Chapter 10: Iris

It wuzza dark and stormie night when Iris opened her eyes to the world.

There was no gala to greet her revival, no free drinks, no flying black squirrels, no barmaids dressed in skin-tight red satin.

That was the way Lifesaver liked it.

"She's not saying much," Genesis said as he thoughtfully watched her peck around his domain. "But I'm glad you got rid of that damnable dress of hers. What was up with that dishrag, anyway? The jumpsuit she has now is a lot niftier." Indeed, Iris was outfitted with a very plain blue suit sans her raspberry barret.

"No, she won't say much for while," Lifesaver admitted. "She's retained a good deal of her memories. She asked if her brother was also revived, an she didn't like the response. But I think she'll do well here for now, until she gets her bearings."

"I can always use help. And I assume you'll be in the lab more."

"That's where Monroe wants me." Genesis thought he detected the faintest whiff of a sigh. "I'll be around, of course. Lord above forbid I don't keep you in line, you old fox-fart."

"'Fox-fart!' That's our secret word for the day!" Genesis threw a box of bloodied syringes at Lifesaver and pointed at the sink. "Get washing."

Lifesaver couldn't keep a grin out of his eyes. "But Monroe--"

"Bugger Monroe." Genesis headed to the wall console and punched in the sequence for Zero's wrist-com.

Zero's voice rattled over the speaker, but he chose not to grace the world with a visual. "Whuzzuh?"

"You awake, Zero?" Genesis called nonchalantly while walking back to his desk.

"Yeah, sure, why not. What do you want?"

"Your valuable services," Genesis said. "You used to work for me, remember? And despite the times you fudged up, you were actually useful in one particular area, and the time is very near at hand for your talents..."

Oh, the way the lightning spears the sky like the Holy Lances of God's Host...tumbling to earth in a firey vengence. The magnificent battles of angels. God is on his great throne of Judgement, and we are but ants before His wild fire, His will, His wrath.

"Damn storm," was what actually came out of Monroe's mouth.

"I can hear it all right," Hawkmoon said. The gaunt silver Mechadrake stood beside her friend by the huge plate glass window in Cain's office, enjoying the thrum and growl of the vibrations. "It's like a concert."

"Hrmph." Metaphors seemed to blister and die when they reached Monroe's prim tongue.

"Nobody likes me here," Hawkmoon said suddenly. Her tone didn't change.

"That's their problem," Monroe said fiercely.

"Maybe not." Hawkmoon left it at that, but her tone implied no thoughts of offering to leave.

Monroe wasn't taking chances. "Don't you even dare think about leaving," he barked. "I need you here. I have the feeling I'm not about to win any friendship awards, either. But I don't give a holy F about their opinions. I'm just trying to clean up what my father screwed up. I warned them they wouldn't like it."

"You're a crumby liar, Monroe," Hawkmoon half-frowned. "First off all, I can bloody well go where I please, when I please. I'm not your personal security blanket."

"Oh!" Monroe turned from the rattling window. A hyena-smile snarled his lips. "And where would you go, my dear? Back to him? I don't think so."

Hawkmoon snapped her jaws shut like a bear trap. She wasn't about to challenge that one.

"I wouldn't leave you anyway," she said in a low voice. "All we have is each other, my boy."

Oh my, what a...cute little rat. Nice rattie. Please go away...

Startled by the size of the intruder, the rank grandfather dog of the sewers brayed and slashed at the reploid's long legs, cutting right down to the steel bone.

"GaaaAAAH!" Overdrive Ostrich started to scream, immediately clamping his beak with one hand.

Calmblueocean, calmblueocean...

Overdrive forced himself to asses his injury. Oh, look at that. Right down to the bone. My, how startling the blood looks, pumping out of me like a river and pouring into that stinking black murk that might be water. A bird that was meant to run free on the open plains of Africa does real well in the sewers, it seems. Ha ha!

Upon closer inspection, Overdrive noticed a great deal of foamy white saliva slicked around the wound. Ha ha! Look at that! If I were a human, I'd be taking my tea with Jim Morrison tonight. But I am not going to scream, oh no. I'm going to remain perfectly...calm...and...not wake up whatever else is LURKING IN THIS GODFORSAKEN HOLE THAT TORRENT STUFFS HIS MISERABLE BODY INTO--

"Associating me with rabid rat bites? How very syrupy of you, gentle bird."

Overdrive did scream, a long, harsh sound that only a demon should have been capable of. The platoons of rats rattled in their holes and joined their scaly voices into the anguished song like a bastardized wolf pack.

"HOSPITAL--ZONE--!" Torrent roared as he circled Overdrive's neck easily with one paw and smashed his head against the slimy wall. "MY PATIENT!" (blam) "IS TRYING!" (blam) "TO NAP!" (blam)

Overdrive stopped his noise real quickly. His scream dwindled to an anguished moan. Torrent shrugged and dropped Overdrive, where he lay on the spot like a grossly misshapen down pillow.

"Well, with immediate concerns taken care of, let's go to my fire and talk. By God, I'll bet your story is interesting.

The sights and sounds of the Medical Unit always brought a barrage of (unpleasant) memories rushing back on Zero. The bleached beds that made an angel's robe look like a hobo's hankerchief...the dreary scent of alchohol that had a way of wrapping around your stomach...Zero remembered it all, and the sensation of dread struck anew every time he visited. The Hunter had been forced to work as a nurse during a good part of the first Maverick War, and he hadn't always enjoyed the job. It never occoured to him, however, that his papa might've felt a sliver of pride at his boy following in his footsteps. Even if the alliance was wrong.

But that night when Genesis called him in, Zero had the feeling that something about the ward was amiss. Something that'd been there for the past nine months was gone.

The place was silent. The few humans who occupied the beds were long asleep. For the first time in ages, the air wasn't pressed down by the demanding shrieks of--

"Where's Tess?" Zero said in unconscious alarm.

Genesis grinned. "Easy cowboy. She's fine for now." The fox led him to the curtained-off partition that held the young Huntress. Tess didn't even look at them. She drowsed in the moonlight, her eyes half closed, her hand spread on her vast stomach. She looked peaceful. Almost likeable.

"She's been like this all day," Genesis explained. "Very still, very quiet. It's a refreshing change for sure, but don't get your hopes up. I've seen this kind of thing plenty of times before. So have you, Zero. She can hear the baby calling."

Zero nodded. "Yep. Only a matter of hours now. Enjoy the silence now, 'cause she'll be screaming like a banshee soon enough. I guess that's why you called me?"

"Yeah. I'll be needing your help."

Half forgotten, Lifesaver walked over from the sink to stand beside Zero. "So then. The same hands that are stained with the blood of death will be later stained with the blood of life? What do you know about deliveries, Hunter?"

Lifesaver spat out the last word like a bad-tasting bite of fruit. Zero wasn't fond of Lifesaver, who had a habit of standing too close and saying too much. And around the Hunter, he frequently had the air of a dog who stiffly wagged its tail, but growled gently in its throat.

"I know enough," Zero bit. "I've done my share." The Hunter flushed in an uncomfortable manner that had nothing to do with Lifesaver's interrigation. He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand.

"When Zero first arrived, he would mix up the patients' medications for kicks," Genesis said, "but he was always good at birthing for some strange reason. It's always the sadists, eh Zero?"

Zero didn't respond. He felt like two small holes were being bored into the back of his neck with a red hot drill. "I--" he began, but couldn't finish for the pressure behind him. He turned around.

Iris was staring at him. The gaze was as steady and laconic as a memorial statue, but a million unsung accusations suddenly leapt out and stabbed Zero at once. Zero actually staggered backwards into Genesis.

"Hey now!" the medic yelped as the Hunter stepped on his paw.

"Ssss-sorry." Zero's serpentine apology had nothing to do with Genesis.

"I'm not surprised," Iris said in her soft, watery voice. It hasn't changed, Zero's mind gibbered. For one horrible instant, the past came rushing in on him like stagnant water. He very nearly lost control and started to cry like a lost kid. Overwhelmed, his pleading eyes actually reached out to Lifesaver.

Lifesaver offered no branch. So then Hunter, one more skeleton in your storage capsule, eh?

Alone, Zero steeled himself and regained his composure. "Hello, Iris."

"My brother isn't here, Zero. They revived me alone. What's next? Maybe they'll build half a hospital? Maybe half a tank."

Something sickly churned in Zero's heart. The feeling diffused in his blood and flowed to his limbs, numbing them with an emotion that wasn't just sadness and guilt.

"You're different now, Zero," Iris padded on.

"I think it's high time you got some rest, Iris," Genesis said aloud. He may as well have spoken to a can of pop.

"I loved you, Hunter. Maybe I still do, God help me. But you're angry, you're vengeful, and in time you'll kill and hurt more people who care about you. Your soul feeds on blood, craves murder. You're much more spontaneous than a reploid should be. That human tart you're so smitten by is obviously a bad influence on you. But I have little doubt your passions will eventually kill her--"

Moving like a cat, Zero grabbed and flung a table of stainless steel instruments onto the floor. The noise was tremendous, and some of the humans (veterans of the wars) woke up howling commands to their invisible units. The noise infuriated Zero further. He roared and pounced on Iris, who backed into the wall, terrifed. Zero couldn't see, he couldn't hear, but he could smell blood and terror and a helpless victim, and that was all he needed. His teeth gleamed, his hand hooked and drew back--

"Ze--ro!" A metal wastebasket tocked off Zero's helmet with a clang. The red mist drained from Zero's eyes, as if a secret button had been pushed.

Iris was crouched in a ball in front of him, trembling like a little brown mouse in a nest of debris. Dazed, Zero reached down a tentative hand, but he was jerked back and turned around. Lifesaver, uncharacteristicly angry, snarled at him.

"Coward," he said. "Bully and a coward. Attacking unarmed women! You did it once. I shouldn't be surprised you did it again. Monroe will hear all about this--"

"No. He won't." Genesis said flatly.

Lifesaver boggled. "You can't be serious, fox."

"I am. Zero is famous for losing his temper. Your pet Iris should have remembered that much. She egged him on."

"But Genesis--"

"Butts are for sitting, ha ha. Keep your bracebit shut, Lifesaver, or our alliance is over and Monroe will eat the foundations of this place like a termite. And Zero--" Genesis turned to the Hunter, "--what in God's name is wrong with you? I've never seen you flare like that."

"Pressure," Zero mumbled, barely audiable. It wasn't a lie. "I'm--sorry, Iris."

Genesis was stern. "See to it that it doesn't happen again--especially not in front of strangers. I can keep my mouth shut. If Lifesaver and the humans in this room know what's good for them, they will too. I have a feeling I'm going to regret not reporting this. You're going to get yourself in litres of trouble if you don't smarten up and calm down."

I can't control it. It's getting worse and worse. Zero wisely kept the thought to himself. But he'd experienced such surges of anger in the past. One led him to nearly kill Celeste, and a more recent one took a good chunk out of a Hunter in Celeste's unit, Jody.

"I'll be more careful, Genesis," the Hunter said out loud. "Thanks."

"Don't make me regret anything, friend."

"I won't," Zero muttered, feeling like the inside of his head was being used to stage the Anvil Chorus. He put his hands on his temples and shuffled out of the room. It was all too much. Iris was back, Lifesaver smelled something funny about him, he nearly killed an innocent girl--again--and looming over it all was Monroe. Monroe, the scourge of his life that he could do nothing about. The thoughts raced around his mind like kiddy-carts and he chewed on the poison over and over and over.

Many miles away, something crawled through the slime at the bottom of a dark Scottish lake...

"So." Torrent closed Bass' journal with a powdery poof. "That's the way it is."

Overdrive said nothing, drowning in a brew of terror and admiration for the Mechadrake. He sat as close to the fire as possible, the only natural thing to exist in Torrent's tomb.

"And you want to try this 'human into a reploid thing.'"

"Yes. That's how Zero was created. Can you imagine?"

"No, I DON'T imagine," Torrent said, his voice crushing Overdrive back into obedient silence, "because I don't CARE about the Hunters. And why keep it a secret? I don't give a flip about you Mavericks, either."

"Sir, I..." Overdrive gulped. "I...ran away from the Maverick army. I wanted to be your apprentice."

"Oh, well, how very-very and too-too." Torrent's voice was rife with scorn, but Overdrive could tell he was slightly flattered. He was thinking things over.

The ostrich ventured further. "I...I would like to make something that would please Phoenix, and put me back in her favour. I think that human-reploid thing would do just that. Please, Lord Torrent, think it over.

So! Torrent, once starved for projects, suddenly had a biological buffet before him.

"My eyes are bigger than my stomach," he muttered and lapsed into another long bout of silence.

The fire spat decidingly.

"We'll need a human," he said, and Overdrive's heart turned happy cartwheels. Unconsciously, his beady eyes fell on the dark skinned human who sat some ways across from the duo, and was scribbling "THIS PLACE SUCKS" in white chalk on the wall.

"No, not Ange you omadhaun." Torrent said suddenly. "I'm using her for something else. By God, she's come a long way. Her personality's changed drastically, too. But she's a gift for the Hunters." The Mechadrake tapped a claw on his filthy teeth. "On the other hand, she might need help. We'll build your damnable reploid, Overdrive. And we'll use a young human--a baby, preferably. If you're to be my apprentice, I'd like you to learn everything I know. And there's this process some Mechadrakes go through to spurt through growth--'soaking', it's called. I've been meaning to try that..." Torrent was now talking more to himself. Overdrive knew he was in for an interesting time.

"Where would we get a baby, milord?"

"I have my connections. Don't rush me, and don't question me. When I'm ready to tell you anything, you'll know. In the meantime, why not play fetch with Ange?"

Overdrive looked at the female, who was now eating a raw fish she'd caught with her bare hands...with a side of chalk. was going to be a very interesting time.

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