Hephaestus wished for just a moment that Paladin had taken the chance to kill X. His right-hand man might have been fatally wounded in the process, but at least X would no longer be a factor.
Hephaestus had badly underestimated Paladin’s combat prowess before X’s arrival on the island. Knowing now that he could have been rid of X and carried on Wily’s work himself, the crimson-and-white mechanoid shook his head and grumbled.
No time for that now, though. He readied his weapons and defensive systems, and gripped his round saw blade. A flick of his left hand dismissed the hovering holo-monitors, and the whir of the elevator system drummed from beyond the throne room.
There had been another repair station chamber accessible as X dragged himself and his arm off of the elevator from the rear of Paladin’s chamber. It was a small bay, attached to a large display chamber, in which stood various models of completed cyborgs.
The repairs had been excruciating. The final station hadn’t even attempted to put him into a standby mode, pulling and cutting and reinserting and soldering without pause. His right arm was snapped back into its anchor mounts without the slightest pause once new mounts were riveted into place.
It was akin to complete body reconstruction surgery on a human without the benefit of any anesthetic.
After sitting on the only chair in the room for half an hour to recover from the pain and discomfort of the repairs, X headed into the display room. Most of the scale model units shown were crude, basic things, all tending towards a combative nature. But the model near the blast door standing opposite the elevator entryway was different.
A tall, blonde male with a brush cut, this last cyborg appeared to be wearing some kind of purple bodysuit, a bulky thing with silver lines along the arms and legs. An index card sat next to it, like all of the others, proclaiming it the ‘Powerhouse Combat Set’. Unlike all the others, whose designers were listed as Dr. Wily, this one said ‘Hephaestus’ next to the prompt ‘Designed By’.
It was dated a month earlier. “Busy boy,” X commented, grasping the handle of the blast door and spinning the wheel. Inside stood a throne room as the door swung inward, and up on a raised platform, on his throne of fused bones, resided Hephestus himself.
X’s first thought when he entered was, He’s even larger here than in the holograms. Looking like a cross of Metal Man’s original design and Zero, the crimson and white mechanoid rose regally from his seat, which sank on a hidden lift into the floor.
“X,” Hephaestus intoned, saw blade held up to his left shoulder, ready to be thrown.
“Hephaestus. I have questions.”
“I thought you might,” said the mechanoid, lowering its weapon slowly. “Please, proceed.”
“I just saw your latest,” X said, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. “If you have a working design, why aren’t you making them?”
“Ah, yes, the Powerhouse. Well, I can’t build any of the superior designs yet. My production facilities didn’t have the necessary energy to get the job done. The engines at the plant require nuclear energy.”
“We would have detected unknown nuclear activity,” X interrupted.
“If we were enriching our own material, yes, you would have. That’s why I needed to steal those warheads.”
“Wait, what? Then, the missile threat?”
“A ruse, largely. Oh, I would have launched a few, to show you I was serious, but by now all of those warheads have been transferred to the production plant for use as fuel cells to power the systems.” X shook his head, incredulous.
“Wait, then why draw me here?”
“Hopefully to recruit you to my cause, to make you see that the perfect balance of man and machine, the true cyborg, is mankind’s future. To help you see that they cannot evolve any further without the help of Dr. Wily’s vision, the harmony of combining soul and spark! And failing that, to keep you out of the way,” Hephaestus said, the furor and passion draining from his voice. “With Zero on the moon and you occupied here, the first Powerhouse units should be completed well before anyone even notices a problem.”
“The other Hunters will find your plant and level it,” X snarled.
“Not with Paladin defending it,” Hephaestus countered with a sneer in his tone. “You know firsthand how potent he is. Your Hunters don’t stand a chance.”
X began charging his cannon, slowly taking a combat-ready stance. “Mankind isn’t ready to take up Wily’s way. There’s no reason to try to force them into it.”
“We must,” Hephaestus roared, bringing the saw blade up. “The ignorant masses who refuse the change are not worthy of knowing the bliss of Wily’s perfection! If they resist, they deserve to perish!”
Blast and blade flew, missing one another by scant inches. The Mega Buster Shot was easily absorbed by Hephaestus’s own powerful kinetic shields, while his whirring saw blade cut through X’s and tore a shallow gash in his left side.
X dashed backwards as Hephaestus followed up with a downward strike from an energy blade of emerald force. A copy of the Z-Saber in all but color, the weapon cut easily into the floor, tearing up a large chunk of the floor as he removed the blade, holding it out to his side.
X fired three rapid shots, each deflected by the green saber. Walking backwards, he continued firing on the larger bot, a single shot for each step he took. Hephaestus stood in place, keeping the flat of the energy blade facing X, twitching it only slightly to either side to absorb all of X’s shots.
On the fifth such shot, Hephaestus switched his grip and batted the energy bullet back at X, who successfully dashed aside from the reflected shot. However, as he dashed, so too did the larger mechanoid, and Hephaestus brought his saber around in a savage cross-body slash.
The edge of the saber caught X along the right side of his chest, cutting a quarter of an inch deep. His audio receptors on the right flared up from the blade’s energy signature, further rocking his stumbling steps. Hephaestus wheeled around and stabbed out, but X shifted all of his kinetic shielding to his right arm and used it to clash against the saber, batting it aside.
Hephaestus step-kicked out at X, but the smaller reploid ducked down and pushed inward, shoving his cannon into the other bot’s gut and firing four rapid shots. Hephaestus was blown back, his shields hammered aside and the last two shots hitting him clean.
His armor was scorched, but still intact. X jumped back, launching a Needler before landing. He turned to run as Hephaestus shrieked in a mix of rage and pain. X risked a look back over his shoulder, a grin starting to curl his lip.
The grin died when he saw the other bot chasing after, still roaring as sliver-like needles pelted him from above. No pain would impede him. As X turned in mid-stride, shooting a Spark Gap, Hephaestus hurled himself through the air, activating his boot thrusters as his fists aimed out at X.
The result was Hephaestus landing a twisting downward punch to X’s forehead that cracked part of his helmet off and threw him back a dozen yards to the floor. X groaned as he sat up, Hephestus already recovering and opening a panel on his own left shoulder. A snub-nosed missile popped out, launching at X as the reploid made to gain his feet.
X fired out of instinct. Had he been thinking more clearly, he would have just run or rolled aside. The missile exploded on impact with his energy bullet, heat, flames and shrapnel sleeting out at him. His kinetic shields, already low, were wiped out and dozens of small gouges, scrapes and scorch marks peppered his transteel armor. Only a few holes went through to his interior, and the heat from the blast was playing hell with his mobility boards, but X managed to get up and stumble out of the smoke in time to avoid another attack by Hephaestus, another missile launched where he’d been lying on the floor.
X charged his cannon and fired blindly into the black cloud. A crashing sound accompanied a shout from Hephaestus, and through the clearing smoke, X could see he’d landed a blind-siding shot. Plates of metal armor flew as the other bot rolled away, his saber lying inactive where he’d been shot.
X dash-leapt to the weapon, and no sooner scooped it up then a knee rocketed at his face. The blow sent him skyward, and as he fell, still clutching the saber in his right hand, another kick in the side hurled him away.
His mobility drive had been crushed by the second kick. The entire right side of his torso from armpit to hip had been completely smashed in. X felt his systems crying out; ‘not again’, they seemed to say. He groaned, trying to stand, and that was when Hephaestus came up behind him and lifted him around the waist with his huge, powerful arms.
Hephaestus was squeezing with all of his might, and X howled, thrashing in agony from his already mauled right side. “I will KILL you,” Hephaestus was shrieking, applying still more pressure on the legendary Maverick Hunter’s battered body. “For the glory of Wily, I will kill you!”
X’s eyes locked then onto the saber for a moment. In that briefest space of time, he recalled a conversation he’d had once with Zero. The blade-wielding warrior, who he called brother, had been telling him about an ancient ritual tied to the weapon his own saber was based upon, the wakizashi. In feudal Japan, Zero said, samurai who had been dishonored would stab themselves in the gut with this blade, killing themselves, but regaining their honor by doing so.
So X did just that, thumbing the button on the saber, using the adjustable beam selector (like the one on Zero’s weapon) and committing the initial stab of hari-kiri. The blade carved a vicious path through his body, barely missing vital boards and wires and servos.
Hephaestus, whose face was pressed right against X’s back in the lethal bearhug, wasn’t so lucky. The blade, which X had narrowed to the size of a normal sword, plunged easily into Hephaestus’s rounded face plate, tearing through the armoring, the optics, and ripping through his central processing unit. The blade punched out the back of his own helmet-like head by an inch. As X deactivated the weapon, he fell with a grunt from Hephaestus’s limp arms.
X staggered up to his feet, holding his gut. He turned toward Hephaestus, who spasmed as he dropped to his knees. The compartment on his own belly dropped open, spilling out five more saw blades. X took one in hand, and as Hephaestus’s optics flickered back online for a few moments, looking up at him, X smiled.
“In the name, of Doctor, Light,” X said, grabbing the top of Hephaestus’s head and swinging the saw blade through his neck. The head cut away clean, clenched in X’s left hand as the body dropped to the floor.
X dropped next, not ten seconds later.
X came to a fuzzy form of consciousness just long enough to realize he was being carried. He blinked up at the simian face of Swing Gollit, who offered him a grim smile. He tried to speak, but nothing came out.
“When the big guy back there died, the energy barrier that had been keeping us out dropped. We managed to pick up the human survivors on the beach, though most of them are not exactly the most desirable sorts.”
“He, phae, stus,” X managed.
“Yeah, we’re bringing him along, what’s left of him. We’d have Doc Veris examine him, if that were still an option, but it ain’t. Doc’s a rogue element. Caught him on surveillance in your office wasting that cop friend of yours, Marlow. Veris is a cyborg, turns out. And the leader of the Cult of Wily.”
X heard all of this, but nothing else as he slipped into the ether.
Waking up again, but this time X didn’t feel any of the pain of his prior awakening. He’d been repaired, and the first face he now saw belonged to Zero. “Hello, brother,” the crimson reploid said with a gentle smile. “Glad to see you’re back.”
X had been in a stand-by state for seven days, it turned out. His entire body had been repaired after thirteen hours of extensive work, including a complete overhaul of his tactile nervous wiring. His motor function boards had been almost entirely pulverized. Rotors and pistons in all of his joints had been battered and bent out of shape. His targeting system had been burnt out, and his life force energy had been reduced to eight percent. He’d only ever been closer to death once before.
Yet despite his full repairs and recovery, his spark had remained away, keeping his systems in a state of standby. X couldn’t recall what had happened to him during that time spent as a wandering spirit. He suspected it had been something important, though, something he would have to call back to.
During his comatose state, several strange power signatures had been picked up on global sensor systems, but they had been brief and had disappeared entirely after only three days. X knew what that meant, but the Hunters’ systems hadn’t been able to pin down a source.
All of the nuclear launch sites had been abandoned after the death of Hephaestus, the warheads unaccounted for. This news put every human government on edge, but nobody did anything rash, thankfully.
X had watched security footage from his own hidden office camera after being briefed by Zero about all of this. Sure enough, there was Dr. Veris, using a cybernetic arm blaster to turn Jasper Marlow’s head into so much meat paste. X had forgotten all about the little spy camera he’d installed on his desk. It was shaped like an original Megaman head, a novelty item meant to give the impression that X had a sense of humor.
There was nothing humorous here.
X held a meeting with Zero, Axl, Swing Gollit, and Triclaw the day after he was cleared to return to duty. During that meeting, he told them about Hephaestus’s plans, taking special care to warn them about Paladin. When they heard he had a Buster Cannon of his own, all four reploids shook their heads.
There would be trouble ahead.
X dismissed them, though Zero stayed behind. Standing next to one another, the two reploids stared out over the city, each one wondering when the next attack would come.
Each wondered if the Hunters would be ready for all-out war.
And each knew the humans were not.
To be continued…