Zero clenched a hand to his chin, propped up on the coffee table. "What about other people? Have they said anything about it?"
"No. As a matter of fact, they would probably say he's as normal as ever." Cain grinded his walking stick into the carpet. Both of them were sitting angled out from the table, not looking at each other, but not looking away.
"I can't understand it," Zero whispered to himself.
"Zero, I think you should apologize to X before you leave."
"Apologize, bah," Zero waved his hand in the air. "What good would that do?"
"If something happens to either of you when you're gone, you'd both regret it. Believe me, I wish I had said a great deal of things to my wife before she died."
"That is a human reaction. Regret, hindsight."
"Don't be so sure. Even though you're a reploid you still have as full a range of emotions as humans. If you didn't, I'd think I'd rue the day you were created."
"I do... rue." Zero covered his eyes from his still propped hand. "We are so different and similar at the same time. We are on an equal level, maybe even superior in some ways, yet humans are still the dominant force in society."
"Zero," Cain said as he put down his coffee. "Power isn't about strength, it's about control. Humans and reploids are strange together. Humans have an innate counter-reaction to slavery and captivity, but robots have had servitude imprinted into their personality since day one. People used them like napkins, wiping their mouths and then throwing them away. Humans have been in control for centuries and they are distinctly reluctant to give up power easily."
Zero said, "But humans are split on total reploid freedom, just like reploids are split with Mavericks. Either side winning means losing something very valuable." He tucked his hands into his lap. "I guess reploids act more like humans than I thought."
"I couldn't agree more."
The door opened and the blue and white armor of X caught Zero's eye. Several tense moments were shared as they glanced to each other. Each one wondered if violence would erupt. Cain heaved himself up out of the chair, hoisting himself on his stick's rubber handle.
"I have work to get to then. Remember what I said, Zero." Cain acknowledged X with a quick greeting and looked back at the red commander as he exited.
"Hello, X," Zero said. The reserved anger in his tone was obvious.
"Zero..." he paused to collect his thoughts. "What is your deal? Why do you hate me so much?"
"Hate you? I never hated you."
"Is it because I fired on you? I told you it was an accident."
"X, this goes way beyond that. This goes deeper than our friendship. This goes to the very heart and soul of who we are. And we're obviously different. There is the question of which side you belong to, whether you serve me or not."
"What? Serve you? I thought we were equals."
"Have I ever fired on a fellow Maverick Hunter? Have I ever attacked one?"
"Are you going to hang me with that forever? Until we're dead, are you going to keep reminding me that I made a mistake? A simple mistake?"
"Some mistakes cannot be easily erased. I just need to know – are you on my side, or aren't you?"
"Side? Of course, we're on the same side. What would make you think otherwise? Just because I fired into you? It was an accident, can't you see that?"
"I don't see the accidents, I see the evidence."
"Evidence? Evidence of what?"
"If you don't know the answer to that, then I certainly don't have reason to tell you."
"What does that mean?"
"It means you know why and I don't need to tell you."
X gave up. "I have absolutely no idea what you're saying."
"Don't play dumb with me. You're not as ill-equipped as other Hunters. You're sharp. And as lethal as I am. You know what I'm talking about."
"No, I do not. Wait a minute..." Zero turned around and stared at the coffee machine. X suddenly started to realize what he was saying. "Wait a minute, do you think I'm Maverick?"
Zero kept his back to X.
"Zero, don't be ridiculous. We've both been tested, neither of us can be infected with the Maverick virus."
"Tests can fail. No one knows how the virus got started. Some think it may not be a virus. No one really knows what it is. Except for one thing – there was no virus before you arrived on the scene."
"Most scientists think it's a flaw in reploid programming. I'm not a reploid so that precludes me from getting it. I can't believe you would suspect that of me. I've never done anything against humans. I'm a pacifist. I fight for peace."
"Rather contradictory statement, don't you think?"
"Would you even listen to me, if I said anything?"
"As they say, if the shoe fits."
"What shoe? What fits? What has given you any reason to think I'm a Maverick?"
Zero suddenly spun out of his chair and looked X straight in the eyes. "Like I said. These little mind games won't work on me. Mark my words, you've done something terrible and the world will know and your attempts to take command of MHHQ won't work. I won't see you condemn humanity."
"I'm not trying to take command. You're being a stubborn jackass."
Zero thrust his face into X's. "I'll see you in hell, X." He walked past X and out the door.
Janus answered the summons to X's office immediately. He found X with his back turned away from him sitting at the coffee table with one arm propping up his head. "Janus reporting, sir," he said as he did a quick salute, seen by no one. X said nothing back, just kept slumped over one arm on his desk. "Sir, you summoned me? Is there something wrong?"
"All and nothing, Janus."
"If I might ask, what does that mean?"
X said nothing again.
"Are there more problems with Zero?"
"Some," X sighed. "He transferred you under his command, didn't he? As his lieutenant?"
"He did, sir, but that makes me no less dutiful to you. Are you concerned that he's overriding your authority?"
"Don't ask me any more questions about him, I have no answers. I can't even get them from the man himself." X slumped forward, like a man leaning on a bar. "He called me a Maverick, Janus." X sat up again. "All those years and he considers me a Maverick."
"It surely cannot be that he thinks you a Maverick. It must be some miscommunication. Some stress-"
"There's someone here. Someone who's been feeding him these lies."
"A spy? A saboteur?"
"That's gotta be it. Is it? I only ask you because you seem to be close to this situation."
"X, I hate to make judgments, but this may be your paranoia creeping forth again."
X turned around and shrunk back down to the table, his eyes shut tight to block out his ignorance. "Oh, you're right, how could I be so stupid?"
"Remember what happened last time. You must not get carried away. Reasonable, but unfounded theory, sir."
X paused, contemplating his next question. "Janus, as his lieutenant, what do you think of Zero?"
"I think he is a fine strong officer with a record to match," he said, proudly at standing attention.
"And you don't think him acting odd recently?"
"Not even from striking me?"
"Well, uh," Janus hesitated from the curveball, turned away and scratched the back of his head. He quickly recovered. "Well, I'm sure he had his reasons. I'm not accusing you of lying, sir, of course, but Zero's motivations are his and his alone."
X waited again before asking his next question. "Do you think there's anything I can do to win him back?"
"I'm sure this will all soon blow over if you have patie-"
"No, no, there must be something to convince him I'm not Maverick. He can't be that stubborn. I mean I have a proven track record and tests show and... and despite all that he knows he still..." X cast his eyes down. "Never mind."
"I'm sorry, sir, I have other duties that need to be finished before the day is out. Is there anything more you need?"
"No," X mumbled.
Janus turned to leave.
"Wait, please tell support to configure the diagnostic chamber for me."
"Aye, sir," Janus stated and exited the room.
Once the door closed behind him, Janus' face immediately turned to one of grimacing anger. Emotion plagued his face. He navigated the corridors and halls to that secret meeting spot, again another stupid move on his part, mentioning the exact place in an insecure communication, interrupting a perfect opportunity with X. Janus turned the corner and met Duplex's disapproving yellow gleam hiding in the shadows.
"What do you want now?" Janus said angrily. Duplex opened his mouth, but Janus continued arguing. "What was so important you had to pull me away from X to cater to your little whims?"
Duplex looked hurt at first, like a
disciplined dog, then he collected himself and approached the gray reploid.
"I have had it, I have put up with too much with you. I have been abused, ignored, and I've given you enough money to plate yourself in gold. And what have I gotten out of it? Nothing. I wanted to be a squadron commander, but I'm still picking pieces of reploid off the field. Am I right?"
"Yes, you are," Janus replied calmly.
"I am... what?" Duplex was obviously confused. His second harangue was stopped before it started.
"You are right. You've paid me a great deal of money and you're no better off than you were before."
"I'm right. Oh, I'm right, he says. Well, doesn't that make everything better?" Duplex mocked with his hands on his hips.
"You've still got the fight in you. The desire. I thought you might have lost it, but now I'm encouraged." Janus took Duplex's hand and held it like a mother. "You've horribly misjudged me though. The solution is as simple as it presented itself in the beginning. Zero is being dethroned because of his behavior."
"I haven't heard of this," Duplex said warily.
"Oh, it's not official. It's a pigeonhole. He's being sent out to the space colony and he won't be back for quite some time. This will leave X in charge and what happens when officials go away? Everyone moves up a rank to fill in the positions."
"But there's no way I'd get promoted with my record. I haven't done anything to stand out."
"Aha, not yet. Nothing that anyone knows about. That's why we delve into the records. We find the port, connect, and the next time you have performance reviews your commendations are glowing. You'll be next in line."
Duplex snatched back his hand. "Whoa, wait a minute, nobody said anything about hacking records. On our own servers? This is too far for me. First, we brought allegations against Zero. I had no problem with that. Then you wanted me to antagonize X and I almost died. Then you had me steal his saber. And then we... you know.... And now you want me to break into our own computers? I can't do that. That's... that's sabotage."
"Surely this is a lesser thing you've done in the past. My god, you've killed a human. A definitive Maverick act. You don't want to be called a Maverick, do you?"
"But, but, but wait, you can't do anything. You'd be accused, too."
"Will I? Your word against mine. And whom would they consider trustworthier around here? Zero's lieutenant or the bothersome Duplex?"
Duplex's eyes narrowed as he knew he had no recourse. The debate had been closed. Strangely, Janus had just threatened him into doing what he wanted. There was no turning back now. It would have been a waste to stop now. This was all or nothing, he just hadn't realized it when he had gotten into it. Janus waited for his answer. He knew that Duplex hadn't the processing power to realize that if he did accuse Duplex of killing that human, an act they had already framed X for, his entire web would be unwoven.
"Well?" Janus asked.
"When do we start?"
"Tonight. Gather your elements, we needn't worry about X or Zero. They will be occupied. The log files get backed up at 0200 so you can make your changes then. Go now! Post haste."
Duplex looked Janus in the eye for a long time, thinking about his next move. Janus returned the gaze. He had no fear, because Duplex had no choice but to accept. He was merely trying to make himself seem bigger than he really was, that he had any control whatsoever. The illusion had to be there for the plan to work, as in all things.
"Fine. But if you don't deliver, it's over."
"You will be satisfied."