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Gather 'round me friends, and listen to this tale...HEY!!! Where are y'all goin'? I'm over HERE!! Yeah, here. Okay, sit down. Now, as I was saying...let's begin. Ahem....A long time ago , in a kingdom far, far away...

No. Wait a minute. I must've told about five million tales like this...I'm sure you people want to hear something DIFFERENT for a change...yeah, I thought so. So here's a little tale that I was told when I was a little mite.....

What would YOU do if there was a prophecy that stated you would eventually kill your best friend? I mean, sure, sometimes your friends c'n be real jerks...especially the type that like to pull down your shorts at the beach. But a friend is a friend after all....

That's what this ditty is about. And I think I should shut up before I give the whole plot away in a measly introduction. So pour yerself a mug of ale..you're gonna have to be drunk stone out of your mind to believe this tale, anyway. This is a story dealing with friendship, love, and the difficulty of finding a good parking spot at a shopping mall these days. It's the story of.......

Zero Tolerance

By Red Draco

Part 1: And Now, The Mavericks Who Need No Introduction...

"Okay, Violen. Here's an easy one: 'What was the name of the whale that swallowed Pinocchio and Geppeto?'"

The massive two-tonne reploid scowled at this question. He wasn't built for thinking; he was meant for destruction and killing. Still, he didn't want to seem like a moron to his buddies....

"Well?" Inquired Storm Eagle, who had asked him this question. He was growing impatient. "What's the answer? Just because you're an idiot doesn't mean you can take 5 years to answer this."

Violen was wondering whether it would be worth getting up to smash Eagle's face in when Drill Rhino interrupted his thoughts.

"Answer the good man's question, Violen," he said in his gruff voice, "otherwise, we'll never finish this game."

Violen tried his level best to at least make an educated guess.

"I dunno. Moby Dick?"

Eagle let his head sink in his hands. Rhino smashed his armoured head against the stone wall.

Violen grew angry. "Well excuse me!" He shouted. "Who's bright idea was it for me to play Trivial Pursuit??"

"Hey yeah, this sucks." Interjected Wheel Gator. "Let's go start a forest fire or somethin'."

"We could play Hungry Hippos, " Rhino suggested.

Storm Eagle stood up so suddenly that his chair tipped back and landed on the floor with a crash. He glared at one stunned reploid to another in disgust. They were all seated around a wood table with a beautiful stained finish. Various books and games were scattered around the table. In the background, the giant-screen TV was on, with Neon Tiger watching it happily.

It looked like something out of the Brady Bunch, only worse.

"People!" He said sternly. "Look at us all! Ever since the third fall of the X-Hunters, we've gone downhill. Gotten soft. Look," Eagle pointed a taloned finger at Neon Tiger. "Good old Tigger has started watching SOAPS!"

Tiger turned around dejectedly. "Don't call me Tigger," he growled. "and for your information, I'm only watching this today because Dan found out that Lila is having an affair with Charles."

"I rest my case, " Eagle crowed. "I say that we have ourselves a riot in downtown."

"Ah, what's the bloody point of that?" Grunted Rhino. "The whole reason we can't go out at all is because of Zero and that little moron X. Ever since their last victory over us, the Maverick Hunters have grown in size, strength and number. Going outside of this fortress would be like wearing a big neon sign with the words 'Please kill me, I'm a Maverick' flashing on it. "

Eagle slammed his fist on the table. There was an audible crack from the wood. "Rhino, that's a rotten attitude. I ought to have Vile rip off your horn and sell it as an aphrodisiac. The problem here is that we're Reploids, so we're able to make our own decisions. We're scared to fight. Or YOU guys are, anyway. Back in the old days of Wily and the Robot Rebellions, robots didn't have their own free will. They were just unleashed like dogs trained to kill. They weren't afraid of failure. They didn't have the ability to be. It was better that way."

"I ain't movin' until Sigma comes back." This comment was from Violen. Eagle spun around on his heel to stare at the behemoth. "Sigma is NOT coming back! Get it through your thick skull. Why would he return? To be destroyed by X and Zero again!? He's smarter than you think. But..." A slow smile reached Eagle's metallic beak. "What if we destroyed one...nay, BOTH of those hunters...? It would be safe for him to return...."

"Sure, Birdman." Smirked Rhino. "Look who's talking about destroying them. You were one of the first to fall to X's arm cannon."

A sudden heavy knock at the door made everyone jump. Eagle recognized it right away.

"Is that you, Vile?" He called.

"No, it's the Avon Lady posing as Vile. Let me in!"

Wheel Gator was up right away to open the steel door. Nobody who wanted to live to see their next birthday disobeyed Vile.

The heavy doors clanged open. In the doorway stood a formidable reploid clad in purple armour. His dark eyes were hidden behind his mask, as they always had been since the day he was created. It was none other than Vile, Sigma's top henchman, and all around bad guy. Vile ran happily into the room. He was holding some sort of document in his glove.

"Boss, you seem happy." Grunted Rhino, watching his master dance around the room.

Vile faced his underling. "Happy?" He said gleefully. "I'm orgasmic!! Look at what I found." He held up the document for all to see. "I found it when I was going through Sigma's things. I was hoping that I could find something that would help us in our battle against the Maverick Hunters. It looks like I found something?"

"What is it?" Asked Violen.

"It's a page out of Wily's old journal. Read it!"

Violen stared stupidly at the page, trying to make out the words. "Oh, give me that!!" Vile said, snatching the paper away. It was fragile and yellow with age. "I'll read it to you." Vile was about to begin, when two soft taps sounded at the door.

"Knock knock. Can I come in?"

Vile turned around. "Phoenix, good of you to join us."

Phoenix strode in. She was the latest of the X-Hunters, a female reploid who looked somewhat like Storm Eagle, except she was slightly taller. Her wings and metallic body were all painted a brilliant fiery colour.

"Vile, who loves ya baby? What's that you've got there?" She reached for the paper in Vile's outstretched hands.

"It's our ticket to victory." Vile informed her. "It's a page out of Wily's old journal. Read it to these illiterate idiots, will you?" He motioned towards the X-Hunters.

Phoenix read it to herself once. Her head jerked back in surprise. Then she blinked twice and began to read...

"I've done it! After my faithful servant Bass managed to steal a copy of my enemy Thomas Light's design notes, I've created a 'Reploid.' A reploid is not just a robot. A reploid is much more advanced. It has the strength of a robot, and the emotions and dangerous intelligence of a human. It combines the best of both worlds. I've created one reploid so far. He's a lethal killing machine named Zero.

"I'd love to create armies of reploids; however, I'm too old. According to Light's notes, his reploid, X, is set to activate in about 30 years. I'm setting Zero's activation at 30 years as well. If all goes well and I've set everything correctly, Zero will be a born killer and destroyer of mankind.

This "X" character will likely be a protector of humans. There should be many clashes between these two, resulting in wars unlike the world has ever seen.

20XX J. Wily"

There was a brief silence after Phoenix had finished the letter. Tiger, who had joined the other hunters at the table raised a furry eyebrow at Vile. "So this means...."

"What this means, you misbegotten housecat, is that Zero is one of us. He should be fighting alongside us. How he ended up with the Maverick Hunters is anyone's guess. It's ironic that Zero, a killer, is best friends with X, a peacemaker. But this letter gives me confidence...and a plan. Eagle!" Vile called sharply. "Contact the good people at Hayatrom and order a Nullifier, and a dart gun. Phoenix and Violen, come see me. Tigger, I want you to open a Videophone channel to Cain Labs. And the rest of you...."

Vile glanced at the remaining Hunters, most of which were still mesmerized by the facts the letter had held. "Who's up for a game of Monopoly?"

"All right," agreed Rhino, "but I get to be the horse!"

Part 2: The "X" Files

"Sir, a channel has been opened to Cain Labs," purred Neon Tiger as he turned to face his mentor Vile.

"Good boy, Tigger. Stand by for further instructions."

Phoenix and Violen approached the purple reploid. "Vile. You wanted to see us?"

"Yes. I have a plan that'll ultimately lead to the destruction of X and the return of Sigma. You two'll have to play a crucial part in it."

Just then, Storm Eagle appeared at the door. He folded his formidable wings in order to get through. "Hey, Vile. About that Nullifier and dart gun. Hayatrom said it'll be ready and delivered shortly."

"Good," was Vile's reply. "now Phoenix and Violen. Listed carefully, because I'm only gonna say this once...."

Meanwhile, across the city in a happier environment lay the lab of Dr. Cain. X was here, in the rec room, sipping a WD-40 cooler, and channel surfing. He couldn't have been happier. The Mavericks were contained for a while, relations between humans and reploids were improving, and life was treating him well for once. He didn't have to go out and fight the stray Mavericks that lingered here and there; Zero handled that. X hated fighting; Zero loved it.

A loud crash of the door to the rec room being opened brought X back to life. In the doorway stood a six-foot five male reploid, clad in crimson Titanium-X protective armour and a gilded helmet. From under his helmet, his hair fell down to his knees like a waterfall of gold. It was none other than Zero, champion Maverick Hunter and leader of the #00 class unit of Maverick Hunters. He strode in and removed his helmet. He tossed it over his shoulder. X heard the sound of a muffled thud, and a cat yowling in pain.

"Whoops! Sorry, Tango!" He called to the feline. "Hey, X! You should've gone hunting with me today. I tell ya, there's nothing like the look of terror in a young reploid's eyes when it sees your Arm Cannon levelled towards its face. Hey, gimmie." He grabbed the cooler out of X's hand and took a huge gulp. "Here you go," he said, politely handing the remains of the can to X.

X moved his gaze from the can to Zero. "No thanks. Keep it. You backwashed."

"No, I-" Zero started, when a loud, screeching laugh stopped him. A young human Maverick Huntress with shoulder-length chestnut brown hair tore in. She was Celeste, one of the few human huntresses, and good buddies with Zero and X. Especially Zero.

"Howdy, ya'll!" She cried. She collapsed on the floor in front of the TV. Celeste was about 23 years old, but she looked (and often acted) like she wasn't a day over 19. "Zero, how was hunting?"

Zero glanced down at himself. His Titanium-X armour, which was usually gleaming, was now dull and stained with the circulatory fluids of Mavericks. Zero beamed at Celeste. "Hunting was cool. In a matter of time, I think all the Mavericks will be cleared out of the city. Now X, you don't seem to be watching anything specific. Give the the remote." Zero reached to grab the channel changer from X. X snatched it away, out of his reach.

"Zero, what's the magic word?"

"Give me that now, or I'll disembowel you."

"Alright, here. Don't get your panties into an uproar." X handed the remote to Zero.

"I don't wear panties," Zero declared as he flopped down on the couch, "but you can fantasise about it if you wish. Is there anything good on TV, or do we pay for intergalactic cable for the good of our health?"

Celeste perked up. "Hey, where's Dr. Cain....?"

X jerked his thumb towards the door. "He's in the lab, working on some sort of new 'Robot Ride' armour. He claims it's more powerful than the Chimera and the Hawk put together. It should be something to see. In fact, he mentioned it was very nearly done."

Part 3: Platinum

Hello. This is your narrator speaking. I think that I should bring to your attention that I'm in a good deal of pain as I write this. You see, due to the measles scare here in Ontario, it was required that we all get our measles vaccination in school. I think that the woman who gave me my shot worked

in a butcher shop in a previous life. On top of that, I was one of the lucky "few" to get a reaction to the needle....a fever, and chills. So I got to sit isolated from the rest of my fellow schoolmates, all of which were laughing at a Mr. Bean video which was put on by the needle people (You were supposed to relax your arm for a while) and I got to stare at a wall. Why am I saying this...? Why would you care? Sigh...nevertheless, I shall nobly sacrifice myself to bring you the continuation of this lovely story the way Zero sacrificed himself to save X from a certain death. Speaking of those two.....

"Heads up, X!" Zero tossed a wooden carton of spare robot parts to X. "Catch!"

X turned around from the shelf he was taking inventory on. "What'd you say, Zero?" No sooner had he finished his question then the box stuck the bare cement floor of the storeroom. The fragile crate shattered on impact. X turned his eyes down to the floor. "Oh...that. Whoops."

"X, you idiot!" Shouted Zero. "Good morning!"

"Zero, it was an accident."

"I'll bloody well GIVE you an accident!" Zero drew back his fist.

"Hey, don't kill each other, you two!" Celeste called from across the storeroom.

"Aw, X know's I'd never hurt him!" Zero said with a grin. He threw his arm around X's artificial neck. "Right, buddy?"

X struggled fruitlessly against the bear hold.

"Urk...can't...breathe!" He gasped.

"Breathing is for the weak, X!"

"Am I interrupting anything important?"

X and Zero turned towards the door, where the familiar voice came from. Celeste peeked out from behind a metal shelf of "Do-it-yourself books on building robots. "Dr. Cain!"

The elderly scientist was parked in the doorway, leaning on his cane. Beside him was a young male reploid, clad in brilliant platinum armour. Cain smiled at X and Zero. "Zero, I've brought you a new friend. He's to join the #00 class of Maverick Hunters. I'll leave you two to get acquainted." With that, Cain shuffled out of the doorway.

Zero was usually wary towards strangers. This platinum guy was no exception. Zero gave him a 'Yes,-how-may-I-help-you' look. Platinum simply

stared back. There was nothing paticularily friendly or hostile in his gaze. He looked something like the old X-Hunter Byte had looked like. Slightly taller, though.

X broke the uncomfortable silence. "Hello, and welcome to the Maverick Hunter forces. I'm X." He gave a warm smile, and extended a hand. Platinum reached for X's hand slowly, as if it were a poisonous snake. "Your name's X? That's a bit lewd." He smirked.

"Well, yes, but.."

"Nevermind. Heeyyyy...nice hair, hippie!" Platinum had turned towards Zero. "Wrong thing to say, guy." X said softly.

Before you could have said 'knife,' platinum found himself dangling inches above the ground, held by the back of his neck. Zero held him as if he weighed no more than a sack of feathers. His grin was sharklike.

"Zero, don't hurt him!" Celeste said warningly.

Zero was deaf to her request. Instead, he wheeled around 180 degrees and slammed the platinum reploid against the wall. A few books and smaller boxes tumbled down from the shelves above.

"My name's Zero." He began quietly, grinning the whole time. "I'm your COMMANDER. You'll obey my every word when you're in my squad. And you know something?? I don't like you. No. I have a good mind to rip your arms out of your sockets.....but wait. No. I'm in a forgiving mood. I'll pretend you didn't say anything. In fact, let's start over. You're going to walk through that door, and we'll act like we've never seen you in our lives. Understand?"

"Y-yes sir." Croaked platinum.

"Smart boy." Zero tossed his frightened prey towards the door. Platinum quickly scuttled out. After a few seconds, he reappeared and knocked on the door.

"Yes? Who is it?" Zero called sweetly.

"I'm uh...a new member of the #00 class of Maverick Hunters."

"Well, come on in! Nice to have you aboard."

Platinum came in, somewhat more humble than before. "I'm sorry sir." He said sheepishly. "I figured that I was pretty high and mighty for being transferred to the #00 Special Forces...I forgot my manners, I guess."

"Forget it." Said X, who was always quick to forgive. "What's your name?"

The reploid grew silent. He looked down at the floor, embarrassed. Zero's temper started to rise again. "Are you deaf? He asked what your name was!"

"I...um...would rather not say.....sir."

"Oh, come on!" Celeste coaxed.

"I--oh, alright." He mumbled. "My name is...um...Forrest."

Part 4: The Gryphon

"Hey, Zero. Are you gonna let me use that computer today, or what?"

"Patience, young Jedi! I'll be done soon."

X and Zero were seated in the Maverick Hunter HQ computer lab. It was a light and airy room, comfortable and cheerful. The air conditioners located in the west and east windows hummed nonstop in an effort to keep the various humans, reploids and computers in the room cool.

X sat next to his pal, drinking another WD-40 cooler. Zero looked worried. "X, maybe you should lay off on those in case we're called into battle. The last thing we need is for you to be tipsy."

"Nah. You just have fun on the Internet. Don't worry about me." X and Zero then heard Forrest swear rather loudly at his computer.

Zero turned around and grinned at the platinum newcomer. "You know, " he began, "I can't believe your name is Forrest. Your creator must have hated you. You must go through hell every day."

"Life is like a box of chocolates...." Celeste began. She didn't look up from her screen. Forrest pretended not to hear her. Then X chimed in. "Jenny...I love you, Jenny." Zero was on the floor with that one.

"Oh, grow up." The disgruntled platinum reploid muttered to the cheerful bunch.

"Oh Zerrrooooo....." A voice sang from the doorway. It belonged to XY-2400, or Roadkill as he was better known to his friends. Roadkill was one of Dr. Cain's reploid lab assistants. He was stuck with his nickname, as he was infamous for running over various small animals when he ventured out for a Sunday drive. Roadkill beckoned for Zero to approach him. As Zero got up, Roadkill said, "This concerns you too, X. Celeste, come as well....and....." At this point, Roadkill's eyes fell on Forrest.

"Hello, there." He said warmly. "You're new. What's your name?"

Forrest shuddered and hunched miserably in front of his computer.

"What's the matter with him?" Said Roadkill, insulted.

X tapped Roadkill on the shoulder. "He's embarrassed about his name. I don't blame him. He's called Forrest. Please keep your tormenting him to a minimum."

The corners of Roadie's mouth twitched. Then he got back on subject. "X and Zero, the Mavericks have contacted us on Videophone. Vile wishes to speak with you."

"The Mavericks...? Are you sure it's them?"

"Well, it ain't the Brady Bunch!!"

X, Zero and Celeste dashed out the door, several pairs of eyes following them. After hesitating for a minute, the insult-battered Forrest followed.

Up in the MHHQ rec room, the Hunters and the Huntress were crowded around the silver videophone screen. Dr. Cain was among them. They were gaping at the dark face of none other than Vile himself.

"Hello, friends." Vile spoke in his usual smooth, seductive tone. "Since it was such a beautiful day in the neighbourhood, I decided to contact you and let you know that I'm planning to release several legions of bloodthirsty Mavericks on the streets of Kapcom. I also want you to know that I'm deadly sick of you people. Therefore, I invite the bunch of you to our lovely fortress for a showdown. If you show up, wonderful! If not, I'll release the Mavericks, and then you can say 'bye bye' to Kapcom, and the human race. I'll give you....let's see...6 hours to get here. Until then...."

Vile's hateful face disappeared in a hiss of static. Zero turned off the screen of the videophone soberly.

X took a deep breath. "Well?" He sighed. "What're we gonna do now?"

Zero shrugged. "What can we do? We'll fight him, I suppose."

X looked worried. "Is that the smart thing to do?"

"Perhaps you have a better idea?" Zero snorted.

Cain interuppted their bickering. "X, Zero may have a good idea, actually. Right now, the Mavericks are as weak as they're going to get, since Sigma isn't leading them, and their self esteem and confidence is low." He tapped his cane on the carpet. "I think you should have a showdown with Vile before the Maverick forces grow again, else Sigma may return."

X and Zero considered this. Fighting Vile was never a picnic, but battling Sigma`always proved to be a major pain in the rear. "I suppose it's the best way to go." Zero spoke up. "Cain, have you got any idea where the new Maverick fortress is?"

"You know, that's the funny part." Cain said as he turned towards the computer map located on the west wall. "The Mavericks haven't moved since their last defeat, like they usually do." He pointed towards the illuminated map with its glowing lines and dots, which X and Zero could never make heads or tails of. "It's almost like...like they want you people to find them."

"Think it's a trap?" X asked Zero.

Zero was strapping his lightsabre to his back. "Oh, probably." He said cheerfully. "But surprises are fun! Besides, I think it's time we get rid of Vile, no matter what it takes. Let's go, X." The crimson reploid turned towards the rest of the group. "Celeste, why don't you come along. And....um...Forrest, you should tag along for the practice. Shall we go?"

Dr. Cain appered to be in deep thought. "Wait, Zero! He called to the departing group. If you can spare a few hours, I'd like to give you the Gryphon. I have a feeling you'll need her."

"I don't know..." X began. "Vile said he'd give us six hours before he attacked, and...."

"Please?" Cain pleaded. "I only have to put some finishing touches on the Gryphon. With the lot of you helping me, I'll be finished rather quickly."

"Well, I'd really love to go out there and slice some Maverick, " Zero grinned as he made a cutting motion with his deactivated lightsabre, "but I guess I can wait a while. What is it you have to do?"

"Oh, just some diagnosic checks...tune ups...you know."

"Sounds good to me. Lead on to the Gryphon!"

A few hours later, in the workshop of Cain Labs, Zero, X, Forrest, Celeste and Dr. Cain were putting the finishing touches on what could be called the greatest Robot Ride armor of all time. The Gryphon was a mammoth machine. Its sleek, two storey Titanium x body was painted a dazzling dark blue with gold trimmings. It had two lethal spin-blades that could gouge a huge hole in any material. It's cockpit could hold about 4 people. It was

supported by two "legs," both of which were as thick and strong as tree trunks. X was running a diagnostic on the legs and humming a little tune. Zero was much higher up, examining the machinery that ran the levivation platform - the device that would transport the team from the ground to the cockpit.

"Zero, is everything looking okay from up there?" C|alled Celeste from below.

"Hakuna Mutata!" Cried Zero, leaping down from above with the grace of any cat. "X, how's everything with the legs?"

"Fine." X sat up, and banged his head on an open hatch above him. Luckily, he was wearing his helmet, but that didn't keep the pain from ripping through his head.

X clutched his head. "Oh, F-" ....

"X," Dr. Cain said warningly.

"Fudge," X finished sheepishly.

The party then heard sounds coming from the outside streets of the city of Kapcom. Sounds like the firing of plasma from arm cannons, laser shots, screams, shouts, and other fun things. These sounds were all to familiar to X and Zero.

"Looks like Vile released the Mavericks early," said Forrest, his voice strangley emotionless.

X shook his head. "Nasty little man," was all he had to say.

Celeste nodded. "I guess he means business about this showdown. Not to worryç, we're almost ready for him! Right Zero?"

Zero didn't answer. His blood stirred at the sound of battle. More than ever, he wanted to shoot a Maverick through the head. He turned towards Cain. "Dr. Cain, let me go out there and shoot a couple of Mavericks while I'm waiting for the Gryphon to be finished." He pleaded.

Dr. Cain shook his head. "Sorry, Zero, but we're going to need you for the showdown, and you seem to be very accident prone, as you're always getting yourself killed off."

Zero said nothing more, but he sulked.

X grinned to his buddy. "A little to much testosterone on the cereal this morning, Zero?"

"Shut up, X."

"Okay, people!" Dr. Cain said when everything on the Gryphon checked out okay. "This is our big moment!! May I present to you the greatest Riding Armor of all time! The Gryphon will lead you faithfully to victory....or death. Try to choose the former."

Part 5: The Incredible Flight of Jimmy and Jules

"Please, Vile!"

"No."

"Pulleeeeeeaaazzzeee!?"

"Let me think about it...hmmm...No."

"Vile, just listen to me! I won't fail you again, I swear!"

"Overdrive! What's the matter? No speaka english? I said NO!"

Overdrive Ostrich had been following his superior, Vile, around all day, annoying the purple reploid no end, asking for a moment of his precious time. "Vile, listen to me," Overdrive pleaded, "or...or...I'll tell everyone your deepest, darkest secret!"

Overdrive thought he actually saw Vile's eyes blaze behind his mask. "You wouldn't!"

Overdrive stood as straight as he possibly could to unsuccessfully strike fear into his mentor. He was taller than Vile, but that didn't stop him from trembling like an idiot.

"I'll do it!"

"Do it and I'll kill you."

"Then who'll run the Mavericks' genetics lab? I'll tell them Vile! I'll tell your followers...that you read Charolette's Web, and cried at the end! I was around when it happened. You know that. And to buy my silence, all I want is to speak to you."

Vile chewed over this. "I admire your shrewdness, Overdrive. You have exactly 10 minutes of my time. No more."

Overdrive was thrilled. He'd always had a hard time with Vile because he was one of the weaker Mavericks, and was looked down upon. When he had been defeated by X, Overdrive had been banished as a Fighter, and was put in charge of the Mavericks' genetics lab. "Vile, sir. Your plan is to capture Zero, right?"

"My, aren't you the quick one."

"And you plan to infect him with the Maverick Computer Virus?"

"Right again, my mutant robin."

"But Vile, sir, we've been studying this virus down at the lab for a while. It's meant to infect a reploid's CPU to turn him Maverick...but our studies show that the virus can easily be cured if it infects only the CPU."

"So?" Snapped Vile. "What do you want me to do? I knew you'd only waste my time. Get lost." Vile tried unsuccessfully to brush by Overdrive, who blocked his way.

"No, Vile! I'm not finished!" Cried Overdrive. Vile stopped, and Overdrive grinned. The blades of crystal along his broad back glistened. "I'm trying to tell you....we've developed a biological form of the virus. Meaning, if the virus is injected into a reploids blood stream, it attacks his CPU as

well as his biological systems...like his CNS and thinking process. If we injected this virus into Zero, there would be no hope for his recovery. His body, mind and soul would be with us. He'd have no memory of his past."

For the first time, Vile seemed interested. "I'm listening..."

Overdrive went on, excited. "It doesn't stop there. The new form of the virus wouldn't just infect those areas...it'd superenhance them! Zero would be stronger...and provided he survived the dosage, he'd be with us...."

"Hold it!" Vile barked suddenly, startling Overdrive. "What do you mean by....'If he survives'...?"

Overdrive fidgeted, and looked down at his toes. Being an ostrich, he only had two. "You see, sir...to get these results, I'd have to use an undiluted form of the virus. It's very powerful, and would be quite a shock to Zero's systems. If I injected the virus into Zero, he'd be in intense pain for a

minute or so. Then he'd black out as soon as the virus attacked his systems. During this time, the virus may begin to change him for the better...or.....um, kill him. To survive the shock of the rampaging virus, one has to be extremely strong physically and emotionally."

Vile drummed his fingers against the stone wall. He was obviously thinking hard. If this virus worked, Zero would be almighty. However, if it killed him, Vile would be left with diddily squat. Was it really worth the risk?

As if he were reading Vile's thoughts, Overdrive spoke. "Sir...I know that you have doubts. You're afraid I'll mess up, and Zero'll die." Overdrive shifted uncomfortably. "I may have been a lousy fighter, but I'm very good at genetics, and I'm running a very successful lab. Remember, I created Babykins for you without a hitch."

Vile snapped back to life. Babykins was his beloved velociraptor, created by dinosaur DNA. She had a beautiful soft beige colour, with savage red tiger-like stripes slashed along her back. Like any velociraptor, she was meant for killing. She would mosey around most of the time, sometimes guarding the fortress, sometimes walking along with Vile, sometimes tearing the throat out of a Maverick Hunter who had come to close to the fortress. (Or a Girl Scout selling cookies.) Mentioning Babykins clinched things for Overdrive.

"Very well, Overdrive. You may give this virus thing a shot, no pun intended."

Meanwhile, in Cain's lab, Zero, X, Celeste and Forrest were ready for departure. X's arms were loaded with CDs. He had run back to his room and collected them when he was told that the Gryphon had a CD player. The Hunters stood on the levitation platform. Cain said his goodbyes, and sent them on their way. The platform slowly rose, until they were seated in the belly of the Gryphon.

"Niiiicceeee!" Zero exclaimed when he saw the interior. There were 4 seats, all cushioned and comfortable. The dashboard had all the controls needed to navigate Robot Ride armour, plus some more. Everything was lit up with a brilliance X and Zero had never known.

"I'm driving!" Zero shouted hopping into the navigator's seat. X was a bit queasy from the coolers he had drunk before, and was in no mood to argue. Zero turned to Forrest and Celeste who were settling down in the back seats. "Are you two okay?"

"A little cramped, but otherwise fine."

"Great! All aboard! Here we...goooooooo...." Zero was no stranger to Riding armour. He grasped the levers that controlled the legs of the Gryphon. He pulled them, and instantly the left leg lifted, and came down with a magnificent crash. They lurched forwards. Zero repeated this motion until they were out of the Lab's garage, and on the war-ridden streets of Kapcom. The Mavericks were having a field day, but that would soon stop.

"Take that!" Zero shouted to a Maverick who promptly met his death on the Gryphon's spinning blade. "Move outta the way, you horse's arse!" He laughed to another that was crushed beneath the Gryphon's massive leg. Several nearby Mavericks stood gaping at the blue behemoth coming towards them. Some fled, others stood stupidly while Zero made short work of them. "All right! Woohoo! This is the stuff I like!" Zero cheered, as

he sliced a Maverick that looked suspiciously like Bit.

When Vile heard the news that the squad of Mavericks he had sent out had gotten thrashed, he didn't throw a temper tantrum like usual. He just sat in the Mavericks' rec room, quietly and calmly. He knew that X and Zero were on their way...and he'd be ready for them. Toxic Seahorse and Spark Mandrill were also present in the room, playing a game of Mystery Date. They couldn't get into it, however, with their master sitting there, acting so

strangely....

".....So then the guy says to the bartender, 'Hey, did you think that I wished for a twelve inch pianist?'"

Zero collapsed, howling at his own pathetic joke. Forrest gazed out the side window, Celeste rolled her eyes. Zero stopped guffawing when he realised that no one was laughing at his joke. "Hey, what's wrong with you people? I make a joke! It was good...wasn't it? Hey Celeste, you liked it, right?"

"Yeah, Zero. Right. I think I heard that one in grade three." The street the party had been travelling along had eventually cleared itself of buildings. Then there were more houses. Now even those had trickled off to plain fields.

"We're almost there, " informed Forrest as if anyone didn't know. "No one would build anything near a Maverick's fortress." It had been the first time that Forrest had spoken during the whole voyage. That was because he was extremely ticked off. Zero's words "Come along for the practice" echoed in his mind over and over. Practice? Yeah, right! More like 'Target Practice' to distract the Mavericks while X, Zero and probably Celeste slipped in to the fortress. Nuts to them.

Forrest's mental griping was interuppted by X's annoyed voice.

"Zero, where in the hell are you going?" the blue reploid snapped suddenly. "You're off course! Bear to the left a bit."

Zero gaped at this friend's sudden temper. He collected himself again. "X, you're insane! We're going the right way."

X's temper rose. His head pounded, and he was still queasy. He was sick of Zero...always the right one! EVERYONE loved Zero! X didn't count. When Zero had saved him from Vile, everyone had mourned the loss of the handsome Hunter, never really caring that X had nearly had his own face ripped off and fed to him for lunch. "Left, damn you!" He shouted at Zero.

"X, you're nuts."

"No, I'm not."

"Wanna bet? Listen to you!"

"Left!"

"NO!"

"You're among the bigger morons I've met in life."

"Shut up, X."

"Bite me!"

"No, thanks."

"LEFT!!"

This went on for a while. Celeste was enjoying the hurling of insults....until she heard X say in a desperate voice...

"NO! Zero, put it down! What're you doing?!"

Celeste gasped when she saw what Zero was holding above his head. It was X's pride and joy, his Pulp Fiction CD soundtrack. The soundtrack was from a classic movie that had been made all the way back in the 20th century. It had taken X a long time to locate. At this point, Zero had stopped the Gryphon, and was threatening to throw X's whole life out the window.

Zero smirked ruthlessly. "I think," he announced, "that Jimmy and Jules, or whatever their names are, want to go flying!" Zero moved the CD closer to the window. "Am I right, X?"

"Nooooooo!! X cried, trying to snatch the disk away from his 'buddy'. However, Zero was taller. The situation was hopeless for X.

Zero drew back his arm, and flung the CD out the window into the wild blue yonder. The last that X saw of his prized possession was a silver disc flying with the sun glinting off its platinum surface. Destination unknown.

X was in shock. So was Forrest and Celeste. Zero, however, showed no remorse whatsoever. "Hated that stupid thing." He grumbled. "Blasting its noise 24 hours a day. Well, X," he said cheerfully. "It's obvious that you don't need my help. After all, I'm going the wrong way. I'll go my own way now...but before I go, I'd like to say exactly what I think of you...."

With that, Zero took a deep breath, and roared a string of curses that would have made a sailor blush.

".......and the horse you rode in on!" He concluded. "See you around, X." Zero hopped down from the full two stories from the Gryphon, his lightsabre drawn. He ignited his long range rocket dash, and headed in the opposite direction from the Riding armour with intense speed. In a few minutes, he was out of sight.

Part 6: Phoenix and Senior el Stupido

Phoenix stood just outside of the blinding yellow force field that encased the Mavericks' HQ. She seemed unaffected by the awesome illumination that the field was giving off, unlike her "assistant," the behemoth of an X - Hunter, Violen, who was muttering complaints about the heat and glare. Phoenix ignored his griping, and smiled in anticipation. The security force field would keep X and Zero from teleporting with ease into the HQ. They

would have to come here by foot like anyone else....and she'd be ready for them when they did...or so she hoped.

Phoenix's breathing was shallow. She'd better get ready. "Violen!" She barked. Violen stopped rubbing his sore eyes, and grunted a response.

"Violen, have you got the Nullifier ready?" Phoenix asked harshly.

Violen grinned hugely. "Like, of course!!" He held up a small vial, containing a clear liquid.

Nullifier...the worst enemy of Reploid or Human. A shot of it would attack your CNS and/or CPU, knocking you unconscious for a good while. Even when you came to, you'd be extremely woozy, unable to move. It slowed your thinking process, making you rather calm most of the time. In other words, it was nasty to be stuck with one if an enemy was in pursuit.

Phoenix was impressed. She was surprised Violen hadn't lost it or spilled it. It was expensive stuff. "Attaboy, Vio." She praised him. "Load it into the dart gun, and don't do something stupid, like stick yourself with it. 'Kay?"

Phoenix fluttered her wings and paced about. She was growing restless. Soon enough, the Hunters would be showing their ugly faces in the area.

Phoenix's predictions were right. Not far away, Zero was trooping along to the Maverick's HQ, muttering bitterly the whole way. He was walking instead of using his traditional long-range Rocket Dash. He wasn't in the mood to sprint merrily. To make things worse, he couldn't teleport to the Mavericks' HQ because of a force field surrounding the place. The Mavericks were smarter than Zero had given them credit for.

Zero was thinking about what he had done to X. "X is an idiot to get so worked up about that stupid CD of his," he grumbled. "With the way he played that thing every day, at window - shattering volume...I think I saved the world from going deaf. Besides, with the vocabulary on that noisemaker, you couldn't bring a child within 100 feet of MH HQ....."

Zero pulled himself out of his thoughts. He noticed for the first time that he was very much alone...and he was getting close to MHQ. No enemies charged him or pursued him. It was kinda eerie. "What am I supposed to do at MHQ?" He mourned. " Challenge Vile? Wait for X...? No, wait, X is

probably halfway to China by now with the direction HE was going in. Guess I'm on my own." Zero drew a deep breath to steady himself. He couldn't believe that he was ­scared. Damned emotions. What good where they on a robot? Zero drew his lightsabre to comfort him, the way a child holds a teddy bear. He felt better, and marched towards MHQ.

Phoenix was sure she had seen some movement far south of her. Could it be the Hunters?

"Pssst! Vio!" She hissed, nudging the sleepy monster. Violen woke with such a start that he nearly shot the nullifier into his own foot.

"Wha - wuzzat? Huh?"

Phoenix leaned closer to Violen. "Tell me if that's the Hunters down south of us, will you?"

Violen was wide awake now. He shielded his eyes from the glare of the force field and started to look around madly.

"No, my dim witted friend." Phoenix sighed, as she grabbed Vio's massive shoulders and spun him around. "South is THAT way."

"I knew that, " Vio grunted. He squinted to the moving shadow south of him. "Well, I'll be a pansy - assed human!" He said, amused. "It's the Hunters....but there's only one of them.....!?"

Part 7: A Crimson Disaster

As Zero neared the Mavericks' fortress, he began to notice the force field surrounding the place. "Ohhh...pretty!" He grinned. "But...how do I get in

the fortress?"

"We'll help you with that!" Called a female voice from behind him. Zero rolled his eyes. How cliche could you get? He spun around on his heel to

face his attackers standing by the glaring force field....and what a pair of attackers they were.

One was a bird like reploid, a female, painted in brilliant shades of red, orange and gold. Her eyes were sharp and alert. Beside her was the all - too -

familiar Violen, with the usual bloodlusty look on his simple face. Instead of wielding his spiked mace as he usually did, he carried an odd looking

gun which was dwarfed against his massive bulk.

"Oy," Zero breathed.

Phoenix was pleased by the fact that Zero seemed overwhelmed. "Gaze at my splendour and power!" She crowed. "I am Phoenix, controller and

user of fire."

Zero suddenly burst into uncontrollable laughter.

"Huh, what's so funny?" Violen asked stupidly, looking about him for the source of Zero's amusement. "Is my fly open? Wait, I don't wear pants...."

Phoenix became annoyed. So much for leaving a formidable first impression. "Is something funny, Hunter?"

"Oh, sorry...." Zero giggled. "It's just that...well, you look like Storm Eagle with a sex change and a really bad paint job!"

The next thing Zero knew, a orange and red streak was flying towards him, wings and talons outstretched, its beak open in a satanic scream. Zero was knocked backwards. His lightsabre flew out of his hands, out of reach. The razor sharp talons ripped the armour on his right arm clean off, from the metallic shoulder pad down to his elbow. The talons had gone through his armour, leaving several slash marks. Black circulatory fluids flowed freely from his arm. Before Zero could recover, a wave of fire from Phoenix's arm cannon washed over him. That didn't do Zero any good.

"Now, Violen!" Phoenix called gleefully. The voice seemed distant. From what seemed a mile away, Zero could see Violen aiming the strange black gun at him. Terrified, Zero tried to get up, but it was too late...the gun had been fired. Zero had been expecting a laser beam to jump from the gun and fry him, therefore he was surprised when a dart whizzed by his ear and stuck in his wounded right arm. That HURT.

Phoenix was laughing. "Way to go, Vio!" She clapped the big reploid on the back. "Good aim! Now...." Her eyes blazed as she turned towards Zero. "It's time to come back to where you belong, Zero."

Zero struggled to fight back, but whatever had been in that dart had turned his mind into mush. "Oh man, this sucks." He thought. "I wonder where X is...doesn't matter, looks like I'm dead anyway..." Zero's thoughts slurred together, and he began to feel dizzy. The last thing he saw before passing out was Violen approaching him.

"Um.....X?"

No response.

"X....."

Still nothing.

"Earth to X!?" Forrest nearly shouted.

X had his head buried in his arms, so Forrest could barley hear X's muffled "What?"

"We've been going in the wrong direction for a while now," Forrest informed him. "It's obvious, because we've reached the outskirts of another city...and no city is near the Mavericks' fortress."

X mumbled something that couldn't be heard.

"Look, X," Forrest said as if he had heard what X had mumbled. "I'm really sorry that your CD took, uh, a little flight there. It seemed to mean a lot to you. But I think that it's time you admitted that Zero was headed in the right direction and you weren't. Zero may be at the Mavericks' fortress by now..and he may need our help."

"So I guess Zero was right!" X snarled. "He's always right! No one ever listens to what I have to say! Why should they? I was only the first reploid created! And here's everyone idolising this Mr. Universe outsider! Marsha, Marsha, Marsha! ALL RIGHT, we'll follow His Majesty!" X began the difficult process of turning the Gryphon 180 degrees. Celeste and Forrest tried to think of something comforting to say to X, but what could be said?

"Okay Wheel Gator!" Drill Rhino grunted, holding up a question card from yet another game. "Betcha don't get this one! If there's a bomb on a bus that's set to explode when the bus reaches 50 MPH, what do you do?"

Wheel Gator thought that one over. He tapped a metallic claw on his extremely sharp set of teeth to help him think.

"Shoot the hostages?" The leviathan guessed.

Rhino's eyes opened wider in surprise when he read the answer printed on the card. "Lucky guess, " he muttered.

"We're hooooooommmmeeeee!" Phoenix called from the doorway of the Fortress's rec room. The Mavericks' eyes lit up. Phoenix was rapidly becoming a favourite of theirs.

"What'd ya bring me? What'd ya bring me!?" Gator cried, jumping up and down excitedly. He knocked over the game board in his frenzy.

"This!" Phoenix beckoned to Violen outside the room. Vio entered and threw Zero none - too - gently on the carpeted floor.

The two Mavericks were in a state of shock. They stood there gaping at one of their worst enemies lying out cold before them. Zero's crimson armour was charred in places from Phoenix's fire wave, and his arm was still bleeding the black fluid, which formed a neat little pool on the once clean carpet. Zero's eyes were closed, and his mouth was partway open, as if he were starting a scream. His normally good - looking blond ponytail was singed and matted.

Wheel Gator reacted first. "Eww!" He cried, hiding behind Rhino. "I don't like this! I thought you'd bring me home a chocolate bar, or a puzzle, or, or..."

"Shut up, you impossible idiot!" Phoenix roared.

Rhino nudged Zero a little with his wide foot. "He's pretty much out of it," Rhino said. He grinned wickedly. "I never liked this guy. Let's pour salt into his wounds or something."

"No, no no." Phoenix said. "Vile's orders were to bring Zero directly to him when we got back. Let's go find the big V, then the fun can begin. If all goes well, Zero will be one of us for good."

"Where were all of Zero's little do - gooder friends?" Rhino questioned of Phoenix.

Phoenix snorted and shrugged. "Who cares? My orders were to bring back Zero, not them."

Rhino looked worried. "Aren't you afraid that they'll try to rescue Zero?"

"No. I really don't give two whoops in hell for them. If you're worried, just leave the force field up."

"But the force field screws up the cable!" Rhino whined.

"Hey, Rhino,"

"Yeah?"

"Shut up."

"Oh...okay."

Part 8: Dominating Species

When Zero came to, he found himself being half dragged, half carried down a narrow hallway built of blue tiles. Dragging him on his left was Neon Tiger, and schlepping him on his right was good ol' Violen. Leading the mob was Vile, prancing with a spring in his step, as if he were leading a parade.

The cool draft in the hallway had brought the crimson Hunter to his senses, not that it did him any good...he was too weak to fight his captors. His limbs felt like they were all asleep. He didn't panic or get excited; something in the drug he had been shot with forbade it. He felt sleepy, but he found that he could talk, although his speech was slowed. In fact, as soon as he found out the situation he was in, he began to utter every curse known to human or reploid. Vile turned around when he heard the curses directed to him.

"Ah, so our new friend is awake!" Vile's normally seductive tone sounded happy, which was a first to Zero's ears. Vile walked backwards with ease. If he was worried about smashing into something, he didn't show it. "How do you feel?" He questioned.

For the first time since his awakening, Zero remembered his wound from the fight with Phoenix. Glancing at his now armorless arm, he saw that some idiot had put a very clumsy bandage on it, like that helped. The bandage was slipping off, and the wound was still bleeding his circulatory fluids.

"I...feel....like...a....pregnant whale....totally.....immobile." Zero spoke slowly to make himself as clear as possible. "And....I just...want....you to....know...I think....you....are.... a stupid......jerk, and.....I....hate you."

"That's the spirit!" Vile laughed. "Keep it up, and you'll fit in fine!" He turned back around.

Zero didn't know what Vile meant by this, nor did he care. It looked like he was going to die, or worse. He decided to get a question off his chest.

"Vile....."

"Yeeeeessss...?" Vile didn't turn to face Zero.

Vio and Tiger kept on marching. This was one long hallway. Suddenly, Vile veered sharply to the right. Zero's captors followed suit. They were walking down another hallway, this one made of dingy grey stone. The draft was worse than ever. Zero sighed, and asked, "Why....do....you.....want to.....destroy.....the human......race?.....Why do....you hate.....humans?"

Vile seemed pleased that Zero had asked that question. He launched into a speech, speaking with unwavering confidence, as if he had prepared the speech for such an occasion.

"You see, Zero," he began, "This planet houses several species. Not too long ago, humans were the dominating species, no questions asked. Then humans did something that may have seemed like a wonderful idea at the time, but was really the begining of their doom. Do you know what that was, Zero?"

"Uh uh. Nope."

"Humans created robots! These mechanical creatures could accomplish tasks that humans couldn't dream of doing. The physical strength of a robot is uncanny. However, humans remained superior to them, due to the fact that they had emotions and their own free will."

Zero listened to Vile carry on. The guy barely stopped for breath.

"Then one day, " Vile continued, "Dr. Light, good old Tommy boy, decided, 'I think I'll make a robot that has emotions, it's own free will, and can think for itself!' Ha!" Vile laughed. "He may as well have said, 'I think I'll seal the fate of the human race!' So Tommy boy worked on his wonderful magical humanlike robot." (Vile left out the part about Bass stealing the plans of X's creation; "That will be explained later," he thought.) "That was your friend X, Zero."

"Well....whoop - de - doo," muttered the captive.

Vile was at it again, full speed ahead. "When the robot was finished, it was more like a human than a machine. And it had the strength of any robot. It was simply a wonderful creation. It was the begining of a new species sharing the planet Earth...a species dubbed "Reploids." Now, one little problem occurred...humans got hooked on having reploids at their beck and call. They created thousands of them! Another problem soon rose: reploids, having emotions and the power of thinking, got tired of 'slavery' very soon. So many, like myself, have gone 'Maverick'. This led to wars, as you know, Zero."

Zero knew, all right.

Vile had stopped walking. It looked like they had arrived at their destination. However, Vile seemed determined to finish his speech. "Now, Zero, here's the problem with humans: From the minute a human is conceived and up to the day it dies, it seeks only one thing; domination. The problem with this is that reploids seek domination as well, as they have their own free will. You simply cannot have two dominating species on the same planet. The way I see it, it's now a matter of survival of the fittest, and reploids are clearly superior to those hairless gorillas. Humans have had their day in the sun; it's now time for the reploids to take this world. Humans have gone through millions of years of evolution to create us in the end, the perfect race; now it's time for them to go. We ARE the perfect race. As long as humans are cursed with hereditary, they'll never match us. Yet they fight, unwilling to accept their fate. I'm helping the world take a step for the better by destroying them. Once they're gone, there'll be only one dominating species, as there should be. Do you understand, Hunter Zero?"

"Hell no."

"That's too bad." Vile said with a mocking sorrowful tone. "I was hoping that you'd better understand why you're going to help us kill off the humans."

Part 9: Zero's Return...

Zero had been in awkward situations before. He was no stranger to trouble. He'd always found a way out of even the toughest problems. But this time, Zero knew he was screwed.

The crimson reploid was being held in a small cage, which was located on the floor of some sort of lab. Vile was pacing about, as if he were waiting for a bus that should have arrived fifteen minutes ago. Zero could have easily broken out of the cage if he had any strength left....however, the Nullifier he had been shot with had drained it all away.

What really scared Zero, however, was the fact that this whole scene had been played out several years ago. He had been in a cage similar to the one he was in now. Vile had been standing guard over him. "And how did the scenario end...?" Zero thought dully. "Oh yeah....I was killed. Uh, oh...."

There were a few differences between what had happened then and what was happening now....first, Vile wasn't in his precious Riding Armour, the Goliath, which was just as well. That thing could take someone's eye out. Second, several spectators, including Wheel Gator, Neon Tiger, Violen and, of course, Phoenix, were standing by to witness Zero's fate. Third, Zero was being held in what was obviously a genetics lab. Fourth, and most important, X wasn't there to rescue him. Then again, X hadn't saved Zero from Vile all those years ago...it was more like the other way around. But still....

The Mavericks that surrounded Zero seemed to be excited. All except Gator, who kept on glancing at Zero nervously, with a look in his reptilian eyes that said "Better you than me, pal!" Wheel Gator kept on fidgeting. He'd sit down for an instant, then get up and walk around, crash into something that was fragile, then sit down again. This kept up until Vile shouted at him to quit it. Gator wilted at the sound of his mentor's voice.

"Where in the sam hill is Overdrive Ostrich?" Phoenix growled. I sent for that moron ages ago!!"

As if on cue, a spindle - legged, beige birdlike reploid with crystal blades jutting out of his back burst into the lab. The Mavericks quickly scattered to make way for the newcomer. Overdrive Ostrich sprinted directly to Zero's cage, but didn't look at the captive. First, he spoke to Vile. "Sorry I'm late, Vile." Overdrive panted.

Vile waved him off. "You're forgiven," he said, "now let's get this show on the road. You realise, Overdrive, that if this little plot of yours fails, you'll live to regret it."

Zero's heart nearly stopped. Plot....?

Overdrive gulped loudly. He turned for the first time since he had arrived to face Zero. He couldn't believe what he was looking at. The figure huddling in the cage didn't look like the Zero he knew...it looked more like a wounded rabbit that had been scared by a pack of rabid dogs. Overdrive noted that the armour on Zero's slashed right arm was missing. That would make his job easier.

"Hi, Zero!" Overdrive greeted him brightly. "How would you like to become a Maverick?"

"How would... you like a swift.... kick in the......" Zero began, but he was cut short by Overdrive.

"Zero, listen to me. Do you know anything about your past?"

Zero suddenly fell silent. He looked down, away from Overdrive.

"Zero...? Did you hear what I said?" Overdrive questioned. He tried to look Zero in the face, but Zero kept on turning his head to avoid eye contact with the birdie. The Mavericks, including Vile, watched with interest. This was by far the most exciting time they'd ever had.

Overdrive knelt beside Zero's cage. "Want me to tell you about it?" He said softly, a grin spread over his beaky face..

"It's....okay." Zero said weakly. His speech was starting to speed up a little. He still avoided eye contact with Overdrive. "I know all...about it. I know who I am.....what I'm doing here....I know that I was...created by Wily."

Overdrive jumped up in shock. Phoenix gasped. Neon Tiger growled with the melodrama of it all, and Wheel Gator's mouth dropped open. His forked tounge unrolled nearly down to his waist. Violen found something interesting to look at on the wall. The answer to the most frequently asked question among reploids, Zero's origin, had gone totally over his head.

Vile looked impressed. Zero had known his past all this time? "This one bears study," the purple war reploid thought to himself.

Overdrive Ostrich shook his thin head in disbelief. "Zero, you KNEW all this time that you belonged with us...." he said. "Why didn't you join Sigma? You knew that Wily wanted only one thing for you, and that was to cause mischief and trouble. Sigma could have helped you fulfil your destiny."

By this time, Zero had gained the courage to speak to Overdrive beak - to face. "Sigma....was a funny looking.....creep....and he smelled bad." Zero remarked. "Besides...joining him didn't...sound like much...fun. You guys....are...constantly...losing battles. When this happens...you end up... hiding.....and skulking....around. You can't....show yourselves. In other words.....I knew from the very start that you....were....all pathetic.....LOSERS!"

Gator giggled at Zero's bluntness. Vile whisked a glass beaker off a nearby table and chucked it at the leviathan. "Ow!" Gator whimpered when the glass vial made contact with his scaly head. Vile ignored the whine of pain from his underling. He frowned behind his dark cowl. Zero had wanted FUN? What had he been expecting by joining the ranks of the Mavericks, annual trips to Disney World? Perhaps a field day at Canada's Wonderland? The whole issue disgusted Vile.

"Do your friends know of your past?" Neon Tiger questioned of Zero.

"Of course...not, Tigger!" Snarled Zero. "If they....found out that....I was created by Wily, It would....kill them. I kept it a secret."

"What tipped you off that you were created by Wily?" Asked Wheel Gator. It was the first sensible question he had asked all day. Zero shifted his weight to the right of him so that he could look at the metallic reptile. "I've always....have a lust for blood and....killing." He said weakly. "'Nuff....said."

"Okay, what is this, a genetic augmentation or the Spanish Inquisition?" Overdrive suddenly called out shrilly. "Let's bring our little sewing circle to an end. Zero, I'm gonna cut to the chase. I'm going to inject the Doppler Virus into you so that you'll become a Maverick. But this virus is in a biological form, so it's stronger, and there's no cure. Your systems will be superenhanced by the virus as well. When the infection is injected, you'll pass out, due to its strength. You'll also be in a good deal of pain before you are knocked out. When you awaken, you'll have no memory of your past." Overdrive paused for breath. "That is, providing you survive the onslaught of the virus. Then you'll belong to us, body, mind and soul, just like it was SUPPOSED to be! Doesn't that sound like grand fun? Any questions?"

"Well, yeah, uh....."

"No? Good!" Overdrive began to tell Phoenix to bring the virus, when Gator sprung up enthusiastically. "I wanna help! Let ME help!!"

"No!" Barked Vile. "What would a complete moron like you know about handling a killer virus? Now that I think of it, you have no talent for anything. Sit down and stay put!"

Zero frowned. He could see who was at the bottom of the pecking order among the Mavericks. Still, it was beyond Zero why Wheel Gator didn't just turn his tonne of metal and muscle on Vile. The monster could tear out the jugular of a full grown rhino with his razor - edged teeth.

Zero wasn't extremely nervous about receiving the virus. He was still calmed by the Nullifier. It's effects were wearing off, however, and the crimson Hunter could feel panic begin to well up inside him. "I've got to keep cool," he told himself.

Wheel Gator was up to his old tricks again. "I do SO have talent!" He contradicted Vile. "Watch! Look what I can do!"

"Oh, no! Groaned Phoenix, preparing for the inevitable. She had fetched the virus culture for Overdrive, and was making the return trip to the speedy bird.

"I can....DANCE!" Boasted Wheel Gator. "Just watch!" Gator began to moonwalk across the tiled floor with surprising grace. At the same time, he broke into a song, "Billie Jean is not my lover!" He warbled.

"Gator! Knock it off!"

"She's just a girl...she says that I am the one...."

"GATOR!"

"But...the kid is not my son...!"

"Will someone please turn him off?" Neon Tiger pleaded.

Vile didn't need to be asked twice. He grasped the dancing reptile by the thick shoulders, and, to Zero's utter amazement, pulled Gator with ease towards himself. Vile forced the terrified gator to look him straight in the eye. This was hard to accomplish, due to the fact that Gator was three hands taller than Vile.

"Listen to me!" Vile hissed. "You will sit beside Zero's cage, and you will SHUT the HELL up! Do I make myself CLEAR!? If you even dare to BUDGE, I'll personally KILL you! And not just a quick, easy death. I mean a really, really, really NASTY one! UNDERSTOOD?!?!"

"Yessir." Gator's voice was little more than a frightened squeak. He turned tail and hobbled pathetically to Zero's cage, and parked himself there with a clang and a thud. Zero had never seen a reploid more woebegone then this one.

The virus was ready. "I guess this is my fate," Zero thought as he shuddered. He was still too weak to fight back, despite the fact that the numbing effects of the Nullifier was wearing off. Once the sickness entered his circulatory system, Zero knew that would be the end of him. Even if he didn't die, he'd never be the same. He could almost feel the poison coursing through his body. He was going to miss Dr. Cain, Forrest, Roadkill and Celeste...yes, he would even miss X, despite the Pulp Fiction CD issue.

Gator sniffled, and Zero finally had to say something to him. It may be his last words.

"Wheel Gator?"

"Yeah?"

"I thought your dance was cool."

Wheel Gator glanced up in surprise, then he gave Zero a watery grin. "Thanks, man." He motioned a clawed hand towards Overdrive, who was approaching Zero's bare right arm with a syringe. "Too bad this fate had to befall you."

Part 10: May The Force [Field] Be With You

".....Ninety - nine bottles of beer on the wall....ninety - nine bottles of beer...." Celeste sang. She knew that she was annoying X, and she was loving every minute of it.

Before long, Forrest joined in. "If one of those bottles should happen to fall...."

"Ninety - eight bottles of beer on the wall." Celeste finished, laughing. "Ninety - eight bottles of beer on the wall...."

"Okay, that's enough," X called from up front of the Gryphon. He was resting his aching head on his hand, trying to remember exactly which path Zero had taken to the Mavericks' fortress.

"NINETY - SEVEN BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL!" Celeste sang with all her might. Her voice got really high - pitched, and X's eardrums nearly split. As it turned out, the Gryphon made good Riding - Armour, and a perfect echo chamber.

"I SAID that's enough!" X turned around and glared at Celeste's grinning face. "Jeez, what IS it with you humans? It's times like these that I want to join Sigma, and wipe your species off the face of this planet!"

Despite his hostile tone, Celeste knew that the blue reploid was joking. At least she hoped so.

Forrest spoke up in Celeste's defence. "You can't blame her for being bored, X." He said in his most annoying I'm-a-know-it-all-demigod tone of voice. "It's a fact that, when humans are sitting still for a long time like we've been doing, that tends to happen. Then they lash out by being unruly.`So, it's not the human's fault. It's just an instinct, that's all." Forrest clapped a platinum glove on Celeste's shoulder. Celeste looked smug.

X frowned, annoyed to the max. So, now they were both teaming up against him, was that it? "Since when did you become an expert on humans?" He growled. "Listen, Chocolate - Boy, you can either shut up, or run alongside the Gryphon. What do you say, hmmmm?"

Forrest sunk back into the comfy seat. "I'll be good."

X turned back to the control panel with a satisfied little grin. He knew how to handle Forrest. " Make a bad joke about his name, and there you go....what the hey...?"

The last three words of X's thought ran through his mind with a shock. There, almost under his nose, was the grim, looming building that served as the Maverick's fortress. They were there! The thought cheered him and, at the same time, scared him out of his wits. His first concern was that if Zero was okay, but then he recalled the image of his CD flying out the window courtesy of the crimson Hunter, and that feeling of worry was quickly

squashed. His next concern was about what appeared to be a force field surrounding the fortress. With its forbidding, neon glare, it didn't look too neighborlike. In fact it seemed downright impermeable. How was he gonna get past it?!

Celeste tapped the musing reploid on his plated shoulder. "Hey, X, what's the hold up.....WHOA!" She remarked when she saw the nasty force field. "The last time I saw something like that, I was driving the porcelain bus! Hey Forrest, lookit this!"

Forrest whistled through his teeth when he had a look at the situation.

"How are we going to tackle THIS?" He thought aloud.

"I'm sure we'll think of something," X said glumly.

"He's tough." Phoenix remarked.

Vile nodded in agreement. "VERY tough. I'm surprised."

They were both gazing at the unconscious figure crumpled at the bottom of the cage. It seemed that Zero was surviving the effects of the virus injection. Even in the depths of unconsciousness, Zero was restless. He kept on thrashing about, like a bass out of water.

"Nightmares," suggested Vile.

"Or convulsions," Phoenix added. "It's like his systems are fighting it. Won't do him any good....he's a Maverick once he wakes up." Phoenix turned to face Overdrive Ostrich at the other end of the lab. "Isn't that so, Overdrive?"

Overdrive looked up, shocked. He had been playing Cat's Cradle with Wheel Gator, who was still too freaked of Vile to move from his appointed spot. "Uh...yeah, miss Phoenix. That's what I said, right? Overdrive keeps his word!!" He went back to his game.

"Hm, we'll see," muttered Phoenix. She looked back at Zero, who cried out in his "sleep."

"You know, Vile..." she began. "If Zero survives this ordeal, he'll need a few...changes done to him."

"Such as...?"

"Such as....well, how about a new coat of paint? Something cooler than that icky old crimson."

Vile saw the logic of this. "What do you suggest?"

"How about a shade of grey...maybe a silver?"

Vile scraped the tip of his steel boot on the tiled floor. The sound set everyone's teeth on edge. "Sounds okay to me. I think we should get it done right now."

Phoenix was thrilled. "Really?"

"Sure, why not? When Zero wakes up, I want him to look nothing like he used to. He's with us now, why should he look like a Hunter, still? I want nothing of his past remaining behind...which reminds me..." Vile faced Phoenix. "He needs a new name. Something creative. But my creativity fails me right now."

Wheel Gator spoke up brightly from the other end of the lab. "We could have a contest! The 'Name The New Maverick On The Block' contest! Maybe a raffle or a draw...." Gator's voice trailed off when he saw the fire in Vile's dark eyes. "Uh...sir? Can I leave now? I swear to you, I won't sing again."

Vile waved him off. He had more important things to attend to. After Gator had been brow - beaten and dismissed, Vile said, "Well, we'll think of a name later. In the meantime, let's go get that paint you wanted."

"Oh, good." Phoenix followed Vile down the long corridor that led out of the lab. "But let's get that quick - dry stuff. Don't you hate it when you paint a fence or something, and a fly gets stuck in the fresh paint?"

"Yeah, that's a bugger."

"Wow, Zero working for us!! I guess life really IS like a box of chocolates..."

"Yeah, then you get yourself a cold beer, and you're all set." Vile laughed at his own jest.

Part 11: Hellfire

"It's hopeless, X." Celeste said. Her voice sounded weary, and with good reason: For 2 hours, X had been going in circles around the force field surrounding the Mavericks' base, in a fruitless effort to find an opening to the barrier, or a trace of the missing Zero. He bit his lip in frustration. Why would Vile challenge X to a showdown and then end up locking him out of the fortress? And where was Zero?

That's when X's mind froze. Suddenly he understood.

Vile....Zero.

Vile....Zero.

Uh oh.

Zero was in there. In the fortress. Vile had wanted HIM, not X. X couldn't help but feel a little rejected.

What chance did Zero have against a fortress of Mavericks? El Zilcho. X knew he had to get in there. But not so much for Zero's sake. In fact, X was still ticked off at Zero, which was surprising, since he was always so quick to forgive. No, it was more for the sake of the human race. If Vile wasn't stopped while he was in his somewhat weakened state, it was likely that he would destroy humanity in a bloody holocaust. That wasn't a good thing.

X knew of one way to get through the force field...it was a very stupid and dangerous idea, however. X sat motionless in the Gryphon, and stared intently at the neon field, as`if in hopes that a magic fairy from the merry old land of Oz would appear out of thin air and suggest an alternate plan for getting into the fortress. X's fairy never came. He sighed. Celeste and Forrest sat as soundless as statues, waiting for X's next move.

X twisted his body half way around to face his friends in the back seat. He moved his gaze from the platinum shine of Forrest's armour to Celeste's trembling face. Once again, X couldn't help but notice how remarkably similar Forrest looked the old Doppler robot, Bit.

"I have a way to get into the fortress," he announced. Celeste and Forrest cheered up a good deal. X's next sentence came out in a rush. "If it fails, however, I must say that it was good to know you both. Have a nice afterlife!" X couldn't help but be amused at the bewildered look on the faces of his companions. Before any one of them could react, X started charging up the Gryphon's motor to the max. The gentle purring turned into a dragon like roar. X shifted gears insanely, laughing like a madman. "Let's see what she's got!" He howled above the commotion the motor was making. The Gryphon clanged towards the force field at full speed. She wasn't breaking for anything.

In a dismal genetics lab, an unconscious reploid at the bottom of a small cage stirred. He opened his eyes for what seemed to him the first time. It took a while for his eyes to focus, but when they did, he became more interested in his surroundings. He tried to sit up, but this only made him dizzy. He rested his aching head against the cold, iron cell bars. The reploid didn't know who he was, or where he was. He only knew that someone had given him life, and he planned to serve that person in any way he could....

The "newborn" reploid tried to get to know himself better. He looked down at his armour. He noted that is was titanium, and it was a sombre grey colour. He noticed a blonde ponytail running over his shoulder like a river of gold. He discovered that he had hair...long hair at that. He reached up to his head. He was wearing a gilded helmet. Whatever for? And where was his creator?

His last thought was answered promptly. Two figures came marching down a long corridor ahead of the reploid. As they came closer, the reploid noticed that one of the figures was a birdlike female, with folded wings sprouting from her back. The reploid's new eyes were dazzled by the brilliant colours she was clad in. In front of the bird was a slightly shorter figure, encased in purple titanium armour. The purple figure also donned a mask. It appeared that the two strangers were arguing with one another.

The female bird was flapping her arms wildly at the purple guy in front of her. "I leave you in charge!" She shouted angrily. " I give you something fun to do! And what do you do? You take my idea and screw it up royally!! See if I ever talk to you again!"

The purple dude didn't even turn around. He kept up his stride towards the new reploid. "Come on Phoenix," he tried to reason with her. "I think he looks fine in those colours."

"That's far from the point, you....you....half witted male!" The bird kept up. "When I found out I was needed elsewhere, I put you in charge of the paint job and asked you to paint him SILVER! Now, I don't know what silver looks like on the little planet in your mind, but here on Earth, silver is a racy, metallic colour. I mean, LOOK at him-!" The bird halted in the doorway of the lab and pointed a black talon at the captive reploid. "He looks

as pukey as I feel right now! He's GREY!! GREY, not SILVER!"

The purple fellow came closer to the reploid's cage. He was about two meters away from the bars. He leaned closer to the reploid within.

"Who cares, Phoenix!?" He shouted so loudly that the reploid jumped. "He's awake! He's alive! Come and see!"

Forgetting her venom towards the purple guy, the bird joined him. They simply stared in wonder at the reploid in front of them. The reploid stared back, frightened. Did these people mean him harm? Or were they his masters?

"Look at him," The bird said softly. "He looks so confused."

This was true. In fact, this was true of every newly activated reploid. Like human infants, reploids are "programmed" with certain abilities, like the ability to walk, talk, and in some cases, fight. But they have to discover these abilities for themselves through experience. However, while a young human might take several months, even years to realise its talents, a reploid could know everything it needs to know within an hour.

"Guess we should 'educate' him," Vile said and grinned behind his mask.

"Ahem.....uh, welcome to life. I currently don't have a name for you, but don't worry, you'll get one. My name is Vile." Vile motioned to the bird. "And that lovely figure over there is named Phoenix. We're your, uh, creators." Vile flashed a nervous glance at Phoenix, as if begging her to take over.

"Uh....creators! Right!" Phoenix said brightly to the reploid below them who was taking all the info in with wide eyes. "You see, you were created for a very good reason." Phoenix continued. " There's this nasty species on this planet. They're called humans. They're bad, I can assure you. They make slaves out of reploids, which is what WE are, and they...uh...like to blow the heads off of little puppy dogs."

"That's right!!" Vile chimed in. "They also get a kick out of killing Panda Bears, but they torture them first, poor little creatures. Then they burn them, and eat the pitiful, charred corpses......." Vile broke into an utterly false chorus of sobs. "I witnessed it once," he wept, collapsing into Phoenix. "it was horrible! They're possessed! Possesed, I tell you! All of them!"

"There, there." Phoenix comforted the purple reploid who still sobbed brokenly. She gave the astonished grey reploid at the bottom of the cage a sad puppy - dog look. "We built you as our last hope," she informed him. "You wield powers that those filthy humans can't even dream about. We ask you to help us rid the planet of this terrible species. We've tried it before, while we were under the rule of a great reploid named Sigma. Sadly, he was killed." Phoenix sighed. "You see, there are some reploids that WORK for humans. They're called 'Maverick Hunters'. They think that WE'RE the ones in the wrong, and destroyed our leader." she snorted. "That's a good one. We're merely trying to make the world a better place. Please, help us."

The grey reploid opened his mouth. He was trying to say something... "Yes? What is it you're trying to say?" Questioned Vile, who had recovered from his hysterics.

"When...do we start?" The reploid voiced. He looked up at his 'creators' with a grin.

"Sounds good. Put me down for 'Charlie."

"CHARLIE?" What loony bin did you break out of?! I tell you, 'Sean' is where it's at! Classy, don'tcha think?"

"Gator, put me down for 'Hugh Jass.' "

Wheel Gator was frantically scribbling down the names that his fellow Mavericks called out to him. He was thrilled. Never had he enjoyed such popularity....

"Oop! Here comes Vile!" Storm Eagle hissed.

"Quick! Everyone look busy!" Neon Tiger advised in a whisper.

The ring of Mavericks surrounding Gator broke in a hurry. Vile strode down the hall. Slightly behind him was Phoenix, who had an arm around a shy - looking grey reploid that none of the Mavericks had ever seen before.

"Gather around me, friends!" He called to the Mavericks. The Mavericks gave each other curious glances. Vile hadn't called any of them 'friends' since time out of mind. They huddled around Vile, Phoenix and the stranger.

"This is a very important moment in the history of the Mavericks," Vile began. "I'd like to present the newest member of our happy little troop." Phoenix gave the stranger a friendly little shove towards his new colleagues.

"Hey it's Zer --" Storm Eagle began to shout, but Vile delivered a swift kick to the air fowl's shin that silenced him at once.

Phoenix noticed the paper that Wheel Gator was clutching in one claw. She snatched it from him. "What's this, you misbegotten lizard?"

Gator looked pathetic. "Vile, sir, I'm sorry. I collected some names for our new friend. You didn't give me the go - ahead, but you didn't tell me not to, either....You're mad at me, you're giving me that 'look." I hope you're not going to make me give Babykins a bath again...like last time..

To everyone's surprise, Vile said "I'm not mad. In fact, I'm grateful. You just solved a problem for me. Now, why not read those names out?" He gazed out at the sea of Mavericks. "I guess to save humiliation, I won't have you read out the contributer's names. 'Kay? Begin."

Gator took the paper back from Phoenix. He cleared his throat. "How's 'Sean' "?

"Ugh."

"V'Gloth?'"

"Even worse."

"'Disembowler, the Scariest Maverick In the Whole Wide World?'"

"'Not bad, but no cigar."

"'Samantha?'"

"Dear creeping God, NO!!"

"'Hellfire?'"

"Wait...what was that last one?"

"'Hellfire.'"

"Yes!! Yes, that's IT!!" Vile sprang five feet into the air. "That's perfect!! I must insist, Gator. Tell me who came up with that one! It's brilliant!"

"Me," Gator grinned, blushing slightly.

Vile's excitement died down at once. "You?"

Gator nodded.

Vile mumbled something about idiocy leading to creativity. Then he raised the hand of the new Maverick. "Welcome, Hellfire!" He shouted. "You're the most powerful one among us! Today, the tables will turn on the Hunters!" He turned towards the Mavericks. "Let's hear it for the guy!!"

A thunderous cheer rose from the crowd. The age of Hellfire had begun.

Part 12: A Raptor Called Babykins

X awoke to total darkness. For one terrifying moment, he thought he had gone blind. That's when he realised that his face was cradled in his shaking arms. Feeling like a bit of a jerkoff, X raised his head and turned halfway around to check if the others had survived the happy little trip through the electric force field.

Celeste was slouched forward, unconscious. Her coarse brown hair tumbled over her head, hiding her lifeless face. She was still in place, on her seat, due to the fact that she had donned her seatbelt earlier (Can you find the hidden message, boys and girls? :] ) "Well, she's in one piece." X thought dully. "That's something." Forrest was a rather comical sight...it seemed like he had not bothered with his seatbelt, and had taken a nasty spill when X had collided with the force field. He was also unconscious, and his face was pressed up right against the leather backing of the seat. X knew that Forrest would smother unless he was pulled away from the upholstery. Then again, Forrest smothering to death didn't sound too bad...at least X would be spared his annoying comments and "suggestions". However, the blue reploid knew that he couldn't kill his new partner. Celeste and several of the other Hunters had taken somewhat of a liking to him. Still, X was tempted to dump the unconscious reploid overboard and go on. The titanium titan could be a mean little bugger when he wanted to be.

The actual collision with the force field was a hazy image in the back of X's head...he could remember Forrest flailing his platinum arms wildly, shouting "Wrong way! Wrong way! What in the name of Gazooga ARE you doing!?!", while Celeste screamed her mother's name. X had ignored their wails and kept up the charge to the force field. Once contact with the force field was established, there had been a blinding glare and a

tremendous *crack!* of either the force field giving way, or the Gryphon falling apart under the strain of being flung towards a stationary object with a few thousand volts of electricity running though it. X could remember intense heat, then suddenly waking up on the other side of the field, his head in his arms.

X shook his sore head, then landed a well - aimed punch to Forrest's platinum - armoured shoulder. That pushed his face away from the back of the chair, all right. It woke him up as well. Two birds with one stone.

Forrest opened and closed his eyes once. He gaped stupidly, like a fish pulled out of the ocean. "Uh...what...?"

X was disgusted at Forrest for no legitimate reason. He just felt like HURTING someone. It had been a feeling that the azure reploid had always repressed...a feeling bred by the jealousy X had experienced when Zero stole his thunder, played hero, etc. X knew that he would feel better if he talked about it with someone...or if he beat the holy God out of Zero. But Zero was such a likable guy (most of the time) that X could never think of actually taking a shot at him. Besides, with Zero's strength, the scarlet reploid would probably have him pinned, torn apart, and fed to the lions before X had even raised his arm cannon. So X had always done nothing. Sometimes in life you meet an arrogant putz or two. You have to learn to deal with them.

"Welcome back to reality." X hissed. "We're on the other side of the force field, Celeste is unconscious, and I have absolutely NO idea about what we're gonna do now!"

Forrest shook his head, trying to clear it. "X..."

"What?"

"Why did you try to kill us like that?"

"Because if I didn't ATTEMPT to get us past the force field who would? You and Celeste were too busy singing about beer to even care."

Forrest seemed slightly annoyed. " That was your attempt to get us past the force field?! What the hell kind of attempt was that? You could have hurt someone. In fact, who knows if Celeste was strong enough to handle this ordeal? Look, she's still out cold. X my friend, I'm sorry to say this, but you have no logic whatsoever."

"Yeah, well you know what Forrest? You can take your 'logic' and jam it. I leave you to decide where."

Before Forrest had a chance to retort, a faint groan sounded from beside him. Celeste raised her head and flipped her matted hair out of her eyes. Her groggy gaze fixed on X.

"X....are you INSANE!?" She croaked weakly. "Do you have a death wish or something? If you were attempting to kill yourself, fine. But did you have to try and take me and Forrest WITH you?"

X didn't answer. Instead, he turned away from the dazed duo, cracked his knuckles, and gripped onto the controls of the immobile Gryphon.

"You know, neither of you has thanked me for getting to the other side of the force field." X said in a quiet voice. "But I won't rant on. I'll just mentally damn you two to hell, if that's okay."

Celeste and Forrest looked at each other and shrugged. "Fine with us."

"Okay, good. I'm done. Now, to business. The front door of Vile's fortress is just meters ahead of us. What should we do?"

Celeste spoke up. "I say that we use the Gryphon to charge down the door."

X couldn't argue with that plan. What else could they do? "Allllrighty then." He tried to start the engine of the blue behemoth. Instead of the usual healthy roar of the riding armour starting up, there was a sick, coughing sound from the engine before it died completely.

"Uh oh." X muttered. He tried again. This time, the engine merely sputtered.

"Aw, NUTS!" X tried one more time. There was no sound whatsoever. The engine was completely dead.

"Bloody freakin' hell! This tears it!!"

There was no doubt that the engine had been damaged by the force field. Its electrical current couldn't have been healthy for the Gryphon. X wondered just how damaged the armour was. He tried to lower the levitation platform. The controls didn't respond. This was bad.

Just as X was trying to think about how they were going to go on, a hearty thump from the roof of the Gryphon startled him out of his thoughts. Whatever had landed on top of the riding armour stood for a minute...then it started to walk about. There was the faint click click of large, SHARP talons scraping on the damaged titanium metal. The thing paused again, and X could have sworn he heard something snuffing at the roof of the Gryphon. Something searching for its next victim. But what was IT? A Maverick? Or something else?

Celeste had heard the thump as well. She sucked in her breath. "Just what is on our roof?"

"Whatever it is, it's big," Forrest noted. "and heavy. Look at the ceiling above me!"

X looked, and sure enough there was a large, convex bulge right above where Forrest was sitting. The platinum reploid quickly and wisely scooted over, away from the bulge.

X sighed. What a day. "Forrest, Cain mentioned to me that there's an emergency escape hatch on the roof. Do you see those rungs behind you?"

"Yeah."

"Right above them is the hatch. Can you see it? It's on the ceiling."

"Oh yeah, there it is."

"Well, be a good little boy, climb the rungs, open the hatch and describe our guest, will you?"

Forrest returned his nervous gaze to the unmoving lump. Whatever it was, it was rather close to the hatch. If Forrest happened to do what X had asked him, the 'thing' would undoubtedly see him. Forrest had no idea what would happen then, but he guessed that he would most likely have his head ripped right off. Yet, Forrest knew that X was really having a hard time with this showdown. Everything was going wrong for the poor guy. "I guess he just doesn't have the leadership skills that Zero has...or had." Forrest thought to himself.

"Alright, X." Forrest said aloud. "I'll go and say howdy - do to our new friend." Celeste shifted over so that Forrest could get a hold of the rungs and haul himself up to the hatch. It was far from a long climb, and in no time at all, Forrest found himself struggling to open the hatch as quietly as possible...

Mission accomplished. The hatch had opened without a squeak. Below, X motioned for Celeste to remain still.

Forrest poked his head through the Gryphon's roof. The sun was beginning to set, and the cool summer evening breeze made Forrest feel a lot better after being stuck the stuffy riding armour for such a long time. That is, he felt a lot better until he actually saw what was on their roof. The creature wasn't looking at Forrest at all. It seemed interested in getting into the Gryphon. It stood still, snuffling around the roof, which seemed to be horribly damaged. Layers of titanium had peeled off as a result of the crash, and what was left was scorched and weak. The metal sagged dangerously under the weight of the 'thing'.

The 'thing'...

The 'thing' was reptilian. That much was certain. It stood upright, and its pebbly, beige skin took on an orange hue from the setting sun. Blood red markings were slashed across its back in an uneven pattern. Forrest was eye level with the creature's powerful back legs...which housed claws that were almost as long as Forrests' fingers.

The reptile suddenly reared its head, picking up an unfamiliar scent. It turned around. Seeing Forrest, it stooped its long, supple neck and slowly began to walk towards the reploid. Forrest noted nervously that the animal had a gleam of intelligence in its yellow eyes.

"What IS that thing...?" Forrest thought. "I've read about some creature that looked like this, but I can't remember where. It seems so familiar....the claws...the long neck...the birdlike walk...the intelligence..."

Then it hit Forrest.

"Ye GODS!" Forrest ducked his head back into the Gryphon, slammed the latch, and jumped down the rungs all at once. A bare second later, the velociraptor that Forrest had been staring at charged to the latch, its gaping maw striking the empty air that used to be where Forrest's head was.

Back in the Gryphon, Forrest clutched his heart, wheezing. As soon as he had recovered, the raptor above shrieked like a banshee, cheated of its prey. That unnerved Forrest all over again. He jumped to the front of the riding armour, and flung his arms around X's neck, screaming, "Raptor!! RAPTOR!! Don't let it get me!! HAAALLLP!"

X pried Forrest off him. He inwardly grinned. Here was big bad Forrest , Mr. Perfecto himself, screaming like a baby.

"Now now, Forrest. Take it easy. That nasty old...uh, what did you say was on our roof again?"

"Ve...veloci....raptor. Velociraptor."

"I'm sorry, Forrest. I think my hearing is going. Did you just say a velociraptor was on our roof?"

"YES!!! A velociraptor! One of those nasty, carnivorous dinosaurs from millions of years back! And it's gonna KILL US! We're all gonna DIE!!"

"Calm down, Forrest. Are you saying that Vile built a mechanical dinosaur, which is on our roof right now?"

"No, you ijit! I'm saying that this THING on our roof is a flesh and blood creature!" Forrest wailed.

X was proud of how calmly he was taking the situation. But if what Forrest was saying was true, then there was a problem.

"Where in the name of Light would Vile get a dinosaur?" X thought aloud.

"Who knows what goes on over there?" Celeste said as she nervously kept her eye on the bulge in the ceiling. It had started to move around again. "I've heard rumours about Vile having some sort of 'giant lizard' that was created through some sort of freaky genetics procedure."

"Genetics!?" X sputtered. "Those idiot Mavericks probably couldn't take care of a tomato garden, let alone recreate something like a prehistoric creature."

Above, the annoyed raptor screamed like a dying man.

"Ugh." Celeste shuddered. "Wouldn't want THAT thing getting a hold of me. X, how are we going to get rid of this?"

"How should I know? Maverick Hunter training doesn't include a course on 'What do to if a hungry velocirapor is perched on your roof'!"

"I'm aware of that." Celeste growled. "I'm part of the Maverick Hunters too, remember?"

X nodded. "Of course. That's why you're going to kill this thing for us."

Celeste looked blank. "What?"

"Celeste, according to Forrest's delirious ranting and raving, the roof is damaged badly, and can't hold much weight. If Forrest or I went up on the roof to kill that lizard - thing, it would most likely collapse. Combined with the weight of the dinosaur, we'd be to heavy for it. Then we'd have the raptor INSIDE, and you don't want that. Trust me. You're much lighter than Forrest and myself. You might make it, and be able to get rid of that thing.

Celeste couldn't believe what she was hearing. "But X, you and Forrest have full suits of titanium to protect yourselves...all I have is a vest of titanium. Plus, you and Forrest have arm cannons. I have a lousy lightsabre."

"You're very skilled at close combat." X tried to reason with her. "Come on Celeste, you're our only hope. Right, Forrest?"

Forrest just lay curled up in the seat beside X, shaking.

"See, Forrest agrees. Tell you what, Celeste. At least get the thing off the Gryphon. Then I'm sure that the roof would hold long enough to allow me to jump down and shoot the bugger. Remember, you're a Maverick Huntress...which means you should be ready to face any danger."

Celeste was annoyed with the way X made it all seem like the raptor was as easy to kill as an iguana. He should talk...reploids were much better equipped for killing the big nasties, while human Hunters were supposed to handle smaller enemies.

"All right X. I'll go. But that thing will probably have me for dinner."

"That's no attitude, Celeste. The rungs are over there. Good luck. You need it."

Celeste mumbled something about a scrapyard as she unsheathed the lightsabre handle on her back.

Part 13: Fiddler...uh, I Mean, Raptor on the Roof

Celeste couldn't believe what was happening. Here she was, standing like a moron, taunting a creature that could easily tear her in two. Well, at least she had a story to tell to her grandchildren one day. Celeste realized, however, that if she started rambling on to her descendants about the 'glory days' of her fighting a velociraptor on a rooftop, she'd end up in a nursing home in no time at all.

Celeste was waving her activated lightsabre at the raptor. "Here, dino! Niiiiice dinosaur! Looky what auntie Celeste has for you!"

The reptile seemed fascinated at the neon blade that Celeste held. It cautiously took a step closer and ducked its frightening head to get a better view.

"Good boy - or girl - or whatever," Celested crooned. "Come a bit closer..."

Celeste had never been so scared in all her life. She forced herself to remain calm. She didn't want to startle the raptor, whatever else happened. She had to get it as close as possible to her so that she could stab the creature. Celeste's breath caught in her throat. The velociraptor was nearer. It stared at the lightsabre with clear, unblinking eyes. Suddenly, it screamed and charged directly at Celeste.

Celeste didn't know that anything could move that fast. She forgot all about her fencing skills. Shouting, she took a leap backwards and made a blind stab for the beast, hoping for the best. Luck was with Celeste. The lightsabre had caught the raptor right in its scaly stomach, stopping it in mid - charge. The prehistoric reptile gave one last tormented wail before collapsing. Its lifeless body rolled off of the Gryphon's roof. Celeste didn't know how to react. Had she REALLY killed the velociraptor, or was it just playing possum in hopes to catch the Huntress off guard? She doubted it...even if the raptor had survived the stabbing, which was unlikely, there was no way it could have taken the fall off the Gryphon. Breathing a sigh of relief, Celeste took a step backwards - Into the empty air!

X had heard the whole battle. It was hard NOT to. When he had heard Celeste shout, and the Raptor scream, he became startled and prayed that Celeste was okay. Almost as soon as that thought had run through his head, Celeste's shrill, unmistakable scream reached his ears. X winced at the sound. Chirstine from The Phantom of the Opera probably couldn't hold a candle to Celeste when it came to reaching high notes. But it didn't sound

like Celeste was being torn up...it sounded more like she was falling! Forrest broke out of his paralysed, terror - stricken state when he heard the scream.

"Ack! What is it? Ragnarok? Judgement Day? What's that ungodly sound?!"

"It's Celeste!" X shouted. "I think she's hurt!"

"Celeste? You sent a HUMAN to battle a velociraptor!?"

"Well, what did you want me to do, send YOU? Forrest, the Fearless Reploid?" X started to explain, but Forrest paid no heed. He lept to the back of the Gryphon, and bounded up the rungs. X heard the hatch above him crash open. There was a pause, then, "Oh my God! X! Come here, quick!" X could hear the muffled thud of Forrest climbing on the roof, then quicky jumping off of it. X didn't know if he would be able to stand the sight of

Celeste splattered all over the ground. Still, he followed Forrest suit. Rembering that the Gryphon's roof couldn't hold his weight, he quickly made the two storey jump to the ground. The leap was no problem for a reploid. He ran to his friends. Celeste was sitting up, conscious, but very dazed. Forrest was sitting beside her, asking her questions. Celeste didn't answer them. She just shook her head and mumbled to herself.

"Uh oh." X said when he saw the scenario.

"Yeah, 'Uh oh' is right!" Forrest snapped. "X, she fell off the Gryphon! And I think she hit her head. Look!" Forrest pointed to the side of Celeste's head. X was alarmed to see blood trickling though her hair, down to her chin.

Celeste suddenly pitched forward. Forrest caught her before she hit the ground. "She's unconscious! Geez! Knocked out cold twice in one day. That CAN'T be good for you."

"Forrest! Wake her up!" X instructed. "If she has a concussion, don't let her sleep!"

"Hey that's right," Forrest remembered. He grabbed Celeste by the shoulders, and shook her. "Wakey wakey! It's a brand new day! Well, it WAS." Forrest said as he glanced up at the setting sun.

"Hey! Take it easy! Don't break her neck!"

Forrest rolled his eyes. "I can't do ANYTHING right, can I X?" He shook Celeste one more time. "Wake up, Raptor's - Bane!"

This time Celeste's eyelids fluttered open. Without warning, she jumped up, flapping her arms and screaming. For a wild instant, X thought that maybe the human was trying to take flight. Celeste just wailed on like a firebell.

"RaptorraptoromigodomigodIcan'tbelieve whatIjustkilledWHYdidyousendmeoutthere togetdisembowledwhatkindofheartlessfreak AREyouomigodIamslowlygoingcrazy!!"

"Well, SHE's okay." X said with a grin.

Celeste spun around on her heel to face the amused reploid. "I'm NOT okay!" She insisted, flopping back down on the ground. "I feel like I've been run over by a truck." She blinked and yawned. "And I'm sorta sleepy. Listen, how about you and Forrest go on ahead to fight Vile. I'll just catch a quick nap." Celeste closed her eyes again. But Forrest began to shake her violently once more. "No! Non! Nix! Ne pas de sleep! DO NOT GO TO SLEEP. X thinks that you might have a concussion, so you have to stay awake.

"Whatever." Celeste mumbled, giving in to the sandman once again.

Forrest lifted up Celeste's limp body, propped her up into a standing position, then brought his platinum - plated boot down on Celeste's foot. Celeste woke up in a hurry, and screeched.

"All right! I'm UP! This time I mean it!"

"Forrest, stay with Celeste," X instructed. "I'm going around to the other side of the Gryphon to look for her lightsabre." Forrest nodded in agreement.

A short trip later, X found Celeste's lightsabre. It was still lodged in the raptor's stomach. The reptile was rolled over on its back. It's head was thrown back, it's mouth gaping open. Its forked tongue lolled between its deadly teeth, which would never rip apart another victim again. ("Thank God!" X thought.) Dry blood clotted the beast's pebble - patterned skin in black patches. X had only one thing to say about the whole scene.

"Eeeewwww."

Bracing himself, X pulled the ignighted lightsabre out of the motionless creature's stomach. Not a pleasent task, but someone had to do it. X wiped the sabre clean, then deactivated it. Taking one last look at the raptor, he left the corpse to rejoin with the other Hunters.

Celeste seemed to have improved a bit by the time X got back to her. X had mentioned that it might've been better if one of them teleported Celeste back to the lab, but Forrest had just pointed back to the force field. It was still there, shedding its ominous light silently. Teleportation was still impossible. Celeste had to come along to the showdown, no matter how injured she was. Celeste didn't seem to mind. She didn't want to be sent back to Maverick Hunter HQ, anyway.

The party abandoned the wreck of the Gryphon, and began to walk towards their destination. X and Forrest supported Celeste between them, although she didn't need that much help to walk.

"Cain isn't going to be happy when he sees what has happened to the Gryphon." X brought up suddenly.

"Don't worry about it." Forrest assured him. "I think that Cain will be happy to know that the Gryphon...uh, died a noble death while taking us to Vile's fortress."

X frowned. "Maybe so, but he probably won't break out the champagne when he hears that his months and months of hard work is now just a twisted mound of titanium."

Celeste spoke up suddenly. "I just realized something."

"What's that?"

"Am I the only one who noticed that we're walking towards the Mavericks' fortress without a plan to get in? What are we supposed when we get there? Ring the doorbell?" Celeste laughed.

X's grim response startled them all. "Not a bad idea. Do we have a choice?"

Part 14: Ode to Vile

Heyo. This is your narrator again. If I annoy you people with these interruptions, good. I live only to bug my fans. After all, the whole bloody lot of you deserve it. Today, like that fateful day 11 chapters ago, I got another shot in school. This one was for hepatitis B. And I am in pain. Pain is bad, just so you know. So just to warn you, certain intervals of this chapter might contain some 'gibberish'. If you see this in the middle of a sentence, it means I passed out on the keyboard. Here's an example, to make sure you know what I'm talking about:

"And then, X told Zero that he could take his lightsabre, and shovejifowu9kmv fdkjdai8 793jkmfs ajiiiiii iiiiisji oowj aUntil his eyes popped out."

Well, you get the idea! On with the chapter!.....Why do the Canadians get these shots? Why can't the Americans suffer for once? Are we more diseased than them? Or are they just to GOOD to catch hep B? (I don't REALLY mean that!! Or do I....?)

Spark Mandrill sighed longingly. He missed the old days...the days where he could wander the streets of the city freely. The days when his name struck fear into the hearts of humans. The days when he held 24 hour Mug - A - Thons with Storm Eagle and Toxic Seahorse. He sighed again. Suddenly, Storm Eagle's harsh, grating voice pulled the primate out of his fond memories.

"Throw the ball, you reject from the Planet of the Apes!"

Storm Eagle had an irritated expression on his beaky face. He was leaning on a lightweight baseball bat, waiting for Sparky's pitch. Playing baseball in the main hallway of Maverick HQ was a creative and fun way to pass time. Not a smart one, but still fun.

"Oh...sorry Eagle!" Spark Mandrill said a bit sheepishly. Then a dreamy smile crept up his mouth. "I was just thinking...of the glory days. Remember when there were no Hunters to interfere with our fun? Remember the destruction and killing? The screams, the shouts, the pleads for mercy? I tell you...those were the days!"

Toxic Seahorse was also present in the hall as a fielder. "Spark, my man, you suuuure bring back a lot of good memories. The Wonder Years will always have a place in my black, corrupt soul. But unfortunately, that's what they are. Memories."

"Well, maybe not." Said Sparky, who was always optimistic. "According to Vile, that new Maverick, Hellfire, is supposed to change things around over time."

"Vile!" Eagle snorted the name contemptuously. "He thinks he's the greatest thing since sliced bread." Storm Eagle mimicked Vile's dark voice, throwing in a bit of a girly - squeal to it for spice. "Sigma! Let ME go after X and Zero! I won't fail you! I mean, I've ONLY been thrashed by them twice! But now I have the Goliath to hide behind, like the chickenguts that I am!"

The Mavericks in the room erupted into laughter. Eagle beamed. "Thank you, thank you. I know you love me. No applause needed, just send money."

Toxic Seahorse stopped laughing abruptly. He cocked his slender head to one side. "Shhh!" He hissed. "Someone's coming!"

The other Mavericks heard metallic footsteps echo in the hall as someone approached the band. The footsteps were clunky, uneven, and made a lot of noise. Only one Maverick walked like that.

"Wheel Gator!" Storm Eagle greeted the leviathan. Storm Eagle knew how much Vile picked on the big reptile, so he made an effort to be extra nice to Gator. "What brings you here?"

Gator flashed his 264 - tooth smile at the Mavericks. He was holding a crumpled paper. "Hey everyone. Storm Eagle..remember how you told me that I shouldn't keep my stress and troubles locked inside me?"

Storm Eagle nodded. That had been true. "Yes."

"So you told me to write down my fears and anxieties in a creative, expressive way to help me feel better about myself?"

"Uh huh."

"Well...I did! I made a little poem out of my troubles. When I wrote it down, I felt a lot more confident. Can I read it to you all?"

The Mavericks shrugged. They had nothing better to do.

"Okay.." Wheel Gator took a deep breath and began.

ODE TO VILE by Wheel S. Gator

Vile is mean. Yes, mean! You heard me!

He is the Devil. He is Kaiser Sosaie.

For example, I was just sitting in the rec room yesterday, minding my own business, when he comes in and smacks me over the head REALLY hard, for no apparent reason whatsoever! Then he punched me in the stomach.

I was in pain. I was coughing up blood, and he was laughing! Laughing!

DAMN YOU VILE! DAMN YOU TO HELL!

The End.

Eagle didn't know quite how to react to Gator's passionate poem, which contained no rhyme or reason. He raised his eyebrows under his blue and red helmet.

"Um...very...nice Gator. Very good. You'd better not let Vile see that, though."

Gator snapped his massive jaws together. A nervous habit of his. "I won't."

Three heavy knocks landed on the massive door to the fortress. The Mavericks all jumped at the sudden sound. They exchanged surprised glances.

"Guests?" Muttered Flame Stag.

Toxic Seahorse shook his crested head. "I don't think so."

Spark Mandrill was looking at the door, apparently in deep thought. Suddenly, his eyes lit up with hope. "Maybe it's Sigma!"

"I don't think Sigma would just knock on the door if he returned." Flame Stag said doubtfully.

Sparky frowned at the metallic stag. "Do you have to put a damper on everything?"

"It's probably a salesman." Eagle grumbled. "But Babykins should have made lunchmeat out of him ages ago, if that's the case. Maybe she's getting old, and her hearing's going..."

The knock sounded again, louder than before.

"Well, SOMEONE answer the door, or I'm gonna have to start whuppin' some asses!" Eagle announced, glaring at each of the Mavericks. "If it's a beggar, just give him a time bomb and send him on his way."

Sparky irritably stomped over to the gate. He took ahold of the heavy wooden doors, and opened them just slightly. He stuck his ugly head out to whoever was standing outside.

"Hello. We don't want any --"

His words were cut off by the sound of plasma striking dense metal. Then there was a gore - choked scream from the ape. The Mavericks watched in horror as Sparky, now missing an arm and covered with plasma wounds, staggered back from the door, which swung open wider to reveal two Maverick Hunters, and one human Huntress. The warriors had no - nonsense looks on their faces, and they brandished weapons. They obviously had not come for a spot of tea.

The Mavericks that were present were terrified out of their small minds. They were not armed. They didn't have sufficient battle armour. Did they flee? No. That would have made too much sense. Instead, they sat there, gawking stupidly at the Angels of Death. It was Storm Eagle who brought the evil reploids back to their senses. He took wing, and hovered above the stunned group.

"Don't just stand there like an oil painting!" He shrieked.

"Someone...HURT them!"

Panic - stricken and unarmed, Toxic Seahorse made a noble effort. He tore off the midnight - blue baseball cap he was wearing and hurled it at the Hunters, in hopes that soft cloth and foam would damage the fighters, or at least scare them away. Seahorse's deadly cap fell in the middle of the room with a soft plop. He was rewarded for his gallant actions with a plasma shot from X. The blast of energy struck the animal squarely in the chest. He tumbled backward over and over like an acrobat preforming a show, until he came to rest against the far wall, where lay was still.

The chaos prevailed.

Attacking unarmed Mavericks was like shooting fish in a barrel. X and Forrest took care of most of them with their plasma cannons, while Celeste sliced up a few of them with her lightsabre. The Mavericks tried to flee in every direction, bashing into walls, as well as each other. Storm was still circling above the room like a devil - bird after its prey. The whole time he was screaming out orders that absolutely no one listened to.

"Why!?" X heard him screech. "Why is this happening!? What happened to those half - wits, Violen and Neon Tiger? They were supposed to be monitoring the Maverick property! THEY were supposed to tell us when you idiot Hunters were coming, so we'd be ready! We're NOT ready! Go away! Come back when we ARE ready! Don't call us, we'll call you."

"Nah, we won't be doin'' that," X remarked casually as he powered up his arm cannon and aimed it at the foul fowl (sorry, BAD pun. Couldn't resist!). A deadly spear of white energy leapt from his weapon, and tore right through Eagle's feathery right wing. Eagle swore in pain, and pumped his charred wings madly in a futile effort to remain airborne. Before very long, his badly damaged wings fell apart in the air, spilling Eagle to the ground with a hollow clang. He lay there silently.

X was surprised to look up from the reploid bird's smoking corpse and see that the dark stone hallway was littered with the bodies of dead Mavericks. Black circulatory fluids spattered the walls like crazy modern art, and collected in pools on the stone floor of the main hallway. Twisted, smoking Maverick parts lay strewn about. Forrest wiped off some circulatory fluid that had gathered on him through the battle, and brushed off his hands.

"Boy I'm hungry!" He commented cheerfully.

A small, trembling whine sounded from behind X. He whipped around in alarm.

There stood the two last live Mavericks...Flame Stag and Wheel Gator. Flame Stag looked at the bodies of his fallen comrades in silent regret. Then he looked up at the Hunters and cut them a dirty look. He wished that he had his weapons to toast them all on the spot; but Vile had commanded Stag some time ago to deactivate his flaming weapons while inside the fortress, after Stag had nearly burned the building down no less than three times. The main hallway, X noticed then, branched into three smaller corridors. Flame Stag suddenly turned tail and ran down the middle corridor with unworldly grace.

This left Wheel Gator - Still clutching 'Ode to Vile' against his huge chest - standing there all alone, shaking and looking like a motherless child. He had emitted the whining sound earlier, and he echoed it as he turned and galloped clumsily down the corridor next to the one Flame Stag had fled down.

Forrest started to follow the reptile, but stopped in his tracks when he noticed how hesitant X and Celeste were to follow him. "Come on!" He shouted to them. His voice seemed to bounce off the stone walls of the empty room eerily. "He's probably gone to tell Vile that we're here. He should be easy to follow...when that guy runs, he sounds like a heard of goddam elephants!"

"Forrest, we don't know for sure if Gator is headed towards Vile," X reasoned with the silver reploid. "Flame Stag may just as well have been on his way to see him, too."

"Yeah, I guess you're right." Forrest muttered, giving in. "So the question is, WHO do we follow to get to Vile?" Forrest tapped his boot on the cold stone floor. His glance went from one dark corridor to the other. "Guess it's time to use my Maverick Hunter scout training," Forrest grinned. He covered his eyes with one hand, and thrust the other out, pointing to the mammoth door of the Maverick's Fortress. With that, he spun around three times in a whirl of platinum, chanting, "My mother told me to pick this one.", before he came to a halt. Dizzy, and slightly nauseous, he removed the hand that was covering his eyes. When he found that his outstretched hand was pointing to the passage that Stag had escaped down, he nodded in satisfaction. He motioned to the other Hunters. "This way. We'll follow Flame Stag."

X started forward, but Celeste fell back suddenly. "Oh man...my head...I'm dizzy....guys, give me a second, will you?"

X ran back to Celeste in alarm. "What's wrong? Are you allright?"

Celeste slumped weakly against the wall. "I'm fine." She said after a minute. "I guess I should have taken it easy while fighting those Mavericks." She shook her head, and the dizziness seemed to clear. "Forget about me. Let's go find Vile and give him what for!"

Just a few minutes later, the Hunters and the Huntress were walking down Stag's escape route. It was a rather nasty place. The corridor was made of nothing but crude, grey stone. Because they were so close together, the short walls seemed to swallow up any sound. And it was DARK. Celeste couldn't see a thing. But since X was able to see quite well in the void, he lead the party, walking about ten meters ahead. Occasionally, he would call back to the others to warn about pitfalls, turns, etc. Forrest walked alongside Celeste. The passage was so narrow that there was barely room for the both of them to walk shoulder - to - shoulder. The tunnel seemed to have no end, and Celeste was beginning to become annoyed with the constant dripping that sounded in the long chamber. It played a monotone note that really got on her nerves. She decided to break the uneasy silence by talking to Forrest.

"I hope Zero's okay."

Even in the pressing darkness, Celeste knew that Forrest was looking at her with surprise. "Why's that? I never knew you were that concerned about him."

Celeste remembered just then that Forrest hadn't been around MHHQ long enough to get to know the history of everyone. "Zero is one of my closest friends. There's a bit of a story to the reason why. Basically, he saved my life." Forrest didn't press on and ask 'how'? Like Celeste had been hoping. So she said, "Want to hear how?"

Forrest laughed out of the blackness. "Of course I do. I would have asked you, but I didn't want to be nosy."

Celeste smiled. "Alrighty then. When I was about 19, I lived with my parents in a nice little neighbourhood. It was crowed, but a neat place to live nonetheless. Then came the day that the good old Mavericks declared war on the humans. There had been rumours going around my community that stated that the Mavericks were planning on attacking our area." Celste paused for a dramatic effect. "The rumours were right, unfortunately. It was only a matter of time before my mother woke me up in the middle of the night to say we were going to be attacked by Mavericks. She had me get dressed, and come outside. It was quiet outside, I remember. The night was extremely still. There was no hint of attacking Mavericks in the area, yet everyone seemed nervous. There, along with my family and several other residents of the neighbourhood, were three Maverick Hunters, claiming they were ready to guide us to the safety of Maverick Hunter HQ. We followed them, not know ing what else the hell to do. But then the idiots take us right into Maverick occupied territory." Celeste snorted. "I don't think they MEANT to do that. I think it was just raw stupidity in all it's glory that made them accidentally lead us to a death trap. Panic began to rise among us when we saw the Mavericks' symbol posted all over the city clearing we were huddled in. Do you know what a heard of panicked humans is like? It's not nice. Forrest, before I fought that raptor back there, I had never been so freaked in all my damned life. It seemed that no matter where I turned, the Mavericks' crest met my eyes. It was everywhere, harshly reminding me of what I was...a weak human who had no right of being in Maverick territory. I was sure that if the Mavericks found us, it was over. All of us knew that death trailed a Maverick like an evil shadow.

"It was only a matter of time before I saw three small pairs of illuminated reploid eyes glaring at me. Two more pairs lit up beside them. Before long, we were completely surrounded. A blue wolflike reploid stepped out of the shadows. His glance went from the worried Hunters to the group of us humans. Gruffly, he asked us our business. But what could be said about two Hunters and a pathetic pack of humans. One of the Hunters raised his

arm cannon at the lupine, but before he could even fire, the wolf pounced at him as if he were little more than a mouse. The Hunter was slashed up rather quickly. As if on signal, two other wolf Mavericks leapt out of the darkness and took care of the other Hunters. By now, the humans, now guideless, were in a panic. I didn't know what to do. I wanted to get out of there and go home. So, not thinking, I tried to tackle the lead wolf. He

grabbed me and raised me off the ground with one arm, laughing. I fought, but couldn't break the wolf's hold. There was only one solution...I bit the jerk right on his arm. Celeste grinned at the memory. "He howled in what I hope was severe pain, and dropped me sure enough. But I barely had time to hit the ground before the wolf shot me in the arm with his plasma cannon. I'm sure you've been shot with an arm cannon before." Celeste told

Forrest. "I don't know if getting shot as a reploid is the same as getting shot as a human, but let me tell you this; my arm hurt like a bastard. I'd never felt such pain in all my life. I could only lie there, curled up, crying. I knew that the wolf was standing over me, ready to finish me off. He raised his head and howled in triumph...but with is howl mingled a far - off war cry. In bare seconds, a certain red reploid with blonde hair raced onto the scene followed shortly by his well - known blue friend.. The wolves yelped in terror and tried to hide. While some got away, others - like my captor - were blown into neat little bite sized pieces. I don't remember much at this point. I was delirious. But I remembered that the blonde haired reploid was kneeling beside me, gently telling me to keep still and as calm as possible. He said his name was Zero, and he and his friend, X, were Maverick Hunters. He said that I was badly hurt, but I would be okay. He assured me that no one else was badly injured.

"Needless to say, I ended up in the hospital to get my arm fixed up. But Zero stayed with me most of the time to make sure I was alright. After I had recovered from my little Maverick attack, I was taken to Maverick Hunter HQ, where the rest of my family and neighbours were holing up until we could go back to our houses (which WERE destroyed by Mavericks, by the way). It was during that time that I discovered I would make a good Huntress. So I stayed at the HQ and trained. The rest is history."

Forrest yawned. "Nice story. Sorta cute. So you and Zero have been close friends ever since, huh?"

Celeste was about to respond when X's far - off voice echoed back to her.

"There's a light up ahead! Get ready for whatever is waiting for us there."

Part 15: The Plight of the Azure Hunter, Cornholio, and the Lizard Queen

Flame Stag ran. And ran. And then for variety, he ran some more. Finally, he burst through the end of the narrow corridor he had been running down, into a very large, hexagonal shaped room that was perfectly empty. Vile had vowed several times that he was going to furnish that area, and perhaps make it into a nifty little parlour. Nothing had become of that, however, and it looked like nothing would in the near future; Vile was about to have bigger things to worry about.

Here, Flame Stag dared to take a brief rest. Although he was accustomed to running at breakneck speeds, his lungs now felt like they were being rubbed with sandpaper. Dashing through a dark hallway was murder. Stag had bashed into more than one of the walls, which had caused him quite a few 'ouchies'. He slouched against the cool, tiled wall, gasping greedily for air. His sharp ears could pick up the sounds of the Hunters in the dank, black corridor he had just fled down. They were coming closer...and closer...and when they got here, they would probably...but Stag prefered not to think such nasty things right then. He sternly reminded himself that he had rested for longer than he had originally planned. He had to reach Vile before the Hunters did at all costs! The south end of the giant room had just one exit. Another corridor. Stag was pretty sure that Vile was beyond that blackness. Sighing, Stag plunged into the dark mouth of the exit and continued his mad sprint, showing no mercy on his exhausted systems.

Vile, Phoenix and Overdrive Ostrich had been filled with new confidence for their war against the humans. They blustered in a small room about their plans to expand their armies and resume the planned genocide of the species they hated so much. Hellfire stood with them, listening silently. Hellfire was truly a nightmare of metal and plasma now; he had not trained very much in the art of fighting since his activation, but he could still certainly give any of the Mavericks a run for their money. He was still a little shy and timid, but very dangerous. The scary part was, Hellfire had only discovered about a fraction of what he REALLY could do. Vile mentioned that he wished to teach the grey newcomer exactly what kind of powers he possessed before the war resumed.

"Ah yes, genocide and holocaust." Vile sighed blissfully. "How fun this will be! Just like Sigma wanted it! I hope you're watching me from down there, old buddy! Maybe you can return again..." There was a low sounding cough from behind Vile. Vile turned around in utter surprise. There was a hunched over, panting figure coming near him that claimed to be Flame Stag. It looked more like a shapeless mass of metal and fur. Vile eyed the creature suspiciously.

"You say you are Flame Stag?"

"I AM Flame Stag, milord." The creature croaked.

"What's the password?" Phoenix now challenged the figure.

"Aw maaann...."

"Come on, now. Can't be too careful with all those weirdos around."

Flame Stag sighed. He was forced to give in. "'Lord Vile is the greatest. He holds the sun and moon. We all wish we could be more like lord Vile."'

Vile gave a smug little grin from behind his cowl. "The password checks out. He's Flame Stag. What news to you bring us, Oh Hoofed One?" Vile was in an exceptionally good mood. Stag cringed slightly when he realised that would not last much longer.

"There are Hunters in the building, sir. X, Celeste, and some new fellow. They killed a lot of my comrades, but I managed to escape. In fact, the Hunters are right behind me. I had to run my fastest to get here and give you a warning in enough time. But there might not BE enough time."

Vile was silent for a terrible second. Finally he spoke. "What?!"

"There are Hunters in the building -- "

"I HEARD you the FIRST time, you ijit!" Vile snarled. What I want to know is WHAT are they DOING here!? And how did they defeat you all so easily?"

"We were...uh...unarmed. And unarmoured. Most of us had accumulated in the front hall for a game of...baseball when they burst through the front door."

"WH - AT!?"

"We were unarmed and --" Stag began to repeat patiently. Vile kicked the ungulate's shin in frustration. Stag howled in pain and doubled over. Vile was in a frenzy. "What happened to Neon Tiger and Violen!? Why didn't they warn you people that there were Hunters in the vicinity of the fortress? And what happened to Babykins? I thought she was our ultimate security."

"Vile sir...this was supposed to remain a secret between me and them...a secret between pals. They...uh, how do I say this...?" Flame Stag coughed.

"Tell me, or I'll have you torn apart and flushed down like a dead goldfish!" Vile roared. He was clearly no longer in the mood for games. Following that threat, Stag found his voice quickly.

"Sir, Violen and Simba..er, I mean, Neon Tiger, found out that the 'Rocky Horror Picture Show' was playing in the city of Kapcom. They disguised themselves and went to...take part in the festivities."

If anyone in the room had been able to see beyond the dark opening of Vile's mask, they would have seen the reploid turn some pretty ugly shades of angry red.

"I can't believe what I'm hearing! I just CAN'T believe what I'm hearing!" Vile repeated over and over.

Flame Stag dared to try to make excuses for his friends. "Sir, I understand you are upset. But Ed Dickenson was playing as Rocky, and you know how much Tigger and Vio love that actor..."

Vile jumped angrily from one foot to the other. "Listen to me!" He bellowed so loud that the walls in the petite room shook. "I couldn't care less if the Pope himself was playing as Dr. Scott! I told those jerks to watch over our property in case the Hunters attacked! I did NOT give them permission to go out and cross - dress and 'Time Warp' the evening away!"

Phoenix tried to calm down the hot - headed Maverick. "You can't really blame them, Vile. Nobody, myself included, thought that the Hunters would get beyond our force field."

Vile would not be cooled. "I CAN blame them, and I AM blaming them! Argh! Am I the only one who sees what is going to happen here? We'll be slaughtered like cattle, and I don't think anyone's going to sing any ballads for us! What happened to Babykins? Does anyone know?"

"I, uh...assume she's dead, milord." Flame Stag squeaked. "It's my guess that the Hunters killed her."

"Oh, GREAT. That just HAD to happen right after I spent a fortune on getting her fixed and vaccinated!"

Overdrive Ostrich blanched. Vile's mood was souring as rapidly as milk left out on a hot day. "Now, sir." He said briskly. "Don't worry about Babykins. I can make you a new dinosaur...this one will be bigger and better!"

Vile responded to Overdrive's gracious offer by wheeling around and pounding his powerful fist on the wall. "Don't insult my intelligence, Overdrive!" He snarled. "I may not know nearly as much of that genetics junk as you do, but I sure as hell know that dinosaur DNA isn't something you just pick up at the corner store for a dollar ninety - nine. We're screwed! I'm not ready for this attack I wasn't warned in enough time to recruit more Mavericks. Flame Stag, quickly go to the control room and turn off the force field. It needs to be down in case we have to flee. Then come back here." Flame Stag quickly departed to do as he was told.

"Whoa, hey WHOA! Let's pause, boys and girls!" Phoenix shouted, making the 'time out' sign. "Vile, PLEASE calm down! You really don't seem to realise what a golden opportunity we have here." She pulled Vile aside, and lowered her voice to a near - whisper. "We have one of X's best friends here." She jerked her head towards Hellfire's direction. "Could you imagine how much it's gonna crush X and that miserable pet human of his when they see Zero as a Maverick? And then...we convince Hellfire that the Hunters mean him harm. What will it be like to see X destroy his bestest buddy?"

A slow smile worked its way to Vile's unseen face. Phoenix knew that the Maverick leader more than agreed with her plan. However, Vile found a glitch in it.

"Hellfire's a very good fighter," He noted, "but he's not quite ready for a veteran Hunter like X. I don't really want to put Hellfire through this quite yet."

"Desperate times call for desperate measures." Phoenix reasoned with him. "Besides, WILL X and Celeste attack their friend, or will they just stand there, refusing to fight, until Hellfire slashes them to bits? Come on, it'll be fuuun!" Phoenix coaxed.

Finally, Vile had to give in. "Alrighty then. Here's the plan; I'll go with Hellfire to meet up with the Hunters in that big, empty room. (It WILL be a parlour some day! I swear it!) If our timing's right, both our parties should arrive in the room at about the same time. That way, Hellfire will have plenty of room to fight. Here's what you will do. Just hide in the corridor that links these rooms. Keep an eye on the battle. If, by some great miracle of God, the Hunters should win the fight, you and Stag will set this place on fire, then teleport out with me and Overdrive. Hopefully the Hunters will be trapped in here. You never know, their teleporters could malfunction or something."

Phoenix nodded and slapped Vile on his back. "Good plan, Stan! I wish us luck! Here's to the end of the humans!"

"Ayuh!"

The bright light in the large hexagonal room stabbed Celeste's eyes painfully when she first walked into it from the dark corridor. She was having a hard time adjusting to the sudden change. Although she was temporarily blinded, she could hear X's threatening voice confronting someone before him. So she knew that there was going to be action soon. That was very good. She was itching for a fight. Celeste rubbed her spotted eyes, and squinted to see who challenged X. As soon as she saw who it was, however, her fighting spirit died, and was replaced by icy fear.

"Vile!?"

Upon hearing his name, the lone purple reploid looked over X to face the human.

"Heydli - ho, neighbour!" He said with all possible cheerfulness. "The Lord has certainly given us a wonderful day for a fight, hasn't He? It's too bad you won't be around to enjoy it."

"You're going to fight all three of us alone?" Celeste said with a small laugh, unsheathing her lightsabre.

Vile pretended to be shocked. "Alone? Certainly not, dear one! I respect the fighting skills of you and X much more than that." Vile paused and stood on his tip - toes to get a glance of Forrest. "And just who are you?" He growled.

Forrest glowered. He wasn't about to tell a Maverick leader what his REAL name was, unless he wanted the leader to die with laughter.

"I am...Cornholio."

Vile tilted his head slightly, as if trying to get a better view of the platinum reploid. "All right then, buddy. Now where was I..." Vile turned his attention back to Celeste.

"So, human!" He said cheerfully. Ready to die? Of course you realise, once YOU'RE gone, I'm not going to stop there. I don't plan to rest until your whole race is destroyed. Why do you people bother to fight? You've messed up this world enough...it's time for the reploids to take over, don'tchya think?"

A low growl was the only response from Celeste.

"You don't agree with me, human? You don't agree with me that this planet is almost inhabitable now because of your kind? Every other species on this planet respects the delicate and crucial balance between biotic potential and environmental restraint...except yours. As a result, this planet has become overpopulated and half of the humans in the world are starving. Valuable resources are almost gone. Plus, you people are constantly fighting amongst yourselves. The reploids can create a new, peaceful world once you humans are gone, Celeste. And we won't make the same mistakes you did."

"Quit the dramatics, Vile." Celeste flourished her lightsabre. "Either fight, or shut up."

"Typical human...always lusting for blood. I assume it was either you or one of the Hunters who killed my raptor, Babykins?"

Celeste grinned wickedly. She was ready to have some fun with Vile before she fought. "That was me. Raptorsbane, the Lizard Queen. That little creature of yours was no match for me, of course."

"Of course," Vile said in a light, almost friendly tone. "But let me tell you what WILL be a challenge..."

Vile threw out his arms as if he was about to embrace the Hunters, tilted his helmeted head back, and bellowed:

"Hellfire! Come on doooown!"

A Maverick stepped out of the black maw of the corridor behind Vile. Celeste rubbed her eyes again. She was sure she was still blinded, because that Maverick seemed to look almost exactly like....

"Zero...?"

Part 16: The Sleeping Reploid

The hunchbacked figure was cloaked in the numerous shadows that were cast by the hexagonal walls in the room. Thankful for that fact, he dared to lean forward a bit more to get a better view of the Hunters in the room who challenged the purple Maverick leader before them. Were these the people he was looking for...? The figure's eyesight had never been exceptional. However, the strong scent of human lingered in his nostrils, as did the weaker, yet familiar, of the Hunters. He was pretty sure he had the right rabble. But the figure decided that now would not be a good time to reveal himself... So he crouched in the shadowy corner to watch the show.

"Zero?" X tried to say to the grey figure that stood silently behind Vile. But he simply couldn't make his mouth form the words. His heart had turned into a caged bird, fluttering wildly. "This can't be Zero." He thought over and over again. "It's a clone..a clone...but.."

Out of the corner of his eye, X could see that Celeste and Forrest both had the same dull, stupid look plastered on their faces that he wore. None of them could believe what stood before them.

"There IS no Zero!" Vile said gleefully. He was clearly enjoying himself, and with good reason. "This is Hellfire."

Celeste shook her head, snapping out of her deep trance of disbelief. "Hellfire? Who gave him THAT name?"

"I did." Vile said simply.

In the corner, the hunchbacked figure rumbled deep in his chest.

"Zero..." X whispered helplessly. He was a confused jumble of emotions. "What have they done to you?"

"My name is not Zero. It's Hellfire." Was the new Maverick's response.

Vile seemed to look taller. This was what being a Maverick was all about! "You'll only confuse him, X!" He trumpeted. Then he lowered his voice and leaned towards the azure Hunter and his companions. "You once knew him as a friend and ally. But he's decided to join us. He told me he's had quite enough of the humans and the Hunters...as have I."

A look of pain twisted Celeste's face. X gaped at Vile, then spoke.

"Vile...I'd be the first to admit that Zero could be a schmuck at times. Once he even filled my helmet with crazy glue. But he would never, never join the Mavericks. He was a good friend..."

"'Was' is the word." Vile snickered. So, you don't believe me? Why don't we ask him for ourselves?"

Celeste growled yet again.

"Hellfire!" Vile bellowed. "Isn't it true you joined the Mavericks on your own free will? Did you not say that you wished to help me and Phoenix destroy the humans?" Vile did not look at his new comrade when asking him this question; he still faced X. Vile didn't want to miss X's reaction for all the world.

"I certainly did." Said the grey Maverick. "I've sworn to fight beside you, master Vile."

A strange, choking sound filled the large room. Celeste was crying.

X refused to believe he was going to end up fighting his best friend. Deep down, X had always been jealous of the scarlet Hunter's fame, but he had never thought for a second that it would come to this. He raised his arm cannon towards Hellfire. Then he dropped it again. He didn't want to fight Zero, but if he didn't, the human race was in an awful lot of danger. X glanced up at his former partner and friend.

Zero's brilliant, fire red armour had been replaced or painted over; now it was a dull grey. The strange crest of the Mavericks was stamped on his left shoulder pad. Other than that, Zero looked almost exactly the same. He still had his trademark lightsabre strapped to his back, and his hair still tumbled to the ground like molten gold. But one thing seemed to be amiss... Zero's eyes had an empty, almost vacant look in them. They had gone from their captivating blue to an ebony black. The eyes of a corrupted reploid. X's self pity and fear was replaced with an emotion he was not used to; uncontrollable rage.

"You've done something to him!" X accused Vile in a booming voice.

"Me?" Vile said, looking as innocent as a newborn kitten. "You heard him! He joined by his own will!"

"YOU DID SOMETHING TO HIM!"

"I didn't do anything!"

Celeste choked back one last sob. She wiped her eyes with the back of her fist, and, before anyone could stop her, she walked right up to Vile. Celeste had always been short; about five feet. Compared to Vile's height of about seven feet, this sight would have been comical if these had been normal circumstances. However, there was nothing comical about this. Celeste had to look up at Vile to peer into his mask. X had never seen so much open hatred and revulsion in a human's eyes.

"What did you do to him, you bastard!?" Celeste asked in a low tone.

"I refuse to answer that question, as I have repeated the answer several times already." Vile said airily. " Hellfire is here out of his own free will. And by the way, mind the language, will ya?"

Celeste silently raised her lightsabre towards the purple Maverick. Vile tensed himself, ready to attack if needed.

"Why don't you face it, human?" Vile lowered his voice yet again. "Your friend is a traitor...but he made the right choice." Vile's voice remained as calm as ever.

Celeste made a very unladylike gesture in Vile's direction.

Vile smirked. "So it's come to that, has it? Very well then. I was going to have your former friend kill you," Vile jerked his thumb back at the waiting Hellfire, "but I think that since I'll be killing many a human for the next while, now's a good as time as any for me to get some practice..." Vile took a step closer to Celeste, who held up the mesmerizing neon blade of her lightsabre, ready to attack. X and Forrest snapped to it and prepared to defend their friend.

But that help was never needed.

No sooner had Vile taken that step towards Celeste than the Maverick leader had received a white hot blast of plasma energy in his back. Startled, he cried out and stumbled forward. In shock, every member of the small group turned around to see who had fired the shot.

Hellfire stood trembling. His arm cannon was raised towards his master. A faint streamer of smoke rose lazily from the opening. He looked frightened and confused about what he had done, but he still stood poised to attack.

"Don't hurt her!" The grey Maverick snarled weakly.

Vile recovered himself and looked at Hellfire in disbelief.

"What?"

Hellfire slowly lowered his arm cannon. He looked utterly terrified.

"Sir! I...I don't know what came over me...I...I...oh dear..."

"Hellfire..why did you do that?" Vile said, bewildered.

In the black opening of the corridor behind Vile where the few Mavericks remained hidden, the same question toiled in Phoenix's mind. She didn't quite know what to make of Hellfire's sudden outburst on Vile. Beside her, Overdrive Ostrich rubbed his hands together, whimpering and muttering something that could barely be heard. Phoenix could make out some of the distorted words.

"I'm...trouble...oh boy...I...trouble...bloody hell...."

Overdrive cracked his knuckles one by one. Phoenix knew that Overdrive was hiding something about the reason for the attack. Well that was fine; she'd hold her temper, but she'd worm this one out of the speedy bird somehow.

"Overdrive?"

The intelligent Maverick jumped very suddenly. "What? WHAT?"

"Would you mind telling me in the good name of Sigma why Hellfire just shot his leader in the back? Is it a pre - battle ritual you programmed into the guy with the virus?"

Overdrive looked like he wished he had never been created. "I'll be blunt with you, milady." He sighed. "I wasn't expecting Zero to do this. Something must be fighting the virus we infected him with. Some biological force. He's on the verge of either destroying the human and the Hunters, or killing the whole bloody lot of US." At this, Overdrive pointed to Vile, Flame Stag, Phoenix and himself. "It depends which way the virus will take

him. I think he's actually battling the virus with his own will."

"'Will'? Overdrive, WHAT are you talking about?" Phoenix inquired as she struggled to control the anger that was boiling up in her.

"A reploid's 'will' is in his biological systems. His 'human' side, if you will. The side that controls his emotions and such. Humans can actually combat sicknesses with their minds, or so they say. That might be what Zero's doing."

"But HOW?"

Overdrive shrugged weakly. "Something is reminding him about his past life. He wants to go back to it, I think. But the virus won't let him. That's why he's so confused."

Phoenix made little attempt to bridle her anger now. "I thought you said he had NO memory of his past!" She whispered fiercely.

"Well, SOMETHING's reminding him! I don't know! This is all screwed up!"

The short leash on Phoenix's temper snapped completely. She grabbed Overdrive by his spindly neck and forced him to look right in her flaming eyes.

"If we survive this," she hissed through clenched teeth, "you and I are going to have a BIG talk."

Overdrive whimpered, and tried to pull away.

"Please...milady...Zero might still succumb to the...virus...urk, can't...breathe..."

"Shut up, dammit!" Phoenix snarled. "Vile is going to be extra specially nasty to you about THIS one, Mr. 'Zero - Is - One - Of - Us - For - Good'!!"

Overdrive renewed his frantic struggle to break from Phoenix's death grip.

"Miss Phoenix...I TOLD you...the virus is still IN him! He might..end up killing the Hunters anyway! In fact, he probably will. He's in quite a state of confusion. Now..may I...have a breath of air..?"

Disgusted, Phoenix threw Overdrive over her shoulder. She listened with satisfaction to the dull *clang* of the bird hitting an unseen wall. Then she turned her attention back to Hellfire and Vile.

Vile was a bit worried about Hellfire's attack on him. He made a mental note to ask Overdrive what had possessed the new Maverick to do that. Then, putting the situation behind him, he advanced towards Celeste again, who took a step backwards. Vile aimed his shoulder - mounted cannon at her.

Again from behind came the familiar sound of plasma striking metal. This time, the ball of white energy struck Vile's cannon, damaging it very badly. Vile staggered forward, and the remains of the weapon tumbled to the ground, shattering on impact. Vile didn't even need to turn around to see who had destroyed his shoulder pack.

"Hellfire! Would you mind KNOCKING THAT OFF?"

"DON'T HURT HER!" Hellfire's voice echoed in the room, startling everyone including himself.

"Okay, just WHAT is going on here!?" Forrest spoke up, turning to Hellfire for an answer.

The only answer from Hellfire was a confused, bewildered stare.

"There's NOTHING wrong with Hellfire!" Vile snapped. "He's one of us now! Hellfire, go destroy those Hunters! This minute! And I mean NOW!"

Hellfire took a step towards X, Forrest and Celeste. Then he stepped back and shook his helmeted head.

"Do it! NOW, NOW, NOW!" Vile screeched, jumping up and down while flapping his arms wildly. The suspense of the moment was causing him to throw one of his infamous temper tantrums.

"Vile!" Celeste shouted angrily. "Leave him alone, and finish us off yourself, if you're so hot!"

Vile threw back his head and laughed. "Forget it, mien human! I'm gonna watch your 'friend' destroy all of you! I've been waiting for this!"

Celeste clenched her fist. X snarled, and Forrest simply stood there, emotionless.

"He'll tear you all apart! Limb from limb!"

Hellfire advanced towards the Hunters.

"Here it goes! Here comes the fun! Ha ha...I can't say it was a pleasure meeting you all..."

Celeste unclenched her fist. She raised her lightsabre again. Forrest and X raised their arm cannons and took aim...

"And you, human!" Vile boomed at Celeste. "What are you going to do now? My new colleague is about to destroy you! Then your family! Then your friends! Then your entire species! What are you going to do then? Run home crying to mama that Billy doesn't wanna be your friend anymore? Do something! Do something, human! Ha ha...DO SOMETHING!"

Vile had been warned several times by Phoenix never to toy with human emotions. They were untamed and unpredictable. They would often drive humans to do savage things without thinking. Vile had laughed at Phoenix's warning. He had always enjoyed taunting a human a bit before killing it, like a cat with its prey. Now, Vile was about to regret not heeding Phoenix's words of wisdom.

A roar escaped Celeste. She charged right towards Vile, tackling him. Not prepared for this action, Vile was swept clean off his feet. He landed on the ground with a hearty thump. Celeste's lightsabre began to tear mercilessly into the evil Maverick. Vile had no weapons to retaliate with. He could only lay there, writhing and thrashing while Celeste tore him up. He could not even get back up on his feet. X and Forrest simply stood and stared, never really thinking for a second about assisting Celeste. This would not be a day they would forget anytime soon.

After several attempts, Vile was finally able to make his voice heard over Celeste's shouting, cursing and slashing.

"Hellfire...help...me!"

Hellfire's confused glance went from the Hunters to Vile to the Hunters again. He didn't even know what to think. His orders were clear: destroy the Hunters. They had been given by his creator and master, Vile. So why didn't he follow them...? He didn't know. Something told him to get a better look at the Hunters before he attacked anyone.

Hellfire's vision fell on the human female who was destroying Vile. He was torn between the urge to unseam her from stomach to chops with his lightsabre and the urge to save her. He closed his eyes and opened them again, only to see the two male reploids. They seemed vaguely familiar. Hellfire felt as if he had seen them somewhere...perhaps in a supermarket or something. Suddenly, any memories he had of the Hunters were

washed away, and replaced by alarm and bloodlust. Vile was in danger! He had to help...

Vile had stopped struggling under the girl's flashing lightsabre. He twiched feebly from time to time, but that was all. He was almost gone. Still, the girl had not let up. Circulatory fluids were spattered unevenly on her. She did not care. She was screaming incomprehensible words about her friends, family, and this 'Zero' character...

In Hellfire's mind, there suddenly flashed an image of a girl curled up on the pavement, crying. The girl had a bad wound inflicted by a plasma shot on her arm...

Hellfire shook his head. This image cleared, but was quickly replaced by another.

Hellfire could see himself laughing along with a blue - armoured reploid. Suddenly, he was training with the blue reploid. Then he was beating the living hell out of the reploid. Then he was laughing along with him again. Suddenly, Hellfire could see himself ready to throw something shiny and precious out of a window...

Hellfire clutched his head, mentally ordering these images to stop. He had to help Vile...his master...

Hellfire could see a platinum plated reploid before him. The reploid seemed to have something to do with chocolate...

Another wave of bloodlust washed over Hellfire. Again, he was aware of his orders, and was determined to carry them out. He took a step towards the frenzied human attacking Vile.

The blue reploid that had been escorting the human suddenly shouted, "Forrest! It's no use! He's on their side." A look of pain crossed the blue reploid's face as he said this. "He's gonna hurt Celeste!"

The platinum reploid nodded silently. He raised his charged arm cannon.

"Sorry, Zero." The reploid mouthed. He released the shot.

A flaming white ball struck Hellfire squarely in the stomach. Crying out, he reeled backwards and crashed against the wall. There he slumped to the ground. Hellfire was alarmed to find that his health was down to 10%. His breath rasped in and out of his chest. The shot had melted off several layers of the armour protecting his stomach, and several circuits and wires had been exposed. His circulatory fluids began to spill onto the ground. He clutched his stomach in a futile effort to stop this. Then, to top it off, the hateful pictures returned to him...

Hellfire could see fleeting images in his tired out mind. He was being shot in the arm with some sort of drug...He was battling something with sharp talons that slashed his arm...a metallic alligator was singing...

Hellfire closed his eyes, exhausted. What was going on with him? Vile was his creator! Why did he want to protect the human? Why did the blue and platinum reploids seem so familiar?

One final, decisive question occupied Hellfire's mind.

"If I was Vile's creation...."

"why was I born in a cage...?"

At this thought, a mammoth tide of memories washed over Hellfire's corrupted mind. Crying out, he struggled to understand what was happening. Chaos consumed him as his systems tried to fight off the last of the nasty virus. Through his blood - dimmed vision, Hellfire could see the blue repliod approaching him. He knew this reploid! And he knew himself! He had one last chance to become normal again...

"X! X, save me! Don't hurt me!"

X stopped in utter astonishment. He gaped at Hellfire. Hellfire sunk to the ground, grinning weakly. Once his auto repair systems kicked in, he began to feel sleepy.

"All this for your lousy CD, you schmuck!"

Zero cradled his head in his arms and allowed himself to sink into merciful blackness.

Part 17: A Gator's Gratitude

Celeste finally stood up from the mutilated carcass of Vile. Fighting off the dizziness that threatened to engulf her, she took a final glance at the dead reploid, not believing what her rage had possessed her to do. Celeste shrugged. That was one less wacko to worry about. The real question on her mind was if Zero was okay.

Zero lay in a far corner, sleeping as peacefully as a child. X had removed the injured Hunter's helmet, and was now kneeling wordlessly beside him. He was obviously going to get all emotional on them. Zero's hair covered him like a blanket. He was badly hurt, and had to get back to Headquarters as soon as possible.

That's when a single word of frustration was uttered behind them.

"D'OH!"

Out of the mouth of the corridor behind X stepped Phoenix, Flame Stag, and Overdrive Ostrich, who wore the expression of a condemned man. Phoenix looked none to pleased with the Hunters' victory.

"So! You've defeated Vile." She said, her voice surprisingly light. "And you've got back your little friend. Isn't that nice! I tell you, isn't that touching, OVERDRIVE? Doesn't it make you want to WEEP with joy?" Phoenix glared directly at Overdrive. Overdrive was obviously wishing that he could hide his head in the sand.

"Yes...very nice milady. Ooooh boooy..."

Phoenix knew that she should have kept up the witty remarks and comments. It was the natural thing to do for any bad person in her place. However, she was simply not in the mood. Without another word, she sent a wheel of flame rocketing towards the group. This left a small trail of fire behind it. Flame Stag caught on to the idea, and followed suit. Although nothing in the room looked particularly flammable, it still caught fire fairly quickly. X watched with alarm as the flames built up.

"It ain't over yet!" Phoenix shouted above the frightful roar of the fire. "Be seeing you, X! Gee, that's awful cliche, isn't it?"

Phoenix, Overdrive and Stag were swept up by white beams of light. They had obviously teleported, which had to mean the force field was down! Excited by that discovery, X told Forrest and Celeste to get ready for teleportation. Then he punched the sequence to get back to Maverick Hunter HQ into his wrist teleporter. The message that flashed on the small screen almost made X's heart stop: WARNING: CAN NOT PROCESS REQUEST. SEVERE MALFUNCTION. HAVE A NICE DAY. Desperately, X tried the sequence again, even as the inferno grew around him. Still, he got the same message.

"Where the hell did Cain get these things?" X cursed as he punched his wrist. "The Bi - Way?"

X's only answer was the soft roar of the flames around him. He began to panic slightly. If his teleporter wasn't working, the only thing to do was to walk out. This presented a few problems; first of all, Celeste had overworked herself with her head injury, and she barely had the strength to stand up. She wouldn't be able to go very far very fast. Second of all, Zero certainly wasn't in the mood to walk anywhere. Thirdly and most important, where the heck was the exit? X had forgotten to map the area when looking for Vile, and the Mavericks' fortress was as tortuous as the Minotaur's maze. About as safe, too.

Zero stirred, and opened one eye.

"Ohmigod." X heard the injured Hunter mumble. "Flames. All around me. Why? I was a good little repliod, wasn't I? Well, unless you count the time I shoved a pretzel up X's nose, but that was an accident! I swear! He was asking for it...I don't deserve to be here..." Zero's voice trailed off, and he drifted into unconsciousness again.

The figure in the dark corner whimpered as the flames continued to consume the room. He had seen the whole battle. It had been quite a sight, and sort of touching, he had to admit. His eyes fell on the Hunters across from his hiding place. They all sat there, huddled like frightened mice, trying to get as far away from the growing fire as possible. The figure knew that he had to help them...and now would be a great time to do so.

X's head jerked up in caution when he saw who was now approaching him. A squat, uncertain reptilian creature. Wheel Gator! X stood up from Zero's wounded body to face the leviathan. X didn't want another fight, but it didn't look like Wheel Gator did, either. Nonetheless, he and Forrest were ready to protect their two injured friends if need be.

"I ain't gonna hurtchya." Gator rumbled. "I wanna help you."

Forrest and X exchanged bewildered glances. Had they heard right?

"Look," Gator said impatiently. "I noticed that you're in a spot of trouble, X. I know my way out of here. I can carry Hellfire - er, I mean Zero, while you and Cornholio help Celeste..."

Forrest smiled slightly. "My real name is Forrest, Gator."

"Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Forrest Gator. But now's not a good time for introductions. Are you people gonna trust me, or would you rather fry in here?"

X chewed over this. Gator was a henchman of Vile's, but he probably DID know his way out of the fortress. Anyway X looked at it, they had no choice but to follow the reptile.

"All right, Gator." X agreed reluctantly. "But remember, if you try to backstab us, you're still outnumbered by me and Forrest."

Gator wordlessly headed over to Zero and picked up the unconscious reploid a bit too roughly. This caused Zero to snap back to life very quickly.

"OW! Dammit! Do you mind?" Zero snarled irritably. Then he noticed whose arms he was in. "Oh no you don't, Maverick! You're not taking me away again!" Zero bit Wheel Gator on his scaly arm. Wheel Gator howled, but he didn't drop Zero.

"Can't you tell when people are trying to HELP you?" Gator snapped. He freed one arm and used it to bash Zero over the head ever - so - gently. Zero's head fell back limply, and he slept again. This time, for a looong while.

Celeste, who was propped up between Forrest and X, laughed.

"Was that really needed?" She challenged Wheel Gator.

Wheel Gator merely flashed her a grin that showed all of his infamous white teeth. Then the roof started to cave in.

"Come on, people! Follow me! It's time to go."

Putting all their faith in Gator, the Hunters followed him. Gator, Forrest, and X couldn't help but chant on their way out:

"The roof...the roof...the roof is on fire! We don't need no water..."

Their voices trailed off and were muffled by the roaring flames as they headed down the corridor to safety.

Before long, the Hunters and the Maverick were out in the clean summer air. It was quite a relief compared to the stuffy, smoky environment they had fled from. After he was a safe distance from the fortress, X watched its remains burn. He didn't know exactly why he did this...it was a strange habit of his to watch his enemies' hideouts, etc. burn/explode into a million pieces. It was something he enjoyed. Finally, he tired of watching the burning wreckage and turned towards his friends.

Celeste sat up on the grass, already looking better now that she was out of the smoke. The sun was very nearly set, which caused her pale face to flush a reddish colour. Forrest and Gator were standing over Zero, who had been laid on the clean grass. He was still unconscious, but his breathing was much more regular now; indeed, he'd probably be all right. X walked over and joined them.

There was a second or so of silence. Then X spoke up.

"Thanks, Gator."

Gator looked a bit surprised that someone had actually been courteous towards him.

"Not a problem." He muttered.

"Hey Gator..."

"Yeah?"

"Why did you help us?"

Gator smiled slightly. "Zero was the only one who liked my song."

X knew better than to ask.

They stood there in uncomfortable silence for a bit longer. Gator scratched his rear and waited a beat.

"Well, guess I'd better be off." He mumbled awkwardly.

"Where are you going to go, Gator?" Forrest challenged him.

Gator looked at Forrest as if the platinum reploid had asked a dumb question. "Why, I'm going to find Phoenix and the others, of course!"

"What?!" The Hunters asked in unison.

"They're all I've got going for me."

"But..."

"I know, I know." Wheel Gator sighed. "They were never nice to me. But what the heck, I figure that wherever they are, they're in need of a scapegoat. My loyalty is always with them. See ya'll later!"

Without another word, Wheel Gator turned tail and trotted away from the group. He seemed confident that he'd find his colleagues.

X stood, watching the alligator fade into the horizon. Then he shrugged, not quite knowing what to think.

"Come on, people. There's only one way back to Headquarters. Walking. Celeste, do you think you can make it?"

"I'm a little shaky, but if you take it slow, I'll be okay."

X nodded. He and Forrest picked up the unconscious Zero between them. Then a sudden impulse caused them all to take one last look at the smoking remains of the Mavericks' fortress.

"I wonder what's going to happen to it now, " Celeste thought aloud.

Forrest smirked. "They're gonna make it into a candy store," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

Celeste laughed. "Yeah! A restaurant! 'Sigma's Good Eats'!"

Still chuckling, the party began to pick their way towards home. It would be a long walk that would probably take them most of the night. But none of them seemed to mind, although Zero WAS heavy. They group was making their way past the twisted remains of the Gryphon, the greatest riding armour of all time, when Zero awoke.

"X?" He muttered thickly.

"I'm here, Zero." X assured him.

"Sorry for what you had to go through."

X was silent for a second. "That's okay, I guess. Zero, do you remember anything that happened to you?"

"Not much," Zero answered honestly. "I remember being drugged out by the Mavericks. Then I guess they did something to me. By the looks of things, I think they turned me against you."

X smiled. "Yeah, sorry that Forrest had to shoot you in the stomach."

Zero returned X's smile weakly. "That's all right. I deserved it. I'm sorry about your CD, too. Although it WAS as annoying as hell."

"That's not the only thing that's annoying around here," Celeste piped up. "Hey Zero, when we get back home, can I put your hair up in two ponytails? Please?"

'Uh, let me think about it. No." Zero answered. "Let's just get home."

X couldn't have agreed more.

A tiny sliver of red was all that remained of the fine summer sunset when Violen and Neon Tiger approached their home. They were laughing and talking about the events that had occurred at the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

"Man!" Violen giggled. (It was quite a sight to see a reploid of his size give a girlish giggle) "Wasn't that a hoot, Simba? I never knew I could 'Time Warp' so well!"

Neon Tiger echoed Vio's laugh. "You're telling me! Did you see me hit Dr. Scott with the toilet paper? Right between the eyes!" Tiger smacked his fist into his open palm. "Pow!"

"Hey, Tigger." Violen grunted. "I meant to show you earlier. Look what I found on the way back from the Show." Vio held out a small, circular object that bore a platinum sheen.

Tiger studied the object in the behemoth's outstretched hand with interest. "Looks like a CD of some sort."

"Ayuh. There's some writing on the front," Vio grew a little embarrassed and looked down at his feet. "and...I can't read it."

Tiger wisely choked back a titter. It was not a good idea to laugh at a Maverick who was almost twice your size, no matter how good a friend he was. So Tiger cleared his throat and took the CD from Violen.

"This says...'Pulp Fiction soundtrack. Recorded in 1995.' "

There was a solemn pause.

"That's quite a long time ago," Vio noted, proud of this discovery.

Tiger nodded in agreement. "Hold on, I'm not done yet. There's something written in black marker here." Tiger squinted in an effort to read the words in the failing light. "...'Sacred and holy property of Mega Man X Light. Keep your grubby paws off of this CD, or I shall personally rip your brains out and sell it for Play - Doh.' "

"Mega Man X Light. I guess that's X's full name, and this is his CD." Vio remarked.

Neon Tiger shrugged. "Guess so. At any rate, I'm keeping this CD. And if X wants it back one day, he can bloody well kiss off!"

Although nothing was particularly funny about Tiger's blunt words, both the repliods burst into hysterical guffaws.

The Mavericks' laughter died when they approached the wrecked fortress that had once served as their home. They stood silently, not quite knowing what to make of the smoldering rubble.

"Hey Violen,"

"Yeah?"

"If I'm not mistaken, wasn't our fortress standing here when we left?"

"That's what I think, Tigger."

"Well," Tiger said slowly. "It ain't anymore. You know what I think? I think that the Hunters got Vile."

"Oh dear. That's a bugger."

"Yeah. D'ya suppose that Phoenix or some others might have fled the fortress?"

"I don't doubt it."

Neon Tiger stood stock still while he tried to register all this information.

"Know what I think, Vio?"

"What?"

"I think we should look for them."

"Know what, Tigger?"

"What?"

"That's the best suggestion I've heard all day."

Tiger nodded with a touch of pride. "The Hunters got us today...but tomorrow is another day!"

Violen laughed. Then the two Mavericks skipped off into the dying sunset, singing, "Tomorrow...tomorrow...I love you...tomorrow...you're only a day awaaaaaaayyyy!", until their voices gradually faded off in the distance. It was truly a sight that would have made the great Lord Sigma retch.

And there you have it, little 'uns. I've spun my tale, and I sure as hell took my time doing so. Now, for listening to my yarn, ya each owe me 500 bucks and a beer. Heh heh..jes' kidding! That's only 300 bucks! American, mind you. Canadian seems to be worth diddly squat. But make the beer Canadian. Labatt's Blue. I don't know how you Americans can call that swill of yours 'beer'. What's that, little girl? You have no money!? Out the window with you! (*crash!*) I can't stand freeloaders.

As fer the rest of ya, Auntie Draco hopes that you liked her story. Comments would be nice at reddraco@hotmail.com or reddraco@sailormoonfan.com if the hotmail address doesn't work. By the way, this is not the end of our little adventure! No sir! We have a prequel coming out for our nice story. A prequel that will answer all the worthless questions floating around in your TV - rotted minds, such as 'What kind of past did Zero have?' And the like. I'd tell it to ya now, but I've gotta visit the little dragon's room, 'cuz I've been sitting here for quite a long while. But before I'd go, I'd like to do some kissing - up...

An extra special thanks goes to my biggest fans who were with me most of the way: Slashman, Bryan D, Tekno Kat, Quickman, Zero Torval, and especially Mandi (Phaelin) who helped me a LOT with her comments in the first shaky chapters of this story. And of course, thanks is due to everyone who put up this whole crazy mess of a story! One final note: Quentin Tarantino, if by some crazy chance you end up reading this story, please don't sue my ass for using references to your wonderful 'Pulp Fiction'!

Well children, I'm sad to say that I must part now. Takhisis, my Dark Queen, calls. Once again, a special thanks to my friends and fans, and thank you for ALL the fanmail. It was appreciated no end. *sob* I'd better end this now before I get all emotional....

THE END

(I mean it, maaan!)

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