had to say that so that Capcom wouldn't sue my scaly hide off). Ya'll are never gonna guess what happened today! I got my third - and last - Hepatitis B shot! This was the worst one of 'em all. The culture that they inoculated us with was extremely strong. Heh...you should've seen the girl who got her shot before me! The nurse poked the needle into her arm, and as the vaccine was injected, the girl's eyes got wider, and wider and finally she screamed, "AAAHHH, Goddammit that HURTS!" Then my turn came around. As I rolled up my sleeve to take my shot like a good hatchling, the nurse got all flustered and asked me if I was pregnant (No, I'm not fat, they have to ask every female they inoculate). I pointed to my male friend, who had come to get jabbed as well, and said "No, but HE is."

Torontonian nurses have no sense of humour.

The good news is, I got a cute little keychain. It has a picture of a cartoon virus on it, and under the disease in sprawled handwriting, there is a slogan that states 'Get the Vax!' as if getting a Hepatitis B vaccine is as thrilling as a roller coaster ride to hell and back. I say it would be more accurate if the keychain stated 'I got jabbed three times and all I got was this crappy keychain!'. My friend said it should say 'Bite me, I'm vaccinated against Hepatitis'. In the same vein, I don't think that diseases have googly - eyes like the one featured on the keychain. I'm under the impression that you people don't care. On with the story! This is an important chapter, and I'm only gonna write it once, so read it carefully!

The heavy titanium gates clattered loudly as Slash Man shut them behind the compy pack he had ushered into the pen. He spoke to Proto in a loud voice in an effort to be heard over the din.

"Thanks for your help, Proto. It's a good thing I got all the dinosaurs back into the park, or I really would have been up a certain creek without a paddle."

Proto stifled a yawn as he watched some mets repair the electric fence that Slash's scaly friends had torn down. " 's no problem. So, what now?"

Slash offered Proto a puzzled glance. "What do you mean 'what now'?"

"I mean, what do you have planned for the rest of the day?"

Slash shifted his eyes nervously and stared at the grass that was stamped with small dino - footprints . He extracted a rapidly melting chocolate bar from one of his pockets, broke it into bite sized pieces and handed them one by one to the eager tide of squeaking compies inside the den. "Uhm...nothing...really...the park is closed to the public until those mets finish that fence...maybe I'll do laundry and...and..stuff..." Slash's voice trailed off pathetically. He did not want Proto to know what the rest of his day consisted of. In truth, there was a wing - ding of sorts going on in Skull Castle to honour the creation of the first member of a species that would ultimately lead to the demise of the human race: A 'reploid' named Zero. Slash had planned on attending the party. But the whole 'reploid' business was to be kept under wraps. Slash had been forbidden to tell anyone about it, least of all Mega's brother. "I...I'll catch you later, Proto!" Slash finished up quickly and bounded out of sight on all fours. Proto raised an inquisive eyebrow at the clumsy, hesitant speech and sudden departure of the beast - bot, but he shrugged it off. He decided he would make sure everything was secure in the park before he would head home.

"So Wily WASN'T really responsible for the dino - rampage." Proto muttered thoughtfully. "Guess I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions."

Although the weather was beautiful, a chill shuddered through the visored bot. "Damn, I miss my scarf! I'm freezing!!"

"Proootooo!"

Mega's call drifted eerily through the rubble strewn on the abandoned street before it bounced back to him in a hollow echo. He got no response. Not discouraged, he took another deep breath:

"PRRROOOOOOTOOOOOOOOO! Come out, come out, where ever you are! Show your ugly face!"

Still no response. A hint of fear and worry began to trickle into Mega's heart. "Aw man! Something BIG has been happening here, and knowing Proto, he got caught up in it when he went 'scouting'."

The wind sighed warmly, symthesizing with Mega's concern. It also bore a bright yellow object, and dispensed it gently at Mega's feet. It appeared to be a dirty article of clothing. It was tattered...it had obviously witnessed a huge battle, and the victor had torn it to shreds. Despite this guise, there was no mistaking the object for what it was:

"Proto's scarf?"

"A toast!" Cried Bass has he thrust his fine goblet of violet hued wine into the air. "To Wily, the creator of the reploid species!"

The robots present responded to Bass in one resounding voice: "Aye!"

Bass clapped Wily on the back. "You're a genius, Doc!"

Wily did not answer. Indeed, he was turning an interesting shade of green. He was on his fourth cup of wine, and the old fellow was zombied right out of his mind. Still, he managed to offer the robots a weak, lopsided smile. The cheering of the robots doubled, and turned into an all - out roar of joy. Zero, who sat to the right of his creator, regarded his crazed brothers with frightened eyes.

"Life goes on!" Bass remarked cheerfully as he quaffed back the drink. Once their superior had finished his drink, the rest of the robots started on theirs as if on a signal.

Slash jumped right on the table and actually lapped up his wine like a dog drinking out of a toilet bowl, only much stranger.

Shade Man sat silently. There was a hint of disappointment in his eyes as he stared at the wine before him. He would have preferred a drink more along the lines of fresh virgin's blood, but he still sipped the wine without complaint. He saved a wee bit for Flagg, who was perched happily on his shoulder. The raven helped himself, then raised his grotesque head and cocked a sharp eye at Bass. Bass merely glared back at Flagg with venomous hate in his optics. No one was really sure what Flagg and Bass had against each other.

There was an audible thump next to Bass. Wily had completely passed out.

Mega's thoughts whirred. The hand that clutched his sibling's tattered scarf was hit with tremors. The markings on the scarf reported that Proto had gone to that Great Big Robot Factory in the Sky, compliments of the dinosaurs that had stormed the city. Mega just knew it. His next black thought surfaced: Who had released the dinosaurs?

Wily. No doubt.

Wily had released the dinosaurs to destroy the city -

- and the dinosaurs had killed Proto.

Unbridled rage blossomed in Mega. "I'VE - HAD - ENOUGH!" He wistfully looked down at his arm cannon. One single shot would put an end to the old man. One shot...and it would be over. However, common sense suddenly quenched Mega's thirst for revenge. He knew that killing Wily would be more trouble than it was worth. Robots couldn't break the first rule of robotics, yadda yadda yadda. If he were to kill Wily, he would probably be deactivated. And even if he wasn't, the media would probably make his life a living hell. Mega began to despair. He couldn't just let Wily walk away with this. SOMETHING had to be done...

An idea lit up in Mega's eyes. "I know! I'm going to go to Wily's castle and tell him off once and for all!"

"She's got a smiiiile that, it seems to me, reminds me of childhood memorieeees, where every - thin' was as fresh as the bright blue sky..sky...sky..."

Castor grimaced sourly at his twin's off - key caterwauling. But he did not complain. The duo was situated outside, guarding the fortress as per usual. As a result, the worst of the god awful sound was mercifully carried away by the wind, far from Castor's ears.

"Now and theeeen when I see her face, it takes me away to that special place, and if I stare to long, I'd prolly break down and CRY!"

Castor's patience had been stretched paper thin. Kindess only went so far. "Hey Pollux.."

Pollux stopped his noise. Yeah?"

"You remind me of something."

Pollux puffed with pride. "A great opera singer?"

"No. A cat in heat."

"HEEEEY! That's so MEAN!"

"I'm just telling the truth." Castor stated mildly. "Now, if you had been watching for intruders rather than singing dumb songs that date back to the twentieth century, you would have noticed that someone is approaching the castle." Castor pointed a lazy finger at an unidentified shadow that was coming rapidly towards them. "Whoever it is seems pretty peeved. Wonder who it is."

Silence followed Castor's inquiry as the shadow became more and more recognizable. Pollux suddenly made a strangled, choking sound. "It's...it'sssss...Mega Man...!"

The little blue bomber came striding down the path to the castle like a king. He meant business, judging by his unwavering speed and focus on the hateful structure that loomed before him. Both twins leapt to their feet in unison. Completely forsaking his duties as a guard, Pollux dove into some bushes beside him.

"POLLUX!" Screamed Castor hysterically. "Get back here! We have to keep Mega out and guard Wily!"

"Screw that! Wily can defend his OWN blasted castle," was Pollux's cowardly response from his sheath of leaves. "I quit!"

"You CAN'T quit, you IJIT!"

"JUST TRY TO BLOODY WELL STOP ME!!!"

Castor thrust his hand into the bushes and groped around until he found one of his twin's gem - gilded boots. He began to pull it in a futile effort to drag Pollux out. "Pollux! Get out NOW, or I'll...I'll...tell Wily that YOU were the one who tried to shave Zero's head!"

Pollux blindly delivered a lovely kick to Castor's shin. "YOU DO THAT AND I'LL RIP YOUR STINKING GUTS OUT!"

Castor cried out and doubled over as the kick found its mark. When he regained his composure, he began to make up some great adjectives to describe his brother using words that were certainly not suitable for table talk. The Gemini Men were too busy bickering to notice that Mega Man had soared by them and had entered the fortress a full two minutes ago.

Mega plowed relentlessly through the fortress, propelled by his animosity for Wily. A batauntaun suddenly dove at him, fangs glistening. Mega blasted it. A sniper joe leapt at him out of the shadows. Mega blasted it. A tour - bot welcomed him warmly to Skull Fortress. Mega blasted it. Oops. Two out of three ain't bad. When Mega reached the formidable but familiar staircase that wove its way to Wily's chambers, he did not break his pace. He shot up, skipping every other step. Now a tunnel - like hallway stretched before him with massive steel doors at the tail. Mega was just about to start down the hallway when something lupine, purple and silver casually strolled across his path.

"Gospel?"

Devoid of his master, the robodog stood stock still and looked at his nemesis with a perfect picture of terror in his eyes. He didn't want to fight Mega without Bass there to instruct him. So, in hopes that Mega would leave him alone, Gospel flipped on his back and played dead. Mega shook his head, stepped over Gospel's faux corpse, and continued down the hall. He crashed through the heavy steel doors to the chamber. There, he was met with a pretty interesting sight. Several robot masters were in a small cluster around a fine table, celebrating some sort of occasion. In Mega's fevered mind, he thought they were celebrating the demise of his brother. Rage boiled within him.

Upon hearing the door crash open and seeing Mega standing in the large doorway like a small but deadly omen, the robots were a little slow to react. The wine they had just consumed probably played a factor in that fact.

Suddenly, with a noble battle cry, Snake Man flung himself at his enemy. Mega greeted the serpentine robot's onward rush by grabbing Snake's wrist, twisting it, then flipping him on the ground with a hollow clang. Monty the Python was flung from Snake's neck. The vile serpent lay in thick coils on the floor, stunned for a bit. Now that he was deprived of his master's body heat, he had adjust his own body temp to the cold stone he rested upon before he could take off.

Several other bots surged forward to challenge Mega, but he fought them like a berserker. His power seemed to have doubled in his wrath. One by one, they all pretty much 'got theirs', as the expression went. Eventually, the flood of warriors waned. Only Bass remained standing, seemingly undaunted by Mega's inhuman acts of strength. He was Wily's last bodyguard, and he was determined to let no harm come to his master. The intoxicated Wily was shaking and shuddering like a wounded guppy. Mega got a perfect view of his terrified, ages - old nemesis, but there was one thing he did NOT see. Beside Wily, but shielded from Mega's sight courtesy of Bass' oily - black body, was a certain crimson and gold figure who was watching the fun with with quiet awe, his humanlike eyes taking in every detail of this blue attacker...

Bass smirked diabolically. "Well, well WELL! If it isn't the tooth fairy!"

Mega's expression of anger melted into confusion. "What's THAT supposed to mean?"

Bass shrugged his plated shoulders. "Well, I don't rightly know. But it sounds good, don't you think?"

Without a pause, Bass delivered a jarring kick to Mega's stomach. Unprepared for this action, Mega reeled backwards and doubled over. A split second later, the happy end of Bass' arm cannon was aimed right at Mega's face. It was all over. From miles away, Mega could hear Bass triumphantly stating, "He who hesitates is...um...what's that word...lost! Yeah, that's it!"

Suddenly, Bass' arm cannon jerked back with a curse and a scream. Mega dared to open one eye. He couldn't believe the sight he was met with. There was Flagg, Shade Man's infamous pet raven, hurling his body at Bass like a missile of feathers and talons. Bass echoed Flagg's scream as he wildly flailed his arms this way and that. Mega saw his chance. A sharp report rang out as he fired two shots aimed at Bass. The first one quite unexpectedly hit Bass' vital point, and felled the black bot instantly. Flagg fluttered off and perched ominously on the rafters, unhurt. He set at once to preening his ebony feathers. Mega's second plasma shot, however, sailed right past Bass' collapsed body, and hit Wily in the chest square and true. Wily sailed back in his chair a few feet, then toppled over. He was dead before he even hit the ground.

The air around Mega seemed to crash. Everything was silent. Nothing moved. Time was still. Only the grey ribbon of smoke that trailed lazily from Mega's warm cannon was real. From Mega's feet, Bass' muffled voice parted the curtain of silence with the awful truth:

"You've killed him, Mega."

These words hit Mega like an arrow. They snapped him out of his deep trance. "But...I didn't mean to...he...I...you..."

"You've broken the first rule of robotics to do what you've always wanted to do. You must be very proud." Bass' voice was devoid of emotion.

"But..."

The nearly forgotten pile of damaged robots that had made the mistake of challenging Mega earlier untangled itself. Those robots that still had the energy needed to stand up and walk began to lurch eerily like zombies, not towards Mega, but towards their master, Wily, who lay weeping blood. Their voices rose and twisted together into a quiet but terrible chant. "Killed him...Killed him...Killer. Killer. Killer."

Mega tried to explain that the second shot had been meant for Bass, not Wily, but the words died on his lips as he faced their accusing glares. No one would believe him. It was a well known fact amoung humans and robots alike that Mega had come close to expressing his venom for Wily with his arm cannon more than once.

These thoughts wandered in Mega's mind, disturbing him greatly. So greatly, in fact, that he hardly noticed the large, crimson and gold robot that crouched by the still - warm body of Wily. The odd robot turned away from Wily's sickening corpse with an expression of grief that none of the other robots seemed to wear. The robot's expression of regret melted into hatred as he turned his eyes on Mega. The eyes were incredible. They seemed to have a humanlike glitter of intelligence and emotion in them. They searched Mega, found him, and marked him...

The whole excitement and overall nuttiness of the day was too much for Mega to handle. His confusion and fear merged into an immeasurable terror. He backed up a step. Then another step. The robots were too concerned about their master to worry about him.

The stricken Bass had a dull, knowing smile plastered to his face as he looked at Mega freaked expression from his odd viewpoint on the floor. Mega had killed a human, and if the authorities found him, it was over for the blue guy. "Knowing Mega, he would turn himself into the authorities." Bass thought with disgust. A robot that broke the first rule of robotics ('A robot must never kill a human, no matter how big of a screwball that human is'), ergo, he would have to suffer the consequences.

Mega continued to slowly back out of the near - silent room. Still no one pursued him. Only Bass stared after him gleefully, and the odd crimson robot still tacked his deadly eyes on Mega. Suddenly, the crimson robot took one slow step towards Mega. It was at this point that Mega turned right around and broke into a blind run like a child frightened by a stranger. He was nearly halfway down the huge staircase he had ascended earlier when he finally teleported to the temporary safety of Light's lab.

Chapter 9:

Death and Directions

"I'm telling you! The ticket to world domination is to own the electric company and the railroads! After that, it's only a matter of time before I can take over the prisons! Then, I shall be unstoppable, and I will lord over every sorry creature on God's green earth from my four - star hotel on Boardwalk!!" Proto bashed his armoured fist on the shaky table to underscore his point.

Roll calmly motioned for her brother to sit back down. "Proto, settle, settle. Stop taking this so seriously. It's only a Monopoly game."

A sheepish smile surfaced on Proto has he found his seat. "Sorry. I just got caught up in this." He picked up the game dice and rattled it in his hand. "C'mon, lucky seven! Daddy needs a new scarf! He lost his old one to rabid raptors!"

With a skilled flick of his wrist, Proto sent the dice tumbling across the board. "Aw MAN! Snake eyes! At any rate, I get to pick up a 'Chance' card!" Proto nicked the first card off of the orange pile and examined it. "All right! Second place in a beauty contest! I guess no one can resist my good looks!"

Roll muttered something under her breath about the beauty contest being judged by a bunch of jungle apes. Proto was to busy strutting up and down the playroom like a stuck up model to pay any heed.

When he had finally tired of showing off to no one in particular, Proto returned to the game and stayed in his amiable mood...until he landed on Park Place, which was owned by Roll. To make matters worse, the block of land sported the dreaded barn - red Hotel game piece. Roll saw Proto's awkward position and began to laugh cold - bloodedly.

"All right, Brad Pitt! Cough up the money!"

"Don't I get a discount for being family?" Proto pleaded.

"No. I hate freeloaders."

Proto shrugged. "Oh well. Can't win 'em all, I suppose!" He began to dig around in the mixed - up pile of play money beside him to pay for his stay. This was quite unlike Roll, who had her money set up all tidy and easy to access.

Suddenly, Proto stopped rummaging around. He gaped at Roll with a shocked expression. "Roll! Look behind you! Isn't that Howard Stern?"

Roll looked about her frantically. "Where?!"

With his sister's eyes temporarily off the game, Proto casually sent a hand sweeping over the game board. Game pieces, houses, hotels and cards fell around them like coloured rain. Roll jerked back around and threw her sore - loser brother an angry glance.

"PROTO!"

"What?! My hand slipped! It's a nervous twitch, and I'm a little sensitive about it if you don't mind!"

The cozy room was suddenly filled with the characteristic hiss of a teleportation beam. Within seconds, a rather bewildered looking Mega Man materialized in front of his siblings. Proto broke out into a grin.

"Hey, Rocky Horror! Wassup?"

The instant that Mega's eyes swept over Proto, his face drained of all colour. He pointed to Proto with a trembling finger. "Yuh...uh...you're...suppos t' be....duh...duh...."

Proto removed his helmet and clapped it against his chest with a mockingly solemn expression. "That's my brother speaking. What a way with words!"

"You...you're supposed to be DEAD!" Mega managed to spit out in a strangled half - scream.

Proto stole a sorrowful glance at the game board he had upset earlier. "Ah yes, how I do wish I was dead..I owe Roll quite a bit of money. Can you lend me five thousand, Rock? I'll pay you back tomorrow, I swear."

Mega lunged towards Proto and grabbed the startled bot by his shoulders. He tried to look directly into his brother's eyes, but all he saw beyond the visor was his own terrified expression.

Proto squirmed slightly under Mega's hold. "Uh...Rock? You're my brother and all, but you're invading my personal space, and I don't really care for that. What's your problem? What do you mean I'm supposed to be dead?"

Mega somehow regained enough of his composure to collapse into a chair and tell his brother about the torn - up scarf he had collected on the ruined city streets, and about how he had been worried sick that Proto had fallen victim to the dinosaur attack. Proto beamed hugely as he heard this.

"Awww...isn't that sweet? Rock was actually WORRIED 'bout me!" Now it was Proto's turn to invade Mega's 'personal space' as he swept his brother up into a bear - hug.

Mega struggled to free himself from the affectionate clasp. "So then...what HAPPENED? Where's your scarf?!" Mega managed to croak.

Proto let Mega get a little air. "Well, it turns out that the dinosaurs that had a walk through the city were fugitives from Slash Man's Robosaur Park. The electric fence had been shut down, and Slash didn't monitor the activities of the dinosaurs close enough. Ergo, the dinos escaped. I met up with Slash Man. He's really sorry that he leveled the city, and he gladly took up my offer to help him put the dinos back. As for my scarf.." Proto's voice became laced with regret, "..well, before I met up with Slash, a nice little robotic velociraptor decided to play 'Tug of War' with me, which turned my scarf into the equivalent of a noose. I had to give the raptor my scarf. Unfortunately, air is a bit more precious than a scrap of clothing."

"Yeah, life's like that." Roll sighed.

Proto let go of Mega. To his surprise, his brother collapsed to the ground like a blue sac of potatoes. His eyes seemed vacant. "I haven't finished telling you what happened after I found your scarf." He said in a faint whisper that still succeeded in sending uneasy chills up Proto's spine.

"All right then...go on." Proto egged.

All energy seemed to be drained from Mega now. He leaned his head against the table leg situated conveniently beside him and quietly told his siblings about how he had gone to Skull Castle to tell off Wily for killing Proto, and ended up killing the old fellow quite by accident. There was a slight pause after Mega had finished. Proto and Roll exchanged exasperated glances. This whole awful situation seemed to echo the conversation they had had a while back about Mega's emotions taking control of him, resulting in Wily getting hurt.

"Rock...it WAS an accident that Wily died, right?" Roll tried to keep her voice steady, but there was a note of urgent terror in it.

Mega only nodded numbly. "What's gonna happen to me now? Will I be deactivated?"

"I don't think it'll happen if it was an ACCIDENT." Proto tried to sound hopeful, but he knew it was useless. There was no proof that it had been an accident, and Mega was not known to love Wily. Some folks were certainly going to assume that he had killed the old scientist on purpose. And since Mega had assumed that Proto had been killed by Wily...well, that was just the final blow of the executioner's axe. Proto could hear the accusing voices now: "Mega Man had killed Wily to get revenge for his brother's death."

"Maybe Wily's robots who witnessed the death will confess that Rock hadn't shot Wily on purpose," he mused mentally, but he wisely ended up just chalking that prospect under "Things that probably wouldn't happen even if Hell froze over". Everything seemed to be in a messy - mushy - mix - up...a row of toppled dominos, all set off by Slash Man's carelessness.

Roll's expression finally reflected her true feelings of fear for her brother's future as she sat down next to him and put an arm around his shaking shoulders in a fruitless effort to comfort him. "I'd be lying if I said that everything will be back to normal someday, Rock."

Bass drifted in and out of consciousness as his systems attempted to repair his extensive damage caused by his short battle with Mega. He became quite awake, however, when he heard some dull clanks being emitted from the top of his helmet. He craned his neck around just enough to see that Flagg was pecking angrily at his gold - finned headpiece.

"Oh, get the hell away from me, you vulture! Go make life miserable for someone else. Here, eat Wily's corpse; he's dead anyway." Bass growled weakly.

With these words from his enemy, Flagg unfolded his grand wings a bit and snapped his beak open and shut just inches from Bass' nose.

"rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRRUFFFF!" Bass barked.

Flagg disappeared in a frightened black whirlwind of feathers. Bass grinned in spite of himself. He slowly hauled his battered body up into a standing position. He limped over to the small cluster of robots that mused over Wily's fallen body. Slash Man saw Bass standing over him like a black entity favouring its right arm.

"Sooooo....now what?" The wild orange robot questioned of his superiour.

"What do you mean, 'now what'?"

"Are you sure that Wily's dead?"

"Well, he's stopped breathing and his body's gone cold! I think that makes it a bit bleedin' obvious!" Bass snarled.

Slash shrugged. "Well, maybe he's just holding his breath."

"Maybe he's....WHAT!? My God, you're IMPOSSIBLE!"

Unnoticed by his brothers, Zero sat huddled with his knees against his chest in a dark corner near Wily's still form, a victim to his superiour emotions. His father was dead...what was left for him?

Slash spoke up, temporarily renting the mist of gloom that surrounded Zero.

"Well, Bass, if you're so smart, tell us what to do with this body. If we want to bury it, there's a big rubber tree plant with a very large flower pot to it just outside of this room...I think he just MAY fit if we break a bone here and there...."

"Are you insane!?" Bass shrieked. "Don't you see an opportunity here? Mega shot Wily, and he may think that he's won. But all we have to do is show Wily's body to the media and tell them the truth....that Mega killed him. To put it bluntly, Mega is pretty much screwed."

Slash Man sprang up and punched the air with his clawed fist. "Huzzah! Bass, you're brilliant! I think-- "

Slash never had a chance to tell Bass what he thought, for as soon as he had uttered that last phrase, his optics suddenly went dim and he pitched over and fell flat on his face.

"Sir Slash! What in the order of the Kingfisher and the Rose has happened!?" Knight Man managed to spit out seconds before he crumpled to the ground in a lifeless heap. He was followed almost instantly by Cut Man.

"Oh no!" Bass groaned faintly. "Not now! Not NOW!"

Snake and Shade Man pounced on Bass immediately. "Bass, you know what's going on! Why are all the robots shutting down!?"

"A while ago, Wily told me that there's a chip of some sort in all of us that would cause us to shut down one by one when he died." Bass' voice was flat. "I don't know how the chip would work, but it seems to be doing its job with ease right now!" Bass finished just as Toad Man croaked at his black boots (Bad pun #3! I deserve to be shot!). Bass could feel his own systems begging to shut down under the sudden, sleepy lure that the mysterious chip cast upon them. Bass sympathized with his circuits, but he used all his will to sternly command them to stay functional. Snake Man and Shade Man were apparently doing the same judging by the way they swayed and blinked rapidly.

"I can't shut down now!" Shade Man wailed. "So much blood to drink! So many humans to assimilate into my Unholy Vampire Army of the Night! Besides, what will Flagg do without me!?"

"Get caught in some power lines, I should hope." Bass muttered under his breath. He bit his tongue as he felt himself nodding off.

"Never mind your bird!" Snake Man echoed Shade's pathetic whine. "What about my Monty?"

Bass waved his arms with the strength he had left. "What about Wily!? The media! We gotta...gotta...oh, who am I kidding?" Bass began to succumb to the will of the chip, as did Snake and Shade.

Zero, the only robot in the room who did not posses the chip, was suddenly pulled out of his grieving for Wily by a terror that was spawned while he watched his brother and teacher, Bass, sink to the ground like a wilted black weed.

"Bass!" He cried as he scrambled frantically to his brother's side. Bass opened his eyes slightly when he heard Zero's voice. He offered the crimson figure a weak smile.

"Sorry, buddy....it's the end for me. I haven't taught you everything I would have liked to. I can only do one more thing before I go. Fetch me that phone over there." Bass motioned towards a cell phone that rested on a nearby table. Zero did as he was told. Bass pulled up enough strength to dial a number and hold the phone up to his ear.

"Hello? Is this the Daily Blah newspaper? Good...this is Bass. Yes, the same Bass that was created by Wily." There was a slight pause on Bass' end. "Well yeah, it's probably the same Bass who drove the tank through your living room window, too. What did you say your last name was? Winnik? Yes, I'm pretty sure that it was me who did that. No, don't hang up on me, you fool! Listen! Wily's been shot by none other than - get this! - Mega Man. He's pretty much sealed the fates of the rest of us robots, too. I figured that my last action should be to bring this event into the light.....yes, Wily's dead. Yes, I'm sure. No, he is NOT holding his breath! Okay? This is the story of the year! Are you gonna report it, or do I have to call up the Weekly Star? I bet they'd be interested!....Heh heh...I thought so! When you enter the fortress, be careful of the alligator pits, the killer bee nests, and the psycho robot guards that're armed to the teeth. Okay Mr. Winnik, you have yourself a nice day, you hear? Bye!"

Bass let the receiver slip out of his near - lifeless fingers. He turned his head away from Zero. He was actually getting a little emotional over leaving the reploid. "Listen, Zero. Soon enough, reporters are gonna be swarming here. You'd best not stay. They'll ask you questions that you won't be able to answer. Wily mentioned earlier that he planned to shut you in a capsule at the end of a period spanning four months, after which you'd shut down automatically, much the same way I am now. That capsule is hidden far, far downstairs, in storage room 7-G, behind some loose bricks in the north wall. I would tell you to enter it now, but since you'd end up just standing there until four months was up, you'd probably become bored out of your skull. Therefore, I think you should get out into the world and learn a bit more about it. Learn what I couldn't get a chance to teach you. You'll be fine...just remember..." At this point, Bass' eyes became quite alert as they locked with Zero's. "NEVER ever tell ANYONE that Wily created you. Do you understand? And until you wake up from your 30 year hibernation, don't harm any humans! No matter how much they sicken you. Don't do anything to arouse suspicion, or you'll blow the whole deal. Once four months are up, just come back to the fortress...I pray that it'll still be left intact. Then enter the capsule. If the fortress is destroyed and you can't enter the capsule, find somewhere else to hibernate. The only problem with that is I don't know when you'll wake up. The capsule is designed to pull you out of your sleep at an appropriate time. Okay?"

Zero's body shuddered with sobs, but he managed to nod.

A grin played on Bass' mouth as he observed his brother's grief. "Just remember, Zero...you're a reploid. Superiour to humans in almost every way. Use that knowledge and make me proud." Bass ceased breathing as he submitted to the will of the chip.

A deathly silence settled over the room. Flagg perched on the immobile chest of Shade Man and mourned his master with a woebegone cry that would have shattered anyone's heart. Zero mimicked the bird's cry as he hunched over the body of his ebony brother. While Bass' directions were still fresh in his mind, Zero felt hopelessly lost in a dark wood of confusion.

His weeping passed like a storm. He sat silently as the light of reason began to penetrate his dark clouds. The light touched Bass' last words and illuminated them with startling brilliance. Zero stood up and gave not a backward glance to his fallen brothers or father as he headed towards the entrance of Skull fortress. The training was over. His real life was to begin now.

He was a reploid....

And he would make Bass proud.

Chapter 10:

Potatoes, Cellphones, and Bro Bots

Proto frowned hugely as he regarded the swelling sea of TV and newspaper reporters that swarmed before the main doorway of Light's lab. A muffled roar of miscellaneous voices rose from the crowd, but every individual was generally asking Proto Man to grant the same request: they wanted to know exactly what had happened when Mega Man had killed Wily. Accident or not, Wily's death was big news.

Proto began to sway a little, feeling oppressed by the flashing camera bulbs and sound of rattling papers that emanated from the tangle of people. He never took well to crowds, noise or confusion, and the very scent and stand - offishness of most humans always gave him an icky feeling in the back of his throat.

The tide of reporters was creeping up to the door of the lab that Proto stood in, much to his dismay. Their glittering eyes and eager expressions reminded Proto uneasily about the pack of compies he had faced not long ago. Frustrated, he waved his arms at the persistent buggers.

"Go away! We're...closed or...or...something!" He shouted angrily.

One of the reporters in front, a young human male, tossed Proto's advice right over his shoulder and into the wind as he took a step closer. "Proto Man, how do you feel about the fact that your brother murdered Wily?"

"For the fifteenth time, he didn't 'murder' anyone, you ijit!" Proto snarled, but his voice was lost in the growing din. He raised it again. "Wily's death was an accident. Now get out of here! ALL of you!! Go home and curse your mothers for ever bringing such slow, deaf idiots as yourselves into this world!"

"Please, just one interview with you!" One of the reporters pleaded.

"No! Go home!"

"How about Dr. Light? Can we speak to him?"

"No. The Doc has...uh, the Doc has ebola."

"Impossible!" The reporter scoffed. "That disease was wiped out ages ago!"

"Yeah, well, uh...this is one of those new strains. You know, the magical kind."

"Okay, whatever. What about Mega Man? Can we speak to him?"

"Dear Creeping Gods, no! Mega Man has...has...forgotten how to speak English."

"How can that be? Robots don't forget!"

Proto offered the bewildered reporter a wry grin. "I guess that makes Mega special, doesn't it?"

Back inside the lab, Mega was a mess, which is a hell of a lot less funny than that may sound. He was trembling, and wearing the expression of a whipped dog. The sounds of the activities of the reporters outside wafted to his ears, constantly reminding him of what waited for him out there. A pack of half-starved wolves, ready to tear him apart in a second with inquires.

Doc Light leaned heavily against one of the lab walls near his frightened 'boy'.

"All right, Rock." He drawled. "Calm it down, and tell me again, in your own words, what happened..."

Mega was a little reassured by the monotone yet soothing voice of his creator, so, in a shaky voice, he told the story of his 'revenge' all over again. As Mega concluded his story, Light rubbed his eyes in exhaustion. There was the ol' migraine attack again. "Okay, folks...let's not panic. It was an accident. Maybe everything will turn out all right."

Light was interrupted by the familiar clang of metal boots echoing down the hall. A cranky Proto Man bust into the room. Wordlessly, he headed to the kitchen, and stormed out a few minutes later, brandishing an armful of potatoes. The maroon and silver bot was muttering something about "Getting rid of those damned reporters even if he had to stoop to juvenile acts to do so." Seconds later, muffled shouts and dull explosions could be heard as Proto gleefully whipped the tubers at the reporters, cleansing the doorstep of them, if only temporarily.

Mega shifted uncomfortably, and cleared his throat. There was one scrap of info he had been withholding from his family this whole time, and that was about that odd blond-haired robot he had encountered shortly after Wily had bought the farm. He had withheld the info until now, because the sight of that robot had seriously scared him halfway out of his mind. There was something about it that he couldn't put his finger on. It was as if the robot had radiated a disarming, malignant power that was almost unworldly. And those penetrating eyes didn't belong to any sort of regular robot. When Mega tried to recall them, the memory summoned an immeasurable fear into his heart, a feeling he didn't really enjoy.

"Doc...?"

"Yes?"

"I didn't tell you this before. I met a new robot when Wily was...uh, iced."

Light dismissed this with a simple wave of his hand. "Never mind that. Wily was always dingaling with mechanics, and always coming up with new warriors..."

"No Doc." Mega's voice was quiet. "This was different. Much different."

"What was so different about it?"

Mega suddenly looked small and helpless, as if his soul had been yanked out of his body by the devil. "It was...just...I don't know! It was just so humanlike. Hard to explain."

All the air rushed out of Light's weary lungs. His head began to throb at Mega's last words.

Mega and Roll looked at the Doc with concerned interest. "Something wrong, Doc?"

Dr. Light did not answer. His mind seemed to be coated with a fuzzy panic. He steadied himself a bit fixed his eyes on Mega.

"Rock..you said that this robot was 'humanlike'? In what way?"

Mega shrugged. "It's really hard to explain. Its actions and emotions seemed richer and more real than any of the other robots there. Like a human or something."

Dr. Light's world crashed. This was it. Wily really HAD used those reploid plans that Bass had stolen so long ago. He had built a reploid. Dr. Light didn't doubt it, even if Mega's description of the robot had been vague. And there was little doubt that the reploid would be put to ill use. Even if Wily was dead now, there was an excellent chance that the twisted scientist had told the reploid what to do with its future life, i.e. kill humans, cause general destruction. Also, there was a vital hibernation period of at least thirty years that reploids needed to go through to make sure that their advanced minds will develop enough to be able to tell the difference between right and wrong. It was crucially important that they had judgment, as a reploid's conscience was the only thing that would keep it from blasting all sorts of neat stuff. Dr. Light had written that clearly on his notes. He prayed that Wily would at least have HIS reploid go through the hibernation process so that it would be a bit more stable.

Dr. Light fell into a chair behind him and did some quick calculating in his head. He was sure that Wily WOULD have the reploid hibernate. Wily was a lot of things, but he wasn't stupid. On the notes, Light had indicated that he was going to put his own reploid into hibernation, should he ever create one. Wily would likely realize that an unstable reploid is not a happy reploid, and would do the same. Oh, this was going to be a fun future.

"Hey Doc. You die?"

Mega Man's inquisitive voice brought Light's thoughts thundering back to the present. Roll stood beside her brother, a look of concern etched into her face.

The Doc snapped out of his trance and began to speak in a hushed voice. "What you saw at Wily's fortress, Rock, was not a robot. It was a reploid. There's a world of difference, and I'll explain it to you later. But I'll tell you this much. Reploids are dangerous. Very much so. I should know: I created the plans for the construction of one, but I never carried them out because I was fearful of what they were capable of. But your little friend, Bass, stole them a long time ago when he ransacked the lab. Back then, I told you he hadn't really taken anything of very great value, but I was lying. Wily has obviously created a reploid that'll wreak havoc in the future. I can't allow that to happen. I created the plans, and they were my responsibility. I have to find some way to retaliate." He slowly rose to his feet, his body creaking in protest to this movement. Sighing, Light was reminded that he had little time.

"Rock, hear me out for a second...."

Proto was painfully aware of the fact that he was running out of creative ways to scatter the reporters from Light's door. He involuntarily cried out as the flash from a camera lit up the world for a second. Even with his visor, Proto was extremely sensitive to light.

When the spots cleared, Proto was suddenly hit by an idea that made no sense at all. In other words, it was perfect. He dashed inside the lab as a streak of silver and returned to the reporters with a cellphone in his hand. He fixed the journalist in the front of the mass with a friendly smile.

"Hey. Your mother's on the phone."

At these words, the reporter's eyes grew to twice their normal size. A scream escaped him as he whipped around 180 degrees and began to claw his way into the crowd.

Proto chuckled as he listened to the dialtone in his ear. "I'm surprised that worked. Maybe his mother was a psychotic rodeo clown. Wouldn't surprise me. Humans are so messed."

John Winnik, a famed journalist from the popular newspaper known as the Daily Blah, averted his sickened gaze from Wily's cold body to the unconscious forms of the robots strewn around him in an uneven pattern. Several reporters milled about the fortress, writing down various points, snapping photos, etc. John's partner, Sean Mac, whistled as he regarded the mess.

John turned to his friend and jabbed a finger at the jumble of robots before him. "Do you know which one of these is that bastard, Bass?"

Sean shrugged. 'No clue. Why?"

"I was hoping to pry off his arm and use it to patch the gaping hole in my living room window! I'll never forget that tank attack."

"Mmm. How touching. So what's gonna happen to this lovely fortress now that Wily is kaput?"

John peered at the dripping, dank grey stones that surrounded him, and breathed of the unpleasant, stale air that swathed him. "I guess we'll just have it torn down, and give the robots to the Robot Museum. This place is an eyesore."

Sean nodded in agreement. "Uh, so...you gonna take a picture of Wily's body, or what?"

John was taken aback. "No thank YOU. Why don't you do it?"

"I can't point a camera to save my life! Besides, I thought Sy was your photographer."

John snorted. "Yeah, well, Sy ain't here now, is he?!"

Sean shook his head numbly.

John roused himself and clapped Sean on the back. "Tell you what! I'll take the picture of Wily's body, and you go call Sy's wife and tell her that her husband was devoured by a booby- trap full of alligators! Sound fair?"

Proto was thankful for the onset of night. It was the time of day that the reporters shuffled away from the Lab and allowed Proto some peace and quiet until the reporters would return at dawn's first light, and the torture would begin anew.

The night was perfectly still and the sky was crystal clear. Proto gazed up at the starts which hung in the ebony blackness like majestic, shimmering lamps, tributes to an awesome, ages-old heavenly power that no race on earth could completely comprehend. Taurus and Orion were locked in their eternal, starry battle, as were Draco and Hercules. A dreamy smile crossed Proto's face as he fell to his favourite pastime: counting stars. "One...two....three...four...five...six...seven...eight..."

Proto was interrupted at seven hundred and three by a sullen clang beside him. He turned his helmeted head to see Mega Man sitting next to him. The small blue bot looked as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.

'Something wrong, Rocky Horror?"

"Yeah." Mega's voice was unusually heavy. "Light just gave me a sneak preview of the future, and it doesn't look pretty. Did the Doc ever explain to you what a reploid is?"

Proto recalled the argument he had had long ago with his creator about the safety of the plans. Slowly, he nodded.

"Well, " Mega continued, "it seems that when Bass ransacked our lab all those months ago, he stole the Doc's plans for a reploid, and Wily built one of his own. The Doc didn't tell me that the plans had been stolen at that time, because he didn't want me getting too 'angry'. I don't know what he was talking about when he said that."

"Hmmm...that's a bugger."

Mega picked up a rock and threw it into the darting shadows of the trees. "I haven't even gotten to the worst part. The Doc says that the reploid is probably even stronger than me. Besides that, we have NO idea when it may attack. Reploids' minds are very advanced but also very unstable. Because of this, a reploid may attack anyone...even its own creator. But if it hibernates for at least thirty years, its mind will become more secure. The Doc says he has reason to believe that Wily's reploid will go into hibernation and wake up in the future to cause trouble, which is most likely what Wily wants it to do." Mega paused. "Dr. Light wants me to be around in the future to retaliate any attacks the reploid might make on society."

"That's a great idea!"

"No. Let me finish, Proto. The only way for me to fight a reploid is to become a reploid myself."

Proto looked blank. "What do you--?"

"Dr. Light doesn't have the time to build a complete reploid, and even if he did, he lost the plans to Bass. But since my mind is almost as advanced as a reploid's, he says he remembers enough of his plans to turn ME into one quite easily. Then he'd put me into thirty year hibernation. There's a very good chance of it working...but I'd lose all my memory of my life as a 'bot."

"But that would....suck!" Proto mentally cursed himself for not using a word that was a bit more compassionate.

Mega stirred. "Yes, it would. But I'm going to accept."

Proto actually became frightened at the thought of losing his brother. "No! You can't. I'LL take your place!" He said lamely.

"Wow, one of your first unselfish acts towards me! Excuse me while I have a heart attack." Mega grinned teasingly. "Anyway, this is something I need to do. Humans in the future are gonna need to be protected against this 'reploid', and I'm the only one who can do it. I WANT to do this. Wily may be gone now, but that doesn't mean that crime etc. will just vanish into the air. You need to stay and protect this time period. I'll handle the future. Don't worry."

The brothers sat in silence for a second, listening to the distant whirr of crickets in the evening's heat. Proto's voice ruined the fine stillness.

"So...is the Doc gonna transform you right away?"

"No. First I gotta pay a visit to Auto's shop and get the right materials."

"Hm. On your way, you think you could stop at K-Mart and fetch me a new scarf...?"

Chapter 11

Catching some Z's

"Hey...buddy...are you gonna pay for that?"

Zero disgregarded this question as he pocketed an energy canister.

The robust green and yellow robot behind the counter of the popluar robotic supply store known affectionately as 'Big Eddie's' cocked his head and frowned at the tall, scarlet robot that browsed freely amoung his wares. The odd stranger picked up some sort of nick-nack that Auto could not identify from his viewpoint. He got a perfect view, however, of the stranger examining the object, shrugging, and discarding the item over his plated shoulder. Auto nearly freaked, which was very unlike his humourous nature.

"Hey, come ON!" Auto exclaimed as he waddled from his lair to see what damage the robot had caused to the object. "Don't throw stuff around like a Fishwife! Do you think nuclear atom splicers grow on trees?"

"Hell with you, fat boy."

"That's not very nice."

"Ask me if I give a damn." Zero pocketed another small item to punctuate this statement.

Auto sighed. Usually, almost nothing could daunt his good nature. This newcomer, however, was doing a very good job of undoing the happy-go-lucky air that surrouned the store owner. He realized that Eddie himself was going to have to handle this loser...

Zero shuffled around the contents of another shelf . Annoyance welled up within his systems as he did so. Garbage, garbage, garbage. This cheap store didn't have what he was looking for, although Zero himself didn't have any idea what he WAS looking for. To vent his frustration, Zero pulled some stuff off the shelf and let it slide onto the floor. He felt a tiny glimmer of satisfaction as he listened to the resounding crash.

As Zero stood ankle-deep in the debris of his destruction, he thought about how messed up his life had been since Bass had gone bye-bye. Without his ebony brother to lead him, Zero was pretty much lost. Sure, he would automatically deactivate in four months...but what was he to do until then? Eat stale fruitcake? Run up and down the city streets naked, screaming that Big Bird was coming to kill him? Obviously not. Bass had warned him to behave. But only seven days had passed since Zero had left Skull Castle, and already he was screwing up royal.

One thing was certain: Zero had turned nastier since his departure. The loss of his father and brothers had not been good for his mental health. Besides that, now that he wandered the city streets, he found himself surrounded by humans. Humans. The very word dripped slowly into his circuts and tainted them with hate. He would never forget that mysterious, swirling entity that had hovered above him like a formless omen. He would never forget the entity's voice, which had sounded like gravel being shifted back and forth in a wooden bucket, telling him that humans were evil. And now that he actually had contact with them, Zero hated them. He hated their recklessness, their backstabbing nature, and the way they made themsevles out to be such a big screaming deal. Zero found that as each day passed, it got a little bit harder to refrain from going berserk and introducing a few dozen humans to the happy end of his blaster. But common sense was always there, nagging him and scolding him. He could not do any killing of that sort...not yet.

Zero was pulled back into reality as a thin, unplesant feeling cut through him. It was a feeling we all get at one time or another: Zero felt like he was being WATCHED.

But watched by what? Zero looked up down and around and finally at his armoured boots. There, standing no higher than Zero's knee, was the oddest creature he had ever laid eyes on.

"Hey. Innkeeper. You've got rats." Zero's monotone voice betrayed his actual feelings of surprise.

"That's not a rat, buddy."

And, indeed, it probably wasn't. The little creature was a bright, firetruck red. Its head bore a crest that was almost suitcase shaped, and looked hollow. While the thing had no arms, it had two legs. It continuosly rocked back and forth on those legs in a rhythm that was as steady as the tides themselves. Its large eyes blinked in a manner that kept perfect time with its rocking. Those eyes were now looking directly at Zero, fixing him with a menacing glare. Zero felt a little bit overwhelmed. Zero didn't know many knee - high, dancing pieces of luggage that could deliver the 'evil eye' like this one did.

"Hey big guy...who is this little freak and what does he want?"

"That," said Auto, "is Eddie, robot 72080 of the Flip - Top breed. He is requesting that you return the materials that you stole."

"What's he gonna do if I don't? Blink me to death?!" Zero snorted as aimed a swift kick at the small, seemingly defenseless form before him. To his surprise, the suitcase sidestepped the attack and retorted by delivering a head butt to Zero's knee. The crimson reploid yelped as his knee gave way and spilled him onto the item - strewn floor. All the items he had stowed away in his armour rolled out and became lost in the clutter.

Above him, Auto broke into peals of laughter. He offered one of his big hands to Zero. Zero grudgingly accepted it and scrambled to his feet. Then, without hesitation, he aimed his arm cannon at Eddie.

"Hey!" Auto said sharply, smacking Zero's cannon away from his friend. "That's not nice! Now come on. Let's have a little chit chat. I have a feeling you need one."

Zero lowered his arm cannon, surprising himself. He felt a little reassured by Auto's friendly tone, so he accepted his offer. He felt lost and confused, and needed a friend to talk to, even if it was a big, dumb, fat robot that was painted the colour of mucus. However, he was wisely selective about what he told the big bot.

"My name's Zero. I don't really know who I am. My creator abandoned me, and I've just been wandering around for the last little while."

Auto's normally blank eyes suddenly brimmed with regret. "Aw, you poor thing...you're an orphan."

"Yeah, I guess you could say that."

Auto pounded Zero on the back, knocking the wind out of the reploid. "Well, that's enough about you! I'm Auto, and the store you stand in is called Big Eddie's! Not to toot my own horn, but we're pretty renowned! We supply Dr. Light himself with a large amount of materials!"

Zero's circuts froze with a chilling hate. Dr. Light. He had heard that name before. But where? "Dr. who?"

"Oh, you haven't heard of Dr. Light? He's famous! He's the creator of Rock, Roll, Tango, Beat..."

Unbeknownst to Zero but knownst to us, Rock was Mega Man's real name. But since Zero didn't know that there was any relation at all between the two names, he merely smiled, the first one he had cracked in a long time. "That sounds a lot less like 'Dr. Light's Creations' and more like 'Mr. Holland's Opus'.

Auto bellowed as if he had heard the best joke in the world, and slammed Zero on the back again. This time, Zero went staggering nearly halfway across the store.

"I like you, buddy! And Eddie likes you too."

Zero recovered himself. "Eddie? That dancing suitcase that I nearly shot? He talks?"

"Well, not really. But he's my best friend..."

"You're best friends with a mute, knee - high briefcase?" Zero slowly began inching towards the door in case he had to make a break from the loony bin he was currently enclosed in.

"Yeah, Eddie helps me run the store." Auto said cheerfully. "Even though he can't talk, I understand everything he's trying to tell me!"

Zero's curiousity finally overshadowed his uneasiness. "How do you communicate with him?"

"One blink means yes, two means no."

Zero couldn't believe what he was hearing.

Auto lumbered towards Zero again and threw his thick arm around the reploid's shoulders. "I can tell I'm scaring ya, buddy. You can leave now if ya want, but afore ye go, could you please help me clean up the mess you made with your temper tantrum?" Auto motioned towards the shelf that Zero had pulled down.

Disgusted, Zero peeled Auto's massive arm off of himself. "Why do you keep on making physical contact with me, Auto? Are you coming on to me or something...?"

Auto's booming laugh ensued. Zero became slightly annoyed. Didn't this guy take offense to ANYTHING? Zero realised that he could probably throw a brick at Auto's head, and the guy would still be laughing. It was highly irritating.

Nevertheless, Zero agreed to help Auto clean up. Eddie tagged closely at Zero's heels like a puppy while the reploid put items back on their designated shelves. He was obviously making sure that nothing was ripped off again. Zero was contemplating on whether or not his leg should 'accidently' thrust out behind him and kick Eddie in the face, when a nearby object that bore a brilliant lustre caught his eye. Zero dropped the armful of supplies he had scooped up, and walked in a trance to that shining object like a moth to a candle. It seemed to be calling his name. As he got closer to the object, he saw that it was a cylindrical handle of some sort of sword that lacked a blade. Very unusual, but Zero still streched out a tentative hand and drew the object towards him. It felt cool to the touch, and it was a healthy weight. Zero's hand seemed to become one with it, but he still was in the dark about just what it was...

"Hey Auto - Man. What is this?"

Auto looked over his shoulder. When he saw what Zero possesed, he waddled over to him. All the salesman instincts within him awoke with a vengeance.

"Isn't that a peachy little thing? It's the newest weapon on the market, and that's the sole one I posses. They were recently built to honour 'Lucas', the great god who was said to exsist way back in the 20th century. It's called a 'lightsabre'. You see that funky little button near the hilt? Push it."

Zero did as he was told, and he got quite a start when a pulsating blade shot out of its lair. The blade emanated a harsh, neon green light. Zero instinctively gave a swipe with the blade. There was a deep - throated hum from the sabre as well as a faint trail of lime - coloured light in its wake. Zero was held in thrall by the wonder of the weapon. He had to have it.

"That's the lightsabre!" Auto boomed on like a commercial. "Share it with your friends, scare your gramma with it! It comes with a neat sheath that is genuine leather! I'll let it go for a...somewhat low price."

Zero's face fell. He didn't have any money, and he knew he couldn't steal this weapon. It was obviously worth a lot, and Auto would never let Zero just walk away with it. Yet, something had to be done. The lightsabre now owned Zero. It held him with its beauty and power.

"I have no money, big guy...but I'll tell you, I just HAVE to have this. Isn't there some way you can just...give it to me?"

Auto frowned thoughtfully. "I'll tell you what. We'll barter. I need some help around the store. We're busy lately. You help me around the store for a few months, and I'll let you have the sabre. Deal?"

Zero considered this. It was still four months before he would be shut down. If he worked with Auto, he could pass the time and earn the lightsabre he loved. Two birds with one stone. The drawback? Zero knew he was going to have to summon every bit of will he possesed to keep his sanity while working with Auto.

Still, the pros outweighed the cons, and Zero accepted.

Auto pounded Zero on the back once again. Grimly, Zero realised that if Auto's outlandish behaviour didn't cease, he was going to have to do some pounding of his own.

"Great, Zorro! Glad to have you aboard!" Auto quipped.

"My name is Zero."

"Ah, whatever."

And so, time went on slippin' into the future, and Zero got a taste of what it was like to work. He didn't particularily care for labour, but what the hell, it gave him something to do. He carried his new lightsabre with him wherever he went. Auto gave him the leather sheath he had mentioned earlier, and the sabre now took residence on Zero's back.

One fine day, about three months after he had begun the working life, Zero found himself carrying a large table on his back. He was huffing and creaking under the burden while Auto stood thoughtfully, thinking of where to put the simple piece of furniture.

"Okay, big guy." Zero panted brokenly. "This thing ain't exactly light. Tell me where to drop it."

"In a second. Do you think that table would look better by the door, or near the window?"

Zero could feel acidic words rising in his throat and coating his tounge, just begging to be spit out, but Zero wisely swallowed them. "This isn't exactly a life or death desicion, Auto. Please hurry and decide before by shoulders break off."

"All right." Auto said reluctantly. "Put it by the door."

Zero promply did as he was told, glad to get rid of the weight.

"No...wait...I've changed my mind. Put it by the window."

Zero's temper began to mount. He wasn't a bloody beast of burden! Gritting his teeth, he snapped a leash on his lashing anger and held it back, an action that working with Auto had forced him to practice. And he was getting better at it, too. Wordlessly, Zero heaved the table onto his shoulders again and plunked it down by the window.

"No wait...change of heart. Put it by the door again."

"AUTO! MAKE UP YOUR FRACKIN' MIND!!"

"Sorry, I can't help it if I'm indesicive!"

Zero sighed and picked up the table again. He staggered over to the door and placed it there neatly while fixing Auto with an icy glare. "There you go, your Majesty. Is that kosher?"

Auto beamed. "It's perfect! Thanks Zippo, you've been a great help!"

Zero had just about given up on correcting Auto when the big bot got his name wrong, which was almost always. "Glad to be of service." He sighed. "Now, I'm going to my room to fetch something. I'll be right back."

Auto nodded and waved him off.

Zero trooped off to his small bedroom and fetched his lightsabre and sheath. He had been forced to remove them while he had been moving the table. He hummed contently as he started back to the main store. Auto was a dork, but he was nice, and life wasn't so bad after all. Even Eddie had been agreeable lately, despite the spat that he had had with Zero all those weeks back.

When Zero saw the customer that was now browsing in the store, he froze. He expertly dodged into the shadows of the corridor mouth that yawned into the main room. Swathed in partial darkness, he felt a little bit better. He could not allow this customer to see him...not if Bass' plan was to go smoothly.

The customer was Mega Man. The little blue bot was locked in a seemingly heavy conversation with Auto. Zero could not hear the words exchanged between the two, but Mega seemed to be bearing bad news, judging by the unusually downcast look in Auto's eyes. Suddenly, Auto swept Mega into a massive bear-hug. Zero smiled without humour. It was just that Mega's struggling little body in Auto's gargantuan arms reminded Zero of a rabbit caught in a bear-trap.

Mega finally departed about fifteen minutes later, his arms loaded down with complex- looking materials. Zero let a sigh ease through him. He stepped out of the maw of the corridor and looked at the door casually. Despite the fact that his heart was still crashing against his ribs, he managed to keep his voice at a neutral tone. "So that was..."

'Mega Man." Auto finished off sadly. "One of my bestest buddies. He killed an evil tyrant named Wily, quite by accident."

"It was no accident!" Zero almost shrieked. Thankfully, he caught himself before he did so. Instead, he said, "Yeah, I've heard of Wily. From what I've been told, he deserved it." Zero immediately bit his tounge.

"The media hasn't left the poor Blue Bomber alone since then." Auto sighed. "So he's sorta...leaving. He wouldn't tell me exactly what's going on, though."

"Good riddance," Zero thought bitterly.

"But he DID give me some good news. Skull Castle has recently been torn down."

Zero's world silently crashed. His face drained of all colour. Luckily, Auto wasn't looking at him as this occoured. For his own safety, Zero pulled his casual face back on. "Well, I'm...glad to hear that. What do you suppose happened to all of Wily's bots that were in there?"

Auto shrugged. "That's the funny part. They were all deactivated when the reporters got there. Even Bass and his dog."

Bass. The very word brought a wave of loneliness crashing upon him.

"The only living things that were found in the Castle were a large raven and a rare python. I don't know what happened to those two."

Zero inwardly sighed as a tide of fond memories engulfed him. Flagg and Monty. "But what happened to the robots? Where are they now?"

"Uhm...Mega mentioned that they were shipped to the Robot Museum, I believe."

A sliver of ice worked its way into Zero's heart. What a fate for his brothers. Zero had once been to the Robot Museum. It hadn't been a nice experience....seeing his relitives and ancestors poised stiffly on display with faux expressions of bravado plastered on their faces for eternity had given Zero the creeps for a good long while after that. Their glassy, meaningless eyes were forever pegged on an unseen threat. Zero had hated it.

"Something wrong, Zilcho?" Auto's voice sounded concerned.

"Zero." Zero corrected automatically. "And no, nothing's really wrong. Just a little...tired out."

"Hm. Get some rest, why don'tchya!"

Wordlessly, Zero complied and lurched back to his room like a member of the undead. On his way, only one thought now pounded painfully on his mind: If Skull Castle was gone, where was he to hibrenate when the time came? His last days were on their way.

"Whelp...I guess this is it, Rockster."

"Yeah." Mega sighed heavily.

Mega, Proto and the rest of the dispirited clan were regarding the sea-blue capsule that loomed before them, exactly 8 by 14 feet.

Mega gulped. He knew that he was to enter this capsule for his own good and for the good of the future, but part of him resisted. Damned new emotions. Mega looked down at himself. He was now a reploid. His mind and body now had limitless power, which he could pracically feel ebbing from himself. A nameless power that was extremely dangerous.

Mega regarded the capsule again with narrowed eyes. Once he entered that thing, he'd be plunged into a 30 year sleep, during which most of his memory would be wiped. Did he really want to go through with this?

Light prodded at Mega's slugishness. "Come on, Rock. Step into the capsule. You've already said your goodbyes."

Mega took one hesitant step towards the yawning mouth of the capsule. He threw a quick glance at Proto, who gave his brother the thumbs up. "Don't worry, Rocky Horror! I'll look after the city while you're snoozing. I just hope I don't screw up royal. I'm kidding! hehehe!"

Mega returned the smile, and finally summoned up enough guts to step into the capsule. Light closed the door calmly, if not a bit tearfully.

"And that is that." Roll sighed when the hydrolic hiss of the door subsided. "I just hope that no one is going to bother him for 30 years. What will we tell the reporters when they find that Rock's missing?"

"We can tell them that he ran," Light said grimly while he pecked at some keys at his computer. "Not very noble, but that's the best I can think of at this time."

"Oh no!" Roll nearly wailed. "Then everyone will think he DID kill Wily on purpose."

"Everyone already thinks that." Light mumbled. "Now, silence please! I have to finish this warning in case anyone finds the capsule before 30 years is up." Light returned to his typing, dictating to himself as he did so.

""X" is the first of a new generation of robots that contain an innovative new feature...the ability to think, feel, and make their own decisions..."

Cloaked in the blackness of the moonless night, Zero stole one final glance at the store that had served as his home for four months. Big Eddie's. Zero was definately going to miss Auto, although he hardly admitted it to himself: the big bot was one of a kind.

Zero found himself in the heart of the city. The place was calm. There wasn' t a trace of the ruckus that usually covered the streets. Only a few cars whispered by every five seconds or so.

Streetlights placed soft orange islands on the black street. Zero dodged from one to another, heading towards his destination. Within minutes, it was before him.

The subway station.

Surely, this place could provide him some bedding for thirty years. Hopefully. Zero plunged into the station and glanced around. A few humans milled about lazily, none taking much interest in Zero.

Zero made his way down to the trains. The ticket collecter was in his little booth, reading a magazine that seemed to hold all his interest. Therefore, it was no trouble for Zero to slip by unoticed.

As he neared the tracks, Zero saw a subway charging and snorting down them like a mammoth steed. He waited patiently as the train roared in, emptied its passengers, loaded a few on, and resumed its dreary course. The place was deserted. Zero prepared to make his move.

Making sure his lightsabre was strapped on securely, Zero lept onto the tracks and darted into the tunnel that the train had entered. He travelled down the murky chamber, his eyes searching for appropriate bedding.

There! A nook! Zero flattened himself against the wall as he traveled deeper into it. Suddenly, sleepiness tugged on his circuts. Panicked, Zero began to speed up his journey.

The nook made an 'L' shape. In the inky darkness, Zero felt along the wall, turned the corner and finally settled. This was to be his home for the next 30 years or so. He muttered a short prayer, hoping that the nook he rested in was really as unused as it appeared to be.

Zero remembered Bass telling him that, without the capsule, Zero wouldn't awaken in exactly 30 years. It might be a bit more. It might be a bit less. The chip that Wily had planted in Zero at birth would take care of the job of putting him into a long sleep: hopefully, his systems wold be smart and would wake him up at the appropriate time.

This concern was still settled on Zero's mind as he succumbed to the lull of the chip within him. He closed his eyes. The only ones to witness the beginning of his long hibernation was a family of mice who now had a big red robot sharing their nook, much to their disgust.

Chapter 12

Day of the Dracos

"And now, we have to decide what we want to do with it."

"Hold up, Maugrim. Don't do anything rash. I think I've almost got him activated. Saints and Stars, how the hell DID this hunk of junk end up down HERE? And how long has it been here?"

"I say we kill it!"

"Naw. If it turns out to be one of those bloody Hunters, we'll torture it. THEN we'll kill it!"

A clawed hand tugged on some exposed wires, and a flurry of sparks flew angrily from them. Zero was jerked with a start from the inky black peace of his hibernation. His eyelids snapped open effortlessly, despite the fact that over 30 years of dust had built up on them.

"It lives." A bestial voice rumbled.

Sleep still misted Zero's mind and threw his optics out of whack. He couldn't focus on the figures grouped before him properly. When he tried to sit up, he found, to his dismay, that his years-long hibernation had stolen all the cunning out of his joints. He could barely move. One of the figures, who was barley more than a blur of watery green, assisted Zero. "Up you go, Goldilocks."

Zero thickly stammered his thanks as his vision came into view. Three lupine robots towered over him, their expressions stern. The one who had helped Zero sit up was now crouched beside him. The 'werewolf' in front of the rabble, apparently in charge of the other three, approached the crimson reploid. His fur was jet black, which clashed savagely with his gentle sky-blue armour. His sleek arms were folded across his chest. He squinted his snout down at Zero and slit his haunting yellow eyes at him.

"Howdy stranger." The wolf's suspicion of Zero was apparent in his rasping, surly tone. "Would it be any skin off of your behind to tell us what you're doing here and who you are?"

Zero was forced to think hard. His hibernation had fuddled up his memory. He fumbled around with facts in his head for a bit until he finally came up with what he was looking for.

"My name's Zero."

The black werewolf drew back his lupine head. "Very nice. Now, how did you end up all the way down here? And what were you doing just sleeping here like a vagrant?"

The wolf's eyes were still nailed on to Zero's. Zero felt a little overwhelmed as he vainly tried to collect his thoughts that the sleep had scattered. "I...I don't know what I'm doing down here. All I know is that I've been sleeping for years, and I can't remember much of anything for now..."

The black wolf clacked a claw on his armour before grabbing Zero roughly by the shoulders. "Why do I get the feeling that you're witholding info?"

Zero managed to emit a startled cry. He had never felt so helpless before. His body was too tired to respond to his desperate commands to attack.

"I want you to tell me everything, friend. Tell me everything I want to know or - my word! - you'll catch it."

"I've told you everything I can remember! My name's Zero. I've been hibernating here for a long time. I can't remember why. I might in a little while, but for now I've told you everything I know!"

The wolf gave Zero a shake that caused the reploid's armour to clank together. "Are you a Hunter...?"

Zero was already sadly confused by the wolf's interrogation, and this latest question only served to muddle him further. "Hunter? What do you mean?"

"Don't play dumb, or I'll rip out your lungs and play them like bagpipes. I mean it!" He slacked his grip and Zero went tumbling to the ground again.

"Hold it, Maugrim." The green - tinted wolf crouched beside Zero said. "I think his story has some truth to it. Look, he has a lot of dust built up on him."

Sure enough, thick dust fuzzed Zero's armour like a coat of wee feathers. The black wolf, who's name was obviously Maugrim, grunted at his colleague. "But this fellow is obviously a reploid J.T.. Despite the fact that he appears to be a dimwit, he has that look of intelligence in his eyes that no normal robot possesses. And everyone knows that reploids are a fairly new creation, yet this guy says he's been sleeping here for 'years'. What's going on?"

The green wolf, J.T., shrugged his shaggy shoulders. "I don't know. I say we just lead this guy back to the surface and leave him be. He doesn't appear to be a Hunter."

Zero still didn't know what the wolves were talking about when they referred to him as a 'Hunter', but he could have hugged J.T. for telling Maugrim to back off. He wisely refrained from doing so.

Maugrim finally gave in with a rumbling growl. "Okay then...we'll let this guy off. Help him up. He's a reploid, and as long as he's not a Hunter, I have no problem with him."

Furry paws that were so like yet unlike human hands roughly helped Zero to his feet. Zero swayed like a fragile tree in strong wind, but he managed to keep his balance. His mind slowly became more lucid. He mumbled his thanks and looked at Maugrim. The gaunt wolf was flanked by two other wolf friends (fiends?). Other than the fact that one was beige and the other was aqua-blue, they were nondescript.

Memories of his past slowly began to trickle back into his mind as he looked at his surroundings. He vaguely remembered beginning his hibernation in a subway tunnel. It appeared he was still in one. The murky stone walls still frowned down upon him, and the tiny shafts of determined sunlight that filtered through the odd crack here and there did little to drive back the general depressing nature of the place. Weeds actually flourished between the tracks at Zero's feet, which told him that long years had gone by since a train last rumbled down this path.

"All right, you've seen enough." Maugrim snarled as he caught Zero harshly by the shoulder. "Come this way. You're lucky J.T. talked me out of letting you go. Few have stumbled on a Maverick's hideout and lived to tell the tale."

'Maverick'? Zero mentally added this word to his vocabulary. He yearned to ask Maugrim all sorts of questions. Where was he? What time era was this? What was a 'Hunter'? And for that matter, what was a Maverick? Were there more reploids in the world besides himself? He looked up at Maugrim as the reploid werewolf led him through the labyrinth, but the forbidding look that was twisted on Maugrim's wolfish face immediately bolted Zero's mouth shut again.

Finally, Maugrim and his pack showed Zero a rusty escalator that looked as if it had not seen life in years. The black wolf pointed a claw up the stairs.

"Up there is your way out, Zero. My name's Maugrim. The green wolf is J.T., the beige wolf is Duskclaw, and the blue fellow is Sabre. Remember our names, for we'll meet again! 'till then, ta!"

There was a scurrying of clawed feet on the tiled floor before all was silent. Zero drank in the eerie stillness for a second before he ascended the stairs.

Zero was hit by a massive recollection of memories as he wandered aimlessly through the city streets. Bass. Wily. Auto. Eddie. His lightsabre (upon that thought, Zero hastily checked his back and was greatly relieved to find it intact). And, lastly, the destruction of Skull Castle which had forced him to hibernate in the subway tunnel. Zero didn't know exactly how long he had been asleep. It appeared that those wolves he had met had managed to re - activate him when they found him. He also remembered his personal war against the humans, but that wasn't his prime concern at the moment.

Zero absorbed the changes the city had gone through as he strolled though. The looming buildings around him seemed to be pretty much the same. The inhabitants, however, were definitely different. Humans rushed by Zero, but mingled amoung them were vast varieties of reploids, like himself. Where had they come from? Zero needed answers.

Minutes later, part of Zero's answer stumbled upon him and slapped him in the face. A towering billboard smiled down on him. Zero craned his neck up to read the contents of the board:

Do you crave action? Adventure? Or anything remotely like it?

Are you sick of your rut? Of having tea with your grandmother every Sunday?

If so, then the Maverick Hunters want YOU! Join the growing ranks of human

and reploid warriors who let the Mavericks know who's BOSS! Apply at Kapcom's

Maverick Hunter HeadQuarters, located at 413 Maplemain, which is renowned to

be one of the best out there.

Our motto: "Maverick Hunters do it 12 months a year."

*****Mention this ad and receive a free Cyber-Slurpee!*****

Zero frowned, rather puzzled by the somewhat unprofessional ad before him. Usually, an army that was seeking recruits used mind-bending propaganda, not billboards slapped with some crud that wasn't fit for an underwear commercial.

As sad as the billboard was, it provided some lethal information: there was some kind of war going on, something between the two confusing terms Maugrim had used earlier...'Hunters' and 'Mavericks'.

Zero stared up at the address again. He was certain he could find some of the answers he was looking for at the HQ that the ad spoke of. 413 Maplemain. If Zero's memory still served him well, that wasn't too far from where he stood. He swerved around in the right direction and was on his way.

Maverick Hunter HQ! Huzzah!

"Sweet Dancin' Sisters..." Zero mumbled in awe as he shaded his eyes from the blinding sun to get a better view of the mammoth building that soared in front of him. It seemed to span block after block. Zero thought that perhaps he had the wrong address, but, sure enough, a large sign in the well - kept lawn beside him reported that he was indeed at the right place.

Humans and reploids swarmed all around the building like restless bees in a hive. Many were heavily armed. Some, particularly the humans, threw Zero worried glances as they hurried by.

Taking a deep breath, Zero approached the regal gates that marked the main entrance of the HQ. They were closed, but Zero noticed a small boxlike structure on his right that looked like a doorbell and was meant to be treated accordingly. Zero hesitated, however, when he spotted a tiny sign that was positioned just below the bell:

PUSH TO FEEL GOOD.

Zero blinked, but the crazy words on the sign did not change.

PUSH TO FEEL GOOD.

Zero tensed as he pushed the bell, expecting 1000 volts of raw electricity to shoot through him, or something equally as pleasant. To his surprise, nothing happened and his summons were answered almost immediately by a tall reploid donned in brilliant platinum armour. The reploid spied Zero and grinned like a mad monkey.

"Well? Do you feel good?"

"Yeah, I'm just orgasmic, buddy." Zero grunted as he tried to push his way past the platinum reploid and enter the building. The gatekeeper held him back.

"Whoa, not so fast there! If you're an applicant, go around to the east side of the building."

Zero began to lose his temper. "Who ARE you!?"

"The porter of Hell's Gate! Bwa ha ha! Now smarten up, Brighteyes."

Zero's head spun. So, it was coming down to insults now, was it? Zero was tempted to reach into his mind and pull out the most lewd and vile put-downs that he possessed; however, he didn't want to get started off on the wrong foot in this new time era. So he attempted to push past again. The good nature of the 'porter' vapourized like water as he delivered a kick to Zero's shins. Zero yowled and swung his fist, planting it in the reploid's grinning face.

Pretty soon, Zero and the platinum reploid were locked in a nasty fight like hammers and nails. Curses flew thick. Some humans and reploids gathered around the two, but no one tried to break up the fight: rather, they were standing as fans do at a football game, cheering their favourite side.

"What in the name of Skie is going on here!?" Someone shouted. "All of you, back to training! If Cain gets word of this, there'll be hell to pay!"

From afar, Zero could hear disappointed mumblings from the ring of bloodthirsty spectators as they broke up. Zero, however, was too busy gleefully flailing at the platinum reploid pinned below him to notice.

A cold, clammy hand came down on Zero's shoulder and pried him from the bleeding reploid below. "All right...that's enough. Calm down."

Zero was still flinging his limbs around and didn't stop until he turned his head aside to study the hand that retained the vicelike grip in his shoulder. It was blue. Yes, blue. A nice, deep ocean blue. And scaly. And clawed. Yes, every finger that gripped Zero was tipped with long, black claw. Zero tilted his nervous gaze upwards and found himself in the shadow of a long, reptilian snout with several yellowed fangs jutting out of it. A breeze tickled past Zero. Averting his view to behind him, Zero spied two massive, leathery blue wings slowly fanning back and forth like some sort of monstrous bird of prey keeping its balance on a carcass. Beyond that, a lithe, barbed blue tail lashed back and forth like a cat's.

Zero gulped as reality dawned on him. A reploid dragon. He was being held in thrall by a reploid dragon. Zero wisely slowed his struggle.

"Attaboy." The reploid draco cheered him. Although the voice sounded like a cross between a human and a cement mixer, it was friendly. "Now. Answers. Get up, Forrest, and tell me how this guy peeved you so much."

The platinum reploid, who obviously had the unfortunate christening of 'Forrest', scrambled to his feet. Black circulatory fluid trickled down his face. He jabbed a finger at Zero and snarled, "This big blonde Wookiee tried to kill me!"

"I did not."

"Now now." The dragon chuckled. "Let's not fight!" The leviathan laxed his grip on Zero, which allowed him to get a better view of the peacekeeper.

The dragon's triangular head was supported by a sinuous, reptilian neck. A short, jet black mohawk bristled from the dragon's forehead and worked its way halfway down the neck, where it ended in a small ponytail that was bound by a blood-red band. Two black ivory horns protruded from his skull. They looked capable of goring through any material. Protective blue scales covered the dragon's body, but full, pale purple armour was present to augment his defensive capabilities. The reploid was at least two feet taller than Zero.

"Forrest, I think you should get back to training," the behemoth suggested in a kind but firm tone. "Forget about guarding the door."

Forrest pouted. "But I LIKE being the doorman!"

Seeing his new nemesis getting the boot made Zero break into a broad smile. "Yeah, well, life's a you-know-what, and then you marry one!" Zero paused for a second, wondering how he had known such a line. Had he picked it up from somewhere?

"And that's enough out of you!" The draco said, giving Zero a cheerful shake that still rattled the crimson reploid's teeth. "We're going to have a bit of a chat. What's your name, please?"

"Zero."

"Pretty name." The mechanized dragon commented. "My name is Lord Th'ckpa'sskyleth, but my friends just call me Skysheen or Sky. Are you here to enlist in the Hunters?"

"Uh...no. I don't even know what the Hunters are."

As soon as those words escaped him, Zero got an odd look from Skysheen. He was expecting a bombardment of questions, but fortunately, the dragon wasn't nosy. He merely shrugged and said, "No? Airhead, huh? Well, never mind. I'll be more than happy to explain." Skysheen walked slowly as he talked. Zero followed.

"Let's start from the beginning." Skysheen rumbled. "About 30 years ago, a scientist and geologist named Dr. Cain was digging around in some dirt somewhere looking for prehistoric plant life or some such nonsense. Anyway, he eventually came across a neato capsule. Inside the capsule was a robot, but not just any robot. This was a member of a highly advanced race of robot known as 'reploid'. The reploid said his name was 'X', but that was all he could remember about his past."

Zero's heart fluttered. So, all those years ago, he hadn't been the only reploid in existence!

"So, anyhow," Skysheen droned, "Dr. Cain became extremely interested in making more of these 'reploid' things...so, with X's help, he did. 'Twas only a matter of time before reploids were in mass production around the world.

"Reploids were immediately noted to be amazing creatures. They had limitless strength, yet each one had a unique personality and a large array of emotions, making them very humanlike, and thus good companions. Sadly, a handful of reploids recently realized that they were the superior species and humans were limiting their growth. So they turned violent against humankind. These renegades are known as 'Mavericks', and their greatest desire is to wipe out every last human. Fortunately, the ranks of the Mavericks are currently very small. Hopefully, they'll stay that way, and it'll be easy for us, the Maverick Hunters, to neutralize 'em!"

"So," Zero thought, "There are other reploids who share my hate for humans. How peachy! But their forces are weak, and threatened to be snuffed out. How un - peachy."

"I get it." Zero said thoughtfully. "The Maverick Hunters destroy 'Mavericks' and protect humans, right?"

"Aye. It's an organization that Cain set up, and it's hugely successful. We have reploids and humans fighting for a common cause. It's really neat. We're led by a reploid named Sigma. He looks a bit like Mr. Clean, but that's between us!"

"Oh, humans fight with you, too? Are they strong enough?"

Skysheen gave a short laugh. "Oh, certainly! You'd be surprised. If humans are fighting for a cause they believe in, they can turn into nasty little war machines. They can also overwhelm in sheer numbers."

"Neat." Zero's respect for humans increased a wee bit. He made a mental note not to underestimate them.

"In fact," Skysheen went on, "let me show you something." Skysheen led Zero around to the back of the massive structure of MMHQ. Zero peered around the corner and was met with an awe - inducing sight.

A huge field yawned before the crimson reploid. Dozens of makeshift cabins dotted the trampled green. Hundreds of humans from every race and walk of life moved about the camp. A dull buzz rose from the crowd as the humans made themselves busy doing nothing.

"Are these all Hunters...?"

"Well, not all of 'em." Skysheen admitted. "Most human hunters live inside the dorms in the HQ. Most of these folks are refugees. When Mavericks attack and destroy their neighbourhood, they find temporary shelter here while things are rebuilt. The conditions are crowded, but they're better than nothing. Some refugees stay with us and become Hunters."

Zero cast one more glance at the refugee camp before Skysheen led him away. "So, Zero...are you gonna become a Hunter?"

Zero frowned. How was he supposed to tell a 8' 5 " reploid dragon that he was more interested in destroying humans than he was in aiding them? He began to search for words.

"Well, uh...you see..."

Skysheen clapped a scaly hand on Zero's back good-naturedly. "That's the spirit! Glad to have you aboard! I'll take you inside to look around a bit, then we can fill out an application for you! Then we'll find a suitable position for ya."

Zero sighed. It was hopeless. If he told Skysheen the truth, he'd probably be mangled on the spot. Zero hopelessly yearned for the days of his past life when he could have easily destroyed anyone he wanted. Okay, he would lay low with the Hunters for a while, then take it from there...

Skysheen ushered Zero though the main gates where he and Forrest had had their little tiff earlier. Zero stepped into a cool, well-kept building. The floor of the main hall was tiled immaculately. It neatly and almost immediately branched into smaller halls which seemed to lead to room upon room. If not for Skysheen guiding him, Zero would have become hoplessly lost in a matter of minutes.

The traffic in the halls was heavy. Humans and reploid hunters brushed by Zero every second. Skysheen led Zero through some twists and turns before he finally gave a cheerful: "Here we are!"

Skysheen effortlessly pushed open a heavy door that was marked MAINFRAME COMPUTER. Inside, Zero found himself surrounded by luminescent computer terminals. Their persistant hum filled his ears and amplified in his head.

Besides Skysheen and himself, Zero spied one other figure in the room. It was another reploid dragon, a red one. She was female and there was no mistaking it: her body build beyond her ebony armour leaned a bit heavily towards the 'feminine' side. It would be no lie to say that she looked similar to Xena in a dragon costume.

The dragon spun herself in a swivel chair, obviously forsaking whatever duty she was supposed to be performing at the computer before her. As she spun, a long, black ponytail whirled madly with her. The dragon's massive, batlike wings were fanned out a bit to keep herself in balance.

The dragon stopped her game as the door clanged open. Her guilty look was immediately replaced with a dreamy dragon smile as she fixed her eyes on Zero.

"Hey there, hun! What can Auntie Draco do fer ya?!"

This friendliness left Zero a little speechless.

Skysheen sighed. "Red...please behave yourself. Zero, I'd like you to meet my sister, Lady Dra'conia'mat."

The red reploid dragon tumbled out of the chair and drifted towards Zero. She offered a clawed hand and yet another mad grin. Zero rightly felt a little nervous when he looked at the maw filled with razor edged teeth. He diligently took the hand and the dragon shook it vigourously.

"Yep, Lady Dra'conia'mat is the name...but you can just call me Red Draco! It's glad to know ya!"

Distressed, Zero could see that Red already had a bit of a crush on him....

Chapter 13:

Reptiles Abound!!

Hello, my little hatchlings! This is your friendly neighbourhood narrator with a wee interruption. I just want to thank a fellow dragon, Neon Tiger, for allowing me to use her character, Torrent Leviathan, who is mentioned in this chapter and will be appearing in the flesh further on in BNF. Thanx, Neon! :) And now, the beast--er, beat goes on!

Skysheen hoisted his bulk up from the swivel chair he had seated himself in and made his way to the door. Prior to exiting the room, he looked over one of his winged shoulders and said "Well, Zero...I'll get you that application for you to fill out. I'll be back in a sec. Until then, you and Red can become better aquainted!"

Zero gulped as the metallic slam of the heavy doors echoed and re-echoed in the small chamber. He and Red were alone now...and judging by the way the mechanized dragon was observing Zero intently and bemusidley with narrowed yellow eyes, that wasn't really a great thing.

Alarm shot though Zero as Red suddenly began to silently paddle her swivel chair closer to Zero's own using a particularily nasty looking lance-type weapon. Instinctively, Zero started up a conversation to save himself for whatever Red had in mind for him.

"So, uh...that's a whole lotta humans you guys have in that refugee camp."

Red stopped her stalking abruptly and shrugged her leathery wings. "So Skysheen showed ya the camp, eh? Yeah, when a human's home is destroyed by Mavericks, they're invited to stay with the refugees for a bit, and maybe become a Hunter. It's all part of Dr. Cain's FTH program, which stands for 'Free The Humans', although most of the Mavericks seem to call it...uh...'Something-Else The Humans'."

"Ah." Zero got the hint.

Uneasy silence reigned again. Red began to propell her chair towards Zero. Hastily, Zero's voice sprang up.

"Er...nice weapon you have there." Zero motioned towards the silver lance that Red held.

Red grinned with pride. "Thanks! It's called the Deltawyrm Lance. Care to have a closer look?" With that, the draco tossed the formidable weapon into Zero's lap. Zero picked it up. It was suprisingly lightweight. Its sleek shaft travelled upwards until it reached the head where it seperated into two wicked looking prongs. Additional spikes were lined up near the head, to assure that the strike would be costly to the enemy.

"Pretty." Zero remarked as he handed the lance back to Red.

Red beamed as she slipped the lance into a sheath that was located on her back. "Isn't it, though?" By the way, what Maverick Hunter Unit do you hope to get in to?"

"Maverick Hunter Unit...?"

"Oh, I forgot! You're new here. Anyhoo, the Maverick Hunters are split up into three units. There's the Night Vipers Unit, which consists almost totally of humans and rookie reploid Hunters. There's the Regal Dragons Unit, which is led by Yours Truly and Skysheen. It consists mainly of experienced reploid Hunters and some of the more vicious humans. Finally, there's the elite Spartan Unit, which is composed entirely of the best reploid Hunters we posses. Siggy himself heads that unit, and thus he heads all the Hunters."

"So there's no humans in the Spartan Unit?" Zero inquired

"Actually, there used to be one. Jake McTreggor. One of the earliest Hunters. He was pretty damned good for a human. Too bad he came to such a nasty end."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. You see, there's this one very nasty Maverick who skulks around in the sewers below the city. His name is Torrent Leviathan, and he's one of the few formidable fighters the Mavericks have. Jake got a little over-confident about his skills, and he attempted to take on Torrent by himself. Torrent got ahold of him, however, and--" at this point, Red silently drew a finger across her long neck.

Zero grimaced. "You mean..."

"Jake got his throat slit." Red finished off Zero's sentance and nodded. "Aye. With all due respect, it was dumb of him to go off and try to assasinate Torrent single-handedly. I guess he was trying to prove that humans could fight just as effectively as reploids. Very noble, I suppose, but he should have thought of his family."

"He has a family?"

"Had." Red corrected Zero patiently. "And yes, he did. A wife, A teenage girl and a wee male hatchling who would be about 5 or so by now. Don't know where they all are right now, but I hope they're gettin' by all right without Jake there."

"Block...block...parry....slash...."

These commands flashed madly through Celeste McTreggor's fevered mind as she kept her eye fastened on her opponent's darting wooden blade.

"Block...TWIRL!"

Celeste swiftly veered to the right as the blade came crashing down next to her, narrowly missing her shoulder. Seeing her chance, Celeste automatically swung her own blade, driving it into her opponent's exposed ribs. The enemy doubled over with a howl, dropping his weapon. A cheer rose up from the spectators that surrounded the victor. Oblivious to the praise of those who had been watching the match, Celeste moved her shoulder-length brown hair away from the back of her neck in an attempt to cool off a bit before she dropped her stick onto the ground and walked over to her opponent, who was painfully moving his hand along his side, checking for any broken ribs.

"Sorry, Josh. Didn't know my own strength."

Josh managed to offer his friend a half smile. "Don't worry about it. That's what I get for trying to compete with someone who can fence like a bloody Jedi Knight!"

Seeing that the display of fencing was over, the crowd of kids who had been watching broke up and began to shuffle back home reluctantly. One girl broke off from the rest of the mob and joined Celeste and Josh. "Nice going, Cel!" She called. "Good work, considering that Josh is nearly a foot taller than you."

"Oh, shut up Tess." Josh growled, clutching his bruised ribs as he did so.

In unison, Celeste, Josh and Tess all hopped up and sat on the old stone fence behind them that overlooked one of the many sidestreets that wound its way through their crowded neighbourhood like a concrete river. After the excitement of the match, things seemed rather subdued at that point.

"What a boring day." Tess commented with a sigh. "Wish something would happen."

Tess' last words promptly demonstrated the old saying, 'Be careful what you wish for, or you just might get it!' Almost as soon as she had spoken, the heavy clatter of many metal-plated boots marching rang through the air as a platoon of nondescript military reploids peeked over the horizon and came trooping down the street with a rythym that was steady enough to sing to. Celeste's heart leapt into her throat. "Mavericks?!" She whispered hoarsely around the block in her windpipe.

Josh patted Celeste's shoulder reassuringly. "Nope, no need to get all worked up. They're Hunters."

And so they were. As the troop rang by the trio, Celeste could see that each reploid wore a circular badge on their arm. Enclosed in the circle was an emblem that bore two rampant Welsh Red dragons flanking a silver shield that was stamped neatly with a gold crown.

Only Tess was excited to see the reploids. "Cool! Hunters from the Regal Dragons Unit, right in our own neighbourhood!"

Josh frowned. He, like Celeste and Tess, had gotten used to seeing Hunters patrolling the area. "That's not really a good thing, Tess. There must be some heavy activity going on near here. Regal Dragons usually don't handle the minor issues."

"I've heard rumours that Mavericks are going to attack this area," Tess chimed in. "This neighbourhood is densly populated, which makes it a prime target."

"Oh, lovely." Celeste muttered. Ever since her father had been killed by Torrent Leviathan all those months back, she didn't like to hear anything that had to do with reploids. In her opinon, their creation was a huge mistake.

Tess flipped her black ponytail over her shoulder. "I'm not so hot on the idea of Mavericks leveling our neighbourhood," she declared. "I don't want to end up in that stuffy refugee camp."

Zero forced himself to stay calm as Red, who was directly behind him, tickled a claw slowly down the side of his neck while emitting a kitten-like purr. It was highly unnerving.

"Uh...Red? I...I, uh, just met you and all..." Zero gulped as he observed Red's barbed tail entwine itself gently and playfully around his left leg. Red's only response was a high-pitched giggle.

Relief washed over Zero when Skysheen entered the room again. The blue reploid dragon was holding some documents in one claw. He rattled them. "Hey Zero! Here's that application you need to fill out, and...Holy Mother Tiamat! RED!"

Taken completely by surprise, Red jumped away from Zero. However, she had forgotten about her tail, which was still in it's love-grip around Zero's leg. As a result, Red went tumbling. Her sparse armour clanked about as she made contact with the floor. Zero barely kept his balance.

Skysheen helped his sister up whilst he shook his head. "Red, Red, Red...PLEASE pay attention to your work." He pleaded. "And leave Zero alone. He may not be one of those 'touchy-feely' types, you know."

Red pouted as she was hauled to her feet. "I don't like my job! It's boring."

"Why, what's your job?" Zero inquired curiously.

Red motioned a hand towards the computer behind her. "When I'm not Hunting, I'm supposed to be keeping track of the human casualties and birthrate in the city. It's important that one compliments the other. Balance is a must here. If the casualties skyrocket and the birthrates plummet, then we and the humans are pretty much screwed. But, my word, it's a BORING job."

Sky then gripped Zero by one shoulder and guided him to a nearby table in the room. The draco set the paper down and plunked a pen in front of the crimson wonder. "There you go, Zero...that application shouldn't take too long. While you fill that out, I'm going to have a wee talk with Red about curbing her artificial hormones." With that, Skie left Zero on his own.

Zero mumbled to himself and chewed on the end of his pen as he regarded the application, which stared right back at him. The black type on the milky surface of the paper jumped out at him. Zero frowned. The application asked a lot of questions about his past. And, of course, he wasn't going to tell anyone who he really was. Nevertheless, Zero DID manage to fill out the application without giving anything away. The paper looked a little something like this once Zero had finished with it:

NAME: Zero

AGE: N.O.Y.B.B

SEX: Plenty

ARE YOU A REPLOID OR A HUMAN?: No

HAIR: Yes

NAMES OF PARENTS/CREATOR(S): Hugh Jass

EDUCATION: None, but I know curse words from 6 different languages.

WHY DO YOU WANT TO BECOME A HUNTER?: Because I love to dismember and disembowel.

IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS LIST THEM HERE: Do you eat garlic? Do you think that Elvis is REALLY dead? Do you sometimes pretend that you're an airplane? I do. I spread my arms and run in circles yelling "ZOOOOOOM!" What movies do you like? Do you ever bake? Can you light matches and eat them? Can you suck Jello up through your nose? I always wished I could do that. Do you like Pez candy? I once had a Pez dispenser that tried to kill me. You know, I've heard that Canada doesn't sell Cherry Cola anymore. Do you think that Canadians should have access to that drink? I do, even if it tastes like puke. Oh, and speaking of Cherry Cola,

AnytimeIneedtoseeyourfaceIjustclosemyeyesandIamtakentoaplacewhereyourcrystalmindandmagentafeelingstakeupshelterinthebaseofmyspinesweetlikeachic-a-cherrycola! Can you say that three times fast? I can.

Skysheen took the application from from Zero and swept over it with his reptilian eyes. Zero expected Sky to object to the information he had put down, but other than raised eyebrows, Sky remained silent.

"Uh....okay Zero. Thanks. I do believe we have a position for you."

Zero grinned. He could see himself blasting Mavericks all over the city. He would have preferred to blast humans, but that time wasn't at hand yet. Besides, violence was violence, and Zero had built up a raging bloodlust that needed to be quenched.

Skysheen beckoned to Zero. "Come along."

"Wait!!" Red pleaded, jumping up from her chair. She gripped Zero tightly by one arm and stared directly into Zero's eyes. The stare bore into him painfully, and Zero nearly lost his nerve again. A grin resurfaced on Red's face. "You're mine, my cute little crimson cookie!" She hissed sweetly. "Hold on while I get something for you~!"

Leaving Zero for a second, Red began to paw around in a box that rested beside her. She eventually fished out a thick, yellow ribbon which she carefully tied in a bow around Zero's neck. "There! You look SOOOO cute! Oh, for a camera!"

Skysheen managed to pry Red away from Zero as he dragged him out of the room.

"I'll see you REAL soon, Zero!" Red gushed after the scarlet reploid. "Next time I get a hold of you, I'm going to braid your hair!"

Zero could have sobbed. In his past life with Bass and the crew, he had been considered a god. But ever since he had woken up from hibernation, everything had botched up. There were other reploids that were even more powerful than him. His plan to slaughter humans seemed to be going down the john. Now he was tangled up in an operation that actually PROTECTED humans. Besides that, he was now a plaything for a nine-foot luststruck reploid dragon. Things were not going well.

Chapter 14

Workin' 9 'till 5

Zero's heart had been set on joining one of the Hunter Units. A Unit that saw a lot of action and violence, such as the Regal Dragons or even the Spartans. Therefore, it's easy to understand why he gaped with disbelief as Skysheen ushered him into the large Medical Unit of MHHQ.

Disappointment weighed heavily on Zero's stomach as he stared at the rows of identical and immaculate beds before him. Most of them stood empty, but one did house a Hunter, a human male with an injured leg. The human slowly bounced a red rubber ball against the wall, caught it, and stonily bounced it again. Judging by the crazy look churning slowly in the young man's eyes, he had either had too much painkiller or was coming down with a severe case of cabin fever.

"Skyster..." Zero gulped, "are you saying that I'm gonna be working...HERE? The hell with that! I wanted to be a Hunter, not a frackin' nurse! I'm leaving!" Zero turned to exit, but Skysheen blocked his way. The draco was perfectly silent, but he fixed Zero with a look that was absolute poison.

Zero wilted. "Uh...okay...I guess I could stay...for a while...don't knock it 'till you've tried it...that's my motto..."

Sky's stern expression dissolved as he clapped Zero on the back. "Atta boy! We have plenty of Hunters, Zero, but we're severely short on medical staff. You'll like working in this branch! I promise! Now, I'll take you to meet da boss man!"

Boss 'MAN' was sort of misleading. When Sky directed Zero to his new boss, the first thing that he caught sight of was the backside of a short reploid that was equipped with a bushy, orange-red tail which was swishing back and forth. The reploid was busying itself at a desk with something or other.

"Hey, Genesis!" Skysheen called cheerfully. "I got some staff here to help you."

The reploid did not turn around, but the nervous twitching of his tail increased tenfold. "It's about bloody time ya did, Sky...when the Units get back from Hunting, this place turns into a madhouse! Especially when the Night Vipers come back. Oy, half the humans in THAT Unit get all banged up and end up in here!"

Skysheen actually drooped his majestic head a bit in shame. "I know. I'm sorry Genesis. I'll get you more help from now on, I promise."

"That's what I like to hear," Genesis stated prior to pivoting on his heel to face Zero and Sky. The phenotype of his new boss caused Zero to recoil a bit in surprise.

Genesis was a bipedal reploid fox donned in silver and maroon armour. A badge on his right shoulder that bore the traditional symbol of a hissing serpent coiled around a crucifix signified his position in the Medical Unit. Two canine-type ears jutted from Genesis' helmet. Most surprising, however, was the fact that his head gear had a black visor that rested on his pointed snout and covered his eyes completely.

Genesis frowned as he observed Zero who was staring at him with wide eyes. "What's with Mr. Big Eyes here?" the fox snorted contemptuously. "You'd think he'd never seen a fox wearing sunglasses or somethin'!"

Zero was getting ready to tell Genesis exactly where he could put his sunglasses when Skysheen suddenly pulled him aside.

"Play nice with Genesis, y'hear?" the dragon whispered into Zero's ear. "He's a nice guy, and he takes good care of the injured humans in here. Help him out and do as he says. If you don't, you'll have ME to answer to. And I can assure you, that won't be pleasant. Okely dokely?"

Zero nodded glumly.

Skysheen nodded, satisfied. "All three Units are going on a big mission today, so you'll have plenty of work when we get back. We're trying to re-claim some territory that the Mavericks took over. We're gonna have quite a time! See you soon!"

Skysheen exited the Medical Unit (not before getting his massive wings caught in the doorway), the badge of the Regal Dragons proudly displayed on his right arm. Zero watched him, distressed. Genesis' grating voice penetrated the crimson reploid's cloud of gloom.

"HEY! Wookiee - Man! Don't just stand there staring! I have lots of...ooooh...." Genesis stopped in his tracks. Zero whipped around in alarm. The reploid fox stood, swaying, staring in wonder at the nearly-forgotten yellow ribbon that Red Draco had tied around Zero's neck earlier.

"Oh man...that's so COOL!"

Zero blinked twice and pointed to the scrap of cloth encircled around his neck. "This lousy yellow ribbon? 'Cool'?"

Genesis nodded dumbly.

Zero shrugged. "Here, TAKE it!" he said, glad to have an excuse to get rid of the thing. He peeled it off of himself and handed it to his canine boss, who gripped the thick ribbon with shaking claws.

"You mean...you mean I can...HAVE this?" he whispered in disbelief. "Oh..oh MAN! Thanks, Rapunzel! You're the BOMB!"

"My name's Zero."

Genesis didn't seem to hear. He was too busy winding the ribbon around his neck. By the time he was done, Genesis looked like he was sporting a spiffy yellow scarf. He modeled for Zero. "So...how do I look?"

Probably nothing on earth was more bizarre looking than a reploid fox wearing shades AND a scarf. However, Zero remembered that Genesis was his new boss, so tried a lie.

"You look fabulous."

Genesis grinned ecstatically. "Thanks! I feel so...complete now!"

"I'm very happy for you," Zero said flatly.

"Well, time to get to work!" Genesis said cheerfully. "There's a big hunt today, and we're likely to get a LOT of injured folks, human and reploid alike. Mechanics will handle the reploids, but we'll be bandaging up the humans!"

Now Zero was going to be FIXING UP humans. Yay. This got better and better all the time.

"What I want you to do, Zero, is to go down to the Hunter-Dispatch area and see how many human Hunters are there. We need to have enough beds. You don't really need to include the reploid Hunters in your head-count. Although an injured reploid needs to be very still in order for its auto repairs to work, it doesn't need a cot for that need. Sitting still on the floor repair it just as effectively. Some injured reploids will try to unload some sob-story about how they NEED to lie in bed to get better. If that happens, and you need the bed for an injured human, just dump the reploid out of the bed and kick it out the door."

Zero grinned. "Got it!"

"Do you know where the Hunter-Dispatch area is?"

"Yes." Zero lied.

Genesis looked as if he didn't quite believe Zero. "First floor. Hang a right from the main entrance and keep going straight. Can't miss it unless you're a drooling idiot. Now hurry up and go; the Hunters will be leaving at any minute! And put this on." Genesis handed Zero a badge that was identical to his own with those last words. "Now go! Hurry hurry hurry!"

The Hunter-Dispatch area WAS quite easy to find, and Zero had an uneventful trip there. As a security measure, he had to stop and talk to some reploid guards before they could allow him into the bay.

"Okay son, what's your name?"

"Zero. And don't call me 'son'."

"Okay...why do you need to enter the Hunter-Dispatch area?"

"Oh, I have to take an estimate on how many humans are gonna get mangled in today's hunt. It's for the Medical Unit."

"I see. Pass."

The second guard opened the steel door in front of Zero and shooed the reploid in. Zero was met by a sprawling, massive room that looked much like a huge, rectangular garage. Cool air filtered in through the open hatch at the tail end of the room. Platoon upon platoon of Hunters, reploid and human, male and female, accompanied Zero in the area. Zero could see that they were more or less separated into three large groups. Everywhere, Hunters were checking their armour, tightening straps to sheaths that held wicked blades, talking nervously to one another or praying. The fresh breeze in the room did little to wash away the stale pre-battle tension that hung in the air. Zero had never felt so jealous in his whole life.

Zero's eyes swam through the crowd. He took a rough count of how many humans were in the room. His conclusion: a hell of a lot.

Zero picked out a familiar face in the masses: Red Draco. He hesitated for a second, then began to push through the sea of Hunters to meet her. Although the reploid dragon's feelings for HIM were pretty obvious, Zero still didn't have much of an idea about how he felt about Red. She was a puzzle to him.

Zero finally broke free and found himself a few meters away from Red. Unlike the other Unit leaders who had already begun to give a solemn pep talk to their Hunters, Red was pounding her chest and bellowing gothic war songs at the top of her lungs like a bloodthirsty demon from the Ninth Ring of Hell. "Join in!" She'd call out every so often to her Hunters, and the nervous Regal Dragons clustered in front of her would be forced to mumble through a verse or two of the chant. Fear was obviously one feeling that Red lacked in her emotions cache.

"Red!" Zero called out once there was a lull in the song.

"HONEYBUNNY!" Red squealed as she rushed to meet Zero. She bowled over a few Hunters as she did so. "Give us a hug for good luck!" She said as she scooped Zero up in her arms and gave him a 'hug' that nearly crushed all his ribs. "I'm glad you came to see me...oh! What happened to that ribbon I gave you? It went with your hair!"

"I...uh, lost it." Zero lied.

Red squeezed him again. "No matter! I've got other things for my precioussss...!"

Zero gulped involuntarily.

Red spied the badge on Zero's right shoulder. "Ah! My honeybunny is part of the Medical Unit, is he? That kicks ass!"

"No it doesn't," protested Zero. "I had really wanted to join the Hunters."

"Tsk! Poor you! Too bad...on a nice day like this, freshly spilled blood smells extra good!"

"Ah! Hello there, Zero!"

Zero spun around to see who had issued him this greeting. His eyes met with pale purple armour. Zero looked upwards and grinned. "Hey, Skysheen!"

Skysheen grinned back down at Zero. His black claws clacked on a silver, barrel-shaped cannon that was mounted on one of his shoulders. It was a truly formidable weapon and the beauty and originality of its structure burned into Zero's mind.

Skysheen pulled Zero out of his trance. "We'll be leaving soon, Zero...maybe you'd like to meet the leaders of the other Units before we take off."

"That's a good idea," Zero agreed. "Best of luck in the hunt, you two!"

Skysheen saluted while Red blew Zero a kiss.

At the far right of the Hunter-Dispatch area, the Night Vipers swarmed together in a nervous huddle. Their badges displayed a night-black viper that had its tail entwined around a silver dagger. A tall, young human male stood in front of the Unit, shouting out directions. Zero could tell at once that this man was the leader of the Night Vipers. He found it hard to believe that a human would actually be in charge of a Unit. "Hullo there."

The man looked around to see who had addressed him when his eyes locked onto Zero. "Oh...hello." He smiled nervously. As the man turned to face Zero, a long blonde ponytail crawled over his shoulder. Annoyed, he flipped it back over behind him.

"I'm new here, and I'm just getting better aquatinted with the leaders of the Hunter Units," Zero explained casually. "My name's Zero."

The human nodded. "Nice to meet you. I'm Paul Wells." He smiled modestly.

Zero nodded in his turn. "So...have you been a Hunter for long? It's my guess that you have been, since you're leading your own Unit."

"Yep! I was one of the first ones to sign up." He smiled. "I may be in my forties, but I'm going strong!"

"Whoa!" Zero was quite impressed.

"Yeah. And as long as there's Mavericks, I'll probably keep on going. Robots taking over the entire human race is a thought that I just can't stand. A robot took my dad from me, and that was enough."

"Uh...?"

"When I was little, some freaky black and gold robot actually knocked out my dad and took him," Paul explained, casting his eyes down. "I still don't know what that robot would have wanted him for, but I never DID see him again."

For the first time in his life, Zero actually felt sorry for a human. "Tough break."

"Yeah." Paul sighed. He then cocked his head. "You know something? You actually remind me a bit of him."

Zero grinned. "Now THAT'S freaky! I'd better go now...good luck in the hunt today!"

"Be seeing you around, Zero!" Paul called cheerfully.

At the far left of the Hunter-Dispatch area, Zero found the Spartans. They were a small Unit compared to the Night Vipers and Regal Dragons, but one could see that they packed a lot of power. The emblem for the Unit was laconic, just as the Spartans themselves had been. All the badge consisted of was two spears crossed over one another.

However, the members of the Spartans Unit did not need fancy badge art to look forbidding. The blood-red cloak that each fighter in the Unit wore did that job very nicely. The leader of the Unit stood proudly with his back to his Hunters, facing the open hatch before him. He seemed to be picturing the fight that would ensue with the passage of about ten minutes. The leader wore a crimson cape rather than a full cloak. Red had told Zero about this fellow earlier; Zero was almost certain that he was staring at the leader of the Spartans and the Hunters overall: Sigma.

Zero pushed forward through the sea of red cloaks to reach the proud Hunter.

"Hey, watch it! No shovin'!" One of the Spartans yelped as Zero passed by it. Zero turned towards the voice and caught a glimpse of a reploid penguin's eyes and beak drowning in the shadows of its cloak.

"Watch the tail!" a green reploid chameleon hissed at Zero.

"Watch your step," warned a massive reploid Mandrill whose red cloak was oversized to fit his massive bulk.

"Hey hey hey, what's goin' on?" a reploid eagle demanded as Zero stumbled into him. There were two large humps beneath the eagle's cloak. Zero guessed that, if the bird of prey were to remove his cover, the humps would turn out to be massive wings.

"You know, there IS such a word as 'excuse me', a reploid mammoth huffed as Zero pushed by him.

Finally, Zero reached Sigma. The bald reploid did not turn around.

"Good day, sir." Zero panted. He had exerted a lot of strength by the time he reached the leader. "My name's Zero, and I just wanted to--"

Sigma suddenly whipped around and bellowed, "HUNTERS! The time has come. Night Vipers...DISPATCH!"

Paul motioned to his fellows, and the Night Vipers trooped out the huge door and into the open air in even lines.

Once they were gone, Sigma fired up again. "Regal Dragons...DISPATCH!"

Red Draco bellowed and her Hunters gave an answering cheer. Rather than dispatching neatly like the Night Vipers had done, the Regal Dragons simply surged out of the room in a tangled mess. Sigma shook his head as he watched them go. He turned to the Spartans behind him. "And lastly...is us. Chill, Sting, Spark, Flame, and Storm. Let's go!"

The Spartans all nodded in unison and followed Sigma into the outside world. The noise of the troops rapidly receded into the distance, leaving Zero very much alone in the now silent Hunter-Dispatch area.

"Yeah, nice to meet you too, Siggy." Zero muttered.

Chapter 15:

X, Drugs, and Rock & Roll

"Ohhh, I know it's hard when you're fat and alone...no one's there to see you. And on your birthday, no one calls you on the phone...'cept for your mother and she says, "Ha-ha-happy birthday, Pumpkin! I won't talk for long, 'cause I know you've probably got someone in your bed..."

Zero, under a burden of medical supplies, let his song wail through the almost - empty infirmary. The shrill words wafted around the room, bouncing back at him in a hollow but pleasing echo. A disgruntled, bedridden human next to Zero winced as the desolate sound tore at his eardrums.

"Zero...tone it down a bit, will you? The Mavericks tortured me enough when they captured me."

In response to this plea from the injured Hunter, Zero cranked up his voice a few notches and sang a verse to another one of the songs in his infamous cache:

"Some TIMES these WOMEN are so EASY....SOMETIMES these women are sooo COLD! SomeTIMES these woMEN seem to RIP YOU RIGHT IN TWO..."

"That's enough, Zero," Genesis drawled from across the room. "bring me those supplies now. And watch your step. The floor may be slippery. I just had it --"

A muffled 'clank' of dense metal hitting concrete accompanied by the tinkling crash of medical glassware shattering cut Genesis off in mid-sentence.

" -- waxed." The reploid fox finished lamely.

Zero cursed as he pulled himself up from the sea of glass shards that lay scattered around him. "Sorry Gen. I'm not really much of a help to the Medical Unit, am I?"

"You've really improved over the past couple of weeks, Zero." Genesis smiled as he crossed his fingers behind his back. "And you'll continue to improve."

Zero fetched a broom to clean up the spilled glass. "I guess I'd better improve! I've botched up pretty badly lately. Man, remember the time I gave that human Hunter the wrong antibiotics, and he went into spasms? Hehe! Boy, that was golden!" Zero laughed hysterically at the memory.

Genesis' grin did not fade as he pat Zero on the shoulder. "Okay, buddy...here's a job that's nearly impossible to screw up. We need some ice up here. Our daily shipment is late. Would you go down to the cafeteria and fetch some?"

"Ice?" Zero echoed.

"Yes. Ice. Do you need a recipie?"

"Hardly!"

"On your way, then."

On his way down to the cafeteria, Zero noticed that the hallways of MHHQ were almost deserted. Another large hunt involving all three Units was underway at the time. Bitter jealousy poured acid into Zero's heart, and not for the first time.

The Crimson Wonder made his way down to the mess hall. The large door leading to the area swung open without complaint. The warm smell of food cooking in the back kitchen greeted him. The cafeteria itself was a mammoth room which occupied rows and rows of tables standing at attention. The room's huge size was necessary: at meal times, the area had to seat every human Hunter, as well as the refugees in the camp.

Yet, few were inside the cafe at this hour. Besides himself, Zero spied two reploids who were shaking and abusing a candy machine, obviously in an attempt to get some free treats. Across from them, two maintenance reploids were busy trying to put up a shelf on the south wall. Zero recognized them right away. They were A.G. and Hack. Neither of them were very bright, but they were nice fellows. Finally, a lone, blue-armoured reploid was anchored at a table, reading some sort of book. Half the reploid's face was sunk into one hand, and his green eyes were partway closed. He looked sleepy.

"Hey there Astro Boy," Zero remarked casually as he breezed by.

The azure reploid snapped to attention and his head perked up. " 'scuse me?"

"Oh, nothing."

The blue reploid cut his eyes at Zero. "You DID say something."

"I dinna say anythin'!" Zero grinned, turning around. He had found a new victim to torment, and it pleased him greatly.

The reploid snorted disdainfully and said, "Well, just so you know, my name's X."

"X?" Zero tasted the name, letting the single - constanant roll around in his mouth. He liked the sound if it.

"Yes. X."

"As in X - Ray?"

"No..."

"As in X - Men?"

"No!"

"As in X - Rated?"

"NO!!!"

"As in --"

"AS IN MEGA MAN X, YOU IDJIT!!"

A bright red thread of alarm cut through Zero as he heard the name that was tacked on to the 'X'. 'Mega Man'...was this the same Mega Man who had killed Wily, his father, all those years back? Zero cleared his throat.

"Er...uh...Mega Man...I've heard that name around before. Wasn't there a famous robot from the past named Mega Man? Are you him?"

X shrugged helplessly. "To be honest, I don't know much about my past. I haven't much of a clue who I am."

Zero snapped his fingers. "NOW I know where I remember your name from! You're X, the first reploid ever created, right? The loser who knows nothing about his past! Am I right?"

X's mouth was drawn in a tight line, but he managed a short "Yes."

The hatred and alarm that had stirred in Zero's mind subsided and went back to its slumber. This obviously wasn't the same Mega Man he knew and hated. The original Mega Man had been smaller, and had been a robot, not a reploid...

X continued to stare at Zero with his head cocked to one side, as if he expected another quip to fire from the Scarlet One. Zero gulped nervously, searching for nasty words. He bought time by watching A.G. and Hack put up the shelf they were struggling with.

"Okay A.G...hold the other end of that shelf up. I've gotta put the nail in this side." Hack called to his friend at the other end of the structure.

"Okay, Hack!" The other reploid returned cheerfully.

Hack nodded. He held his end of the shelf against the wall and began tapping a nail into it.

"My arms are gettin' tired," A.G. complained after a minute went by.

"Well, keep on holding your end up! If you let go before I get this nail in, the whole shelf will fall!" The tapping of Hack's hammer ensued.

"Okay, I'll try to hold on..."

* tap tap tap *

"My arms are about to fall off!! Hurry up!"

* tap tap tap *

"I can't HOLD this thing any longer! I'm dropping my end, Hack!"

"NO!"

* BLAM *!

"SHIT!!"

"I'm sorry, Hack..." A.G. gulped apologetically, rubbing his sore arms.

"YOU'RE sorry?!" Hack exploded.

Zero couldn't help but grin at the scenario. As it ended, Zero thought of something to say to his new 'friend'.

"So X...how come you're not out a - huntin' like everyone else right now?"

"I'm not a Hunter." X returned in a flat tone.

Zero nodded in understanding. "I know how you feel. I wanted to be a Hunter SO badly, but nooo, they stuck me in the Medical Unit! I am SO ticked off about that --"

X shook his head. "No, you misunderstood me. I'm not part of the Hunters. I won't have anything to do with them."

"Wha --"

"I don't believe in violence."

"Uh?"

"You heard me."

Zero gaped in disbelief. "But violence is FUN!"

"Violence is terrible. Reploids and humans mangling each other...it's insane."

Zero snickered. "Aw man, who programmed you? Raffi? Or was it Barney the Dinosaur? Perhaps Big Bird or Mr. Snuffleupagus threw in a few source codes of theirs. No, I've got it! Your creator was Dudley the Dragon!! I just solved the great mystery of your past for you, X my boy! You owe me a beer."

X slammed his book closed and scraped his chair back as he stood up and drew himself up to full height. He tried to look Zero straight in the eye, but he was a few hands shorter than the crimson reploid, so he appeared a bit less threatening than he would have liked to look.

"I don't know you," X hissed, his tone low and dripping with venom, "but I REALLY don't like you."

"Aw, poor baby." Zero snorted sarcastically. "Life just bites with a capital 'B', don't it? Everyone around you is fighting for a cause they believe in, and you just wanna go home to mommy. Boo hoo."

"And I'M just standing up for what I believe in!" X retorted faithfully.

"I recommend that you don't whine like that, X." Zero warned.

"And why's that?"

"Because it makes my fist twitch like THIS." With that, Zero drew back his fist and buried it in X's face. X staggered backwards in shock and collapsed weakly into his chair again. It appeared that Zero's punch had rattled a few of X's teeth.

"Aw, damn! There it goes again. See what I mean?" Zero chuckled as he cracked his bloodied knuckles. His grin was poison.

X stood up, dazed. He shook his head once to clear it and stop the bells from chiming in his ears. Then, narrowing his eyes, he threw a fluttering and rather sad punch that missed Zero by a country mile."

"Hehe! You swing like a girl, X!" Zero taunted.

X did not answer, but his glazed eyes fell on a bowl of fruit on a table nearby. He seized a bright red apple that was throned at the top of the fruity pile. He brandished it, liking the feel of the weight in his hand...

"See what happens when you don't believe in fighting and violence?" Zero's voice touched X's ears and burned them. "You end up all soft and sugary like a box of old Lucky Charms." Zero paused and beckoned towards X, backing up against the wall. "Yeah, that's what you remind me of, X! That little elf who's always trying to hide his cereal from those kids. Well, come here, Lucky! I've got your cereal! Try to come and get 'em from me! I'VE GOT YOUR LUCKY - FRICKIN' - CHARMS RIGHT HERE!"

"SHUT UP, EWOK!" X screamed as he hurled his apple in Zero's direction. Zero ducked the projectile as lithe and liquid as a cat. The fruit made contact with the wall behind the scarlet reploid and decorated it with its spattered pulp.

"Oh man! You throw like my grandma, X!"

A screech of utter rage escaped X as he threw himself on Zero, flailing his fists wildly. Zero's grin of malice held strong as he confronted his attacker and attempted to pin his wheeling arms. Punches, kicks and curses were exchanged.

"You KILLED that nice apple, X!" Zero puffed as he and the rage - swathed X both stepped backwards for a breather. "So much for your vow of non - violence! I bet that apple had a wife and kids. I bet all the little apples are crying for their dad right now, and they'll never SEE him again because you just HAD to splatter his brains all over this wall!" Zero jerked his thumb behind him. "You murderer! I hope you burn in hell! I hope that you're tormented by the apple - demons until the end of time! I hope --"

Zero was cut off as X shot towards him again like a blue bullet. The fight began anew. However, Zero only got a few good kicks before he felt strong hands prying him away from his target.

"Take it easy!" The voice behind Zero demanded. It was Hack. Zero could see that A.G. was restraining a wildly struggling X, who appeared to be foaming at the mouth. His eyes burned a baleful red.

"I'll KILL him! I'LL KILL HIM!" X screamed over and over, lunging in Zero's direction and cursing at A.G.'s strong hold. Luckily, A.G. gave X no slack. Zero had aroused the killer instinct in a once - peaceful reploid. You can bet he felt extremely proud.

"I think Cain himself is gonna hafta handle this one," Hack declared, nodding his head in X's direction. "Bring Zero with. Cain'll have a talk with 'em."

Chapter 16:

So much for Hakuna Matata

A sharp - edged wind scurried aimlessly about the dank street, mercilessly forcing dry leaves and discarded papers along in its wake. It seized Sigma's blood red cloak with icy hands and spitefully made it snap sharply. Sigma sighed.

"Hunters, fall in. Let's see how badly we screwed up THIS time."

As if on cue, hoards of pain - racked figures stumbled towards their stern leader. A draconian form was amoung these. Red. One of the very few unscathed. She sauntered over to Sigma and delivered him a tremendous smack on the back that was intended to be affectionate.

"Hey, Siggy! Hooo man!" She laughed crazily. "You wanna see screw ups? Just look around you!"

To underscore her point, Red scanned a gleaming claw over the pack of Hunters before her. Ninety percent of them appeared to be in some stage of hurt.

"And that's not even the tip of the iceberg!" Red giggled, which improved Sigma's mood none. "Lookit over there."

Sigma turned towards where Red motioned. He blanched slightly at the sight he was met with. "Oy vay." The Spartan sighed. "We've had ourselves QUITE the time."

Sigma was looking directly at Paul Wells. The Night Viper was being supported by two fellow unit members. The young leader appeared dazed and was bleeding out of one ear.

Sigma did not allow any concern seep into his voice. "Will he be all right?"

Red shrugged her leathery wings. "Sure, and I don't know. Just a very nasty crack upside the head. He'll be fine with some rest, which is a bit more than I can say for the rest of us. Skysheen and I are all right, but do you have any idea how many of our Regal Dragons we lost in today's hunt? Sky's going nuts tending to 'em. Paul also lost some good fighters in his unit, too." Red lowered her guttural voice. "Lately, the Mavericks have seemed to dramatically increase in number, skill, and organization. It used to be so easy to take 'em down and reclaim territory, but now we're fighting for our lives every time we hunt. This ain't no good, Siggy!"

"Tell me about it. And next time you call me 'Siggy', I'll personally rip your arm out of its socket and beat you over the head with it."

Sigma was lecturing empty air, however. Red had taken off as noisily as a night shadow.

*****

Red fanned her wings out to full length, allowing them to drink the cold, dark air currents that suspend her lithe form in the chilly air. She soared over building rooftops which no human eye could ever detect in the ebony darkness, but she could see perfectly well with her gift of nightvision. The reptilian huntress' speed did not falter: Red had a certain destination in mind.

"Almost there!" she sang out to herself as her greenish filtered eyes roved the familiar rooftops that guided her towards her goal. "Tra la la. I love life. Whoops, here we are...!"

Red dropped herself onto the rooftop of a nondescript triplex as silently as a feather. Expertly, she peeked over the edge of the roof without being seen. As she did so, a wild hope flared up within her like the persistent flame on a newly lit candle. She had found what she was looking for!

Crammed in a fairly small alley below her were several of the Mavericks the Hunters had taken out just moments ago. Although the Hunters had suffered quite a few losses on their side, the Mavericks themselves didn't exactly escape rent - free. They, too, had some severe damages. They had obviously gathered in the alley to - literally - pull themselves back together. Red's intention was to heard one of the crippled fighters off to the side for some 'questioning'.

And her chance came very soon. One of the Mavericks, a male werewolf - type reploid, made the mistake of limping out of the alley by his lonesome self. As soon as Red was satisfied that he was far enough from his comrades, she leapt on the wolf as silently as a cat, but with the breakneck force of a wild lightning bolt. The werewolf didn't even have time to yelp. Before he could grasp what was happening, the Maverick found himself lying dazed on his back with the sharp end of a lethal lance prodding ever so slightly on his exposed neck. However, due to his akward position, he could see little beyond the trim silver cylinder that held him in thrall.

"Hullo!" A cool yet familiar female voice chirped cheerfully from above him. "No noise, otherwise...heh...'poke poke'!" The tapered end of the lance dug into the wolf's neck just a tiny bit more with these last words. He was at a loss.

"Who are you?" The Maverick snarled weakly.

"Jo' momma. Oooo, that was good! Chalk one up for me." The unseen voice tittered. "Well, never you mind. I think the real question is...WHO are YOU? And before you decide to mouth off, remember who's at the business end of my happy little lance."

"All right. Fine. My name's Maugrim."

"Ooh. Scary name." the voice commented sarcastically with a snort. "I have a few questions to ask ye, if you don't mind."

"You're a Hunter, aren't you?" Maugrim bristled.

"Kinda! But just tell me what I want to know. Where are the Mavericks planning their next big attack?"

"Why should I tell YOU?"

"Well, just because the necks of Mavericks make the cutest little 'squish' noise when they're skewered with sharp objects..." the voice commented casually as the poised lance nudged Maugrim's neck almost playfully.

"All RIGHT." Maugrim hissed, summoning every ounce of his will to keep his voice devoid of the nervousness that squeezed his heart. "Our next attack is at Torrisham Crossings in two days."

"My. That's quite a big attack. That neighbourhood is densely populated."

A grin crossed Maugrim's jet black snout. "That's right. It's a big area, and the Mavericks want it for their own territory. So, Hunter, go ahead and try to evacuate the humans that live there. We don't care one way or another. But be warned: any human that remains in the neighbourhood after we storm it gets killed. No questions asked."

"How friendly, not to mention neighbourly. Thanks to this little talk we had, I'm afraid you won't get the satisfaction of offing any humans during your invasion. I'll be going now. Thank you kindly for your cooperation." The looming point of the lance receeded.

Maugrim squirmed and pulled himself into a sitting position. "Wait a sec. Let me get a look at you."

Smiling sweetly, Red dropped down to one knee so that she was eye level with Maugrim.

Maugrim flew into a rage. "NOW I know you! You're the leader of the Regal Dragons! I just saw you tonight during the fight!...Red...Red...somethin' or other..."

"Red Draco, reploid 72081 of the Mechadrake breed. It's glad to know ya!" As she uttered this greeting, Red swung the sleek handle of her lance and whacked Maugrim upside the head. Maugrim yelped shamelessly as he clutched his sore skull and attempted to stagger to his feet and retaliate. But Red had already disappeared with a whirr of crimson wings.

Maugrim's ears rang insanely. His blood pounded in his head like a sledgehammer.

"I know you can still hear me, Hunter!" he roared, temporarily drowning out the high - pitched singing in his head. "Sure, go ahead and run! Badmouth the Mavericks' skills all you please. But very soon, you and the humans will have good reason to fear us. Why, you ask? Torrent Leviathan. That's all I need to say!"

Seething, Maugrim stormed back to rejoin his injured cohorts.

*****

"Hmmm....interesting." Zero mused as he stared at the office ceiling above him.

X, seated in a chair next to Zero, threw a poisonous glance at his new nemesis. "What?"

"Cain's ceiling. Weird structure." Zero pointed up towards the thick wooden planks that had slowly aged until they were the colour of old honey. "See, between each plank there's a crack. Watch this." Zero snatched a handful of rubber bands off of Cain's perfectly organized desk and, after propping his boots up on the desk as if he were lounging at home rather than being in the office of the respected head of MHHQ, he began to shoot the elastic bands at the ceiling, attempting to jam a few in the cracks. This outlandish behaviour nearly threw X into spasms.

"What're you doing?" he hissed ferociously. "Don't you know where you ARE? Cain might walk in at any second."

"I don't see old man Cain anywhere," Zero drawled, flicking yet another elastic band, "but when he comes in, I'll be sure to tell him that his office ceiling is as weird as hell. Hey cool, I got one of the elastics jammed! I'm so talented."

"Stop that!" X snarled.

"Okay, FINE," Zero sighed and began to fire the elastic bands at X instead. It was at that precise moment that Cain happened to walk into the room. He shook his head as he observed the two badly scratched - up reploids before him. One he recognized as X, of course, but he had no idea who the crimson reploid that was pelting X with elastic bands was...

"Oh, I can't wait to hear THIS one explained," Cain sighed as he hobbled over to the chair behind his desk and wearily seated himself in it. He fixed the long - haired reploid before him with a glare. "If you'll just give me back those elastic bands, please....thank you. Now, I don't believe we've ever been formally introduced. Would you mind telling me your name, please?"

"Zero," Zero said politely as he extended a hand. "I work with the Medical Unit. It's nice to meet you."

A smile tugged at Cain's beard. "My, such nice manners. I'm Dr. Cain, head of MHHQ."

"I know, sir." Zero said with proper awe. "I've heard all about you, but up until now, I'd never had the honour of meeting you."

"'Zero'." X echoed, his voice saturated with contempt. "So THAT'S the wishy - washy bastard's name."

Cain frowned at X disapprovingly. "Really, X! Please watch your mouth. Anyway, you two, A.G. and Hack have told me that there has been some...friction between you two. Obviously, we need to discuss things. X, why don't you tell me what happened?"

X pointed an accusing finger at Zero. "I was just minding my own business when 'Ponyboy' here starts up with me for no reason at all!"

"Uh...yes." Cain cleared his throat. "Zero? Why don't you tell me your side?"

"X is a murderer, sir." Zero explained gravely. "No legume is safe around him. I was quite shocked and appalled by his needless display of violence towards veggies and fruits."

Cain blinked. "X? Violence? These two words just don't seem to go together. I'm quite surprised that he even fought you."

"HE WAS BUGGING THE LIVING HELL OUT OF ME! 'BRAVEHEART' STARTED IT! I JUST HIT BACK!" X shrieked defensively.

Zero pretended to look shocked at X's outburst, but deep down inside, he was laughing hysterically. He hadn't had this much fun since Bass pushed Slash Man down the stairs of Skull Castle all those years back.

Cain motioned for X calm down. "Cool it, X. I've never seen you this

angry."

A hollow metallic sound rang through the office's tense air as X brought a fist down on Cain's desk, causing an empty coffee mug to actually jump. "I'm just WARMING UP! When I get my hands on..."

"That's ENOUGH!" Cain boomed so loudly that X was actually startled enough to stop his ranting. "Listen, X! It's hard enough to try keeping the reploids and humans from bickering with each other in this building. I DON'T need hassles with reploids fighting amoungst themselves. Do I make myself clear?"

"Uh...yes, sir."

"Good. X, I don't know what you're so worked up about. Zero seems to be a polite reploid with fine manners. I'm afraid I find it impossible to believe he would start any trouble."

X made a small noise that was something between a laugh and a scream.

"In fact," Cain continued, "I'd like you to stick with him for the day. Get to know him better. It would be nice if you picked up some of his good habits."

This time, X really DID scream.

"Thank you, sir." Zero said sincerely to Cain. "By doing this for X, I believe that you seized the wheel on his slow boat to complete insanity. I'll look after him."

Cain's eyes suddenly flicked towards X, who had silently moved behind Zero. "X, put down that hammer," Cain commanded sternly. "no blood on the new carpet."

*****

"Oh man. I can't believe the way you lied in there. I just CAN'T." X pouted. "The things you said about me...and then Cain sticks me with YOU...it's just not FAIR!"

"Poor X. It just isn't your day." Zero remarked as he continued down the hall towards the Medical Unit. "I'll tell you this much, friend. Stay near me and behave yourself or I'll tell Cain that you were acting up. And then, my word! you'll catch it."

Zero's wrist commlink bleeped impatiently. Sighing, he switched it on. "Yeah, what now?"

"Zero? March your ass back to the Medical Unit this instant. And I mean NOW." Genesis' static drowned voice insisted.

"What's the rush?" Zero asked cautiously. "Are you gonna get me to wash syringes again...? Because, by the Almighty Tuesday, I HATE doing that..."

"No, Zero. This is much more important. Put it this way: the Hunters came back, and not too many of 'em are in one piece."

"Oh. Happy happy joy joy. Well, I'm on my way. And I'm bringing a friend!"

"Great," Genesis snapped. "a friend. I'll go bake some bleedin' cookies and pour the frackin' milk. If you're not here in three minutes, I'll shoot your dog...if ya got one, that is." With that, Genesis cut the line.

"He thinks he's so damn big." Zero grunted as he shut off his commlink. "Well, come on X. Medical Unit, ho!"

*****

"Holy bloodbath, Batman!" Zero remarked, awed. Things were always a bit bloody when the Hunters returned from a mission, but he hadn't quite been prepared for gruesome sight that hit him in the face when he entered the infirmary. Hunters everywhere. Bashed, dented, broken, gashed...name any injury, and it was on at least one of the Hunters. Screams and cries of pain riddled the area. The little help that Genesis possessed in the Unit ran themselves almost to death, trying to tend to those who needed it. Beside Zero, X's face had drained of all colour. He looked ready to fall over at any minute. Zero, however, was not sickened at all. Quite the opposite. Never had he been met with such gore. The coppery smell of the wounded's blood filled his head and sang sweetly...it was a great feeling...

"Hey! Candy Cane! Over here, sugar!" A voice beckoned from the crowd. Zero snapped out of his trance in shock. What had just happened? Was that feeling triggered by the sight and smell of all that blood...?

"Hey, honeybunny...what's the matter?" That same voice inquired, now next to Zero. It was Red, of course. "I called out to you, and you looked sort of spaced out. You also had this kooky look on your face, like you were...uh...REALLY enjoying something."

Zero shook his head to clear it. "I'm fine." He mumbled. "Are you all right? It seems as if half your Unit is severely injured."

Red beamed with pride. "I'm jes' fine! Aren't you glad?"

"Er...yes." Zero smiled weakly and braced himself for Red to pounce on him and hug him to pieces. Surprisingly, it never happened. Rather, Red nodded towards X "Howdy X. Nice to see you again."

X bobbed his head in acknowlagement. He was still too queasy to speak.

Red yawned (exposing rows of steel hard teeth), and leaned on her lance, facing Zero. "Got some news for you, pudding. The Mavericks are planning to attack Torrisham Crossings next. They wanna claim it for their own."

"Really?"

"Uh huh. Remember how I told you about that human Hunter, Jake, earlier? I think he lived there. But that's beside the point. The humans need to be evacuated..."

Zero thought that Red was hinting that his help was needed in the Hunter units after all. Wild hope flared in him. "So, you want me to evacuate the humans?"

Red shook her head. "Nup, Cain already assigned A.G. and Hack to evacuate 'em and bring them here."

Zero's jaw nearly hit the floor. "THOSE morons!? They'll probably lead the humans off of a cliff or something. Hell, they couldn't even put up a SHELF earlier."

Red giggled. "Well, that's all Cain could spare, really. Most of the Hunters are out with injuries. Even Paul."

"Paul!?" Zero said in alarm. "Is he all right?"

"I think so..."

Zero's voice started to rise. "Are you sure...?"

"Sure, he's just fine." Red said, surprised. "Why are you so worried 'bout him?"

"I...don't know." Zero was forced to admit. And, truthfully, he DIDN'T know why he was so worried about the Night Vipers' leader. When Red had mentioned that Paul had been harmed, some deep down protective instinct had fired up.

Red cocked her head at Zero. "Anyway, A.G. and Hack leave tonight to perform the evacuation."

"That's it." Zero said flatly. "If A.G. and Hack is the best Cain can do for a rescue mission, then I really belong with the Hunters. I'm tired of Mickey Mousing around. I'm sneaking after those two in case they need back up, which I'm SURE they will."

"Sounds like a plan!" Red smiled.

"Uh? You're coming with me?"

"Of course! Can't let my big boy hog all the glory and fun! Don't worry, Skysheen will stay with Genesis and help out the injured here. I think Genesis will be too busy to notice you've slipped away."

"Heh! Yeah, I'm not much help anyway."

X spoke up for the first time since Zero had entered the infirmary. "I can't believe what you two are plotting! You're forsaking your assigned duties to sneak out on a mission you weren't assigned to. I'm going to report to Cain."

Zero threw his arm around X's shoulders. "Nah, you won't be doing that. Cuz if you do, YOU'LL be reporting to THIS." Zero ignited his lightsabre and waved the pulsing, lime coloured blade right under X's nose. "Clear? You're coming with us."

X gulped an affirmative.

"Okay then, Red." Zero smiled. "I'm ready to go. I even have a few...supplies on me in case any humans are injured during the evacuation. I'm sooo practical!"

Red laughed and grabbed Zero's hand. "That you are, honeycake! Come on Barbie, let's go party!"

Chapter 17

Gettin' outta South Park, gonna leave my woes behind?

"I wish...I wish...I WISH I brought my cigarettes with me," Celeste pined uselessly, "I could use one RIGHT now."

"You're hopeless when it comes to those things, you know that?" Josh remarked in a disgusted tone that would have set Celeste off in a fit of retortion under normal circumstances. "But," Celeste thought as she timidly glanced at the towering, muttering masses of nervous people around her, "these are hardly normal circumstances."

Tess skipped up beside her friends, undaunted by the uncanny stillness of the night. No fear penetrated her beaming face.

"This is sooo cool," she cried excitedly, jumping up and down, "all of Torrisham Crossings will be evacuated in a few minutes! The whole neighbourhood's here!" Tess gestured at the crowd surrounding the trio before she punched Celeste in the shoulder. "Isn't this fun? We're having an adventure!"

"Right. And I'm having a bloody nervous breakdown. I can't believe Mavericks are going to be storming this area." A hellish trick of illusions was acting out Celeste's worst nightmare before her eyes: to die the same brutal death her father had at the hands of some bloodthirsty reploid.

Josh cleared his throat. "Uhmm...has anyone seen any of our parents? I mean, I think we lost 'em all in this huge crowd."

"Aw man, that bites. Last I remember, my mom was right beside me as we walked to the meeting place...that is, to say, the park that we're standing in." Tess remarked with a tremendous yawn. "Hearded me out of bed...damn, it's late and I'm bloody tired."

Alarmed, Celeste was about to break away from her friends to search for her mother and brother, when a commanding voice froze her in her tracks.

"Okay people, settle...quiet, now...please be quiet....uh...WOULD EVERYONE SHUT THEIR FRIGGIN' MOUTHS FOR A WEE SECOND?!"

Startled, the evacuees fell silent with no delay.

"Thank you." The burly voice belonged to a stocky reploid clad inblue armour with silver trimmings. "My name is A.G. The fellow beside me is Hack. In case you're wondering, yes Mavericks have threatened to destroy your neighbourhood in a matter of days, and yes, you're all going to die horrible, bloody, painful deaths if you stay here. Doesn't that make you all feel warm and cozy inside? Now, here's the good news: A.G. and I have been assigned to lead you to safety. MHHQ, to be exact. So, everyone stay calm...stay together...stay in sight of Hack and I...and let's be on our way."

With those words, the tide of now homeless people slowly surged forward after their guides, leaving their lives behind, riding on the faint hope that someday, things would be back to normal. Fat chance.

Now Celeste was hoplessly lost in the slow moving sludge of nervous evacuees. Josh and Tess were nowhere to be seen, but Celeste had no choice but to go with the flow, so to speak.

Seconds dripped into minutes, and minutes seemed to drag on into hours. With all those strangers huddled around her, blocking out the sky ("Damn, I HATE being short!"), time lost all meaning. However, after an infinate span of time that consisted of nothing but keeping up an unwavering trot, Celeste dully noticed that the evacuees around her seemed to be marching slower and slower, then finally grinding to a complete stop.

"What's goin' on?" She muttered sleepily to herself, her lack of slumber beginning to take its toll. Of course, most of the humans were far too tied up in their own affairs and worries to pay much mind to her. However, Celeste DID snag a few threads of conversation that was running through the restless crowd...something about 'lost', and 'Maverick occupied territory'. Even in her muddled state, Celeste could piece together some of what was happening. As she did, a fearful emotion sent a shudder down her spine.

The refugees had been led into Maverick occupied territory.

Panicked, Celeste managed to claw her way up near the front of the tide, where she spied the two 'guides', A.G. and Hack, holding a feverish conference between themselves.

"I TOLD you we took a wrong turn!" Celeste could hear A.G. hiss

ferociously.

Hack looked downcast. "I guess I made a small mistake."

"SMALL!? Hack, this territory is occupied by Mavericks. If a batch of them just happen to see us here with a large group of humans, what do you think they'd do? Invite us for tea and chit chat? I REALLY don't think so. And why are we just standing here, arguing? Let's

get the hell out of here! Get the herd moving again."

Hack obediently cleared his throat. "Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls..."

"...and werewolves of all ages!" A raspy voice suddenly sang from the cloaking shadows.

Every single refugee jumped simultaineously.

"Heee! That was funny," came an invisible, insane giggle that was just to the left of the last hail. "all of you jumping at once like that. Do it again!"

"Tea and chit chat?" Another rough voice hurled from the darkness. "Sounds smashing! I say, how about that local sports team? Do they suck or what?"

"I thought I detected the stench of humans coming from this direction," came a low growl/purr, "and it seems that I wasn't mistaken after all. How does one greet a multitude of guests...? I guess we can start with introductions."

With those last words, an aqua green reploid werewolf drew itself out of the dancing alley shadows that circled the terror - stricken humans like vicious, shapeless beasts. "I'm J.T."

A beige werewolf was the next to emerge from behind the refugees. "Howdy. Duskclaw here."

An ebony werewolf seemed to appear out of nowhere in front of the refugees. A towering nightmare of razor claws and teeth whose forbidding bulk struck every human dumb with fear. "Maugrim at your service."

Finally, a slightly less formidable, dark blue reploid werewolf revealed itself. "And I'm Sabre, yup, that's right. You'll notice that we have you surrounded, so it's in all your best intrests to stay calm and tell us why two Hunters are doing something as stupid as leading a pack of humans through Maverick occupied territory."

A.G and Hack, being the brilliant rocket scientists that they were, raised their arm cannons and aimed them at Sabre. Chuckling, the lupine reploid simply bounded into the air and brought his bulk crashing down on poor, solid Hack, who was promply torn up by merciless metal claws. Before A.G. could even react, his fate was sealed by Duskclaw's slashing teeth.

Of course, viewing this slaughter did little to boost the humans' morale and keep them calm. Panic rang through the crowd like a raging virus, and Celeste, caught in her worst nightmare, was nearly trampled. Her mind screamed at her to do something...anything! Propelled by a deadly mixture of fear and rage, she threw herself at Sabre and bombarded the werewolf with a hail of punches, not stopping until at last fatigue forced her to fall back, panting. She finally allowed herself to look up at the face of her victim to see what damage she had caused with her attack. To her horror, Sabre was staring right back down at her, amusement twisted on his lupine face.

"Are you QUITE finished?" The Maverick rumbled.

Speechless, Celeste could do nothing but stare right back, silently.

In one fluid movement, like a hen picking up a worm, Celeste was scooped up into one of the wolf's brawny arms. Crying out, Celeste pumped her legs uselessly. Sabre laughed in response to his prisoner's struggles.

"A human female. I'm sure we could find LOTS of uses for one of these....OW!"

Yelping, Sabre released his clutch on Celeste to nurse the arm that she had just sunk her teeth into. Celeste landed on the ground with a jarring crash. Before she could make her escape by slipping into the panic-stirred crowd, she heard a dull explosion prior to feeling a red

line of pain sear through her left arm. Celeste screamed, more from shock than pain. She could hear Sabre's demonic chuckle muffled by her own cries, and she knew exactly what had happened. Sabre had shot her in the arm. The warmth flowing down her wounded arm accompanied by the coppery smell of blood confirmed this.

A strange brew of confusion, shock and rage reigned in Celeste's mind. A ferocious adrenalin surge gave her the false assumption that she had enough energy to get to her feet and run; but the amount of blood she had lost was the reality. Celeste was forced to collapse again. No one came to her aid. Behind her, Sabre was still giggling.

"Boy, you look pretty screwed up right now, my dear! I can't believe you tried to tackle me. Typical human thought process at work here. No matter...well, this is good night for you, then!"

It was the end all right, but not for Celeste, oddly enough. As soon as Sabre had finished gloating over his prey, he was reduced to a bountiful shower of debris by a single well aimed plasma shot.

"Here I come to save the daaaaay...!"

* * * * *

"YEAH! Woo hoo! ONE shot and he's down! I was meant for this stuff. I'm the KING! THE KING I TELL YOU! Red, tell me...WHO'S THE KING??"

"You of course, lambchop!" Red declaired faithfully as she dropped to a perfect landing beside the exuberant Zero. "Hey, lookit! The other wolves are running!"

In response to this, Zero tried to give chase, slicing through the cooling crowd like a knife through butter. He came to a stop beside where Celeste was curled up. In one smooth motion, he stooped down and grabbed of Sabre's shattered arms, which he chucked into the

shadows after the other three rapidly darting wolves.

"Hey! Maugrim! YOU SUCK!" He spat.

"Isn't Maugrim a sweetie?" Red grinned, taking a spot next to Zero.

"I'll say. Hey, where did X go? I swear, I'm going to spike a metal bar through his head one of these days."

"Hmmm..." Red mused, "I think I saw him just a second ago. He's trying to calm down the crowd."

"Good. Keep him out of our hair. Whoops, what have we here...?" Zero cast his eyes down at the shaking, sobbing human a short distance away from him. He took a step closer and dropped down to the human's level.

"It's her arm." Red remarked from behind. "Take a look."

Zero did as Red suggested, and he was sorry he did. A slick river of blood cascaded down the girl's arm, visible even in the unreliable light. That 'feeling' tore through Zero's mind again, the unknown sweet cresendo of emotions that was sometimes triggered by the sight of blood.

Silently, Red watched Zero fight an interesting inner struggle. Although she was quite scatterbrained at times, Red was very far from stupid. Watching Zero's reaction to the blood, she decided that these emotions bore study, but now was not the time. She poked Zero with her lance to haul him out of his dreamworld.

* * * * *

Getting shot in the arm could sometimes do things that fuddle up your mind, Celeste found out. In any case, she was in quite a state. A red pain misted her eyes and clouded her judgment. When she noticed the equally red repliod crouched beside her, she automatically took a wild swing at him with her good arm, missing by about a mile or so. The reploid laughed a little, put a heavy hand on her hot forehead and gently told her to calm down. Celeste did more than calm down: she lost consciousness.

* * * * *

"Well, she's out of it." Red observed. "Probably for the best: with the way she was thrashing about, she was losing too much blood. Did you catch her name or anything?"

Zero shook his head. "Nup."

"She looks familiar." Red mused. "Well, no matter. We'll have to do something about her arm. I think Genesis can probably patch it up pretty good. Let's take her to him. I guess the rest of the folks will be coming with us to the refugee camps as well. Whee! A parade!" Red jumped up and down. "Ha ha, hee hee, clap my paws, squeal with glee. I'm so excited I could just barf. Let's mosey."

Chapter 18

'Mother hen' Draco

"Sigma! Sir! Wait up, please!"

Rolling his eyes, Sigma stopped on a dime and swerved 180 degrees to face Skysheen who was pounding down the empty hallway in an attempt to catch up to the Spartan. "What is it, Lord Th'ckpa'sskyleth?"

Skysheen halted and saluted. "Requesting permission to talk to you."

"Can you talk and walk at the same time?"

"Uh...I think so."

"Then you may accompany me as I walk back to my office." Sigma resumed his march with Sky in tow. "What can I do for you?"

"Have you been made aware of the brave deeds of that member of the Medical Unit, Zero?"

"The one who forsook his duties to carry out orders that he was not given? Indeed I have. I'm going to see that he gets what he deserves. Your sister, Lady Dra'conia'mat, was also reported to have been going against orders." There was an edge to Sigma's voice with these last words.

Skysheen blanched a bit. "Sir, that's what I wanted to talk to you about. I wanted to ask you to pardon them for their disobedience. Zero and Red may have disobeyed, but they saved a lot of lives in the process. Those refugees would have been killed if they had not've shown up."

Sigma gave a neutral grunt. Skysheen wasn't sure if the leader was even listening to his pleas. Shakily, he drew a breath and prepared for the kill. "Sir...I'd like your permission to promote Zero to the Regal Dragons. Red told me that he's quite an awesome fighter, and we need as many of those as we can get at this point. I will take responsibility for any negative actions that may result from my desire."

Skysheen mentally braced himself for a bombardment of insults and nasty comments which were characteristic of Siggy. To his astonishment, they never came. Rather, Sigma merely checked his watch and mumbled, "Yeah, sure...do what you want...sounds good, party 'till you barf, that's what I always say. Zero can be promoted, and Lady Draco will be pardoned. Now if you'll excuse me..." Sigma turned the handle to his office door, stepped in...and stopped short in utter shock. Skysheen nearly crashed into his superior.

"What in GOD'S name...?" Sigma sputtered, scanning the room with disbelieving eyes. His office, normally reputed for its meticulously orderly state, was overrun with hordes of toddlers armed with blocks, books, and other assorted toys.

"What the hell is going on!?" He roared. "This is my OFFICE, not a bloody DAYCARE!"

A colourful block printed with a picture of an 'H' and a horse flew out of the crowd and smacked Sigma right between the eyes. Skysheen wisely surpressed a wild urge to laugh. Scattered giggles rose from the sea of children.

Skysheen cleared his throat. "Sir, allow me to explain. Because it's raining outside, some of the parents in the refugee camps were concerned that the shelters didn't provide enough protection against dank drafts. Ergo, some of them sent their children into Hunter HQ to prevent them from catching cold."

"That's insane! I couldn't care less if they caught ebola!" Sigma seethed, his words not exactly reflecting very well on his role as a protector of humans. "Let them go play in the kitchen or the bathrooms, or something!" Sigma turned to face the children before him. "GET THE HELL OUT OF MY OFFICE, YOU EGG SUCKING, WEASEALLY LITTLE BASTARDS!" He reached for a kid who promptly bit him, while others clamped onto the Spartan's legs, begging for a story. In all the ruckus, Skysheen wisely slipped away from the 'babysitter' to announce the good news of Zero's promotion to him.

* * * * *

"She'll be fine. She's just going through post-anesthetic shock right now," Genesis announced to the anxious ring of Hunters around him as he tossed another warmed blanket onto the unconscious, trembling human in the bed before him. "during the surgery, we put some metal fragments into that arm of hers. She'll still have use of it, but it might be a very long time before full strength is restored." Genesis turned and frowned at the Hunters who still loomed over his shoulder like vultures. "That was a hint, my friends. You're invading my personal space. Get lost. She'll be fine. Pip?"

That last word summoned a small, spry blonde haired medic reploid to Genesis' side. "Yes sir, Mr. Genesis sir?"

"You mentioned that this girl's mother was outside of the recovery room? You can bring her in in about thirty minutes. For now, just update her on what's going on."

"Rightyo, Mr. Genesis sir!" Pip tottered off to carry out his orders.

"Red, Zero...you two can stay and keep an eye on this girl. I have a lot of work to do. Try to get her name and all that when she snaps out of the anesthetic. The rest of you are just taking up space by hanging around here. Go play out in traffic or something."

Zero felt a tug on his ponytail. Startled, he turned around and dropped his eyes to Pip, who had issued the physical summon. "Mr. Zero sir?" The small robot voiced.

"Yes Pip, what is it?"

"Lord Skysheen is outside...he wishes to talk to you. It's good news!"

"Okay then. Red, you stay with her."

"Sure thing, Sugarmuffinhoneybunny!!"

* * * * *

Slowly, Celeste ascended the dark staircase of unconsciousness. Sleepily, she blinked her eyes and tried to draw in her surroundings through her drugged mind. Not surprisingly, she was in a medical ward of some sort. What WAS surprising was the large, female reploid dragon sitting closeby with a comic book clutched in her claws, chuckling softly to herself at regular intervals. One sharp - finned ear twitched in Celeste's direction, and the dragon was suddenly

smiling at her. "Hello, dear. How are you feeling?"

Celeste's mind was too sluggish to even bother searcing for an answer.

The dragon seemed to understand. "Here, I'll give you an easier question; can you tell me your name?"

Celeste accepted that. "Celeste," she drawled. Then, almost as an afterthought she added, "McTreggor."

The draco froze. "McTreggor?" She breathed. "Do you happen to be Jake McTreggor's daughter?"

Celeste only blinked listlessly. The dragon shrugged. "We'll talk about it when you're more up to it. I'm Red Draco, by the way. You just came out of surgery. You'll be fine. We managed to save your arm."

For the first time since awakening, Celeste remembered the arm that Sabre had nearly blown clear off. She found it in its usual spot, swathed tightly in adhesive bandages. The injured arm throbbed dully, but other than that, Celeste didn't really notice any pain. What she DID notice, however...

"Uh...Red...?"

"Yes?"

"Where did my clothes go...? Can I have them back?"

Red laughed. "Sorry 'bout that. You see, you go into surgery with nothing on. Something about sterilization and germs. But now that you're out, I think we can fit you into something." Red snatched a blue cotton robe from a hook beside her and helped Celeste into it. "Watch your arm, dear...oh, and stop acting so embarrassed! We're all girls!"

* * * * *

The next time Celeste snapped into life, she was much more aware of where she was and what was going on. She had obviously been moved from the recovery room at some point into a more comforting semi - private hospital room that didn't have such a stale air of urgency hanging in it. "It's much more...homelike," Celeste decided...until she noticed the crimson reploid sitting beside her.

The reploid was having a doze, his head cradled in his arms, which were laid on Celeste's bed. In the dim light, Celeste spied the reptilian escorts of the Regal Dragons Unit badge newly soldered on the reploid's shoulder. A gold ponytail of impressive length spilled out from behind his gilded helmet. He awoke with a start when he detected Celeste's movement. "Hey Celeste," he mumbled quietly with a sleepy smile. "Are you all right? Can I get you anything?"

"I think I'm fine."

"That's good. So, you tackled a Maverick, huh? I can see that you have the 'never give up and never think things out logically' spirit that your father had. You'd better be more careful."

Celeste paused. "You knew my dad?"

"No, but I heard about him. Jake, right? He was a Spartan."

"Yes. He went after Torrent Leviathan by himself, and I guess you could say he payed for it. I see where you're getting at."

Zero decided it would be best to change the subject. "I'm Zero, by the way."

Celeste wasn't really listening, but she was trembling slightly.

"Celeste, what's wrong?"

There were a lot of things wrong. Mostly, Celeste was lonely and scared. She had seen her mother a while back, but she had only been able to stay for a little while before she had been politely hearded out of the recovery room and back into the refugee camp. "Nothing...my arm just hurts," Celeste made excuse.

Zero was already up and preparing a syringe of something. "Well, I can fix that!" He returned and eased a small needle into Celeste's arm. "There you go. That should help. It'll also make you drowsy, so if you feel sleepy, don't fight it."

Celeste sank back into her pillow wearily. All at once, everything caught up with her, causing tears to sting her eyes. She gave up and began to sob. Zero regarded her with mild surprise. "There now," he soothed, pushing back Celeste's bangs from her eyes. "You're going to

be fine. Just go to sleep."

Obediently, Celeste turned over, still shaking. Zero watched her until he was sure she had fallen asleep. Once he had confirmed it, he extracted a small pencil and notebook. It had been such a memorable day, Zero decided, that he wanted to record it. Start a journal, in fact. "Who knows," Zero pondered mentally, "someday in the future, someone might actually want to read this. Or use it for firestarter." Zero shrugged, and the pencil began to scratch onto the notebook paper, leaving a trail of words that recorded the day's events:

April 12 / 21XX

"Today marked an amazing turn of events for me. As a reward for saving those refugees, Skysheen made me a member of the Regal Dragons! Woo hoo! Now things'll get underway in earnest.

"I've been thinking a lot about how things have turned out. At firstI thought that I wanted to rescue those refugees just for the sake ofa fight, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that I actually WANTED to save them. Besides that, I also wanted to watch over Celeste. Yick, I hope I'm not growing respect for humans. That would go against my purpose in life.

"But anyway, to happier stuff! As soon as Skysheen made me a member of the Regal Dragons, he took me on a tour of the RD branch of MHHQ. Quite interesting. I was assigned a computer lab along with some other Unit members, where we were supposed to log in the number of Maverick kills we had made that week. Instead, we downloaded the 'Barbie Girl' song from the ancient 'Aqua' website, printed out the lyrics, and had a singalong before I came back down to keep and eye on Celeste. Am I a hard worker or what?"

Zero closed the journal and yawned. Prior to exiting the Medical Unit, he threw one last concerned glance at Celeste to make sure she was sleeping all right. With that confirmed, he went on his way.

Chapter 19

Seasons of Love?

Zero whistled cheerfully to himself as he tromped down the familiar hallway leading to the Medical Unit. As he walked, he tossed his old MU badge up and down carelessly like a kid with a new baseball. He had torn the medallion right off as soon as he had gotten his fresh Regal Dragons badge. Zero sauntered wordlessly into the stuffy room. The stale, alcohol-tinged air reminded him of his old position, and, frankly, he didn't want to recall it. Genesis was in the room, as Zero had hoped. The reploid fox frowned at his old employee. Smiling innocently at his grumpy boss, Zero threw down his tattered MU badge on the table between them, gave Genesis the one - finger salute, and waltzed out of the room, kicking his heels as he departed.

* * * * *

On the other side of MHHQ, Celeste wandered aimlessly down the hallways, so deep in thought that she hardly noticed the heavy weight of her bandaged arm in its sling. Her thoughts turned over painfully again and again, troubling her with every movement they made. Did she really want to go through with her plan? Did she want to be a Hunter...?

Eventually, quite by accident, she ran full force into Skysheen, nearly getting tangled in his leathery wings like an unwary fish in a net. The huge Mechadrake laughed and helped her out.

"Hey there Cel. Whatchya doin' all the way over here. You should be resting until that arm's fully healed."

Celeste shrugged. "Needed to get out and think." She hesitated. "Look, Skysheen...I need advice. Can you help me with something?"

"Uh, well, I guess. I'm no Ann Landers, though. Er, are you pregnant or something?"

"No!!"

"Good! Just making sure! What's on your mind?"

"It's about my future." Celeste said. "I was thinking of maybe finding a position somewhere with the Hunters, once my arm was healed." She looked up hopefully at the draco. "Is there any job open that I could fill?"

Skysheen mused. "Well, we're in need of a table dancer for the HQ's pub..."

"EXCUSE me?"

"Ha ha! I'm only kidding. I'm not very funny, am I? Well, we're always in need of good fighters. And if you're anything like your dad was, you'd be a very valuable addition. Of course, the question is DID you inherit anything from him, or is this whole 'heredity' thing amoung you humans a crock?"

Celeste was rendered somewhat speechless.

"Here's what I say." Skysheen continued. "When's that cast of yours coming off?"

"Genesis said about one more week."

"Good, good. How about this: as soon as you're up to it, I'll take you to the training room. We'll try you out, and you can see what it's all about, and we'll go from there. Does that sound kosher?

Celeste agreed that it was quite kosher.

* * * * *

That night, bored and restless, Zero made another journal entry:

May 16th , 21XX

I found out something interesting today. Cain often uses real, specially trained dogs to track down Mavericks. I thought that was pretty nifty. There's about 50 purebred malamutes in a kennel located near the refugee camps. His real prize is a female named Jessi. Cain assigned two maintenance reploids named Terrence and Phillip to tend to the dogs. If you ask me, that's as big a mistake as it was sending A.G. and Hack to rescue those humans. Well, it's not my lookout!

* * * * *

Little Pip wrung his hands nervously as his head snapped back and forth to take in the stressful problem before him. To his right stood Sigma, silent with a very dark expression hung on his face. Across from Siggy stood another Hunter, a human male. The human stared right back at Sigma, just as hard. His feet were steadfastly nailed to the ground and his arms were crossed over his brawny chest. Pip had been around humans long enough to know that they communicated an awful lot with body language, and as near as he could tell, there was a great

chance of a nasty fight erupting between the Spartan and the human. The last thing Genesis would want, Pip knew, is for a brawl to blossom in the Medical Unit.

"Mr. Sigma sir," Pip's heard his voice crack. "please, whatever it comes to, don't fight here! In fact, don't fight at all."

Sigma whacked poor Pip upside the head for his pains. "I am NOT leaving," he announced boomingly following his assault, "until this human apologizes for his inconsiderate remark regarding my leadership skills."

The human's face split into a humourless grin. "Face it, Sigma. The Mavericks have become more and more powerful and you seem to be losing a lot of men lately."

Luckily for the human, Sigma did not have time to respond before Genesis appeared. Pip nearly collapsed like water and thanked his lucky stars that his boss had appeared at the right time.

Genesis looked as cranky as ever. "What seems to be the dilly - hoo - ha here?"

Sigma looked ready to kill. "This human has insulted my efforts, my morals, my values!" He half roared.

"Wowie Zowie, Batman." Genesis snorted disdainfully. "I think I just came. Pip, please direct Sigma, along with his values and morals, towards the door. And you," Genesis tossed his head towards the battle ready human, "will come with me."

Sigma's mouth unhinged with shock. "You can't speak to me like that, Genesis!"

"Oh, can't I?"

Pip diligently ushered Sigma towards the door as he had been ordered to do. Prior to exiting, he heard the human shout jeeringly: "Be seeing you, O great leader! Whether or not in one piece remains to be seen!"

"Your mother was a drunken trollop!" Sigma barely had time to spit out before Pip gave him a final push out the door.

Outside in the nearly empty hallway, Sigma was left alone to his slowly twisting thoughts. Sigma was deteriorating, and he knew it although he revealed nothing of this sort to the world. He constantly had his cold, stern mask on, no matter what mood he was in. But lately, he found that beneath his mask, he was twisting and warping like a bug infested piece of wood. Some kind of terrible hate towards something was transforming him. But WHAT the hatred was directed towards, the Spartan couldn't quite put a finger on at first. When he had first become aware of it, the black emotion had been deeply rooted, but it was still only a seedling. Over time, the dark plant had flourished inside him, and the more it bloomed, the clearer the image of what he hated came into view. Finally, a few weeks after the animosity had been conceived, his mind presented the mysterious object of his hatred as clear as a trumpet fanfare.

Sigma, leader of the Hunters, hated humans.

The argument in the Medical Unit had confirmed this warped assumption. He suddenly realized that humans were the rival species of reploids.

"Humans and reploids can't coexist on the same planet," Siggy thought haughtily as he strode down the hallway to his office, "and if I feel this way, surely other Hunters lean towards my argument, too. If I were to very slowly and carefully - and I mean carefully - bestow anti human propaganda on those reploids, they might just eventually turn from Hunter to Maverick. And, if at the right time, I were to emerge as their new leader..."

The raven thoughts beat in Sigma's head as he cracked a malicious smile. "The beginning of the end of the humans' reign upon earth," he thought, "and such a plan! As Iago would word it, 'Hell and night must bring this monstrous birth into the world's light.'"

Suddenly, Sigma's left leg started to drag a little, surfacing him from his mental strutting. Puzzled, he looked down and saw a small human child clinging to it. The child's eyes shone blue with admiration for Sigma. Completely disgusted, Sigma kicked the kid off and chased it down the hall for a bit.

* * * * *

"Whoops! Sorry, Celeste. I think I punched you a bit too hard there. I thought you would block it."

Collapsed on the Training Room floor, Celeste could feel her eyes bugging as she panted desperately for breath. "It's okay, Skysheen." She finally managed to rasp in a small voice. "I didn't need that left kidney anyway."

"Skysheen plays too rough!" Red sang from the rafters of the gargantuan gym that held a smattering of reploids and humans vigorously training within it.

Skysheen frowned at his sister. "Red, for the fifteenth time, get down from there, or I'm going to tell Cain that you've been goofing off the entire day."

"Oh gee, there's a threat that scares me." Red snorted playfully. "I hate to tell you this, Skysheen dear, but I've been 'goofing off' since we left Mechadrake Assemblies Inc. Besides, when I went to Cain earlier this morning to talk to him about some new Hunting strategies, he smelled of cheap scotch and started telling me scary stories about his ex wife."

Skysheen paid no attention to his sibling's prattling. He turned his attention back to Celeste. "Okay, Celeste, next step in our first training session. How good is your aim with a lightweight laser rifle? It's the weapon of choice amoung a lot of human Hunters."

"I don't know. I've never tried one." Celeste admitted meekly.

"Well, now's a good time to start." Skysheen presented an oily black pistol about a metre long from a holster on his hip, and handed it to Celeste. Celeste accepted the weapon with proper awe....and nearly let it clatter on the floor.

"Hold it up!" Skysheen hissed almost sharply.

"I can't lift it!"

"What do you mean?"

"My left arm just gives out under its weight," Celeste voiced, trying her best to stay calm.

"Oooooh Mother...." Skysheen breathed, suddenly remembering what Genesis had said to him about Celeste probably never having full use of her left arm again. "She's partially crippled."

* * * * *

Zero silently watched his friends from a secluded corner of the gym. They did not notice him; he was an expert at hiding in sparse patches of shadow. Zero forced his attention to focus on Skysheen's shabby method of training Celeste. He tried hard, very hard indeed, not to

focus on Celeste herself. Time and time again he had to tear his gaze away from her gentle brown hair, her smile, her....

"Stop it," he thought viciously to himself, "I'm not in love. No, not with a human. Anything but a human...."

"Hi!"

Zero nearly jumped out of his skin. When he recovered, there was X smiling politely at him. "What do YOU want?" The Hunter seethed.

"I....just wanted to talk to you." X nervously seated himself beside Zero. "Uh, listen, I'll put this bluntly. I've been a prick to you. I only admitted it to myself recently that you have a lot of my respect. You're an excellent fighter, really, and I've started to realize that a little fighting HAS to be done to protect the humans. I've accepted it." X stuck out a shaky hand towards Zero. "Friends?"

A glimmer of warm light dawned in Zero and surfaced as a smile. Something told him that he had started on the road to a long lasting friendship. It would prove to be a very bumpy road at times, but it would always be a secure and steady one. "Sure. Friends."

The two lapsed into a comfortable silence. Zero started to watch Celeste's training again.

"You love her, don't you?" X then asked out of the clear blue.

Shock and fear lanced through Zero. "What? Who? What do you mean?" He asked too sharply.

"Celeste. You love her."

"What...what gives you that idea?" Zero stumbled lamely.

"Well, your pupils dilate every time you look at her body."

"Reploids don't need love." Zero half snarled, but his insides were knotted with fear. Was it that obvious? That wasn't good. He was supposed to be killing humans. His creator had told him so. Bass had told him so. And Bass wouldn't lie.

Would he?

"Celeste." Zero heard himself call out.

Surprised, Celeste whipped around to the direction of the hail.

"Sweet Sugar Candyman!" Red singsonged automatically towards Zero from above.

Zero quickly threw his gaze to the ground where Celeste had dropped the laser rifle so that he wouldn't have to think about how blue the human's eyes were. "Your arm will never be strong enough again to wield the rifle, Celeste. Here." Zero unsheathed his precious lightsabre from his back and tossed the cylindrical handle towards her. Celeste caught it as gracefully as a cat. As Zero had assumed, she had excellent reflexes burrowed away in her small form.

The Crimson Hunter produced a cheaper, clumsier sabre and ignited its blade. "A lightsabre isn't a two handed weapon like the rifle." Zero explained in a monotone voice. "You shouldn't have any problems with it, especially since I'm going to be training you from now on. But first..." Zero fell silent as he raised the pulsating blade of his own sabre in line between his eyes, a traditional gesture of respect and challenge amoung the Hunters. "This is where heredity proves its worth, Cel. Let's see what you can do with just your instincts."

Chapter 20

Dragonslayer

"Dad!"

The word lept from Paul's mouth as neatly and strongly as water gliding off a cliff. He was a small, helpless child again, watching his father's limp form being hauled away like a bulky sac of potatoes by a jet black robot with war-scars on its face. The robot shot Paul an almost sorrowful glance just before being swept away -- with its newly-aquired baggage -- by a translucent beam of light. In one gulp of air, Paul screamed for his father in a boyish cry. The scream rang on and on, becoming deeper and deeper until it became the desolate wail of a tormented adult. It still continued to pour forth as Paul was violently jerked out of his nightmare. His eyes flew open and his mouth clamped shut at the same time.

It was morning. Slabs of cheery sunlight cuddled up next to Paul in his dreary hospital bed. It wasn't the first time he'd had that dream, and chances were it wouldn't be the last.

Paul was getting ready to try to go back to sleep when Genesis bustled into the Night Viper's private room, chattering a string of nonsense without bothering to stop for air.

"Morning, Paul! How're you feeling? That's nice. Time to get ready to go."

Paul blinked while trying to register everything that had been blustered to him. "Go?" He finally managed.

Genesis nodded. "That's right. I think you're well enough to be discharged from the infirmary."

"How do you know...?"

Genesis flashed a sharp toothed grin. "Nothing personal, but the sight of your face is starting to piss me off. That's how I always tell if a patient is ready to go or not."

"Ah, the wonders of Medical Science," Paul muttered.

* * * * *

Zero slammed back the doors of the computer Mainframe room with no mercy. Sure enough Red was there, her serpentine head inclined just slightly, bathed in the muted green glow of the surrounding computerscreens. She was obviously preoccupied as she did not flinch at the

ringing crash of the metal gates being flung open. Unbidden, Zero jumped and slid on the flawless floor and came to a halt just behind the Mechadrake.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced in a sober yet playful voice,"let's put our paws together for Zero, the world's best Hunter and everyone's favourite sex god!"

The last thing Zero remembered seeing was a horrific slashing of dagger teeth and talons while being englufed by a whirlwind that was spawned of the frantic beating of leathery wings. The next moment, he was lying on his back, completely stunned. A worried looking Red

Draco (a whole spinning roomfull of them, actually) towered above him, frantically waving a clawed paw a few feet from his bruised face.

"Holy Mother Tiamat! Zero! I didn't know it was you, buttercup! I'm REALLY sorry! Oh jeez...what have I done?"

As soon as there was only one Red in the room, Zero opened his mouth to speak and immediately choked on a mouthful of slick, coppery fluid. He coughed and some of it flecked his lips. Blood. No surprises there. "Did...did I do something wrong?" The Hunter finally managed

to rasp around the blockage in his throat. "I'll bring roses next time...I swear..." Zero started to try to sit up, but the effort made him light headed. He would have collapsed again if Red had not been there to support him.

"Take it slow." She advised, still upset. "Sorry about that. You startled me, and attacking you was a reflex action."

"That's some reflexes."

A mysteriously wicked grin surfaced on Red's face. "We Mechadrakes are just full of surprises. See, I pounced on you because I was protecting my lunch..."

"Lunch?" Zero shook his head in an attempt to silence the bells chiming within it.

Wordlessly, Red brought her left paw level with Zero's bloodshot eyes. A tiny bundle of brown and offwhite fur squirmed uncomfortably in the clammy nest of gleaming claws and crimson scales.

The bells in Zero's head stopped chiming immediately. "It's a kitten...."

"Yep."

"Red, you sicko! You were gonna devour a helpless little KITTEN?"

"I've got a taste for young meat! What do you want from me?"

Zero's strength returned to him in one magnificent surge of energy as he scrambled to his feet. Although his emotions and attitudes had been undergoing vast changes over the past months, chances were good that he'd still grant a human a slow and painful death if Bass had

been there to order him to do so. But never in his lifetime would he stand by and allow that trembling puff ball to be led by Red's hand into her cavernous chomper.

"How in the world did you get a kitten, Red?"

"It just wandered in here like it owned the place. That says a lot for MHHQ's security, doesn't it? I think it came from the refugee camps. Now can't I just snack in peace?"

"Sorry Red, that's a no no." Zero said firmly. "Give the kitten here."

Red pouted, but she obeyed.

The kitten snuggled in Zero's hand and rumbled contentedly. Zero took advantage of its calm state to study it a bit closer. "It's a six week old male," he concluded. "I'll ask around the refugee camps to see if anyone lost him. But for now, I've gained a pet! I'm naming him Matzah."

"Stupid name, but it sounds tasty," Red sulked as she wistfully eyed the feline.

Zero cautiously put the snoozing Matzah up on his shoulder. The kitten gave a soft 'mew' of confusion prior to finding his footing.

"Now that I've done my good deed for the day," Zero said, "I wanted to talk to you about placing Celeste in the Regal Dragons. I've only been working with her for a few days, but I can already see that she's going to be incredible!"

"Sounds tasty," Red repeated, her eyes still nailed to the kitten on Zero's shoulder.

Zero kicked Red in the shins. That brought her out of her trance, all right.

"Okay!" She snorted. "I'm over the kitten. And from what I've seen of her abilities, Celeste looks like she can live up to her dad's name. Bring her to my office this afternoon and we can sign her up if she accepts."

"Sounds tasty," Zero smiled in his turn. Red nailed him over the head.

* * * * *

Not surprisingly, Red's office was an untidy but cheerful nest of old papers, reports, and general clutter. The windows were all thrown open to allow the room to swallow the pleasantly warm May air wafting softly from the outdoors. What was most noticible about the office

was the fact that large posters of old twentieth century movies were framed haphazardly on the walls. Celeste found her nervous gaze returning to them again and again as Red fired off one application question after another. In between the hasty inquries, Red would

mutter incoherently to herself as she scribbled down Celeste's answers. Knowing the erratic Mechadrake, the mumbles could have been anything from little remarks about Celeste to lewd lyrics from some raunchy new CD. It was impossible to tell.

"Okay, last question!" Red began just before one of the movie posters behind her -- the one featuring a popular romance called The Titanic to be exact -- tore itself from the wall with the

wind's assistance and rushed to meet its doom on the office floor with a loud, shattering report. The reploid, the human, and the Mechadrake all jumped as one. For half an instant, Zero's arm fell protecively across Celeste's shoulders, but it was hastily removed without so much as a glance from the crimson reploid. Red, in the meantime, was roaring with laughter.

"Wup! Looks like the Titanic sunk again," she commented as she went through the motions of attempting to clean the sparkling shards of glass scattered on the floor. Ultimately, however, she settled back into her chair and grumbled something that sounded like "Piss on it...DiCaprio sucked big in that movie. Anyway Celeste," she continued in a louder voice, "we're almost done with ya! As I was saying before, just one more question..."

Another interruption reared its annoying head. Red's phone rang impatiently from across the room. Red snorted with disgust. A faint streamer of smoke rose from one soot caked nostril, which was a definate sign that she was fed up. Red only seemed to produce fire and smoke when she was severely agitated. "Get that for me, would you Zero? I'd like to finish this while I'm young."

Zero obediently headed across the room and picked up the reciever. "Psychic Friends Hotline."

"Lady Draco...?" It was Siggy on the other end. Whoops!

"Hello, sir!" Zero quickly recovered his respectful tone. "No, this is Zero. Red's busy with a new applicant to the Regal Dragons."

"Indeed?" Sigma drawled in his usual bored voice. "Who's coming aboard?"

"Celeste McTreggor."

"Hmmm...oh yes, that girl who was injured in the last refugee evacuation. I remember her father. Well, once she's signed up, can you bring her down to the training room? I've heard that you've been training her. I'd like to see what she can do."

Zero's heart lept at these words. Would Celeste be able to flaunt her lightsabre skills in front of the Big Cheese as well as she had in front of him? A disturbing vision of Celeste screwing up massive before Sigma's critical eyes swam into Zero's mind. If she was nervous, Celeste could fumble and easily chop her good arm off with her sabre. Oh boy, THAT would be fun. Skysheen would go white, Red would most likely die laughing, and Zero himself would probably turned on by the blood, as usual. Nevertheless, he maintained an airy tone while saying to Sigma, "I think it can be arranged, sir."

"Excellent! I'll see you there in an hour."

* * * * *

"Don't be nervous when you see him, dear!" Red advised softly in Celeste's ear on their way down to the training room. Zero and Skysheen were in tow.

There was no need to worry about that: Celeste was already scared halfway out of her mind about meeting Sigma. Her right hand was wrapped tightly around her new sabre, its hilt already streaked with sweat. Her crippled left arm throbbed painfully under the stress the rest of her body was undergoing. Her new bone white lightweight titanium battle vest (soldered with the Regal Dragons Unit badge) clanked ridiculously as her body was hit with tremors. She was nervous all right.

The party walked into the vast chamber that was the training room. Sigma was not there.

"Guess we're early," Red huffed as a sweep of leathery wings took her to her favourite spot in the area: the rafters.

Skysheen's forked tounge flickered like red lightning over his yellowed teeth. "I TOLD you that your watch was fast, Red, but noooooo...."

Frowning, Red silently thrust her balled fists down at her irate sibling and began making twisting motions with them. Skysheen flicked his eyes up at his sister and then narrowed them suspiciously. "Red, what in the name of Silvara are you doing?"

"I'm wishing cancer upon you, Skysheen."

"Cancer?"

"Yes. In the head."

Zero and Celeste giggled. Skysheen, however, was not amused. "Why don't you come down HERE and wish Head Cancer upon me?!" The blue draco challenged. With one graceful creak of wings, he lept and latched onto Red's forked tail with onyx talons. Red gave an ear

splitting screech as she was pulled from her post. Luckily, she managed to untangle herself in mid air. Her face twisted in a dangerous snarl, she locked onto Skysheen and raked her equally sharp claws across his neck, ending up with a fistful of the blue Mechadrake's mohawk. Skysheen's hand instantly shot up to his prized mane, a look of horror spreading slowly across his face as he felt its now marred surface. The horror was promptly exchanged for rage, and Skysheen launched himself in a frenzy at his sister.

Celeste's jaw simply dropped as she watched the brother and sister duke it out. Surely the two would end up dismembering each other. She had never seen such a ferocious battle between reploids. Zero regarded her uneasiness and laughed.

"Don't worry," he assured her. "It's just a little sibling sqaubble. Happens all the time between these two."

"Looks more like the start of World War IV."

"Nah, neither of them will come close to getting hurt." Zero paused and frowned. "Although I think I should try to stop them before Sigma comes. It wouldn't do to have him walk in and see the leaders of the Regal Dragons like this." The Hunter dashed off towards the squalling dust cloud situated across the mammoth room.

Celeste cocked her head slightly to one side as she watched Zero depart. The Crimson Wonder had basically stuck by her like glue since she had gotten shot last month. He was always making some reason to be with her. If Celeste didn't know any better, she'd say that the Hunter had a crush on her. Well, that was definately a compliment. Sort of. Celeste had never had much success with the males of her own species, yet she attracted a champion reploid. Go fig. Her mind plunged deep to search for any emotions that she in turn might harbour for him; it resurfaced with a simple answer.

"He's kinda cute," she muttered to herself.

"I thank you."

Celeste jumped and began to run like a bat out of hell. A booming laugh from behind stopped her. It was Sigma. Celeste sheepishly walked back to him, turning five different shades of red the whole way.

"I never knew that humans were capable of such colour change," Sigma rang out heartily. "I think Sting would envy you."

The Spartan's mood was unusually light. Celeste would never have guessed that diabolical thoughts were slowly turning the gears in his cunning mind, preparing to hatch the plans for the liquidation of the humans right at that moment...

"Where's Zero?" Sigma then asked.

Celeste listlessly pointed in the direction where Skysheen and Red were still tussleing. Zero ran alongside them, jumping up and down like an idiot and waving his hands in a futile attempt to get the drakes to calm down.

"The Mechadrake breed," Sigma snorted in a half - amused tone as he observed the unruly sight. "The Eighth Wonder of the World."

Celeste blinked. "Really?"

"Not really, but Mechadrakes ARE a puzzle," Sigma explained, sounding like a nature documentary. "They're basically bipedal reploid dragons, but their structures, their thinking patterns, their battle skills are far more advanced than any other breed of reploid. So advanced, in fact, that it would be nearly impossible to build a Mechadrake reploid outside of Mechadrake Assemblies Inc., and even repairing one in our most advanced Medical Units is hell. Mechadrakes are fiercely proud of their exclusive heritage..." "Mechadrake Assemblies Inc.?" Celeste interrupted, then suddenly realized who she was talking to. "Sorry sir...didn't mean to interject."

"Quite alright. To answer your question, Mechadrake Assemblies Inc. is a reploid plant that assembles Mechadrakes, as you could probably tell by the name. The parent company is in Toronto, and a few smaller branches are scattered throughout the rest of Canada. Mechadrakes

were ordered and shipped to a few Hunter Bases down here in the States, and there was even talk of opening a US Mechadrake branch. However, when the Border War occoured between the two countries, the plans for the US factory were scrapped, and even the trickle of Mechadrake warriors stopped. The planning of the US assembly plant didn't resume when the peace treaty was finally signed, either: Canadians still aren't all that friendly with us."

"So when did Sky and Red arrive?" Celeste inquired. "Why did they leave?"

Sigma shrugged. "They won't tell, and we can't make them do so. They talk as little about Mechadrake Assemblies Inc. as they can...although Red never shuts up about how great Toronto is. She misses it terribly from what I understand."

Celeste gave silent sympathy to Red; she knew the feeling of having to leave your home.

Sigma shot a glance and the musing human. Unbridled hate bubbled within him, but he didn't let the emotion scar the features of his stony face. Today, with Celeste's help, step one of the human holocaust would begin. Manipulating a human mind would prove to be fun.

"Well, Celeste!" Sigma rang again. "Why don't you show me what you can do? Zero says you're quite good. I should think so. That's a Regal Dragons badge, isn't it? My my."

The room around Celeste lurched violently, and she felt as if she were going to throw up. Across from her, Zero had managed to break up Skysheen and Red. Celeste noticed with a touch of amusement that Zero had banished the mussed dragons to opposite corners of the room, where they both sulked. Zero kept his eyes nailed to them like a stern schoolteacher, shouting if one of them dared to make a move.

Sigma read her mind. "Don't bother calling Zero over here, Celeste; he's got his own issues to deal with."

"Okay," Celeste exhaled as she drew her lightsabre hilt.

Sigma sneered in disapproval. "A lightsabre? Oh no no no. Those things are so tacky. Why aren't you using a laser rifle?"

Celeste cast her eyes down at the polished wood floor. She hadn't even started, and already Sigma was finding fault. "They're too heavy for me, sir. My left arm is partially crippled."

"Nonsense." The Spartan drew his own trim rifle and handed it to the Huntress. "Try this. It's one handed, very light, and extremely powerful. You'll be able to handle it. Be careful, they're very expensive; the HQ only has three of them that I know of."

As Celeste examined the high - tech weapon, Sigma glanced again at Skysheen and Red. "Your father was a great Hunter," he commented out of nowhere.

A spear of ice jabbed at Celeste's throat. She swallowed it. "I know sir."

"He died an honourable death."

"Thank you sir."

"Skysheen and Red weren't the only Mechadrakes to come down from Toronto, you know. Torrent Leviathan is a Mechadrake, too."

The room had stopped lurching, but it now began to change colour and perspective as Celeste fixed her eyes on her scaly friends across the room. "....he is?"

"Indeed," Sigma said in a grave tone. Inwardly, however, he jumped and cheered as he saw a sickly light glint in Celeste's eyes. "In fact...." he continued, "I'm told that he looks something like Skysheen does."

"Skysheen...?" Echoed Celeste dully. She was in a trance, exactly as Sigma had planned. He lowered his voice.

"Yes...blue scales, cunning eyes. Can you imagine what the battle between them must have been like?" Sigma was careful to say 'them' rather than specifying Torrent Leviathan.

Celeste continued to stare stupidly at Skysheen across the room. Her active imagination recalled the image she had made up months ago of her father fighting for his life in the filthy depths of some stagnant sewer. She could see her dad's phenotype very well -- when he died,

he had still been fairly young and had not quite yet exited the fleeting stage of wildflower beauty and spirit that all humans experience early in their life. Torrent Leviathan was there, of course: a nightmare of teeth and sea blue scales...blue like Skysheen's....

All of a sudden, Celeste was amid them as Torrent was about to pass his gnarled, bloodstained claws across her father's exposed throat. Feeling as if she were drowning in blue, Celeste raised the lightweight rifle and fired an intense bolt of white energy towards the threatening Mechadrake...

A terrible dragon's scream accompanied by the sickening smell of burned leather, metal and scales jerked Celeste violently out of her dream world and back into reality. She watched in disbelieving horror as a sapphire form writhed in pain on the floor across the training room. A cry of anguish lept from Red as she dashed towards her stricken brother.

Celeste had shot Skysheen.

All of a sudden, things were in a tizzy. Half of the reploids and humans present in the room ran to aid Skysheen, while the others dashed towards Celeste. From behind her, Sigma said nothing, but he issued a quiet laugh. The huntress became dimly aware of someone wrenching Sigma's rifle away from her while others grabbed her arms and shouted garbled commands in her ears. Thankfully, they all vanished as the ground rushed up to meet Celeste, bringing with it a merciful, silent void.

Chapter 21

Wings Scorched, Horns Chipped, Tail Cropped, Majesty Stripped.

A brilliant light exploded painfully before Celeste. Wincing, she tried to turn away from it, but it followed persistently. A commanding voice then reached her.

"Open them! Open your damn eyes!"

Celeste didn't dare to disobey. The light grew more intense for a second, but it was then

averted, much to her relief. Once the spots cleared a bit, she could make out the form of Zero

frowning down at her, holding a flashlight. He looked like a thundercloud. Celeste recalled what

had happened, and she began to cry in spite of herself.

Zero did not soften. "Turn off the waterworks, Celeste. I want to know what happened.

Sigma insists that you were aiming for another target and misfired. Luckily for you, almost

everyone believes him. But I don't. With a shot that intense, you had a purpose. Why did you shoot Skysheen?"

Celeste gulped back a sob. "Is...is Skysheen...dead?"

Some of the harshness faded from Zero's face. He sighed. "No. You were lucky there, too. He's seriously mangled, though. Genesis is still working on him, and Red's throwing a fit. I'm still not sure if she blames you, although I don't think she does. You've been unconscious for well over five hours. I'm sorry I got so mad at you, but I really need to know what happened. No one else needs to know."

A bit calmer, Celeste tried to settle into the hard hospital bed. She closed her eyes again. "It wasn't an accident....not completely. Sigma was talking to me about my dad when you were trying to break up Red and Skysheen. His tone of voice sort of lulled me...it was really strange. I can't remember exactly what happened, but he kept on saying how much Skysheen looked like Torrent Leviathan...next thing I knew, I saw Torrent right in front of me. It was so real. I shot him, and it was Skysheen instead...." Celeste trailed off.

Zero frowned. He didn't like the sound of that. "You're saying that Sigma sort of controlled your mind?"

Celeste's eyes flew open again. "That's exactly what it was like. I know it sounds stupid, but..."

"No Celeste. I believe you. I never did like Sigma much...he can be very hypnotizing. And I definitely don't like the smell of this. I'll have to investigate further."

Relief crossed Celeste's face. "Thanks."

Zero smiled fondly and toyed with a lock of her hair. "Don't you worry. Just rest. As far as I know, you're still in the Regal Dragons, but I would lay low for a while until this whole mess gets straightened out...."

The doors to the darkened room swung open. An irritated and thoroughly exhausted Genesis stepped through them. "I HATE MECHADRAKES!!" The reploid fox bellowed, following up with a kick to the wall beside him.

Zero turned his attention from Celeste and rolled his eyes. "Now what, Genesis?"

"It's Skysheen," Genesis seethed. "He'll make it, all right...but he's bitchin' and moanin' all over the place because I can't restore his Mechadrake form. I CAN'T repair a Mechadrake as banged up as he was! It's impossible! I had to rebuild him a humanoid form. It's a very nice

one, too! I saved his bloody life, but noooo, THAT'S NOT GOOD ENOUGH! He wants his WINGS back! He wants his TAIL back! He wants...oh, to hell's gates with him. I left Pip to reason with the thankless bugger. I'm going to go slit my wrists in the bathroom now. See ya."

Genesis stormed off.

* * * * *

"I hate it."

Pip had nearly lost all hope. "Lord Skysheen, it's the best we can...."

"I SAID I HATE it!" Skysheen roared as he glared venomously at his reflection in the mirror. Staring back at him was a lean, handsome humanoid face, devoid of its former draconian majesty. Locks of greasy black hair with mild curls in them hung down past his ears, almost touching his shoulders. A firery red pair of eyes were fixed above a slightly upturned nose. His sails of leather were gone: he was groundbound. The only thing that remained was his shoulder mounted cannon and his newly polished violet armour.

"Gah! Human faces are so UGLY!"

Pip was slightly offended. "Well now, sir...they're not so bad..."

"Get out, Pip. I want to be alone for a little while."

Pip gladly obliged, but before he left he placed something hollow on the table beside Skysheen. "If you're truly self conscious of your current form," he explained softly, "here is an option." With that, Pip exited.

As much as Skysheen loathed his new form, he couldn't take his eyes off of it. He was now a normal humanoid reploid. He thudded his head against the mirror softly. "Why did you have to miss that target, Celeste?" He murmured to the empty air. His human-like hand groped and drew Pip's 'option' towards him. He turned it over and over, studying it. It was a visored mask that promised to completely cover his new face, if he chose to use it.

"Bless you Pip," Skysheen muttered. "God knows you're annoying, but you're sensitive and understanding. No one's going to see me like this." The world darkened slightly Skysheen slid the tinted headgear on. He glanced again at his reflection. This time, he almost liked what he saw.

Purple armour with blue slashed unevenly across his boots. A shoulder mounted cannon. Red eyes peering menacingly from the black depths of the mask. It all matched. Only the badge of the Regal Dragons seemed to outcrop and clash. Heaving a sigh, he wandered off to look for Red Draco. The first person he walked into was Pip who looked like a frightened rabbit in the

presence of a hawk.

"My my, Lord Skysheen!" he managed. "Allow me to say that you look most....um...scary!"

"Thank you, Pip. But I don't think my old name fits me anymore. Call me...." Skysheen paused. "Call me Vile. Does that sound like a name that'll turn Mavericks into Jello?"

"It's very fitting, Mr. Vile sir." Pip agreed solemnly.

Chapter 22

Mindspeak

"Hey look! Boba Fett walks amoung us!"

Cruel laughter followed this cliche joke.

Ignore them, Skysheen (or Vile, as he was now called) thought to himself with an inward rumble of contempt.

"How was life inside the Sarlacc's stomach, Boba?" Another jeered.

They're only kids... Vile coached himself.

"Any luck tracking down Han Solo?" A third joined in merrily.

...and they're PISSING ME OFF!

Vile finally cracked. He swerved towards the taunting band and fired a shot into the air with his shoulder cannon. This resulted in the kids scattering and squawking like a flock of chickens fleeing the axe, as well as a big black mark on the ceiling of the hallway. Vile grimly realized that he was going to catch holy hell for solving his problem in that manner.

Sure enough, Sigma was already heading down the hall towards the former Mechadrake. Vile braced himself for the onslaught.

"Good afternoon, Lord Skysheen."

"With all due respect sir, my name is Vile now," Vile returned, his voice echoing metallically from inside his concealing helmet.

Sigma didn't appear to hear or care for the namechange. "It's been tough adjusting from your former form, hasn't it?"

Vile nodded numbly. Nothing was closer to the truth. At least five times over the past 24 hours, his shoulder muscles would twitch spasmodically, bewildered to find that the grand wings they used to control were gone.

Sigma turned his nose up at the Regal Dragon. "Hard to imagine that a human -- a female, no less -- could do you in like that, hmm?"

Vile stiffened slightly. "But you yourself said it was an accident..." the purple clad reploid trailed off as Sigma gave him a cold, knowing stare that prompted a black light to dawn within Vile. "You mean....?"

Sigma nodded gravely. "It may have been an accident...but when I recall the entire scene, I am inclined to believe that a shot that intense had a purpose..."

Vile's unseen mouth gaped. Would Celeste really do something that vile (so to speak)? An emotion he had kept buried frozen solid in ice since the accident began to thaw out. With a firey, yet slightly guilty flash of pleasure, Vile realized he was doing what he had wanted to do since his transformation: he was allowing himself to feel resentment towards Celeste for damaging him. Celeste had surely shot him out of jealousy for his flawless Mechadrake body. Not just that, all humans were jealous of the superior build and ability of ANY reploid...

Sigma watched the purple reploid fight an inward struggle. A tiny smile formed in his black heart: Skysheen's manipulation had proved to be fairly easy. The former Mechadrake was still angry and confused about losing his magnificent dragon form. Chances were good that he'd serve Sigma's purpose without question.

Sigma lowered his voice. "We have matters to discuss, Lord Skysheen. I know that you have many questions on your mind. Be at my office at two this afternoon. My Spartans will be there: tell Lady Draco that I wish for her to be present as well."

"As you wish, sir."

* * * **

"No Matzah, get your claws out of my hair…"

Matzah paid no heed as he contentedly sunk his wee talons deeper into the back of Zero's scalp.

"OW! No kitty, that's a bad kitty!!"

Matzah hissed.

"That's it. We're taking a trip to the refugee camps. Time to get you a home."

* * * * *

A cold, grey drizzle had begun when Zero reached the camps. The sombre weather did little to improve the already drab scenery surrounding the ever-crowded escarpment. Zero absently scratched Matzah's silky ears as he glanced around. All the humans had basically abandoned the trampled grass and holed themselves up in the identical weathered cabins to escape the restless skies. One small boy of about 13 was still outside, however. He was absently scratching nondescript patterns into the dampened mud with a stick while muttering incoherently to himself. The boy was startled out of his game as an instinct fired up. Sitting up like a pudgy chipmunk, he frisked the area over with nervous, almost wild eyes.

This scene saddened Zero a bit: no child of that age would be playing such a game outside on his own, or have such a wild-animal look in his eyes. There was obviously something not right about him. To put it crudely, he probably had a screw loose somewhere.

Upon spying the observant Crimson Wonder, the boy jumped to his feet and dashed into one of the cabins, slamming the door behind him before anything could be said. Zero managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of the beginnings of a blonde ponytail trailing behind the boy as he fled. The youngster bore a remarkable resemblance to Paul Wells.

"Paul has a son?" The Hunter muttered absently. "Interesting. I never knew he was married. Too bad about the kid. I wonder exactly what's wrong with him." Zero hesitated: It was obvious why Paul had never talked about his family. The poor guy was probably ashamed.

Matzah suddenly nipped on Zero's thumb as if demanding him to think happier thoughts. Also, the kitten did not care for the damp air.

"You're some cat, you know that?" Zero huffed. "I should just give you back to Red. THEN you'll see how little you like damp places."

* * * * *

Only one cabin had its door fixed open. Zero decided to save himself the bother of knocking by starting there. He poked his head in the door frame.

"What do you think, Matzah?" he murmured. "Shall I just dump you inhere?"

Matzah gave a mew of objection: he obviously wanted to meet his new family before any 'dumping' was done.

"Fine." Unbidden, Zero entered the cabin. A short hallway with slate grey floor tiles led him to a square room with four crude bunk beds fixed neatly against the drafty walls. Each of the eight beds showed visible signs of inhabitancy, yet only two girls were present in the room at that moment. The first one Zero saw was a girl of about 16 on the lower bunk across from him. She swung her short legs and silently smiled at Zero as if he were an old friend. When he made a motion to speak, however, the girl sobered and pressed a finger warningly against her lips. Before Zero could ask a question, the girl pointed to the second girl that was on top of the bunk beside her.

Barely clothed, the human female lay face down with her eyes closed on a dingy green blanket. She was flushed a deep red, and her exposed skin was shiny with a thin film of sweat. She was dangerously feverish.

Alarmed, Zero cautiously took a step closer. The girl's eyes suddenly snapped open, startling the Hunter out of a year's growth.

"I'm allergic to cats," the girl wheezed, managing a grin. Her fine black hair was plastered to her sweaty forehead.

With hardly a thought, Zero tossed Matzah to the room's other occupant. "You're as sick as a dog," he said with awe. It should be noted that he hardly took notice that the sickly human was practically in her birthday suit: reploids aren't quite as modest as humans when it comes to things like that. "What's wrong with you?"

"It's just a little something that's been going around the camps. It'll pass." The girl shut her eyes wearily.

"What's your name?"

"Tess. And don't worry about me. My fiancée, Josh, is helping me out. He's gone now to get me something to drink."

Zero blinked. "You seem a bit young to be getting married already."

Tess' eyes flared open again. A blue fire smoldered wrathfully within them. "Look, Hunter," she sneered. "love and hope are probably two of the only things we have left in this hell. Yes, that's damn corny, and I hate myself for saying it, but it's true. It's no secret that the Hunters are beginning to lose battles. More and more resources have to be spent on the war...at the expense of the refugees in this camp. My neighbourhood hasn't been reclaimed and repaired yet, and God knows if it ever will be. I don't have the guts to sign up with the Hunters, even if it means better living conditions. So I'm here to stay for a long time. Disease and pregnancy are rampant, lineups to the bathrooms are insane, and we're getting less and less to eat every day, but what the hell, it all builds character, right?" The girl gave a short, humourless laugh.

Zero was quite taken aback. A creeping sort of guilt weighed on his tounge, muting him. What Tess said was too true: more and more resources had quietly been taken from the refugee relief funds to fuel the Hunts. Well, the money had to come from somewhere...

A scuttling sound of claws against wood emitted from one of the dank walls. The sound crawled down Zero's spine, and Matzah suddenly transformed from a cuddly ball of fur rumbling on the other girl's lap into an alert hunter.

"Mice," Tess explained in a monotone voice.

"Uh...that's a rather creepy sound," Zero had to admit.

Tess shrugged listlessly. "You get used to them keeping you up at night. Actually, they seem to shut up if you quote from Pulp Fiction." The feverish girl smiled down at the girl on the lower bunk beside her. "Right Nat?"

"Yep!" Nat returned.

The nerve-wracking scratching ensued.

"They're not going to give us any peace unless we act," Tess concluded. "We'd better say our lines. Ready, Nat?"

"Uh huh," Nat answered prior to placing Matzah on the floor. The kitten immediately shot towards Zero, climbed up his hair with a fury that would have shamed Prince Charming, and sat on the Hunter's shoulder, ears scanning the room ferociously. Zero plucked the tom off of his resting place.

Tess raised her voice in the direction of the wall that seemed to contain the mice at play. "Hey man, you want some bacon?"

"I don't eat pork." Nat recited.

"Why not? You Jewish?"

"No, I just don't dig on swine."

The scratching ceased.

"Ta da!" Nat and Tess sang in unison.

Zero would have clapped if his hands weren't full of cat.

"So...tell me something." Tess asked of Zero. "I heard that a friend of mine, Celeste, got badly injured the day Torrisham Crossings was evacuated. I haven't seen her since that day: I'm guessing that she was taken to the Medical Unit. Do you know her? Do you have any idea if she's okay?"

Did Zero know Celeste? Did Bo know baseball? (did he?) Hooo boy. With a split second mental debate, Zero resolved to play it safe and tell as little as possible.

"Yeah...I know Celeste a bit. Her arm was injured pretty bad -- in fact, it's gonna be partially crippled all her life from what I understand. But she's all right now."

Tess narrowed her eyes with curiosity. "Why isn't she with us in the camps, then...?"

No avoiding this one. "Last I heard, she was going to become a Huntress."

Tess' eyes grew to twice their normal size for a full three seconds before they settled back down to normal again. "That sounds like something she'd do. She's so STUPID! Hasn't she learned anything from her idiot dad? She'll probably go off and do something mental like HE did!"

The very same concern had nested within Zero from the first day he realized that he had fallen for Celeste. He wasn't about to share this, though. He shook his head. "Don't worry about it. She's very headstrong, but I don't think she'd be proud enough to do something as dumb as take down Leviathan by herself."

Tess snorted down at the Blonde One. "You're absolutely sure that it was PRIDE that set Jake after Torrent?"

Zero gave a returning snort. "Don't be stupid. What other reason would he have?"

* * * * *

Celeste...

Celeste's eyes jolted open. She had just had a nightmare where Torrent Leviathan, in all his stagnant glory, was standing just ahead of her. The aqua-dragon's luminous, groping eyes looked directly at her, amused. Blue lips flecked with dirty green slid back from his yellowed teeth as he called her name...

Celeste...

Celeste shook under the drab hospital covers. The image was gone, but Torrent's slick voice was still fresh in her mind...

Celeste, my little jewel...you are not dreaming anymore. I really am speaking to you.

Ice lanced through Celeste's heart. She crammed her fist in her mouth to stifle a wail.

Do not make a sound! Torrent returned to her sharply. Speak to me with your mind. You can do it.

Celeste felt squashed between two forces. Her mind, her body, everything, had become glue.

Calm down, my pretty. I will not hurt you. I merely wish to talk. Torrent's voice was gentle...almost friendly. Please...try to speak to me in your head.

Celeste hesitated. ...like this...?

You've got it!

Celeste was absolutely fascinated to be talking to someone in her mind. She almost forgot that the person she was speaking to was her father's killer. How come I'm able to talk to you like this...? She sent to Torrent.

I have been able to talk to certain members of your bloodline for years and years, my beauty.

Celeste blinked, astonished. "Years and years"...?

Yes. 100 years at the very least.

But...how's that possible? You're a reploid, right?

Correct.

And you were were put together at Mechadrake Assemblies, right?

Correct to a point.

I thought humans only discovered how to create reploids 30 years ago...?

Celeste could feel an inward sneer from Torrent. Who said I was BUILT by a human...?

Celeste gave a silent ode to whatever mysteries went behind Mechadrake's closed doors.

Yes, Celeste. As I said, I am able to communicate like this with a very select few from your bloodline. I will tell you more about the How and Whys about 'Mindspeak' some other time. For now, I ask you this question. When are you going to come and visit me?

Visit you...?

Yes. I wish to talk to you in person.

Celeste turned cold. Never. How does that sound?

Torrent's low chuckle rattled around Celeste's head. Your father said the exact same thing to me when I asked him this question. Lo and behold...well, you know the rest. I shall return to you later, my jewel! Fare thee well!

Celeste could feel Torrent's presence withdraw from her head, leaving his last haunting words to bounce around ceaselessly in the emptiness. Celeste lept from her bed and made a beeline for the bathroom, quite sure that she was going to be sick.

Chapter 23

The Ol' Turnabout

Zero peered nonchalantly at Sigma as the Spartan prattled on and on with no meaning across the cafeteria table that Zero was anchored at.

"Sorry to cut you off, sir," Zero finally had to beg of Sigma when he was unable to stuff his ears with anymore nonsense, "but basically what you're saying to me is that another evacuation has to be performed tonight?"

Sigma nodded gravely. "This time, according to our sources, the Mavericks are targeting Levitt Cresent."

"Sounds typical. I take it that you want me to help you?"

"Indeed."

Zero stood up stiffly from the table. He yawned hugely whilst cracking his back. "Fine with me. So the evacuators are you, me...and who else?"

Sigma made a quick mental count. "Let's see...we have all eight of my Spartans -- Chill Penguin, Launch Octopus, Sting Chameleon, Storm Eagle, Flame Mammoth, Boomer, Armoured Armadillo, and Spark Mandrill-- as well as Lady Draco and Lord Skysheen (or Vile, as he now wishes to be called...don't ask me) from the Regal Dragons, and finally ten human hunters from the Night Vipers."

Zero raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "That's quite a load."

Sigma smirked. "Yes, well, we're not going to let the Torrisham Crossings incident occour again. Which reminds me, is Celeste able to join our little party?"

Zero now raised both eyebrows in surprise. "You want her to come on

a mission after what happened with Skysheen?"

"She may as well." Sigma reasoned. "That was an isolated incident. She still shows great potential. It would be a shame to let those sharp instincts go to waste, wouldn't it?"

"Yes. But at any rate, she can't come. Ever since she passed out after shooting Skysheen, Celeste's been in the infirmary under observation. Genesis is worried about her; she hasn't been sleeping right, and she can't seem to keep anything down. It's like she's very upset about something all of a sudden, and she refuses to talk about it."

"Ah." There was a shadow of disappointment in Siggy's voice. It was not regret about Celeste's condition; it was something completely different, something Zero couldn't quite track. "Well, that IS unfortunate. However, there's always next time. I want you to be ready for the evacuation in two hours."

Zero was reluctant. He didn't like the idea of shoving more refugees into the squalid camp, which was already bursting at the seams. He didn't have a choice, though.

"All righty."

* * * * *

Zero was surprised to learn that Celeste was asleep when he went to visit her an hour before the evacuation was to take place. Zero had tiptoed past Genesis (who was getting very tired of the Hunter's frequent visits to the Huntress) and stuck his head into the door of her room, only to find her snoozing peacefully, if not a bit fitfully.

Zero padded his way around her bed and seated himself in the now-familiar chair parked beside it. He had his journal in one hand and was preparing to open it when a streak of brown and white fur flew into the room and leapt neatly into his lap without hesitating once.

"Matzah," the Hunter muttered critically. "You're gonna kill me one of these days."

The spunky kitten only pawed playfully at a stray lock of Zero's hair in response. Ignoring the bundle of energy, the Scarlet Hunter opened his journal and reread an entry he had made yesterday:

June 3rd 21XX

Here's a story that's almost funny. As I mentioned earlier, Cain has real malamutes near MHHQ, and his prize is a female named Jessi. It turns out I was right: Getting those two maintenance reploids, Terrence and Phillip, to tend to the dogs was pretty damn stupid. A couple of weeks ago, one of the male dogs -- I think his name's Tommy -- was clawing and howling to get out of his cage. T and P put two and two together and they let Jessi and Tommy out of their cages to 'play'. Now Jessi probably won't be able to be used for any sort of hunting for four months or so. Cain's really upset about it. As far as I know, T and P were demoted to potato peeling. The puppies will be born in the fall.

Zero smiled as he read the old entry. He sobered, however, when he remembered what he had originally come to do. Without procrastinating for another second, he tore a blank page and prepared to write on it. What he was about to do was copy a scene from 1984,a book that

he had particularly liked. The Hunter hastily scribbled on the paper:

I love you.

He did not sign his name or mark up the paper any further. Instead, he folded it into fourths and slipped it under Celeste's pillow. He took the opportunity to land a small kiss just next to her nose. The Huntress stirred, but did not awaken.

Zero stood up, spilling Matzah from his lap before exiting the room. Matzah leapt on the foot of Celeste's bed without hesitation to resume his broken nap.

*****

"I got rhythm! I got music! I got my man, who could ask for anything more?"

Red sang like one possessed as she twirled her lance like a baton. It amazed Zero how Red could swing that thing around so skillfully at the brisk pace the Hunters were setting. The night was absolutely gorgeous. Flawless, even. Sigma's proud form crested the still air while Zero, Red, and the human Hunters were just behind him. The rest of Sigma's Spartans, along with Vile, brought up the rear. They were perhaps 20 minutes away from their destination: Levitt Cresent.

"Watch where you cut with that stick of yours, milady," one of the humans was finally forced to ask when the wickedly sharp blades of the madly spinning lance gave him a close shave.

"Why don't you sing something else?" Zero suggested to his Mechadrake friend.

Red happily obliged. "Would you light my caaaaaandle?" She crooned seconds before a jet of flame launched from her mouth and into the inky sky.

"Uh...I meant a song where no one could get hurt."

"Oh." Red paused for a moment in thought before her face lit up again and she bellowed, "Ever since I was a young boy, I played the silver ball..."

"Ugh!" Zero clamped his hands over his ears in protest. "Just forget it all together."

Red laughed and playfully poked him in the back of his neck with a claw. "I can't seem to please you, sugar! You're such a dick."

Zero couldn't help but smile back. He punched Red in the shoulder. "I am not. You're a dick."

"No, you're a dick."

"You're a dick."

"You're a dick."

"You're a dick."

"YOU'RE a dick."

"You were probably the most annoying dick in Canada, Red."

The dragon thoughtfully scratched her head with an ebony talon. "Well, maybe I was." She threw a scaly arm around Zero's shoulders as they marched side by side. "At any rate, my Candyman, if you don't shut up, THIS is gonna happen to you!" Red laughingly speared the human next to her on her lance.

Zero stopped. He just stopped. There was Red Draco the Maverick Huntress with her lance passed right through an innocent human Hunter. The young man had a look of utter terror and shock twisted on his face. He twitched feebly at the other end of the weapon. Red merely lifted him off of the ground like a steak on a pronged fork and shook the body off of the lance's shaft with a look of mild annoyance on her face. The lifeless bag of blood soaked flesh sagged to the ground.

Zero noticed at this point that the party had stopped completely. All of the other reploid Hunters, Sigma and Vile included, had ringed themselves inexorably around the rest of the humans. Not a word was exchanged. Not even between the humans. Only slow, demonic chuckling could be heard from the outer edges of the circle.

Zero did not join the other reploids in the ring of death. The only word he could managed past his parched throat was "Red....Red...."

Red looked at Zero. She was amused, not at all regretful or shaken. "What?" She laughed out loud. It was a ringing sound. "Did I do something wrong, honeycake? Hey Siggy!" Red turned to Sigma. "Zero's all broken up here. He seems to think I did something unneighbourly. You know I wouldn't do anything like that, right? I'm a good girl I am!"

"Why, no, Lady Draco." Sigma smirked dangerously. "You did nothing wrong. All you did was this!" The brawny Spartan plucked a helpless human from the condemned crowd. Lifting him off the ground a bit, Sigma expertly broke the man's spine, ceasing his futile struggles at once.

"Stop it!" Zero took a step backwards as the Spartans fried, froze, burned, sliced, stung, bulldozed, and stabbed the remaining humans accordingly. "What...what...?" He could not get past those words.

With the slaughter over, the so called Hunters fell at once to cleaning their bloodied weapons. No emotion whatsoever penetrated their faces, and none paid any mind at all to Zero's babbling. Only Red approached the shocked blonde warrior. The Mechadrake had not bothered to clean her lance yet, and the fresh blood trickled down its shaft and oozed in inlets over her fingers. There was something erotic about the scene in Zero's mind, and it brought that well known sweet 'feeling' with it at the worst possible time. He summoned all his will to repress it, and was successful after a very difficult struggle. Red smiled terribly as she watched.

"You think I'm stupid, my dear."

"Huh? No, Red! I don't...what the hell did you...why...?"

"Don't pretend to be appalled. You loved every moment of that massacre."

"No! I..."

"Why didn't you try to stop us, then? Why didn't you shoot me?"

When Zero did not answer, Red fished a still-warm body from the lifeless pile. Sheathing her lance, she held one limp arm up near Zero's nose and eyes, drawing a claw across the supple wrist. Blood instantly welled up in a thick red rope. This time, Zero's will could not stop the dreamy feeling from invading, and it surfaced on his face like a light. Red caught him.

"There you go, Zero. I don't know who created you, but you and I both know that it was someone who wanted you to kill. X avoids blood whenever he can. Celeste, despite her Hunting instincts, passed out at the sight of Skysheen mangled. Yet, you seem to get -- dare I say it -- almost a sexual pleasure out of mass death and suffering. That's why you didn't stop us."

All Zero could do was stare blankly at the Huntress' sneering face.

"Here's my point, muffin. You may or may not have noticed it by now, but we're going Maverick. All of us." Red's eyes narrowed. "You were meant for killing: it's your calling. Are you with us?"

Zero found his voice at last. "Red...why are YOU going Maverick? Is it because of Celeste and Skysheen?"

Red shrugged. "Kinda. When Skysheen told me that he was going to battle humans, I could hardly resist joining Siggy's cause with him. He's family. Mechadrakes stick together. Sky and I have been through a lot. I'm not gonna abandon him now."

"But..what about ME?!"

"That brings me back to my original question. Are you with us or not?"

Red's eyes cut into Zero again. He was in the spotlight: the other killers had stopped their cleaning and conversation and waited eagerly for the confused Hunter's reply.

Zero remembered. He remembered the dream he had had moments before awakening for the first time in his life. He remembered his beloved brother Bass' last words about 'making him proud.' He remembered feeling ashamed for falling in love with a human female who had wanted to follow in her dad's footsteps. He remembered Tess, sick and hungry, struggling to survive in the unpleasant atmosphere of the refugee camps. He remembered them all, and he came to a decision.

"No."

Red did not utter a word. Rather, she shrugged seconds before hitting Zero square in the chest with a blast of flame from her gaping jaws.

The firey blossom had confused Zero more than it hurt him; he struggled to stand and began a panicked run away from the Mavericks. He could hear their malicious laughter from behind. It burned his ears worse than Red's breath had.

Red. Suddenly, a black shadow, like one of a giant reptile in flight, draped Zero in its darkness as he desperately tried to flee. A nanosecond later, Zero was staring right into a gaping dragon mouth planted with rows of ominous teeth. The small spears promptly sank into his right shoulder pad. Red had her teeth locked on him. He could barely move for the weight she applied.

Zero resisted for as long as he could; soon, however, the pressure became unbearable. The armour on his shoulder gave way, and Zero finally allowed himself to scream.

The pressure eased. Zero sunk to the ground almost as lifelessly as one of the murdered humans had earlier. His swimming vision caught sight of Red glaring at him with a strange cross of sorrow and contempt before she flew off in the opposite direction, headed towards Sigma, Vile, and the rest of the New Mavericks. The Regal Dragons were dead. The Spartans were nonexistent. These were the only thoughts that occupied Zero's mind as he lurched his way back to MHHQ.

Chapter 24

You! Out of the Gene Pool!

No matter how cold and unfriendly the world outside became, the kitchen and cafeteria of MHHQ never failed to be a warm and welcoming place. On stressful days, Celeste found that she could always take comfort within its secure walls.

Hot and tired after a very sucessful round in the Training Gym, Celeste sat up on a table in the kitchen, idly kicking her feet and wondering with mild impatience when she was going to get to battle a real Maverick. Before her sat Terrence and Phillip, who were silently and methodically stripping potatoes of their jackets. Having a conversation with the two ex-kennel staff reploids was usually as thrilling as watching paint dry on a fence, but Celeste decided that she was desperate enough to talk to them. She needed to put her mind at ease.

"Hey fellahs..."

T and P instantly stopped peeling and whipped around to face the Huntress.

Now that she was in the hotseat, a fresh layer of sweat rose on Celeste's skin and replaced the traces left from her earlier training.

"Tell me something, guys...what do you think about love?" Celeste's right hand unconsciously tightened around the piece of paper balled up in it. It was the note that Zero had left under her pillow last night. It didn't have his name on it, but it was still pretty damn obvious who it was from...there had been brown and white cat hair all over it.

"Love...?" Terrence and Phillip blinked at each other as their sluggish minds tried to process an adequate answer to this oh so complicated question.

Phillip was the first to speak. "Isn't that what leads humans to make more morons?"

Celeste ground her teeth. "Fall on your knees and thank your God, Phillip, that I can't find anything good and solid to throw at you right this minute."

Panic swam in Terrence's blank eyes. "Have we been stupid again, Ms. McTreggor?" He squeaked. "Please don't tell Lady Draco! She can't stand it when fellow Canadians act stupid. If she gets word of this, she'll crack our heads together...again!"

Three surly knocks suddenly landed outside of the kitchen's locked door.

"Knock-knock-knockin' on the kitchen door!" T and P sang automatically, although neither of them made a move to get up and answer the angry summons.

A scarlet titanium boot kicked the door clear off its hinges.

"Uh oh," T and P said in unison. They both dove for shelter under the table that Celeste was still perched on.

A severely cheesed-off Zero barged through the maimed doorway. By the looks of his singed armour and the neat row of odd teeth-marks crisscrossing his shoulder, the Hunter had been at the losing end of some battle. Zero ripped off his helmet, revealing a rather humourus 'helmet head'. The Hunter flung the gilded headpiece against the wall opposite to him hard enough to make a dent in its sturdy twice-forged titanium. Then, with the loudest voice and most vulgar vocabulary he possessed, Zero told everyone present exactly what he thought of Sigma and his mother.

"That's the loudest profanity I've ever heard!" Terrence remarked from his hiding spot.

"Zero!" Celeste slid off of the table and threw caution into the wind as she ran towards the frenzied Hunter. "Calm down! What's wrong?"

Zero merely continued to howl like an unfed wolverene. Celeste could pick up only a few broken words...and she didn't like what she heard. The disjointed phrases consisted of "Draco...Sigma...Skysheen...Spartans...we're all gonna die!"

* * * * *

"Soooo..." Cain sighed wearily from across his office desk where Zero had officially delivered the bad news with Celeste there for him as support. "What you're saying is that Sigma, Red, Skysheen, and the Spartans went bats and offed all the human Hunters present before trying to get you to join them?"

Zero bobbed his head slowly, weighed down with disbelief.

"That's it, then." Cain mumbled, creaking back into his stylish chair. "By starting the mass production of reploids, I've effectively doomed the entire human race. And mother said that I'd never accomplish anything in my life. I've certainly shown HER, haven't I?" The elderly scientist gave a short, humourless laugh.

"Sir...shouldn't we start working on a counterattack plan right away?" Celeste inquired.

Cain lurched to his feet. "Of course, my dear...after I visit the pub downstairs for some...inspiration." He excused himself and exited, shakily singing something along the lines of, "It's the end of the world as we know it...and I feel fine..."

* * * * *

"Argh! This is by far the worst goddamned day I've ever had in my life! Damn Sigma! A fury is in my brain!"

X found it difficult to keep his voice devoid of the exhaustion that pressed down on him as his short steps tried to stay in time with Zero's long, passionate strides. "It...can't be all...that bad," the blue reploid puffed optimistically to his friend. "After all, Cain promoted you to the leader of the Regal Dragons..."

Zero gave a tremor of a growl. "It's not 'Regal Dragons' anymore, X. It's been renamed the 17th Unit. But whatever in bloody hell its name is, I don't want to lead it." Zero reached the training room and bashed its heavy doors open. The gym was empty.

"What are you going to do in here?" X puzzled.

Zero waved his arms around helplessly. "Oh...I don't know. Maybe I'll bash my head against the wall a few times. That should cheer me up."

"Come on Zero...maybe Sigma doesn't want to kill off the entire human race. Maybe he just wants to...enslave them or something."

Zero shook his head slowly, sorrowfully. "X, you're one of my best friends and I love ya like a brother, but you're living in a world of MAKE BELIEVE, with elves and moogles and little dragons named Smaug. Sigma wants the entire human race to go pppfht...off the face

of the planet, for good. That'll be a gargantuan task to complete...it could take centuries. After all, to put things bluntly, most humans have sex drives that would send any jackrabbit into an early grave. But the point is, our best Hunters have gone Maverick WITH him. We have no defense against his attacks."

X shook his head defiantley, as if he had been thinking of a counterattack to this statement for ages. "Not entirely true."

"Oh? 'zat so?"

"I want to join the Hunters."

"Uh...what was that you said? I think we have a bad connection. Aren't you the one who thinks that violence is oh so wrong?"

X had seen this one coming. "I'm not saying that I think it's right. But I also think that it wouldn't be very nice of me to let the humans fend for themselves. Will you let me into the 17th?"

Zero blinked twice in rapid succession before throwing back his head in a long howl of laughter. "X, what do YOU know about fighting? You're not even equipped for battle! What're you gonna do, throw your shoes at the Mavericks? Or maybe you'll preach them to death with

sermons on how wrong war is."

X retorted in a silent voice. He was absolutely heartbroken, and it showed on his contorted face.

Zero softened at the pitiful sight. "Aw come on X...I'm just looking out for your safety. Didn't you hear what I said earlier? The Mavericks now have Sigma and the Spartans on their side. What worries me most is the fact that they also have Red! That gal can crush beer cans against her head."

"So? Anyone can do that."

"While the cans are still full?"

"...Oh. She can do that?"

"You betchya. Look, Cain is organizing a counterattack on the Mavericks that'll involve the 17th. It's basically a suicide mission. Our best fighters have gone with Sigma. There's no one left who'll want to be a Hunter."

"Y'think?" A feminine voice challenged from behind the crimson reploid. The half-word wafted up from a sea of din that had suddenly appeared with the voice.

X and Zero both stared at each other for a second prior to turning around.

There was Celeste, decked in her light fighting gear. A prize smile lit up her fairly simple face, giving it a glow of beauty. And behind her were equally eager Hunters. A lot of them. A few reploids were scattered amoung the ranks, but most of the mass was made up of humans. Zero recognized a few of them with disbelieving eyes...he saw Paul Wells and his Night Vipers (most of whom had been humans in the first place), and a few residents from the refugee camp...including, much to his surprise, Tess and a young male beside her that Zero took to be Josh.

"We're all part of the counterattack, Zero." Celeste explained. "We're in the 17th, under you. I know that humans aren't as good at fighting as reploids are, but now that Sigma has officially declared war on humans, what're we supposed to do? Wait to die? If I'm going to be killed, I want it to happen while I'm protecting my existence, and the existance of my family and friends. The others agree."

A ripple of positive murmur rose from the large band behind Celeste.

'When humans are threatened, they can turn into nasty war machines.' It was Skysheen who had told Zero that on the first day he had arrived at MHHQ. Finally, the Hunter knew what the Mechadrake had been talking about. Celeste and the others seemed ready to fight to the death before they would be axed by Mavericks. A slow smile dawned on Zero's face, relaxing the worried lines that had been etched into it. Humans. They couldn't think ahead, they couldn't educate their young...but damn, they could fight. He had found a new respect for them.

"Okay Hunters!" Zero shouted with new energy. "Welcome to the 17th. When we can finally locate where Sigma is hiding, we'll be right there to kick him in the groin. Some of you won't return from the mission when that day comes...actually, a hell of a lot of you won't. But that's not what's important right now...let's get some training done!"

* * * * *

A small candle with a proud, unwavering flame lit inside of Zero as he watched his new troops practice what they knew about fighting Mavericks. Some of the recruits were already decently trained, and they helped out those who were not. Zero hungirly anticipated the coming battle. Shame was threaded in with the hunger, because Zero knew that he looked forward to the spilling of blood on BOTH sides. Some emotions died hard. Oh well.

X was beside the observant Zero. "Doesn't look too shabby," he remarked.

"Yeah, I guess." Zero sighed absently. His gaze was pegged on Celeste who was busy far across the other end of the gym.

X flicked his eyes up towards his new leader. "You still like her, huh?" There's no need to mention who X was referring to.

Half of a nod was the only response.

"A lot?"

"Oh yeah."

"I think she likes you too," X drawled, "but I doubt she'll ever say it to your face. She's a human, you're a reploid. I don't think the two species are...romantically compatible."

"Duh."

X nervously rubbed the back of his neck with a hand. "Well...it all might work out in the end. After all, did a cult of great prophets not once say, 'Love is sweet misery?'"

"That was Aerosmith, X, and they were a far cry from 'great'. No, what you said earlier is true. A reploid's mind has desires, but his body doesn't know what to do with them. It's a pretty cruel thing to do to us if you ask me!"

X patted his mourning friend on the slumped shoulder. "Come now, don't worry. Look...do you want me to talk to Celeste and see what she thinks about the whole situation?"

Zero actually flushed a little bit. "Uh..well...I guess if you want to." The Crimson Wonder thought that X meant he would talk privately to Celeste when he got a chance. He was sadly mistaken.

X took a deep breath. "HEY CELESTE!" The word rang through the gym like a gunshot.

Celeste (and about half of the occupants in the gym) looked up at X's hail.

When he had the Huntress's attention, X motioned towards Zero, who was paralyzed with a numbing species of shock. "ZERO MAY NOT BE A HUMAN LIKE YOU'D BE ACCUSTOMED TO, BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN HE CAN'T FIND WAYS OF MAKING YOU HAPPY!"

Laughter raged through the gym. Celeste turned about three different shades of red before she slunk off to hide somewhere. Zero remained an oil painting. Giggling, X wisely scurried away.

* * * * *

"Another day another box of stolen pens," Celeste quoted to no one in particular as she crashed on her bed. Between that day's training and X's nice public announcement, Celeste was completely spent...but she quickly regained some energy with an adrenalin surge when she felt a

dreaded, unmistakeable presence trickle into her mind...

"I wanna be an Airborne Ranger!" Torrent sang to Celeste's subconsciousness.

Torrent? Just leave me alone for today...please?

"I wanna live a life of danger!"

Go away! Celeste couldn't keep the tremour out of her thought. I always get sick after we do this 'Mindspeak' thing...

It's quite normal to experience nausea after a session of Mindspeak, Pretty One, Torrent chuckled, after all, it puts an enormous strain on the mind and body. But you'll get used to it. After all, your father did.

Celeste didn't respond to this statement, but Torrent fed off of the wild emotions she was experiencing.

You're wondering why you have the ability to Mindspeak, right dear? Torrent asked for her. It's simple high school genetics. Somehow, through random mutations, this freakish telepathy gene found its way into your father's bloodline. The gene is expressed as complete dominence, not incomplete dominence...which means that you either have the ability to Mindspeak, or you don't. There's no such thing as just having 'a little' of it. Plus, there's a good chance that you're a carrier of the gene as well, and can pass it on. And that's what worries me. I've been studying your bloodline for almost a century now. Most of you are unaturally good fighters. A few of you have Mindspeak. A very few of you have both abilities, yourself and your father included. I can't stand humans with gifts such as these. They're dangerous For this reason, I worked on luring your father to a showdown. Killing him had been rather useless, for I found out that he had sired two children. I'm afraid you must be gotten rid of.

Celeste simply stared unseeing into the empty air like a corpse.

Torrent changed the subject quite suddenly. Have you ever read 'The Chrysalids'?

...no.

Oh. Screw you then. I'm going to cut this conversation short by asking you what I always do. When are you going to come and visit me? I'm afraid I can't have you running on the streets, especially now that there's an all out war versus the Mavericks now.

Celeste gave the same answer she always did. Never. She meant for the word to be bold and steady, but it turned out more like a kitten's mew.

Heh...we'll just see about that hon. You know as well as I do that you'll end up here eventually. Tune in for more Mindspeak later! Same Bat Time, same Bat channel! Torrent cut off his line suddenly like the slam of a door, leaving Celeste very much alone, frightened, and sick. Her heart gave a startled flip-flop as she realized what had happened to her father. He hadn't gone after Torrent because of pride, as was the popular belief. Rather, he had pursued the aquatic Mechadrake in hopes that Torrent's death would mean the liberation of his own mind. Mindspeak had been driving him to the point of insanity.

And Celeste knew that sooner or later, she would crack under the strain of constantly being on the other end of Torrent's communications. Eventually, she would do as her father did and hunt down the lizard before she lost her mind.

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