Orbous watched on his own monitors the last flicker of life flow out of Caretaker. Now only he and Paladin remained standing. It made a certain sense, when he thought about it. The ghoul-like bot had served his function in the master’s plans, so he was now done. Orbous himself would be next.

Of course, the arachnid-headed green mechanoid didn’t have the benefit of cyborg warriors at his side. When X showed up, the former Crystal Man would be entirely on his own. Not that he couldn’t handle it.

All of them had watched X’s VR training sessions. All of them knew what he was capable of. But only Orbous specialized in analysis, among them all. Only he could effectively use the knowledge they’d gleaned to its utmost. Thrash had been the only one to come close to understanding what that meant, and his impatience and ego had gotten him killed.

Poseidon wouldn’t have even stood as long as Caretaker, had he not been murdered by Thrash, and that was a fact. Orbous calculated that X would not have even reached Caretaker if Thrash and Poseidon had been around for X’s arrival.

But he could be wrong. After all, he’d already seen some unexpected maneuvers from the reploid, and adapting his defensive responses accordingly would be a challenge. Still, he had the whole level to wait yet.

X was making use of the maintenance chamber again before going through the exit gate in Caretaker’s showdown chamber, a smart move on X’s part. Orbous’s level of the compound was filled to the brim with combat bots of all kinds, as well as floor traps, sensor-based traps, system disruptors and hologram projectors.

And X had no choice but to face them next. The elevators he had access to now would only carry him to Orbous’s level.

Orbous watched the monitors, pincers clacking in anticipation.

 

This is a war, X thought, a war I do not want. But I will fight, because I must. It’s what I was designed for, to fight, to protect the human race, and my own. I did not seek this war.

As gruff as he’d been with humans in general over the last few years, X had never hated them, not as a species. He hated Mavericks, yes, but they weren’t a species either. And whatever Hephaestus and his kin called themselves, they were essentially robots that weren’t quite standard bots and not quite reploids either. They weren’t cyborgs, for that matter.

But oh, he’d come to hate them, too, just as much as the Mavericks. Hephaestus was cruel, twisted, and as mad as a hatter. Perhaps that was the unifying factor, he thought. Wily? Madman. Sigma? Madman. Hephaestus? Paint him with buckets of philosophy and he would still be nothing more than a madman.

So, X thought as the repairs were completed, it’s madmen I find myself hateful of in the end. All of the ones who don’t question the orders of madmen are just as bad themselves. X took a minute to test his internal systems, clearing out a couple of extraneous bugs he detected in his software, likely tacked on by the foreign system for record-keeping purposes.

He didn’t want anything in his programming that belonged to Hephaestus.

X returned to the faux cemetery, which was now lit like daytime. “Not really all that funny,” he muttered, stalking past the cyborg corpses. Caretaker, he noticed, looked a lot smaller under the brighter lights, frailer somehow. That one, he thought, that one was truly insane.

The exit gate ratcheted open when he stepped on a pressure plate a few feet in front of it. Beyond was a large freight elevator platform, a control box on the right side. X stepped over to it, and saw that there were several levels to select, yet all but one had been blacked out; level ‘O’.

“So many options,” X said, looking up into the shaft above. Yes, he thought, I can see drop ports. This elevator will begin to descend, and bots will drop down to try and attack me by surprise. Well, we’ll see about that. X switched his cannon to the Spark Gap, the turned and hit the ‘O’ button.

The gate shut, shaft lights turned on, and the elevator began its steady descent. X watched the platform’s floor, and when he saw half a dozen shadows starting to spread, he fired the Spark Gap downward. No sooner did the giant mechanical spiders hit the platform than they were electrocuted and dropped prone to the surface. X fired another shot at each wall of the shaft, and eight more of the oversized arachnids thumped lifelessly onto the elevator.

A minute later the elevator came to a halt, and another gate rose on a vast chamber of green steel panels and what appeared to be mounds of metal shaped like miniature towers. Robotic ants half his size began clambering out of the holes fronting these, and X set to work attacking them.

Though they came in waves of four or five, it only took X a couple of minutes to destroy them and their deployment turrets. He stalked toward a gap in the floor midway across the room, peering down. The gap went down about fifteen feet, and stretched from one end of the chamber to the other width-wise.

The gap was only about eight feet across. He could easily dash-jump it. X took a few measured steps back, giving himself room to maneuver. He kicked on his dash thrusters, braced his lead foot, and hurled himself forward.

When he was halfway across the gap, the tractor beam in the ceiling locked him in place, then threw him back. He flew several dozen feet, tumbling as he hit the floor. He sprang up, shook his head, and looked to the ceiling in time to see a long, narrow white device fold up and roll back to its position over the gap in the room.

A section of the floor to his left flipped over, revealing small explosive packets. X rolled away, but when he got back up, he saw that they hadn’t detonated. They were covered by another bubble of orange energy. He didn’t know quite what to make of that.

Behind him, another panel flipped over. X moved toward the gap again, and looked over his shoulder to find that several more floor panels were now covered in explosives.

“Oh, fun,” he groused. X prepared to dash jump again, aiming his cannon skyward. This time, as he jumped, he fired up, but his shot was just wide of the tractor beam device.

This time when he landed, he was blasted almost up to the ceiling. He came back down in a trail of smoke with a “Hmmmph!” His kinetic shielding was down entirely, and he’d suffered first-level scorching on most of his back. His life force energy only took a four percent drop, but if he didn’t wait for his kinetic shields to recover, another blast could well do significant damage.

X sat up and looked around. One of the deployment turrets he’d destroyed had been on the other side of the gap, and he stared at it now, wondering how those ants had gotten over towards him. “The tractor beam wouldn’t target them,” he reasoned aloud.

X changed tack, firing one of the Needler shots up over the gap. Sure enough, the tractor beam engaged, tossing the Needler ball back out over another set of explosives. It bounced harmlessly off of the orange shielding, however.

X stood up and walked carefully over to where one of the ant-bots lay in a heap. He kicked it over onto its back and examined it slowly, until his eyes locked onto its legs.

“Bingo,” he said, reaching down and snapping off two of the legs. Powerful magnetic plates were screw-mounted onto the ants’ legs, allowing them to resist the pull of the tractor beam. X used all of his strength to bend the leg poles to wrap around his feet, and then ventured to the edge of the gap.

He floated one foot out and quickly angled his leg down. He repeated this with the other leg, and felt the pull of the beam on him. But he held in place firmly, walking down into the gap ever so slowly, then across and up the other side. When he cleared the gap, the tractor beam shut down, and the large double doors leading forward swung open.

Before X removed the magnetic plates from his feet, he peered ahead. “Oh, what fun,” he groaned.

 

“Not exactly what I expected you to do, X,” Hephaestus said, watching the monitor. “You are far more adaptable than records alone would imply.” For the first time since X had arrived, the mechanoid once called Metal Man wondered if perhaps he’d grossly underestimated X.

He wondered if Paladin would escape in time to carry on his work.

 

The chamber X was now looking at had a single grated walkway, suspended over a trench of molten metal. Swooping through the tunnel-like chamber at oddly spaced intervals were enormous pendulum blades, back and forth, back and forth. And the coup de grace? He could just make out little green laser sensors at ankle-height on either side of those pendulum slots.

This, he decided, would possibly be trouble. But X wasn’t racing against a clock. He had the time to figure things out. The heat from the molten material caked everything in a hellish rusty red glow, but he could tell from the swoop of the side of the tunnel that the pool was shallow. Good sign there.

The pendulums weren’t encased in any of the orange barrier force, and that was probably also a good thing. X activated a Rolling Mine and fired it out. As it closed on the first walkway gap, it hit the green laser and was pushed by a concentrated burst of thrusters mounted to the grated walkway’s underside forward. It was sliced neatly in two.

X tried the Spark Gap, but the laser sensor’s rigging absorbed the electricity without any notable problem. X took a few steps toward the sensor, knelt down, and activated the Frost Shield. Within a few moments, the entire section of walkway was covered in ice. X jumped up and down on the walkway, and the sensor rigging fell off into the molten chute below.

“One problem down,” he muttered to himself. The pendulum appeared to be fixed to a beam leading up into a wide shaft, too dark to see up into. X couldn’t risk a blind shot up there; he had no way of knowing what additional trouble he might get himself into if the pendulum suddenly came down.

But, he thought, I should be able to stop it. He switched to the Spark Gap, and as the blade came by, he fired at it. The electricity ran up the beam, and he heard a satisfying groan from the motor that swung the pendulum.

Over the course of forty minutes he repeated the process six more times, clearing the chamber without incident.

 

Orbous was on the verge of panic. This was not the sort of methodology he’d come to expect from X’s history and the VR sessions. X was a warrior, a brute savage in a high-tech body! Why had he suddenly turned thoughtful and cautious?

If the reploid continued on in this fashion, mindful of his environment, disabling traps and passing them by with minimal harm, then Orbous would be slain in a hurry. He wasn’t designed to be a combat specialist. Like Caretaker, Orbous could fight well enough against lesser opponents, but against the more capable Hunters or X, he didn’t stand a chance.

There were still several rooms between he and X. Perhaps, he mused, I’ll get lucky and he’ll make a mistake.

 

X reacted out of sheer instinct, falling over backwards and firing straight up into the underbelly of the enormous mechanical wasp as it passed overhead. When he’d opened the man-sized door leading on from the pendulum tunnel, he felt a tripwire snap against the door, and the fall and shot came without a thought.

Suspended from a vaulted ceiling in the center of an enormous room modeled on some sort of flowered field, there hung a huge metal wasps’ nest, a dozen or so warrior wasps crawling about its cratered surface.

X sat up, cannon arm held out, but he did not otherwise move. The wasps paid him no mind at the moment, making their slow, lazy circuits into and out of the hive. He considered charging a Mega Buster Shot and firing it up to the thin beam holding the nest in place, but something in the air under the nest caught his eye.

Four thin tripwires hung just below the nest, each one leading off to segmented panels in the walls that would drop open if the wires were broken. He attempted to use his x-ray vision filter, but much of the panelling had been altered to resist such efforts.

Not all of it, though. A series of tunnels under the floor of the room snaked about, and X could see dozens of those giant mechanical spiders laying in wait, the kind he’d destroyed on the freight elevator.

So, if the nest came down, the room would flood with the spiders and whatever wasps didn’t die in the crash of the nest. If he tried to dash his way through, he would be swarmed from above by wasp bots. There would be no avoiding a fight.

“But it doesn’t have to be on their terms,” X muttered. He switched his targeting to sniper mode, zooming in on one of the tripwires. He kept it in focus and slowly stepped back onto the last grated walkway in the pendulum tunnel.

When he was barely able to line up his shot, X fired. One of the tripwires snapped, and he heard the barrier panel fall away with a thud. Immediately he launched two Rolling Mines and put up the Frost Shield.

Two explosions rocked the ground seconds later, and ten seconds later the first of the spiders came trammeling through the doorway at him. It froze almost solid within a few feet of him, and X reached out with his hands and grasped its two foremost legs, twisting at the hips and tossing it over the side of the walkway into the molten chute.

It barely twitched as it melted. The next eight suffered the same fate, and none of the wasps made a move to come out and interfere.

Slow but steady, X thought with a grin, preparing to repeat the process.

 

“Patterns will be the death of me,” Orbous groaned, watching on the monitor as X dispatched the last of the spiders. The green mechanoid had no direct control over the combat drones, all of which, being simple machines at their core, behaved within preprogrammed parameters. There was no getting around the fact that a thoughtful X could dispatch most of the drones with no problem.

Orbous watched helplessly as X fired a Mega Buster Shot upward, bringing the hive crashing down. He then crouched in the doorway and held a steady flamethrower stream towards the few surviving wasps, all of which perished before reaching him.

Only three rooms remained until X arrived in the gate corridor.

 

X walked around the felled nest, giving it a wide berth in case any of the wasps inside were still functional and trying to crawl out. The door to the next chamber was another man-sized portal, and he kicked it open and dashed to the right, weapon at the ready.

Nothing came flying out. Instead, X peeked around the corner to find a small round chamber, a strange sphinx statue dominating the center. On the other side of the statue was another door, this one covered in an energy barrier. The statue stood on a raised pedestal, the front of which was a blank touchscreen.

X stepped into the room, and the door slammed shut behind him. A force barrier went up over it, locking him in. The sphinx’s mouth grated up and down as a booming voice rang out. “Behold, I am the sphinx, and this is my challenge, X! Ready yourself to answer my riddles, or suffer the consequences.”

“Well, this should be interesting,” X mused aloud.

“Prepare for my first riddle! X, I am the beginning of my kind, yet not the first slain. Of great power and strength, yet naught could I do from afar. Who am I?”

X thought about that, cycling through his internal database. He stared up at the sphinx, which bore the mark of Dr. Wily on its chest. X smiled.

“You are Guts Man,” X replied.

“Correct! Three more correct answers, and you may move on. Now, are you ready?”

“I am.”

“Useless by most means, the ultimate power in the end. The weakness of close range, the oddity of function. What am I?” X blinked rapidly, confounded by the prompt. What was useless but an ultimate power? Not a who, a what. X considered all of the weapons of the Robot Masters, but found that he could think only of most of the shield weapons Megaman had adapted over the years. None was what he’d consider an ultimate power.

“You have thirty seconds,” the sphinx intoned. X gripped his head, trying to think. With ten seconds left, he blurted an answer.

“The Top Spin Attack!” It made sense to him. A melee attack, it forced Megaman to get too close to his enemies, yet Wily had overlooked it when designing his final bot of that campaign.

“Correct,” the sphinx said. “Two more and you may leave unmolested. Now, the next riddle. Golden treasure within, yet no lock, no lid. Delightful when fresh, dreadful when not. What am I?”

X scoured through his database, but found nothing there of a hint. He tried to connect himself to an external network, but his signal was blocked within the room. He had no guess when the sphinx let out a buzzing sound.

“The answer, X, was an egg.” X heard metal sliding against metal. He looked up, and saw a large circular saw blade descend from the ceiling on a transteel armature. The blade began spinning, and the armature rolled along a track toward him.

X began running around the statue, firing back blindly at the armature. Still the blade came, the armature swerving back and forth to evade his shots, until finally the saw bit into his backside, chewing through the kinetic shield and an inch of body plating before disappearing back into the ceiling.

X stopped running, rubbing his wounded ass. “That was unpleasant,” he murmured.

“Next question,” boomed the sphinx. “I have an eye, but cannot see. A master of style and fashion is me. No clothing worn can ever be, without the presence one barely sees. What am I?”

X cycled through his civilian data and catalogues, combing hundreds of stored literary references in his databank in seconds. Finally, he snapped his fingers.

“A needle!”

“Correct,” boomed the sphinx. “One more, and you can go forward. Look to the screen.” X watched as a series of small numbers showed up on the screen, one through one-hundred. “Prime the pump, and leave out the core when you do it.” X shook his head. What sort of oddity was this? “You have one minute.”

Nothing like racing the clock, X thought. He might have been more bleak about this challenge, but the riddle held its own clue. Numbers, he thought. Prime numbers! He began tapping the prime numbers on the screen, and when he had them all highlighted, he reached for a button marked ‘enter’.

He stopped himself with twenty seconds remaining. “Leave out the core,” he muttered. He looked up at the sphinx, a grin slowly spreading across his face. X reached down and removed the highlight on ’51’, a number often used as a base when assembling basic robot programming cores. It was the number of actions a standard bot could undertake without fine tuning.

X hit the ‘enter’ key.

“Correct! You may proceed,” the sphinx boomed. The barrier around the door leading on dropped away, and X made his way to it, opening it on another tunnel-like chamber. Three hundred yards long, there were several raised platforms suspended by anti-gravity pods floating about. The floor itself only stretched out about fifty yards, falling away to spiked electrodes lining the rest of the floor.

Dangling down from the high ceiling were several yellow and black spider bots, which climbed up their nylon threads and out of sight. X would have to jump from platform to platform, avoiding the spiders and whatever weapons they employed, as well as any other unseen traps along the way.

Just great, he thought. X had faced several rooms like this one over the years fighting Sigma, his Mavericks employing such pitfalls into their controlled zones. But Hephaestus wasn’t Sigma, and his henchmen weren’t Mavericks. These foes were far more clever than that.

X had rarely been forced to think so much during his battles against Sigma and his legions. He realized with a start that if he’d taken the time then to think things through, he likely could have carved through Sigma’s campaigns with little effort.

He supposed he might have to thank the former Metal Man for reminding him that he was a logical, thinking reploid, not a barbarian. X started toward the first platform, which didn’t move, but just hung in place. He jumped up on it, cannon charged and ready for any of the spiders to come out.

As he jumped forward to the next stationary platform, a spider came down almost right in front of him. With a yelp X fired, and the explosion drove him back and all the way to the solid floor, tumbling away. He hadn’t expected the spider bots to explode like that; most bots didn’t. He’d taken a hammering, but his kinetic shields held, reduced to thirty percent capacity.

If he’d fallen into the electrodes, it would be a different story. He would once again have to out-think his adversaries. X considered his thrusters, but he knew they couldn’t sustain him in the air long enough to cross the chamber entirely. He wished suddenly that he’d worn a flight pack to the Manor.

The only option he could think of was to try and goad the spiders into coming down at him so he could destroy them from a distance. However, they seemed to be programmed, if the first one was any indication, to only descend from hiding if he got close.

X could always try to speed his way through, avoiding the spiders altogether and trying to outrun/out-jump their attacks. But he doubted he had the speed for that. His Frost Shield wouldn’t freeze them over fast enough in mid-air to render them a non-threat either.

X jumped up onto the first stationary platform, then onto the second one. The first moving platform was on its path away from him at the moment, so X took a look toward the ceiling. Two hatches stood an inch or two open, a mechanical spider laying in wait above.

If he jumped forward, they would fall on him quickly. If he tried to fire a Mega Buster Shot at them in mid-leap, the explosion of hitting them might well throw him past the moving platform down to the electrodes.

For all of his speed, durability, combat efficiency and wit, X was at an impasse. He could think of no way to minimize the risk of injury. The design of the chamber may have appeared simple, but simple setups often provided the fewest methods of traversing them.

X jumped forward as the moving platform drew near, firing a charged Mega Buster Shot overhead. The two mechanical spiders exploded only a foot from their hatches, and the force of the blast came down at X in a wave.

He would have been thrown clear to the electrodes below, but X’s right hand snapped out in time to catch the edge of the moving platform. Dangling over the side, X looked down eight or nine feet to the electrodes, watching as they hummed with power. He grunted, hauling himself up onto the platform. His kinetic shields held at twenty-five percent.

He could feasibly wait on the platform while his shields recovered, but he didn’t want to waste time. Three more moving platforms hovered between X and solid floor, and he wanted to be through the chamber quickly.

A thought occurred to him as he was readying himself to make a dashing jump. The electrodes on the floor below him would jolt him if he fell, causing sustained, steady damage. Couldn’t they do the same to the spider-bots? X left his cannon uncharged, aimed up at another pair of ceiling hatches as he timed his dash-jump.

In mid-air, as the spiders dropped down at him, X shot at the strands of synthetic webbing holding the bots. The lines disintegrated easily, and as he descended toward the moving platform, the spider-bots flailed their legs, falling to the electrodes below where they thrashed about helplessly.

They stopped functioning in less than three seconds, and neither exploded. X repeated the process two more times, and won his way clear to the end of the chamber. A tall gate opened for him as he pushed a green panel next to it, letting him into the next chamber.

Orbous had been watching X carefully all along, trying to find a weakness, an exploitable soft spot. The Maverick Hunter showed none, though, short of occassional impatience. For Orbous, it was time to face facts; he was going to die in just a short bit.

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