The Business of War

Introduction ~ Chapter 5

December 1st, 20XX

11:13 PM


A weathered and faded metal sign on a long stretch of empty highway thanked me for visiting and welcomed me to come again soon. As if anybody wanted to stay in the city these days. Massacres. Rioting. Chaos and bloodshed around every street corner. Even without the death toll, the population count of Monsteropolis was dropping heavily as robots and humans alike sought asylum in other cities, other countries.

But there was no reprieve from the carnage. Every city was the same sick story. The people who left were all driven by a sad, irrational hope that maybe there was some way to hide from the inevitable.

"Then we can cheat!" a voice echoed in my head from days before. The same naïve optimism, in the man I had once thought to be the most level-headed of us all. So careless of him, to think he could weasel his way out of getting the code. To think they wouldn't expect it from him. Maybe the stress had finally gotten to him. He never used to make these kinds of mistakes... the kinds of decisions that questioned loyalties, that splintered teams...

...but our team had fallen apart even before that, hadn't it? Maybe even before Kenta  turned. Maybe even before Kenta joined.

Maybe Classi was the first to let go. She kept swallowing up her fear, her regret, her sadness, like swallowing bile, until one day she choked on it, and all the bitterness swelled back up until she hated us for it.

Or maybe it started with Lennon. One too many times of being put in his place, of being ignored, of thinking he deserved better, until one day he feels like he's got nothing to lose by losing himself.

Maybe Hard Man was just more attached to his bar than he ever could be to any of us. Maybe Snake Man fiound more comfort in order than he ever could in our companionship. Maybe the reality was that the team was never more than an illusion. Strangers seeking solace in an idea of family, an idea that never quite worked out.

So many maybes...

"I know what it's like to be under someone's control, to be deprived of all choice in your own actions. I'm sorry, I just... I can't let it happen again."

The last thing I'd said to my friends before I left, and it was a lie. At least in part. The shutdown code was a frightening possibility, but it was only a threat because humans were. I had seen them act out of fear, out of anger, out of frustration for their petty concerns, and their actions were always of painful consequence. Their unpredictability, their selfishness, and their cruelty, these were what made the shutdown code truly dangerous. It was humans that frightened me most.

I stood at the threshold between the city and the world for a long time. Whose side was I on? No longer the Mechs', that was obvious enough. What was my purpose in this... this war?

A robot stumbled quickly through the night, wearing a cloak in what I assume was an attempt to hide from the robot-haters and the RPD alike. He looked harmless, not suited for battle, and even his running was awkward and lopsided, clearly not being built with physical activity as a necessity. He slowed when he saw me, almost turned back, but I gestured openly to show I was not a threat.

"Where are you travelling, friend?" he asked hopefully.

I didn't answer, just half-shrugged.

"You shouldn't just be standing here, it's not safe!" he paused, looking around for danger. "Listen," he continued,  coming close to me as if he had a secret to tell, "there are rumours from abroad that Cossack is amassing an army! He is starting a revolution! If he succeeds, Europe might become a safe haven for robots once more! I am going there, to offer my services to him. It might be wise for you to think about doing the same."

He nodded earnestly, looked around again, and continued running on past the border until he was out of city lines. Once free of the teleportation defense grid that the city had implemented to stop the SA's forces from coming and going at leisure, the robot teleported away.

His tidings did little to call me to action. A revolution in Russia? Because those have always gone great, right? Besides, if this romantic notion of freedom fighting was spreading through the grapevine, I had no doubt Cossack's forces would be growing steadily. And while the saying goes "Strength In Numbers", more often than not those numbers have a dollar sign in front of them. Without money to fund his operations, Cossack's army could be the first to fall. And adding one more to the numbers would do more harm than good at this point, as far as I was concerned.

So what did that leave for me... Wily? The Scissor Army? How could I even consider them? So many horrors had been done in their names, allying with them now would be a pact with the devil. I wasn't that far gone yet. Four forces. Four armies. All opposing each other. How had the community become so fractured, so divided?

And then it hit me. Rockman was the key, the key to it all. If he were around, he might have rallied us all to a common goal of wiping out the Scissor Army swiftly and with strength. But with him gone, there is no one leader to unite us all. There's only fear. Only panic.

Perhaps this had all been a chain of coincidences. Or perhaps not, as is often the case with coincidences when Mesmerman is involved. Maybe the General saw an opportunity for pitting his enemies against each other from the start, and organized Rockman's fall from within. Either way, it became clear to me what needed to be done. Doctor Light and his family was defenseless and alone out there, somewhere. Hunted. Hiding. And just as Rockman might be the key to ending the war, Light was the key to saving Rockman.

We just need to find him.

December 2nd, 20XX

12:21 AM

“You can't be serious! I demand to know why we can't!!”

The angered robot pointed threateningly at the woman bot clad in orange armor. She was strapped down on a hard metal stretcher, many wires hooked into her vital areas, her chest, her neck, her head... She wasn't severely damaged but was kept unconscious for quite some time.

“It can be done anothzer time. I really don't feel like doing it at zis moment now.”

The old man glared at his 'son', not wishing to talk about this further. This only angered Forte further. Morphing his hand into his buster canon he pointed it at Spark-Chan's head. He had been very easily agitated as of late... his anger off the charts towards the other members and his master.

“Look! I'm not screwing around Wily! If you aren't going to reprogram her... what use is she to us!? ? I'll finish her off now!”

“FORTE! You lower your weapon zis instant! Zis is a direct order!”

At this point the scientist was clasped onto Forte's arm... glaring at him.

“She is very important now. Look at her. Zere isn't a Flimsy Prototype any longer. She has power, she has skill. I can't just reprogram her now zat she has been upgraded.”

It was the work of Dr. Light no doubt. Before she joined the Mechanical Maniacs... she lived her life freely in her Mango Tree. She befriended Rockman and Light, eventually gaining the work she needed on her dying frame work. Forte noted this on his own... lowering his arm and shoving his father off him.

“Huh. Do what you wish.”

The black android turned to take his leave... only to almost step on the little boy Spark had snagged in her arms just a while before. Strangely... he knelt down to get in the child's red tear stained face.

“Stop crying. You should feel lucky that you didn't die.”, he claimed.

The boy looked up from his place on the cold grey floor to the male bot who rescued them. Forte was disgusted by the human's face... he made a grunt and grabbed the boy up, forcing him to his shaky feet.

“You're a nuisance.”

The two left out of Wily's working area, leaving the old man to whatever he needed to do. Wily though, didn't move. He just... stared at the woman bot under the bright lights of the room.

Inside of this forced sleep, the android recalled and even invented her own encounters in her mind. Possible scenarios, dialogues, ...if a robot dreamed... it must be from the active mechanics while in a resting mode.

My Dear, whatever you are baking smells wonderful.”, Geminiman smiled.

Spark smiled over her shoulder, she was whipping up a beautiful pineapple upside down cake. In a time where it was just the Mechs... and a world at peace, well somewhat. Just as Gemini had come up behind her... Needle swatted him away with a spatula.

“'Ey!”, NeedleGal snapped. “ This is the WOMEN'S area! You wait until we're done!”

At that moment Top and Hard were laughing at Gemini's failure.

“Man, that's some tough love.”, Hardman remarked.

“Maybe if you put on an apron Gem, they might let you help.” Topman offered jokingly.

They shared a few more cackles, Snakeman seeming to sneak right in and taste the batter from NeedleGal's mixture bowl. He nodded in approval to the girls, who smiled.

“Wait! He's not—“, Geminiman began to argue before catching sight of something.

Snake turned to Gem to reveal his baby chicken print apron.

“The apron completely overlooks the wearers’ sex and orientation. I am now... one with the kitchen.”, Snakeman explained scientifically.

Gauntlet of course was just hanging around... watching his team instead of participating in the conversation. But although she was smiling... she noticed there was something wrong. Something wrong in this lovely scene. What could it be? Stepping back from this... she found herself alone in the kitchen. The cake, the cookies, the pie all finished... but there was no one around to eat them. She picked up one of the frosted mango-chip cookies... walking out into the main area of the HQ...

“Topman? Gauntlet?? .....Lenny?”

She walked further... the scenery becoming darker until she finally came across a photo of all of them. Setting the warm cookie down... she traded for the standing photo. And that was when she saw... Everyone was in it... smiling... waving. Her head on Gem's shoulder... her hand hugging... a blur? Magnet was blurred out in this image... almost like... someone would try to erase him.

Her eyes began to flutter open, letting out a soft sigh and a hiss from between her teeth. She felt like she was hit by a bus directly in the forehead. She applied pressure to the area as she sat up. Upon looking around... she would see she was in a large white lab room of sorts. Further inspection she would find the sheet covering her was actually covering her shamefulness! Embarrassed she gasped, but mind you she was a robot... and although she had a peach exterior titanium body... she had no sexual anatomy like a human. Just obvious joints, compartments, and latches. But she was programmed none the less to understand she was nude.

“Where... am I?”

She recalled fighting just before, though things still seemed blurry. Taking the sheet she draped it around herself.. getting to her feet. Who saved her? And more importantly... where was her armor!? There were many, many windows in the lab... the scenery overlooking a lovely canyon with green hills. The sun was setting... herself drawn to it. Seeing the sky, the world like this made her heart feel lighter... almost forgetting the war.

Just then something sparkled in the corner of her eyes. She turned to find her armor fully repaired and hooked up to a strange formless mannequin. Dropping the sheet she unlatched her armor and quickly began to redress, glad she wouldn't be caught in such an embarrassing moment.

Unknowingly she was locked up in a room that was off limits to everyone, Wily enforcing that no one visit the Eastern Wing lest they wished to scrub windows for the rest of their time here. And there was ALOT of windows.

December 2nd, 20XX

1:43 AM

Still in the ditch the young spiderbot was starting to awaken as well. She was still too weak to move much, her small limbs creaking in a rusted fashion. Where was her mother? Where was she? Did humans come to hurt them again? She filled with anger and despair. Was this how it was to end for them? She cried out for her mother raspy and worn. Until she rested more she couldn't function properly... but was determined to get up despite that.

December 3rd, 20XX

10:45 PM

The bar was dead that night. Honestly, I couldn't even tell you why I was there. Maybe it was just on the off-chance that Chargeman showed up again. Maybe kicking the crap out of him could lift my spirits a little.

Then again, what with the General's little 'edits' to the former Ascendant Androids, it was entirely possible that Chargeman was a fight I just couldn't win anymore. Back in his toy train days? Oh, no problem. Two, three Knuckles tops, and he'd go down, as vulnerable to heavy impacts as he was. Now...? A twenty foot tall, smoke and fire belching engine of destruction? That'd give me a run for my money.

I felt numb on a lot of levels as I was cleaning the place up. I hadn't had a single customer since the whole mess had begun. Granted, General Cutman's forces had either left the city for parts unknown or were biding their time somewhere else almost two days ago, and everyone was still pretty much in shock, but that couldn't change things for me.

It just couldn't.

I love this bar. I've always been here, serving drinks from behind the counter, talking, laughing, and sometimes just drinking with my various patrons and regulars. When tthe jukebox is drowned out by the chatter of happily sloshed consumers, my life can't really get any better.

But this war wasn't just gonna be bad for business. It was gonna be bad for EVERYTHING.

Forgetting for the moment that Magnetman had almost immediately defected to General Cutman's side (with help from that damn floating jigsaw puzzle, Mesmerman), which really should have been enough to make me want to curl up into a ball until the dust had settled, there were so many other things going wrong right now that the odds were... well, let's face it, stacked way, way, way, way too high against me and the RPD.

First, there was the Shutdown Code. That was a wonderful addition to my day. I still had a headache from the installation. Now, if ANYTHING I did didn't meet the approval of some higher authority, they were just going to take me out of the picture. BAM, and no more Hardman. The fastest way to take me down short of Magnetman, and it was being pointed at my head like a gun by the guys I've been working for for almost a year now. I mean, yeah, I cause property damage, but I get results, dammit.

Secondly, there was the massive, almost impossible to imagine, battle lines being drawn. It was tough enough when it was just us versus them. I mean, the RPD and the SA are all you really need for a full scale war. Friends fighting friends who may or may not be brainwashed. I mean, for my money, that's all we really needed.

But now Wily was recruiting just about anyone who walked into his Skull Fortress, and Cossack was offering to shelter any robot that wanted to escape the Shutdown Code. Between the two of them, support for the RPD as far as big names was concerned was disappearing rapidly. Hell, Sparkchan had disappeared in the middle of the night a few days ago, and I have no idea why or what happened. Nobody wanted to talk about it if they knew.

So the Maniacs are down to six, with Magnetman on the other side and Sparkchan MIA. I really, REALLY hope she doesn't show up on the SA side. That'd just be too much. I had a feeling that before this was over, the Maniacs would fracture even further.

I put down my rag and the glass I'd been cleaning and silently left the bar, locking up for all the good it would do. I put a hastily scrawled 'Closed For a Bit' sign on the door, and walked home. The wounded city was alive with sirens and the glow of fire, but I couldn't bring myself to care right now. I just wanted some sleep.

Maybe I'll wake up tomorrow and this whole nightmare will be just that: A nightmare.

December 4th, 20XX

9:13 AM

I set the paper down on the desk. "Funny how nobody really mentions th' Shutdown Code thin'," I grumbled. Gaderham gave me one of his endless smiles and a pat on the shoulder.

"It will be just fine, Hardman," he told me.

"How, exactly, will i' b' fine?" I asked. "Even wi' th' spin machines goin' full strength, recruitment's still pretty low fer th' RPD. Most o' th' Megaman Teams 'r runnin' off ta join Cossack 'r even Wily, an' th' good guys tha' stick by th' law 'r th' ones gettin' screwed, when all's said an' done."

"Well, firstly," Gaderham said, "You should remember that, although we seem hopelessly outnumbered," he said this with an obscene amount of optimism, please note, "that the only people you tend to keep track of are what some of us here in the RPD call the 'big names.' Robots with reputations, if you will. However, the RPD has a sizeable force at their command."

"Yeah, an' all tha' amounts ta' jack an' squat against monsters like Chargeman, 'r even teams like the Seven Mercenaries an' the Cosmic Gladiators... 'r Crusaders. 'R whetever. Point is, nameless hoards don' stan' a damn chance against th' likes o' th' Robot Masters tha' 'r pretty much jus' linin' up ta give us a helluva beatin'.

"Yes, well, you can believe that if you wish," Gaderham pressed on bravely, "But secondly, remember that we have the resources of almost the entire country, as well as some other parts of the world, backing us up. As long as any member of the RPD can be brought back to base, they can be repaired to full health and functionality again within mere hours!"

"Yeah, 'cause Wily an' Gen'ral Cutman don't 'ave anythin' like tha'."

"It gives us an edge over Cossack's forces."

"Yeah, bu' tha's Cossack," I grumbled. "He's th' one guy who's tryin' ta HELP, everythin' considered."

Gaderham blithely ignored my point, and continued on, "Thirdly, we have the support of the general public-"

"HUMAN public."

"- and the governments of the world-"


"- as well as the moral high ground. And finally, WHERE do you come from?"

This last question threw me off the rant I was about to launch into about 'moral high ground'. "Huh?"

"Your accent," he said in the manner of one repeating themselves. "I can't for the life of me place it, and its getting fairly thick due to your fatigue and generally grumpy demeanor."

I gave him a look and then remembered something. "Well, ta b' frank, I'm actually from a parallel universe tha' Boss an' the other Mechs got zapped ta a while back. They recruited a few people ta fill out th' ranks, since 'alf th' team 'ad gotten lost 'n th' interdimensional shuffle an'... hell, I'm th' only remainin' member o' tha' particular recruitmen' drive..."

"I'm sorry I asked," he replied after staring at me for a while to make sure I wasn't joking.

"Well, there's ONE face I'm glad to see," I heard a familiar voice behind me and turned to look as Turboman sat down. Gaderham quietly excused himself and rolled away to do his job, which was apparently mostly comprised of paperwork.

"Good ta see yer still on my side, there, Turbo," I smiled. It was the first honest smile I'd pulled off in a while. "Wha' blackmail does th' RPD have 'n ya?"

"They provided my team and I with some upgrades, so here I am."

"Wow... ALL o' Drastic Measures?" I felt slightly better about our chances.

"No," Turboman shook his head, dashing my hopes to the ground before they really got off it. "Slash has run off to join Cossack, and I have no idea where Freeze and Shade are."

"Well, somethin's better 'n nothin'," I grunted, standing up and stretching. I was getting bored sitting here in this conference room. True, the first briefing for the war wasn't supposed to start for another few hours, but I had no better place to be. Some of the other team members and well-known names to the news were gathered here already as well, but we didn't have the numbers or the firepower to match Cutman's reengineered Ascendant Androids, let alone whatever modifications he'd made to the Mercenaries, or even Magnetman. Turboman read my face like a book. He can do that when we're both sober.

"It's gonna be a hell of a fight," he said, to no one in particular.

December 4th, 20XX

10:02 AM

"You look like someone walked over your grave, Hard," Turboman said, offering me a can of coke.

I sighed, took the can with a mumbled 'thanks,' and cracked it open. The room was slowly filling up with people I didn't recognize. Most of them weren't much more than the average bulk-produced RPD body type, either. Nothing about this boded well.

"We're not winnin' this thin'," I said after a while.

Turboman gave me a look. "You think so?"

"'S simple math," I sighed. "Ev'rybody who runs off ta join Wily an' Cossack 'r never gonna be allowed ta join th' RPD ranks after this, no matter WHAT happens. Tha's jus' th' way politics work. We may have superios numbers an' resources ta th' rebels and we may edge out Wily there too, but the Scissor Army? How long has this guy been preppin' fer this?"

"Longer than I'm sure either of us is comfortable with," Turboman spoke true before draining his own drink. "From the looks of things, we're both going to be pretty busy from here on out."

He wasn't wrong. With only portions of both the Mechanical Maniacs and a reluctant amount of Drastic Measures really reporting for duty at this point, the RPD was strapped for seasoned, robot master vs. robot master types. Megaman throwing his life away... no, being FORCED into throwing his life away to save the man who effectively gave us all our start... had dealt a severe blow to robot morale. Not to mention...

"Ah, so this is the metalhead room," a sharp voice cut through the general din, silencing every mechanical voice in the room. All eyes turned towards the door and Captain Landigarm, one of the few human police officers that felt a need to take a personal and somewhat vicious interest in his RPD counterparts.

"Yo, Garmie," I said, standing up with a mock salute.

"That's CAPTAIN Landigarm to you, you overrated dump truck," he growled. "I see you still feel that you can act up, even after we've tightened the leash on you monsters."

"Nah," I grinned, forgetting my troubles for a moment and immersing myself in the simple pleasure of getting under the man's skin, "No disrespect intended, Garmie. I always thought th' world o' ya. How's th' wife?"

"I'm not married."

"No kiddin'? Why not? Does work always come first, or is it th' silly li'l inferiority complex ya got?"

"Watch your tongue, Hardman," he snapped. "You're speaking to a superior officer."

"Ah, that's jus' cause yer human," I replied. I noted with some amount of amazement that everyone seemed to be paying attention to me and Landigarm now.

"Yes, I am human," Landigarm replied with a trace of something I couldn't identify in his voice. "And you are a robot. A mere tool, and it's about time you were all reminded of that. So watch your tone, metalhead, or we'll just turn you off, like we did with that overrated 'peace keeper' robot."

There were some angered mutterings that rippled through the room. There wasn't a robot in the whole of Monsteropolis that approved of what had happened to Megaman. Hell, there probably wasn't a robot in the WORLD that liked it, aside from General Cutman and his fairly insane followers.

Oh, and probably Mesmerman. Whatever THAT psycho was up to this time.

"Ah, cool yer jets, Garm," I sighed, "I'm not here ta cause trouble, just ta save th' world," and with that, I sat down, turning away from him. I heard him take two steps away from the door, his boots clicking on the tile, before I added, in a marginally loud voice, "Again."

He kept walking.

December 4th, 20XX

2:34 PM

The phone just kept ringing. It was fairly annoying.

"C'mon, Cass, pick up th' damn phone," I grumbled under my breath.

After a few more rings, I gave up and slammed the phone back down. Snakeman, who was sitting in a chair not too far away, didn't even bother to look up. "She's gonna be fine, man," he said.

"Yeah, but I jus' wanna be sure," I said with a long breath.

"Understandable," he said with a shrug, "but there' no point getting angry about anything."

I muttered something that I don't think even I understood and sat down heavily. Snakeman gave me a glance and sighed. "Look, Gag's with her, right? And she was just going to look for some more refugees. She was heading into a no-threat zone, and if anything HAD happened inside the city, we'd have heard about it by now."

"Yeah, I guess..."

And then a funny thing happened. And by funny, I mean not at ALL amusing. Gag stumbled in, out of breath.

"Holy crap," he gasped, trying to collect himself, "that SUCKED."

I was all over him in the space of a second, which is impressive considering that the two tables between him and I were still intact afterwards. "What happened?"

Gag's face was flushed. "Ambush... a couple Scissor Army goons jumped us as we were coming back..."

"Why didn't you call us?" Snakeman asked calmly from his place behind me.

Gag looked at him for a moment before patting himself down and producing a small cell phone emblazoned with an RPD badge. "Huh... I forgot I had this."

"Where's Cass?" I demanded.

"She was right behind me... right?"

We looked down the hallway behind him as a pair.

"Come to think of it," he said slowly, "we also had... some twenty civilians following us back..."

"Where ARE they, Gag?" I growled.

He looked at me with fear stapled to his every feature. "I dunno?" he managed in a tiny, tiny voice.

I was down the hallway almost before Snakeman raised any kind of objection, and I only barely heard him as he said something about an 'unknown situation.' I was out the door and into the street before I realized I didn't know where I was going.

"GAG!" I barked back into the building, "WHERE ARE THEY?"

The small blue robot crept out, afraid of me for reasons I'm sure you understand. "We were in District B when we got ambushed..."

"Wha' th' hell were SA goons doin' in B?" I asked aloud before starting off in that direction with some speed. Gag tried keeping pace with me, but as winded as he was, he was falling behind.

When the initial attack from the Scissor Army had hit and the RPD had gotten its ducks in a row, the city had been divided into several sections, mostly to make dealing with the rescue efforts and refugee displacement paperwork easier. RPD HQ and the immediate area was District A, and because humanity is fairly linear in their thinking, District B was not very far away.

I didn't hear any weapons fire or screaming as I neared the edge of the district, which was either a good sign or a bad sign. Either way, I was probably going to have to deal with a few of the SA's infantry in order to insure that the refugees were able to make it safely back to HQ.

Snakeman's voice popped into my head. "Good job running off," he told me sardonically. "I had to explain the situation to the higher-ups before they shut you down."

"Thanks fer th' cover, man," I replied, not really feeling any better about this.

"So, what IS actually going on out there?"

"Dunno," I told him, "but I intend ta find out."

I moved through the main drag of the district with some haste, praying silently that I wouldn't find a dead human body anywhere in the vicinity. Then it came, hard and fast.

One of the Joes simply appeared, leaping out of a window and landing roughly on my shoulders. I grunted and threw him off, but not before it planted something on me. It hit the concrete and rolled away as I started to say something bad, and then the proximity mine it had stuck to my back went off. The force of the blast sent me face-first into the pavement, sending spider web cracks out in all directions.

I picked my head up in time to see a second Joe shove a stick in my face and pop the top off of it. Burning white light shot into my eyes as the signal flare activated. "SONOFABITCH!" I thundered, swinging wildly in front of me. Between the roar of the explosion and the light of the flare that had pretty much overloaded my eyes, I couldn't see or hear anything for the moment.

I felt the plasma shots skitter off my back and sides and retaliated more out of instinct, barely able to hear the roar of the Hard Knuckle over the ringing in my ears. Unsure of whether or not I hit anything, I stood still for a moment, trying to clear my head as the knuckle clicked back into place. The light from the flare had left a huge purple blot in my vision, and trying to see around it was nearly impossible. I was starting to make out shapes when I felt something punch right through my left shoulder, my body jerking to the side a moment later.

"Dammit!" I shouted. This was bad. The cold feeling in my gut told me everything I needed to know about the rifle. Magnetic rounds have always played hell with me, but fortunately, these guys didn't seem to be as accurate as their name might suggest. I slammed forward, burying my fist into the road in front of me despite the Sniper Joe between the two. I twisted my hand into the cement to hear the satisfying sound of scrap metal on busted concrete before standing up straight again.

"Behind you!"

I whirled around in time to see the Joe with the proximity mines as he left the ground, leaping for what had been my exposed back. It was simple to catch him before he was much of a threat, and I closed my other hand around the landmine. Sniper Joes don't have faces, so they can't really do much for facial expressions, but I would've liked to see this one as my Hard Knuckle went off, taking the mine and his arms with it. It watched the arms go before looking back in time to see my head meet his head.

The mine exploded harmlessly in my hand, which then returned to me as I dropped the shattered remains of the last Joe.

"Thanks, Cass," I grinned, turning to face her.

"No problem," she smiled in reply. There was a crowd of people behind her.

"This everyone?" I asked.

"I think so," she said, turning and looking over her shoulder.

"So what happened?"

"Well, when the ambush hit and HE ran off," she said, gesturing to a strung-out Gag that had FINALLY caught up, "we took cover in a hardware store."

"That was scary," someone in the crowd said.

"How'd you guys get outta that?"

Cassandra looked back at the crowd and then scratched her head. "Um..."

"Talk on th' way back," I told her, smiling more out of relief than anything else.

December 4th, 20XX

4:59 PM

"All right, people, let's get this underway," Gaderham said over the general noise. We all quieted down a bit and took our seats as, at the front of the room, Gaderham surrendered the podium to his superior officer.

"Greetings, you IIIIINFIDELS," Crorq positively oozed superiority complex. Ever since they'd given him back his guns and unchained him from the floor, he'd been pretty much like he always was, just with bite to back his bark. It was kind of refreshing to see him with some actual power to wield for a change, though, instead of simply relying on the power of bureaucracy and the endless stains from assorted chicken wings flavors.

"As you are all well aware, all refugee groups have successfully been moved into shelters below Monsteropolis Police Department HQ, are happily mistaken that the meager security will be able to protect them in the inevitable event of a full scale assault by the Scissor Army."

"Yeah, thanks for reminding us all we could die at any minute, sir," Turboman said from the seat next to me, and the room was punctuated with random laughter. Crorq continued in his usual fashion despite the interruption.

"HOWEVER, though some of you have done some... passable work, many of the rest of you have yet to see TRUE combat! The endless, visceral flow of give and take! The surge of pride in completing your first real kill!" I sighed and hung my head. It was easy to forget that, despite his comical appearance some days, he really WAS just an evil supercomputer. "I find that UNACCEPTABLE! What's more, I find that sightings of remnants of the hated Scissor Army from the first day's assault, which was repulsed only through my own glorious efforts-"

Someone snorted. I think it was Makenshi, but he was behind me so I couldn't be sure.

"-are on a repulsive rise! These IIIIINFIDELS seem to believe that their occupation of MY CITY will stand! As your commanding officer, I order, nay, DEMAND that you destroy these remnants before sundown, or you will all be TERMINATED!"

"The Shutdown Code?" Junkman asked incredulously.

"No," Crorq replied, "My particle cannon."

"Fair enough," Junkman nodded.

"Indeed! It is more than fair, for I have not eliminated you yet!" He cast a gaze out over the room, and you could just SEE his brain going to work. "YOU! The one known loosely as 'BurstGirl,' shall lead a team of pitiful warriors into District C, orders are to search and destroy!"

After a moment's hesitation, BurstGirl shot to her feet and gave a salute. "Yes sir!"

"You're still here?" Crorq shouted, and fairly soon, she wasn't as six of the RPD's regular troopers followed after her. "STARMAN!" the supercomputer thundered.

"Present," he replied lazily.

"ON YOUR FEET, you IIIIIINFIDEL! Take a team and go scour District D, and DO NOT RETURN until you bring me no less than six heads from the enemy!" Starman visibly sighed, but gave a salute and left with six more troopers in tow. "And YOU!" he shouted, and at first I thought he meant me, but Turboman shot to his feet instead, which threw Crorq for a moment, but he eventually grinned (as much as he could, anyway). "YOU shall take yet another pathetic team of men and search District F."

"Sir, yes sir!" Turboman said with a curt nod before he left the room as well.

"The REST of you," the maniacal machine continued, "are to remain in your seats."

And with that, he left.

It was a few minutes later we all figured out that no one else was coming to shout at us. I stood up and stretched out. "Well," I grunted, "tha' was excitin'."

"Hey, Hardman," Cloudman said as he floated over, "where're Shadowman and Snakeman?"

"Ya got me there," I shrugged. "Ask Needle."

"Yeah, because my brother always lets me know where he's going," I heard her say from behind me.

"Touche," I nodded.

Gaderham rolled over behind the podium again, and slightly to one side, because he couldn't see over it. "Just a few more things, then, folks," he said in that 'don't worry, be happy' way of his.

"What's up, Hammy?" Springman asked. He'd been stretching out as well, but for him, that took a little longer in a confined space.

"Firstly, please don't call me that," the diminutive wheeled robot said without messing up his smile, "and secondly, there's a few issues. Firstly, the bunkers under MPD Headquarters are close to bursting as it is, and we still have refugees coming in from some of the outlying areas. Because of that, we need places, safe places, to put people while we try and keep the city clear of Scissor Army units."

"There's that old bomb shelter in District D," Cassandra suggested. She should know, after all, because her apartment WAS... or used to be, at least, in what was now District D.

But Gaderham shook his head. "No good. When Napalmman was raging through there, he collapsed a lot of the city into the sub-basement levels. The whole thing is full of debris."

"Oh," Cassandra said after a little bit. "I forgot about that."

"What about the Maniac's base?" NeedleGal offered.

"Yeah, because Shadowman's going to let that happen," Makenshi countered. "He's too paranoid."

"The idea of using some of the old Team bases as shelters has some merit," Gaderham nodded. "I think you should all at least suggest it to your respective team leaders, if you can. We need to be able to keep people safe."

"Agreed," Junkman nodded. "Is there a point where HQ is going to turn refugees away?"

"Not an option, given the circumstances," Gaderham said. "We just have to protect as much of Monsteropolis as we can, because we don't know how many people are going to come here for protection. Hopefully, we can end this quickly."

"This ain't gonna end fast," I said with a sigh. "Psychos like Gen'ral Cutman and Mezzy are too smart ta let plans they been workin' on fer god-knows-how-long go all ta pot after a week 'r two. I'll be happy if this is all over inside o' a year."

"It won't go that far," Springman said, shaking his head. "It can't go that far."

"Like hell," I sneered. "Los Angeles was jus' a test run fer this guy, an' we were jus' lab rats. He took th' same tactics and approach and jus' upscaled 'em. He made th' hell that was LA last fer a whole damn day, s' he c'n make this hell o' a war last as long 's he wants. Mark my words."

"Isn't it a little early to be pessimistic about the situation?" Springman asked.

NeedleGal stepped in this time. "No, he's right. He and I weren't even there in the end, we were too damaged and spent to go on, but considering the effect it had on my brother... he agreed to this Shutdown Code, for god's sake! Cutman has Gauntlet scared, and he freely admits it, which means this is EXACTLY as bad as Hardman says it is."

"Righ' now, I jus' wanna be sure I c'n protect th' things I care about," I sighed, laying a really, really big hand on Cassandra's shoulder. "If I lose wha' I got, I've got nothin' and then this whole thin's meanin'less."

"He's going to try and drive us all over the edge," Needlegal said. "Cut us apart from the inside out."

"We will all have to make sacrifices," Gaderham said.

"Yeah," I said numbly, the thoughts I'd been having for a while now making themselves heard. "Th' only question is 'what are WE willin' ta sacrifice'..."


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