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To the Lowest Limit

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The Commander of the Maverick Hunters treats his desk chair as a throne, his office a grand court. He is the judge, jury, and executioner, and Zero stands before him like he’s on trial.

Except it’s not a trial. Technically, Zero has already undergone judgement though his processor wasn’t screwed on right at the time, and he hasn't done anything to warrant an admonishing. Earlier, Sigma sent him a curt message to come to his office for an “assignment,” which alone has Zero’s wires crossed.

It’s on the Navigators to conduct mission briefings. This must be a special occasion.

“I’ll go over the itinerary,” says Sigma, straight to the point. “You will be accompanying X starting Thursday. You will meet him at Cain Labs, ride to Lakecrest Airport, and arrive to the Capai Union in the same day. The next day, you’ll travel to Udara Pulau.”

Zero looks up the name. Udara Pulau: an aerial city just like Sky Lagoon, but third of the size and capable of traveling around within the continent. Proud to be this quinquennal's host for the World Expo. Adult admission is eighty zenny a day.

He leaves search. “This isn’t a pleasure trip,” Zero throws.

“No, it’s not,” confirms Sigma. “How much do you know about the Emerald Spears?”

“The anti-technology extremists? Are they planning something?”

“That’s what we’re trying to find out. They’re becoming more aggressive these days - hosting rallies down in Acre and the Swarf Side, intimidating reploids out of the western sector, and protesting at X’s press conferences. Last week, X noticed that he was being followed. Recon Unit couldn’t grab any footage from the CCTV. The stalker was careful to stay in the blind spots. We had to post a Batton Bone from across the street to see if they tried again.”

“Did they?”

Sigma’s eyes glint icily. “Three times, a different person each time. The one match we found was a Ryan Irons, a former ACPD sergeant and Magyarföld war veteran.”

“ACPD?” Zero says with feeling. He doesn’t know what’s more surprising: that there are humans bold enough to go after X or that former law enforcers are involved.

“We found out from pure dumb luck." Sigma's brows furrowed, plainly displeased with that. "One of Gradient’s friend happens to be an ACPD secretary and she recognized the photo when Gradient was looking at it. Even if we asked the ACPD for a match in their database, I highly doubt that they’d appreciate us accusing their own of stalking, ex-cop or not. We have a tentative relationship and I prefer to not make any waves.”

“Even though they may have ties to the Emerald Spears?” Zero says accusatory.

“We don’t look into their script, they won’t look into ours. After all, what if they find out about you?” Sigma retorts calmly.

Fair. The ACPD aren’t the only ones who have rust in their pipes.

Zero drops the topic. “So X is leaving the country for his safety.”

“He originally intended to leave anyway. OKVIA Labs invited X to be a keynote speaker for their panel at the World Expo. The Emerald Spears presumably have members from all over the globe and we don’t want to chance his safety.”

“Hence assigning me to his security.”

“It’s quite an honor. Guarding X is no small job. He’s arguably the most important person of the century and the centuries to come.”

“And you’re assigning me to his security,” Zero repeats.

“Do you have a concern?”

“I’m on probation. Why would you put me of all bots on this mission?” Zero asks bluntly. 

“It’s precisely because you’re on probation. For one, if the mission goes smoothly, I’ll not only lift your probation, but I’ll also make sure that it never existed.”

Zero blinks. “Meaning…”

“I’ll personally prepare the documents to have you registered into Abel City’s RCD. Your history? At best, a rumor, but there won’t be anything conclusive. We’ll jot you down as some generic model series like a Syno installed with extensive customizations. No one will look twice if it's from me.”

Sigma’s lips quirk at the corner. “The ACPD aren’t the only ones who can tweak a couple records.”

Which means…not only will Zero become an officially registered reploid, everything about Gamma’s Unit will be gone.

Ever since Zero joined the Hunters, Sigma had never told anyone where he found him. There were only two other functioning Hunters involved with Zero’s discovery and they’re ordered to never share a word of it. From sheer loyalty, they’ve obeyed, but their silence didn’t slow down any rumors, which Sigma never discouraged. Sigma is perfectly aware of the quiet demands for Zero’s background to be investigated yet never answered them.

Zero expected that it was going to be held over his head and this…this doesn’t look like that.

The warbot scowls in the same way an archaeologist would see a lone, hulking jewel sitting in the middle of a room. There must be more to this than just guarding X based on some theoretical risk. It’s too much reward for something so seemingly easy.

“Asides from the usual, what other risks should I be expecting,” Zero exvents,” Sir.”

“Zero, let’s say you come across a deer missing two legs, bleeding to death. Would you attempt to save it or put it out of its misery?”

Taken aback at the drastic topic change, the warbot warily replies,” I’ll put it out of its misery.”

It’s not like he can save it anyway. He’s no Lifesaver.

“And if it were a human?”

The Commander smiles thinly at Zero’s resulting silence. “You don’t need to answer. Personally, if I were to sustain a crippling injury – for example, an irreparable blow to the processor - I rather be terminated than go on as a defective. I can’t think of anything more humiliating and disgraceful to an advanced robot.

“The unfortunate reality is that such robots exist all over the world. No android template is as sophisticated as Cain Labs’ reploid blueprints, but it doesn’t stop the more…inferior roboticists to make an attempt. They never asked to be made...faulty.”

The deliberate look-over Sigma gives Zero is hard to miss.

The warbot doesn’t do so much as twitch.  

“So far, Abel City is the sole producer of reploids and X is contemplating to change that. If he finds the rest of the world deserving of reploids, I’ll trust his judgement. However…”

Sigma’s demeanor darkens. “In the worst-case scenario, your duty is to make sure that the reploid template doesn’t fall in the wrong hands. And I don’t mean X.”

Oh. Now it all makes sense. 

“Who else is assigned?” asks Zero. He’s calmer now that he has a better understanding of the potential consequences if worst comes to shove.

“Mac and Toran will be with you. Keep in mind that if anything happens, it is expected that you rise to the call. It’s the least you can do for the Hunters. We kindly took you in after all.”

The Red Ripper nods stiltedly. “Understood.”

Sigma’s marble eyes for optics curve upwards into scythes.

Watch your step, they say.

You don’t know what I can do, thinks Zero.

Sigma didn’t beat him. Sigma survived him.

But this shaky alliance with the Hunters benefits him so he can go along with this. No matter what happens, Zero will survive.

 


 

Every bot in Abel City knows who X is.

That monosyllabic name inevitably rises in heated discussions in the canteen, that iconic azure armor popping up in passing on television screens and datapads. X is the walking, talking connection between the Golden Age of Robotics and the twenty-second century, a plethora of knowledge who holds his own against condescending politicians and talk show hosts alike. Despite not fitting what constitutes as a reploid, the First speaks on behalf of all intelligent and independent robots everywhere.

Which, considering how Cain Labs jealously keep its secrets, is really just Abel City.

The warbot senses X before he meets him.

It starts with Combat Mode alerting Zero of a formidable threat while the Hunters wait in the Cain Labs parking lot.

Zero digs his fingers into his palm, stopping them from turning into claws, irked because he has a perfectly usable saber on his back. Subroutine should be rewired to go for that instead.

The other two Hunters besides him aren’t reacting and seeing them talking idly keeps him composed. Mac and Toran fall silent when the door swing open, standing in attention as X comes out of the building. The blue robot waves genially while an equally blue luggage mech wheels behind him.

Zero blinks in soft surprise. His scanners are picking up high energy readings from X’s form. It seems X isn’t as vulnerable as he expected.

“Hello sir, I’m Mac. Seventeenth Unit, A-Rank,” the purple Hunter introduce himself, his visor glinting in the sunlight. “It’s an honor to be your executive protection agent. Everything you do for reploid and human relations is admirable.”

“Ah thank you, I do my best,” X says gratefully with a dip of his head.

“Toran,” the orange, thickly armored Hunter nods. “Eighth Unit, A-Rank. I watch your talks.”

“Oh, I hope you enjoyed them,” X rubs the back of his head modestly.

“I do.”

Zero’s filtering subroutine must have decided to choose that time to disable itself because instead of saying his name, he asks, “Do you expect an attack?”

“...Excuse me?”

From Zero’s side, the other two Hunters are throwing gawking looks at his way. The First simply stands there, clearly waiting for him to elaborate.

“You have us, but you’re armed,” Zero says, hiding his uncertainty. Just to be sure, he manually scans X a second time to confirm what he already knows. X is indeed ostensibly armed.

“He’s new,” says Toran, shooting a sharp, quiet glare at Zero. “Doesn’t reflect Hunters.”

Zero frowns. That’s irrelevant. What does being 'new' have to do with this?

Waving it off in a “it’s alright” manner, X asks,” What’s your name?”

“Zero.” On record, no rank and no Unit. Not until he’s off probation.

“It’s nice to meet you, Zero. And as for your question, I like to think I’m only as dangerous as the next bot. Personally, I rather not enter any conflict though the security is necessary,” X motions vaguely at the Hunters.

“As the next bot? Whatever you have on you, it’s enough to take these two down easily,” Zero thumbs at Mac and Toran, to which they look at the red Hunter like he’s gone bolts. “If anything, they would need security to protect themselves from you.”

Which, now that Zero thinks more on it, X being at risk of a high-scale, premeditated assault is not an unlikely situation to consider when accounting his value.

Mac shuffles close to X and whispers into the First’s aural cone, cupping his mouth like that’ll dampen the volume. “Don’t mind him too much. Zero used to be…broken. The Commander found him in a scrap heap somewhere,” the red warbot overhears. “Medbay might have missed debugging a few glitches. Maybe you can look at him?”

Slag it all – Zero’s history doesn’t take away the fact that he’s one of the most highly capable combat models in Base. He knows what he’s talking about.

X twitches, the only sign that he listened because he doesn’t regale a proper response. Instead he deliberately walks in closer until he’s within close-quarter combat range from Zero. The First tilts his head in a curious manner, eyes boring into Zero’s own as if he’s searching something. Perhaps the missed “glitches,” the warbot thinks with some bitterness.

Then X’s eyes curve upwards into happy crescents with no signs of scorn or pity and Zero stares at that a little longer than he wants to.

“Anyhow, we better get going. Our flight will be taking off soon,” says X, walking past the Hunters towards the armored limousine. He tugs the trunk open and the stretches his arms out to his luggage mech, which rolls to him obediently. It happily beeps as X flips it sideways and tucks it into the truck bed. “Though it’s a short trip, I thank you all for joining me. Let’s exchange comm sequences on the way to the airport.”

X raises a hand towards the door handle, but Mac is already opening it for him.

 


 

The ride to the airport was short and silent and they arrive fifteen minutes before the departure time. They wait in a small, cushy lounge away from the public part of the airport where a well-intentioned woman tried to serve refreshments, only to realize she doesn’t have any for reploids. A nameless man extracts them all from the resulting awkwardness and guides them through the airside zone. They climb into a small, private jet where every row is a two-seater. There were enough seats that every passenger could have their own row, which was the case until X plopped down next to Zero.

Zero gives the blue robot a look but doesn’t comment. The First is already resting his head against his hand, humming a soft tune. For someone who was stalked for the past week and in a reasonable amount of danger, he’s quite carefree. Probably because once they take off, the problem will be literally to far away to care.

A half an hour after takeoff, X suddenly says, “We all have cognitive biases.”

Zero, who had his eyes closed, turns to X, attentive.

“It’s neither good nor bad,” X continues at a volume where it’s clearly meant for only Zero to hear. “It’s only natural that our preset drives and databases help inform us of the reality we perceive. For example, as an advanced robot I see bread as an organic sustenance that I cannot benefit from. But to a pigeon that doesn’t know any better, the bread thrown in its path is seen as vital fuel even though it carries no nutritional value to them simply because it is edible.”

“It’s an animal,” Zero contributes, mildly curious where the First is going with all this.

X gazes out the window. “It is and so are humans. Their cognitive biases can be so complex that I notice reploids have trouble following them. Zero, when a human looks at you, what do you think they perceive?”

Zero frowns. Wondering what goes in humans’ heads isn’t something he indulges in his spare time.

“A Hunter,” he answers.

“Someone who lives in Abel City would,” agrees X. “They would see your armor, the sword on your back, and the Maverick Hunter insignia on your armor. But if they weren’t from Abel?”

“A reploid.”

“And what if they didn’t know what a reploid was?”

“A humanoid robot.”

A soft noise escapes X. “Can you at least indulge me?” he says with some exasperation though his eyes reveal his amusement. “You could have said something like a soldier.”

“Do I look like a soldier?” Zero asks with a raised brow. He hopes not.

“Not really. You’re flashier than that,” X admits with a smile. “But someone else might. There are people out there who haven’t seen an android in their entire lives. It’s very possible that one of those people would see you, your weapons and armor, and think you’re a soldier.”

“If there are soldiers out there that look like me, that’s the real international concern,” Zero scoffs. 

“Well, as we both know, you’re not a soldier, but other people may not know that. If they don’t have all the facts at hand, they will rely on their previous experiences to fill in the blanks. Once someone has it in their head that you are a soldier, depending on their individual experiences with soldiers, they’ll judge and treat you based on that. They may see you as someone respectable and honorable or they may find you deplorable.”

“What you’re saying is that people can come up with an entirely false version of me in their heads if they don’t know any better.”

Since there are numerous Hunters who expect him to go berserk at any given moment, that explains plenty.

“It happens. It’s an inevitable effect we all experience,” X chuckles. “There’s another form of cognitive bias call the halo effect. It refers to the tendency of creating an overall, positive judgment of a person or object influenced by a single positive trait. An example of this would be a person who’s considered attractive would also be viewed as intelligent, kind, and funny.”

Zero struggles wrapping his mind around that confounding logic leap.

He shortly gives up. “That doesn’t make any sense. How does being attractive have any direct correlation with intelligence?”

“I have no idea. I have trouble with the concept of beauty as well. Now that’s arbitrary,” X snickers.

Well. If someone like X doesn’t get it, there’s no way Zero will.

“Because people’s perceptions are so subjective, it’s not easy for anyone to wholly control how someone else can see them,” X goes on. “After all, we’re not even including other factors like religions, cultures, and ethnicities into it. We can only narrow down the variability by modifying how we act and appear to others.”

“That sounds like too much trouble. If someone formulated an inaccurate profile on me, that’s an error on their part.”

Although to be fair, Zero hasn’t discourage it. He hasn’t revealed all of his abilities either.

“It happens to the best of us. It’s rare to pin down someone’s nature from first meetings alone. We can know someone for our entire life and still not know everything about them.”

Zero makes a face. “Then that means you never really knew them.”

“Maybe. I like to think it’s because we’re that complex. As individuals, we are the culmination of our nature and nurture. We’re each our little worlds of experiences, and when we interact each other like this, it’s like we’re exploring each other’s worlds. I find that exciting.”

Gradually, X’s voice was dropping until it’s become a low hush as if he’s sharing a secret, staring at something unknown beyond his feet as if he can see what’s happening below the jet. Without realizing it, Zero has been gradually leaning in like he’s being pulled into an orbit. Raising his hearing sensitivity never dawn to him.

“Is there a reason you’re telling me all this?” Zero manages.

After a minute ticks away, X answers. “I was going to say that I just wanted to talk, but that’s not quite true. I want to know you better. It’s funny…despite what I said, you give me the feeling like you know exactly what I am, first meetings and cognitive biases aside. That’s not fair. I only got to know you today.”

Now it’s X who’s leaning in, coming in close enough that Zero wants to back away, but he’s pinned in place by this bizarre energy.

“I’d like to know more about you, Zero.”

Before the warbot can say anything more, the speakers crackle into life and the pilots announce to hook on their seatbelts, the jet is preparing to land. X draws away to sit fully in his own seat as the pilots drone on about the time, the weather, and Capai Union’s tourist attractions.

Zero realizes they talked the entire trip away.

 


 

“When I called, I was told that these papers were acceptable in lieu of a passport,” tells X.

“Whoever told you was wrong I’m afraid,” the hotel clerk replies with impersonal cheerfulness.

“I never had trouble checking in anywhere else.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Not,” Toran huffs under his exvent. Mac clasps the side of his helmet and Zero looks blandly on at the bellboy. The human keeps sneaking conspicuous glances at the Hunters in the lobby. The fully armored Hunters are out of place among the short sleeves and flip flops guests were sporting.

Mid-argument with the clerk, X is tapping the side of his helmet, interrupted by a call. He steps away from the counter to take it.

“Yes, we just arrived, I was talking to the front desk…an issue did come up. I was going to give a call to Dr. Cain…no, they wouldn’t have them, but I did bring recharge pads. They’re something we've been working on – huh?  There’s four of us…wait, you don’t need to!” X’s voice raises suddenly. “You don’t need to, I wouldn’t want to impose – oh, you already called?”

Throughout the call, X displays a flurry of different emotions before it settles on resigned acceptance.

“Thank you, that’s very kind of you…yes, see you soon.”

“It seems that OKVIA Labs is providing lodgings for us,” X explains later with a wan smile.

"If that's the case, why didn't they say that earlier?" Mac sighs quietly, not expecting an answer.

A taxi van picks them up and takes them to OKVIA’s corporate office, a 23,000 square meter triangular building right off the expressway. It has oversized platforms instead of stairways, the floors and walls are pristine white, and the sculptural roof over vaulted ceilings let in ample skylight. It’s appropriately spacious for the thousands of people who mill in and out of it. The workday has ended and there’s less people remaining.

But the ones here in their immediate company are so…much.

“I’m so sorry that you went through that experience,” says a human in polo shirt and slacks. The ID around her neck says Riana Vo. “You could see it as a blessing in disguise. You can try our newest recharge tubes. We streamlined the design, made it lighter. We’re always geared towards energy sustainability.”

“Yes, yes, try our recharge tubes! Try anything you like if it catches your eye. Ah, it’s such a pleasure to have you here - the videos don’t do you justice, X!” the suited man by X’s side chuckles. “Is this your first time to Capai Union?"

“It is, Mr. Ali,” X replies amicably. “I’m afraid I haven’t seen much of the world. Only Abel City has the accommodations for reploids, which is why I sincerely appreciate your company’s efforts to provide for us.”

“You’re too kind! And far too formal. You sound like Alhaya! Please, call me Salman.”

“Salman it is then. And who is Alhaya?”

“She’s one of our AI humanoid robots, but she’s not as sophisticated as you. Even your stoic friends back there show more personality than she does!” Salman remarks over his shoulder to the Hunters.

“I see...well, I can’t wait to meet her. I’m sure Dr. Cain would have loved to meet her as well.”

“Ah yes, Dr. Cain. Shame that he couldn’t make it, but that means you’ll need to enjoy yourself twice as much on his behalf, X!” Salman claps X’s back familiarly then pauses. He doesn’t take back his hand. “Was that my imagination or did that give a bit? Fascinating, what kind of alloy is this?”

The man proceeds to prod X’s upper back, exploring the First’s shoulder pads and arms with his hand. X bears it all with the patience of an old dog.

Zero notices Mac and Toran sharing uncertain glances. They’re eyeing the human guards, watching and taking after their example, which is to stand by idly.

He understands. To combatdroids, humans are unbearably fragile. Zero can easily break a human with a careless swipe. Within Abel City, humans are walking lawsuits but outside of Abel…

There’s a reason Sigma assigned him for contingency.

Still, Zero prefers if he were dealing with the Emerald Spears than this. Currently he’s stomping down the urge to seize Salman’s wrist and snap it backwards. The casual tactility is patronizing and just watching it rankles the desire to forcibly re-balance the tipping power dynamic. It ameliorates just barely when X twists his body to face the man that Salman’s hand comes off, X moving in the subtle, avoidant action under the guise of giving the human his full attention.

“Lightweight with some conditioning. That’s all I know. I’m afraid I don’t know what it is. It’s something Dr. Light personally manufactured.”

“Ah, Dr. Cain couldn’t find out either? That’s no surprise. I heard he found you in a paleoethnobotanical trip. Who knew that archaeology could still be useful at this day and age? Just when we think we found everything worthwhile, we find you!” Mr. Ali laughs boisterously, hand reaching out to pat X, who couldn’t avoid it this time. “But, archaeology can’t inform robotics. They’re simply too different from each other. No amount of digging would have helped us make Alhaya.”

“If you like, we can try finding out what the metal is?” another developer chimes in. “You must be curious to know more about yourself and your creator…”

“Maybe another day? I’m a quite tired from the flight,” X declines.

For some reason, that makes the developer become more excited. “I read the paper by Dr. Khayyam, one of the reploid development team programmers, and he described how in one test you went on weeks without defrag, but you still functioned properly. The downside was that you stopped encoding inputs into long-term memory, but we’re experimenting a – “

Zero makes a blatant show to step in between the developer and X, whispering, ”Don’t forget, we have to talk to Sigma soon. We need to account the time zone.”

Privately, the red Hunter messages, “Act along so we can get out.”

Shoulders deflating in gratitude, X speaks out loudly, “That’s right, thank you for reminding me, Zero.” To the OKVIA staff, he says, “If there’s no pressing matters to attend to, will you be so kind to show us our rooms now?”

It takes a second for Riana to realize she’s the one being addressed. “Oh, certainly,” she jolts, embarrassed. “We prepared a couple on the seventh floor…”

Sleeping in your work building. Not dissimilar to reploids.

They’re given two rooms, each with two recharge tubes. For all the earlier talk of design improvement, the tubes are still bulky with streams of wires barely held down with coaxial cable nail-ins and zipties from the backs. There’s enough space to walk around without hassle, but not much for anything else.

“X, do you have a room preference?” Mac asks.

The First pulls away from studying over one recharge tube. “I’ll be taking none. I won’t be sleeping here.”

“No sleep?” asks Toran.

“I will be sleeping, but I won’t use a tube. I brought a prototype recharge pad and I do want to test it,” the Cain Labs assistant explains.

Signaling silently, he glances at his dutiful carrier mech and it unclicks itself. A tightly packed blanket puffs out from the pressure.

“It’s a device that we've been working on to help reploids travel more freely by making recharge portable. Since there’s not much space on the floor to test it here, I’ll find another room,” X remarks, looking at the floor pointedly. “We passed the nap room on our way here. I’ll use one of the pods.”

Mac’s mouth curls back in a cringe. “Are you sure? Sleeping in a lounge room seems...” he struggles briefly for the right word. “Uncomfortable.”

“I don’t need a cushy pillow to sleep well. I’m like any robot.”

“But you’re not just any bot! You’re…”

X tilts his head innocently. “I’m?”

Fritz, just because X is the First, doesn’t mean they can’t call him out when he’s acting deliberately obtuse.

Flatly, Zero quips, “You’re high profile and worth abducting. Sigma assigned you three guards for a reason. Even he wouldn’t do that for himself.” Since at most Sigma would take only Velguarder with him. “It doesn’t matter if you think nothing will happen to you here. You can’t ever be too careful.”

“I see. What you’re basically saying is that you can’t leave me alone.”

“Correct,” Zero replies with narrowed eyes, daring X to argue.

“Then you just have to come with me. Problem solved,” X says smoothly, stuffing a pad into Zero’s lax arms. “I brought enough for all of us, but I wouldn’t force anyone to volunteer to use them when there’s a perfectly usable recharge tube here. That’s why I’m so glad that you’re willing to test one with me. Thank you, Zero.”

Wait. What.

“Can test too,” provides Toran a second later.

“What would be immensely helpful is for you two to try OKVIA’s recharge tubes and see how they compare to the ones you have back in Abel City,” X directs to Mac and Toran.

Suddenly, the X's eyes widen. He shrinks back, his posture cast in shame. “Ah, I’m sorry. I’m getting ahead of myself. You may be my guards, but I shouldn’t impose you two the trouble of aiding me in my inspection…” he trails off demurely.

“Sleeping in a recharge tube isn’t any trouble though?” Mac says, utterly confused.

In an emotional whiplash, X beams instantly. “Thank you! You’re also helping me very much and I’m grateful. Have a good night, you two. Come, Zero.”

X abruptly strides away without waiting for another word, almost in a rush. Zero glances back and forth between X’s back and the two dumbly staring Hunters, all having an inkling that they’ve been played but now knowing for what and why.

With an exvent, Zero strides quickly to catch up to X.

They’re at a safe distance away when X openly sighs,” At least it’s only one night here. I hope it gets easier when we go to the convention.”

“I’m assuming you don’t mean the lodging,” says Zero slowly.

“That’s a part of it, actually. The tubes have scanners in them. I don’t appreciate the breach of privacy.”

The warbot whirls instantly, “Why didn’t you tell us this earlier?”

“It wouldn’t change anything. Also, I rather not incite any paranoia especially Mac’s. He strikes me as the anxious type…”

“That’s not important. It’s no secret that OKVIA wants the reploid blueprint and you’re just handing it over?”

Worse, if Zero didn’t come along, it could have been his build being scanned. Who knows how they’d react if they knew what Zero was capable of?

“They won’t learn anything new. Though they had some upgrades and customizations, I recognize Mac and Toran’s models. Their builds are like basic humanoid constructions asides a few key design differences in the processor, neural network hardware, and the coding. Their scanners wouldn’t pick up what all the major robot manufacturers don’t know already.” X throws his head back with a drawn-out sigh. “The scanners were meant for me.”

“What would you have that they wouldn’t? They’re reploids. Their builds are based on yours.” As soon as Zero said those words, he answers himself, realizing,” Your arsenal. They may be reploids, but they’re modified civilian models. You’re not.”

Because X, the first independent thinking and feeling robot, is a combat android. Zero’s not the only one with weapons worth studying.

“You catch on fast. If there’s a build worth studying, it’s yours.”

“Mine?”

“Yup. I keep a close eye on the reploid lines but even I don’t recognize…”

Abruptly, X cuts himself off, face unreadable. He’s staring at Zero in a new light, as if the warbot is something akin to wonder.

Zero stills. It can’t be. Is it possible that X knows…?

X glances away first. “I – sorry, I had a strange thought, but it’s unimportant. Anyways, to answer your question: yes, I do have something marketable to the military. This is neither the first time nor will it be the last a company tried to take it, but it won’t be today.”

It’s such an obvious dodge but Zero takes it, secretly grateful that the conversation turns away from anything too prying.  

The topic becomes irrelevant when they finally find OKVIA’s nap area. It’s full of office nap pods, systematically lined up like hospital cots in a colorful lounge that wouldn’t look out of place from a café.

X rolls out the recharge pad over the pod bedding and climbs on. “I charged these before I left so you only need to turn on the control unit and lie down. It works via electromagnetic induction and it’s not as efficient as a tube. Hopefully, they can provide the necessary recharge.”

“That’s what testing is for,” replies Zero simply.

X grins, “Indeed. Good night, Zero,” and enters sleep mode.

Originally, Zero never planned to sleep so he turns on the pad, lies on it for ten minutes to see how it’s like, and is pleasantly surprised that it incrementally fills his energy tanks. However, it doesn’t aid in defragmentation, compaction or long-term data encoding, which are the main reasons for sleeping than downing an E-Tank in the first place.

Zero concludes he can forgo all that for the night. Knowing that OKVIA Labs snuck in scanners in the recharge tubes wants him to lean on side of caution.

The way X sleeps is different from reploids, Zero discovers. It’s subtle because of the armor, but X’s chest rises and falls in mimicry of human breathing, his social affectation subroutines working tirelessly through defrag.

Strangely, the combatdroid finds it interesting. He rotates between the tedious task of manually allocating today’s newly encoded information into already existing archives and watching X.

In the next couple of hours, several exhausted salary workers stumble in, give Zero a “what even” look before realizing they’re too overworked to care. They take their naps, leave, and the janitor sweeps in hours later, wide awake and yet refreshingly indifferent to the guests. Zero engages a minor altercation with the security guard making rounds much later, which resolved swiftly by a quick confirmation that yes, X and the Hunters are meant to be here for the night, dismissed.

Overall, nothing drastic occurs. The following morning X wakes up, asks the warbot a couple questions regarding the recharge pad, and they get ready to set off for Udara Pulau.

 


 

“I’m an old bot, Salman,” X says self-deprecatingly, rubbing the back of his head in a sheepish manner. “I have cloggy vents and my tighteners don’t track straight with my belts. There’s nothing wrong with the tubes – both Toran and Mac slept in them just fine. They’re practically newly-activated compare to me. Fresh off the conveyor line. I’m simply so old that I’ll overheat with the way they’re angled. I hope you understand.”

Zero has heard a lot of scrap back in Base and what X just said tops all of it. He forces down an uncharacteristic laugh.

Not knowing any better, let alone the reploid slang, the human goes along cheerfully. “I see, I see! Humans or robots, we’re all weak to time! I’ll let our developers know that it’s not friendly to ol – I mean, earlier models,” he elbows X with a wink. “You may call yourself old, but perhaps there’s other reploids who aren’t fond of it! My sister hates being reminded of her age.”

“Don’t worry too much about it. It may be just me. After all, a century of sleep really builds up the dust.”

“That sounds like a concern. Have you ever considered getting that checked out?” Riana jumps in.

Mac sits between Zero and Toran yet Zero can hear Toran grumbles,” Too much,” a mere decibel above the shuttle’s background humming.

“You think this is bad? There’s only five of them now. The expo is going to be bolts,” says Mac, his voice carrying a nervous titter. “If we’re lucky, there’ll be a low turnout at the panel.”

“Unlikely.”

“Yeah. X’s a big name, why else would we be here.” Mac stretches his arms out and crosses them behind his head, acting more casual than he really is. “Not going to lie, I couldn't sleep well last night so I'm going to power down a bit. Poke me when we’re close to landing.”

The shuttle rumbles. The pilot announces through the intercom to put on the seatbelts, there’ll be some turbulence. Zero fingers at the already fastened strap, unconvinced. They’re three thousand meters in the air and climbing. The temperature at this altitude ranges between negative fifteen to twenty-four degrees Celsius. If Zero changes form, he can survive the fall if the shuttle breaks by flying to safety. Everyone else is on their own.

(Except maybe X. Maybe he can be trusted.)

Zero’s gyroscopic stabilizers adjust to the dropping altitude. The shuttle dips below the clouds, revealing an enormous, domed sky town. The dome is tinted and Zero can’t observe what’s on the other side. In the distance, multiple lines of public shuttles and powered lifts are trickling in and out of the floating island, managed by bright red, air traffic mechaniloids resistant to the chill.

More waiting. Escort missions always have too much waiting. At least X is interesting – if he wasn’t, Zero would be rusting from the inaction.

Speaking of…

Zero turns his attention away from the window and towards the blue bot at the other end of the shuttle, who’s more sandwiched by his current company than before.

“ – cities like Sky Lagoon were an engineering marvel, but now it’s last decade,” Riana contributes lightly.  

“I still find floating cities exciting,” says X. “To create super-conducting discs and magnet arrays at such scale is nothing short of amazing. To me at least.”

“You get used to them, but they do have a good view!” Salman chuckles. “Still, they take too damn long to make. Asiope leads in quantum engineering, and yet it can’t figure out how to streamline the application to massive constructions. It wouldn’t be an issue if you have a bunch of robots to handle the heavy lifting.”

“You make it sound like Asiope doesn’t have any advanced robots,” says X, his smile a bit too wide and tight around the edges.

“Oh of course we have mechs and they can make a building for you, but you still need to keep an eye on them. You can’t teach them to do the engineering. The Robot Masters from before weren’t any better either.”

“That’s quite the statement. Robot Masters were also advanced – “

“Yes, yes, they could think and plan independently,” Salman interrupts with a wave of his hand, “Until some fourteen-year old troll from Sovsia hacks it…”

“Mechaniloids can be hacked as well. It boggles me how much robotics evolved in the previous century, but cybersecurity lagged so far behind!” a programmer cries.

That’s the difference between a tool and an asset. If your hammer can pound in all the nails and no one can hack it to pound you, it’s the best of everything.”

“Like a reploid.”

Everyone murmurs agreements while X sits there, being awfully still. Not particularly special for a robot, but on X it looks like a signal. A silent SOS.

The next thing Zero knows, his legs are moving and he’s standing in front of the blue robot, capturing the group’s attention.

“Is something the matter, Zero?” asks X.

“I’m not sure. My suffering circuit seems to be acting up,” Zero says drily. “It’s assigning specific organic entities to be mets when visual inputs declare otherwise. I require your expertise to fix it.”

X coughs into a fist while the humans stare at the red Hunter in confusion. “Sure, I can do that,” X manages. “Let’s go where there’s more space. Please excuse me.”

“What’s a met?” Zero hears behind him as they stride to the back.

“No idea, but see what I mean? He thinks something’s wrong with him and he’s fixing it! That’s agency. A mech wouldn’t be able to tell you if it’s broken…”

Toran aims an unimpressed look at the red Hunter to which he ignores.

“Suffering circuit acting up, huh,” X smiles crookedly. “You didn’t need to do that, but I appreciate it. Did I look uncomfortable?”

“You looked like you needed extraction,” admits Zero.

“Oof, so I was that obvious…I hope the others didn’t notice it as well as you did.”

Despite defragging last night, X has a tired line across his shoulders, a dejected air surrounding him. It has the warbot asking, “What do you want from them?”

“What do I want…?” X stares.

“Commander Sigma told me there are two reasons you’re on this trip. The first is to keep you away from Abel City temporarily for your safety. The second is so you can see if…the rest of the world is ready for reploids,” he voices almost like a question.

Zero motions at the humans with a slight flick of his head. “Where do they come in? As far as I’m concerned, these people want something from you. What do they have that you’re willing to put up with them?”

“You make them sound so bad,” X smiles weakly.

“You mean they’re not? They’re downright obnoxious,” Zero huffs flippantly.

X shrugs philosophically. “I don’t blame you for seeing it that way. Also, can you face towards me and bend your head down? I’m supposed to be checking your ‘suffering circuit’ after all.”

Stiffly, Zero obeys, twisting his upper body and lowering his neck. He’s not fond of this posture. His view vanishes for his lap and seat – an uninformative and unproductive sight. His back of his neck, rarely exposed, is bare.

X’s hand hovers above his ponytail before descending slowly to the sides of his helmet, right above his aural cones. The touch is gentle and if Zero was the type to flinch, he would have jumped when he hears X speak right next to him, as close as a thought.

“Would you believe me if I say this is an improvement?” says X, hushed and yet his voice is the only sound here, the shuttle held in a vacuum. “When I woke up, it was worse.”

Head kept still, Zero looks up to viridian eyes beneath the V of his helmet.

“No one knew what to make of me,” X continues, idly examining Zero’s helmet, fingers tracing obscure lines. “I was both ancient and advanced. I can think, feel, and make my own choices like a human, but I’m not a human. It’s an understatement to say that I received…interesting reactions when Dr. Cain brought me into the city.”

“Good interesting…or bad interesting?” asks Zero meaningfully, too used to Sigma’s doublespeak to not catch that.

With everything X said about cognitive biases and quick, uninformed judgments, Zero has a picture.

X’s face flashes with an unreadable emotion before he plasters on a politician’s smile. Innocuous and utterly fake.

“I didn’t know there’s a difference,” the blue robot replies on the side of too polite and for some reason it compels the former Maverick to snap his head up and out of the other’s grasp like an attack.

In the most unimpressed voice he didn’t know he could muster, Zero deadpans, “Unless you categorize being revered as the Father of All Reploids the same as being stalked by technology terrorists who want to kill you , then yes. There’s a difference. You have so much knowledge and power - so why are you acting so stupid?”

Because of the close proximity, Zero witnesses X’s burst of stunned laughter, the scene slapping him like an electric shock. In the back of his head, he’s vaguely aware that other people are watching them – Toran sitting up straight with wide eyes, Mac jolting as he comes out of low-power mode and the humans – they’re not subtle at all. They’re openly marveling at how X’s face is flushed red, the corners of his eyes wet.

And yet Zero’s mind is distant. Everything feels far away compare to X’s vibrancy.

Completely relaxed and horribly oblivious that he wracked Zero’s processor, X rolls his eyes teasingly. “You’re so rude,” he says casually. He sounds so fond.

Zero is a massacrist. It doesn’t matter that he slaughtered Gamma’s Unit while he was malfunctioning because it’s in his nature. If anything, easily wiping out an entire squad of Hunters without changing form validates what he’s designed to be.

A killer.

No one is fond of a killer.

Zero’s core feels less of a hunk of metal and more of a twisted bundle of wires, tangled and demands to be straightened out.

He gets an opportunity to keep his emotions in check when the shuttle arrives to the toll gate. X leaves with a smile and rejoins OKVIA's people, who are readying their passports and paperwork. Thankfully leaving Zero alone with his inner turmoil.

Zero thinks, with no small amount of dismay, that over the course of the mission it won’t be sinister businessmen crossing out of line, potential terrorists, or sabotage that’ll push him over the edge. It’s going to be X.

It’s been only twenty-four hours.

He's screwed.

Chapter Text

Udara Pulau is, for want of a better word, modern.

Zero steps out of the shuttle station and on sleek blue and black solar panel sidewalks, lined with techno-organic trees, its life support wires doubling as stakes. The clouds that drift outside the protective city dome move like a pale ocean.

A tiny mechaniloid slowly yet steadily shoves away the two leaves that dare to fall by the warbot’s feet towards the turf. The red Hunter recognizes the Creeper mech model - an Abel City product used for observing insect habitats without disturbing them - but it’s in floral pinks instead of camouflage greens.

There’s a fully established, regulated hover car air traffic system between the buildings above and a colorful trolley system on the ground. Plenty of space between structures, set apart with shrubbery and wide roads. Zero can admire the infrastructure efficiency; Abel City is too crowded to implement either aerial car traffic or trolley safely.

Yet the warbot is silently revolted. His first and overall impression of the floating city reminds him of the suburban section of Abel, blown up to be its own micro-country. CCTV everywhere. Very wealthy and safe. He can’t see what this place can offer to his directive. The worst that occurs here is likely a hairstylist committing tax fraud.

“Alright, what happened down at Capai was weird,” starts Mac, the Elite Unit member and therefore the de-facto leader of the mission. He motions Zero and Toran to come closer and away from the other humans and X. “The hotel thing was unexpected and we went off track of the itinerary, but there’s no changing the meetings and the Expo. Those should be set.” He holds up two fingers to his helmet.

Both Zero and Toran reflexively raise a hand to their own temples.

“That’s X’s updated schedule unless anything comes up again,” the visored reploid explains as Zero mentally flips through the file’s pages until he reaches the list of destinations and the maps. The convention resort where the World Expo will take place is immense and Zero determinedly commits the entrances and exits to memory. The more traffic, the higher risk the area. It’s critical to know what alternate routes are available and the Expo will be the toughest part of the mission; he wants to encode that first.

“Today should be an easy day. I contacted the Commander before we crossed borders,” continues Mac, sounding confident. “We have back-ups prepared in case legal issue interferes with X’s accommodations again.”

Toran nods approvingly. “Nice.”

“Thanks.”

“No car rental?” asks Zero as he reviews the other pages.

Mac grimaces. “The car rentals here require a driver’s license specific to aerial cities. Unless either of you two got one, we’re using taxis. It’s inconvenient, but otherwise everything else should go much smoother - ”

“X! When is your check-in?” Salman’s voice bursts through the air.

Stiffly, the Hunters turn around to see the bearded man finishing a showy stretch next to X, who hums thoughtfully.

“Three p.m.,” X faithfully provides. “However, the hotel told me that I can drop off my baggage at the front desk.”

“Fantastic! That’s quite some time later. You’re free until then aren’t you?” Without waiting for X to reply, the man bulldozes, “There’s a beer garden that serves excellent brunch and I’m meaning to meet my colleagues there. You can join us! Don’t mind your baggage, my driver is coming to pick us up. We can put your stuff in the trunk.”

As soon as he finishes, a flying stretch car conveniently lands down in the designated pick-up spot in front of them as if summoned.

“Well, I do want to see parts of the town leisurely. I will be spending the rest of the week working…” X trails off with a smile.

“Smelt me, I spoke too soon,” Mac mutters at the same time Toran breathes, “Amazing,” as Salman sweeps X towards his car.

“Traffic looks thin now so it shouldn’t be a long ride, lads,” Salman grins over his shoulder to the Hunters as two more air taxis follow up. OKVIA’s people split into two groups: the first going off their own way and the second joining Salman.

Before, Zero didn’t think anything of the man – thought he was going to be temporary company - and now he wonders exactly who this human is. Is Salman someone important? He’s shoving himself into X’s schedule and the First is going with it in the mood equivalent of a shrug.

Zero tries to look the man up. He gets an automated message to pay for data in six different languages and drops the attempt. Private communications via comm sequences may work up here, but Zero doesn’t have a financial account to purchase wi-fi.

The downside of not being officially documented.

From positioning, Toran winds up joining X into the car with Salman. Zero goes with Mac in a separate vehicle along with two more humans identified as Ejaz and Damini according to the IDs pinned on their chests. The taxi driver looks at the rear mirror constantly.

“Who in charge?” asks Damini with a heavy accent, looking between the two Hunters.

Zero flicks his head sideways towards Mac, inadvertently setting the magenta reploid in the spotlight. The humans start badgering Mac with questions that are more appropriate to ask to a Lifesaver before transitioning to simple yet personal questions such as likes, dislikes, manufacturing model – things that would make an ineffective combat profile.

However, it does make Mac, a fully armored and trained Hunter, to be self-conscious if the soft whirring of his vents is anything to go by. Zero doesn’t know why the other Hunter bothers indulging in the conversation; it’s not part of their mission directive to socialize.

“Zero, what model are you?” Ejaz tries after thoroughly interrogating Mac.

“Confidential,” Zero replies icily. He’s not keen sharing any information to the same people who installed scanners in the tubes.

The man visibly shrinks away. “Ah.”

Singlehandedly killing any conversation there, Zero sits through the rest of the ride in relative silence while Mac seems crossed between mortification and jealousy.

They’ve arrived to an outdoor café with rural bench tables under wide umbrellas. Toran powerwalks out of the car and towards Mac, whispering darkly,” Not again.”

“Not again what?” Mac asks, but the orange armored reploid is already moving away, not answering.

X throws a sympathetic look at Toran’s direction from afar. Zero raises a brow.

The café is already milling with people and the Hunters watch silently from the entrance, out of anyone’s way. The human diet is irrelevant to Zero, but he knows enough that imbibing in the morning isn’t common. Yet the waitresses bring trays for beer tasting along with the orders. X was engaged with a conversation regarding self-contained fusion reactors until he picks up a beer sample, eyeing it. To everyone’s surprise, he drinks it.

He makes a face. “Oh, that’s bitterer than I expected.”

“You can eat food?” Riana asks, stunned.

“He can eat food?” Mac whispers. He turns to Zero and Toran. “I can’t eat food. Can you?”

“I don’t share that ability,” Zero answers as Toran shakes his head. Mac stares, taken aback that Zero answered a mission-irrelevant question at all. He then turns away with a shrug, pensive.

“Not exactly,” X continues. “Depending on the biological matter, I may be able to convert it into energy, but it’s not efficient and it’s highly specific. So far Cain Labs hasn’t quite figured out how to implement it into reploids yet. However, I can consume a large variety though in trace amounts since they don’t have anywhere to go. Liquids are easier since they can evaporate.”

“Ah, like the Eisenburg beer robots,” says a developer, nodding sagely. “They have electrochemical sensors to detect the number of polyphenols and antioxidants, you see. They’re rudimentary and it took ages for the AI to be developed enough for mass production. It does what it needs to do, but Eisenburg need human tasters for the good stuff.”

“I’ve heard,” the Cain Labs roboticist and actual robot replies simply. He takes another beer sample and looks at the glass thoughtfully. “I like this one. Its savory.”

The table clamors louder as people press X to try various drinks, responding in delight when X describes a drink prettily like it’s a party trick. The blue android smiles benignly through it all. Mac somehow manages to come across as misty-eyed while wearing visors.

Zero wants to leave.

To the warbot’s displeasure, Salman leans over to X again when the waiters start clearing out the plates. “X, I saw the segment you were on at the Midnight Satellite. You said that Cain Labs is going to open a branch in Arcadia - I like to give my congratulations! Reploids are becoming popular.”

“Thank you. It took much longer than I expected. Dr. Cain is a very careful man.”

“Mark Cain careful?” Salman exclaims, brows raised.

“It’s not what he’s known for, I know,” X chuckles. Then his voice drops, wistful with a hint of coyness, as he goes, “However, he is getting on with his years and he’s…slowing down. I think he’s planning to settle down soon, which is a concern. I want to keep going and I want to get bigger. But there’s still so much I don’t know so I don’t want to go off alone…”

The man’s eyes glint. “Well! Perhaps that’s something I can help with.” 

X’s lips quirk. “I’m glad to hear that.”

“Now, it’s not like you have to be at the hotel by three. So what do you say? A little tour around the downtown area. Work hard, play hard, how about it, X?”

All three Hunters stiffen.

To their insurmountable relief, X apologizes, “Eating organic food reminded me that I need to properly refuel, energen and all. I’ve had a package of E-Tanks delivered to the hotel. It’ll be best for us to go now.”

“Understandable, we did a lot, haven’t we!” Salman laughs heartily. “Alright! Come to my car, I’ll give you a lift again!”

“Not again,” Toran hisses with a reflexive step back.

“…now you’ve really gotten me wondering how bad this guy is,” muses Mac. “Since you flanked X last time, I can do it.”

Despite setting off after Salman’s car, the cab that Zero’s in with Toran reaches the hotel first. The porter looks at them strangely but leaves the two Hunters be. They wait for ten minutes until Salman’s car finally lands in in front of the hotel.

Mac exits the vehicle first, opening the door from X’s side quickly, less out of courteousness and more of a silent prompt to get X away from the car asap.

“I get it now,” Mac says raggedly to Toran while X is relieving his luggage from the car. “He’s…something.”

“Too much,” the orange reploid sympathizes.

The porter comes up to automatically relieve X his luggage when X sets it down on the ground – and yelps when the blue mech beeps angrily at the unwanted help. It whirls up the handicap ramp and enters the vestibule by itself.

“It likes its job,” X apologizes sheepishly though the porter waves him off, not offended at all, and returns to the valet stand. The human is taking indiscreet photos of X’s independent luggage mech from afar.

“Hey X! In case you face issues with your hotel, just letting you know I have enough guest rooms to board all of you,” Salman calls out of his window. “I can wait a little longer for you to check!”

“You’ve been very kind to us. It’ll trouble me to take advantage of your hospitality any further,” says X. Before Salman can reassure the Lightbot, X goes on,” Also, this time we should be fine. I asked Dr. Cain to arrange the rooms for us.”

“Ah, I see! Good, good! Well then, I’ll be taking off – I should get an update on Waxshire by tonight. See you soon, X!” He takes off.

“It’s only three in the afternoon, but I’m going to turn in early,” says X as they all enter the lobby together. “There’s some calls I need to make. However, if any of you would like to go around, explore the city - don’t let me hold you down.”

“It’s our mission to be by your side, X,” Mac replies firmly.

“That’s…hm. I’m sorry, I’m just not used to having protection. This is going to take some getting used to.”

“Because you can handle yourself,” Zero understands, inviting badly hidden, scornful “Again?” looks from the other Hunters again.

X smiles like a secret. “Something like that.”

The room arrangements go smoothly: X gets his E-Tank order from the front desk, taking it up to two spacious suites on the twentieth floor. In the hallway, X hands the Hunters the large package of fuel while he sequesters a couple for himself as well as recharge pads to each Hunter. “I know it’s your jobs to keep an eye on me, but I don’t want this to be too boring. If you want have fun and leave the hotel, that’s more than fine with me. I won’t be leaving my room for the rest of the day.”

If X isn’t leaving the area, then there’s no reason for Zero to either. The combatdroid isn’t that curious of the island to lose focus of his mission. Not to mention, X is interesting as an individual.

Perhaps it’s the lack of recharge or maybe there’s another missed malfunction involving his logic unit because Zero doesn’t think when he takes the mat and walks past X for the door behind the blue robot. He’s only stopped when Mac calls out, “Zero, where are you going?”

“Recharge,” answers Zero blithely, card key hovering a hair’s length from the sensor.

“In X’s room?”

As if on cue, the key sensor beeps red, denying access.

Zero blinks, uncomprehending for a moment, not because he has the wrong card as much as wondering briefly why this tiny thing is impeding his directive to safeguard X for another night. Then he realizes his error; for some reason, Zero just automatically assumed he was going to sleep next to X.

Even he doesn’t know why he assumed that.

The blue robot himself sidles next to Zero, swiping his own card. The door unlocks.

“Rest well and thank you for the hard work you three,” says X warmly though he’s looking at Zero when he says it.

He closes the door behind him.

 


 

According to X’s schedule, he only has a couple major meetings dotted across the week until his talk, each block neatly separated with plenty of free time.

Well, originally there used to be a free time. Apparently, after X exchanged contact information with each person he took a shining on from yesterday, he promptly followed up with them and added more meetups. Now he has a timetable that would make Sigma’s secretaries glitch out of their processors, which the Hunters don’t find out until X finishes his nine o’clock meeting and leaves the building.

“That’s very helpful, thank you,” X smiles sunnily, pleasantly surprised when he sees the rear-facing seat cab Mac pre-arranged.  “I was about to give Mrs. Ginting a call that I might be a tad late. Looks like I don’t need to.”

“That’s not the address for Qwazada’s office,” Mac frowns once X ticks off the address to the driver.

“It’s an exotic plant store. Dr. Cain highly recommended me to check it out while I’m here.”

“I see. Next time, will you let us know where you’re going ahead of time?”

“Ah, it’s not a formal appointment so I didn’t think to put it down. I hope you don’t mind the detour.”

“It’s not that I mind, it’s just that we should know where you’re going ahead of time. It’s so we can address any potential security concerns.”

“Huh. I was planning to go wherever catches my interest between my appointments. Even I don’t know where I’ll go. I wouldn’t want to trouble you though. I guess I could just stick to my original schedule…”

Grabbing his chin, X looks genuinely concerned over burdening the Hunters. Unthinkingly, Zero promises,” Go wherever you like. It won’t be a problem.”

“Are you sure about that?” asks X.

“Knowing the layout of higher traffic areas like the Expo is critical, but if you’re only walking around? It should be fine.”

“Yes, but you’re very important,” Mac emphasizes, his words aimed at X while his external optic aperture narrows down to Zero in lieu of a normal glare. “We have to account your status.”

“If the threat levels of his surroundings elevate, I can extract him before it becomes risky,” Zero challenges.

Toran openly glowers at Zero’s provocation then. The taciturn reploid’s gaze goes up and down the red warbot with disdainful scrutiny in a "Can you really?" manner.

“The Commander didn’t just assign you. We can cover him together,” replies Mac, saying ‘we’ in a way that doesn't sound like its definition.

“Understood,” Zero squares down, face defaulting back to neutral when he gets what he wants. Looking away from a chagrined Mac,  Zero says to X,” There. You’re under no restrictions.”

“…Okay,” X says eloquently, not sure what has just transpired.

The plant shop owner is a young woman who has a pair of twins watering flowers at the storefront, who gawk at the androids when they come in. They point and shout,” Ultra Ranjuh, Ultra Ranjuh!”

“Ultra Ranjuh?” Zero inquires to the small humans. They say something in their native language and since Zero didn’t download that package, he loses interest. Toran falls back to stoicism at the face of the high-pitched yelling – and if Zero didn’t already calculate the orange bot’s RP score, he wouldn’t have known Toran was a civilian model. Mac crosses his arms, his visor doing most of the work to appear unflappable if it weren’t for his fingers, occasionally drumming against his arm in impatience, anxiety, or both.

Chatting with the store owner, X’s visit lasts for thirty minutes and he leaves with a bouquet fifteen percent cheaper than its listed price. X steps into the antique store next door and the Hunters’ appearance accidentally startles the college student manning the register. X kindly explains that they’re only visiting and buys a vintage action figure.

Finally, it’s the meeting with Qwazada. X surprises the brand ambassador with the bouquet. “I heard it was your birthday yesterday,” he says. “It’s not much, but I hope you like them, Mrs. Ginting.”

“They’re so lovely, thank you!” the woman coos, touched.

She requests the front desk to hold the flowers for her and she takes X on a tour of the facilities. She introduces X to the engineers and lab technicians and they talk about positionally-controlled diamond mechanosynthesis. Following their steps, Zero, despite not discerning half of the conversation, listens to it all closely.

There’s something about the way X talk that’s simply interesting.

After is the meeting with Udara Pulau Museum of Science and Industry’s director, which leads to another personal tour.  Because there’s more people here, the Hunters automatically fall into triangle formation, which consists two guards flanking the sides and one at the rear.

Zero registers and ignores every staring person they pass by. The museum is a low-threat area, but even without X being who he is, the Hunters stick out too much to not gain any attention.

The sheer number of eyes reminds Zero when he was first inducted into the Maverick Hunters. How he was surrounded by hushed theories of Gamma’s Unit’s disappearance with this unrecognizable combat model returning in their place. He was the new cog and he had no prior information what he was in for. Every Hunter around him was tagged as a potential hostile.

There isn’t anything like fear or anxiety from these humans though. Instead they’re greedily curious, darting a look at their way out of habit then looking again unabashedly. The other two Hunters are doing an impressive job hiding their disconcertion; their pointedly expressionless faces aren’t out of place from a reploid factory.

Some humans are openly taking photos. In response, the Hunters strategically position themselves to be in every shot.

It ends up not mattering. Zero notices that the people seem more concerned to take photos of them in general than just X. The warbot picks up the words “costumes” and “event” toss around and can solder the wires together.

Light’s Legacy and the director don’t seem to mind. They’re deeply engaged in a conversation regarding a future exhibition about reploids, already used to public attention.

However, X must have taken notice of his stiff guards because he would look over his shoulders every now and then as if concerned. Later he comments, “It must be strange not to see any other reploid, but yourselves.”

Mac barks out a small laugh, too harsh to be considered entirely relaxed. “Yeah. Shows how there’s no other place like Abel. I’ve never been this popular,” he jokes, glancing at a child a couple meters away. The child is tugging their mother’s skirt, gesturing at them. 

“No E-Tank vending machines,” Toran observes.

“I noticed that too,” nods Mac, “I guess when you’re this high up and there’s no reploids around, using energen wouldn’t make sense when you can use solar.”

“That’ll change once there are reploids all over the world. Eventually there’ll be so many reploids, it’ll be like they’ve always been around,” says X wistfully.

“Does that mean you’ll make reploids international?” asks Zero. That’s the concern Sigma had.

“Eventually. There are still a lot of factors to consider first,” X says biting his bottom hip worryingly. “It’s not just reploids who need to be ready for the world. The world needs to be ready for reploids too. I want to be careful and ease into the process, but the more we wait the more…”

X shakes his head. He raises a determined fist and says confidently, “Well, that’s what I’m here for. I can’t warm everyone up to the idea of reploids if I stay in Abel City forever. I need to be out and about.”

Then the Father of All Reploids proceeds to go out in the next couple of days like he’s approaching a hard deadline – and in a way, he does since he’ll return home after the talk – or he has ten full subtanks stuffed in his lean frame and he’s needs to burn through all of them. He devotes a day to tourism agencies and hospitals, and another to preschools and elementary schools, both private and public. X had to tell both the teachers and the Hunters that it’s perfectly okay for the kids to climb over him as he reads story books.

Since Zero downloaded the local language package through the hotel wi-fi on the second night, he can understand the random questions the kids ask X despite the warbot’s rudimentary grasp on interpretation. 

“That red robot has hair. Where’s your hair? Are you bald, Mr. X?”

“Do reploids fart?”

“Do you really, really, really need to go back? Can you stay here?”

Smiling fondly, X says in a very formal, polite way that shows his inexperience with the language,” I’m sorry, I cannot. My home is in Abel City.”

“Oh. What about the other reploids? Can they stay? They’re neat. I want the big brother with the horn. He’s like a pink rhino man.”

Mac must have downloaded the language pack too since he reaches said horn self-consciously. 

“They cannot. Their home is also Abel City,” answers X.

The children pout and whine, until suddenly one child brightens like a lightbulb and shouts,” Wait! We can get a baby reploid! Then the baby can go to school here and play house with us!”

“Babies are gross! Let’s just get another big reploid! Maybe a mommy reploid! She can play house too!”

“NO! That’s dumb! Moms make rules, do you want more rules?”

“I can’t give a mommy reploid my shirt! It won’t fit on her!”

Zero’s not sure if he interpreted that correctly, but X has the most dumbfounded expression like he’s questioning reality and his logic unit can’t answer him.

The Hunter snorts. X seems like he always knows what the right thing to say; it’s validating to see him struggle before a bunch of tiny humans like any bot. 

A more interesting exchange occurs the next day when X visits a research and development, soft robotics firm. A very forward intern blurts a request to see X’s internal abdomen construction, study how his fuel line is designed in person. Dramatically, X covers his stomach with exaggerated affront, which somehow prompts the human to wave furiously, backtracking,” Never mind, sorry, sorry, I didn’t know!” Blooming crimson in the face as his colleagues facepalm around him.

“What was that?” Zero can’t help but ask when they’re outside. “You made that human back off without saying anything. Even Commander Sigma can’t pull that off.”

“Zero!” Mac hisses lowly.

The warbot blinks, bewildered. What’s the malfunction?

“What do you mean by Sigma?” X asks, leaning in eagerly.

Choosing to ignore the other Hunter, Zero replies, “Whenever the Commander is in a press conference, he’ll be interrogated if there’s any time remaining. He’s diplomatically savvy enough to answer most questions, but sometimes a journalist would ask him something he can’t avoid.”

“Or else his silence would be read negatively. I get what you mean.” X grins mischievously. “I was acting like he was asking something shameful. It’s actually fascinating. There are so many societies with wildly different cultures and standards, and yet, they’re somewhat consistent with the concept of modesty.”

“Modesty. You were pretending to be offended.”

“Yup. I could have easily said no, but then the intern – Rizki, I think?”

Zero looks on blankly. It’s not like the combatdroid goes out of his way to remember every name he comes across.

X continues,” He wouldn’t have understood what he was asking for. I was imagining how in the future, he or another person could walk up to a reploid and ask to open them up, and how the reploid may feel compelled to say yes without understanding what that could mean for them. There isn’t anything like taboo in robot culture – not like the way it exists with humans – but that doesn’t mean we can’t start establishing boundaries. It’s integral for future coexistence to know where the lines are. At least, when starting out.”

“You’re thinking all of that already?”

“I’m a worrier,” X admits sheepishly. “A really bad one.”

A thought strikes Zero. “That’s what you meant by the world needing to be ready for reploids. Accounting your directive, it’s a viable strategy. You’re using your representative status to preemptively prevent reploids from entering vulnerable scenarios. That’s smart.”

“You make me sound way more important I am. I wasn’t thinking of acting shameful on behalf of a reploid representative, but as another robot. It’s why I was able to pull that off. If I was someone like Sigma in a press conference, I can’t pretend to be offended by a question to avoid answering it.”

“That makes sense,” Zero accepts. “But you are important. That’s why you can establish boundaries by example.”

“Hah, important as an over-glorified frog dissection maybe,” the blue robot snorts wryly.

“Then what are we if we’re assigned to protect a frog dissection?” Zero deadpans.

X opens and closes his mouth, struggling to come up with an answer.

He gives up. “I realize I can try to be clever, but that wouldn’t only demean me, it would also demean my present and excellent company,” he smiles warmly. 

A nameless heat goes through Zero, laced with an irrational, vindictive edge when he sees a weirded-out Mac in his peripheral vision. As if the other Hunter can’t compute the previously broken combatdroid being included in X’s ‘present and excellent company.’

 


 

Back in the Maverick Hunters Base, rooms that don’t belong to the Commander, Unit Leaders and A-Rank Hunters are typically styled as barracks. Four to five recharge tubes equally spaced apart in a circular formation, around and connected to the same power tower in the center of a spacious room. Maintenance consoles are on one side, personal belongings on the other.

However, because a situation like Zero’s was neither expected nor prepared, his room is an exception; it’s a high-security detainment cell cleared out at the last minute, stuffed with a single recharge tube. A research experiment with a single participant. Outside the door, security battons hang in every shadowy corner in a dim hallway on a floor rarely visited. The battons pose no threat to him and Zero learned later that they weren’t manually operated; they reacted to anything that surpasses the 115 degrees Celsius threshold - hotter than an overheating reploid, but not an active energy-based weapon.

In short, Zero was physically isolated, which served him well. Having no roommates (read: potential vengeful hostiles who may have once been close Gamma’s people) was a boon.

During their stay in Udura Pulau, the Hunters get a roomy, triple bed suite with X’s given recharge pads rolled on top of the mattresses. The accommodations are more than acceptable with plenty of space and amenities (though more geared towards humans since what are they supposed to do with a microwave?).

Yet Zero has trouble properly defragging.

Zero’s design is a double-edged sword; his combat subroutines refuse to allow him to recharge through the night because he’s in the presence of two armed individuals, disregarding the fact they’re in the same faction. There’s no arguing against Combat Mode, especially when it vindictively points out that Sigma inducted him not because the warbot’s likable, but because he’s disposable.

That’s why he’s assigned to this mission after all.

Fortunately, as a high-end combat model, Zero can handle forgoing long defrag hours and still function optimally as he did the first couple nights. He was able to put up the automatic interruptions in his sleep, but at this rate his performance will severely suffer.

I miscalculated, he thinks wearily, his processor weighing heavily under the sheer information intake without properly consolidation. He’s been listening to all of X’s conversations, to be vigilant and to make his mission less boring. He’s finally paying it.

It doesn’t help that Mac and Toran are validating Combat Mode’s paranoia; the other Hunters would watch Zero skeptically as they prepare for recharge, as if they expect Zero to go berserk while they sleep. Because of his defrag interruptions, Zero would wake up in the middle of the night and see Mac’s external optic aperture focusing on him. Other times, it would be Toran, watching television in low light and volume, occasionally peering Zero’s form.

They’re taking shifts to watch you, the insidious part of his processor whispers. Sigma gave you a personal mission. What if he gave them one too?

With what motive? Zero shoots back.

What more do they need besides knowing you were once broken?

Zero doesn’t have an answer to that.

 


 

The next day, Zero maintains the bare minimum of fulfilling duty and function, using every waiting time to filter files. It’s no defrag and it’s inefficient to the point of being nearly a waste of energy allocation, but manually deleting and clearing space in his drive is better than nothing. Instead of using his active sensors, the warbot falls down to combat subroutines and scanners to notify him if there’s anything worth labeling as a threat, letting the morning pass in an unmemorable blur.

Then it’s the late afternoon meeting with OKVIA, this time in their Udara Pulau’s downtown branch office. It takes place in a building that looks like a suit and Salman welcomes X in with wide smiles and loud voices. Clapping X’s back familiarly, the man introduces the blue robot to two other humans in the lobby café. They take one table and the Hunters sit on another, giving enough respectful distance to not hover, but not so far that they can’t listen into the conversation. Not that it matters that they can; they’ve signed their NDAs.  

It starts as a casual follow-up; X and OKVIA’s people ask each other what they’ve been up to, how they’ve been, and briefly go over the preparations made for the upcoming panel at the World Expo with a round of coffee. Despite himself, Zero found himself following the conversation it started transitioning to more serious subjects.

“Abel City imposed more regulations on Cain Labs since last year,” Zero hears X. “That makes it harder for reploids to operate outside the city-state. That’s one reason I’ve been looking for partnerships with foreign firms, particularly in Capai Union. Capai Union has easy and ample access to energen and the country is very open, infrastructure-wise. Implementing reploid-friendly facilities would be easier than it was in Abel City.”

“Reploids all over Capai Union! A sight to behold,” Salman enthuses.

“Indeed. But is a partnership really what you are looking for, X?” inquires a woman with a stern face and a sharp, beige suit.

“What do you mean, Ms. Sok?”

“I give example. Let’s say OKVIA is the partner in Capai Union. What can you offer to balance the responsibilities? Reploids need so much. Stable energen supply lines and repair shops are only the surface.”

Another man nods. “There are also Capai Union’s regulations and taxes. The foreign partner will be facing the brunt of execution risk, starting ground up with reploids outside Abel City.”

“An excellent point, Elang. So X, what can Cain Labs contribute to help diminish risk? What can it provide to help cover logisitics?” continues Ms. Sok.

“That’s something I’ve been discussing with Dr. Cain. One thing we consider is covering most of the up-front costs and equities. Fifteen percent stake for seven hundred and fifty million zennies.”

Next to Zero, Mac strangles down a noise at the sheer number. Toran's head twitches. Double-checking if he heard that correctly.

“Fifteen? If I personally want to make deal, I say twenty percent. Maybe even twenty-five. Sounds large, yes, since reploids are a big market. But reploid design is not perfect. Everyone knows,” huffs the man called Elang. “That is one thing to consider. Insurance for damaged reploids.”

“Damaged reploids?” X repeats.

“That is why you have Hunters, no? You get…Mavericks, yes, that is the word.”

“Mavericks are a complicated issue,” X says slowly. “It’s not that the reploid template is flawed. I mean, I’m not saying that it’s perfect either. Nothing is. But Maverickism can happen from any number of issues such as a suffering circuit not properly wired in pre-activation. Manufacturing errors so to speak.”

“Are you sure? Reploids are based on you, X. Hence ‘replicated androids,’ yet I’ve heard even Cain Labs do not know everything about you. Is it simply manufacturing errors or is it incompetence?”

“Fritz,” Toran says under his exvent in awe.

“Ah, that’s right. Dr. Cain couldn’t find out what your armor is made of,” Salman recalls. “No offense to the man, I have great respect for him – great respect! But to not know what kind of alloy your plating is – why, shouldn’t that be one of the first things he should have found out?”

“That's also complicated. Ever since I was activated, I’ve been looked at by hundreds of engineers, roboticists, programmers, and technicians and yet, there are still parts of my functions that alludes them.”

“Dr. Light’s genius continues to evade us,” says Elang. “But not for long. It is only matter of time.”

“Within a couple months’ time. A year at the latest,” says Ms. Sok. “But you shouldn’t be thinking one year. You need to think ten. Twenty. It is not enough to simply study and reproduce, which is what Cain Labs does. Cain Labs isn’t a pioneering champion of robotics. It is more like…” the woman waves her hand vaguely. “A Dr. Light factory. It is only innovative until it finishes studying you.”

“If it can, that is,” quips Elang. “Not knowing what your armor is made of. That’s...” The man takes a sip of his coffee, letting his silence bespeak his judgment. 

“You all make very good points,” X remarks. Back straight and nodding fervently, he looks like a wide-eye, sincere applicant in a job interview if it weren’t for the clenched fists on his lap, hidden below the table. “I’ll keep them in mind.”

“Good! You mention that you wanted to go bigger. Once you understand what that means, reach out to us, eh?” Salman winks.

“Of course."

“Now let's see...oh, it’s nearly four! I should get going – actually, X, why don’t you join me? There’s a gallery exhibition on the other side of Pusat Park and they’re releasing a new show for Emeka Wessler today. Have you heard of him?”

“I haven’t.”

“Spectacular artist! I have a couple pieces from him. I know you’d love him. You’re in no hurry to go anywhere, are you?”

“Not – “

“Wonderful! Pusat Park has these gorgeous rose gardens and the gallery is at the other side. It’s a sight to see driving through them.”

“It’s been a while since I’ve been to a gallery,” X muses. “What’s the name? I’ll get a taxi and take a look.”

“No need for that, I have my car! You can ride with me again!”

Immediately, Toran protests,” Not again.”

“Same here, I don’t want to deal with that guy either,” Mac agrees, grabbing the edges of the table. “Zero, you’re getting in with him. We had our turns flanking X with Salman one-to-one. Now it’s yours.”

Zero nods, not really caring.

The other Hunters take a taxi to follow Salman’s car, which is split into two major compartments with the front occupied by the chauffeur and the rear by a divider window for privacy. Salman’s guard, Salman, X and Zero are in the back, the seats facing each other, similar to the high-scale cabs that Mac usually reserves. It’s not a typical design among civilian vehicles and Zero briefly wonders exactly how wealthy the man is.

Shortly later, Zero understands Mac and Toran’s aversion with Salman.

The bearded man asks the crimson warbot directly,” So Zero, how old are you? You remind me of a teenager.”

…a what?

The red warbot looks at X without meaning to. Not asking permission to speak as much as he’s wondering if it’s okay to pretend the human and his bizarre question don’t exist.  

Misreading Zero’s silence for ignorance, Salman elaborates almost patronizingly so. ”A teenager is a young human. Thirteen to nineteen years old, hence the ‘teen’ part of the word.”

Even if Zero truly didn’t understand what the man meant, that description doesn’t give anything meaningful at all, and it doesn’t matter because he’s not really paying attention to Salman either. Zero is looking at X who’s giving back a small smile. Oh, that’s right. Didn’t X say he wanted to know Zero better?

For some reason, that’s important enough that it justifies answering. The combatdroid says,” Two months,” directing it more to X than to the man.

Two months. The amount of time passed since Sigma found him, post re-activation.

“Two months old? You’re younger than the other two! And I was guessing older – you have an air about you that you are.” Salman shakes his head. “Every time I heard a reploid’s age, I can’t get over it. You’re what I wish two months old children be. Skip over the crying and diapers, go straight into full maturity.”

“It doesn’t quite work like that for us,” responds X. “Maturity, age, knowledge, and experience. They’re not the same to robots as they are to humans. A reploid pre-programmed with construction knowledge still needs to learn how to use new equipment.”

“Of course, of course,” Salman waves off. “But look at you! You’re a hundred years old, but you don’t look a day over fourteen! Wait, is it a hundred or three?”

X smiles patiently. “I’m not sure about that myself. I don’t know if I should count the carbon dating of my helmet or how long I’ve been out of the simulations.”

“Eh, what matters is the eternal youth, isn’t that right, two-months?” he directs the comment at Zero, snapping his fingers. “Growing old is overrated, and it must be awfully convenient to come pre-programmed with a language package. If we had to teach robots how to talk to us – gah! What would be the point?”

Leering, the man bends forward to tap X’s knee lightly, which Zero hones on blankly for a second longer after the moment passed. “Besides, if age was the same thing to humans as it were to robots, you’d be a cradle robber no matter who you date. You’re stuck with bingo grandmas if you want to be socially acceptable!”

The man throws his head back in a guffaw as X’s face twists in confusion. “Cradle robber…?” he murmurs, clearly not knowing the term. So even the First doesn’t get everything the human say. It’s comforting to know Zero isn’t the only one.

“Or, on the flip side, I can date a two-months old reploid and no one will rag me on it! Not you, Zero, you’re safe from me.” The man laughs once more with a lighthearted wink. “You’re a bit too sharp for my liking. I could lose a finger or two with you!”

Zero neither understands nor care what the man means so he answers what he does know. “I wouldn’t incapacitate you unless you give me reason to,” he says matter-of-factly.

Salman’s bodyguard glowers at Zero warningly then. Zero looks back at the human guard without a change in expression. No individual human can challenge him. That’s as given as the sky being blue.

“Hah! Remind me to never steal your girl,” Salman grins.

“…Possessing people is an open practice?” Zero boggles. 

“It’s an expression,” X whispers, explaining human dating culture briefly while Salman roars with laughter.

The man wipes a tear away from his eye, shaking his head. “So young and so naïve,” he comments as if Zero’s an adorable, domesticated animal.

Irritation flashes through the warbot.

It’s a relief to arrive to the gallery and exit the car. Mac and Toran are already waiting in front of it, backs to the window storefront where guests inside the gallery are looking at them as much as the works. Zero falls half a step behind X and Salman, multi-tasking processing new stimuli and filtering memory again.

Then Salman slaps down on X’s shoulder to steer the android. “I’m friends with the owner, he can tell you a few things about the pieces here. Hearing a reploid’s perspective on art would be intriguing,” Salman wonders aloud, rubbing his beard with his other hand.

Zero stares at the hand that’s on X’s shoulder. And he keeps staring. The urge to snap that offending wrist back flares up once more.

What is with this human touching X so much?

Suddenly, X is twirling around with a speed that amps Zero’s combat systems awake. Processor overwhelmed with the singular command to transform your hand, now! - it’s only because Zero’s visual feed is dissecting the moment down frame by frame that he sees how round X’s eyes are. Full of terror. The stricken sight cuts through everything and Zero’s logic unit comes up, ordering him to just. Stand. Still. All in the span of seconds.

X is holding Zero’s hand tightly now.

“Hm?” Salman looks over his shoulder, so humanly slow. “X?”

“Ah, sorry I – “ X stops short, looking as startled as Zero feels, as if the shorter robot didn’t know why he moved. Recovering quickly, X tugs Zero closer instead of letting go. Pretending that he meant to grab Zero on purpose. “…I wanted to ask Zero if he’s been to a gallery before!”

He got in the way, Combat Mode buzzes, Zero’s violence given words now that the warbot is less distracted.

The Hunter doesn’t know what disturbs him more – that his performance has fallen so steeply that he nearly made an irreversible crime or that X sensed Zero’s wrath before the former Maverick could have executed it.

Former Maverick. If it wasn’t for X, Zero wouldn’t have been a former Maverick anymore.

Wires crossing, the warbot instantly conducts self-diagnostic, irked when the reading comes back green. His amnesia and data corruption. If something’s wrong with him, he can’t easily find out – slag it all!

“Zero?”

Realizing he hasn’t said anything, Zero numbly replies,” No.”

“Aha!” Salman grins. “Who says you can’t have fun while working? Come in with us! Are you interested in viewing art as well?”

“No.” Zero repeats harshly.

“Gre – er, no?” Salman blinks at the blunt refusal. Then he brushes it off. “Well! Not everyone is interested in the arts. Say, what are you interested in? What does a Maverick Hunter do in his spare time, hm? You can’t possibly fight all the time!”

“I can,” answers the warbot, his culminating frustration of just everything barely suppressed into icy words. “It’s my directive. If an enemy appears in front of me, I will destroy it.”

Watch your step.

Whether he’s not the type to be intimidated or he doesn’t take Zero seriously at all, Salman merely quirks his head. 

Hastily, X drops Zero’s hand as if it’s on fire (and Zero would deny vehemently that he felt a tinge of rejection at that). “Okay! Sorry to bother you, Zero.”

Before Zero can say that X didn’t bother him (if anything, the question is how isn’t X bothered by him with what just occurred?), X blurts,” And what were you saying earlier, Salman? You were mentioning about AI and paradoxes?” Conversationally directing the man away and into the gallery, leaving Zero feeling more internally dislodged than ever.

The feeling only deepens when he joins the other guards at the gallery’s door. Mac and Toran are lasering the red robot with their eyes. Zero doesn’t know what they’re thinking. By routine, Zero scans his immediate surrounding. Nothing’s going to happen, not anytime soon.

Yet he grows tense by the minute. The memory of X grabbing him won’t leave him.

Giving in, Zero increases his hearing sensitivity.

“…Wessler came from a printmaking background before he ventured into photography and metal fabrication …”

“…takes photos of everyday things you see in any town you go to. Convenience stores, the single electric pole at the curb – but he’d deliberately include a random sign in the background that’s in French or Japanese, tying in foreignness as well…”

“…so there’s a universality to his work,” enters X’s voice. “It’s interesting that he incorporates his photos into his sculptures like that. It’s like a journey.”

Zero pulls back with an exvent. They’re really just talking about art. X doesn’t even sound bothered, going on as per usual.

…That doesn’t make Zero feel any better. Against his memory encoder’s protests, he tunes into the conversation again.

“… like to think that both roboticists and artists aren’t so different,” says X. “Ultimately, we’re creating. Every stroke is deliberate just as every bolt installed in a reploid is meaningful. Looking from that stance, I enjoy the concept. Despite the photos taking place in different countries, there’s a familiarity. What town doesn’t have that gas station or that man with the cart? In a way, it’s saying that no matter how different we are, there are things that we share across multiple cultures and people.”

“That’s a very romantic way of looking at it.”

Gentle chuckles. “It is. I may be projecting since it’s something I’d like to have. Humans and reploids, just different people coming together. Having something in common.”

 


 

“X, are you available?”

Midway turning the doorknob, the blue android replies,” I am. Want to come in?”

Zero nods. He rather not carry this conversation in the hallway where any guest or hotel staff can walk into.

Suitable for its lone inhabitant, X’s suite is much smaller. X swipes two E-Tanks amongst the small stock crowded on the corner of the TV stand and tosses one to Zero. He cracks his can open as he half-jumps backwards onto the edge of the bed, patting the spot next to him.

The casual gesture sets Zero off. “After what happened earlier today, you shouldn’t want to be anywhere near me.” As painful it is to admit it aloud, he adds, “In fact, I’m not qualified to sufficiently protect you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you acting stupid again?”

“No, I just want to know your side of this.”

“What else is there to know? You sensed that I…“ Zero trails off, frustration mounting again when he realizes he’s not sure what to say. Finally: “That’s my question. What did you sense? Even I didn’t know what I was about to do until you stopped me!”

“You didn’t? Because from what I saw, you stopped yourself.”

“…What?”

The Cain Labs roboticist lifts his E-Tank to the air. “Zero, refuel and sit down. You’re not functioning optimally.”

Zero grimaces. “You noticed that too.”

“I was a test subject for a defrag deprivation experiment and you’re exhibiting all the same signs. Speaking of which, why aren’t you sleeping properly? Is your recharge pad broken?”

“It’s not. I’m…” Again, Zero isn’t sure how to articulate this. He’s never talked about this back in HQ with other combat models; bots like Vile have a specific definition of socializing and it involves more explosions.

But X stays patiently quiet, sipping his own E-Tank while the ex-Maverick tries to find the right words until: “I noticed that your combat mode was engaged ever since we met.”

Zero’s core goes cold like coolant flooded his systems as X nonchalantly continues. “I wasn’t sure until today. You’re not any bot I’ve met before – well, of course you’re not. You’re probably not even a reploid.”

“I’m not?”

“…No?” X says, wavering at Zero’s quizzical expression. “I can’t claim to know every single reploid, but even custom builds have similar baselines from already existing design templates and…Zero, even I don’t recognize your model.” Nodding to himself, X confidently declares,” You’re not from Abel City. You’re another independent android. If you don’t mind me asking, who was your creator?”

“…I don’t know,” Zero confesses quietly. He runs a self-diagnostic and it comes back acceptable despite the gaping holes in his memories and corrupted data, like always. No matter how much he tries, the result stays consistent. “I can’t access that information. Sigma theorized I was a scrapped project.”

But X’s words resonate with him. It makes so much sense that he’s not a reploid. Back in Hunter Base, he’s seen so many reploids with different abilities, systems, and builds – and Zero hasn’t known anyone who can do what he’s secretly capable of.

 “Mac did mention something like that before.” X puts down his empty E-Tank at the bed’s foot and covers his face with his hands. “I don’t know how to feel about this. You’re a rare instance of a good thing coming out from a…certain occurrence where everything usually goes wrong.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Zero, do you know about the ACIT excavation team incident?”

Zero shakes his head and X nods. “You did you say you were activated two months ago…okay, four months ago, ACIT launched an excavation team that consisted of five humans and three reploids. They were on their way to an archaeological site in the Gargarean Forest when they were attacked in the middle of the night. The humans weren’t severely injured, but the reploids went missing. What the news didn’t share was that a month later, two men in Magyarföld built their first android. They sold both android and design to the Halistan’s government.”

Zero can solder the wires.

“It’s not public knowledge,” X continues. “Cain Labs only found out because the men pretended to be our scientists and Halistan’s prime minister accused us for scamming her. The poor android was suffering intense processor errors. Another month after, they went Maverick and self-terminated."

“Was this brought up to the Hunters?” When X shakes his head, Zero presses on. “Why? Any reploid relevant crime is in our jurisdiction. We could have looked into this.”

“Reploid, but not android. Because there’s no evidence that the android was created based on my design…”

“There was no proof that they were a reploid,” Zero finishes, understanding.

X plops backwards onto the bed, staring up the ceiling distantly. Looking small like this, the Father of All Reploids doesn’t match up the image of a Critical Threat. He looks like he genuinely needs guarding.

“I want to introduce reploids slowly to the rest of the world, but as I’m speaking there can be hundreds of independent androids somewhere in this world and they’re…lost. Made for a painful directive or be used for a transaction.”

“As long as Cain Labs and Abel City hold monopoly over reploid manufacturing, vicious attempts to reverse-engineer will persist,” Zero muses.

“And if we just had reploids and reploid-ready infrastructure around the world, then this wouldn’t be happening. The missing ACIT reploids? There’s nothing to be done with them. The Council declared that they were an unfortunate loss of assets,” says X, visibly revolted.

“If the humans went missing, it would be a different story.”

Zero didn’t mean to say that aloud (which seems to be a pattern for today), but X only sighs deeply, whispering, “I know. Another reason to introduce reploids slowly. We live in a human-governed society and it’s still figuring out what to make out of us. There’s no precedent for independently feeling and thinking robots. The journey to coexistence isn’t easy.”

The warbot grabs his head, scrunching his eyes shut.

“I almost forgot, you haven’t been defragging well,” X’s concerned voice washes over him. “It’s your combat systems, isn’t it? It’s not letting you rest because it thinks you’re in danger.”

“You’ve gone through this too?” Zero grits out.

“Sort of. I’m fortunate that I can ignore it. In your case, you can’t. After what I saw today…you’re a combat model through and through. It’s etched in every bolt and screw in your construction. You’d fight before you can speak.”

“I found you as a maniacal berserker,” Zero recalls Sigma saying a long time ago. “Your processor was so far gone that you couldn’t talk. All you did was laugh and destroy.”

In an uncharacteristic move, Zero drops his head, baring the back of his neck to the world. Exhausted.

“…Would it help to switch rooms?”

“Switch rooms?” Zero echoes.

“You’re having trouble sleeping because it’s not easy to let your guard down with other people, right?”

“I don’t have a positive rapport with other Hunters.”

“I noticed that too. So what if you take this room and I take your bed?”

Zero shakes his head. “You’re the principal. You shouldn’t be accommodating to me.”

“I can also see how the others wouldn’t be comfortable either,” X concedes. Then he perks up with an idea. “But you’re fine with me! Down at Capai Union, you slept in the napping room with me, didn’t you? We can do it again.”

Too astounded to correct X that no, Zero didn’t defrag that night either, the warbot can only say,” What.”

“Give me a minute,” X states as he stands up and…

Zero backs away, his stock frozen face masking his sheer disbelief as the single most important robot of the century takes off his helmet -

Oh rust no.

“What are you doing!” the warbot blurts.

“Trust me, this should bypass – “ X grunts, as he fingers into his chassis where the cerulean meets periwinkle plating, unlocking it and rendering himself even more vulnerable, fritz – ”Your self-preservation protocol. You’re aware I have combat capabilities and this is the only way – got it!”

A triumphant cry. His chest armor clatters on the floor in cheerful, irreverent thuds. Revealing pale blue and black underplating and circuitry and frag, a butter knife can hurt X like this! 

The worst thing is that X is right; threat assessment is dropping the First’s threat level as he keeps de-arming himself (top-notch armor and weaponry mean nothing if they’re not in anyone’s hands), going from Critical to Severe then to Substantial then –

“X, stop. Stop. This is more than enough,” the combatdroid cries, no longer able to tolerate the profanity.

“I’m almost done. I still have my accelerators on me.”

He still has his accelerators on him, Combat Mode surges gleefully. Get those off.

Why is this happening.

After kicking off his leg armor, X rises back up with a flourish. Asides from the mechanical joints, he looks like an awfully breakable human with a circuit-lined, duel-colored skin suit from the neck down. Shamelessly proud of himself in his exposed glory.

When he runs his hand through his hair, the dark strands stubbornly bounce back. “If I wear clothes instead of armor, I can pass as human. I do it sometimes when I don’t want anyone to recognize me.” Then he peers at Zero concernedly. “You need to recharge soon. You look like you’re going to short-circuit.”

Because of you.

Zero’s too dazed to resist when X gently nudges him to the bed, patting on the rolled-out recharge pad in a clear command. “The talk is tomorrow and you can’t fulfill your directive like this. Lie down.”

“What about you?” asks Zero on his way down onto the mattress.

“You’re not the only bot who can go on without defrag. I’ll be fine for one day.”

Zero protests. Or, he tries to, but he’s already feeling heavier. His fans are gradually whirring faster and louder, preparing for defrag. His stimuli sensors are turning themselves off one by one. He wants to tell X that this isn’t necessary (except it really is), it’s Zero’s incompetence for not handling his own systems proficiently and he’s…

No potential hostiles around. Ideal for rest.

Unceremoniously, the Red Ripper powers down.

Chapter Text

Zero rises eleven hours later.

Eleven hours. That’s the longest he’s slept in one sitting since he became a Hunter.

He pushes himself up to his elbows, relishing how clear his head feels. It’s early morning and dawn pours in blue rays through the windows.

Across the room, an armorless X is lounging on the couch, scrolling through a datapad. He glances up at the sounds of Zero’s rustling and greets warmly. “Good morning, Zero. How are you feeling?”

“Better,” Zero replies, both honest and not. He’s in an exponentially improved condition than before, but internally he’s emotionally decrypted. No defrag debt or mental static to act as a cover to this tentative quiet he feels. He’s not used to it.

“Glad to hear that,” says X and Zero can tell it’s sincere. X moves away from the couch and to his outer plating parts piled neatly besides the bed, a physical reminder of the minor yet monumental generosity X committed for Zero.  

Crossing his legs on the bed, Zero watches silently on as X clinically equips each part. The blue robot is humming a tune, relaxed like this is something he just does all the time without logic-cycling.

Zero can’t help it. “How can you just do that?”

“Do what?”

The combatdroid gestures at the remaining armor pieces on the floor. “Trust me that I wouldn’t act out. I was operating at low performance. You should have reported my misconduct to Sigma and dismiss me from duty. Instead, you consciously made yourself vulnerable for me.”

“You don’t beat around the bush, do you? I really like that.”

Stiffening, the warbot looks away from X. When he speaks, his voice comes out harsher than he intended. He just can’t wrap his processor around this. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. You’re aware that I was found broken. Don’t you have any self-preservation protocol?”

“I do. I’m a combat model too, y’know,” X reminds him.

“Even if your combat systems weren’t at an autonomic level, that just means you chose to ignore it consciously. Why would you do that?”

“I trusted that you wouldn’t hurt me.”

“But I almost did,” Zero doesn’t relent. “Not only did I slip and nearly struck a human, I nearly struck you.” Which is arguably more unforgivable than hitting a human unprovoked. Hurting X can have both humans and reploids calling out for Zero’s wires.

“But you didn’t. You asked me exactly what I sensed from you. To be honest, I’m not sure. My combat systems aren’t constantly engaged like yours. Either way, I reacted to you and then you reacted to me – but at the last moment, you didn’t go through your defensive protocols. You stopped yourself.”

Ducking his head to put on his helmet, X looks back up with an easy, winning smile. The sight pierces Zero’s core and ramps it up to overdrive, horrible and thrilling like getting struck by lightning.

Bolts, at least when Zero was tired, he didn’t have the memory space to allocate energy to his emotion node. This is too much to come to first thing in the morning.

“By the way, are you documented under a different name and sequence? I tried looking you up in the RCD, but I couldn’t find you.”

“You’re trying to find me?”

“This is my third time,” X says so casually that he buries any suspicion without trying. “The first two times I couldn’t figure out your model and I wanted to see what your base template was. The third time, I was curious what you were registered as since you weren’t a reploid.” 

Zero hesitates. This isn’t something he should talk about, but since X already knows this much…

“I’m not officially registered because I’m on probation.”

“Probation?”

“I didn’t enter the Hunters quietly.”

“…You said you were found broken.”

I was Maverick.

“Whatever you’ve done, it’s not right to be held accountable for actions you couldn’t control.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you knew what I did.”

“I would say it nonetheless,” X drives in firmly, voice brimming with a moral uprightness that would annoy Zero if it came from anyone else. From a genuinely nice person like X, it’s tragically naïve.   

Still, no need to unnecessarily provide more context; there’s neither satisfaction nor benefit to gain informing the Father of All Reploids how many of his progeny Zero terminated. The whole point of completing this mission is so that everything Gamma would disappear.  

And so he stays mute as X continues, voice rising in his growing passion. “I know what it’s like to wake up confused and alone, and it’s not easy to deal with. I can’t imagine how overwhelming it was to be activated on top of processor errors. That’s not fair! I should bring this up to Sigma. I thought he’d know better since he’s grown, but maybe I haven’t talked to him enough about – “

“Don’t.”

X whips around, clearly about to argue, but Zero rails on grimly,” You’re not part of the Maverick Hunters. I wasn’t supposed to tell you anything about this so I’m trusting you not to give away that you know.”

Deflating, the Cain Labs roboticist, “That’s fair. I guess that would be inappropriate to bring anything up to Sigma since I’m not involved with the Hunters…but it’s not right that you’re not registered. You should have access to your rights and protections.”

“I’ll be fine,” Zero says, unused to be on the receiving end of such consideration. It’s equally as strange to be compelled to reassure, but he can’t find it in himself to dislike it. “I’m told that upon a successful mission completion, my probation will end and I’ll be registered.”

“Like dangling a carrot,” X mutters.

“Dangling a what?”

“Nothing.” Shooting a quick glance at the digital clock on one side of the room, X remarks in a much lighter tone, “Oh, it’s almost nine.”

“Your talk is at eleven,” Zero recalls.

“That’s two hours to account for traffic and technical checks.” X cups his chin with a strange look. “I’m sorry, but can you wait for me down at the lobby? There’s a personal call I like to make with Dr. Cain before checking out. It shouldn’t take too long.”

“Understood,” says Zero, but instead of heading to the lobby he enters the Hunters’ suite. He didn’t take his own recharge mat last night.

Zero sees only Mac in the room, Toran presumably already gone ahead, the visored Hunter standing in the center of the room, looking between the coffee table of emptied E-Tanks and the provided trash bin and recycling bin in front of him.

Mac rubs the back of his helmet. “Housekeeping will have to figure this out. Hi Zero. You stayed at X’s room last night?”

Zero nods as he moves around the other Hunter for his bed, rolling the untouched recharge mat in a single sweep.

“You really cozied up to him. You’re lucky that he doesn’t know any better.”

The red Hunter stops. “What do you mean by that?”

“Exactly what I said. You’re lucky.”

“I don’t understand. Elaborate.”

“Look, here’s a piece of advice from someone who’s been in this longer than you: you’re a Hunter and you’re here as a Hunter. If you can’t bother to be professional, at least don’t make us look bad. Smelt me, sleeping in the principal’s room? Really?”

“That’s the problem?” If anything, Zero doesn’t know why there isn’t a guard by X’s person at all times especially since X doesn’t have any qualms with company. 

“It’s unprofessional. We call people like you ‘buddyguards.’ Kiss-ups who take advantage of the principals’ popularity to boost themselves up.”

“You’re accusing me of taking advantage of X?” Zero realizes with no small amount of incredulity, not because of the accusation itself as much as it’s aimed at him. If Zero bothers, he can raze down an entire city with his claws alone and status means nothing if there’s no hierarchy to apply it. 

To be fair, no one, least of all Mac, would know that.

“If we didn’t have to report to Sigma after this, I wouldn’t care that you’re wrong,” Zero replies irreverently. “I don’t have an agenda involving X. End of story.”

“Hah, yeah. Acting innocent doesn’t really work on someone like you. People watch you at HQ, you know that? Like some ticking timebomb ready to make an oil spill. You wouldn’t talk to anyone back in Base, but when you’re assigned to X, suddenly you’re social? It’s just too convenient.”

“He’s a better conversationalist.”

Compare to some people, Zero adds through his deadpan glare.

“I bet he wouldn’t be if he knew what you did to Gamma.”

It’s not in Zero’s code to flinch, but he freezes. It gives him away all the same.

Paranoia kicks him into high alert, offering him theories. Besides Sigma, there were supposedly two reploids who knew what happened because they were there. All Zero had was Sigma’s word that those reploids wouldn’t talk lest they’d face the consequences.

That doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t talk anyway. The Hunters are a gossipy sort.

“You can use the insanity card, claim you have corrupted data and don’t remember anything -  whatever you want. Maybe it’s genuine too. You did say someone like X was, what. Stronger than two A-Rank Hunters together? Glitching or not, it doesn’t change the fact that you killed him and his Unit. You slaughtered good, innocent bots. I seriously don’t know why Sigma kept you, we’ve hunted Mavericks and Irregulars for less.”

The magenta reploid heaves up the remaining box of E-Tanks, approaching the door. He looks over his shoulder at the stunned silent warbot, his optic aperture whirring as it always has while watching Zero at night.

“You can’t hide behind X if you frag up. But since we’re not in Abel City, that makes X the maintenance expert around here…” Mac shakes his head with a high-strung laugh, on edge because of the direct confrontation, of Zero, or both. “I guess it’s smart on your part to schmooze up to him. If anyone can figure out what’s wrong with you, it’d be him. I’ll take these down, you can return the pads back to X.”

Then Mac stalks out.

After staring at the door for a long moment, Zero finally exits the suite after gathering the recharge mats. He moves to the spot right next to X’s door and flips around, back against the wall. His foot is planted firmly on the wall, ready to spring off, and his hands tighten where they grasp on his arms.

Even if Sigma tailors him a new past, even if all that’s left of Gamma is word of mouth, every existing Hunter will always view Zero in the frame of being broken, his actions darkly colored based on that one aspect. The opposite of the halo effect. Being wrongly assessed or underestimated can have tactical advantages. This is worse. 

Bitterness rising in his compact tank, Zero leans his head back with a clunk.

And because it’s within the combatdroid’s ability to hear a grenade pin drop from the other side of the building, he inadvertently registers X’s muffled voice behind him. Zero isn’t trying to pay attention, but the words reach him nevertheless, spaced with pauses. X must still be on call, Zero thinks distantly.

“…there’s already Sigma, Tau, Theta, Rho, Eta, Phi, Lambda, and Omicron. Another Variable model in the Hunters would surprise no one.”

Recognizing the names of half of the Maverick Hunters Unit Leaders, Zero automatically raises his hearing sensitivity higher.

“It would fit since he is a Hunter and… well, there’s really no one like him. It’s better to register him as a custom. If you see him, you’d know. It’s not just his design. The way he acts and talks…definitely a combat model.

“Name? Well, I was thinking maybe Omega. We haven’t registered anyone that and it does fit the theming. Oh, sorry, you meant his actual name. He said it’s Zero. I don’t know if he chose that for himself or his creator did.”

If Zero had mixed feelings on eavesdropping, they’ve vanished. He’s not going to ignore anything that involves him. That’s his business.

“I was thinking we can register him as an experimental combat design – a high-end security construction - and if anyone asks, tell them that I was so busy that it slipped my mind when we made him. Better to ask forgiveness than permission.”

…What?

“He said that Sigma would register him after the trip, but who knows what Sigma would write down…yes, Sigma! He never told you that he found an android, did he? That’s what I thought. I know the Hunters are Sigma’s domain, but technically, Zero didn’t have a choice to be a Hunter. I don’t know the whole story, but from what I’m getting, Zero was brought in after he was found. No due process.

“Okay, let’s say Sigma had his reasons: he still hid this from us. You find an original android and you don’t bring it to the lab? You can’t tell me you don’t find that strange…” X’s voice turns exasperated. “Okay, doctor, we can talk about cautions another time - but for this case specifically, can you say this is right? Because I can’t. Everyone deserves a chance to explore their potential. How can you do that when your options are kept away from you?

“Remember when you found me? I was…so many things. I was excited and nervous, I was going bolts out of my mind – I really wanted to make a good impression on you. But I was also scared. I didn’t know if you were trustworthy and I’m lucky that you were. You were my first impression of this world. If I was…I don’t know, found by the military? Rust, I don’t want to imagine what would have happened to me. Now imagine that for someone like Zero.”

It’s the way X ended that sentence that has shakes Zero’s core like thunder. X sounds genuinely outraged at the perceived injustice on the former Maverick’s behalf.

…X cares so much. He perfectly fits a good, innocent bot. The kind the Hunters strive to protect.

“Smelt me, that’s a good point. Sigma would get with the program, but then everyone else would be asking questions…actually. You know what? I don’t care. We’re the ones dealing with admin, not them. I’m sponsoring Zero no matter what. Because in case Sigma doesn’t go through, I want Zero to know he has someone else to lean on.”

Zero tears himself away from the wall, shot with an unfamiliar feeling welling up in his core. It feels like protocol conflict and the aftermath of an unresolved mission. A failed hunt.

Doubt, his database provides faithfully.

Hesitance is unbecoming. Cowardice more so.

Instead of flying away, Zero waits idly by the elevators with the recharge mats in his arms, acting as if he’s been there the entire time when X finally leaves his suite. X’s luggage mech rolls up to the Hunter and gobbles the mats with a cheery beep.

“You could have waited down at the lobby. They have chairs,” X remarks, pressing the down button.

Zero shakes his head.

“No. I’ll go where you go.”

Because when in doubt, carry out the mission. No matter what.

 


 

While the map of the convention center does give a sense of scale, it doesn’t capture how crowded.

The Pusat Kota Convention Centre is a monster of a building with an outstretched, windshield shaped roof downwardly curving over tower-like steel columns between lengthy blue windows that continue in rows over rows over rows until they meet the ground, littered with trolleys, people, and rental bikes. The connected wing has a constant stream of hovercars flooding in and out. Before X’s taxi can join the flood to the garage as per GPS route, X tells the driver to fly around the back to the staff loading dock.

After checking in with the security booth at the back, X returns with three authorized entrance passes and hands one each to the Hunters.

Zero’s not the only one who has committed the Expo’s map to memory and the Hunters move in a singular pack with X in the center in the staff-only passages. Every power-walking volunteer and worker would give them a strange glance.

 At some parts they have to leave the backdoor and enter the public realm, and they’re greeted to the sight of what looks like hundred thousand bodies packed in narrow walkways between stalls and exhibition booths, lines streaming out of gargantuan bathrooms, and crowding the escalators and elevators. Every strategically placed cafe and restaurant are stuffed with full tables. Simple guidance mechaniloids flit above people’s heads with blinking directional signs and panel schedules on their faces.

While Mac and Toran would sidestep for impatient humans attempting to go around their guard formation in tighter spots, Zero stubbornly maintains his position. All he has to do is give a look and he finds that people move for him.

It’s just like downtown Abel City during the worst rush hour. His threat assessment is firing off signals from multiple directions in varying degrees of demanding attention. A good number of them comes from armed security guards and guard drones equipped with body shields, staring the Hunters down as they go.

Toran lets out a soft whistle when they follow around a long line of people – whose murmurs grows at the sight of them - that stops in front of a pair double doors, which turns out to be X’s destination.

The guard by the doors steps aside for X to go through.

OKVIA’s people are already down at the stage where their presentation and X’s talk will take place. Salman is next to the podium surrounded by a couple humans in suits, chatting with the technical help and nodding at whatever they’re saying. He looks up at the sounds of shutting doors and waves at X. Adjusting his headset, he blows into the mic. “X, how’s the sound from up there?”

X throws up a thumbs-up.

“Excellent!”

X descends the steps towards the stage and before Zero follows him, Mac throws up an arm in front of the warbot. “We’re going with egress control. Take the door. Toran and I will take both sides of backstage. You can join us after the talk.”

Zero accepts without protest. He can use some solitude.

Eventually the doors are publicly accessible and the long line from outside flow in, thickening the auditorium with bodies and noise. The combatdroid shuts his eyes and lowers his hearing sensitivity, drawing less energy to his sensory nodes.

The lighting dims and a hush falls over the packed auditorium. Zero becomes a shadow against the wall a couple paces away from the door, his armor barely highlighted under the glowing light of the red exit sign.

The crowd bursts into polite applause when four people including Salman comes onstage, his white grin practically fluorescent under the spotlight. He thanks everyone for coming and visuals appear on the giant projector screen behind him.

Zero tries to tune him out; the Hunter’s processor feels stuffed with static and he doesn’t want to add more to the noise, but he does catch bits and pieces when he does a routine check of the premises. Salman is going on about the future of robotics and travel, using the aerial cities as an inspiration to reach greater heights such as outer space. The other three scientists onstage go in detail about the logistics here and there, emphasizing how very possible it all is with the help of reploids. 

Mentioning reploids acts as a signal for X to enter. The crowd applauses again at Dr. Light’s Legacy entering from the side. Salman comes up to X and gives him a one-armed hug, finishing off with a lighthearted pat on the android’s head.

Zero’s fingers claw into his palm.

“Thank you so much for coming, everyone,” X begins serenely. “My name is X. Most of you may know me as the First Android, the Reploid Template, the Father of All Reploids – Abel City’s newspapers had to sell headlines, but they’re embarrassing to be honest. Because - well, look at me.”

X gestures at himself, looking from one end of the audience to the other in a dramatic fashion.

“I am boring.”

X smiles cheekily at the couple surprised chuckles he elicited. Then he abruptly turns somber.

“And also, those titles are wrong. I am not the First Android. The Reploid Template itself doesn’t make sense, let alone being the Father of All Reploids. Let’s begin with the definition of a reploid.”

The projector screen behind X gives one.

“Reploid,” X reads aloud, “is a portmanteau of the words replica and android. The ‘replica’ part stems from my design acting as a base, but I want to focus on the second part: android. What’s the definition of an android?”

The screen changes.

“According to the Oxford Languages, an android is a robot with a human appearance. In most dictionaries, you’ll get more or less similar results. Basically, a robot must have human characteristics to be considered an android. If an android is a human-like robot, then a reploid is also a human-like robot. Except, what does it mean to be human? No really, what does it mean? I’m genuinely asking that question because I don’t know the answer.

“I’ve combed through books and articles and lectures written by psychologists, primatologists, and biological anthropologists who try to define what makes the Homo sapien what it is. Some have claimed that what separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom are the following specific characteristics: an erect posture, bipedal locomotion, high manual dexterity and heavy tool-use, open-ended and complex language use, more complex brains, and the ability to create highly advanced and organized societies.

“But what I, and what perhaps everyone in this room knows, is that those distinctions are fragile. An erect posture. Does that mean a person with a hunched back is not a human? Bipedal locomotion. Does that mean a person on a wheelchair is not a human? Most people would answer,’ No! A person on a wheelchair is no less human than a person who’s not on a wheelchair.’ And it’s a kind answer – to not consider an individual lesser because they may lack abilities than others do.

“If that’s the case, then I ask you: is there much of a difference between a human and an android then? Look at me: I can stand straight, I can walk on two feet, I can dismantle a car and create a lab with my own two hands, and I am here, talking to you the audience, about something as complicated as to what the definition of a human is. I have thoughts and feelings. I worry and I can make independent choices. What makes me different from a human?

“Some may say that I am made from artificial material instead of flesh, and that’s what sets me apart from humans. If that’s the case, what does that make a human who has prosthetics or cybernetic augmentations? Are they no longer human? Maybe someone would say ‘if it’s just one arm that’s artificial’ – which implies that there’s a sliding scale to what makes a person a human. That’ll introduce the very uncomfortable topic of a human versus a lesser human. We’ll be going into the very complicated subject that will account our individual biases and prejudices that will undeniably discriminate and harm the ones around us.”

Until that point, X has been walking around the stage, looking at vague spots among the audience to engage with them, but now it seems those bright green eyes are meeting Zero’s.

Oh X.

“I encourage every person in this room to keep questioning what it means to be a human because that in turn prompts the question what it means to be an android. If you believe that humans are too individual and complex to be generalized, then is that applicable to robots as well? What makes a reploid other to a human?”

X pauses to take a deep breath.

“I originally planned to end my talk with that question, but a part of me is selfish. I want to share what was a private dream of mine with all of you: I desire for a world where humans and reploids coexist peacefully. If you can’t define what a human is, can you define an android? Can you confidently tell what the difference is? If we collectively can’t, maybe until we do – and maybe, we shall never – then perhaps there isn’t a difference. There’s no difference between a reploid and an android, and an android and a human. Thank you.”

When X leaves offstage, the lights dims, prompting the audience to applause, this time louder and more genuine than the one at the start of the talk. Zero waits for the closing note, likely to be provided by Salman, but the auditorium stays shrouded in darkness, long enough that it becomes awkward. Some of the audience members are taking out their phones, but Zero notices that the ones in the front row seats are staring at their blacks screens in alarm.

Suddenly, threat assessment lowers the general area’s danger level to Moderate.

…That can’t be.

X himself is rated as a Critical Threat – as long as he’s around, it’s impossible for threat assessment to drop down to Moderate.

Zero’s hand flies up to his helmet as he walks down the steps towards the stage – the only reason he’s not running is because he doesn’t want to raise a panic in amongst so many civilians – and when he reaches the stage, he feels the void acutely then. He’s dashing to backstage without sparing another second.

There are bodies lying everywhere. Zero checks the human nearest to him – someone from OKVIA and they’re thankfully breathing, simply knocked out – and he whirls around, instantly finding an armless Toran, twitching in disturbing spasms in the very back. His eyes are clenched tight when Zero rushes to him and he barely manages to lift his head, struggling to push real words through his vocal unit’s static.

“Em-emer…” The light in Toran’s optics fade, indicating a total shutdown.

Emerald Spears, Zero finishes as his systems grow cold as if dunk into nitrogen.

Ten seconds later, there’s an explosion.

 


 

The convention has descended into chaos.

“ROGUE ROBOTS!” Zero hears through the blurring noise of panicked screams, confusion, and all-around mayhem. “ROGUE ROBOTS!”

“X, where are you?” Zero shouts in his comm channel. He tried to raise Mac earlier and he didn’t get a response, presumably down for the count and lost somewhere in this oil spill. “X!”

The guidance mechaniloids and drones are tackling into crowds and stall booths, some flying into banners and tearing entire poles out of their stands. One crashed into the lights above, bursting the air into a shower of sparks that rain over terrified civilians, ducking and randomly dropping to the floor, getting trampled and inadvertently tripping the ones who are fleeing. Zero transforms his arm into a buster and shoots one down before dash-jumping to it, kicking it hard enough that it flies off to a wall so it doesn’t fall on people.

It’s difficult; he’s being overwhelmed by the hundreds of warnings bashing him from left and right, which could crash his processor if he was a lesser bot. Combat Mode is screaming at him what he already knows, that to be confined in this area full of environmental hazards doesn’t just put everyone else in danger, it puts him at risk too, but he can deal with his tumultuous systems after he finds X.

Zero’s comm channel acts up and he pounces on it.

“Zero, where are you?” enters Mac.

“Outside of OKVIA’s panel in the East Exhibit Hall. What happened?”

“Backstage was rigged with EMP mines - they were set off when X finished. The Emerald Spears are pretending to be the security guards, keep an eye out!”

“But where’s X? What happened to him?”

“They took him!”

Relief floods Zero. Taken, but not retired.

“I lost them at Saputra Court,” continues Mac,” they were heading northwest when I last – “

“Get away from him, that’s a Maverick!”

Maverick?

Zero whips his head instantly towards the direction of the voice and had to make a split-second decision when he sees a gun aimed at him: either dodge it and let whatever unfortunate civilian behind him take the hit, or take the hit himself.

The Hunter raises his arms in an X and lets out an angry shout when a bolt of electricity thunder through him. He stops himself from falling on his knee, glaring between his arms to get the glimpse of the man who shot him: uniform attire with officer cap and sunglasses before the crowd swallows him whole when another explosion sets off. Zero’s construction gets squashed between bodies, his aural cones full of screams when they realize he’s a robot, only to be tide over by other people.

Fueled with urgency, the combatdroid swims against the bodies to carve his way towards the man - and nearly smirks when he sees that the offending human is coming towards him too, equipped with a gun and arrogance. Zero drops his knee then, pretending to suffer spasms and hiding his right hand under his other arm. Once the man’s within range, he strikes out with a transformed claw, eliciting a shocked yelp and blood.

“You’re not getting away,” Zero growls, stomping on the man’s foot with more force than he usually employs to humans, coldly relishing the bone crumbling beneath him.

“Vechan’chik, saan vu frugraas!” the man curses so extraordinarily that Zero’s language package can’t pin down the slang – if it’s even the local language at all. The warbot sees security guards who may or may not be other members of the Emerald Spears coming towards him too and there’s no time to explain himself. Zero swings the man behind his neck and across his shoulders, locking in one leg and arm to himself in a mockery of casualty delivery. He sprints away, using proximity sensors to locate holes within this populated mess, automatically honing into the least crowded area.

“I’ve captured someone from the Emerald Spears. Proceeding to interrogate,” reports Zero.

“Stop! Tell me where you are and don’t do anything until I reach you,” Mac orders sharply.

“No time. We need to know where X is or else we could lose him!”

“Were you inducted yesterday? Seriously, what was Commander Sigma thinking, putting you on? You can’t strike a human no matter how bad this gets! This is already an international incident, you want to make it worse?! I’m contacting Udura Pulau’s law enforcement to leave behind a record so keep your cables cool and don’t bring us down with you. You can do that much at least!”

“You don’t need to worry about that. I’m here precisely to take responsibility if anything happens. To do what you can’t,” Zero replies coldly, watching the last man exiting from the bathrooms, briefly bewildered by the surrounding panic before joining in the run.

He closes his eyes. “Report me if you want. I’m not letting them get away with X.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Zero? Zero!”

Exiting the channel, Zero shuts the door of the man’s bathroom behind him, throwing the terrorist on the floor before plunging his saber into the lock, melting it and effectively locking it.

“You’re going to tell me where X is.”

“Shestin saan aleju,” the man spits.

Zero bends down and grabs the man’s wrist, tightening around it dangerously. “I heard you earlier. I know you understand me. Don’t waste my time.”

The man drops the act. “You can’t do shit to me. People saw you. They see you take me here. Lots of cameras, lots of evidence – “

Without breaking eye contact, Zero pushes the man’s hand backwards, releasing a nauseating snap.

The bathroom echoes with howls and he stares on impassively.

He can do this. This is why Sigma assigned him: to be the demon, to take the fall if anyone has to because the man is right, there will be cameras and witness accounts to show that Zero incapacitated a “security guard” right when the mechaniloids went berserk. Mac, Toran, and the Hunters overall will be fine if they stay within their jurisdiction, but not Zero.

He’s the found robot with a history of “malfunctioning.” The convenient scapegoat if anything goes wrong. Who would care if Zero’s pinned the blame for the entire mess - it’s so easy for the Hunters to throw him out then execute him. Wash their hands of him and his sordid past, and he’d deserve it for letting it go this far.

But he will get X back.

“Don’t test me. Where is he?”

Despite trembling, the man stubbornly keeps his mouth zipped.

The warbot pins the man down by the neck, ignoring the human’s kicks and protests as he searches through packs and pockets, emptying them out systematically. He finds the man’s wallet, walkie-talkie, and weapons, but it’s the smartphone that he picks up. He waves it over the man’s face before he can react, unlocking facial recognition and scrolls through. The man pales.

“X wants to get along with everyone, including people like you,” says Zero as calmly as a serial killer. He stands up and presses a foot on the man’s chest, taking a cable from the back of his helm and plugging into the phone. He’s no data comber, but he’s operating on a certain logic and he finds what he wants quickly enough. “Me? I justify your fear of robots. I am your worst-case scenario.”

From above, he turns the phone’s screen to the man, showing a picture of a little girl. “192-C Rakokzi Garden Block, Farshani Road. 54000, Halistan. I know where she lives.”

“No,” the man whispers in open terror. “No.”

“My life as a Hunter is forfeit without X.”

(What kind of world is worth caring if it hurts someone like X anyway?)

“I am not above taking you down with me. One last time: tell me where the Emerald Spears are taking him or else once I finish breaking you, I’ll break her.”

“Please, not my daughter. I’m not one of them, I don’t care about the Weapon Copier - ”

Weapon Copier?

“Tell me everything.”

 


 

According to the mercenary, the Emerald Spears thought this through. They deliberately pressured X to leave Abel City where he’d be the most protected and predicted that his ties with Cain Labs will provide him Hunters to be his guards. They infiltrated into the World Expo’s security team so that they can walk around armed and armored without question then set up EMP mines on the stage to disable communications. That gave them the necessary headstart to kidnap X away from two A-Rank Hunters and set off a major distraction at the center, pinning the blame on Irregulars.

As Zero races up to the higher floors, ignoring the evacuation announcements blaring through all the functional speakers, he dissects the information he’s been given. There seems to be two major parties involved with the operation: the Emerald Spears and the mercenary team they hired.

Except there’s one question: how did they know that X was going to be at the Expo?

Taking pure dumb luck and coincidence out of the equation, they knew X was going to be at the Expo ahead of time because X’s decision to go to Udura Pulau was not last-minute. Rust, they even sabotaged the mechaniloids. Destroying robots is their goal.

But they chose to take X instead of retiring him. There’s something from X that they couldn’t get from Toran – something worth keeping the face of their scourge alive.

“They won’t kill the Weapon Copier. They ordered me to keep him alive if others fail to take him.”

“Why do you call him Weapon Copier? What does that mean?”

“There is an old rumor. Light’s robot can take anything – tool, weapon, power - and learn it like magic. No secret is safe from him. It’s nonsense, but they want to see if it’s true.”

Zero grits his teeth. If X had such an unbelievable ability in the first place, he wouldn’t be in this situation!

He arrives to the garage, searching for a black compact MPV security hovercab because that’s what he’s told they’re using, but there’s too many cars and his scanners don’t pick up anything above Substantial. Are there EMPs at work or is X offline? Is he even in this building or are they already en route? Will they use the airport or through some unconventional passage out?

If X leaves the island, he’ll be so far out of range there’s no hope finding him again.

Zero won’t see him ever again.

He’s receiving another call. As soon as he sees the sequence number, Zero immediately takes off, accepts it.

“X?!”

“Zero? Fritz, I’m so glad you’re okay,” says X, hushed. “What about Mac and Toran? I saw them shock Tor - ”

“Never mind us, we’re fine!” Zero shouts, anger borne of incredulity and concern. Stupid robot - how can X be thinking of the Hunters when he’s the one being abducted? Does he even understand the gravity of his situation? “How’s your condition? Can you fight back?”

“I’m okay. They’ve put my body under stunlock, but that didn’t disable everything.”

“Do you know where you are?” Because from the wavering signal strength, he has a vague idea which direction X is – northwest of the convention center, which means he’s not in the building at all. Zero’s already hopping out of the hover garage, his hair violently whipping above him as he falls. He briefly double-checks the map of the island to see what lies in that direction.

“I don’t. I must still be within range to you, but we’re moving really fast. I can feel it.”

“What do you see?”

“It’s dark where they’ve put me and my IR scanners are reading cold. I’m in a transport capsule, but I’m upright.”

Which means X isn’t stuffed in the trunk of some car. It’s bigger. A truck? A shuttle?

Zero sees a man about to take off in his hovercycle and grabs him by the shoulder. The man shrieks as Zero throws him off the bike, falling on his backside while Zero swings on, taking off without apology. The area around the center is a free for all, a honking, blaring mess of cars scrambling out of traffic to get away, only to further entangle themselves in the aerial chaos. Emergency vehicles are struggling to get there.

Zero drives high enough to be above trolley height, low enough that the space is free, all traffic laws be damned.

“X, are you still with me? X?” Zero grows cold. “X!”

“ – ‘m here!”

Back in range, it is this way.

“Has the vehicle stopped at all?”

“In the beginning a couple times, but since then it hasn’t.”

Approaching neck-breaking speeds, Zero narrowly avoids all buildings, signs, and light fixtures. There are speed management drones beeping angrily as he passes, already alerting the nearest police station of his transgressions while activating the security towers. Metal Wing mechaniloids zoom out in droves on Zero’s tail and the Hunter can’t ignore the sheer irony of it all; now he’s the one hunted by the law.

He can’t bring himself to care.

Zero is out of downtown and onto the freeway; he splits away from it, his aerial mobility allowing him to go “off-road.” He’s surveying the radius ahead and hones down on twenty-nine different vehicles that fulfills his criteria.

Which one is it?

“Zero, I can hear them shouting in here. They say there’s…an army on their trail?”

Not exactly; the Metal Wings are chasing him, not them, screaming sirens like the sky is falling – but no one knows better. To some, the warbot is the head of the high-speed parade. If he didn’t want to give away his position, he failed.

Except this is exactly what he wants. The Spears need to think they’re getting cornered.

Zero slowly merges into the freeway and watches the other vehicles move to the right, slowing down to let him through. They’re clearing the way for him.

If X feels them stopping, that means Zero has caught up and he can search among the stopped vehicles. If there’s a transport that keeps going, then they must be the Spears determined to run away, which filters them from the rest. It’s checkmate.

Ten cars ahead, a helmeted head pops out from the side of a white shuttle advertising moving services. It’s far but Zero sees the human throws something large down the wind that explodes into an enormous black cloud, engulfing the following cars.

In the smog, the combatdroid gets a split-second warning from his proximity sensors of a high-speed, incoming object and he tries to steer out of range as fast as possible –

He doesn’t make it.

He senses heat and noise and pure whiteness. It’s deafeningly loud that his aural sensors are overwhelmed into static, not calibrated to process an explosion at point-blank range. He’s fallen off the cycle, thinks he hits something – or something hit him? His visual feed isn’t getting anything right now. The only thing he can clearly process is X’s screams in the comms channel, accompanied with the echoes of banging metal.

“What was that? What have you done!?” cries X, no longer talking to Zero. “You said if I didn’t struggle, you wouldn’t kill anyone!”

“Damn it, he’s awake?! You fucking retards, go and shut him before he –“

The call ends.

That alone has Zero pushing himself up to his elbows. He’s been lying face down on the ground and when his visual sensors come back online, he doesn’t see the fire. He doesn’t see the smoke, the partially melted, crashed cars and mechaniloids around him, the people hobbling out of wrecked husks of metal, purely unlucky to be involved in an incident that doesn’t concern them.

He only hears the gaping silence where X’s voice used to be.

Combat Mode asks him to confirm complete, willful activation. The message is clear: Zero may be damaged, but not severely so to the point of early expiration. Final resort not necessary. This can deplete all of his subtanks. Overwork his core for no reason at all.

I have a reason, Zero argues, eyes wide and gazing out into nothing, into the abyss. These people have no self-restraint. They’re desperate. They want to keep X so bad that they’re willing to throw an entire city into chaos for it.

I will match that.

Understood. Set mission parameters and confirm target. Subroutines shall have complete control.

Confirm, is the last thing Zero thinks before giving himself over.

There’s a stubborn, wingless Metal Wing mech right by the robot’s feet, chirping brokenly between high-pitched beeps, indicating severe damage.

Quietly, the former Maverick picks it up and rips through the chassis. The compact tank in his claw is three-fourths full. He pokes a hole and holds it over his mouth. Not energen but still sufficient.

His back is unpacking itself. Unloading an extra set of servo motors and protrusions that has been kept long hidden. Armor changing colors to be more fitting for stealth and darkness. Every part of him is transforming to be the embodiment of pure demonic intimidation.

When he stops drinking, he drops the robot carcass and looks back to the bleeding horizon.

And sees red.

The Spears must be congratulating themselves sick for their assumed victory. And who can blame them? They’re running beyond the collisions and the city, spatially irrelevant with the law enforcement entanglement behind them with their glorious prize in hand. No one is following them.

To their knowledge at least.

A black blur shoots out from the smoke in a lightning dash into the sky, so far above the insignificant ongoing below that it can only be noticed if someone deliberately aim their sights vertically. The white hovervan is a speck in the demon’s eyes, undeservingly unscathed from the chaos they’ve unleashed behind them. It’s tempting to swoop down and tear the unassuming vehicle into shreds. Watch their smug smiles fall from their faces before ripping them apart.

But for now, he must practice restraint. The directive parameters are set. Bludgeoning in too quickly and wildly will risk the target. That is the red line he must not cross.

All the clouds sit outside of the island dome so there’s no shadows for him to cling, but he keeps his distance well. He keeps his eyes trained on the transport as it veers off the freeway lane and lowers, matching the flight height for local air roads. It keeps going and going until it’s on a solitary road that leads further up to a massive water treatment plant.

Once the van slips into an elongated warehouse, he lands.