Chapter 15: "If I Catch You, I Will Kill You."

"...So - then," Moira said while hitching up her pants, "I told him he'd better get his bloody circus act together unless he wants to sleep under the porch with the dogs. And he's all like, 'Whatever.' Can you believe that? Men are pigs."

"Isn't that just the way?" June's shirt eclipsed her voice as she pulled it on.

The Huntresses' gossip rang clear off the red-bricked walls of MHHQ's spacious changeroom. It was a warm place, heated with steam from the shower stalls, smelling of talcum powder, hairspray, and a faint glow of perspiration. Wooden honey-coloured benches ran along the walls. They were moderately old, like MHHQ itself, and a scroll of history was scratched into its surface with nail clippers, files, and hunting knives: Jaina was here, This hook reserved by Red Draco,, Tess + Josh.

"Man, my back hurts," Moira mumbled while she leaned into the mirror above her cubby and applied some eyeshadow. "I don't know why."

June nodded and pulled up her socks. "I know what you mean. I've had a headache for two days now."

"I don't know what's up with me. My body's up to all sorts of mischief lately. And Cain's prodigy isn't making our lives easier. That's the problem with America today, June. People pass off their empires to their children, who grew up wanting for nothing, and have no idea how to run a business or interact with their employees. The money starts to burn."

"Isn't that just the way?"

"You bet. If I were in charge, I'd -- Jeez, what's that smell? Are the sewers backing up in the washroom again? Someone'd better call maintenance." Moira turned around and shut her mouth and her compact simultaneously.

Standing in between the huntress and June was another Huntress, one Moira had never seen before. She was a medium-sized woman, and very skinny, although she had the profile of one whose sharp corners would be rounded out nicely with a few good meals. Her hair was in need of a wash, and her skin tone was brown. Pale brown, Moira thought. Somehow, it looks wrong. Like she spent too much time out of the sun...

The woman's clothes were nondescript, but she had a Hunter training jumpsuit draped over two stickbug arms. She smiled faintly, and her eyes were black blanks. Moira watched as June bobbed her head and swayed behind the stranger, checking her out like a cat examining its reflection.

"Hello there," Moira said slowly.

"Hi." The stranger's voice was shy, barely above a whisper.

"What's your name, dear?"

The woman opened her mouth and started to say something. Then a confused look came to her for a second and cleared, like a bird's flight shadowing the sun for an instant. "Jackdaw. My name's Jackdaw," she said with firm confidence.

"Uh ... huh." Moira and June caught each other out of the corner of their eyes. "It's nice to meet you, Jackdaw. I'm Moira. That's June, behind you."

"Where's the shower?" Jackdaw's voice wasn't unfriendly, but she was obviously uninterested.

"Good idea," Moira said a little more loudly than she meant to. She jerked her thumb behind her. "Beside the washroom. Go ahead and get changed. Here, you can leave your clothes beside my hook, if you like. No one will take them. What Unit are you in, anyway?"

"None," Jackdaw said, putting her folded training uniform beside Moira's belongings. "I just enlisted, but I need to pass the physical and evaluation before it's decided if they want to keep me or not."

"Oh yeah." Moira's memory refreshed and she thought about her own evaluation. "It's not so bad. Good luck with it all."

Something seemed to shadow Jackdaw's mood again, for she became sombre and said nothing.

Moira turned back to June. "Anyway, as I was saying. I don't respect anyone who hasn't started from the bottom and worked their way up." The Huntress turned to glance at Jackdaw as she talked. "Otherwise, they have no idea what it's like to ... um ... well, start from the bottom and ... er ... respect. I have no respect ... "

Moira trailed off completely, but it made no difference because June wasn't listening and Moira, for once, lost intrest in hearing herself talk.

Jackdaw was undressed, and she was hideous. Scars laced her thin body. Her skin was tight over her sharp bones. A dirty tensor bandage encircled her left ankle. She looked like a wasteland, Moira thought, although wastelands didn't tend to need mowing. Moira had never seen so much hair one one woman's legs and back ...

Jackdaw turned her head and caught the two Huntresses staring, but she didn't appear disturbed. She pointed at a bottle of shaving lotion and a fresh disposable razor in the threshold of Moira's cubby. "May I?"

Moving in a dream, Moira wordlessly handed over the articles.

"Thanks. I packed in a hurry, you see. Didn't have time to grab much. I'll return these."

"Oh, no no," Moira said in a hushed voice, wagging her open hands back and forth. "Keep them."

Jackdaw took a towel from the dispenser and wrapped it over her shoulders like a cloak before heading to the showers. She walked with a limp.

"Man," June said as soon as the humid hiss of the shower was loud enough to cover her voice. "What's her problem?"

Moira was speechless for the second time that day, and in her life.

Iris swayed slightly as she churned her mop across the floor of the infirmary. Her eyes, as usual, seemed lost in another dimension, but they were open nonetheless. And her ears were sharp.

"Well, she's healthy. And capable."

The reploid's slow dance with the mop led her to an occupied stable. The canvas curtains were drawn, but a small crack was present where the two screens were supposed to meet in the left hand corner. Voices filtered through and Iris stopped and glanced through the slit just in time to watch a woman sit up on the table behind the curtains. The woman, young and thin, appeared to have a dark complexion, although the light in the area was tricky so Iris thought she could be mistaken. She was dressed in a blue medical gown and her black hair had an eerie, alien sheen, soaked in the neon glow of the monitors that jumped and beeped beside her. Lifesaver and Genesis were also present, talking about the woman as if she was livestock. But the woman didn't object.

"I don't know Genesis," Lifesaver said slowly, studying one monitor covered with scrolling jargon. "I don't think I've seen so many chemical imbalances in a human before."

Genesis' teeth gleamed in the lesser darkness. "Eh, what do you know from humans?"

"Damn it Genesis, don't call me in here for a second opinion and then piss all over it! If you want her to pass her physical, just slap your filthy pawprint on the sheepskin and leave me alone. But I'm just telling you, it's not normal for a human to produce these readings."

"You're useless, Lifesaver." Genesis snuffed, automatically pulling the woman back up into a sitting position when she tried to recline on her elbows. "There's nothing wrong with these readings. Go back to your pots and pans and little tin soldiers."

The woman remained silent during the argument, and she saw Iris staring at her through the slit. Iris' heart jumped when those glittering black eyes fixed on her; she knew she wasn't supposed to eavesdrop on the exams or disturb the patients, and now she was caught.

But the human didn't holler for Genesis. She merely smiled at the young reploid. That one gesture opened something up in Iris, and it was powerful, choking. She fled from the stable, overwhelmed, and slid nicely on the wet floor she'd forgotten about. Annoyed, she recouperated from her start to ponder over events.

That woman ... smiled at her. A genuine smile.

No one smiled at her. She was unstable, useless, in the way, one useless half of a strong whole. Surely there'd been a mistake.

Yes, it was a mistake. That was it. Iris fell back to her mopping, but she found she couldn't stop the corners of her own mouth from turning up, reaching for her eyes.

She was suddenly jostled roughly from one side, almost pushed over, and the shock ripped away her warm aura. Jackal rushed by.

"Genesis!" The human's runners were frictionless on Iris' wet floor, and he slid. "Dammit, stupid floor. Genesis!"

The fox pushed aside the curtain enough to get through. He looked at the heaving human and crossed his arms over his chest. "Jackal, I'm in the middle of something. What is it you want?"

"Do you have any idea where Supertramp is?" Jackal asked in a desperate voice.

Genesis stabbed his pointed muzzle at the mechanic and curled his lip. "Super-what?"

"The wolf! The wolf you helped me heal, remember?"

"Am I your wolf's keeper? I told you she'd probably return to the grasslands. She was a wild animal, and I must've been on drugs when I didn't report you for keeping her in the first place."

Jackal drooped his head and pushed his hands behind his neck. "Agh ... "

"Anyway," Genesis said, pulling out a "Caution" pylon from behind the curtain and tossing it on the wet floor, "I would probably run away too if I had to live in a smelly garage with a name like that. 'Supertramp.' Jeebus Crow."

Jackal hunched his shoulders and started to walk away. Iris watched him for a few seconds, and went back to work.

"Don't be sad."

Iris and Jackal looked up.

"Jackal. Don't be sad." It was the woman, still sitting up on the bed behind Genesis, who craned his neck back at her in surprise. Her voice was soft, childlike, and fit well with the dim darkness that surrounded her. "Nothing you love is lost. Everything returns home eventually, to those who care for them."

Iris couldn't see Lifesaver from where she stood, but she heard him say, "Are you sure you want her to be a Hunter, Genesis?"

"Jackdaw, stop acting weird," Genesis said slowly, and the woman shut up at once. The fox then turned to glare at Iris and Jackal. "Iris, get back to work. Jackal, no, I haven't seen your bloody dog and if she does come back, keep her out of the Medical Unit or I'll shoot her. I've got more important things to attend to right now." Genesis yanked the curtains shut again .

Jackal shuffled towards the door, but he stopped long enough to kick the side of a file cabinet. The metallic "Twonk!" that resulted emulated a gong, and Iris jumped back just in time. Genesis came galloping out of his stable in a roaring rage. He flew at Jackal, seized the young man, smashed his head into the offended cabinet (producing a much meatier "TWANK!") and threw him out the door in the space of two seconds. Seething and crackling, the fox returned to Lifesaver and Jackdaw.

Iris hardly noticed. Some afterglow from Jackdaw's smile and gentle voice returned and clung to her, and a little of her old confidence started to bloom again, warmed by it. She put away her pail and mop, opened the file cabient and started to sift through an unorganized pile of papers on Genesis' desk.

A long time ago, a boy died in a war and was reunited with his brother. The boy was made of machines, so he was never sure if he was living an afterlife or if he was just wallowing through an illusion conjoured up by his malfunctioning body and mind.

Nevertheless, the reunion was bittersweet and either minutes or centuries later, the two were walking side by side through a peaceful park. They stopped by a small pond and watched some coi dart through the clear water. The boy's brother turned to him, his black-and-gold armour shining in the sun, his sharp canines flashing ask he spoke.

"We were built by the same hands," he said, "but we're different. You didn't follow the path Wily laid out for you and that disappoints me. But you did defy your destiny, and I respect that, believe me. So I hope you'll take what I'm going to say to you seriously."

The boy responded voicelessly.

"Despite my respect," his brother said, "I hate the fact you've fallen in love with a human. Celeste, you said her name is? Well, your love for each other is an abomination, and that's not the worst of it. I don't care what happens to her, but I do care what happens to you."

The boy frowned, and his brother held up a hand.

"Easy. Hear me out. Do you recall the time your girl was infected with the virus that drove her temporarily insane? You had to physically subdue her. You hurt her while doing so, and you secretly enjoyed her pain. You drew it up like a thirsty kid drinking cold milk from a straw. Your thoughts and intentions were dark, evil. For a minute, I thought we were going to win you back."

The boy remembered, and looked swiftly away. The memory stung, and yet...

"That's the thing. You'd do it again, and derive the same pleasure. You've still got a great deal of blackness in your soul. You can wash some of it away, but there's a nasty stain that will always be there. I like that. But if I didn't love you, I wouldn't be giving you this warning."

The boy was forced to look at the pond by his brother's hand under his chin. The black robot pointed to the water. The coi were dead, bobbing along the pond's surface, mouths open in frozen gasps. A cold wind sprang up and the pond became choppy and evil-smelling.

"Stay away from Celeste. Your passions will kill her."

Something moved in the pond, and the boy dropped to his hands and knees. He saw himself in the water, not as a translucent reflection, but as an opaque picture, like a movie on a screen. He was dressed in his battle armour, and he couldn't see his face, but his fists were clenched, his head was raised, and he appeared to be howling. In the vision, Celeste ran up to him -- how small she seemed next to him! -- and placed a hand on his elbow. He jerked away, snarling. He didn't want to be comforted, and when Celeste persisted, he swung his arm and smashed the side of her face.

The boy tried to cry out when he witnessed the scene, but he was mute. He was not, however, blind; he saw the aftermath of his strike in hellish detail. His "reflection" had blood on his hands, it was spattered across his armour like rat tracks. His chest heaved, and he looked down at Celeste who lay far away from him, as still as a broken doll. Was she dead? What had he done? The grief was immense, poisonous, chronic. But some hidden, starved part of the boy clamored for that blood; he wanted the smell, the taste, he wanted to experience the beautiful climax that inevitably shuddered through his systems when he saw it ...

"So you see," his brother said, breaking the spell, "why you need to stay away. Like I already said, I don't care what happens to the girl, but I don't want you to suffer, regardless of the path you chose -- or should I say, choose -- in your life. That vision wasn't some tiddly make-believe story to scare you, Zero. It's the future. You carry it through, you'll both end up with broken hearts." His brother smiled in cruel amusement. "Actually, she'll end up with a broken everything."

The boy cried without making a sound. His brother stood up.

"So now you know what'll happen if you take that human as your wife. You're a lucky boy, little brother. You're going to get a second crack at life, and this time you get an instruction booklet. Words are cheap, however. You'll be tested soon enough, and I'll be interested to see what actions you take."

Bass vanished in an instant, almost in mid-sentence. The park was gone, drowned by an intense, white light that pressed against Zero's eyes.


The light was removed, but he was too drained to sit up. He turned his head to the side and saw an elderly human, his face one giant smile. Zero's mind felt sticky and sluggish like a chick crawling out of an egg; was he dead? Alive? He couldn't remember the human's name, although facts were rapidly scribbling across his brain like chalk against an empty board. Vile ... he destroyed Vile, and then ...

Two cool hands grasped his one left, which dangled over the side of the table he lay on. Zero turned his head slowly to the other side and saw her ...

"I can't believe ... " Celeste's voice couldn't seem to make its way past her quivering mouth. "I can't ..." It quit entirely, but her eyes were intensely blue. They always darkened to that beautiful shade when she was emotional, and Zero was suddenly able to remember the precise moment he fell in love with them, fell in love with her, and he almost squeezed her hands in return ...

Then as sudden and painful as a door shutting on his finger, Zero remembered those eyes, sightless, dead, as she lay on the etheral ground of the vision that Bass presented to him, covered in blood ...

He withdrew his hand and shifted on his side. "I'm sorry, miss. I don't know you."

"What--" Celeste started after a stunned silence, but Zero matched her. "I don't know you."

"Zero?" The elderly human quivered, and Zero recognised him. Dr Cain. But he didn't want to greet him, didn't want to greet anybody. He was nothing but hurt, misfortune, a travelling misery peddlar, and why did they bring him back? "I don't know you either."

"Zero, don't--"

"I don't know you."


"Please, leave me alone. I don't recognise either of you.


"Just leave me alone!"

The dream broke like someone hit it with a hammer, but Zero's vengeful scream echoed in his mind even while his eyes focused on the glass ceiling of his recharge pod. Iris had her hands splayed out on the glass and was peering in at him. "I have little doubt that your passions will eventually kill her, Zero ... "

"Huh!" Zero sat up in his pod and tocked his forehead against the door. Iris melted away.

The Hunter remained where he was, breathing in the poisonous remains of his nightmare. No, not a nightmare. It was a cruel joke, but Zero would have welcomed a nightmare. What he saw in that dream was truth, memories and reminders.

"You'll be tested soon enough ... "

Zero lay back down and threw an arm over his eyes. "No rest for the wicked," he mumbled.

A long time ago, a blue mechadrake suffered a lapse of sanity and left home with his red sister. Or maybe it wasn't a lapse of sanity; it was carelessness. His red sister caught him staring out the window once too often, looking longingly at the sky, and probably marked him an easy target. Blue mechadrakes didn't care much for flying, but this one was different. He wanted to soar to magnificent heights, he wanted to open his wings wide and offer himself up to the sun, he wanted to blot the city with his shadow, he wanted a premature night. He wanted to conquer.

His sister proposed a journey to Maverick Hunter Headquarters in America. She needed to attend to some business, and she wanted a companion who could handle the journey. The prospect of a long flight thrilled the blue mechadrake, and it was indeed a glorious time. Rolling over maps of forests and plains, cities, towns, wind combing their hair, sun at their backs, silver-white moon on their wings, shadows darting below, consuming the landscape.

"You've got an obvious, hungry look in your eyes," his red sister warned him one day. "You've got a commanding streak you're hesitant to let anyone see. Maybe someday you'll be a conquerer, but I can tell you that you blues aren't built for that sort of thing. Stay friendly in MHHQ, put violence out of your mind and stick to the simple pleasure of flight."

And the blue mechadrake had the sense to take his sister's advice and enjoyed himself at MHHQ as the co-leader of the Regal Dragons. He had the company of many friends. However, hunting didn't slake his thirst to rule. He rather liked humans, and wished to rule them in some way. For their benefit. They were such chaotic creatures in need of a shepherd. His sister's advice rewound and played in his head constantly and he took a long flight whenever he felt the urge he couldn't act upon. Flying was pure joy, it was incredible to lift himself off the ground with his own two wings and he never tired of it.

Then he saw her one day, walking down a hallway at the HQ. She was a mere human female, still blossoming. She was quite short, frail-looking, and one arm was nearly useless and in a sling. But she was terrible. Something urgent was mixed with her scent, and it drilled the blue mechadrake's snout. All he could smell was death on the girl, even as she talked to him in friendly tones about becoming a Maverick Hunter. Some cruel fate automated the blue mechadrake, and he encouraged her to sign up even while his brain gibbered and screamed in fear. Her eyes, look at her eyes, they're old, they don't match her youthful face. Your destinies are entwined like serpents around a ladder, and yours is resting its head on a lower rung, waiting to be bit off by her own.

Yet, the blue mechadrake knew there was no avoiding fate. All he could do was wait until the girl "accidently" shot him while drowning in the instincts of her ancestors. He lost his wings, he lost his joy, but his will to rule over humans grew fat and darkened with evil intent even as a visor of his own choosing slid over his face, tinting the world in shadow and hiding his new set of humanoid eyes. The girl had destroyed him, but maybe she had helped him realise his true calling as the Maverick leader, Vile.

Vile ...

"I will conquer."

Vile ...

"Come to me, girl."

Vile ...

"If I catch you, I will kill you."

Vile ...

"But first I will thank you for making me what I am."

Vile ...

"You've grown into such a pretty young thing. What a delight it will be to rip that vigorous body of yours, to violate you, to break your legs and watch you writhe in agony as your lifeblood weeps onto the cold cement, your spine smashed, destroyed ... "


Vile jerked to life and opened his eyes. The world was still tinted. A huge bird, her divine, flaming plumage dull behind his visor, hung over his face. "F ... Fuh ... Phoenix?"

Phoenix tossed her head and the afterimage glowed behind Vile's eyes. "It's about time."

Vile's dream faded quickly as if someone reached inside his mind and turned a knob. Stinking-fish reality sharpened around his sore head; a dripping, musty wreck of a chamber, a hard table under his back, and a mere packet of second-rate Maverick leftovers: Flame Stag, Neon Tiger, Violen, and ...

"Did you guys seal Vile up already?" Wheel Gator whimpered from the foot of the table, clutching a bag of peanuts to his barrel-like chest. "I accidently dropped a peanut in there when you were taking a break from working on him, and I was too scared to tell you."

Vile closed his eyes again. "Jesus Christ, I've died and gone to hell."

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