[Warning: This chapter includes depictions of graphic violence against humans.]

 

The agreement had been arrived at without difficulty two years earlier. Dr. Veris would be given access to the hidden underground complex and the capsules in the main lab. In exchange, he would help Hephaestus spy on X and the Hunters. The fact that Hephaestus and he agreed on the theories of robotics and cybernetics had been a joyful bond that brought them together.

Learning that the crimson and white mechanoid was the very same Hephaestus who’d authored the journal so prized by the cult had made Veris willing to do anything asked of him. To be rewarded on top of having the chance to work directly with Hephaestus had nearly sent him into shock.

Veris now worked his way through the labyrinthine alleys that would take him to his apartment in downtown Central City. There, a teleporter programmed to self-destruct after his use waited to send him to the secret compound. He would not likely see Hephaestus again for some time, but that was all right. He would have his work to keep him busy.

Ah, Ronald, you’ve really done it, he thought. You will now walk in Wily’s footsteps, complete the work he began all those years ago! The human and mechanical races will be made perfect, harmonized into a new, single kind! Ah, what wonders shall we see?

He couldn’t wait.

 

X pushed the door open, and it swung wide on a sprawling artificial jungle. Treetops hung so closely together that the ceiling could not be seen at first, though X did spy a hole in the canopy overhead that let him see clear to the chamber’s top. The sounds of wildlife filtered through the trees and the foliage, eerily life-like. X knew they weren’t real animals, though.

“Mechanical animals,” he muttered. “Sounds like a psychedelic rock band.” He cautiously stepped further into the room, audio receptors adjusted now for maximum input. As he passed beneath one of the trees, X picked up a slithering movement six yards away on his left, closing fast. He spun and fired, blowing apart a segmented mechanical snake in mid-lunge.

Seven more began streaking at him from all directions. X activated another secondary weapon and fired the cannon skyward. The air shimmered around him, the artificial foliage nearby suddenly rimed with frost.

The seven snake-bots all froze solid in a ring around him as they closed. X stomped on the head of each, crushing them underfoot. Then, he released the Frost Shield and dashed into the thicket.

Monkeys, snakes, fist-sized spiders and bot-eating giant plants all assailed him, perfectly mimicking their organic counterparts in appearance only. By the time he reached the lever at the far end of the jungle room, he’d been hit with three energy shots, had one long gouge in his right arm, and had a puncture wound on his chest.

Total life force loss, only six percent, but it worried X that he’d already been damaged. He would have to be less reckless, more methodical, in his approach to the other rooms. Otherwise, the Wily Manor would destroy him.

 

“He’s slowed down,” Hephaestus said to himself, watching on the holo-monitors hovering around his throne. “Wise of you, X. But how will you react when the choice of hesitation is cut away? I wonder.” Once again the crimson and white mechanoid withdrew his old weapon, playing a finger over it. “I wonder indeed.”

 

The third chamber had been an ice-themed affair, easily bested with his Flamethrower program. The fourth chamber had been fashioned after an earthen cavern, and his Wind Ripper had done short work there. The fifth and sixth chambers had both been straight-forward combat chambers, both bested without incident.

Slow and steady had won him through without injury. As X stepped out into the hallway once more, he saw that the beams had all turned off, allowing him to continue.

X pushed against the doors, which creaked open to reveal a enormous and ornately decorated exhibit hall in honor of Dr. Wily. Statuary, busts, and replicas of the old Robot Masters stood on pedestals around the room.

“Quaint,” X said. He might normally have passed right through for an exit, spotting elevator across from the entrance, but he stopped himself. Here he had a chance to learn about his enemy’s obsession, perhaps gain some insight into how Hephaestus thought. That knowledge could be invaluable later on.

X picked his way over to one of the less recognizable showcases, an open-fronted glass box with a stack of papers inside. X reached in after scanning for lasers and tripwires, took out the papers, and read the title on the cover page aloud. “Cybernetics: Our Lost Legacy. A Paper by Dr. Franklin Reginald Wily, Ph.D.”

X flipped through the paper, using his advanced central processing unit to speed through the material. Wily had written the paper during his incarceration after the fifth failed campaign to take over the world. In it, he stated that he’d come to realize over the course of years spent fighting Megaman that Rock represented the purest form of sentient life he’d ever known. A human, fused and augmented with technology, superior to humans in ability, and superior to Robot Masters in individuality and free thought. Capable of processing normal food, producing a minimum of waste thanks to an enhanced digestive system designed with maximum energy output in mind. Yet if food was not readily available, Megaman could subsist for far longer than any human being on just charging his core batteries.

The paper called for the renewal of cybernetics research. X thought about the lifeless drones he’d fought, and the six kidnapped youths, all imprisoned and made into what they must surely think of as monsters. Yet Wily would have been proud of their creation.

X set the paper back, his mind spinning. Hephaestus, he thought, is this what you want? If so, then why the attacks? Why the mechanoid servants? What are you playing at? What am I missing here?

X walked slowly to the elevator, the inside of which smelled of decay. There were only two buttons lit out of six available, one marked ‘O’, the other marked ‘C’. X wasn’t sure what they meant, had no idea if his choice mattered.

He hit the ‘C’ button, and the doors slid shut. A moment later, he was descending.

 

“Caretaker, he is coming to you first,” Hephaestus said over the commlink. “Are you ready, my good friend?”

“Yes,” rasped the robotic ghoul. “My toys and I await him. We’re going to play the greatest game that ever was!”

“You shall, Caretaker. You shall. Have fun with him. You only get to play with him once.” Hephaestus felt a sharp pang of regret. Caretaker would surely die if X made his way clear to him. The corrupted, addled mechanoid might wound him, sure, but in a head-on fight, X would destroy him utterly.

Still, sacrifices had to be made in the name of any worthy cause. He once again touched his old weapon. Would X figure it out before confronting him? Would the legendary Maverick Hunter survive Orbous and Paladin? What good teaching him if he died?

Ah, but that would not happen. Hephaestus had every confidence that the new Blue Bomber would destroy Caretaker and Orbous, then drive back Paladin and finally come here to the throne room for a final confrontation. He would be battered and damaged by the time he reached the final hallway.

Hephaestus would offer him the mechanic’s bay to be fixed up and ready before their battle, though. He would refuse X entry until the reploid was in top condition. Yes, he would be more of a threat that way, but Hephaestus knew that he could best X in a fight to the death. He hoped, however, that X’s will would be dead by then.

The battering of that will would commence shortly.

 

When the elevator opened, X thought he might have arrived in Hell itself for a moment. Hot, humid air filled the antechamber, rusty metal mesh covering molten metal inches from his feet. Chains and hooks hung down from the ceiling, and human organs had been merrily strewn about the room. The smell alone could gag a horse.

X turned off his olfactory receptors and stepped gingerly out onto the grated floor. It held well enough. The rust was cosmetic, he saw upon crouching down to peer more closely. The molten material, however, was very real, as were the human bits and blood.

Opposite the elevator was an archway with a pair of wooden double doors. Above the arch was an inscription in a gothic scrawl. ‘Your Choices Will Teach You What You Refused to Learn Before’, it read.

“Fat chance,” said X. He carefully walked to the doors, the heat assailing him from below. As he grasped the long, vertical bronze handles, he felt a sense of dread steal over him. X turned to look around the chamber. With a start he realized that the molten material under the grating was dimming. Soon, he would be in darkness.

Facing the doors once again, he pulled them open, revealing beyond a perfectly square chamber, all in red metal tiles. The only thing that caught his eye was another set of doors only ten feet or so away. No lights, no cameras, no speakers or projectors.

He suspected the room beyond this square one would be completely black. X stepped through, and before he even got to the other doors, he felt something pass over him like a chill wind.

He attempted to turn on his thermal vision, but he could not see through the doors or the walls around him. Keeping it on, he pulled the doors open and stepped through. Immediately there were heat signatures, both left and right.

A hum as the doors slammed shut behind him. X turned his standard vision back on as the first of several light tubes overhead blazed on. Moans came from around him, and looking to either side, X became confused and horrified.

A narrow corridor had been constructed on each side of the room. Rising now in those narrow and short corridors were humans, all of them chained to the floor. Several of them, seeing X, called out for help, for mercy, for answers.

Directly across from where he’d entered was a shuttered gate, covered by a translucent orange dome of force. The corridors where the humans were chained were too narrow and they had been built into the walls; in short, X couldn’t see where those alleyways terminated.

There came a crackle from hidden speakers, and a hologram appeared in the middle of the chamber of Hephaestus on his throne. “X, you have arrived in the first of Caretaker’s Play Rooms.”

“What is this,” X demanded, the humans silent, staring around him.

“This is where we continue to try and teach you the errors of Dr. Light’s ways, the principles he passed on to you. As you can see, these humans have been chained in place. Beyond each row of them is an energy panel which, when activated, will release the barrier barring your way ahead.”

X heard someone scream to his left. Looking that way, he saw that the walls to either side of their little lane had inched closer together.

“What did they ever do to you, Hephaestus?”

“They were born,” the other mechanoid rasped, lunging up out of his throne. “No more back talk!” The walls inched away, back to their starting position. Hephaestus sat back down. “Now, the energy panels have been tuned to only activate in response to your Mega Buster Shot. Before you object, I see you mean to, yes, that means you will have to choose which set of humans will die by your hands.”

Instantly all of the chained humans began screaming, wailing, thrashing in their chains. X looked around at both sides, horrified. “You can’t be serious,” he breathed.

“Oh, I am quite serious. Of course, there is one other trigger that will bring down the dome.”

“What’s that?”

“Every thirty seconds that passes once I break our communications, I will move the walls in their zones closer, until they’re all crushed to death. And don’t try to clamber in there to save them; doing so will trigger the failsafe, and they will all be crushed, along with however much of yourself you shove into their midst. Choose, X. Who lives, and who dies? You cannot save them all.”

Hephaestus and his throne then disappeared, and X’s screams of outrage joined the chorus of the humans.

 

“Ah, yes, we all must make choices, X,” Hephaestus cooed to the empty throne room. “Which one will you make?”

 

Logic took over in the face of sheer panic. He could empathize, had no choice, really, but all of their caterwauling wasn’t making things any easier. His first thirty seconds passed, and every human shouted as one as the walls of their chutes inched in on them.

X tried to crouch down to get a better look at the humans on either side. Both sides had an even mix of men and women, of varying ages. The only mercy here was the absence of children, though he flashed back to the teddy bear in the street in New York City. Yes, Hephaestus had even seen the young and innocent slaughtered.

This sort of thing should have come as no surprise.

Yet it did, and the fact that he had to choose or let them all die made him want to tear Dr. Wily out of the clutches of time and death so that he could break the old psychotic’s neck.

Screaming on the brink of insanity, X dashed towards the left chute, knelt down, and began charging his cannon. The closest two humans, a male and female in their twenties, began weeping, begging for mercy, for salvation, while snot and tears streaked their faces.

“I’m sorry,” X choked. “I’m so sorry.”

The blast of his Mega Buster Shot tore the air.

 

“Ah, quicker than I thought,” Hephaestus whispered with a grin. “Yes, you will learn quickly this way.”

 

The dome barrier had faded out five minutes ago, yet X sat staring at the bloody, gore-caked path his cannon had torn. The sobs behind him had gone from pleas of help to thanks and shock at having been spared. X could not move; his spark had dived deep.

There wrapped around him only darkness, until he found himself looking up once again at the ragged shape of his own body, lashed and staked to a tree. There was a certain hideousness to him now, a baleful, bestial quality that hadn’t been there before.

I murdered them, he thought.

“No you didn’t,” said a nearby voice. X’s spark turned to face Megaman, striding toward him out of the darkness. Shadows seemed to cling from him like vines, and they stretched and creaked as he came to a stop several yards away. “You were given no choice. It was either half or all, and you forced yourself into action to spare at least some human lives.”

What do you know, X thought uncharitably. You aren’t even the real Megaman! You’re a blank spark that thinks like him, but you aren’t Rock!

“You’re right and wrong. I AM Megaman, but I am not Rock. He was human; he had a soul, not a spark. The two are very similar, but not the same. Souls cannot go from one body to the next like sparks can.”

I am corrupt.

“No, you’re not. Not yet, anyway. But if you allow yourself to wallow in self-pity, you will become entirely lost, and your spark will rot. Look at Hephaestus. He has had the same spark for over a hundred years, letting himself be twisted by transfers to new bodies, by the adamant adherence to Wily’s ways. You aren’t like him.

“But he will try to make you think like he does. Do not allow that to happen. You may have awful choices to make here, but know this; those choices are forced on you. They are not your fault. Tyrants throw such traps at people, and blackmail their very hearts, and call them villains, so that they can bend others to their will. Will you be bent, X? Or are you a warrior?”

I am a warrior.

“Are you?”

I am. Warriors sometimes must make sacrifices. I will grieve those lost, but I will do as you say. I will remember that the grief of their loss is forced upon me.

“Good. Now go and rip that Manor apart.”

 

“What’s this,” Hephaestus mused as X climbed to his feet, facing the surviving humans. Their chains had come undone, releasing them into the central space of the hallway. They gathered around the reploid.

He was speaking to them.

 

“Remember, go straight down the hall,” X told the survivors. “There may still be bots in those other rooms, so just ignore them. When I get done here, I will lead you away from this island.” With that, the humans fled, leaving X alone before the shuttered gate. He grasped the handle, set low to the floor, and threw the door up along its track.

In the next room, X could see another barrier over a shutter gate, and arranged throughout the room were twenty old military-style green cots. Human forms were laid prone on these, held down by straps, each strap connected by cables running off into the floor.

X stepped into the room, and the gate slammed down behind him. To his immediate right, a section of the floor dropped away, and a surgical tool kit rose up on an elevating section of tile. A wave of blue energy snapped through the room, rocking X back on his heels.

A speaker crackled to life overhead. “That’s better,” said Hephaestus. “I have deactivated your X-ray and thermal scanners, X, nothing more. For the purposes of this lesson, you will not need them. As you can see, each of these humans is asleep right now, but they will soon be awakened. In order to proceed, a three-piece key must be assembled and set in the keyplate next to the gate leading onward.

“These humans are not worthy of protection, of salvation. All twenty of them are criminals with a violent history. They would all be better off dead. But you do not think so.

“My servant, Caretaker, has surgically inserted the three parts of the key into three different humans here. Your task is not to get the key components yourself, X. Instead, you must choose five humans to free from their constraints, any five. They will, in turn, seek out the components.

“If you try to use the surgical tools yourself, I will use my controls to kill the fifteen you leave strapped down. If you try to make any move on the five you choose, the same will happen.”

“This test leaves too much to chance,” X said flatly. “The five I choose could well kill everyone trying to find these keys. If a component is inside one of them, they’ll fight me and the others to try and save themselves.”

“That is the ugly nature of humans,” replied Hephaestus. “You’re always trying to see the good in them. I will show you that there is none. You will be given a hint as to where the components are, however. You need only take the remote on the tool table to get your hint.”

X walked over to the table, spotted the black remote with its two buttons, green and red, and took it up.

“What does it do?”

“It electrocutes those strapped down,” said Hephaestus. “All of these humans were instructed about this test before I released the gas that left them unconscious. They will know what to do when they are awakened. Will you be able to reason with these criminals? Or will their dark human nature leave you standing in an abattoir? The choice, and challenge, are yours.”

Power surged through the room, and twenty humans began thrashing and screaming. It was short lived, though. Just enough of a jolt to awaken them all, and immediately the shouting began.

X had to select five of these bound humans to release, and doing so would not be easy. With the tirades of threats, accusations, curses and bargains being bellowed around him, X could hardly think.

Megaman had told him not to become like Hephaestus. The mechanical tyrant sought to force a change in X by forcing his hand. He didn’t want to become the face of his own enemy.

But the humans here didn’t know that, did they? X had become widely known for the impatience and distance with which he dealt with the humans in the last few years. Despite always seeking to defend them, it was public knowledge that he had become less tolerant of them in general.

Everybody knew that, criminal or not.

“Shut up,” he shouted over them all, firing his cannon up at the ceiling for dramatic effect. Silence hit like a brick. “Good. Now, I don’t have time for any nonsense. Frankly, if you’re all criminals, I’m not too keen on the idea of letting you out of here to join the other survivors on the beach. They’ve already been through enough. So, I could do them and myself a favor and just let you all die,” X barked. “Or, you can all cooperate with me. What’s it to be?”

Silence and staring eyes full of fear all around him. Good, he thought, good little lambs. “Excellent. Now, I’m going to ask some questions. If you can answer ‘yes’, say yes and we’ll go from there. Understood?” They all answered with a weak chorus of ‘yes’. “Good. Does anyone here have surgical experience?”

Two people answered yes, a middle-aged Asian-American man and a younger black woman. “Okay, sir, what was your experience?”

“I was a dentist, so dental surgery.” Shit, X thought, and some of the others groaned under their blankets. X wondered about that, too. He could see the main straps, and he could tell that some kind of restraints held their wrists and ankles, but he could only tell because the straps trailed out from under the blankets. Curious.

“And you, miss?”

“I was a surgical nurse,” she said. “Trauma too.”

“Okay, dentist,” X said. “Why did he call you a criminal?”

“I got drunk one night and hit someone with my car,” the man muttered, on the verge of tears. “I didn’t mean to.”

“He’s full of shit,” one of the other humans shouted, a bald-headed young man with a goatee and a lightning tattoo on his exposed neck. “You can’t trust that fucker!”

X did something then that he hadn’t even expected to do himself; he pressed the green button on the remote. Everybody jumped as they were electrocuted again, five seconds of intense pain. X hit the other button, and everybody slumped back down, groaning.

“No speaking out of turn,” X snapped. “Ten seconds next time. Now, young lady, the nurse.” The woman could barely move, but she rolled her head to one side to try and look down past her feet at him. “What about you? What did you do?”

The woman licked her lips, still dazed from the shock. Finally she said, “I killed my husband. He’d been beating the shit out of me every week, and I had enough one day, so I waited for him to come home one night with his shotgun in my lap. I blew that sonofabitch away before he could even blink.”

X said nothing, letting the tension hang in the air. Finally, he approached her, knelt by her bed, and began trying to undo her restraints. As he touched them, however, the mechanical buckle-locks unclamped and fell away. He pulled the blanket away, and saw that she’d been fitted with a patient’s gown. She sat up slowly, rubbing her wrists.

“Pull up your gown,” X said softly.

“What?”

“Incision scar,” he whispered. She blinked at him, then nodded her understanding. Her abdomen was smooth, though. “Okay. You’re good.” X then went over to the dentist, staring at nothing as the Maverick Hunter undid his clasps by merely touching them. He too had no incision scar.

X stood up and returned to stand beside the surgical tray. “Okay. Anyone here an electrician, or work in electronics?” Four ‘yes’ answers, three men and a woman. As X knelt by a heavyset gentleman and undid his clasps, the man grunted. “You okay,” X asked.

“Just uncomfortable.” But as the man swung his legs over the side of the cot, X lifted his gown, looking at the incision line on his stomach. The man looked hard into X’s eyes. “Aw, shit.”

“It’s okay,” X said. He looked over and nodded to the nurse and dentist, who wheeled the surgical tray over. X stepped away, and the man with the component inside his body glared at the reploid.

“If I die here, I’m going to haunt you, robot.” X said nothing, because he would be haunted anyway.

 

“Smart of you, X,” Hephaestus said, listening in. “Perhaps too smart.”

 

The supplies on the surgical cart were adequate to perform this kind of work once or twice, but not three times. X also had limited time. He quickly selected two more humans to free, skipping more questioning. The two men he selected he quickly knocked out with a light punch to the forehead.

While the nurse and dentist flinched, X lifted up the two men’s gowns. Sure enough, they had incision scars. X hadn’t needed his x-ray or thermal vision. Hephaestus had underestimated the reploid.

A base-level biometric scanner program in his optics told him that these two men had infections in their bloodstreams, likely from a botched surgical procedure. X intuited that the presence of the key components didn’t help.

The first man had been given a shot by the dentist to numb him up. After that, the nurse had proceeded to use steady hands and a scalpel to cut open his stomach. Grimacing, she’d reached in and plucked out a small yellow metal object.

X took the object and dipped it in a bowl the dentist had filled with alcohol. The blood came away easily, revealing the first part of the key.

X strode toward the barrier gate and set the component in the slot shaped for it.

Hephaestus didn’t know how X could have gotten so lucky, picking the other two key-holding humans out of the group. But this had been a possibility, one he could not avoid. A certain amount of chance had been involved in the second test.

“A good thing that isn’t the case for the others,” he mused aloud.

 

Half an hour later, the humans were all getting up from their cots, groaning and rubbing wrists and ankles made raw from the restraints. All three of the men who’d had components in them lay unconscious on their cots; they would likely die.

X didn’t enjoy knowing that, but it couldn’t be helped. Hephaestus had rigged these chambers to force a certain amount of loss. X had no option but to go along and clear these tests.

Setting the final piece in place, the barrier came down, and X lifted the shutter gate. Like the transition from the first chamber on this level to the second, only this time the panels were done in a frosty blue.

X stepped up to the double doors beyond, and entered the next blacked out chamber.

As the lights snapped on, X saw that the next barrier door was to the left. Before him stood a blast wall with a narrow viewing port. Through the port, X could see a trench in the floor beyond, filled with molten, liquid metal. Suspended above the trench were two wire cages. In the left stood a woman, clutching the bars. In the right, a man doing the same.

Both were dressed in tattered, dirty clothes. X couldn’t hear them, but he could tell they were shouting for help. Their cages were suspended from tracks in the ceiling. Past them, X could make out large holes in the walls, which would allow other cages to be rotated out.

He didn’t like where this was going one bit. Before him, below the viewing window, were two buttons, one marked ‘L’ on the left, ‘R’ on the right. There were speakers set beside these. The speakers crackled, and X could now hear the humans shouting for help.

A set of unseen speakers clicked on overhead. “Hello again, X. Welcome to the next lesson.” The humans had fallen silent. “On the other side of the blast wall, those humans before you can now see you on a view monitor. They are looking at you this very moment. For one of them, you will be a savior. For the other, their killer. To choose which will live, you need only press the associated button. You will have two minutes to make your choice, and if you do not, they will both be dropped to their deaths. They will not be able to cling to the bars. The cages will be electrified.

“This is Martha and Jacob Stenner,” Hephaestus cooed, introducing the humans. “Martha teaches fifth grade, Jacob is a police officer. Both have noble careers, according to society.

“Jacob has beaten his wife at least twice a year for the four years of their marriage, sending her to the emergency room once for a fractured elbow. Not exactly the ideal mate.”

“That’s a fucking lie,” the man screamed, looking around for his accuser. “I never touched her like that!”

“The hell you haven’t,” she cried out. She looked to the monitor with tears tracking down her face. “He’s a goddamn monster! I can’t report him because his fucking friends would never arrest him!”

“And Martha,” Hephaestus continued, “has cheated on her husband on multiple occasions with multiple men, including Jacob’s partner.” Silence from the woman as Jacob rammed against the side of his cage facing her.

“I fucking knew it! I knew you were a fucking whore! Koleski? You even fucked that weasely little retard?”

“Neither is very good people, X. Which one will you let live? You have two minutes.” X saw a lime green neon counter flicker to life beyond the humans, who had begun screaming at one another heatedly.

X looked at them, weighing his options. He tried firing his cannon at the view window, but the shot had no effect. Like many of the walls and surfaces of this Manor, it was composed of an energy-absorbing material. He tried punching it, but succeeded only in hurting his hand.

He would have to choose. The woman had been a liar and adulterer. The man had been a wife-beater. The choice, for X, was simple. He pressed the left button.

As soon as he did, the bottom of the man’s cage swung open, dropping him screaming into the molten trench. With a splash of liquid metal and blooming blood, X saw a single melting leg kick up, the skin and meat sliding off of the bone. Martha shrieked like a banshee, and then the track clicked and began to rotate her out of the room.

To X’s expectant horror, two more cages were coming out, each with two occupants.

“What are your values, X? Which lesser evil can you live with?”

 

Hephaestus stroked the weapon in his lap, thinking of how it would feel to see it cut into X.

 

In the left cage, an elderly couple. In the right cage, a pair of adolescents. All of them stared out, silent, expectant. None dared move. X could make out the tattoos on the young man’s bare chest, symbols marking him as a racist thug. The girl, dressed like a ten dollar hooker, had track marks up and down her arms.

Hephaestus came on the speakers again. “Meet your next subjects, X. Mabel and Steven Flint, married fifty-seven years, both retired from working for decades as owners of a quaint little hotel in Ohio. Three children, twelve grandchildren, all of whom enjoy seeing their nana and papa once a month.

“Then you have Jerry Parker and his girlfriend, Liz Ford. White supremacists, both of whom have lied, cheated, stolen, and abused themselves with drugs. Jerry has been arrested for hate crimes seven times, each time escaping justice with the aid of a lawyer hired on by the hate group he belongs to. They are scum.

“This should be an easy choice for you.” X looked back and forth at the four humans. The young punks were kneeling at the bars, clutching them until their knuckles whitened, pulling away as voltage ran through the cages again. The elderly couple clung to one another, the husband stroking his wife’s hair, whispering something in her ear.

X’s hand hovered over the left button, but the elderly man called out, stopping him. “Wait, X!” The legendary Maverick Hunter looked up, and felt himself stiffen. The old man had his arms wrapped around his wife, but he was now looking at the young couple, who stared back, unbelieving. “Look at them, X. They’re young. They still have a chance to make their lives mean something. Mabel and I, we’ve had our chance.”

“And it was a good run,” Mabel choked out between sobs. The old man turned toward the monitor, still holding his wife close.

“Give us one last chance to say goodbye, X. Then, give those two their chance to say hello.” X waited as the elderly couple embraced tightly. The younger pair began weeping openly, shaking their heads.

“No, man,” the punk croaked. X hit the right button, and the elderly couple plunged silently, wrapped around one another, into the arms of molten death.

X felt like someone had ripped his heart out. Or would have, if he had one.

 

Hephaestus had one more set of cages to send out, and this time, he felt certain that X’s mind would stall out on him. This time, the price of choosing would be too much.

“X, can you hear me,” Hephaestus called out over the speakers. “You should be paying very close attention, because now comes the fun part.” Two more cages were brought out, and X screamed in outrage at the sight of the humans interred within. In the left cage, two women swollen with child. In the right cage, two more. X dropped to his knees, clutching his head. “You need not know these ones names, X. All you need know is that whichever cage you choose to spare, you will condemn four lives to end. All four of these women are good people by the standards of human society. They are equals here. This is the truth of humanity, X. None of them would be spared in war, and we are at war. Make your choice, X. Save and destroy.”

The speakers by the buttons remained muted, though X could feel the desperation being hurled at him from the four imprisoned women. Hephaestus had no right to do this, not to anyone. X could not bring himself to raise his head.

With only twenty-three seconds to spare, he reached out blindly and hit one of the buttons. X then curled up into a ball on the floor as the barrier over the door leading out of the chamber deactivated. He made no move to indicate he even knew he could go forward.

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