TRIP THROUGH YOUR WIRES
Chapter 13: Leaving Home
Torrent Leviathan snoozed.
Overdrive Ostrich sat cross-legged and nervously squeezed his linked feathery fingers. He looked down and shifted them around. He made a butterfly. Then a church.
Ange sat quietly on the lip of the trio's sewer edge and slowly drew a broken-toothed comb through her tattered hair. Her hands were tipped with long, dirty yellow fingernails that were chewed at the ends. During her brief hours of sanity, Ange tried to keep herself as well groomed as possible. But those stints didn't last long; and when the battered woman's hand started to tremble furiously, both she and Overdrive knew Mr. Hyde was knocking around in her head.
Ange watched her shaking hand for a minute, then squared her shoulders. "If there was truly a merciful God looking down at our sorry lives," she said to Overdrive in a neutral tone, "I'd be dead now."
The large bird shrugged. He was secretly troubled; he rather enjoyed Ange's company, human though she was. Her marbles rolled further away with every passing day, and for longer periods. Her hair was tacky with filth, her face was smeared with dirt, her clothes were a disgrace, and she did not seem to be in the best of health.
But if what Torrent told him was correct, Ange would very soon be able to control her fits almost completely; and when that day came, she would be sent to Maverick Hunter Headquarters. And he would be left alone in the stinking bowels of this tomb with Torrent Leviathan, whom Overdrive was quickly realizing to be quite unstable...
Ange couldn't fight the transformation anymore than she could fight the need to breathe. Overdrive watched as it occoured seamlessly and silently; in a minute, Ange had her knobby back to him, and was watching the watery ichor for the chance of a fish, snarling quietly. The switch seemed to be a lot smoother than her earlier experiences.
"Happy fishing," Overdrive muttered, shifting his fingers again to form a crocodile's maw. The silence was immense.
"Things will get moving soon, friend," Torrent Leviathan said sleepily, regarding his deciple with half-closed eyes.
"Yeee," Overdrive said involuntarily, startled at the serpent's sudden hail.
"Very soon." Torrent looked beyond Overdrive. "And no man can say how it will end."
Ange lost interest in fishing and lay down for a nap instead.
Dawn peeked above the horizon and licked the east side of MHHQ. Zero, who was catnapping on the floor of Lifesaver's lab, woke up with his instincts ablaze. Something was missing. Something was wrong.
Cass was silent.
Zero sprang to his feet and skidded over to the huge badger's cot. Relief washed over the Hunter.
"He's quite alive," Lifesaver said, stepping up next to Zero. Zero's teeth automatically started to grind at the sound of his voice, but eased when he observed how tired the normally stoic medic was.
Lifesaver apparently didn't believe in hiding his ailments when someone noticed them. "Yes, I'm tired. I was up all night with the big fellow. But I'm sure your memory doesn't need to be refreshed."
"It was a pretty miserable night, wasn't it?"
"Is that a word?"
"It is now."
They grinned in spite of each other. Cass rolled and grunted in his sleep. The sound was like a small thunderstorm. Zero pat his friend on the head. One of Cass' eyes inched open, but the sleepy film on his eyeball didn't clear up before he closed it again.
"So Cass will be okay?"
"In a few days, he'll be quite fine. But he'll be sluggish; his systems were way out of whack, and still are. It's a funny virus he contracted. It's not necessarily aiming to shut him down or turn him Maverick. It's..." Livesaver slowly closed his mouth and his brow creased. "It's...well, you might say that Cass has the flu."
Zero echoed, "The flu?"
"Sure. That's the best way I can explain it. It's a virus and it's making him miserable and cranky and sore. For a while, it even looked dangerous until his systems started to fight it off. Now it won't kill him by any means, but it'll gum up his inner works for a little while."
"Can you work on a vaccine?"
"I might. I probably won't. I'm calling this virus the flu for another specific reason; it shifts. I could make a vaccine easily enough, but what's the point? If the nature of this bug is what I think it is, it'll mutate shortly and require another shot. I'll wait to see if any other reploids contract it somehow, and go from there. But for now, rest is the answer."
"Those weapons..." Zero murmured.
Lifesaver looked up. "Hm?"
"Cass got sick shortly after those humans attacked us. Maybe their weapons were purposely infected with whatever-it-is?"
The medic shrugged. "I guess it's possible. But you got attacked, didn't you? Wouldn't you be sick as well?"
Zero lifted his hands and let them fall limply to his sides.
Lifesaver stared. "I'll take a look at the weapons," he said slowly. "And I'll let you know. But tell me something, what's the full story behind that ambush?"
"I told you everything. A pack of humans attacked us. Why, I don't know. But they fought like wild dogs. Lucky we had Cass. His weight counts for something."
Lifesaver tucked his right elbow in his left hand and dug his fist into his cheek. "Humans attacking reploids. Never heard of anything like that."
"Maybe they were rabid."
"Zero, this is a problem. You reported it to Monroe, I hope."
"Josh was the mission leader," Zero said. "He did. If Monroe wants to speak to me, he can propell his whey-fed rear off his chair and find me."
Lifesaver shook his head.
Zero read the message. "It doesn't matter. I'm going to talk to the survivour of the band later today to get some answers.
"Ugh." Blake opened his eyes which were hit with a flat, grey wall. There were no windows, but he was certain the morning was upon him. And his throbbing head guaranteed it was going to be a firey one.
The sound of sliding bolts tacked Blake's ears and drove spears of sound directly into his brain. The door opposite his metal cot opened, and the light that flowed in was a potent dose of pain.
Something with pointy ears was silhouetted against the shaft. "Good morning!"
Blake moaned and clutched his head. The pointy eared thing was a fox -- a reploid -- and he stepped further into the room.
"Yeah, you're not feeling well," the fox said. "When we put you out to fix up your arm, I used an anesthetic with an ether base. Ether anesthetics have sort of been illegal for well over a century, but oops. It also loves to bash heads, and I figured it at least keep you quiet for a while longer."
Blake strained away as the fox reached over and touched his face. "At any rate, your fever's down. You're going to be quite all right."
Another pointy shadow appeared in the doorway. The fox turned to look at it, turned back to Blake, and shrugged.
"Well ... you have a chance at getting well, I mean. But I think Zero here wants to have some words with you." he melted into the background and flicked the room's light on before closing the door with a very final bang.
Zero stepped into the foreground, in Genesis' place. "First things are first. What's your name?"
Blake made no effort to open his mouth.
Zero said, "Well, I gave you a chance to do things the easy way. If you don't want to coopoerate, we can do it my way."
Blake narrowed his eyes against the light, the pain, and the red reploid staring down at him like a bunny on a lab table. "What's 'your' way?"
"I'll say this much. It works. And it doesn't leave marks."
"I didn't know Hunters took a fancy to torturing torn up prisoners."
Zero ignored the boy's last statement. "Just give me your name, and we'll work from there."
"Blake," the young prisoner said, closing his eyes. "My name's Blake. And you tore off my bloody arm."
"I did," Zero agreed as amiably as a man recieving a bet payoff. "And you attacked our Hunters without provokation."
Blake's eyes flew open and dialated. "You were on our property."
Zero seemed genuinely interested. "Oh, were we now?"
Blake shut his mouth with an audiable snap.
"Said too much, eh? I figure you have a story to tell. The tattoo on your ankle, this dagger--" Zero brandished the strange weapon, "--and your weird attack which left a good friend of mine very sick. Would you like to share?"
Blake frowned at the world and the compromising position it'd bent him over in.
"Remember. No marks. And I won't let you die."
"Damn you anyway. We all have those daggers."
Blake shifted on his pillow. "Eden. Inheritors of, I mean."
Zero immediately smashed his hands together beside Blake's tender ear and Blake's world was doused in red pain.
"Cryptic drop-offs are unwelcome."
"Don't do that."
"Then start from the top."
The light buzzed, going about its business as the interrigation loped on below. Blake sighed in defeat.
"I already told you that my name is Blake. I'm a third-generation scout for the Inheritors of Eden." He stopped, waiting for Zero's outburst. None came, and he continued. "The Inheritors are humans who're bred to fight."
"I'm sorry to inform you that you stink at fighting," Zero said.
"I'm not a warrior. Just a scout."
"That's all there is to it," Blake said quietly.
"No it isn't. What's with the dagger? The virus? And the tattoo on your ankle? Most importantly, what are the Inheritors supposed to fight against?"
Blake turned away. His tone didn't change. "That's all there is to it."
The light continued to buzz, uninterested.
Zero shook his head. "I warned you." He reached for the boy.
The Hunter's hand faltered, and he turned around. Jody from the Night Vipers stood in the open doorway with his hands folded behind his back. "Zero. Monroe would like to see you."
"That's nice, but I'm busy right now. I--" Zero dropped off when he noticed the bed was trembling. Blake was shaking like a leaf in a monsoon, but the shadow of the reploid's threatening hand didn't seem to be the source of his chill. The scout was looking beyond Zero to Jody, who stood quietly in the doorway, his back to the light and saddled in its dusty leather vest. The young Hunter didn't look in Blake's direction but he said, "Monroe needs you immediately, sir. Seven is here to escort you."
To Zero, the only thing worse than taking orders from a subordinate was having another subordinate take him by the hand to make sure he carried out those orders. Next would be the juice box and the nap. And sure enough, Jody stepped aside to reveal good old Seven the panther, who leaned on his mighty axe with one paw cocked on his hip. Zero brushed past Jody and Seven, giving the latter a discreet kick to the blade of his weapon and lopsiding his James Dean pose. He glanced behind, and saw that Jody hadn't moved out of the room.
"Aren't you coming?" Zero said warily.
"No sir. I've been given permission by Monroe to ask our guest a few questions."
The reploid's temper mounted like War on its red horse. "You can't--! I was in the middle of--!"
"Oh, I don't know about all that," Jody said mildly. "Did you have orders from Monroe himself? Permission, even?"
"Then good day, sir." Jody turned, shut the door behind him, and the last Zero saw of Blake was his terrified mouth open in a frozen scream. Zero slammed his hands on the cool metal and uttered a curse, but it was absorbed by the door.
"Let's go now sir," Seven said in a bored voice. The rest of the ward was almost empty, and Genesis was noticibly absent.
"Where's Genesis?" Zero barked.
Seven shuffled and waved a paw. "Oh, busy I imagine. Helping Lifesaver. Maybe. I don't friggin' know."
The cat was listless, extremely so. Zero's Urge to Throttle faded at the sight of the mangy beast. In fact, he almost felt sorry for him.
"Seven, is anything the matter?"
"What could possibly be the matter?"
When Zero didn't press, Seven mumbled, "Who could possibly resent being replaced like a horse with a broken leg? It's Thrillsville, I'll tell you what."
"What do you mean?"
Seven responded with some jumble about mechadrakes and blew through his nose. He said nothing more until he pushed open the oak door to Monroe's affluent office with one paw and gestured to Zero with the other. He bowed, and Zero could taste sarcasm.
"Come now, Commander Zero. The son of Cain requests an exchange of words."
While Zero and Blake were taking tea, Celeste McTreggor drummed the eraser end of her pencil on a blank sheet of paper. Her creased brow rested in her hand.
Genesis entered her room. "Finished?"
"I haven't started."
"Well, what's bothering you?"
"I'm not much of a writer," Celeste admitted.
"It's okay," Genesis said. "I'm not much of a psychologist. But if we humour each other, magic will happen."
The Huntress spun her chair around. "Pouring out my 'fears and anxieties' onto a piece of paper isn't grand therapy."
"What do you want for free treatment?"
"I'm not in a writing mood anyway." Celeste twirled the gnawed pencil between her thumb and forefinger. "I had a strange dream last night."
Genesis sat on her bed and raised his hands to the sky. "Ye Gods! And the sun rose this morning! If the world continues this strange chain of events, there will be naked panic in the streets."
"Stop being an ass, Genesis."
The reploid fox chuckled shortly. "Sorry. Do you want to tell me about the dream?"
"Well," Celeste said, distractedly doodling on her empty sheet of paper, "I can't even say it was too strange, because it made perfect sense. The strange part was, it didn't feel like my mind had any say in it. It was like someone was ... well, telling a story to someone else and I was like a kid leaning over the railing, listening in. But the person telling the story knew I was there and they wanted me to hear."
"Uh huh. What else?"
"It was a story, I guess, about my father. But I felt like I walked into the middle of a movie that'd already been through an intermission and I missed the first act." Celeste stared at her doodle and noticed that she'd unwittingly drawn a pretty good likeness of a mechadrake while speaking.
"Tell me what you remember," Genesis said.
"It started off like this..."
I'm dying, Jake McTreggor realized.
His slashed belly burned, low and urgent. His arms tingled, bloodless. His body felt like someone touched a match to his nerve endings and was waiting to watch him explode like a firecracker.
The river roared on behind him, uncaring. How long had it been since Torrent Leviathan and the little Atticus 15 had left him here to die, mortally poisoned? Minutes? Hours? Days? Did it matter? The whole world was sick and yellow.
Jake managed to wrestle out of his issue black leather vest. He rested for a minute and tried to stagger to his feet but his joints felt like they were packed with warm sponges. Jake fell over and knocked his hip on an outcrop of rock. The sound was like a shotgun. He didn't care.
He gasped his vest with one hand and half crawled, half dragged his battered bulk until he nestled himself in some reeds and low bushes a little way down the faux river bank. It was secluded and soft. A good place to die in. Jake dropped on his back, and being allowed to halt his tortured joints was heaven.
"Cold," he said out loud to no one. He stared up at his green canopy. Through the leaves he saw bits of Eden's Great Tree spiral above him forever and branch off into countless rooms and warrens. His only child was somewhere, anywhere in this infinity. His brain tripped over that one thought over and over again, but no motivation could get his body to pull together, stand up, and start searching.
"Rest first," He murmured in another mind. "Need to sleep."
Jake closed his eyes.
Blackavar 126 leaned over the railing and pointed a claw. "There!"
Ange Spar stepped out of her room and onto the catwalk while tying her dark, oily hair into a ponytail. "Shhh, not so loud," she shushed her black mechadrake. "It's the quiet hour. We shouldn't be up."
"I saw something move in the lagoon."
Ange stepped up beside Blackavar and peered into the depths below. At the very bottom of the Great Tree was the lagoon, where the river and water source for Eden ran among rock and foliage. Ange's room was quite near the top of the Tree, and the distance and soft, muted light that accompanied the quiet hour didn't make it easy for her to see what Blackavar was so excited about.
"Whatever it was, it just moved into the clump of trees over to the right," the mechadrake broadcasted while hopping up onto the railing as easily as a canary on a perch.
Ange finished tying up her hair and she smoothed her jumpsuit with her tan-coloured hands. "Well, you're not going to get any sleep, and if you're agitated, so am I. Are you sure there's something down there worth staying up over?"
"There's definately something out of the ordinary down there," Blackavar said. "And I smell blood."
Ange gave an instinctive sniff, not really expecting to catch wind of anything. "This whole place smells of old blood."
"It's fresh blood. I'm going down there."
"Fine," Ange gave in. "Pick me up on the way."
Blackavar leaped from the railing, swept his wings back and scooped up his girl before dropping into a spiral towards the lagoon.
"Hey, you there."
Jake turned his head and refused to open his eyes, because he knew that when he opened them, he'd be staring at the ghost of his daughter.
"I'm sorry, so sorry for leaving you," Jake tried to wail but something warm bubbled up from his throat and he spat the foul out like a dragon. He tasted blood.
"Easy." Something damp touched his cracked lips. "What unit do you belong to? What happened?"
"Torrent took you away because you were dying, I did my best, I did my best..."
"He's not well, Ange."
"No wonder he's raving. Look at his wound."
Jake rolled his head and heard the grass crunch under him. "Get away from me Asmodeus, get away from me. Give me back Celeste, I'm going to let her die in peace, die in my arms."
"What did he say about Asmodeus 12?" The voice was lizardlike, sharp. Someone caught him under the arms, and Jake opened his eyes, snarling. He'd face the ghost of Celeste if he could have one more chance at Asmodeus, Torrent, any of them.
A small black mechadrake squat at the edge of the river and looked at Jake warily. It made no move to fight him.
"Are you all right?" Jake thought the mechadrake asked the question, but the words didn't match the creature's eyes. Someone else asked it, a woman at his side with tanned skin.
"Tell him to fight me," Jake rasped. "Tell him to give her back."
The woman tilted her head. "Who, Blackavar? He won't hurt you. Can you drink? I don't know what this cup was doing by the river, but it's a stroke of luck." She held the cracked container up to Jake's mouth. The smell and sight of the water and the memory of Torrent turned Jake's stomach green. He thrashed. "God, no. Get it away."
"Blackavar, what should we do?"
"Lawks, I don't know. Is he from Eden, or is he an outsider that stumbled in?"
"He must be from here. He's got the black vest, so I guess he's in the Diamondback Unit."
The mechadrake rose to his feet in one smooth motion. "He must've had an accident. I'll fetch some help."
"No ... don't do that," the girl said, projecting Jake's frantic thoughts.
"Hm?" Blackavar turned around.
"He's ... I don't know." She laid a hand on Jake's stomach, and his skin shivered underneath it like a horse in a mosquito cloud. "I don't think we were supposed to find him like this."
"You mean he's in trouble. He was left to die."
"Maybe," the girl said slowly. She looked at the mechadrake. The mechadrake looked at Jake. Jake's chest rose and fell rapidly and bile burned in his throat.
No questions needed to be asked.