Chapter 5: Aberration

FIVE YEARS LATER

He stood in the doorway of the shuttle, two thousand feet above the ground.  The gravitation cells in the soles of his boots kept him anchored in the open hatch, despite the high winds that buffeted the shuttle.  Just as the distant sun spread its morning pool of gold over the streets of the city below him, he released the grav-lock, leaned forward into the wind—and plunged.

Air roared in his ears.  He flashed down, headfirst, a blue missile.  At twelve hundred feet, the blast shield snapped down over his face—wouldn’t do to have the Betas see any humanity.  Better to be an enigma, a rumor of something otherworldly.

At one thousand feet, his left hand vanished into a shaft of deadly, blue metal.  A high-pitched whine joined the roar as he charged his weapon.

At six hundred feet, twenty-five feet above the building toward which he was falling, he reactivated the grav-cells at full strength.  He was instantly wrenched upright, to fall feet-first.

One second before impact, he reversed the gravity field and cut its strength back.  He struck the angled roof on his feet and slid down as if on ice skates, buoyed up by the reversed field.  Ten feet before the lip of the roof, he shifted the field to add thrust, and launched himself into a somersault that carried him far out into the nearby plaza.

A last, long drop carried him to the ground.  He hit it running.  His approach had not been unnoticed; a squad of five of the island’s police, fresh on duty for the morning, was running to intercept him.  He switched to stun without thinking, and laid them out on the ground from a hundred yards away.

No other resistance met him, though there was screaming as other Betas noticed what was happening.  “Second team, go,” he said into his comm as he ran.  An instant later, he heard a series of thumps as the first team, the Security team, landed behind him.  There were three units on the first team, all Purifiers; two were second-class, while the third, Megaman Terceptan, was a first-class unit, and Tracer’s lieutenant.  In this operation, they would hold the perimeter while he dealt with the aberrant unit.  The second team, now on the descent, was the Beta-relations team, three third-class Liaisons with the appearance of humans; they would gather all the Betas affected by this operation, and blank out their memories of the time.  The System, after all, had to ensure its own secrecy.

The third team, the Recovery team, would not come down until the threat was neutralized.  If the body of the aberrant were not destroyed during the operation, the three Technicians on the Recovery team would recover what they could, preserve it, and deliver it to the analysis teams at Elysia.  Those teams would then tear it apart in a usually vain search for the cause of the aberrancy.

Tracer didn’t care what they found, as long as it never happened to him.  He had a job to do, and he was good at it.

Running through the still-dusky alleys and back streets, he spotted his destination:  a dilapidated, rusting, metal shed, wedged between two buildings.  He stopped at the door as his team pounded up behind him; they immediately spun around and formed a defensive arc around him.  No Betas were in evidence, but if any of them appeared, the Security team would stun them and flag the Beta team.  No harm would be done, except for the bumps and bruises the Betas took when they fell.  Tracer had seen Purifiers who killed Betas, and he knew the dim view the System took of that—he himself had had to terminate a Purifier who had taken a liking to it.  In the eyes of the System, the Betas were like children, to be protected and nurtured; after all, they were the ones who really ran the world, while the Megamen were only its managers.

He turned his attention to the shed.  It was not a Beta construction; it was a service entrance to Garlock Island’s facility, used when the facility was excavated and sealed ever since.  Since the entrance was not expected to be needed again, the Betas had been allowed—in the subtle way that such things were done—to build their city around it; they couldn’t get in, anyway.  No Beta ever gained admission to any facility; they thought the entrances were the ruins of some long-dead civilization.  Tracer knew how to open it, though.

He switched his right hand gauntlet over to a superheated cutting laser, and began to burn away the section of metal—indistinguishable to the naked eye from any other—that covered the locking mechanism.  Truthfully, the main entrance—outside town—would normally be easier.  Not this time; the unit that had gone aberrant was a Security model, second-class, the head of the local security detail, and he had secured the doors with a randomizing lock code.  Once he was neutralized, Tracer could assume his duties and release the lock, but first they had to get in.  Hence, the service entrance, which predated the Security unit and was listed as disabled.

Ten seconds of laser fire had the electronic lockplate exposed.  The laser reverted to a normal right gauntlet, then retracted to expose his first two fingers.  He held them out straight, and a whip-thin, six-inch spike—a neuroprobe—extruded from beneath each fingernail.  In the dim light, they gleamed like long claws.  He inserted them into two tiny receptor slots in the lockplate.

Tracer’s mind turned inward then.  He cast his thoughts along the neuroprobes and into the circuitry of the lock, searching for the disable codes.  When he found them, he reversed them, and the lock sprang to life.  Returning to himself, he heard a click, then a series of hollow scraping noises as long-unused bolts ground open; the door slid aside with a sickly groan, and the team was inside.

The lights in this sector were out, but that was no barrier to their enhanced senses.  Tracer left one Purifier at the top of the ladder, then motioned one down into the shaft.  He followed close behind, weapon at the ready, and then the third Purifier brought up the rear.

As they ran through tunnels that grew steadily brighter, Tracer studied the internal map that the Dispatch unit had uploaded.  On the map, the Nerve Center—the facility’s main control room—flashed a sinister red, indicating that the aberrant was there.  That was where they typically went to hole up, if they did hole up; they could do considerably more damage there.  The local security had established a perimeter around the Nerve Center, covering all the exits; Tracer knew that that was all he could expect from them, considering that the aberrant was their commander.  Without him, they would be confused and random in their actions, and only a higher local authority would be able to galvanize them.  Although he could take temporary command of the facility, he wasn’t ready to step on the administrator’s toes—figuratively speaking, as an Administrator unit didn’t have toes—just yet.

When he reached the last junction, he found himself facing a heavy blast door.  Corridors stretched off to the right and left in a gentle curve, sweeping around the circular room; the passage from which he had come was directly behind him, forming a T with the cross-corridor.  Two third-class security units, inhuman in aspect and supported by a tripod of legs, guarded the door.

“Status?” he barked at the two units.  At the same time, he scanned left and right until he found what he was looking for:  two alcoves, one in each side tunnel, that were designed to accommodate units in defense of the Nerve Center.

“No change to report, sir,” the unit on the left responded.  “Megaman Tricord is inside the Nerve Center.  This facility remains on secure lockdown.  No one has entered or left the Nerve Center since the lockdown was initiated, five hours and thirty-six minutes ago.  We are holding the perimeter around the Nerve Center, as discussed in earlier communication.”

“Excellent.”  He turned to the Purifier to his rear left, and motioned him toward the left alcove.  The unit hurried to take that position.  Tracer turned to the squad member on his right.  “Take control.”

The unit nodded.  “This is Megaman Terceptan, Purifier Unit Second-Class,” he said, addressing the facility’s command net.  “Priority reroute of all security command functions to this unit, effective immediately.  This unit assumes jurisdiction over all security protocols for the district Garlock Island, pending termination of aberrant unit Megaman Tricord, Security Unit Second Class.  All jurisdictional authority subject to oversight by the district Administrator.  This unit will petition regional administration for relief after successful restoration of security status.”  He hesitated a beat, then continued.  “Release security lock status on Nerve Center only.  Maintain security lockdown for all other areas.”  He turned and ran to take a position at the alcove on the right.

Tracer turned back to the security units.  “Stay out of the line of fire, but hold your positions.  We’ll have him in a crossfire here if he tries to run.”  Without waiting for an answer, he turned and strode to the Nerve Center door, which opened to his touch.

In the five years since his activation, Tracer had learned many things.  For instance, he had learned early on that, yes, the Gammas were pretrained to become Megamen—trained since the day they were, well, born, for lack of a better word.  The fact that he had blended as well as he had without that training was fortuitous, almost miraculous.  He had learned, as well, that the net effect of that training was to remove many human passions; they felt them, but they managed them like tools.  One such passion was fear.

He felt a very human twinge of fear now, though, as he entered the Nerve Center.  On most missions, local security could be relied upon for a second line of defense; that would allow him to have his own team in the room with him, outflanking the aberrant unit.  With the head of security being the aberrant unit, however, he couldn’t trust the security force to do their jobs reliably; they were like children without an adult to direct them.  it left him no choice but to redirect his own people in order to ensure that Tricord didn’t slip past him and escape, which in turn left him to face the aberrant on his own.

Tracer had learned something else, as well:  that Purifiers were made to get the job done.

The door whirred shut behind him, and he strode to the center of the floor.  Consoles and monitors surrounded this Nerve Center; there was going to be a phenomenal amount of damage in this room in very short order.  “Terceptan,” he said over the comm, “transfer all functions from the Nerve Center to the secondary posts throughout the facility.  I expect enough collateral damage to keep the reconstruction squads busy.”

He missed the acknowledgement, because at that moment, Megaman Tricord—crouched over a console on the left of the circular room—noticed him, and opened fire.  Plasma bursts pelted the wall behind Tracer.

Tracer hurled himself to the right in a low somersault that brought him up with his own weapon trained on Tricord.  Plasma tore into the Security unit.  Sparks flew, but the aberrant gathered himself and sprang straight up into the air on his trio of legs.  All three tipped toward him, and cannon ports opened in the bottoms of the unit’s feet.  At the same time, gravity cells lit up at the waist level of Tricord’s cylindrical torso, and his legs began to rotate around their common center.  Suddenly, Tricord was airborne, and much more dangerous.  On cue, all three cannon ports opened up, raining plasma on him.

Tracer took a hit, then two more, the plasma chewing holes in his armor that sealed themselves instantly, but with a corresponding toll in power.  His power levels were prodigious, but if they dropped too low, his armor would become stiff, and he would move slower, making him an easier target.  He dodged and rolled, seeking escape from the tornado of plasma that followed him.  As he evaded, console after console was blown to shrapnel.

This situation had definitely gone downhill fast.  Tracer briefly considered retreating to the corridor, drawing Tricord into the inevitable crossfire, but at the moment, even that was untenable, as the Security unit flew around the room like an angry hornet.  So, he continued the dance, weaving and leaping, firing back when he could, waiting for an opportunity.  There always was one, he reminded himself—he only had to wait.

Terceptan was sure this mission would be over in a heartbeat.  Even without his team to back him up, Megaman Tracer had never lost a battle.  It was entirely possible that Tracer would purposely herd the wayward unit into their crossfire, just to make the termination as sure as possible.  It had happened before, if not often—

Movement caught his eye.  The two security units had left their stations by the door and were moving across to the third hallway, the shaft of the “T”, the one by which the Purifiers had entered.  That was strange; the new positions put them straight in the line of fire.  What were they thinking?  “Units!” he called out over the sound of plasma fire from within the Nerve Center.  “Return to your posts!”

Uh-oh.  He had taken over control; for all practical purposes, he was the head of security; they should have obeyed.  The fact that they didn’t obey could only mean one thing—

“Aberration!”  Segundan, his partner, yelled, a split second before plasma fire hit them like hail, forcing them back into the shelter of the alcoves.

How had everything gone so suddenly wrong?

Tracer’s opportunity came.  He tucked into a forward roll that carried him through a pile of debris just as Tricord buzzed overhead, and found himself on his feet behind the Security unit.  Two running steps and a leap, and he hurtled through the air, then slammed against Tricord’s back.  His weight bore the smaller unit to the ground.

Tricord struggled to escape, but Tracer held him fast with his right arm.  With his left, he retracted his cannon and struck the unit at a vital spot, just at the base of the neck.  He pounded the unit until sparks flew and the light faded from its grav-cells; then he released it.  Cautiously, he backed away.

“Commander!”  Terceptan shouted into his comm.  “Do not, I repeat, do not attempt crossfire!  We are under attack by indigenous security forces!”  He ducked around the corner and briefly returned fire, then jerked back as plasma nearly took off his arm.  “We cannot, repeat, cannot give assistance at this time!  Further aberration detected among the security force.  Attempting to neutralize at this time!”

Urgently, he sent another call, this time to Primenda, the Purifier guarding the service entrance.  Now, if only they could hold out—and if the rest of the security force was not already aberrant—they might still make it out.

Tracer lowered his weapon, and was just about to call the Recovery team when Terceptan’s call came in.  He sent an acknowledgement, and glanced back toward the door.

Metal scratched on metal, and Tracer whipped back around.  In the blink of an eye, the Security unit finished its transformation into its battle form.  Now it leaped at him on four powerful legs, howling like the wolf it so resembled, oversized red eyes blazing hate at him.  It struck him full in the chest, bowling him over, slashing at him with spiked paws.  He turned the fall into a tumble and threw the beast off over his own head, then came up shooting as his wounds closed.

Unheeding of its own wounds, the beast leaped again.  Tracer brought his right hand up, morphing it into the cutting laser even as he fell away to his left.  The hot beam sheared off the beast’s forward, right leg at the shoulder, and the aberrant hit the floor hard.  Before its repair systems could take effect, Tracer drove the beam like a blade into its right eye.  The beast howled and jerked away, causing more damage as the laser sheared free of its head.

Tracer knew that the security unit was equipped with a second battle form, one less agile, but with heavier firepower.  If it was allowed to transform again, it might recover, and his team needed him.  He switched back to cannon mode and drove the power up to maximum, then poured hot energy down on the fallen machine.  It writhed on the floor as its metal skin slagged and peeled away; Tracer kept the punishment on.  After a few seconds, it stopped fighting back as its neural network melted.  When the fire reached its processing core, the light went out of its one remaining eye, and it died.

The walls of the corridor were hot and pitted, and the corner of the alcove was threatening to give under the constant storm of energy.  Terceptan leaned around, going low, and fired off another blast.

The enemy fire stopped abruptly.  Terceptan looked around to see the further security unit—the one firing at him—twisting in a crackling web of electricity.  Another stun grenade exploded against its armor, driving it out into the cross-corridor and sending it to the floor.  Terceptan leaped into the pasage, his right arm morphing into a new configuration—a mine launcher.  He fired a half-dozen of the heavy explosive projectiles onto the floor near the downed unit, where they clung for a few seconds before exploding, vaporizing the unit.  The blast must have downed the second unit, as well, because Segundan leaped from his own cover in a flurry of plasma bursts that reduced it to smoldering ruins.

Primenda came toward them around the last turn of the approaching passage, weapons still at the ready.  “Is that it?” she called out.  “Where is the rest of the security force?”

“All security units, stand down, and enact temporary stasis,”  Terceptan said.  “Network, please confirm.”

After a pause, the network answered, in a smooth feminine voice.  “Confirmed.  All security units report confirmation of order.  Internal sensors report stasis mode on all security units.  Units await retrieval and reactivation by medical personnel.”

“Retrieve, but do not reactivate.  Await retrieval by analysis teams from Elysia.”  He looked to his teammates.  “We should help the commander.  I believe he was having difficulty inside.”

The door to the Nerve Center slid open, saving them the trouble of deciding.  Tracer stood there, winded, but uninjured.  “Is everyone intact?”  At their affirmatives, he nodded.  “Good.  Target neutralized.  What happened here?”

“The guards on this door became aberrant,” Terceptan stated.  “I have never seen anything like it.  It was as if something came over them suddenly, and they left their posts to attack us.”  He paused.  “I took the liberty of calling Primenda away from her post.”

“You did the right thing.”  He scanned the damage to the corridor.  “Now the question is, what would cause three units at one time to become aberrant?  I’ve never heard of such a thing.  Aberrants are always individuals.”

“Perhaps more importantly,” Primenda interjected, “did we get them all?  If three of them were aberrant, there could be more.”

“Possible,” Terceptan said, “and yet the rest of the force did go into stasis when I ordered it.  Aberrants have never been known for obedience to orders.”

“True,” Tracer replied.  “Still, let’s assume that, one way or another, the threat is neutralized.  How it happened is for the analysis teams to figure out.  Speaking of which, Terceptan, as soon as you can get to the secondary comm station, you can call them with our initial report.  Request an additional reconstruction team, as well—they have their work cut out for them in there.”  He gestured back into the Nerve Center, where it appeared that not a single piece of equipment was undamaged.

“I suppose, Commander, that we will be staying?”  Segundan said.  “I can’t see us leaving the facility without security.”

“Correct.  Since Terceptan already has jurisdiction, he will remain here to supervise, and the two of you will provide the necessary security detail until the retrieval and reconstruction are complete.  I will arrange a replacement detail to relieve you as soon as the reconstruction teams pull out.”  He gazed down at the fallen remains of the security unit, the one lucky enough not to be vaporized.  “This makes me uneasy.  Call the Recovery Team and get them mobilized.  I want to go check on the Beta Team.”

He strode off down the left corridor, not waiting to see if his team carried out his orders.  They always did; he knew that much, at least, because he had their respect.

Having seen the impossible today, he hoped their respect would be enough.

As Tracer strode away from his team, his armor melted away, vanishing into its socket in his shoulder.  Fully compressed, it was about the size of the smallest joint of his little finger; he never even felt it when it was in that state.  The retracting armor revealed a whisper-thin, form-fitting jumpsuit, complete with moccasins that hardened on the soles so that his feet were not bare.  The simple garment was perfectly acceptable within the System; among the Betas, it would have been a red flag that something was not right.  Hence, his next stop.

Every facility that was on a populated island served as the true governing agency of that island, no matter what other purpose the facility might have.  The Betas had their authorities—governors, magistrates, mayors, there were any number of names—but always, always, the top leaders among the Betas were aware of, and commanded by, the System.  The facility would have at least one Ambassador unit, second or third class, and several Liaison units, who would deal with the Beta authorities.  Sometimes it was necessary for those units to move among the Betas undetected; in fact, some of the units would be assigned to live among the Betas, monitoring their activities.  Those units were also responsible for acquiring clothing and other accoutrements for the facility, so that units on assignment would fit in with the current Beta trends.

Thus, Tracer headed for the Ambassador’s office, in search of clothing.  His Beta team members already had theirs; it was normal for them to be among the Betas, so they came prepared.  Usually, however, Tracer left them to their work, so he was not so equipped.

A third-class Liaison named Median met him at the door, and escorted him to the dressing area.  He kept the conversation to a minimum; he couldn’t stop thinking about the oddity of the three aberrants in one place.  Units didn’t cause other units to go aberrant, nor did aberrants gather in one place.  It was too unlikely for coincidence, and yet it had to be.  Again, he tried to shrug it off, and failed.

Ten minutes later, he was climbing out the shaft of the service entrance, clad in jeans, a t-shirt, and tennis shoes—much the same as he would have worn when…no.  He pushed that thought away, back into the Fortress.

When he walked among the Betas, it was always harder to keep the Fortress locked.  They stirred memories in him, and feelings, that were better left buried, if only because those memories could still harm his cause, even after all these years.  At the same time, it felt good to mingle with them, good in a way that no other unit would ever understand.  Well, none but one…  That was a thought that he pushed even further into the Fortress, and slammed the door on it.

The alley fronting the service entrance was deserted; no one saw him slip out, although he could see that the nearest streets were crowded with Betas.  By this time, they would be agitated and restless, but none of them would know why; the Beta team was very good at memory elimination.

He found the first squad member standing under the awning of a building entrance—it was the building he had used to make his landing, he noted—apparently having a conversation with one of the Beta policemen Tracer had stunned.  It took an observer at close range to see that the man’s eyes were glazed over, and to see that the Liaison unit was doing all the talking—in both voices, no less.  Tracer listened with amusement to the patter about the incident; to hear the conversation, it sounded like the man had been abducted by space aliens, and just had to tell someone about it.  It was all for show, to cover the short fugue the man experienced while the memory-wiping drugs took effect.  There was, after all, no truly reliable way to modify memories; the best that could be done was to eliminate the incriminating time span from the Beta’s memory.

When it was finished, the man stumbled off into the crowd, feeling disoriented.  Tracer stepped under the awning.  “Status?”

“Slow progress,” stated the Liaison unit, whose name was Megaman Amicus.  “Only fifteen Betas were in direct observation of our operations.  However, several were able to tell their story before we were able to reach them.  We have determined that the total number of Betas affected by this engagement is forty-seven, which includes a television reporter and her camera crew who did, in fact collect video footage of you and the security team.  Megaman Ceptus has gone to intercept her and her crew; he will retrieve the footage in addition to modifying their memories.  Megaman Carida and I have succeeded in modifying the original fifteen, as well as two of the secondary witnesses; thirty secondary witnesses remain, including the news crew.  However, the secondary witnesses are proving elusive.”

Tracer nearly cursed aloud before he caught himself.  Megamen didn’t curse, if for no other reason than that they were always cool and collected.  “Then you will have to stay here until the task is completed.  I will take the shuttle back to Elysia and make the reports.  When the recovery and reconstruction are complete, you will rendezvous with the first and second teams and take the carrier back to Elysia, then report for debriefing.”

“Understood.  I will relay your orders to Ceptus and Carida.”  When Tracer didn’t continue, Amicus paused.  “Sir?  Is there something else?”

Briefly, Tracer considered not telling him.  Who knew what the implications were of this new situation?  Still, word would get out soon enough anyway; the units stationed at Garlock Island would talk, even if his own team didn’t.  “There is…a discrepancy,” he said.  “That is the only way I can think of to describe it.  We have not one, but three aberrant units, all in close proximity.  As well, there may be more, among the security detail.”

“Three?”  Amicus frowned, his calm demeanor cracking for a moment.  “Commander, that is not possible.  Aberrant units do not relate to each other, nor do they appear together.”

“It seems they are learning new tricks.  At any rate, it has me concerned.  Have you seen or heard anything that would indicate that the Betas have been adversely affected?”  It was a circular way of asking, do the Betas know anything?

“Nothing, Sir.  This matter appears to have been maintained internally, except, of course, for our missing witnesses.”

“Indeed.  Then I will let you continue your work, but I would like you to be on alert for any such activity.  I want to be notified immediately should you find anything.”  At a nod from Amicus, he turned and strode off into the sunlight.

For the better part of an hour, Tracer wandered the streets, mingling with the Betas.  He kept his ears open for any word that would indicate that the Betas were aware of the aberrant units, but nothing came to his attention.  It only made sense that they would be unaware; the units had never left the facility—sometimes they did, and wasn’t that a colosssal load of fun?—but he still wanted to be sure.  Since this seemed to be strange new territory, it was entirely possible that they had been aberrant before they were detected, and that they had come to the surface unsuspected.

Still, it seemed that everything was in good order.  During his wandering, he found two more of the missing secondary witnesses, and flagged them for the Beta team.  One of them, seated at an outdoor café, was writing furiously in a journal about what he had heard; not having any memory drugs, Tracer briefly considered stunning him.  But that would require a return to his armor, obviously impossible here; instead, Tracer waited for him to finish, then lifted the journal from the man’s coat pocket where it hung on the back of his chair.  It wouldn’t pay to have any written records, any more than it would pay to have video footage.

At last he gave up on his inspection, and turned his attention to the Betas themselves and their city.  He strolled through the open-air plaza at the heart of town, browsing at shops and stands, sampling the wares of the vendors—the Liaison units had supplied him with pocket change, a small pouch of low-denomination zen—listening to music from a band at the grandstand.  Time passed, and for a while, it was as though he was a Beta himself.  He nodded to people who nodded at him, and spoke when he was spoken to, and shook hands when hands were offered.  The speech of the System, with its stilted formality, slipped from his tongue, and the casual slang of the Betas took its place.  If anyone noticed that his expressions were a few years out of date, no one mentioned it.

It made him feel at home in a way he never did inside the System; but there was something else, as well—a sense of loss, nameless and vague, that nagged at him.  He felt disjointed somehow, and that was a feeling he also felt within the System.  It was as though he was strung between the worlds, without a true identity in either one—but why he would feel that way, Tracer had no idea.

Garlock was not a large island, but it was something of a financial hub, and it had several office towers like the one he had used to make his entrance.  Those towers were casting shadows on the plaza when he at last made his way back to the service entrance.  He locked the door as he entered, and made a mental note to arrange for a Technician to come and seal up the lock panel.  The metal would need to be aged, so that it would appear seamless with the surroinding metal; otherwise some Beta might notice and start prying.

Inside the facility, he found Terceptan supervising the Recovery team as they collected and catalogued the security detail.  There was little left of the two aberrants from the corridor, but the body of Megaman Tricord, fused forever into its battle mode, was neatly arranged in the floor of the security office, awaiting pickup by the carrier that was even now en route from Elysia.  The Recovery team would wait for the carrier; ordinarily, the fallen aberrant could be transported on the team’s shuttle, but the large number of units to be transported made the carrier a necessity.  The Beta and Security teams already had missions that would hold them here for some time, but none of it required Tracer’s direct oversight, so he would have the shuttle to himself on his way home.

After issuing some final orders, he made his way to the Administrator’s quarters, which were serving as a temporary Nerve Center.  As he knew it would be, his briefing was received with a mixture of irritation, concern, and impatience, all cleverly disguised by calm dispassion.  Clearly the Administrator unit wanted rid of the team, but failing that, it would settle for getting rid of Tracer.  In short order, Tracer made his exit.

The main entrance let him out in the hills outside the city, so he was able to call the shuttle to the ground.  It was long and low, tapering toward the front, where it terminated in two long mandibles that contained sensors and weapons—although he had yet to see a situation that required weapons to be fired from any vehicle.  There was a drophatch slung low in each side; he had used the port hatch in his own drop.  The boarding hatch was located in the back, and that was where he entered now.

The stern of the craft held a small cargo area where recovered aberrants were usually stored, and a restraint area for the unlikely circumstance that an aberrant was taken alive.  There was a recharge point for any lower-class unit that should be along for the mission, and a miniature laboratory that could handle most basic analyses.  Tracer made his way past all of this, to the crew area.  Here there were nine acceleration chairs with harnesses, arranged in rows of three between the two drophatches.  To the extreme forward there were pilot and copilot chairs, fronting on a bank of controls and a large viewport.

In the pilot’s seat, Tracer quickly ran his preflight checks; then he sat for a few minutes, composing his thoughts.  There was one more task to be completed before he departed, and it was the hardest of all—he had to make his report to Yuna, Mother One.  It was difficult because communication with her was accomplished by a Mindscan, which was much more like telepathy than any other kind of electronic communication.  He was an Alpha unit, and that meant that he could hide any thoughts he didn’t want seen; his emotional state, however, was fair game.  Anything that was out of character for a Megaman would raise suspicion in Yuna’s ever-so-perceptive mind.

At last, composed and collected, he reached out with his mind.  Lower-class units had to contact Elysia by more standard means and request that the Mother unit make contact.  First-class units were more gifted; they could reach out to the Mother units directly, mind-to-mind, and request Mindscan contact.  The Mother unit still controlled the exchange—she couldn’t be drawn into the Mindscan against her will—but the contact could be made anytime, anyplace, assuming that the sending unit wasn’t in critical condition or stasis.

His perception seemed to split, then, into two levels.  The lower level—he thought of it as “autopilot”—paid attention to the details around him, the shuttle, and its controls.  The upper level, his true attention, was focused inside, on the Mindscan.  At that level, he found himself in a dark, seemingly limitless space, standing inside a runelike circle of light.  At a distance from him—five feet?  Fifty feet?  There was no telling—Yuna stood in a similar circle of light.

Units called her “Mother,” but her body was that of a dark-skinned, wide-eyed child.  She had long hair, gathered into two thick pigtails that were an incongruously luminescent blue.  She wore a short, maroon tunic, hemmed in yellow and banded around the neck with symbols that, he knew, represented the five classes unit in the System.  The childishness was only an appearance, however; hers was easily the strongest, most capable, and most human mind in the System, equalled only by her sister Sera, Mother Two.  As always, her eyes bored into him as if searching the very depths of his soul—which, had he been an android, they would have been.

She had been Tracer’s immediate superior for five years.

“Tracer,” Yuna said.  “Already I have begun to hear that something out of the ordinary has happened.  Your request for a carrier and an extra Reconstruction team is unusual, to say the least.  I hope that all is well?”

“My team and I are undamaged,” he replied.  “There is extensive damage to the Nerve Center of the Garlock facility, which necessitates the additional Reconstruction Technicians.  As to the carrier, I was forced to leave my team behind for the time being.”  Efficiently, he filled her in on the high number of witnesses, the multiple aberrations, and the removal of the remaining security detail.

Yuna was silent for a long time after he finished.  Finally she spoke.  “Your decision to leave your team on station was correct.  I fully expect that we will find more potential aberrants among the security detail, just as you have postulated.  I will say that I find this situation most disturbing, as there is clearly established logic that dictates that aberrant units do not congregate, nor do they spawn other aberrant units.  This bears further examination, as I will see to when your team returns with the physical evidence.”  Her face was set in a grim frown; suddenly Tracer had the feeling that Yuna knew more than she was saying.  “Are you returning now?”

He nodded.  “As soon as we break contact.  I have concluded all the necessary contacts here, and the team is in place as needed.”

“Good.  When you arrive, you will have a six-hour rest period; then I would like to see you at the Mother Zone for debriefing.  I need time to consult with Sera regarding this development.”

“I acknowledge.”  He paused, then gave a frown of his own.  “Mother, I have to ask…what do you think this means?  Are we facing a new type of aberration?”

“I do not know, Tracer.  I will form an opinion, but much remains to be learned.  I am not one to give much credence to my feelings, but…I will say that this does not sit well with me at all.”  She shrugged, a curiously elderly gesture on that child’s frame.  “Fly safely, Tracer.  I will see you when you arrive.”

“Always a pleasure to serve, Mother.”  He nodded, and then he felt the Mindscan release him.  His perceptions clapped together, leaving him momentarily disoriented in the pilot’s seat.

More uneasy than ever, he took the controls and lifted off.  At thirty thousand feet, with Garlock Island a green blur beneath him, he set course for Elysia.

When humans reconstructed the world in the ashes of its last war, there were few safe havens to be found.  The men and women who would later become the Alpha humans—the Masters—were few in number, but they had already conceived their grand plan to populate the world with the Betas and the Megamen.  The plan included provisions to extend their own lives, as well, an act that they knew would forever set them apart from their subjects.  The System would be the buffer between the Betas and the Alphas, and the Betas would never know it.

In those days, Elysium, the great fortress in the sky, had not even been conceived in the mind of the Master, the leader of the Alphas.  Instead, they created Elysia, meant to be their heaven on Earth, a place where they could live without risk of dying from exposure outside their life-sustaining systems.  It was a city, their only city, and in it they could walk free under the sky.  For centuries, they did just that, while the newly created Betas worked to restore Terra to pristine condition, and while Elysium itself—a Heaven in the heavens, as they imagined—was constructed.  In those days, Yuna ran the System alone from her tower at the heart of the city, and was simply called Mother; it was only when Elysium was complete, and Sera was created to rule it, that Yuna became Mother One.  Sera, being the younger and the weaker—though not the subordinate—was called Mother Two.

Eventually, the Alphas had left the world behind, retiring to their home in space.  Elysia remained, however, in part as an administrative center for the facilities of Terra, and in part against the possibility that the Masters would someday need to return.  Also against that possibility, the city was filled with Megamen of every description, some of whom served functions in the complex administrative apparatus, but most of whom simply existed to live there in lieu of the original residents.  There were Megamen who simulated nearly every common profession in the old human world, from artists to musicians to construction specialists to chefs, and so on.  Should the Masters ever return—an unlikely prospect, now that only three of them were left—the Megamen would immediately move into the service roles for which they had been created, attending to the Masters’ every need and desire.  In the meantime, they served each other—especially the Alpha units, who retained some of their human physical needs, such as food, albeit in limited scope—or else they simply lived.

All of this was lost on Tracer, as on most units, because they did not know the true history of the world.  The Masters, for whatever reason, felt that it was best if even their prize creations did not know the truth.  Rather than give them a false history, as was done with the Betas at each reinitialization, they simply left the topic untouched.  For most units it was a nonissue.  For Tracer, because he had been taught the false history, he wondered; but there were always more pressing issues to which to attend.

Like the briefing that now faced him.

He made a smooth approach to Elysia just as the sun set; Coralin Island, on which the city was situated, was several hours west of Garlock at shuttle speeds, meaning that while it was the middle of the night there, it was only evening here.  It was his favorite time to approach the island; another break with the man he had been, who had loved the sunrise…he pushed that thought away, back into the Fortress where it belonged.  With the briefing ahead, he couldn’t afford to have that gate open even a crack.

Frowning, he stared out at the city and the ocean as he made his descent.  Red-gold flames on the water…No! he thought with more vehemence than he intended, and purposefully turned his thoughts away.

The city was coming alive with light as he set the shuttle down in its berth at the Purifier barracks.  The barracks were situated in a high building, with its docking levels on the roof, so he was afforded a spectacular view of the bright streets and structures below him.  Finally, when the last light of the sun was gone and only the city’s own lights remained, he locked up the shuttle and headed down.

He meant to go straight to his quarters, but restlessness wouldn’t allow it.  Instead, he exited at ground level and headed into the crowd in the street.  He spared only a single glance for the massive tower, higher than any other, that loomed beside the barracks—the Mother Zone, where Yuna awaited his briefing.  Perhaps she was even now in communion with Sera, Mother Two, aboard Elysium.

The Megamen were more human than Tracer had first imagined—well, the higher-level units, anyway.  They talked and laughed and cried and dreamed, just as humans did; it was simply that they were utilitarian and efficient, even then.  Though they could never escape being something other than human, they strove to emulate their Masters as best they could, even while performing the functions for which they were made.  So, like humans, they ate and drank and slept, to varying degrees; the Alpha units even required those things, though they could suspend those needs for a long time.  They danced and sang and worked, as their personalities led them.  It was a curious mixture to Tracer—the stark, singleminded purposefulness that he had seen on Kattelox at his awakening, and the life and light that he saw every time he returned to Elysia.

It wasn’t unusual, then, that Tracer had his favorite restaurants and other haunts (although perhaps restaurant was a misnomer–no establishment in Elysia ever sold anything, but rather, dispensed its wares freely; there was no money or economy within the System).  He headed for one now, seven blocks away from the barracks.  Along the way, he met friends and acquaintances, who one by one hailed him, failed to get a response, and wondered at his state of mind.

In the restaurant, he sat down to a dinner of fish (no surprise in a world of islands) and steamed vegetables.  Still lost in his thoughts, he didn’t notice when another unit slid into the opposite bench.

“Well, Tracer,” the other said, breaking Tracer’s reverie, “it’s good to see that you survived another encounter.  What was it this time?  An aberrant class-five worker?  Did it attack you with its scrubbing attachment?  Oh, your life is one of such danger and mystique!”

Tracer broke into a smile despite himself.  “Korrin, it’s good to see you, too.  And it’s good to know that your high opinion of my duty is still as untarnished as ever.”  Korrin was a Musician unit, one of the wide variety of professions that had been created simply to satisfy the aesthetic tastes of the Masters; now, he played and sang in a recital hall down the street for the benefit of his fellow Megamen.  “Why don’t you come along next time and see for yourself?”

“I don’t associate with workers, my friend, even dangerous ones.”  Korrin sat back, his long blue tunic flowing around him as he did.  His features were far closer to true human than most units, even to the point of sporting a chestnut beard; Tracer remembered being shocked by that the first time he saw it—facial hair was nearly unknown among Megamen.  He had to remind himself frequently that Musicians, Artists, and most other units at Elysia had been created to make the Masters feel more at home; therefore they were near-perfect facsimiles of humans.  That resemblance extended not only to their bodies, but also to their personalities, their affectations, and their passions.  In hindsight, Tracer had realized that it was only natural that he should feel at ease with Korrin and others like him.

“You never know until you try,” Tracer replied, lifting his glass.  He noted that Korrin had brought his own.  “What brings you here tonight?”

“Well,” Korrin said, raising his own glass, “I find myself drawn to this establishment for their fine food and even finer wines, despite the fact that this is my two thousand, seven hundred and eighty-second meal here.  My compliments to the chef!”  He took a long pull from the glass, holding it by the stem.  “As for my presence at your table…that would be you, my fine, battle-worn friend.  I sense by your demeanor that you are troubled about something, which is an emotion I am not accustomed to seeing on you.  Oh, you can look grim when you want to—which is most of the time, even though you sit with an expert at good moods.  But you are more serious tonight than I can ever recall you.”

“I suppose I am,” Tracer admitted.  “This mission was out of the ordinary.  I suppose it has me concerned—troubled, as you put it.”

Korrin leaned forward, elbows on the white linen tablecloth.  “How so?  Surely an aberrant was not too much for the great Megaman Tracer?”  It was said without a hint of irony, and the sarcasm was friendly.

Tracer sighed.  ‘You know, I’m not at liberty to say.  I know that sounds strange, but this particular case isn’t closed yet.”

Korrin frowned.  “So the aberrant lives?”

“No, we finished him.  Poor soul.  But there’s more going on this time, and I don’t know what it is yet.  I have a briefing in a few hours with Mother One, so maybe she knows something more than I do.  I’d like to think so, anyway.”

“She usually does know more than has been let on.  The Master certainly knew what he was doing when he created her.”  Korrin studied his friend, radiating concern.  “There is more, I think.”

“You think correctly.” Tracer fell silent, then, for a long time, while Korrin sat back and draped an arm over the back of his bench.  Finally Tracer spoke again.  “Korrin, you are perhaps the most philosophical Megaman I have encountered since my activation.  I know you have a lot of years behind you, as well, so don’t try to lie about it.  Do you ever…question who you are?”

“Sometimes.”  The answer surprised Tracer by its immediacy.  “I do indeed question myself.  We all do, those of us who are of a level to have the capacity.  Only the aberrants do not question themselves.”

“That’s an interesting way of looking at it,” Tracer said, considering it.  “We usually define aberrancy by its actions.  Any unit that engages in actions that are detrimental to the System or its parts is by definition an aberrant.  But you’re suggesting something different.”

“Not so different, really.”  He waved a hand in the air to punctuate his meaning.  “Aberrancy is what you say it is.  But what causes it?  I think that, for whatever reason, a unit loses its ability to question itself.  To evaluate its own thoughts and actions.  It then persists in a line of thought that is erroneous, but it cannot see clearly enough to perceive the lie.  And who knows how long this can go on before we detect it?”  He spread his hands in an anyone’s-guess gesture.  “By the time it translates into action—“

“—The damage is done, and it’s too late,” Tracer finished.  “That’s where I come in and do the job, which you steadfastly refuse to acknowledge as the magic it is.”

“And you do it so well.  So, then, my friend, I take it you are questioning yourself even now?”

More than you can know, Tracer thought.  Aloud he said, “I’ve just…seen some things that make me question my place in the world.”

Korrin grinned.  “A little self-doubt cannot hurt, my friend.  We may be machines—well, some of us are machines—but that does not diminish our personhood, if you will.  And anyone who claims to be a person must sometimes examine the person they are.  The fact that we were created, and created for a purpose, should never stop us from examining our lives for validity.”

“That does, in fact, make sense.  I don’t think it should, but it does.”  He lifted his glass to his lips again, then paused.  “How did you become such a philosopher?”

“I was programmed for it.  But I exceed myself.”  He grinned again.  “Isn’t that what everyone wants?  To exceed themselves?”

Tracer had to agree.

The Mother Zone of Terra was enormous.  Tracer had never been inside the Mother Zone of Elysium, although he had been to the station on consulting assignments once or twice; consequently he had nothing with which to compare.  The Mother Zone of Terra was a high tower, fifteen hundred feet or more, that dwarfed all the structures around it.  It was wide at the bottom, then tapered in steps to a height of nine hundred feet, where it became a smooth silver shaft barely sixty feet wide.  That shaft rose for another four hundred feet before terminating in a broad disk, two hundred feet thick and covered in crenellations, lines, and symbols that resembled eyes, but represented all the types of units in the System.  It sat in the heart of a broad plaza at the center of Elysia, cast all in silver that shone like a beacon in the sunlight.

There was no sunlight at four in the morning as Tracer crossed a filigreed silver bridge a hundred feet above the ground, strung between the Purifier barracks and the lower levels of the Mother Zone.  He knew the situation was serious when Gatz, Yuna’s blue-haired, dark-skinned Servitor unit, met him at the entrance.  Tracer’s impression of him was of a ten-year-old boy, not only for his physical appearance, but also for his constant state of earnestness; it was deceptive, however, because Tracer knew him to be very capable.  Gatz led him through a maze of corridors and into an elevator in the heart of the Zone.  The elevator discharged them just outside the Zone’s Nerve Center; and before he had time to think, he was ushered into Yuna’s presence.

She wasn’t alone.  Sera—tinier than even Yuna, with pale skin, close-cropped blond hair, and large doe eyes—was there as well; or at least, her holographic image was there.  Tracer had only met her on a few occasions; she usually kept herself and her business strictly within Elysium.

“Welcome, Tracer,” Yuna said when she saw him.  “Enter, and be at ease.  Gatz, you may leave us for now.”  Gatz bowed and exited, and the door closed behind him.  Tracer heard the soft hiss of the privacy seal powering up.

“Mother, I may enter, but ease eludes me tonight,” Tracer said diplomatically as he moved toward the two Mother units.

“Then perhaps we can set your mind at ease to some small degree,” Sera said.  “Your actions have not been called into question in any way.  Your service, as always, was exemplary yesterday, as was that of your team.  We have received their reports, incidentally.  Their work is thorough as always.”

“They make me proud,” Tracer said.  “I was sorry to make them stay, as I always am in such times.”

“They are already en route back to Elysia,” Yuna said.  “I took the initiative of having Megaman Radius”—another Purifier of Tracer’s acquintance—“ferry a new Security detail to Garlock in his shuttle almost immediately after you made your initial report.  I Mindscanned each unit personally to ensure that they were trustworthy.  Radius is five hours out from Elysia now, transporting your team.  I do not wish for you to be out of action while your team is on station.”

Tracer allowed himself a small smile.  “That is good news.  But I do not believe that it is the pressing issue for which you summoned me…?”

“Astute as always, though lacking in patience,” Sera remarked to Yuna.  Sarcasm?  From a Mother Unit?

“Indeed,” Yuna agreed—whether with Tracer or with Sera was anyone’s guess.  “Tracer, we have been discussing the issue of the multiple aberrations you found.  You will be unhappy, I am sure, to know that you were correct—initial analysis reveals aberrant positronic patterns in the brains of three more units on the security detail.”

“This is most unusual, of course,” Sera said.  “History demonstrates, as we all know, that aberration is a solitary phenomenon.  Aberrants do not tend to gather in one place, chiefly because their state of mind is self-serving.  They do not work well together.  Nor do aberrants cause other units to become aberrant.  Aberration, after all, is not a disease but a defect.  This is so certain as to constitute a law among us, much like a law of physics or motion.”

“The Law of Aberration,” Tracer acknowledged.  “Every Purifier knows it—counts on it in battle.”

“Then,” Yuna continued, “you will be further dismayed to know that your mission yesterday is not the first occasion on which we have seen this phenomenon.”

“It is the fifth,” Sera said, her voice flat.

Tracer was too stunned for words.  Five?  Five incidents of multiple aberrations?  How had it happened?  More to the point, how had he not heard?  Units gossiped as much as Betas did.  “How did this happen?”  he finally managed.

“These incidents have occurred over the past three months,” Yuna said.  “In every incident, the circumstances were similar.  Anywhere from three to seven units, all working in close proximity to each other, all becoming aberrnt at the same time.  In every assistance call, there was only one aberrant as presented, but the others revealed themselves during the battle.  No great casualties have been taken among the Purifiers assigned or the non-aberrant units in the area; nevertheless we are greatly concerned.”

Sera spoke up.  “Tracer, concerned is too weak a word.  This is unimaginable.  What this represents for the System, we can only begin to think.  Yet we would like your thoughts on the matter, as you have witnessed them first-hand in action.”

Tracer recovered quickly from his initial shock.  “I have been giving it much thought myself, Mother.  I think it is too early to draw any conclusions, but I think that one thing is obvious:  there are no coincidences.”

He saw that they concurred, and so he continued.  “Therefore I can make only three hypotheses.  First, that something has changed within the units themselves.  This is only plausible if there is some great connection among the aberrant units beyond just proximity of service.  Second, that something has changed within the aberrations themselves, much as a disease among humans may mutate—but as you said, aberration is not a disease but a defect.”

“Third—the theory that I found most likely, and most disturbing—is that someone is causing this.”

The words seemed to settle over them like a shroud.  Finally Yuna spoke.  “Although it is not a thought that we wish to acknowledge, we are in agreement with your assessment.  Of course, it is only the most vague of hypotheses, and it therefore bears further investigation.  But the very fact that you have reached this conclusion so swiftly tells me that we are correct in our assessment of you.”

“Of me, Mother?”  Tracer’s eyes shifted from Yuna to Sera and back.  “I don’t understand.”

“You have been through an ordeal of sorts,” Yuna picked up.  “Therefore we will not keep you any longer.  I will get to my point, Tracer:  We have a new assignment for you.”  She paused a beat.  “We are placing you in charge of the investigation into this issue.  Use any means you find necessary, but find out what is causing these aberrations.  We ask only that you keep this knowledge out of the general unit populace; we have taken great pains to do so until this time.”

“Your service record speaks for itself,” Sera added.  “You are supremely qualified for this role.  You have a flawless termination record, and your abilities have been nearly unmatched since your activation.  Your mind is both quick and thorough, and you already have exposure to this situation.  There is no one better suited for the responsibility.  We trust,” she added, “that you will carry it out in excellent fashion.”

“We will give you everything you need,” Yuna said.  “You will have access to any unit, any systems, and any data that you request.  All doors will be open to you, in the confidence that you will accomplish what we ask.  What do you say?”

It didn’t matter; there was nothing to say.  For once, Tracer was speechless.

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