RockmanX.exe

Title: RockmanX.exe
Premise, or Lack Thereof: Retelling of the Megaman X series within the context of Megaman Battle Network.
Reason for Banishment: Self insert character, plot too close to original series.


Disclaimer: Megaman Battle Network, Megaman X and related characters are the copyright of Capcom. I’m just borrowing them for my own nefarious ends.


RockmanX.exe
an experiment by Dot


In the year 200X, a brilliant scientist named Tadashi Hikari revolutionized the internet with the introduction of programs bearing the potential for true artificial intelligence. The public at large called them NetNavis, short for Internet Navigator, as that was their perceived function. It didn’t take long for their operators to realize that NetNavi’s were also perfect for fighting viruses—and each other. The creation and customization of NetNavis soon exploded into a million dollar industry.

At the same time, viruses were also becoming more and more sophisticated. At the forefront of the destructive programs was an organization calling itself W3. Whatever other crimes the W3 perpetrated, its true goal seemed to be the undoing of the Navis and the network itself. An arms-race ensued as both sides developed more and more sophisticated and efficient methods of combat. Soon, it seemed that entire world was drawn into the struggle.

Meanwhile, progress marched on. Computers became smaller still, and moved from being worn as accessories to being sewn into clothing to being implanted into the human body. Electronic cochleae, retinas, and even brains became all the rage as the boundaries between Man and Machine continued to blur. However, the barriers—technological, physiological, and societal—between complete fusion remained high.

With the development of a new infrastructure coded by the world’s brightest minds, the most stringest security protocols yet, and convincing virtual reality, more and more people began to enter the digital world themselves. The old NetNavi paradigm faded from public consciousness. The W3 also diminished in presence due to a loss of leadership, manpower and resources, and ceased to operate altogether.

Then, at the dawn of the twenty-second century, a promising young programmer named Dr. Cain discovered Megaman X, a NetNavi created by the legendary Dr. Hikari that thought and acted like a human being without any apparent directives in its programming. With his newfound fame, Dr. Cain soon spearheaded a fresh wave of NetNavis in an attempt to recreate Dr. Hikari’s work. He dubbed his masterpiece “Sigma.exe”, hoping that Sigma would represent a major shift in artificial intelligence.

A year later, Sigma escaped from Dr. Cain’s lab, proclaimed all other Navis as Mavericks, and began destroying whatever he encountered. Fearing for his life, Dr. Cain disconnected everything in his home from the network, leaving a single analog phone line. Most other people, however, were not willing to take such drastic measures, and so made do with new antivirus programs, firewalls, and safety procedures. Soon enough, Sigma was just another acceptable hazard of modern convenience.

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“Hm. Interesting.”

Zero forced himself awake when he heard those words. He queried the server about who had just signed on, mystified at the unhelpful response of ‘Administrator’. He sat up and tried to take a look around to find the very data that hid him from sight also blocked most of his view. He turned his attention instead to the tiny corridor he had left open and readied his cannon.

“Hey, boss.”

“Something up, Sophia?”

“Yeah. The firewall’s picking up a lot of hack attempts.”

“That’s weird. I thought everything that wasn’t junk already got looted.”

“Maybe they’re trying to take whatever’s left. The second firewall still works, right?”

“It should. You might want to double check the parameters.”

“I’ll do that. And how about we give our ‘buddies’ outside a nasty surprise?”

“Way ahead of you.”

“I wish I could see the expressions on their faces. Thanks.”

“No problem. Let me know if anything else comes up.”

“Of course.”

Despite his misgivings otherwise, Zero began to relax. Without realizing it, these people—whoever they were—had bought him more time. Now, if only he could get his blasted legs to move, his options wouldn’t be limited to sitting here and waiting to obliterate whoever that came into view.

“So you’re real. I thought you were a bedtime story Operators told their Navi to make them behave.”

Zero whirled around to the best of his ability and fired, sending bits of data scattering everywhere. As the dust settled, however, he regretted his trigger finger; all he had managed to accomplish was blow a gaping hole in his makeshift shelter.

A young woman peered through said hole. “Little touchy, aren’t we?”

“Well, sorry for preferring to live,” Zero snarled back, still keeping the cannon trained on her with one arm while the other tried to help his legs swing around so he wasn’t twisting into a pretzel to look at her.

She, meanwhile, seemed oblivious to the threat as she examined him. “You’re lucky you even made it past the routers.” She moved forward. “It doesn’t look that bad. I might be able to—hm—let me see—”

Zero fired again, slicing a small gash across her cheek. “Next time, I won’t miss.”

She stopped but continued to hold his gaze. “I’m trying to help you.”

Zero kept his expression firm. “Why would I believe that?”

She shrugged. “All right, think what you like. But if those hackers outside are after you, then you’re pretty screwed either way. It wouldn’t cost you all that much to trust me.”

Zero considered her words without lowering his weapon. If she were sincere—and she looked it, but looks could always be deceiving—then he could be repaired and on his way. And if she weren’t?

Well, at least he could take her out at this range.

He pulled some loose data and propped his arm on it so that he’d have a point blank shot to her head. “All right. But no funny business.”

She nodded. “Of course not.”

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Sigma’s lip curled into a sneer as he stabbed his saber into the Reploid. Weak. They were all weak. But then, what did he expect from an imperfect copy?

A sudden burst of data in the distance caught his attention. A phone call to a hospital in a city—no, he corrected himself. That City.

More data. A name. Cain, Gregory, Ph. D in Computer Engineering.

Now, Sigma smirked.

“Told you couldn’t hide forever,” he murmured, kicking aside the remains of the defeated Reploid. It didn’t take long for him to find shortest route to the hospital that had dispatched the ambulance.

It was time for a reunion.

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Zero had to stifle a yelp as Sophia clutched her hands around a connection that came to life at about the same time. She soon composed herself, however, and took on a mask of calm. “How long has Dad been in surgery?”

“I’m not sure. Everything happened so fast.” The blue-gray Navi—Sophia called him X, or something like that—gained a look of wide-eyed panic. “Oh, shit. Sigma’s bound to find out, isn’t he?”

“Knowing him, he’s already on his way.” Sophia stood up and opened a second window. “I’ll see if I can hold him up at any of the transfer points.”

X’s expression hardened. “I’ll make sure we’re ready for him.”

Sophia placed a hand on the viewscreen. “Be careful.”

X mirrored Sohpia’s motion. “You too.”

“What’s Sigma’s beef with you?” Zero asked after Sophia ended the call from X.

“He basically considers us the source of all evil. I’m kind of surprised you haven’t heard one of his monologues yet.”

“I’ve been kind of busy fleeing for my life.”

“Ah.” She gestured towards the ground and a kiosk rose out of it. “I’d rather you stay here and wait until I come back, but I have no idea how long I’ll be gone.” She typed a series of commands, causing the kiosk to glow. “In case you need to get out of here, I’ve given you permission to use any of these servers. Don’t do anything stupid, all right?” She snapped her fingers, and the small red walking toolbox shut its top and hopped onto her shoulder. “Sorry for leaving you like this, but I have an emergency room to visit.”

It didn’t take long for Zero to come to his decision. He forced himself to his feet, and then took a half-step forward to regain his balance. “I’m going with you.”

Sophia stared at him for a moment, then let out a long sigh. “Oh, fine. I don’t have time to argue with you.” You crazy idiot, her expression seemed to add.

Zero kept his opinions of Sophia to himself as he followed her out.

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X felt ill as he surveyed the carnage before him. The Navi here were all injured beyond repair, and except for one guard whose head had been cleaved from his shoulders, Sigma had left the rest alive so that they would spend their last moments in agony.

“I don’t care what Dr. Cain has said.” X clenched his fists. “Sigma must be stopped. Now.”

The others echoed his sentiments as they moved forward into the field of massacre. The debate on Sigma had often seesawed back and forth, with a majority of both humans and Navis supporting Dr. Cain’s position. At present, however, it was safe to say that none present had any hope of Sigma ever being “made right” again. X long ago gave up on such a naive thought, but he held back for Dr. Cain’s sake.

Not any more, X thought, charging his Buster. He couldn’t sense Sigma’s presence yet, but he was certain that Dr. Cain’s first Reploid was not far from the firewall. God, Sophia had better not done anything too stupid again!

Armored_Armadillo.exe’s loud booming voice interrupted X from his thoughts. “X! Come here, quick.”

X hurried as fast as he could, stepping between the bodies on his way to the edge of the firewall where Armored Armadillo was standing. “What’s up?”

Armored Armadillo pointed into the distance. “Take a look over there and tell me I’m not seeing things.”

X concentrated, peering hard, but all he could make out was Sigma and another Navi locked in fierce combat. He was about to use a higher resolution setting when a massive energy buildup appeared behind Sigma. “Everybody pull out, NOW!” He shouted at the top of his lungs. He turned to Armored Armadillo. “Lend me your Rolling Shield chip.”

“X, you aren’t—”

“The firewall won’t be able to repair the damage in time. There’s no other way to save what’s left.” X thrust an open palm forward. “Hurry!”

“Do it,” Emmeline Auburn—Armored Armadillo’s operator—affirmed from a nearby chat window.

“But, Em—” the short Navi objected.

“This isn’t the time to be stingy.” Em crossed her arms. “Don’t make me force an override.”

“Oh, all right.” Grumbling a bit, Armored Armadillo reached into his shell and pulled out a small, glowing object. “Take it. But if you get deleted, I’m never speaking to you again.”

X forced a smile. “Thanks, I think.” He steeled his nerve as he waited for the chip to load, then took a deep breath. “Well, here goes nothing!”

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“What’s the matter, Zero?” Sigma taunted as Vanguard’s mouth opened wider and wider. “Does the sight of my pet frighten you that much?”

Zero stood his ground, readying his own attack. “If it makes you feel better to think so, then sure.” He fired a shot at Sigma’s face.

Sigma raised his hands to block. When he lowered them again, Zero had switched arms and launched a shield with is curved interior facing Sigma.

Sigma sneered. “I hope you don’t think that piece of junk will save you.”

Zero leaped into the air. “As a matter of fact, yes.”

Sigma let out a curse as he realized what Zero was doing. He fired at Zero, but the other just twisted out of the way and bounced off the tip of his shield. Sigma broke into a mad dash for safety as Vanguard pivoted its head to realign its shot, only to be skewered on the roof of its mouth by Zero’s sword.

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X tested his limbs, wincing as burning pain shot through them. Behind him, the firewall flickered, its self-repairing functions already kicking in. As long as it didn’t suffer another major blow, it would stand. That was way too close. If that Navi hadn’t diverted the shot, I would have been toast for sure.

He tried scanning the area, but his sensors were still swimming with information overload. At least he didn’t seem to sustain any major damage from that insane maneuver; everything just hurt like hell.

“Well, well, well. What do we have here?”

X couldn’t help but stare. If it weren’t for the bright blue gem in Sigma’s forehead, X would not have recognized Dr. Cain’s former Reploid. Gone was the long, silver hair and the youthful face that had been a distant echo of X’s own. Instead, Sigma was now bald, and long, red scars ran across his cheeks as if he had raked across them with claws. “What happened to you?”

“I became superior, that’s what.” Sigma pointed his arm—as it transformed into a sharp blade—at X. “It’s too bad you weren’t caught in the blast. Now I’ll have to take you apart piece by piece.”

“I don’t think so.”

Even taken by surprise, Sigma managed to parry the attack that came from behind him and jump out of reach. X once again found himself staring as he recognized just who Sigma had been fighting with. “You’re Zero.exe, aren’t you? What the hell are you doing here?”

Sigma didn’t look too pleased himself. “You survived Vanguard’s explosion?”

Zero gave Sigma a cheeky salute. “Surviving’s a talent of mine. So’s improvising.” He gave the pipe he was holding a few test swings. “This doesn’t look pretty, but it’ll do.”

Sigma charged towards Zero. “We’ll see about that!”

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Zero gritted his teeth as Sigma sliced a gash across his chest. ‘Damn. Guess I’m more damaged than I thought. I should have been able to dodge that.’ A wave of annoyance came over him as X put a hand on his shoulder. “What? I’m not dead yet.”

“Let me talk to him first,” X replied. As he saw Zero’s dubious expression, he explained further: “I have to try, at least.”

Sigma scowled. “Not another one of your speeches, X. Either stand aside while I give Dr. Cain what’s coming to him, or join your friend here in the big network in the sky.”

“He’s not my friend,” Zero and X replied at the same time, causing both of them to blink.

“Do I look like I care?” Sigma pointed the saber at X. “You only have two choices, X: leave or die.”

“Funny, I was going to say the exact same thing to you,” X answered, his demeanor grim.

That expression turned to one of horror as Sophia appeared in a teleportation beam, propping a weapon almost as large as she was on her shoulder. “SIGMA!”

The split second of distraction was enough for Zero intercept as Sigma charged at Sophia. As he and Sigma crossed weapons, X moved in to join the fray. To Zero’s surprise, X was quite competent, and the two of them combined kept Sigma on the defensive. Sigma, being no slouch either, dropped to a crouch and kicked at Zero’s feet, then spun in a sweep. As X tried to jump out of the way, Sigma grabbed him and hurled the smaller Navi towards Sophia.

Zero started to shout a warning, but instead found himself gaping as X passed through Sophia—a hologram, Zero realized in afterthought—and landed with a painful-looking half-tumble. Sigma, too, wasted precious moments looking dumbfounded before being struck square in the back with an electric net.

“Surprise,” the real Sophia greeted, using the huge gun as a counterweight as she perched on a wrecked piece of Vanguard.

Sigma tried to cut away his bindings, but the net tightened further, keeping his hands bound at his side. “Using a decoy and your own friends as distractions? Sheer brilliance befitting the daughter of Cain.”

And then he deleted himself.

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Sophia swore under her breath. “Another clone. Figures.”

X alternated between staring at Sophia and the spot in the ground where Sigma had been, not sure how to react. Part of him wanted to yell at Sophia for being so reckless, and the other part wanted to hug her and make sure she was all right. That was about when the blinding agony set in.

“Ow, ow, ow!” He moaned, bending over and bringing his arms around himself, which of course just made things worse.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Zero watching him with a mixture of amusement and mild disdain. “I was going to say that you’re not half bad, for a doofus, but I’ve changed my mind.”

“Well, you’re a few bits short of a byte yourself,” X retorted with a weak grin. “But I’m glad you’re crazy enough to pull a stunt like that.”

The corner of Zero’s mouth turned up. “You’re welcome, I think.”

At that moment, Sting_Chameleon.exe and Armored Armadillo teleported in, and X turned his attention to them. “A little late for the cavalry to show up, hm?”

“Hardy har har, X.” Armored Armadillo made a mock serious face. “Now, give me back my Rolling Shield or there’ll be no sub-tanks for you!”

“Oh, no!” X rolled his eyes. “Anything but that!”

Meanwhile, Sting Chameleon was getting his Camouflage back from Sophia. “How are the other Navis doing?” Sophia asked.

Sting Chameleon shook his head. “Not good. Sigma infected them all, and he’s mutated again. We’ve treated as many of them as possible, but the ones we couldn’t get to—”

“Delete them and give me the list of casualties,” Sophia ordered, walking back toward the hospital with large, angry strides. “I’ll have to apologize to their operators, of course, but we don’t have the resources to take on an army of virused Reploids right now.”

X caught up to her, concerned. “Let us handle this, Sophia. You need to rest.”

Sophia kept walking. “I’d rather not be idle right now. Doing things keeps me sane.” She stopped in mid-step, turned around, and went right back to Zero, who was about to leave. “I seem to remember saying something about not being an idiot.”

She knows Zero? X gave Sophia a questioning glance, but she ignored him and Armored Armadillo was calling to him to help with the clean-up. There’s another thing I have to ask her about later, I guess.

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Sophia let herself into the house, her whole body aching with exhaustion. The emotional part of her wanted to move in next to her father and hold his hand until he recovered, but the logical part of her knew that she needed some sleep in her own bed, too. He was out of the most serious danger—or at least that’s what the doctors told her—and X stayed at the hospital just in case, anyway.

A few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches later, Sophia flopped into bed and stared at the ceiling. So much for making progress, she thought, pressing a hand against her forehead.

“Should I be proud or ashamed of you, Sigma?” she asked out loud. She hadn’t expected him to last this long. Despite her father’s repeated pleas to the contrary, many sought to destroy Sigma, but the very Navis that had been sent out to hunt Sigma instead became fodder for his new army. With each generation, the clones became more virulent; now, infection meant almost certain disaster for whatever system that was unlucky enough to be ‘visited’ by one of Sigma’s minions.

So far, no implants had been affected. All Navis were made—on purpose—to be somewhat incompatible with the technology involved because nobody liked the idea of a sentient program in their heads. But what if—

The idea that struck her was sheer insanity, but she was running out of options. Sophia closed her eyes and began to brainstorm.

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Zero had never believed in the idea of luck, but now he was starting to wonder if he might be cursed to run into trouble when it was most inconvenient. “This is starting to get tiresome.”

“That should be my line.” Sigma raised his blood-colored weapon. “You should have stayed in that little hiding hole.”

Zero pretended to notice someone behind Sigma. “Hey, Sophia, watch where you’re pointing that thing, okay?”

“What?” Sigma turned. “There’s no one here to save you, fool—”

Zero never ran so fast in his entire life.

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Sophia sighed and wished she had a bottle of aspirin handy. “Mom, we are not having this conversation again.”

Joappa Cossack crossed her arms. “Yes we are. I’m your mother. I worry about you. I want you to find someone you can spend the rest of your life with.”

“And I don’t see why you think it’s such a big deal that I’m still single.” Sophia poured herself a cup of orange juice and held it in her hand so she could sip from it every time she felt like being fresh. “I work, I hang out with my friends, and I like to have some me-time, too. What’s wrong with that?”

Joappa leaned over the counter. “Don’t you ever feel lonely?” When Sophia didn’t answer, Joappa frowned. “Sophie, you’re pushing thirty. Won’t you at least start looking?”

Sophia ran her finger along the rim of the foam cup for a few moments. “I don’t know, Mom. What’s so great about being married?”

It was Joappa’s turn to sigh. “Just because your Father and I couldn’t work things out doesn’t mean—”

The conversation was interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell. Sophia went to answer it, and blinked in surprise when she saw who it was. “Billy? You came over?”

Billy pretended to look hurt. “Hey, it happens.”

“Once in a blue moon, maybe,” Sophia answered, grinning. “So, what’s the occasion?”

“I made soup.” Billy offered up the container in question. “And I finally got my hands on a Ride Armor.”

Sophia, in turn, set the soup on the nearby console table. “Guess this means you’re not coming in, then.”

Billy scratched the back of his head. “Guess not. You doing anything tonight?”

“No, not really. Got any new games, or will I have to make do with watching you play NetBattle?”

“Ask Vile; I’ve had him take charge of all my downloads.”

“There better not be any porn,” Sophia half joked.

Billy made a face. “Do you always have to bring that up?” He turned back towards his car. “Anyway, call me if you’re coming over.”

Sophia nodded. “No problem.”

“Sophie,” Joappa began, as Sophia closed the door behind her and picked up the container.

“I know.” Sophia headed back into the kitchen and began taking out bowls and spoons.

Joappa followed behind, setting the table in the process. “His girlfriend is still out of town.”

Sophia gripped the countertop so she wouldn’t be tempted into smashing something. “I know. I introduced them to each other, remember?”

Joappa took over the task of serving the impromptu dinner. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go. I just think you need to have some more boundaries.”

Sophia sat down. “It’s fine.  She’s cool with it, he only sees me as a friend, and I’m not interested in him in that way, either.”

Joappa dug in first, welding her spoon like a weapon. “I say these things because I care about you.”

Then maybe you shouldn’t care so much, Sophia thought, trying to find a neutral place to stare at while she waited for the liquid to cool. “I know.”

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Zero found an empty table and sat down, adjusting his mask so he could see out of the eyeholes. Sigma won’t be fooled by this little maneuver forever. I need a plan.

“Is it just me, or is Waldo’s awfully laggy today?”

Overcome with a sense of déjà vu, Zero looked around to see who was talking, but all he saw was a vague white space hovering in front of a Navi who wore a bucket-shaped helmet, a young man with brown hair and a bird-shaped woman—or, perhaps, a woman-shaped bird, he couldn’t quite tell.

The young man looked around the room. “Yeah, lots of lurkers around.”

The Navi pointed into the distance. “Newbie alert. Check out that icon!”

As the newbie in question walked into view, the white space began coalescing into some pixels that might have looked like a face, if one squinted hard enough. “It’s not too bad. My eyes aren’t bleeding, at least.”

“Maybe, but fire-engine red?” The bird-woman-thing shook her head. “And look at that hair! That is so tacked on.”

The young man did a double take as the newbie turned and walked off in a different direction. “Are those boob-lights?”

“In neon green, no less.” The now blurry-shaped space laughed. “As if guys needed any more encouragement to stare!”

Just as Zero was starting to feel a bit self-conscious for eavesdropping on this conversation, an unmistakable sense of unease gripped his systems. Forcing himself to stay calm, he picked up his drink again and pretended to sip from it as he scanned the room. Large groups of people, human and otherwise, mingled as the Cafe’s staff zipped about on roller skates serving refreshments—virtual representations, of course—and maintaining some level of decency. Using his instincts to guide him, Zero found his gaze settling on a handful of Navis who were using the default user icons and who seemed to be just standing around.

In his mind’s eye, Zero opened an overhead view of the room. The positioning of the Navis that had caught his attention further confirmed his suspicions: they were standing in such a way that each of them could cover a certain area, and each other. Hoping to ascertain what those Navi were doing, Zero tried switching to the data layer, but found that he lacked the proper authorization.

Damn. If I pull up their user information, that’ll definitely get their attention. I can’t just up and leave, either. And asking for help is out, too. He fiddled with the glass in his hands and sighed. I could use an idea right now. Or a miracle. I’m not picky.

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Sigma was starting to get more and more irritated. Despite Waldo’s top-of-the-line server, the sheer number of participants meant that interaction between each of the three-dimensional representations became slow enough to be noticeable. Even the text-only mode suffered, turning his conversation with his clones out of order.

Sigma scowled even deeper as he received the report on the system’s security. As he expected, the entire area was fortressed behind a wall of the usual bells and whistles. He couldn’t get anywhere with the small force he had with him now. Even if he could find that blasted Navi, he might not be able to do much more than make idle threats.

Screw it. He’d wasted far too much time already. Sigma sent out a new order to his clones and waited for their acknowledgement.

It was time to send his message in a much more effective manner.

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Sophia checked her connection speed. “Looks like I’m gonna be a bit slow to respond all evening.”

“I’m on the same network as you,” Vile noted. “You can’t be that much behind.”

“Yeah, but I don’t have a house-sized processor to work with.” And of course Vile had no idea that Sophia was using a special program that let her have an additional layer of anonymity at the cost of slower performance. She might have been less paranoid than her father about keeping safe, but she knew better than to take unnecessary risks. “And Billy’s eating up a lot of bandwidth, too.”

“Oh, yeah.” Vile seemed to be on the verge of another complaint over Billy’s gaming habits when the public announcement system came to life.

“DO YOU REALLY THINK YOU CAN HIDE?”

Sophia felt her blood ran cold. She knew that voice.

Sigma.

“YOU CAN’T GET AWAY FROM ME!”

By some small miracle, they were standing where they could not be spotted at a glance by any of the Sigma clones now standing at each of the announcement platforms. Sophia signaled for the others to sit down at the table nearby.

“I HAVE EYES AND EARS EVERYWHERE!”

Despite reminding herself to remain calm, Sophia’s body was in full adrenaline pumping, heart pounding, cold-sweat panic mode. Jim, sensing Sophia’s obvious unease, used the ‘whisper’ mode to ask Sophia, and her alone, what was wrong. Before Sophia could figure out what to say, Sigma’s voice boomed across the chatroom again.

“YOU’LL PAY FOR THAT LITTLE STUNT YOU PULLED AT THE HOSPITAL!”

Jim’s eyes widened as he saw Sophia’s reaction. He, like everyone else, had heard of what happened to Dr. Cain and the ensuing battle. “You were there?” he whispered, eyes wide.

Sophia nodded, still far too paralyzed to tell the whole truth.

“I ALWAYS GET MY REVENGE!”

Finally, moderators began converging on the Sigmas, and began removing them from the server.

“NONE SHALL ESCAPE THE WRATH OF SIGMA!”

With that dire warning, the last Sigma logged out of the server. Meanwhile, the moderators spread back out to calm the chatters and ensure that no one was carrying any infectious data.

Jim was first to speak up again. “Holy crap.”

“I’ll say,” Sophia answered, glad that her virtual face didn’t reproduce the tears that were streaming down her real one.

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Zero slipped his shaking hands under the table. So far so good. But now what? I still can’t leave. He looked at the people who had joined his table when Sigma made his threats. Unless I somehow hitch a ride with one of these guys.

Just as he was pondering how to pull that off, the young man and his bird-woman companion decided to find another place to set up their impending meeting, and the helmeted guy excused himself to answer a phone call. The remaining person waited for her friends to return, laying her head down against her arms.

Zero just about jumped out of his skin when he felt someone tap him on the shoulder. “What?” He snapped a bit louder than he’d meant to, but realized that he was about to punch a moderator before he lashed out.

“Your IP-ID’s please?” The moderator prompted, referring to the electronic authentication software that—so far—could not be forged.

After a momentary wave of panic, Zero remembered that he did have an ID: the one that Sophia gave him. He swallowed his pride and produced it, feeling uncomfortable that he was now in her debt again.

The moderator blinked in surprise as he checked the ID. “SciLabs? So you know Sophia Cain?”

“Sort of. I’ve only met her in person once or twice.”

The young woman handed her ID over, looking somewhat amused by this exchange. “That’s still pretty cool. I hear that even though she’s not a total hermit like Dr. Cain, she doesn’t like to be out in public.”

“A real shame, don’t you think?” The moderator asked. “I mean, what kind of message does it send if someone like her is always running away and hiding?” He returned the ID to the young woman. “All right, you’re clear. Have a nice day.”

After the moderator was out of sight, the woman spoke in whisper mode. “I can’t believe it. You were the one Sigma was after. I’ve been getting all worked up for nothing.”

Zero’s single coherent thought was not pleasant. “Fuck,” he muttered, slumping back into his seat.

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Sophia fought the urge to laugh. “Relax.” Taking his hand, she drew the symbol she wore on her face when she was at SciLabs.

“Oh, you.” Zero shook his head. “Man. What are the odds?”

“Weirder things have happened.” Sophia crossed her arms. “And maybe this time, you’ll let me finish my job before you run off and end up deleted.”

Zero might have looked embarrassed, but it was hard to tell with that mask. “So how’d you know it was me?”

“I checked the timestamp on your ID.”

“Um, about that—”

“Keep it. You might need it.”

The two of them lapsed into silence. Sophia wanted to know more about Zero, but she had a feeling he wouldn’t answer any questions, or at least not here. In the meantime, Jim emailed her with the new location of the meeting.

“Looks like it’s about time for me to go.” Sophia got up and extended her hand to Zero. “I don’t foresee any major compatibility issues, but I’ll have to compress your data so it’d fit into my free memory. Think you can handle that?”

Zero hesitated for a moment, then shrugged. “It’s better than getting sliced to pieces by Sigma, I guess.”

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Sophia massaged her temples as she drank a glass of orange juice. “Will you sit down already? You’re making my head hurt.”

X continued to pace. “No.” He whirled and walked faster. “What were you thinking, Sophia? You’ve gone too far!”

“It would have been worse to leave him there,” Sophia pointed out.

Zero, having finished transferring his data into the Cains’ computer, took a limping step forward. “Would you two stop talking like I’m not here?”

Sophia conjured up a small wheeled stool for Zero to rest on. “Sorry about X. He doesn’t have anything against you personally, it’s just that—”

“Sophia has this bad habit of bringing in strays,” X interrupted, alternating glares between Sophia and Zero.

Sophia grunted with irritation. “I can’t deal with this today. I’m going to bed.” She signed off, but before she left the room she had one more instruction for the two Navis: “No killing each other in my sleep.”

Easier said than done, Zero thought, settling onto the stool.

It took a while, but X got tired of trying to wear a hole through the floor and sat down as well. “I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised anymore, but—” he shook his head. “How the hell did she get mixed up with the likes of you?”

“Funny, I was going to ask you the same question.” Zero couldn’t quite hold back a smirk as X squirmed. “You’re not exactly a standard issue Navi yourself, are you?”

“It doesn’t matter to her.” X sighed. “But sometimes I wish she weren’t so—so nice.”

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“What does it feel like, I wonder, to live a lie?”

After she’d recovered from her shock, Sophia pressed the speaker button on the wall. “That’s not funny, Vile. Open the door.”

The face that showed up on the viewscreen, however, was neither Billy’s nor Vile’s, but Sigma’s. “It makes me sick sometimes listening to people’s opinions of you: Sophia the wise. Sophia the wonderful. Sophia the magnificent.” He made an expression of mock dismay. “Alas, if only they knew what I knew.”

Sophia staggered against the wall, her body going numb. “What did you do?”

“Nothing yet. You did design this system, after all, and it’ll take me a while to get through all the fail-safes.” Sigma tapped his chin. “But of course, I could always be lying.”

Sophia felt her nails dig into the palms of her hands. “If—if you’ve hurt him, I—”

“Relax. He still thinks he’s playing Netbattle. He’ll be safe, as long as you cooperate.”

“What do you want?”

Sigma’s smile was that of a predator ready to pounce. “You know what I want, daughter of Cain.”

She drew in a shaking breath. There would be no turning back after this. “I can’t open access to Dad’s lab! He took out all the hardware that can interface with the network.”

Now Sigma looked annoyed. “I’m well aware of that. But what of the software?”

If Sophia hadn’t already guessed what Sigma was thinking, the chill that ran down her spine would have been that much greater. “No. Not X.”

“It’s your choice, Sophia. I will have my prey one way or another.”

Sophia looked away, her eyes shadowed by her bangs. She didn’t want to involve X in this mess, but Sigma was forcing her hand. The ideas she had considered before began to percolate. “I—I—”

“Oh, and that other one, bring him too.”

This made Sophia snap up in alarm. “How am I supposed to do that?”

Sigma shrugged. “You’re smart. You’ll think of something.” Then, before he turned the view-screen off, he reminded Sophia: “Hurry, daughter of Cain. Time’s running out.”

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“I don’t see why he’s tagging along,” X grumbled as Sophia experimented with various chipsets to see which were compatible with Zero’s programming.

“I volunteered,” Zero answered, nonplussed as he had since gotten used to X’s distrust. “I’m allowed to do that, aren’t I?”

“Honestly, I wish you didn’t,” Sophia cut in before another argument could start, giving X a withering look. “But I had a feeling you’d be more stubborn than a certain someone I know.” She loaded in another chip. “Hey, try this one.”

Zero activated his right blaster, being careful to point away from both X and Sophia, and let out an impressed whistle when a bright green blade of energy emerged. He gave it a few test swings. “Nice.”

X boggled. “That’s the prototype for Sigma’s sword!”

“Correction, an upgrade. I’ve worked the bugs out of it, and it should be able to combine with other chips, too.” Sophia tried some other chips, muttering to herself that she should have brought along an adaptor as well. “If I can find one that works. I swear some of this code is older than I am.”

Zero cleared his throat, seeing X’s expression grow darker. “Not that I don’t appreciate this, but I don’t think you called us out here just to test chips.”

“Well, no, but I’d still like to prepare you as best I can.” Sophia stepped back and sighed. “But I guess you’ll just have to make do.” She entered the code into the doorway. “Remember, only fight to defend yourselves, and watch your backs—I don’t know how much of the security system Sigma’s gotten past and the last thing I want is for us to be opening the way for him.”

X nodded, all business now. “Right.”

“I’ll be monitoring you all the way, so I’ll try to steer you clear of anything obviously dangerous.” Sophia clasped X’s arm. “Be careful.”

X closed his other hand around hers. “You, too.”

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X and Zero found themselves at the outskirts of a ruined city. Around them, vehicle-shaped representations of the house’s repair programs shuttled data towards the damage, but the marauding viruses would destroy them before they could reach the affected areas.

X began scanning the area, planning out possible routes; he did not fire his weapon yet, as they hadn’t yet been noticed and he didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention. “For the record, I still don’t trust you.”

Zero did likewise. “You want me to take point, then?”

X pondered a variety of answers when he spotted the glint of a blaster discharge from the corner of his eye; without a second thought he squeezed off a quick shot, and the two balls of light collided in midair. “Do as you please,” he answered over his shoulder as he began evasive maneuvers.

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