Hephaestus watched the monitor as X twitched and kicked, his body spasming on the floor. If any attack bots had been able to get at him, the crimson and white mechanoid thought they might do some real damage to the Maverick Hunter before he could muster the will to defend himself.
He considered the next chamber for a moment. If X retained any sense of awareness when he finally picked himself up off of the floor, he would likely recognize the weapons he would be forced to use in the final test before facing Caretaker. If he did, he would know the identity of Hephaestus from the mechanoid’s time in his second body.
The time that had helped reshape Hephaestus’s spark, made him what he was today.
It would be a staggering revelation for X, one the reploid would carry into his battles against Caretaker, Orbous, Paladin and Hephaestus himself. The mechanoid knew that his old attack patterns had been scrubbed from his combat protocols. Unlike the others, Hephaestus had granted himself and Paladin a tremendous advantage in this regard; they had no combat protocols.
It had been one of the secrets of Megaman’s success against the Robot Masters of old. They had all been designed and programmed with standardized responses to armed conflict. Hephaestus and Paladin, however, operated on the principles of human combat, which was to say, they could improvise. Nothing was hard-wired into their routines.
They could fight any way they so chose, just like Megaman and X.
The mad mechanoid mulled this over as he watched X twitch on the floor.
The choice had been nearly impossible to make, but X had decided to let random chance dictate his choice. He had distanced himself from the decision when a minute and a half had remained on the clock.
He’d been genuinely torn, but he’d come to a cold conclusion which steeled his resolve; he was responsible for none of this. The women who had died had done so because of Hephaestus, not X. When madness reigns, only the acceptance of brutal duty remains. Thus he chanted in his own mind.
Curling into the fetal position and trembling was an act. He knew Hephaestus was watching him, analyzing his reactions. He wants to break me? Let him think he’s come close. Let him assume I’m rattled.
Because, he thought, I AM rattled. Yes, my conscience is eating at me, but I can at least say that I have saved those who could be saved. The humans who escape this place will be forever scarred. But humans are resiliant, adaptable. They will survive.
Just a couple more minutes…
Paladin strode back and forth in the chamber where he would receive X and do battle. He believed whole-heartedly that X would destroy Caretaker and Orbous, that he would do so with little trouble. And there were two repair stations ahead for the Blue Bomber, one at the end of Orbous’s level of the Manor, and one just outside of this very chamber.
Hephaestus intended to face X himself, in the end. But the great Dr. Wily’s work, which Hephaestus had picked up and continued, wasn’t finished. That was why Paladin had been equipped with the personal teleporter. “Beat him senseless,” Hephaestus had ordered, “but do not kill him, and do not let yourself be slain. You will carry on my will, and the will of the great Dr. Wily. There are more great works ahead for you, my friend.”
Paladin suspected that Hephaestus would kill X, and then join him wherever it was that he was going, in order to resume his work. With X out of the way, Zero and Axl, along with the rest of the already-wounded Hunters Organization, would be easily crushed.
And then? Peace, and perfection, a world harmonized at last. Yes, Paladin would serve this cause.
He wondered how X was faring.
X finally got up off of the floor and walked woodenly to the door that would take him closer to the end of this floor. He threw the man-sized door open, once again cast into darkness, and waited as the door shut behind him.
The lights snapped on, and X flinched as he saw an energy wall about ten yards in front of him. Slightly to the left and before him stood a kind of strange pedastal with a mounted black box atop it and long handles jutting horizontally from the sides.
To the right stood a human, dressed in a rumpled suit, chained to a similar device. His forehead was coated in a sheen of sweat, a middle-aged man of Persian descent.
Beyond the force wall, in which there was a narrow slit, X saw dozens of poles mounted to sliding tracks in the floor and ceiling. Lashed to these were gagged humans of varying types.
Unseen speakers crackled to life. The chained man didn’t even flinch. “Greetings again, X. The people you see before you are the key to this man’s survival, and he, in turn, is key to the survival of the Hunters’ Organization.”
“What?” X took another look at the chained human, and he realized that he vaguely recognized the man, though from where he could not say.
“This man has been instructed to use his mounted weapon to kill more of these bound humans than you in a one minute period, X. If he does that, he may go free. If he does not, then the explosives placed in his weapon will kill him.
“If he bests you, X, I will launch a wave of assault bots under my control at New York City, all of which will be traced back to your organization. If you best him, he will die, as will most of the humans before you. How much death will you deliver to save the Hunters and New York? Or will you let this man kill these helpless people, to save his own life?
“The choice is yours, X. Always yours.” There came a loud CLICK from the weapons, and the posts with their human targets began moving around. The chained man began firing without hesitation.
A thin circular saw blade launched like a discus into the air from the mounted box, clipping a man’s side. He bled profusely, groaning around his gag and thrashing against his chains, but to no avail. A second saw blade took the top off of a young woman’s head, her scalp and part of her brain flopping to the floor below.
X steadied himself, took hold of his own launcher, and aimed. He fired three times, each shot a merciful decapitation. The chained man’s aim was unsteady, his nerves frayed beyond control.
X had a flash of inspiration. He pivoted his turret until it faced the chained human, and he fired two more saw blades. The first gouged into the man’s hip, causing him to cry out and drop. The second blade clipped the back of his head. Blood and bone spurt out, and rather than watch the man spasm to death, X tilted his turret downward and fired a final blade into his face.
The crunch of bone, the spray and rip of separating meat, cartilage and blood, filled X’s audio receptors. He let go of his turret’s handles, and looked back out onto the killing floor. He’d slain three of those defenseless humans himself, as had the chained man. But X had killed him, giving him one more kill to his count, and ending this senseless test with a minimum of loss of life. The bound humans stopped moving, and the speakers crackled again as the force wall faded away.
Beyond them all, below the timer set high in the wall, was a segmented steel gate, the kind used in the old Robot Master zones. “An interesting way of passing this test, X. You surprise me. It’s good to see your logic finally taking hold. Carry on, and face my friend Caretaker, when you are ready.”
X made no move toward the gate, though. Instead, he walked over to one of the dead humans hanging from a metal pole. He reached up and plucked out the metal saw blade, turning it this way and that.
Revelation struck. “Metal Man,” he whispered. “The Robot Master body Wily put you in, the very first one he made himself, Metal Man.” X looked up toward the ceiling, spotted a camera, and approached it, holding up the saw blade. “That’s who you were, Hephaestus. You were Metal Man!”
“Bravo, X,” the mechanoid once called Metal Man cooed over the speakers. “I congratulate you on your deductive skills! And does it not make sense that I was named Hephaestus, after the blacksmith of the gods? That was my job as a helper bot, X. I fashioned master Wily’s robot drones, helped build the first wave of Robot Masters he designed. I worked those metals, X, and earned both titles!”
“Wily is dead, Hephaestus, has been for a long time. Megaman defeated you, and all the Robot Masters that came after.”
“Ah, but master Wily always had a helping hand with me beside him. Megaman may have defeated me, but my spark survived. And master Wily’s works were not done when he passed, no no. I will see them come to fullest fruition, X! And you will see, before we meet, that you should be helping me do it!”
The speakers cut out, leaving X staring up at the camera, shaking with rage. He screamed, raised his cannon, and blew the camera apart.
“Hmm, temper, temper, my friend,” Hephaestus said, playing his finger over the saw blade.
The confined hallway ended in another shutter, but there was an open archway halfway down the corridor, which opened out in an automated repair bay. Hephaestus was either mocking him with such a display, or the former Robot Master viewed this in some deranged way as a means of giving X a fair chance against his minions.
There stood an open repair capsule in the center of the chamber, cables leading away into the walls. He shrugged his shoulders and slipped himself inside. Right away, thin armatures descended from the ceiling to patch him up and administer a feed of life force energy to his main tank.
Most of the damage he’d suffered here had been mental thus far, and perhaps therein lay the mockery. ‘Look, I can heal your body, but your spirit shall be fractured’. It had come too close to working out just that way.
Yet X still held to his sanity. There would be scars from being in the Manor, but like all reploids, his scars would be hidden beneath layers of colored transteel.
X stepped up out of the pod when he was fully repaired, and steadied himself. Whatever came next, he would be ready for it.
Caretaker could sense the approach of the bot that his master so hated, the successor of the man who had killed him once. They were going to play a game. Caretaker used the control pad on his left forearm to put his toys into position, a few of them still leaking fluids and struggling against their sobs.
“Now now, there’s no need to worry, my lovely toys,” Caretaker said melodically, his voice that of a very young boy. “Soon we’ll have a new friend to play with, and won’t that be fun?”
X could hear someone speaking on the other side of the gate, but the voice was too muffled to make out the words. He felt energy coiling through the air, knew he was in for a fight. “Hopefully it’s just straight forward,” he said, stepping up to the gate. The floor plate slid down under his foot an inch, and the gate began retracting loudly.
The chamber beyond had been arranged to resemble a graveyard, complete with holographic skies, artificial grass, headstones and uneven ground. Atop a short hill to the left of this benighted scene stood two of the human-machine drones, slowly raising blasters at him.
Except, X saw, this time their eyes shone with life. Terrified, confused life. These weren’t drones; they were living cyborgs. The pair fired at him, the energy bullets smacking into the ground a few feet in front of him, churning up artificial soil and grass. X dashed aside and fired a warning shot back at them.
Their reactions were slow, jerky. Even in the night-like chamber, he could see as he squared himself to face them that blood and bile leaked out around imperfectly healed fusions of flesh and metal. These ones had been rushed.
A blaster shot stunned him from behind, tearing at his kinetic shielding and scorching the back plating beneath. X spun to find another pair of cyborgs, a girl with a blaster and metal face like a skull, and a slightly older male in football pads with some kind of energy axe in his hands. The male was charging him, mouth open but no sound escaping.
X charged his cannon and dashed towards the footballer, skidding to a halt and firing only a foot away. The heavyset cyborg was blown back, metal and chunks of bone and organs spewing in an arc. The energy axe fell heavily to the ground.
X wiped blood from his optics as the first two drones fired at him again, closer this time. He jumped over a shot from the girl, twisting as he left the ground to fire back at the first two. They had split a few feet apart, a smart move. Before landing, X fired a single shot, catching one in the chest, throwing him back.
The girl behind him fired two more shots, one hitting him in the back of the leg, the other sailing wide to his left. X snap-rolled backwards, coming up with his cannon thrusting up under the girl’s metallic chin.
The impact of the impromptu uppercut broke her neck. She flopped to the ground, arms and legs twitching.
X heard more of them approaching over a rolling hill behind and to his left. Switching to the Rolling Mine, X fired the weapon twice and ran towards the origin point of the chamber. As he made it back to the gate, twin explosions rocked the air behind him.
A bloody, mangled arm landed at his feet, the fingers still twitching, a blaster clutched in death. A frayed cable ran from the charred elbow out to the wrist, where the plastic coating had melted to the skin in the explosion.
“This is my holiday,” X quipped to himself. With a liberal moment to collect himself, the Maverick Hunter jetted to the left and forward, rising up over a hillock and coming in view of a column of graves going fifty yards back. At the back of the column stood a bandage-wrapped ghoul of metal, its half-skull visage gleaming in the simulated moonlight. Rangy and corpse-like, the mechanoid glared at X through scarlet optics, a small sickle in each hand.
Flanking the ghoul were six more of the cybernetic soldiers, all of them now taking up stances to be at the ready. Four of them appeared to be ranged fighters, three with blasters and a fourth with two forearm-mounted weapons. The two foremost cyborgs were large, heavyset males, each holding energized battle axes.
The ghoul pointed one hooked blade up at X. “Get him,” Caretaker rasped. The two heavies began their charge, moving at incredible speed on artificial legs. X fired the Rolling Mines at them, but the heavies leaped clear at the last moment.
“Fast learners,” X said as he ran to the right. Charging his standard cannon weapon, X was thrown back as the wrist-mounted ranged cyborg fired a concussion shell at him. The blast knocked him off of the hillock, reducing his kinetic shielding to eight percent. He would soon start taking damage if his shields weren’t given a chance to recover.
X climbed to his feet in time to sidestep one axe swing, only to have the other bite into his right leg. The energized edge only cut half an inch into his body plating, and he ended the threat with a Mega Buster Shot through the heavy’s chest. Diving backward, he fired five rapid shots at the other heavy, who fell back but remained standing.
X ducked a high horizontal swing and kicked out, tripping the second heavy. Another three rapid shots reduced that one’s head to a fine paste on the ground. He had no time for mercy or regrets; these cyborgs were out to kill him.
Human ingenuity caused X his next injury. One of the blaster-wielders came charging over the hillock, and X squared himself to shoot the female running at him. His first shot tore through her shoulder, but still she came, screaming like a banshee. A second shot smashed apart her leg, but she only kept hopping at him. X dashed forward to knock her flat for a kill shot, and as he closed, he saw the grenado held in her left hand.
The explosion flung him dozens of yards away. Deafened by the blast and now aching from shards of shrapnel piercing his body, scorched over a quarter of his body plating, X could not recall when last he’d been so battered. True, he’d only lost eighteen percent life force, but his kinetic shielding was down, he had sustained damage to his cannon and the servos in his left shoulder, and now his audio receptors were undergoing emergency auto-adjustment.
X groaned as he got up off the ground. Right away, out of pure programming instinct, he charged the Mega Buster Shot and fired it three times in the direction he’d last seen the cyborgs and their master. The first shot tore a clean path through the artificial turf. The second and third shots, half-charged streaks of yellow power, struck and killed two more of the cyborgs by their controller.
One cyborg and the mechanoid remained. X felt his kinetic shielding click back on, but it would only hold up to one projectile shot, at best. He dashed forward and left of the chute he’d created, charging his cannon.
As he came up over the hillock again, X tucked his shoulder down and dashed low, having felt the tremble of approaching footsteps. The result was a diving tackle on the last cyborg, its head wrapped muffled in the grip of his right arm. When he landed, it was with a sickening crunch as the cyborg’s neck was pulverized under his weight.
Caretaker’s first sickle blade rebounded off of X’s kinetic shield, saving his left foot from being cut into or off. They’d both come at him; the bot had been cautious, though, putting the foot soldier in the lead. X fired up at an angle, taking off the end of Caretaker’s raised right arm.
Caretaker screamed and lurched back, clutching the damaged appendage. Fluids dripped from the end of the wound, splashing the ground and discarded weapon. X regained his footing, firing two more standard shots, each absorbed by a translucent gray kinetic shield.
Caretaker roared, thrusting one long leg out, kicking X in the face. The lanky bot engaged its own dash thrusters on impact, blowing X back several yards. His shields hadn’t recovered; the right side of his face ached from the impact and burn, and the right optics were down thirty-percent functionality.
X switched over to his Needler secondary weapon, backing away and firing two of the energy pods skyward. Caretaker in turn opened a hatch on his left leg, and was drawing out a blaster of his own when the needles began raining down. The mechanoid howled in agony as his remaining kinetic shields came down and his body was pierced by dozens of the thin projectiles.
Pressing his advantage, X charged his Mega Buster Shot, and as Caretaker rose to take aim after the deluge of needles ended, the legendary Maverick Hunter unleashed the weapon. It streaked out, catching Caretaker full on the torso.
The smoke and fire from the impact dragged on for half a minute before X lowered his cannon. Twenty yards from where he’d been standing lay Caretaker, his head, arms and legs barely connected to narrow bands of twisted, scorched and broken metal and wiring. His head was turned to the left as X stalked up, looming over the ghoulish bot. As Caretaker rolled his head to look up at him, X could see the post mount of Caretaker’s artificial spine rolling in its socket port.
“Huh,” Caretaker wheezed. “You’re good at playing war. I, I don’t think, we’ll, get to play, any other, games, X.” X cringed back half a step. The voice coming from the ruined bot was that of a child. “Too bad. I like games.”
Caretaker’s head rolled back to the left, and the lights of his optics faded.