"Hoo! Huh! Huwoa!"
Zero executed a perfect triple slash combo on an incoming batonton bat. The black bowling ball exploded in a sphere of light with harmless black shrapnel littering the ground. Two rolling tanks emerged from doorways on opposite sides of the room. Zero jumped up while their turrets tracked him, and landed on the top of the one on the left. The second tank opened fire, scattering plasma blasts against the wall. Zero skyrocketed off as the shots peppered the tank, causing it to explode. Zero aimed his arm cannon and rained down plasma shots at the remaining tank. The tank's turret readjusted its angle gradually as Zero careened forward and sliced off the barrel with his energy saber. He switched his body around and around the tank several more times, whipping his saber up and down, and jumped back as the tank exploded in a shower of light.
"Computer – advance difficulty to Rank S," Zero demanded.
*Rank S is not recomm-*
"Just do it!" Zero screamed primally.
The computer blipped in compliance and dark red light flooded the room. Suddenly, robots began pouring out of all sixteen entrance panels around the room. They started firing plasma shots immediately. Yellow globules of energy spattered the room around him in crossfire.
Zero dashed forward and slammed into one of the humanoid robots with a cycloptic eye in the stomach. As it doubled over he thrust his arm back up, knocking it in the face with his bulbous forearm. It swayed back and the red commander blew it away with his arm cannon. A plasma burst made impact with his right shoulder blade, leaving a smoldering mark. He winced and looked behind him, ferocity masking his face like war paint.
Zero took off at an inhuman sprint under the chaotic blitzkrieg with his saber blazing. He dashed towards the wall and sliced a soldier robot in two at the torso. Rust-colored red metal innards spilled out. The next one he decapitated, yellow sparks fountaining forth instead of blood. Plasma shots pelted down hard on him as the others locked onto his stationary position. Zero looked back in fury at them and raced along the edge of the wall, cutting dummy robots open as fast as they could emerge. The enemies respawned just as fast as Zero could do away with them. Still sprinting, Zero's foot touched the wall itself and, using his centrifugal force, he began running along the wall. Smoke and sparks flew left and right from the bodies and machines littering the floor.
Zero spun off the wall like a tornado and cut the last robot down the middle, head to toe. The two halves fell apart from each other and flopped to the ground.
The red android squatted on the ground, posed with his saber arced behind him and holding the ground for support with his other hand. The lighting in the arena switched back to hospital white.
*End Program* the computer said.
"Not enough," Zero muttered as he turned off his light saber.
Zero looked up and saw Janus standing in the open doorway.
"Janus? Are you going to use the Beta Room?" he said as he rubbed his wrist, testing its tensile strength.
"Oh, no, sir, I fight my battles in less violent terms... and with less debris to clean up."
Zero took a passing glance at the wasteful mess he'd made. "Well, do you want something then?" Janus could tell by the angered look in his eyes and his heavy breathing, Zero was still agitated from the battle. .
"I'm just curious, sir, as to how X's extradition proceeds."
"Don't talk about X with me. I'm really not in the mood for it." Zero said as he sheathed his saber into his belt.
"Oh, I know my timing is off, sir. But I was wondering just how well you know X."
Zero thought Janus was taking a serious risk continuing the conversation. "Know him? I know him like he was my own brother."
"Then why did he shoot you?"
"It wasn't on purpose. He was aiming for Duplex, but he got me instead."
"Pardon me, sir, but that's not what I've heard from others in the company. Though I bore no witness to the event, I understand that X fired at you in defense when you assailed him."
"I don't know!" Zero threw his hands up in the air and then clutched the sides of his head, "Rrrgh, I don't know, and I can't get in to see him or talk to him because he's under arrest." He propped himself up at the side of the wall, his eyes growing and his pupils narrowing. "I keep telling myself it was just an accident, but that look he had in his eyes, I see it in my dreams. What do you think?"
"Whether it was accident or purposeful, I cannot tell."
"Maybe he was just defending himself, right? He saw me jump at him and he let it go. He acted instinctively."
"Reploids don't have instincts, sir."
"I know! That's the problem. So what does that leave? He did it intentionally? I can't believe that. I mean, I did tackle him, but that was just to protect the other guy. And he let the blast go into me."
"Did it hurt, sir?" Janus cocked his head to the side. "I ask because I've never been in full combat before. I've never taken a charged blast, though I doubt I would withstand it."
Zero sighed. "It hurt. It hurt like hell. He knew it, but he didn't stop. It had to have been an accident. Right? Right?"
"I... er," Janus stammered, surprised at being asked his own opinion.
"Janus, tell me what you think. You work under X, right?"
"Yes, sir, but that can't mean that I am a judge of his character."
"You must know. What have you seen? Has X been acting weird?" Zero grabbed Janus by the shoulders with a pleading look in his eye.
"Weird? Weird is such a subjective term."
"Yes, yes, but do you know if he's been acting weird?"
"Know? I cannot 'know' someone is weird. Just like I cannot 'know' if a person is kind. It's a matter of opinion."
"Fine, fine, then what do you think?"
"Are you stuck on repeat?" Zero released his shoulders and stepped back. "Do you know something? Are you trying to hide something from me?"
"Sir, please calm down. You know that I am dutifully obligated to serve you."
"I know, I know you are a fine Maverick Hunter and would never disobey an order. And I order you to tell me what you think of X!" Zero glowered hatefully at Janus, never wavering from his battle gaze.
"I think X is an honest hunter."
"And what, sir? If you'll forgive me, my opinions are irrelevant in this matter."
"I assure you they are very relevant."
"But what I may say has the chance to be misinterpreted. I'd hate to be the source of an ugly rumor, especially one damaging to X."
"My god, man. Did you take classes in verbal manipulation or something?" Zero threw up his hands and paced back to the wall.
"If I should speak badly of X, it would ruin him for all time. A man's treasure is nothing if he has no reputation to spend it."
"What? What are you talking about? Reputation?" He spoke slowly and deliberately so that Janus would understand him. "I just want your opinion of X."
Janus kept his mouth shut and stood there dumbly, his hands behind his back.
Zero approached him infuriated. "Braah, tell me! Tell me, or so help me..."
"I cannot, even if my memory was ripped out of me."
"RRRAA!" Zero wound up his arm and his meaty fist punched clear through the titanium padding of the room. Zero retracted his hand slowly, pulling out sparking wires and wall debris. A soft screeching metal sounded as he moved his hand. Janus' expression remained unfazed.
Zero pulled his undamaged hand out and looked between it and the wall. "My god, have I lost control too? Is this how you felt, X?"
Janus stepped closer to Zero with his hands clasped behind him. "Dear sir, be wary of suspicion. It is a black dog that sinks its teeth in once and never lets go."
Zero propped his arms against the wall, stared down at the floor, panting like he was sick. His eyes were gaping wide, looking for something to believe in.
Janus continued, "If you were rich and were constantly paranoid of those around you trying to take your earnings, it would be better to be poor and content. Don't you think?"
Zero futily tried to shove back in the wires he had pulled out of the wall. "You're right," Zero quick-turned back to Janus, regaining his composure. "I'm not a suspicious person. I don't behave irrationally like this. X might, but I don't. Never knew he had it in him, but he is capable of that. I've just demonstrated it." He gestured to the newly made hole. "I regret it, but the writing's on the wall, so to speak."
"I just don't want you to become as paranoid as X."
"Do you think I'm seeing conspiracies everywhere? People know me as level-headed. If I'm in doubt, then I stay in doubt until the issue is resolved. I already know what I know, now I want to know if there is more to go on."
"Good," Janus stood at attention and smiled. "Then you are ready to hear what I have to say. Although this is not proof, I suggest this: keep X under observation. See how he is avoiding contact with humans over reploids."
"What makes you think I can keep track of his movements that closely? After his arrest he'll be making sure to keep his suspicious behavior to a minimum. We're not living in an Orwellian society. And I don't want to have to put a camera on him at all hours. Even if I did that wouldn't go through with command. They'd say that's the very reason we're trying to stop the Mavericks."
"But isn't that what we're doing here?"
"X? As a Maverick? Now you are wasting my time. Don't you know that X and I are impervious to the Maverick virus?"
"There's still a lot we don't understand about the Maverick virus, sir. It's called a virus, but who knows where it came from. All we do know is that there was no virus until X surfaced."
"That doesn't make a case for it. And even if X were a Maverick, why would he have attacked me? Wouldn't he have wanted to attack humans, like Dr. Cain maybe?"
"Reploids don't need to hate humans to fight each other. We've seen plenty of evidence of that in our battles."
"Yeah, well, they also don't need to be Maverick to fight each other, as we've seen with Repliforce."
Janus cocked his head to the side. "I thought the report on that was that they had gone Maverick."
Zero slumped his shoulders. "Never mind."
"In any case, I'll need more than what I have now to be able to make any sort of accusations against X. You've given me nothing to go on here, Janus. You're wasting my time."
"That's why I suggest you keep your eye on him. X is a conflicted soul. He's a pacifist at heart, yet he continues to fight in every war, to assume the role of Commander. Somewhere in there, X must be experiencing wrenching inconsistency. But he must cover it up to maintain his demeanor. The trick is to separate the lies from the truth."
"And what are the lies? There's got to be something you can offer me that's a little more substantial. I don't make these kind of accusations without evidence."
"That, you must see for yourself. But the evidence is there," Janus said.
"Now, I want some actual proof. Some hard data. Something I can see with my eyes that X is a Maverick." Zero clutched his fist in front of him.
"Sir, I must again suggest that you back away from this manner. It can only end badly. You're taking it too personally."
"Nothing is too personal when it concerns the safety of the world. The world I've sworn to protect. I want a reason to bring action to X."
"I can only tell you this. One day, I managed a glimpse of his diagnostic log. His dreams. They were on the monitor clear as day. I know dreams are wayward and random, but this one... it involves your saber."
"The dreams involved X surrounded by shadowy figures. He took his beam saber... yours. The one given at the third rise of Sigma. And he stabs the figures repeatedly, over and over. And out comes blood. Human red blood. The look in his eyes is just..." Janus trailed off.
"No... NO!" Zero raised his arms and shouted to the sky.
"It was only a dream."
"X doesn't dream of such things. His dreams are of peace, where there is no fighting among humans and reploids."
"That is the nature of dreams. Sometimes they show the truth beneath the lies." Janus paused. Zero put a hand over his heart, as if it were breaking. He staggered back as if he had been hit. Janus continued, "Sir, you know the nature of reploid dreams. They are always true events. Somewhat obscured, but always true. Reploids cannot create in imagination."
"It's not possible. It's not. I'll tear him."
"Sir, please, contain yourself. Your reputation would be marred with this display."
Zero sank to his knees. "It's not... The logs-" he looked up to Janus pleading.
"Erased. X would surely not let such a truth escape."
Zero bent down with his head touching the ground. "I can't. I can't. No, I had a duty. I made a vow to stop Mavericks everywhere. I swore I would carry it out when I became commander."
"Sir, I'm afraid there's no way around it. If you find X's saber, you'll have the evidence you desire."
Zero put a hand to his eyes in anguish. "Oh, X, X, X, X. When did you go wrong? Why would you do this? The humans... was it because they weren't good enough? Not strong enough? Was it really the virus?" Zero looked back at Janus from the tops of his eyes. "I swear you had better not be lying to me."
"I swear I have told you no lies."
"Are you listening to me, soldier? Do you understand the stress I'm under?" Zero pointed his finger angrily. "If I find out you've given me false leads I'll have you dismantled so fast it'd make your head swim. I'll have you hooked up to a power reactor. Got it?"
Zero looked up at Janus with watery eyes. "I must... I must stop X. I have to," he said weakly.
Janus kneeled down to Zero's level. "I know, sir. I made the same vow. That means I must help you." He put his arm around his red armor, cradling him.
"Good, Janus. Good." Zero coughed back to a steady stream of voice, his commanding tone. "I will need a hand in this. Janus. X is as powerful as me. He won't go down easy, and he won't go down by myself alone. Only you and I know of this, Janus, and we have to keep it that way."
"I understand, sir."
"In order to do this, you'll need more privileges. I'll have you promoted to First Lieutenant. And transfer you to my command."
"Thank you, sir. I shall serve no one else above you."