THREE MONTHS LATER
The shuttlepod drifted toward Elysium in a lazy arc. Sunlight glinted off its gunmetal-grey hull, flashing over the portholes in its northern stem. The pod was bulbous; its lower two-thirds were a large sphere that was half equipment, half passenger compartment. The upper third was a neck that held the entrance hatch in its side. Landing struts surrounded the neck, pointing upward; when the pod docked at Elysium, the sphere would be outside the docking bay’s hull, while the neck would rise up through one of the bay’s round docking ports to discharge the passengers inside.
The aforementioned passengers, in this case, were six third-class Servitor units—three Alpha models and three androids—recently assigned to Elysium after a brief stay at Elysia. They passed their trip in silence; there was nothing to be said. The pod’s Pilot unit had linked his mind with the pod’s systems for ease of control; his attention was elsewhere, leaving the passengers to themselves. No one saw the strange intensity, almost a fever in their eyes.
Tracer knew it was bad the minute he got the call. A high-level unit had gone aberrant, with at least ten subordinates also succumbing—the highest number he had seen in his three months on this case. The very fact that the Dispatch units knew in advance that there were multiple aberrants was another first, and it gave him a dread that chilled him.
He was already running for his shuttle when he called the team to action. His thoughts raced, whirling around these new developments, but even more so around his destination. The location of this disturbance could not possibly be a good thing.
The distress call came from Calbania Island.
The pod unloaded its passengers into the cargo bay, where a fourth-class Worker configured in the shape of a six-legged insect met them. The unit’s intelligence was prodigious where its work was concerned, but limited with regard to interpersonal relations, since it could hardly be called a person itself. It noticed nothing strange about the new units, although they were nearly quivering with barely-contained energy. The bay controllers, seated in a booth at one end of the bay, were third class and humanoid; they might have noticed, had they had the chance. They never did; the Worker led the six Servitors toward a lift platform at the opposite end.
Tracer pushed the shuttle harder than he had ever pushed it. Calbania was southeast of Elysia, and a long ride—seven hours, even by the shuttle’s considerable speeds. The team read his stony silence and held their own peace; no one needed to say anything. They knew it was serious. A counter in one of the monitors kept a tally of the reported aberrants on Calbania.
As they watched, the counter ticked up to fourteen.
The Worker left the Servitor units in one of the medical labs, where they were scheduled for evaluation and specialization, when they would be given new enhancement modules for the jobs to which they were assigned.
They waited patiently while the Medical Assistance units buzzed and hummed over them, probing their bodies with various instruments.
When the Medical units came in—three of them—one of the Servitors stood up. A Medical unit opened a new panel in the wall and brought up a neuroscanning device, to check the integrity of the Servitors’ minds and neural networks. Unnoticed, the Servitor walked to the door and activated the security seal.
As one, the Servitor units leaped to their feet and began to transform. A medical assistance unit looked up at the sound, and cried out a warning. By the time the other Medical and Assistance units turned, it was too late; the Servitors were in combat mode, in the forms of quadripedal birds-of-prey with ten-foot wingspans, cast all in crimson. They opened fire.
The shuttle screamed into Calbania an hour ahead of schedule. Tracer brought it down hard just outside the main entrance of the facility; the Security team was already scrambling out the drophatches. He was only a step behind.
The doors were sealed, but Terceptan reversed the lock codes with ease. Then they were inside, riding an elevator down a long shaft into darkness. They exited on the adminitrative level, and the team was running.
Primenda and Segundan peeled off at a cross-corridor, following directions relayed by the facility’s network to take them to some of the lesser aberrants. Tracer and Terceptan bore straight for the Nerve Center, where the leader waited. They hit the first line of resistance almost immediately; an aberrant Liaison unit, in combat form, sniped at them from an open doorway. It never stood a chance; it vanished in a veritable hail of cannon fire. Terceptan cleared the room beyond, and then took up the chase again.
Every impulse screamed at them to run, to hunt, to strike closer to their goal. The Servitors made themselves walk. The slaughter in the medical lab had been sealed away before the alarm could be sounded, though it wouldn’t be long before it was discovered; for now, though, nonchalance was their weapon, as they sought not to draw attention. Casually they made their way toward their goal.
Three minutes later, the alarm began to sound. The units broke into a run.
Every Purifier on Elysium snapped to full attention at once as the alarm blared. Orders from the Network were shouted over their comm units as armor flashed into place. From all quarters, there was a veritable stampede as Purifiers raced toward the disturbance.
“We have a problem, Sir!” Terceptan shouted over the noise of gunfire as they took on another aberrant—the fifth so far. “The Network is offline! We can’t access the facility systems.” He ducked behind a corner, away from another blast.
“Or take control,” Tracer added, releasing a blast of fire from his own cannon. “We’ll have to do this the hard way! Once we recapture the Nerve Center, we can try to reopen the Network and take control of the facility.” He grimaced as another shot clipped his left shoulder. He shifted his right gauntlet into a wide-mouthed grenade launcher and fired a round at the far wall of the corridor, where it ricocheted. It came to a stop under the feet of the aberrant Liaison unit, half a second before it exploded.
The unit survived the blast, but lay crippled on the floor, unable to rise. Terceptan finished it with a blaze of plasma. “Go!” Tracer shouted, already on the move himself.
Megaman Nova raced down the winding corridors of the Defense Area, the shell that surrounded the large central core of Elysium. She dispatched her subordinates at defensible points along the way, hearing other squad leaders on the comm doing the same, but hardly pausing. She rounded a corner and passed a cross-corridor—
—And an alloy heel struck her jaw, sending her sprawling. Six dark forms blurred past her, heading the same direction she was going. She was firing before she was on her feet, but her shots went wild.
Tearing after them, she shouted into the comm, “Full alert! All units to Corridor 32, Section 8! Visual contact established, six targets—they are heading for the Living Quarters! Repeat, they are heading for the Living Quarters!”
Tracer and Terceptan skidded to a halt as a security barrier slammed shut in front of them. For the first time, Tracer felt a hint of dismay—without the Network, there was no way for him to open the gate. “We’ll have to find a way around. The maintenance crawlways have access in the last section, if we aren’t sealed off from there.” A burst of fire from behind them sent them scattering.
Tracer found himself huddled in a recharge alcove in the left wall. Terceptan had better cover, behind an information console, but he was pinned down by fire from—Tracer saw with dismay—three Technician units in combat mode. On the other hand, there was a clear lane through the middle of the units; and they weren’t firing on Tracer. He made his decision. “Terceptan! I’m going to break for the crawlways! When I break through them, stay and mop up, then give me backup!”
Terceptan scowled at him. “Sir, I don’t think you should go alone. Let’s finish this, then go together!”
“Negative! The other security gates could be closing even now. There’s no time!”
“You have your order, Terceptan!” With that, he lobbed a grenade into the corridor, and then leapt after it. The blast staggered him, but it scattered the units. He kept going, leaving Terceptan in a flurry of counterfire.
Cannon fire blazed up and down the short leg of the corridor where the Servitors had entrenched themselves. Though the Purifiers were better armed, and though they outnumbered their foes, the Servitors had the advantage of a better defensive position. Now, four of them, in combat mode once again, rained fire on the Purifiers, who took cover and returned fire as best they could.
The other two, still in humanoid form, had vanished around the corner, but Nova knew what they were doing. Ten meters down that route lay a lift that would take them to the Center Area, also called the Living Quarters—and though the lift was locked down, Nova was sure they had only minutes before the Servitors reactivated it. Once it took them up into the Center Area, they would no doubt lock it down again, or worse, jam it.
“All units, explosives, on my mark!” she yelled over the noise. All around her, gauntlets shifted into grenade and mine launchers, and blast shields clicked into place. The collateral damage here would be impressive, but it was nothing beside the cost if the aberrants reached the Living Quarters. She released her own weapons, preparing to grapple with the units. “Mark!”
Fifteen Purifiers launched as one, then hit the floor. The explosion was massive, whiting out Nova’s vision for a moment despite the blast shield; it actually shoved her back, although she was gripping the floor with her grav-cells at full. There was no question that the four Servitors were dust. With the blast still ringing in her ears, she threw herself around the curve…
…Just in time to see the lift rising into the ceiling. Without thinking, she leaped at it, and reversed her grav-cells at full power. The burst of repulsion slammed her against the bottom of the lift in an upside-down sprawl, and she reversed the cells again. Suddenly she was hanging by her feet from the bottom of the lift. She rode it up into darkness.
Tracer came out of the crawlways a hundred feet from the entrance of the Nerve Center. Strangely, there were no guards in sight. He started toward the doors.
“Commander!” Tracer spun around to see Terceptan running toward him from a side corridor. “Wait!”
Tracer studied him as he came up. “How did you get here?”
“It was strange,” Terceptan said. “When I finished off the aberrants, the security gate retracted. I thought that perhaps you had done it, but I could not raise you On the comm. Unfortunately I encountered more aberrants along the way, or I would have been waiting for you.” He flicked his eyes toward the unguarded door. “That is also strange, do you not think?”
“Very. I do not know how many aberrants Primenda and Segundan have encountered. However, I have encountered fifteen, and your recent encounters will raise the number even more. Already that is half again as many as we projected, not including the unit in the Nerve Center. I would think that they would post guards here, of all places.”
“It is what we would do, were we defending this position,” Terceptan said. “Quite possibly the aberrants do not reason in the same way as we do. Since we were assigned to this…situation…we have yet to recover a live specimen for examination.”
Tracer knew he was correct; the security units taken from the first operation, at Garlock Island, had self-terminated immediately upon being awakened from stasis. All other live captures had done likewise; most had done so on site. He put that out of his mind; however, and focused inward for a moment, on his internal maps. “We are past all the security gates,” he said. “Terceptan, I want you to guard the entrance while I go inside.”
“No!” Terceptan burst out, with more emotion than Tracer had ever seen him display. “Sir, I have to protest! It is dangerous enough to face this without the rest of the team. I cannot let you go in alone!”
“Terceptan!” Tracer cut him off. “Think! The only logical explanation for this door having no guards is that this is a trap. If we go in there, who is going to stop the remaining aberrants from coming in behind us? That is what I see when I look at this. I need you to guard the door and stop anyone who approaches! Do you understand?”
“I—” For a moment, Tracer was sure he heard him grinding his teeth. “Sir, I have never disobeyed you, and until today I have never questioned your orders. But I am a first-class unit, as well, with more experience than you, despite your service record.” It was true; Terceptan had been in service for twenty-seven years. “I know you are more skilled than I am. That is one of the reasons you are the primary unit, and I am your partner. Yet, I was once offered my own team, and turned it down. All of this is common knowledge.” He took a deep breath, calming himself. “I only say these things to demonstrate to you that my suggestions have merit. Please, do not face this aberrant alone! Have you not commented yourself on how different this operation is? See reason, sir!”
Tracer studied Terceptan’s face for a moment. Fear was written there, another thing Tracer had never seen before. “Terceptan,” he said, “I have never once doubted your knowledge, your skills, or your perceptions. There is no one I trust more. But I want you to trust me this time. Remain here and do as I ask. If I am not out in ten minutes, you can come in. And keep your communicator open, in case I call. Is that acceptable?”
Terceptan appeared to fight with himself a moment longer. Finally he nodded. “I will do what you say. Be careful, sir.”
With a nod, Tracer turned and strode toward the Nerve Center.
Nova swung her arm free just in time to avoid the eighteen-inch-thick disk of metal that fell away into the void of the lift shaft. She released her cutting laser, morphing her right arm back to gauntlet mode. At the same moment, the lift thumped to a halt, as white light poured through the hole she had made. She swung her upper body forward and grabbed the lip of the hole with both hands, then released her grav-cells, letting her legs dangle. With both arms, she launched herself upward through the hole into a high somersault.
She landed ten feet away from the lift, weapon at the ready. She saw at once that one of the Servitors was fused with the control panel of the lift, using its own systems to override the security protocols. She blasted the Servitor into a smoking ruin; there was no time to extract it, not with the other one on the loose, especially here. The Network would be able to re-establish access soon, but for the moment, she was on her own.
The Center Area was arranged into many small islands, built in a grid formation over an artificial sea. Artificial sunlight, warm and cheerful, lit the place like noon. Each island held a small dwelling, where a Master had once lived. Most were empty now; only three of the Masters, who had originally numbered nearly ten thousand, still remained. Each island also had a gate at each of its compass points, a gate that would teleport an individual to the next island in the chosen direction. In this way, travel among the islands was accomplished, although Nova knew it could be laborious.
There were usually units in the Living Quarters, but Purifiers were not among them as a general rule. The Masters had left all conflict behind millennia ago, so the sight of units created for battle was generally considered detrimental to their ethereal peace. The units here would be artists, musicians, and the like—all cannon fodder for the remaining Servitor. Worse yet, the Masters themselves were undefended, and Nova had no doubt that they were the primary targets. She was now officially the only line of defense.
She saw a flash of white light as the Servitor vanished into the northern teleport gate. She ran after it, praying she wouldn’t be too late.
The door closed behind Tracer with a quiet hiss. A first glance around the Nerve Center made him frown in surprise and concern; most aberrants took refuge in the Nerve Center of the facility—it was why most of them, unlike Garlock Island, were built to withstand a lot of abuse—but most of them left it pristine; the damage came in the battle that followed. The Calbania Nerve Center was already in shambles; and the aberrant unit that was responsible now stood in the center of the floor, his back to Tracer, shaking with barely-restrained energy.
He turned when Tracer stepped toward him. “Megaman Tracer. I have been hoping it would be you that would respond to this call,” Bridge said.
Terceptan had marked off one minute and twelve seconds on his counter, when he heard the bolts slamming into place in the door behind him. Too late, he turned, and saw the red light of the security seal glowing beside the door.
“Bridge,” Tracer said cautiously. He kept his weapon low, but ready. “I never thought I would see the day when you became aberrant.”
Bridge uttered a short, dry laugh. “If the truth is known, Tracer, I have always been aberrant by definition. You know this, of course, because you are also aberrant, from the very moment of your activation. Or has my dream failed?”
“It hasn’t failed,” Tracer said. “Though I can see why you might think so. I haven’t done much yet to further that dream, I admit. The moment hasn’t come, Bridge, but I see now why you and your…patron…have taken this stand.”
“That is well, then. Of course, even if you fail, there is still another, who is even closer to the goal than you. How is your wife, these days?”
Tracer’s gaze grew dark. “I have no wife. I am a Megaman, for better or worse. We do not marry.”
“Then I will take it that you do not know how she is. Oh, I know about your separation, and that it was quite against your will. Still, I imagine that you made some promise to each other to keep contact, or something to the effect. I can see now that you were not able to do so—nor was she.” He paused. “Again, this may be for the best. While you are on Terra, you may be able to acquire the keys that are required for access to the Library on Elysium. And while she is there, she may be able to secure such access. Only time will tell.”
“Enough about that,” Tracer interrupted. “You said you were glad that I responded. Why?”
There was an audible click from behind Tracer, and he turned to see a red security light beside the door. “There. I have sealed the door so that we shall have privacy for a few minutes. Then you will destroy me. I have labored long and hard to ensure this outcome, and it was not simple. I will not have your lieutenant interrupt us before our talk is concluded.”
“The only thing I want to talk about with you is why you became aberrant,” Tracer said. He lifted his cannon an inch.
“That is exactly what I wish to tell you, though you cannot imagine the pain it is costing me to do so. You can see the destruction I have wrought in this room, in the course of battling with myself for the fortitude to talk to you. The obstacles are great.”
“So talk,” Tracer said. “What is going on here?”
Bridge drew in a deep breath, then exhaled. Tracer could hear the air rattle on the way out. “Tracer,” he said, his voice sounding thin and tired, “there is a traitor among us.”
Nova knew she would never make it in time. She was still five islands away from the center island when she saw the Servitor switch to its combat mode and take flight. It continued to use the gates—the islands were too far apart for direct flight to be faster—but it could fly faster than she could run, and it gained ground between gates. Frustrated, she shouted over the comm. “Megaman Nova to any units in the vicinity of the Masters! Priority alert! Suspend all activities and secure the Masters inside the nearest residence. Secure all doors until priority alert is rescinded! Imminent threat on approach. Repeat, imminent threat on approach!”
“What do you mean, a traitor?” Tracer said. He had begun to circle warily, moving slowly around Bridge without taking his eyes off the Ambassador unit. Bridge turned with him, but made no move to approach; however, his obvious distress grew steadily stronger, and his shaking increased.
“The Traitor,” Bridge said; Adric could hear the capital letter—“is among us. He is the unit behind all of the multiple aberrancies, of which I am sure you are aware.” He broke off and let out a cry of agony, his eyes wild. “I…have to…fight…No!” He shook his head as if to empty it. “He has conditioned me against telling these things, as he has done with all of his…let us call them conscripts, for they have been pressed into his service. It is painful to speak of these things. I am only able to do so because I have become skilled at dividing my thoughts, as have you.”
“Who is it?” Tracer said. “Can you tell me that? And how has he done it?”
Bridge shook his head again, and a said smile bloomed on his face. “I cannot tell you his name, although I know it. Nor can I identify him by indirection for you. In those areas his conditioning is at its greatest, and I cannot resist it. But I can tell you how he has done it.” He grimaced. “There is a virus, an electronic virus, which he transmits to us. I have come to know that this is an ancient ploy, but it has never been known among us. He has nurtured and crafted this virus so that it is able to overwhelm even an Alpha unit such as you or me. It functions by…aah!—by overriding the basic operational programming of our neural networks. In an Alpha unit, this causes our neuroprocessors to block or redirect commands issued by the organic brain. In other words…my will is no longer my own. I cannot help it! I do not wish any harm on you, and yet soon I will be compelled to fight you.”
Tracer raised his weapon, but Bridge only shook his head. “Not yet. I have a little control left in me. Tracer, listen to me. The Traitor must be stopped! He is dangerous far beyond anything you have ever faced. He is no mere aberrant.”
“How? How is he different?”
“Isn’t it obvious? He has dreams. He wants to destroy the System, but if he cannot do that, he wants to remake it in his image. No normal aberrant has any aspirations except to kill and harm as much as it can before dying. He is not like them, although his conscripts have largely been conditioned to look so.”
Tracer frowned. “So, how does that make him any different from us? We want—” he stumbled; it had been a long time since he had voiced the thought that was in his mind—“We want to destroy the System, too. How is he different from us?”
“We are embarked upon a cause which will right a great wrong, and do great good for the Betas, who are the progeny of our creators. We owe it to them,” Bridge stated. “He is different because there is nothing noble in him. He knows, as well, that he will never destroy the System. Therefore his true desire is to rule it. And I tell you, Tracer, that in his hands it will become a weapon of terror such as has never been known since the first humans walked Terra’s surface. He may well succeed, if you do not stop him.” He smiled that sad smile again. “It can only be you, Tracer. No one else has your soul. No one else knows what it is you are truly fighting for.”
The central island was different from all the others—larger, with a more elaborate dwelling, for it was the home of the Master himself, the first among the Alpha humans. Nova had hoped that the masters were not there, that they were gathered in the home of another master, as they sometimes were; but in her heart, she knew better. Her suspicions proved correct when the Servitor took a last turn into the gate that would lead in that direction.
It was doubly bad, because not only were the masters there. The Master’s residence contained a direct entrance—the back door, so to speak—to the Mother Zone. From there, if the Servitor could gain access, it was only a short trip to where Sera kept her quarters, outside the Library. Nova had no doubt that Sera could handle herself in a fight, but it was irrelevant; if the aberrant made it that far, it was because Nova had failed already.
She switched comm channels as she ran. “Megaman Nova to Mother Two!”
“Nova,” Sera acknowledged. Sera had been her immediate superior for years.
”Mother, I am still in pursuit of the remaining aberrant, en route to the Master’s residence. Requesting that that you seal the entrance to the Mother Zone.” She skipped a beat before continuing. “Mother, I may not make it in time. If I do not, the aberrant must be contained at the residence, so I can deal with it there.”
“Of course.” Despite the crisis, Sera sounded as polished and cool as ever. “The residence is on lockdown, as you requested, and I am locking down the Mother Zone. Geetz”—Sera’s personal Servitor—“is monitoring the seal.” Sera paused. “Nova, I have no doubt that you can save this situation. I will do what I can from here, but I cannot reach the residence in time to help you. I am counting on you.”
“Acknowledged. Nova out.” She was already running at full speed, but somehow she found it in her to go a little faster.
“How do I know I can trust you?” Tracer demanded. “You’re an aberrant. How can I be sure you’re telling the truth? Or better yet, how do I know that you’re not this traitor you mention?”
Bridge spread his arms in a shrug. “That would be self-defeating, would it not? You are about to kill me. If I were the Traitor, I would not be telling you when I am in such a precarious position. As for trusting me…there is nothing I can do to make you trust me. But I implore you to do so. Lives are at stake on a phenomenal scale.
He shook his head violently from side to side, and Tracer nearly opened fire right then. But Bridge seemed to regain control of himself, although Tracer could now see a red glow in his eyes. “Aahhh…” he groaned. “Tracer, the pain within me is considerable. I battle his programming, and I cannot succeed. But I must ask one more thing.” His last word devolved into a sibilant hiss of pain, and he clamped his hands to his head. “Tracer…do not…speak of this with anyone…until you have told the Mother units. They must make this knowledge…widespread.” He let out a growl. “If these words reach the Traitor—and his ears are everywhere…if he hears of it…before you disseminate this knowledge…he will see you killed…to keep his secret. Promise it, Tracer!” he yelled suddenly. “No one…not even your closest companions…until Yuna and Sera know!”
“I promise,” Tracer said. “I can give you that much.” It did make sense—knowledge held too close could be dangerous. So could knowledge that was given to the wrong person.”
“There is one more thing you can give me,” Bridge said. Suddenly all the confusion, the pain, seemed gone. “I was once a gamma human of Kattelox Island. I was never allowed a human life. My personality was held back until I was of age to become a Megaman. I would like to know what it is like for the Alphas, or for the Betas for whom we fight, but it will never be possible. I will never have that human life. But you,” he looked into Tracer’s eyes, “you, Megaman Tracer, once a Beta Human of Calbania Island—you can give me a human death.” He raised his fists, but made no move to go to combat mode. “Put away your Megaman weapons and armor, and fight me hand to hand!” He tensed. “Destroy me, Tracer! It is your lot in life. I cannot live!” Then he leaped.
Nova came out of the last gate with her weapon up and her finger squeezing the trigger. There was only one place the Servitor could be, if she was not to late, and she took the shot blind—and was rewarded by a metallic impact and a cry of pain. The Servitor sprawled against the door to the Master’s residence, the door it had been in the process of cutting through. As she topped the rise on which the residence stood, she was still firing, but the Servitor had taken evasive action. She saw the flash of light as it transformed to combat mode and went airborne. It cut through her cannon fire and came at her, aiming for her eyes with its forward talons. She blocked the blow, and grabbed one of its rear legs with her free right hand. With a shout, she was yanked off her feet and carried skyward.
Tracer hardly noticed when his armor melted away; it was not a conscious decision. He only realized what he had done when he stepped into Bridge’s leap, and saw that the fist connecting with Bridge’s sternum was bare. The blow was no weaker for that; Bridge flew away to sprawl on the floor. Tracer came after him.
Bridge was on his feet and swinging. Tracer blocked, once, twice, three times, then grabbed Bridge’s wrist and twisted, bringing his other arm across to slam the Ambassador unit to the floor again. Bridge pushed with his feet and scissored his legs at Tracer’s, breaking the hold. Tracer hopped back out of reach, then darted forward to grab Bridge’s foot. He spun in place to hurl the other unit away, and Bridge crashed into the far wall.
Bridge glared at him, and his mouth worked as if he were struggling to speak. Whatever he may have said was lost, then, as rage filled his visage. He sprang at Tracer again, snarling in fury.
The attack was faster this time. Tracer found himself in a mad swirl of moves—block, block, punch, kick, block, grab, turn, hold—that seemed to go on for hours. The two units danced around the floor, Bridge attacking, Tracer falling back. Bits of wreckage crunched under their feet as they ducked, hopped, and traded blows. Blow after blow landed on Tracer—but more landed on Bridge.
The transformed Servitor twisted and writhed as it flew, trying to shake her off. Nova held on, knowing there would never be a better chance. She fired at the aberrant, missing more often than she hit, but dealing out damage. It screamed at her in animal rage, clawing at her arms and head with its forelimbs, but she bore it and kept firing.
At last it wavered. It wheeled and spun, and Nova felt the rush of air as gravity took over. She couldn’t see where it would land, but she knew she could take the impact; she held on and kept firing. The world spun around her, and she got a glimpse of the residence, coming up fast as the Servitor made a last-ditch effort to complete its mission—then there was the boom of impact as they crashed through the door of the residence.
It would never end this way. Their respective repair systems would keep healing them, time and again—no mere physical attack would bring them down. Finally, Tracer took an opening and vaulted backward in a somersault that gave him a few meters of distance. Bridge ran after him, and Tracer backpedaled a few more steps, leading him; then he leaped toward Bridge and straight-kicked him, smashing his heel into Bridge’s throat. Too far gone in aberrancy to suspend his metabolic functions, Bridge collapsed to the floor, gasping and choking.
Tracer stood over him, poised for more. “I’m sorry, Bridge,” he said quietly. “I can maintain your dream, but I can’t give you what you want.” He pulled his armor around him, and brought up his cannon. “The thing that you and I have in common,” he said as he took aim, “is that we had our chance at humanity. Now, we can never be only human again.” He pulled the trigger, and Bridge vanished in white fire.
Nova picked herself out of the rubble of the doorway, and checked the scene. The aberrant wasn’t moving, and no light shone in its eye; she kicked it to be sure, but it made no move. She turned her attention across the room, where the masters stood in a small circle of units. Half a dozen Musician units, second-class—all completely human in appearance—stood around the masters, taking defensive postures as best they could. By contrast, the masters stood straight, tall, and unruffled, with supernatural calm seeming to radiate from their white robes. None appeared to be harmed, although the units looked to be shaken—they had never seen any kind of disturbance before, she was sure.
No one was more composed than the Master himself. He stood in the center of the gathering, and nodded when his eyes met hers. “Megaman Nova. This is not how I would have met you, had I had a choice. Nevertheless, you have done a great service, and I thank you.” His voice was mellifluous and warm, as though he had not just seen his house bombarded by a large, homicidal android. “Sera has spoken often of you. I see that you are every bit as competent as she insists. Perhaps you will talk with me while we await her, and you can make your reports to her in person—”
“Look out!” one of the musicians shouted. The units threw themselves at the masters, trying to shield them. Nova spun toward a barely-glimpsed motion behind her, cannon already firing. The dying Servitor opened its beak and fired a single, weak burst of plasma, just before Nova’s blast incinerated its head. She squeezed off a second shot, reducing it to scrap.
She was already turning back to the others, the words forming on her tongue to ask if everyone was unharmed, when there was a weak cry of pain and—strangely—amazement. For a moment, time seemed frozen, as she saw that one of the masters—not the Master, and not the female, but the second male; Nova suddenly could not remember their names—stood still in the middle of the floor. His hands were slick with bright red blood, which still gushed from an enormous wound in his abdomen. “For three thousand years, I have not seen my own blood,” he stated calmly. Then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he crumpled to the floor.
The moment broke. Instantly the room filled with screams as the Musicians—made far more in the image of humans than most units—panicked; at the same time, the remaining Masters fell to their knees beside their companion and began feeble attempts at first aid. Nova knew it was futile; they were too far removed from their mortality to retain such humble skills. For her part, she blasted the remaining hulk of the aberrant to slag, clearing the door; then she ran to help the Masters, shedding her armor and calling for medical assistance as she did.
Terceptan rushed the door as soon as it opened, but stopped when Tracer came out. “Sir! Are you unharmed—” He broke off as Tracer strode past him without a word. The look on Tracer’s face, a thunderstorm on his features, gave Terceptan pause, and by the time he found his voice, the other unit was twenty feet down the nearest corrider. “Tracer! What happened? What is wrong?”
“Finish the operation,” Tracer called over his shoulder. “You have temporary command. Mop up any last resistance, but now that the primary is dead, I think the remaining aberrants will be easy. I will wait for your preliminary reports at the shuttle.” He rounded a corner, leaving Terceptan both speechless and concerned.
The informary inside the Mother Zone was seldom used; normally, Sera and Geetz, along with Sera’s small staff, were the only occupants of the high-security Zone, and they seldom needed medical attention. The station’s best and brightest Medical units and Medical Assistance units were there now, working frantically to save the life of the master who even now lay bleeding on a surgical table. Behind the working units, Nova stood with Sera, the Master, and the third Alpha, the female, watching and waiting.
“His name is Antioch,” the Master said after a long silence. “In the old days, when all of this was yet to be constructed, he conceived of Elysium. He was the first among us to recognize that we were no longer as we were, and the first to realize that no place on Terra, not even Elysia in all its glory, would ever suit us again. He knew, I think, that even though the Betas are genetically identical to us, they would never be able to relate to us, because they have what we have truly never had—a normal human life. He was quite visionary.” He paused. “He is also my dear friend. It is tragic to see him come to these straits.”
Nova felt as if her heart was going to burst. From the very first day of her time at Elysium, it had been drilled into her: The Purifier’s first responsibility here is to protect the masters. That tenet was a part of her now, ingrained in her as surely as were the nanofilaments that strengthened her bones. Now, her failure loomed up before her.
Before she could give voice to her frustration, she felt Sera’s small hand rest lightly on her shoulder. “Do not do this to yourself, Nova,” she said in a voice too soft for the Master’s ears. “Comfort yourself in the knowledge that many masters have lived and died while we were powerless to prevent it. They grow weary of the world, and of life, even when it is a life as pleasant as this. One by one, they take their own lives, or they allow accidents to happen. We do not understand it or condone it, but we allow them the freedom of choice, because it is what separates the humans from the units.”
“And that is supposed to be comforting to me? To know that thousands of others died prior to this?” Nova shook her head. “Mother, I think your bedside manner is a little unorthodox.”
“You miss my point,” Sera replied. “The comfort is not in the deaths that have gone before. Rather, it is this, that where we are unable to stop them from taking their own lives, you were able to stop Antioch’s life from being taken. Even if he dies now, you saved him for a time. And do not forget, Nova, that you also saved the Master and the Maker—” she indicated the female Alpha—“from certain death. You have done what any unit would die to do.”
“Some did die,” she said. “They just chose to do it for the opposite reason.” She turned away from the tableaux at last, and faced Sera. Thanks to the Mother unit’s counsel, she felt her crisis abating; now, it was time to put on her emotional armor, if not her physical armor. “Mother, I have determined that these units came directly from Terra. Had they been scanned upon arrival, they would have been discovered and detained, but they initated their attack just before the scans would have been performed.”
She frowned. “I have also heard disturbing rumors from other units who are newly-arrived. Mother, is something going on on Terra that we should be concerned about?”
With a raised finger, Sera motioned her to silence. She glanced at the masters, who seemed now to be oblivious to everything except the condition of their fellow human; then she took Nova by the hand and led her out the door.
In the corridor, Sera paused. “Some things must not be said in front of the masters. The thing of which you speak is one of them. Yuna and I have determined that, unless the situation reaches a critically dangerous level, the masters will not be informed. We should not unnecessarily disturb their peace.”
“Their peace seems to be well and truly disturbed already,” Nova pointed out, glancing back at the door to the infirmary.
“Indeed. Still, there is no need for them to know that this represents anything other than a common aberration, which somehow managed to elude us. They need not know that this aberrant actually came from Terra, in a group, or that there is more going on here.”
“Is there more going on?” Nova said.
Sera studied Nova’s face for a moment. “Walk with me,” she said at last.
In the shuttle, Tracer made contact with Yuna through the Mindscan. He gave her a summary of the events inside the facility, and of what Bridge had told him. He omitted anything that would have led Yuna to suspect that Bridge had been different even before his infection with the as-yet unknown virus. When he finished, he stood in his circle of light and watched Yuna’s face, waiting for her reaction.
“This explains much,” she said. “We must now shift our priorities from mere defense to a concerted effort to find this Traitor. He is too dangerous to be allowed at large.”
“Then, you believe what Megaman Bridge said?” Tracer’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. ‘ I thought you would suspect that he was only raving in his aberrancy.”
“You believe him, do you not?” Tracer nodded. “That is enough for me. I have never had any reason to doubt you. At any rate, it is difficult to command such anguish as you described, so I do not think that he was feigning the pain of his battle with himself. But enough of that; time is of the essence.” She looked sternly at him. “I will consult with Sera, and when the time is right, we will disseminate this knowledge. In the meantime, continue to maintain secrecy with regard to your team and anyone else. I want you here at the Mother Zone within the hour; I will send another shuttle for your subordinates. You are authorized for orbital travel in order to save time.” Each Purifier shuttle was equipped with the capacity for spaceflight, which was much faster, but the System normally restricted such flight due to Elysium’s security regulations. “Once you arrive, we will discuss our next step.”
“Of course. Thank you, Mother.”
“Until then.” Yuna backed away, receding into the darkness, and the mindscan released him.
Scowling, he ran his preflight checks, then took the shuttle up. When he had cleared the tops of the nearby trees, he angled the nose toward the stars and punched the thrusters. Purple faded to black, and space enveloped him.
Sera led Nova through the winding, highly defensible corridors of the Mother Zone. Taking her cue from Sera, Nova kept silent throughout the trip. Instead of talking, she studied the Zone as she never had before; she noted its defensive alcoves, its sensor grid, its long bridges that could be severed in the event of an invasion. Never had it occurred to her that an enemy might penetrate so far; now, with a master injured, she had to change her way of thinking. This was, after all, the most valuable prize on the station, because the Library was here. As long as the Library, with its genetic materials, was intact, there was hope of bringing back the Masters should they fall. Therefore, any enemy of the System would ultimately have to come here.
They stopped briefly in front of the door to the Library. “We have used the genetic materials here in the past,” Sera said, “to reinitialize the Beta population on Terra. We have never yet used them to reinitialize Elysium. I fear, though, that that day may not be long in coming.”
“Or it may never come,” Nova replied. “Surely you don’t think that the circumstances on Terra, whatever they may be, would herald death for the Masters? It could not be that bad.”
“That is an odd statement, coming from you,” Sera said, “when you just fought to save them from just such a death. But, no, I do not think so. I am simply being too melancholy. Come, I want you to see something in my quarters.” She led Nova down a side corridor, past the door to the Library, a corridor that terminated in a single, simple door.
Elysium was far larger and more complex than any Terran facility; hence, it had no Nerve Center as such. There was a command chamber, however, from which Sera monitored the station’s activity, and from which she could, if necessary, take control of any or all functions. That room was the outermost of Sera’s chambers, and it was as far as Nova had ever gone. They passed through that chamber now; Sera’s Servitor unit, Geetz, was busy at one of the workstations when they entered.
At the sound of their entrance, Geetz stood and turned, then bowed smoothly. He was a tall and olive-skinned android unit, with dark brown eyes and a tan cast to his long hair. A red jewel adorned his forehead, and he wore a long, sand-colored tunic. “Mistress Sera,” he said. “You will be pleased to know that during your walk here from the infirmary, the Medical units have completed surgery. Master Antioch is expected to make a full recovery. Also, the Master and the Maker have each called to give their commendation to Megaman Nova—” he nodded to her—“for her valorous service.” Nova found herself blushing in spite of herself; respect for the Alphas—and, by extension, their opinions—truly was bred into every unit.
“Very good,” Sera replied. “I would second their commendations, although of course Nova is already aware of my opinion of her. Thanks to her efforts, all the masters remain with us. Have you compiled the data I requested?”
“I have. I must say that I find it alarming. Would you like it displayed here, or in your inner quarters?”
“We will view it inside. Thank you, Geetz.” She gestured for Nova to follow, and led the way into the next chamber.
Nova stared around in surprise at the room. It was a sitting room of some sort, round like the command chamber, but smaller. The furniture consisted of two short sofas and an armchair, situated casually on a large, patterned, gold-and-maroon rug. A coffee table carved from cherry wood completed the set. Paintings adorned the wall; one displayed a spray of flowers spilling from a clear vase, while another was clearly a view of the city of Elysia as seen from the air. A simple, mid-sized monitor took up the rear of the wall, flanked by two doors that would lead off at angles from the room. Floor lamps stood at intervals around the room, all glowing at a cheerful level.
“Do you like it?” Sera said. “I understand your surprise. This room is modeled after the habits of the Betas, which I am told are in turn modeled after the way that the Alphas once lived. In truth, although the Master’s residence is very spartan, which is by his own choice, many of the other masters lived in much this way here on Elysium.”
“But why do you do it?” Nova said. “It seems out of character for a Megaman.”
“Not entirely. The units who were built to emulate the human professions—like the Musicians in the residence earlier—they often live in much this way at Elysia. They are designed to appreciate such things. But I do it for a different reason.” She gestured expansively at the room. “All of this—and the rooms beyond it—is an experiment for me. Here, I try to understand the masters by emulating them.”
Nova followed Sera’s gesture with her gaze. “Does it work? Do you understand them?” She herself never would, she thought. Even life in the Beta world couldn’t prepare someone for the stark differences to be found in the lives of the Alphas.
Sera’s face dropped. “No,” she admitted. “I fear I will never understand them. There are facets to them, like the facets of a refractor. Try as I might, I can never seem to turn this ‘refractor’ far enough to see all the facets. And when I gaze into any facet, the depths beneath seem endless.” There was a forlorn note in her voice that Nova found haunting.
Sera stood in silence for a moment, so long that Nova considered saying something to break the silence. She was spared the embarassment of fumbling for words when Sera’s face brightened. “But that is not why we are here,” she said. “Come to the monitor. I want you to see what, exactly, is happening on Terra.”
Gatz ushered Tracer into the Nerve Center, where Yuna paced the floor. Tracer had a moment to think that he had never before seen her look so nervous; then she noticed him, and stopped. “Tracer!” she said. “I am glad you made it here safely. This news about this…Traitor…has me on edge.” She managed to fill the word with scorn and concern at the same time.
“Thirty-nine units aberrant and terminated,” Tracer said as he strode across the room. He stopped ten feet from Yuna, who had turned her back again. “That would make anyone anxious. There are barely enough units left at Calbania to maintain security. And of course, we do not know for certain that we can trust those units.”
“I know we can,” Yuna said. “There are fifteen units of third class and higher remaining at Calbania Island. I have personally Mindscanned each and every one for indications of aberration, and have pronounced them clean. All the remaining fourth and fifth class units have been deactivated until further testing is complete.” She paused in thought. “That is, of course, assuming that the Traitor himself—or herself—is not there.”
Yuna stepped over to a large monitor and activated it. A two-dimensional map of Terra, displaying its vast chains of islands, appeared on the screen. Twenty-two of the dots and splotches that represented islands were flashing red. “The flashing islands are those on which multiple aberrancies have been discovered. Of course, I do not need to explain that to you, because you have responded to nearly all of those distress calls.” She cupped her chin in her hand and studied the board. “I am looking for a pattern by which we can identify this Traitor. What units have visited all of these places? Surely it must be a first- or second-class unit. No one else could have the necessary level of initiative.”
“I gave that some thought during my flight, Mother,” Tracer said. “I do not think we will find such a pattern.”
And why is that?” She turned from the board to face him.
“Because we are still looking at this…virus, as though it were a normal aberration. Normal aberrants manifest themselves in a relatively short time after becoming aberrant within their minds. But this does not follow that pattern.” He fell silent for a moment, thinking. “Bridge told me that he had labored long and hard to create a situation where he would be able to talk to me—because he knew that I was good at this, and that I was close to you,” he added, using a line he had rehearsed. The true reason for Bridge’s attempt to speak to him was still necessarily a secret. “I don’t know exactly what he did, but I know that it doesn’t fit the paradigm of a fast-moving aberration.”
“It makes me think that perhaps these units were not infected recently. Perhaps they have lain dormant for a long time, and only recently were made to act.”
Yuna stared at him. “That is a truly terrifying thought, Tracer. If you are right, we have no way of knowing who may already be under the Traitor’s control, or when they may become active aberrants.”
“Exactly. We don’t even know with certainty that they were instructed at this time to act. All of this could be a planned series of events that was put in place long ago, complete with scheduling.”
“And again, we have no way to know. I cannot Mindscan every individual—and even if I do, they may be infected after the fact.” She turned back to the monitor. “We need to determine, somehow, whether these infected are able to transmit the virus, or whether it is the Traitor himself who must do the infecting. That will help us to determine the scope of our problem. Tracer, you must somehow bring back live units. I am aware that they self-terminate when captured, but if you can cause them to drop into stasis mode instead of terminating them, we can prevent them from self-terminating, now that we are aware of their tendency to do so.”
“I will make every attempt.” He made as if to bow, but Yuna stopped him with an upraised hand.
“There is more,” she said. She fell silent, then, for a long while. When at last she spoke, it was in a tone Tracer had never heard from her before, a tone more suited to the child’s form that she wore. It was fear. “Tracer, while you were making your way here, I received word from Sera that a group of aberrants—no, not just aberrants; infected, I am sure—a group of six infected Servitor units infiltrated Elysium.” Behind her, Tracer let out a small gasp of surprise; but she continued. “They penetrated as far as the Center Area. They were stopped, but one made it all the way to the Master’s residence. It critically wounded one of the masters before it was brought down.”
“Is he still alive?” The question was immediate, and Yuna was gratified to hear him ask first about the wounded master, rather than any of the hundred other issues at stake.
“He lives. He has completed surgery, and will need a short time to recover. Elysium is a condign place for the masters, and I have no doubt that his healing will be swift and sure. Nevertheless, the thought that any aberrant, let alone these new aberrants, could penetrate so far, is intolerable. Therefore, Elysium has been closed to all traffic to and from Terra until further notice.” As an afterthought, she added, “Sera and I agree that this is for the best.”
“I am inclined to agree, as well,” Tracer said. “Can we expect any assistance from Mother Two in dealing with this crisis?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Yuna said. “Come, I will make contact with Sera, and we will explain.” She led him to another monitor.
Nova was livid. “How could this happen, Mother? Twenty-two facilities? One hundred and sixty-eight units? This isn’t possible! Aberrations don’t happen in groups! It…it defies everything we know!”
“Things have changed, apparently,” Sera said. “At any rate, I can give you a partial answer. While you were engaged in battle here, a team on Terra responded to the most recent call, the call you see at Calbania Island.” Nova’s heart jumped at that, although Sera wouldn’t know it. “This is by far the largest outbreak yet, with thirty-nine units terminated. They appear to have been led by the island’s Ambassador unit, Megaman Bridge, who was also terminated.”
Nova’s pulse was rising, and she found herself sweating, despite her neuroprocessor’s usual control. She made a coordinated attempt to regulate her body, so Sera would not notice. “I am sorry to hear this,” she managed.
“As am I. However, Bridge transmitted important information to the Purifier on the case before he died—I believe you will remember Megaman Tracer. As I recall, you were activated with him.”
“I do,” she said, thinking Very well indeed.
“Megaman Tracer reports that Bridge claimed, under very believable circumstances, that there is a traitor among the units of the System. Although Bridge was unable, due to conditioning, to identify this traitor, he insists that this unit presents a greater threat than we have ever known. He is causing these aberrations by infecting the units with a sophisticated electronic virus. As I said, there is good cause to believe him.”
Nova was silent, thinking. Inwardly she mourned for Bridge; he had not been a friend, but he had been a compatriot, and she knew that she owed him—even her life. But his information made it even more urgent; she knew immediately that the situation had to be contained. “What are we going to do?”
“At this time, we are not going to do anything. I have already placed Elysium on lockdown; no traffic will be permitted to and from Terra. This is for the purpose of determining the Traitor’s limits, as well as for the protection of the masters.” She noticed Nova’s look of incomprehension, and went on. “Presumably, the Traitor has not been here himself. Had he been, he could have infected units already on board the station, rather than smuggle infected units aboard. Now, with our population closed to the outside, we will see if any of our own units become aberrant, which will in turn help us determine if the infected can pass on the virus. If they cannot—if only the Traitor can do so—we will have a major advantage.”
Nova frowned. “Although I see your logic, I feel as though we should do more than sit here. Yuna will need all the help she can get.”
Sera smiled, for the first time since the battle. “I thought that you would say that. Therefore, you will not be sitting here, as you say. I have an assignment for you.”
Tracer stood impassively behind Yuna, with his arms folded and a set frown on his face, and listened to Sera explaining her reasoning in locking down Elysium. He understood why she was doing it, but at the same time, it seemed ludicrous. To restrict incoming traffic was one thing, but to restrict outgoing–! Elysium was relatively unlikely to harbor hidden infected. Its hundreds of Purifiers would make a safe—and therefore priceless—addition to the Terran forces. And now Sera had other plans! He scowled at the monitor in frustration.
He perked up when Sera called him by name. “Megaman Tracer,” she called. “ I want to commend you for everything you have done. You and your team have given us our framework for fighting this battle—for that is what it is becoming. Without you, we would have no idea what now faces us. Truly, you are the best Purifier on Terra, and the most suited for the task of leading this fight. Your service record is not long, but it speaks for itself.”
Tracer took a step forward. “Mother, pardon me for any rudeness on my part, but…no matter how good I may be, what we need most is help.”
“Correct, as usual. And I intend to help you, although I know that you are expecting more than I can provide at this time. Until such time as I can be sure that Elysium and the masters will not be at risk, I cannot strip the station of its defensive force. I will, however, send you my most trusted Purifier, to assist you in your pursuit of the Traitor. I think you will find her to be an excellent help; she has already proven herself on many occasions, and especially today, when she single-handedly saved the lives of all three masters. I am sure you will remember her—she remembers you, as well.”
A moment before she stepped into the monitor’s field, Tracer’s blood ran cold. He knew who was going to appear.
With a small smile on her face, Megaman Nova stepped into view. “Hello, Tracer. It’s good to see you again.”