Anxiety was a new feeling for Naomi. Until the accident, her life had been safer than most; she had good parents who doted on her and her two younger brothers, and who had always provided everything she needed. She had never thought of herself as spoiled, but life had been comfortable, if not extravagant. When Adric came into her life—well, face it, he had always been there; Calbania was a small island, and San Luce was an even smaller town—it was like stepping from one lighted room to another with no darkness between.
There was darkness now, and anxiety too, though she wasn’t ready to call it fear yet. Since awakening, hours ago, she had not seen Adric at all. Deep inside, she suspected—no, she knew—that he had not survived the process of becoming a Megaman. In all the dark moments since the accident, precious few though they were, she had never considered the possibility that only one of them would make it. She had faced the possibility, upon waking in the room with Bridge, that both of them would die, but the Ambassador unit’s words had been a lifeboat in a sea of turmoil; she had clung to the promise that they would live. Now, the prospect of living on forever—she too had studied her internal reports—without Adric seemed worse than any kind of death.
“Megaman Nova?” With a start, Naomi realized that it was the third time the voice had spoken. She turned and saw Megaman Vitala standing in the doorway. The Medical Assistance unit (“nurse,” her mind insisted) looked entirely human, but there were giveaways; for one, she was female, but androgynous in nearly every way. Short hair, no breasts to speak of, only the faintest ghost of curvature at her hips—this was a woman who would never excite any sexual passion in a man. Although she was clearly an adult, the effect was like looking at a child, one you wanted to protect. Naomi was no fool; knowing the little she had gleaned about Kattelox Island and the Gammas from which she herself had, ostensibly, sprung, she was certain that Vitala’s asexuality was intentional. It wouldn’t pay to suppress the gammas’ personalities until they reached adulthood—a fact she found somehow repulsive—only to light a fire in the sex drive just as they became Megamen.
There was another indication that the woman wasn’t human; it was the telltale look of supreme, supernatural patience on her face as Naomi failed to respond. Again, for the millionth time, Naomi realized just how careful she would have to be in this new life. A wrong word or response would bring suspicion on her, she was sure. She didn’t know what would happen if she was found out, but she had a feeling that it would not be pleasant.
Better get it over with. “Yes?”
Vitala’s expression remained the same. “Now that your training is complete, I am here to take you to the armor laboratory for grafting. Follow me, please.” She turned and glided out the door, leaving Naomi—Nova, she reminded herself—no choice but to follow. That was they way of the System, Nova was discovering: efficient, to the point, and not given to unnecessary talk.
Kattelox Island was enormous. The entire facility, from what Nova could tell, was underground, with only its as-yet-unseen entrances breaking the surface. Vitala led her through miles of corridor (“2.751 miles,” said a display in her mind) before finally arriving at the armor lab. Along the way, they passed several other medical labs, the mechanization sector in which she had first awakened, and numerous small recharging stations where, she learned, the lower-class units came to charge their power cells, as they were not equipped with the same fusion units as their higher-level counterparts.
En route, her anxiety only intensified. Where was Adric? If he was still alive, she had seen no sign of it. She knew that there were other mechanization units, other training areas, and so forth; it was possible that he had awakened elsewhere; the problem was that she had no way to know. Even if she had known what name they had given him, it would raise any number of red flags if a newly awakened unit started asking questions about another newly awakened unit. Or would it? Perhaps the Gammas knew their names before they were mechanized—perhaps, possibly, these names were the only names the Gammas ever had. But, even if that were true, how could she know whether they were supposed to have been…crèche-mates, for want of a better word? Surely there was a back-story that Bridge or one of his converts had fabricated for them, but she didn’t know it. Moreover, did the Gammas even feel anything toward each other, or were their personalities too suppressed for even that humanity?
Despite all of that, she was on the verge of asking, anyway, even though her questions would have been so vague and generalized as to be useless. She was forestalled by their arrival at the armor lab.
The lab was dark, the first dark chamber she had seen. The long left wall was lined with large monitors and consoles, most of which were manned. The units seated there were humanoid, but with translucent skin that glowed with a pale blue light; silver tracework ran from their heads, down their shoulders, and onto their hands, terminating in long silver filaments that fanned out over their fingers, playing over their consoles at all times. The filaments seemed to be accomplishing more than the workers’ hands; the panels lit up in response to their gossamer touch. Nova supposed that the units were androids; she couldn’t imagine any modification that would cause a human body to look like that. Her suspicion was confirmed when Vitala caught her stare. “Operator units, third class,” she stated. Not third class alpha, Nova noted, therefore she was correct; they were android, not cyborg.
Nova turned her attention to the opposite wall, where there was a row of strange arrays. They looked like medical tables, but lower, perhaps only two feet from the floor. Suspended above each table was a black metal rack, medieval and wicked. It had a series of hardpoints fitted with restraints that would fit a human body at a number of points—the temples, the neck, the lower ribs, the pelvis, each knee, each ankle, and each foot. Sensors—or what appeared to be sensors—were slung at each corner of the rack, and a rat’s nest of wires and cables ran off in all directions. Nova felt a ripple of fear just looking at it.
The fear vanished in an instant when she saw the figure sitting on the edge of the second table, feet stretched out comically in front of him. It was Adric.
He rose in one smooth motion, without using his hands for support—a feat not remarkable, but notable for the fact that it was not entirely human. She knew, then, that he too had survived the procedure unscathed. He was still Adric, but he was now a Megaman, too.
He extended a hand to her, as if they were meeting for the first time. “Greetings. I am Megaman Tracer, Purifier unit first class alpha.”
“And I am Megaman Nova, also a Purifier unit first class alpha.” She shook his hand, and a surge of feelings swept through her. Concentrate, she willed herself. If she broke now, they would both suffer; she knew they had to act like strangers, but it was so hard. “ It is good to meet you; I see that you, too, are newly awakened.” At least, it was hard for her; Adric—Tracer—didn’t seem to be having any trouble. Somewhere inside her, a warning bell went off.
“Indeed. It seems we are both here to receive our armor.” He smiled. “I have heard that it is a somewhat painful experience. Also, it must be endured, as pain responses must be active in order to ensure a successful graft. I am…hesitant about the experience.”
“I, as well.” Painful? It was the first she had heard of that, although those racks looked like they could easily render some pain. “How can we bear it, then?”
“Perhaps we can take comfort in knowing that we are each not alone.” He glanced at Vitala, then back at Nova. “It is good to have a partner with which to share a burden.”
Naomi felt a knot loosen in her heart, one that she hadn’t even recognized. He hasn’t changed, she thought. He’s only covering up. And I had better learn to do the same.
“It is time,” Vitala announced, interrupting them. “Please disrobe and lie down on the tables.” She stepped back from the foot of the tables and linked her hands behind her back, maintaining her characteristically patient look. Tracer glanced at her again, then tugged the collar of his tunic over his head.
Not willing to hesitate—even modesty could be dangerous here—Nova pulled off her own tunic and dropped it in a bin at the foot of the table. Before lying down, she glanced at Adric’s naked form, already lying down on his own table. She knew every mark on him, every old scar, every freckle; now, studying him, she saw no scars from the accident, no evidence of the terrible trauma they had endured. When her eyes met his, she knew he had been watching her, as well, and thinking the same thing—among other things, undoubtedly, a thought that nearly made her blush.
Fiercely, she suppressed that line of thought. Tragic though it was, she knew they would never again be as husband and wife. The best they could hope for was to serve together. Still, after lying down, she reached out on an impulse—and felt his hand slip into hers. Only a momentary squeeze, no more than one could expect for encouragement from any sympathetic party, but she carried it with her into the pain that, very shortly, made itself known.
A door opened at the far end of the room, opposite the door Nova had entered. A line of units marched in and arrayed themselves around each bed, three to a side, and one at each end. She recognized them from the walk to the lab as Technician units, fourth class; they were distinctive because, although they were humanoid, they were not in any way human; they were metal-skinned and finished in a metallic blue, and each was fitted with four arms, but only one eye. They stood still for a moment; then, at some unheard signal, they sprang into sudden action. With their lower arms, they lifted her as effortlessly as if she were paper, hoisting her to about two feet off the table. She heard a hum as the black rack descended, and then it was around her. Using their upper arms, the Technicians quickly fastened the restraints around her at all the proper points; then they filed out to the middle of the room and assembled in a tight formation, waiting. There was a series of clicks as the restraints sealed themselves, and Nova was left dangling in the heart of the rack.
What happened next was a blur of frenzied activity. Nova could only see what was occurring above her, but the noises she could hear from below told her that a mirror image was being performed there, as well. She watched as the lights of diagnostic sensors played over her body, one after another in rapid succession. They did not scan her entire body; rather, they seemed to be moving over one part at a time, but in no comprehensible sequence. For every part that was scanned, another beam cut the space above her, plaiting lines of energy with hazy, electric force fields to mold the shapes of the corresponding pieces of armor. Nozzles rotated into position and filled the molds with shimmering liquids in a rainbow of colors. As each piece was completed, a small hovering sensor eye flitted around it like a hummingbird around a flower; if it found the piece unsatisfactory, new nozzles came and siphoned out the liquids, and more liquids were poured. If the piece was acceptable, the eye landed on it; with a whump like a tiny explosion, it released a burst of energy into the piece, and took off again. The piece crackled with blue lightning, then took on a sharpness and solidity it had not possessed before. The, it would ripple back into liquid form, and the mold would drop down and make contact with Naomi’s bare skin. The mold would wink out, and the liquid would pour into place—or rise, if from beneath her—before reforming into the armor section. Whenever this happened at a point where she was restrained, the restraint would snap open, withdraw, and close again over the piece, all in a matter of two or three seconds.
The entire process was like a cloud of bees buzzing around her. The armor came together piece by disjointed piece, without any apparent plan. Nova nearly forgot about all of that, however, the instant the first drop of liquid touched her; it was like liquid fire burning the skin from her. For the second time that day, she found herself screaming. Inside her mind, she fumbled for the command that would shut off her pain sensations, but she found it blocked. She knew her body was repairing the damage as fast as it happened—that when it was over, there would not even be a mark on her. It felt like she was being skinned alive.
She felt something bore into the back of her left shoulder then, a white-hot pain like nothing in her experience. In its own way, it was more intense than the pain of the accident, more than the pain she had felt in her mangled legs in the stasis capsule. The heat faded, and a lance of cold speared into the same spot, followed by a feeling like a thousand needles burrowing into the flesh around the wound.
In her mind, she suddenly found herself in the ARMOR AND WEAPONS menu. New streams of information were pouring in, fleshing out the bare outline that had been there before. Specifications, capabilities, power levels, sensor readings, transformational tutorials—all of it flowed into her from her new armor, as fast as she could handle it. In seconds (“27.4 seconds”), as the pain finally began to fade, she felt as though she had been wearing the armor all her life. It felt comfortable, and powerful—moreover, it felt right.
The rack descended until she felt the table beneath her back. With a series of snaps, the restraints released her, and the rack withdrew. She sat up, and saw that Tracer was already on his feet. The first sight of him, as she stood up, took her breath away.
His armor was sleek and metallic. It was finished in a deep blue, with black accents at the joints and the waist. Blue boots, squared at the toe, rose gracefully up to polished blue greaves that terminated in points just below the segmented black metal of the knee joints. Silver gleamed in the lines between the segments, then gave way to more polished plates up his thighs and pelvis. The waist of the armor was more segmented black, centered on a black disk a hand’s-breadth wide. A gleaming blue breastplate followed the curvature of his ribs, sweeping up to blue and silver epaulets that projected out over his already-broad shoulders. From there, his arms were encased in blue to match his legs, terminating in blue and black gauntlets with silver highlights. More black ran up his neck to his jaw line, where it met a sleek, raptor-like helmet that swept forward and down over his brow. A black visor covered his face, completing the effect and hiding every human element.
With a whir, the visor retracted into the top of his helmet, revealing his face. ‘What do you think?”
“It looks…striking. Very impressive.” Truthfully, she couldn’t take her eyes away.
“Yours, as well,” he said, looking her up and down. “That’s a good color for you.” She glanced down, and saw that her own armor was red with grey accents and silver highlights. It was hard to tell without a mirror, but she thought that, although the basic configuration was the same, certain details—the shoulder shields, for one—were more compact, more trim, more suited to a woman’s physique.
Glancing up again, she saw Tracer’s eyes flick toward the foot of the table behind her; she turned and saw Vitala approaching. “Your external diagnostics indicate a complete and sound graft,” the Medical Assistance unit said, including each of them in her gaze. “As well, you appear to have attained a rapport with each other. That is good. It is common for those in your position to do so, despite the brevity of the grafting experience, due to the great pain involved. Fortunately, henceforward you do not need to experience any pain that you do not wish to experience.”
She bowed then, formally. “I have already said it, but now I do so again. Welcome to the Megaman System, Tracer”—she bowed to him—“and Nova”—and to her. “Today you have truly become Megamen. Although you have yet to perform your duties, you are fully prepared now to do so. You will each be a valuable addition to our world.” She paused, then looked toward the second door, the one the Technicians had used. “I will take you now to the administrative sector, where you will be greeted by the island administrator, Megaman Juno. He will communicate with Mother One and Mother Two to determine the best placement for you. For lower-level units, there are placement plans, requiring no direct intervention; when a first class unit is activated, the occasion merits a greater involvement. Come.”
The route they walked this time took them across the island again, and up several levels, until at last they stood in a round antechamber. When they passed through the next door, they found themselves in starlight. They stood just outside a massive stone wall, blank and featureless except for a large gate. A grassy field ran back from their feet to a low forest. Vitala led them purposefully to the gate.
Beyond, a long, wide, roofless concourse led them to another gate, then into an expansive area paved with some kind of stone-and-mortar amalgam. Here, vessels of some kind or another were parked. Adric and Naomi had digested enough science fiction in their lives to know them for what they were: aircraft, and in some instances, spacecraft. Most were small, and likely held only a few people—units, Nova corrected herself—but a few were larger, like small seafaring vessels. Yet more wonders, she mused, but they would have to wait until sometime in the future before she had a chance to become familiar with them.
Another gate led them past what could only be a power plant. The unmistakable hum of machinery, coupled with danger signs—clearly for the benefit of any Gamma that should manage to stray this far—told them everything they needed to know; however, should such deduction fail, Vitala supplied a running commentary. While Megaman, she told them, typically ran on fusion cells (class three and up), or rechargeable cells (classes four and five), the facilities themselves ran on crystal refractor energy. Refractors were large artificial crystals much like the miniature ones used by the Betas as currency (Zen, Nova’s mind supplied), but with some interesting properties; most notably, if they were rotated at high speeds, they emitted a surprisingly powerful energy field that could be bent to any number of applications. The plant, she explained, housed twenty large refractors, which could meet the needs of even a huge facility like Kattelox.
Another gate took them into an enclosed field. Here, silence reigned; no other units were anywhere to be seen, though the rest of the facility was bustling. A massive metal column, ringed with red designs like eyes, dominated the field. Without breaking stride, Vitala led them to a door in the side of the column.
Before entering, she paused. “This is the Main Gate of Kattelox Island. Beyond this door is the administrative center, the heart of the island. When you enter, two Administrative units, fourth class, will greet you. They are assistants to Megaman Juno; they will convey you to him. From there, you will be directed to your new assignments.” She stepped back, and bowed to them again. “It has been a pleasure to assist you. Now, I must return to my duties, and you must attend your briefing. May you have success in all you do.” With that, she turned and strode off toward the gate in the wall by which they had come.
Now, for the first time since the accident, they were alone together. Naomi turned toward Tracer and looked at him, squinting at him in the dim light, until she remembered that her eyes could enhance her vision. With the light intensified, she could see that he was looking back at her in just the same way. “Adric?” she ventured. “Are you…alright?”
He grinned, a rueful look on his familiar face. “Alright?” Abruptly, his helmet liquefied and vanished down his back, into its compressed-storage receptacle. His unruly brown hair ruffled in the gentle breeze. “If I can do that, then by definition I’m not alright. Far from it.” He smiled at her then, though, and she knew he wasn’t serious. “But I do feel good, though. And it looks like you do too. I was…I was worried about you. I thought maybe you—well, that you didn’t make it.”
“It’s mutual,” she said. “I guess Bridge didn’t exactly prepare us for what this was going to be like.”
“No.” He glanced around; to be sure that no one was nearby. “Listen, Naomi, we have to talk, and I think we have to be quick about it.” He cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable. “We don’t know what we’re facing her, but one thing is for sure—this isn’t like our world. I mean, how could it be? Most of them are—“
“Machines,” she interrupted. “I know. And that means that they don’t marry, I suppose. So what you really want to say is that our lives are never going to be the same again. Right?” It was the same line of thought she had been pursuing ever since awakening from stasis.
He stared at her for a moment. “That’s why I love you,” he said at last. “You see straight to the heart of things. So, where do we go from here? I can’t just let you go, but I have a feeling that it’s going to be something like that.”
Naomi could feel the seconds ticking away. Sooner or later, if they didn’t go into the Main Gate, someone would come looking for them. They had to say what needed to be said before then, or…well, leaving it unsaid was not an option. “I don’t want that either. But we can’t live together as husband and wife, either.”
He was silent a moment. “We have to be two people,” he said at last, in a more solemn voice than she had ever heard from him.
She frowned at him. “We already are two people.”
“Each. We have to each be two people.” He watched her frown deepen, then fade as comprehension came to her. “On the surface, every day, we have to be Megaman Tracer and Megaman Nova. That means we put ourselves into this, one hundred percent. Like it or not, this”—he indicated their armor—“is us now. And we have to try to do what Bridge wants us to do, even though the opportunity might be a long time coming. That’s the surface of it.” He reached out and stroked her face with his fingertips—a simple gesture, so much simpler that what they had shared before, but it brought tears to her eyes just the same. “Underneath, inside, we’ll still be Adric Tharen and Naomi Tharen. If we see each other, or talk to each other, we’ll know. And if—somehow—we can win Bridge’s little war, and survive, we’ll be together again.”
“You make it sound so pleasant,” she murmured. “If we survive.” Then, unexpectedly, she threw her arms around him and pulled his mouth down to hers. “That’s for unfinished business between you and me, Adric,” she said when she finally released him. “And…don’t forget that I love you.”
“I love you, too, Naomi.”
There was nothing more they could say in the time left to them. So, with a last handclasp, they turned and, together, walked into the Main Gate.
The Administrative units were humanoid, but with no legs. To be precise, they didn’t need legs; they hovered two feet off the floor, as opposed to walking. Having the focused, but somewhat limited, mental capacity that seemed to be characteristic of all fourth-class units, their speech was brusque and businesslike; they gave out information freely, but did not make conversation. They escorted the two Purifiers down a long, steeply spiraling passage that seemed as though it would descend into the depths of Hell itself; Nova began to expect the sight of demons cavorting in the doorways and alcoves they passed. When Tracer asked why there was no elevator in such a deep installation, the Administrator at his right arm explained that it was a defensive feature.
It began to make sense as they descended. The passage was a spiral, but it was not circular; rather it was squared. Any invading force would have to fight its way past a long series of corners, around which defenders could set up ambush; as well, there were the doorways, all of which sat back in recessed alcoves that provided even more defensive positions. When descending, the alcoves were located at the bottom of each leg of the passage, and at a right angle to it, so that the alcove faced down the next stretch. Therefore, it provided cover to anyone defending, but none to any attacker who should capture that location. As well, the length of the passage meant that any number of defenders would be in place; also, the leadership at the bottom of the shaft would have sufficient time to mount any defense they wished. All in all, it was a good design.
It made sense, then, that the Administrators would hover. Without the impediment posed by normal walking, they could navigate this area much faster, despite the lack of an elevator. Nova was beginning to wish for the ability to hover herself, by the time the reached the bottom—not that her body was tired, but that the monotony was becoming unbearable. Corridor after glowing, whitened corridor…
The abruptness of the stop startled them. A final corner put them face-to-face with a massive door, larger than any of the gates in the surface walls. “This is your destination,” the Administrator to Nova’s left intoned. “Here you will be seen by Megaman Juno, this island’s administrator. Please wait here; the door will open when he is ready to admit you.” With that, the Administrator units turned and zipped back up the corridor, much faster than they had come down.
After a minute of waiting, the doors opened, and they found themselves walking through a series of passages that turned back on themselves again and again—another defensive feature, Tracer mused aloud. At last they came to a final door. This door, too, opened, admitting them into a large, circular chamber that blazed with white light. Directly opposite the door, against the far wall, stood an enormous monitor and console; halfway between, in the middle of the floor, stood Megaman Juno.
He was by far the largest, and the strangest, Megaman they had seen yet. His body was a single white column of metal with a wide, pedestal-like base; on his chest were traceries of large, circular symbols. Atop this body, looking perfectly incongruous, was a human head—android, no doubt, but no less human in appearance. Admittedly, its hair was purple, but humans had done stranger things. They feature that made him most otherworldly, however, were his arms; they were like jointed, smaller versions of his body, with large hands, but they were not attached. Rather, they hovered to each side of his body, which also hovered.
Juno glided across the floor toward them as they started in his direction. “Greetings, Megaman Tracer and Megaman Nova,” he said, and stopped in front of them. His voice was mellow and androgynous, keyed to a muted pitch that could easily lull someone to sleep, were that person a normal human. “I have been informed regarding your successful activation. It gives me pleasure to know that you were not harmed in the process. Mechanization is contrary to the nature of human biology, and the process of making it compatible is not gentle. Despite our rigid screening practices in regard to the Gamma humans, some of those chosen for mechanization do not survive the process. Others survive, but are…let us say, broken, in the process. Those unfortunates must be euthanized, as they will never again lead any kind of productive life.” He paused. “ As you have survived, I do not say these things to give you fear, but rather, to make you aware of the great happiness I have in seeing you here. I think of you and all others like you as graduates, ready to face the world.” He beamed at them, but said no more.
Juno appeared to be waiting for a response, so Tracer stepped forward. His mind raced, trying to come up with something to say that wouldn’t be suspicious. “We appreciate your directness and honesty, Megaman Juno. We also feel privileged to be in a position to serve the System.”
“As do we all,” Juno replied. “I should tell you that, among us, there is no need to regularly use the formal title. In my case, ‘Juno’ will be sufficient. We are all aware of what we are,” he added, unaware of the irony of his words for Tracer and Nova. “In our service, we are equals, despite our class levels and capabilities. Therefore we can address each other as such.”
“Very well…Juno,” Nova said, “we were told that we would be receiving our placement assignments from you?” Something in the back of her mind cautioned her to be careful with this one. She made her voice the slightest bit servile, as though Juno were in fact superior to her, but too polite to mention it. It wasn’t a great stretch; Juno was superior as long as they were on Kattelox Island. The Administrator might be a third class unit, but he had far more experience than both Purifiers combined, and the authority to back it up. For all Tracer or Nova knew, Juno could have been thousands of years old. Regardless of all of that, however, there was something wrong about him, if only faintly so.
“Indeed. And we must not delay. Mother One and Mother Two will not be pleased if we do not consult them soon. They take great pride in every new Purifier, because your kind come along so rarely. After all, you witness aberrancy in all its forms, time and time again. Why should you ever become aberrant yourselves, and thus need to be replaced?”
Juno turned and glided to the console at the far wall, glancing over his shoulder only to beckon them to follow. They watched as he activated a control on the panel, then spoke aloud. “This is Megaman Juno, Bureaucratic Model Third Class, Administrator of Kattelox Island, requesting conference communication with Mother One and Mother Two, regarding placement of Purifier Units First Class Alpha, designations Megaman Tracer and Megaman Nova, activated this date.”
A soft, feminine voice issued from somewhere unseen. “Acknowledged. Request for communication will be forwarded with priority status. Please await engagement.” There was a pause, and then the voice continued. “Engagement confirmed. Mother One and Mother Two in attendance. Welcome, Megaman Juno.”
Juno was silent then for a long time—so long, in fact, that Nova began to think they had been found out. Clearly he was in communication with someone—the mysterious Mothers, she presumed—though she could not detect any means by which the communication was being conducted. She felt her anxiety returning. What if, despite all their efforts, they had said something too out of character for a Megaman? Or, had their discussion outside the Main Gate been observed, or recorded? Was Juno reporting suspicions about them, or was he receiving reports about them from elsewhere?
She surprised herself then, as she found herself running a diagnostic on her armor and weapons, even though she had never used them before. Instinct turned to concrete thought, as she made her decision: if they were found out, she would not go quietly. She would fight her way out, if she could; and she knew Adric would do the same. Beyond that…well, it was anyone’s guess where they would go, or how they would live, but she would not lie down for whatever punishment the System handed down. A Purifier was supposed to be the best of the best—she would put that theory to trial, if she had to.
She was spared that crisis when Juno turned back to them. “It is complete,” he announced. “You are aware, of course, that during your training, you were tested as to your capabilities. Mother One and Mother Two are very impressed with your test results. Each of you demonstrated mental abilities in excess of the normal range, as well as a supremely well-developed bond with your enhancements, layered over superb physical condition in your human physiology. All of this, in addition to excellent armor grafting, has made you Purifiers of great desirability.” He smiled at that. “I find this to be pleasing, as well, as you may imagine.”
“As well,” he continued, “it was observed during your grafting that the two of you have developed a rapport—not uncommon among crèche-mates”—Naomi nodded to herself at her correct guess—“who then endure the grafting together. As a consequence, you have done what no other units have ever done: you have caused dissension between the Mother Units.”
Concern must have showed on their faces, because Juno frowned. “Do not be alarmed. It is not serious—it is simply that each of them wishes to receive both of you for their own facilities. They could not agree on that point. Therefore”—he paused theatrically—“they have decided to each claim one of you.”
It took Nova a moment to realize what he was saying—then her mind reeled. Separated? She didn’t know where these Mother Units were, but surely, from what Juno was saying, they were in separate places.
“I am sorry to see you go your separate ways,” Juno said. “Often a rapport such as yours will enhance the abilities of the units involved; it is not at all uncommon for you to be assigned as partners. But the will of the Mother Units is final, and they have chosen.” He smiled again; this time, it looked more like a feral leer. “Do not worry; you will be well received in your assignments.”
A glance at Tracer told her that he was thinking the same things. She tried to listen to Juno’s words, but the thoughts in her head were racing too fast. She felt suddenly more lost than before—it was as if she had been handed a flashlight in the dark, only to have the batteries go dead. Separated? No! The words repeated over and over in her mind.
“—Shuttles will be arriving shortly to retrieve you,” Juno was saying. “Tracer, you have been assigned to serve Mother One, Yuna, at the capital city of Elysia. It is our only true city, and you will be quite comfortable there. As Yuna is my immediate superior, I can say that she is adept at her tasks; you will find your work to be rewarding.”
He turned to Nova. “Nova, you have been assigned to Elysium. I realize that this is not discussed in your training, for we do not wish to give the Gammas aspirations that they will not be able to fulfill. Elysium is our great station in orbit, the second moon, which is the home of the Masters whom we exist to serve. It is the domain of Mother Two, known as Sera. You will also be well accepted there.”
“How long do we have before we leave?” Tracer said, breaking a long silence. Nova could tell he was making a supreme effort to control his voice.
“A matter of hours. When your shuttles arrive, you will depart.” He glided backward a few feet. “I will reiterate my pleasure at your arrival among us. May you have success in all that you do,” he said, repeating Vitala’s words. “Please wait here; my assistants will return to escort you to a waiting area. Goodbye.” He turned and exited through a side door that they hadn’t noticed before.
They turned to face each other. “Ad…Trigger,” Nova said, trepidation in her voice, “there’s so much I want to say to you. I just…I never realized this would happen. Maybe it would have been better if we had died in the procedure, or…before.” She made the effort to be circumspect, knowing that the control room was probably monitored.
In reply, he lifted his hand, palm toward her. She mirrored the gesture, and pressed her palm to his, then twined her fingers in his. At the same time, each of them retracted the gauntlets on those hands, so that they were skin against skin again. “I have so much to say, too,” Tracer said. “I promise you, I’ll find a way to keep in contact. We will.”
“I know.” They stood that way, in silence for a moment, until the door opened and the assistants came to escort them out.
Four hours later, Nova sat in the seat of a bulb-shaped shuttlepod, gazing out the porthole as the Earth—or Terra, as she had learned that the Megamen called it—fell away beneath her, and the sky faded from blue to black. Through an angled porthole in the panel above her, she could see a white form growing large—amorphous now, but taking on detail all the time—and she knew it must be Elysium. She had learned from the Servitor unit in control of the pod that Elysium contained thousands of units, as well as the Masters, the three Alpha humans of whom Bridge had once spoken. None of it had any effect on the ice she felt in her heart.
Thousands of units or none at all, it didn’t matter—she was more alone than she had ever been in her life.