Chapter 16: Blue-eyed Boy Meets a Brown-eyed Girl
It was only the beginning of July, but already the earth smelled like it was weary of summer. The musk of exhausted defeat was particularily strong in MHHQ's back lot, where X and Zero sat in the dusty centre of the empty refugee camp. The sun had just gone down, but darkness had not yet fallen. What light remained was hazy, thick and drenched blue shadows over the grim structures surrounding them. The trampled, shorn grass threw up waves of sour air. The heat was hot, the ground was dry, and the air was full of sound.
Zero glanced around the shabby huts and lean-tos which housed homeless humans after Maverick attacks during the first War. "I hate this place," he said in disgust.
"Then why did you come here?" X asked.
Zero wouldn't answer X directly. "When I arrived at Maverick Hunter Headquarters, it was before Sigma officially smashed his bottle of champagne against the hull of Human Genocide. The Hunters had it easy enough back then, as you probably remember, and the humans stuck here were relatively comfortable and well-behaved. Then when the War started in earnest, the money had to stretch, and we sucked it out of this place. The conditions got bad, and the humans regressed and wallowed in their more basic instincts."
"Uh huh," X recollected.
"The Mavericks got more aggresive and destroyed more neighbourhoods. This place got overcrowded. Food got short, and people started to steal from each other. Some fine old fights broke out, as I remember."
"Right here. Right in the middle of a thriving city. Right behind the grand old structure of Maverick Hunter Headquarters, we had our own little piece of the Third World. Come one, come all. See the zoo. See the Renaissance fair. We're a little short on the poetry, art, and bold dragon-slaying, but there's plenty of olde-thyme dirt, disease and despair to go around."
X turned his head at MHHQ. "It was in a bad way around here, back then."
"I was ashamed of them for it," Zero said, "but now I realise that's what happens to humans. They're animals at their cores, but they're swaddled in layers of civilisation. Hard times hit them, and the easiest way to survive such business is to downgrade. Simplify. Cast off luxuries, cast off society's rules and get used to not having them. The animal is what's left, and animals don't question the cruel world they live in. They stop and think, and someone else grabs their food, their mate, their territory. So they just act. Humans are the same, when the earth calls their blood home."
"You're grim, Zero."
"I'm positively chipper. You want to hear grim, you stay beside me for a few more minutes because I'm getting there."
X didn't answer, but he drew his knees up to his chest.
Zero waved his hand, sweeping across the refugee camp in a grand arc. "The first Maverick War was by far the most savage. The media called it 'The End of Innocence,' as if we all did nothing but wear daisy-chain crowns and dance around maypoles before Maverick reploids decided to have us for supper. To be perfectly fair, it was the end of innocence in a way; humans thought that free-thinking reploids would wash their dishes and be thankful for the opportunity. Once Sigma rose into power, they knew better. And by the time the second Maverick War broke out, we Hunters were beyond our disbelief, and we cried a little less for our friends when they turned. Maverick disposal became more of a task, less of a matter. Well, I'm not very poetic, I can't word things well. But you know what I mean."
"You word things very well," X said darkly, closing his eyes.
"Oh ... " Zero trailed off. "I didn't mean ... " Impatient with X and himself, the crimson Hunter placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Put up with me, X. You lost a lot of friends, and it doesn't get any easier. I lost friends too, but I know it hits closer to home for you."
"I lost you." X's words were as firm and grounded as an old oak tree. "It was hell."
"X, I -- "
"Yet I've kept a shred of optimism alive within me, after four Wars. And I try to keep it alive. That's why I still cry hard for every lost life, contrary to your gracious statement." X's voice started to shudder.
"And I'll keep fighting for humans. They're not just animals, and I don't care what you think. They're our creators, our mentors."
"Actually, my father was a subhuman madman," Zero said wryly.
"In due time. We're getting off the subject--"
"I can't see what you see when I look at the world."
"It's like ... you're changing."
The two friends stared at each other, their faces glowing faintly in the purgatorial dimness that reserved itself half an hour just after sunset.
"No. No apologies, X. I'm not going to apologise to you, and I'm not going to let you apologise to me. I brought you here to disturb you with my talk, and I don't owe you an apology for that because you're my best friend and that's the kind of crap you have to put up with. However, you don't have to love me for it. Now, may I finish?"
X flexed the fingers on his right hand. "You may as well."
"Well then. Getting back to the pathetic state this camp was in. Sure, lack of money had a good deal to do with it, but I also think that they were kept shabby on purpose."
"What!" X looked sharply at Zero
"Becoming a Hunter meant better living conditions," Zero said mildly. "Sure did persuade a few humans to sign up. I mean, why not? It's a sneaky tactic, but who's going to report it in the middle of a desperate war, with a dissolved media that's full of rumours and bad information in the first place? MHHQ had nothing to lose. They grew their Hunters out of a pot of dirt."
" 'Oh Zero' my arse, X. You said you'd let me finish. What I'm trying to get at is, the battle for Goodness is corrupt. That's hardly anything new; it's the way the world has been since we all learned to stab each other with pointy sticks. But circumstance has shoved me in the middle of it all, lately."
"Your scanning," X said.
"Yes, Monroe's damnable scan on my systems will take place next week. I mentioned the fight for Goodness being corrupt. Well, I'm bloated with sin, and even though I fight on the right side, I have a feeling that things are going to end in a bad way."
" 'Bloated with sin.' Is that why you fear the scan?"
"Yes. I have stories, oh, do I have stories, and it's about time I told you some of them. I owe it to you. I don't want you to hear about my fall from grace after it's been mangled by the rumour mill. But first ... " Zero plucked at his shoulder armour and held his hand flat out at X. It was almost completely dark by now, and the object on Zero's palm absorbed what little light remained, sucked it up and hoarded it, gave nothing back. Like a dead star, Zero thought to himself, looking one last time at the rampant black unicorn on the surface of his offering.
X's eyes grew wide and he reached out a hand tentatively. "That's ... "
"My Command badge for the 0 Unit Black Unicorns. Take it."
X's hand faltered, and he drew it away. "I can't."
"You can, and you will." Zero jiggled his open hand insistingly. "When everything, well, comes to pass, I'll undoubtedly be stripped of my title. My unit will be given over to Seven, God help this wreck of an organisation, and he'll love that. But he can't get at it if I hand my badge over to you. You hold the badge, X, and you're the Commander. That's the way things work here."
"What about in the meantime?"
"I'll still lead the 0 Unit."
"Without your badge?"
"Don't ask, don't tell. That policy has got to work for something."
"What about my Unit? The 17th? What'll happen to it when I take over 0?"
"Well ... " Zero shrugged. "I don't rightly know. I guess you'll have to cross that bridge yourself when you come to it."
The crimson Hunter held X's glare. "X, if you were ever my friend ... help me with this. Take the badge. It'll be bad enough when I'm sent away from here, but it'll break my heart to see Seven take my place."
"This is ludacris." X cracked his knuckles. "I can't ... "
" '...have any part in it.' Did I say that right, X? I'm asking you, and I certainly won't force you. But it sure is easy to turn your back on a comrade when he's on the road to Hell, isn't it?"
Zero's hand was still outstreched.
"Zero ... " X lifted and dropped his shoulders, and a massive sigh billowed from his insides. He reached for his friend's hand and took the badge. "What kind of trouble have you gotten yourself into?"
The moon rose and the camp was doused in pagan fire. Zero turned his eyes up and they, too, burned. "Well. Therein lies a tale."
Caillou McTreggor jumped out of the way a split second before the huge training drone he'd dispatched nearly spilled on his head in a heavy heap. The dischord of toppling metal onto the concrete floor jangled through the room. It wasn't a typical training hour, so no one else heard the drone's dying concert except for Nytetrayn, who sat atop a wooden observation shelf six feet off the ground, working on some kind of machinery. The black mechadrake looked up briefly from his handiwork, shook his head, and looked down again.
Caillou exhaled. "What?"
"What what? You have little of your father's skill, even less of his grace, but you have all of his bad luck." Nytetrayn continued to pluck at the jumbled mess of metal before him. "More unfortunately, you look like him."
Caillou glanced at his reflection in the training drone's polished corpse. A smaller, male version of Ange stared back at him, right down to the brown skin colour. Except ...
"It's your eyes," Nytetrayn said. "They're exclusively Jake's, that lovely dark shade of blue. Given your skin tone, they jump out of your face like two strangers in a strange land and constantly remind Asmodeus of your origin, of Jake himself. He doesn't like that. If you were an exceptional fighter who could bear the next generation of, uh, Edenites into this dank dungeon, Asmodeus probably wouldn't hate you so much. As it is, you're not bad at sparring, but even your successes somehow look like they happen by accident. And you use that pistol to fight. It takes your credibility down a few notches."
Caillou looked at his weapon. "My Wyvern-Walker? It was a gift to my mother from Jake, wasn't it?"
Nyte looked up with a dragon-grin. "Sure, he never used it."
"Oh, he did once, sort of, if the story I've been told is true. I'll relay it to you in a few minutes, if you'll help me test a theory I'm working on."
"Well," Caillou said as Nytetrayn leaped down from the shelf, his tail grabbing a cylandrical tube from the bench. He transferred the tube to his hand, grabbed Caillou's arm with the other, and thumbed a switch at one end of the cylinder. A cone of light spilled from the other end, pouring directly into Caillou's -- Jake's -- eyes.
The inside of Caillou's head effectively exploded, or so it felt. The light was acid, sheer pain. The boy howled and jerked away from Nytetrayn, throwing his arms over his face."
"I thought as much." Nytetrayn sounded pleased.
"God! You ... I ... I'm blind!"
"You are not, you big baby. Calm down and take your arms down from your face."
Caillou did, and the world was an infinate white blank instead of a black one. But the snowfield began to thin a little, and Caillou could see the grey shadow of Nytetrayn moving in it.
"Don't get mad at me yet," Nyte chuckled. "You've verified something fairly important."
Caillou rubbed his eyes. Nyte became a faded, oily rainbow of colours. "Why did you do that to me?"
"Neveryoumind, lad. You'll find out eventually. Remember what I told you earlier, about turning you into Asmodeus and lifting suspicion off myself? If you don't want that to happen, you'll do as your told, and you'll like it. I'm working on a theory that's still exactly that at this moment. I guess I might need to do more testing, somehow, to make sure you're not just a special case. Your father wasn't much one for sunlight either, or so I've been told. He was quite comfortable in the dark ... "
I like it here.
The air was warm, dark. No pain needled Jake, no churning thoughts poisoned his head. All he had to do was tip his weight to his heels, fall back, splash into the blackness, surrender, and he'd never have to deal with Atticus, Torrent, Eden ever again. Release would be easy.
A horizontal shaft of light slowly oozed from infinity, laying itself down for Torrent Leviathan, who walked towards Jake. He held up one hooked claw. Celeste dangled from it by her shirt collar, like a fish on a line. Except a caught fish struggled. Celeste hung like a dead dog.
"Well then," Torrent chuckled. "You forfeit."
Jake roared and flung himself at the mechadrake. Instead of ripping into his nemesis, he bobbed to the surface of his dream and his eyes were assulted by light. A middle-aged human man with a sand-coloured beard and hair held one of Jake's rubbery arms in one hand, and an empty syringe up in the other.
"So! You're awake." His voice was neutral, despite the happy realisation. "For a minute there, it seemed like you were giving up. But I think the worst of it is behind us. Here, go like this." the man dropped Jake's arm and opened and closed his fist rapidly. Jake slowly raised his arm and closed his fist in a slothful, uncomfortable imitation.
"Can you talk, fellow?"
Jake thought that someone must've replaced his jaw with a lead weight, but he focused. "A little. Hurts."
"Not surprised, but that's good news. The poison paralysed you entirely, but we countered it just before it grabbed your vitals. If you can move some, now, it means that it's starting to leave your body." He disassembled his syringe and discarded the needle with machinelike smoothness, and moved out of Jake's limited radius of sight. "I'll administer another treatment later, but the most important things at this point are some mild excersises and rest, rest, rest. I'll talk to you soon. Have a good night, Blackavar."
Jake heard the black mechadrake respond, "Good night, Dr. Ison. See you later, Eamon. Thanks for your ... housecall."
"It wasn't any trouble. Ange, Asmodeus is going to want to talk to you in the morning." Dr. Ison spoke like a man making note of the weather.
Jake set his elbows on the thin mattress below him and slowly pushed himself up in his bed. Moving wasn't such a wretched business, now. He sat up just in time to watch Dr. Ison leave the room with a blue mechadrake following behind. That's Eamon, Jake supposed.
And he was still in Ange's warren. His jumpsuit was rolled down to his waist, like a dull green banana peel. His stomach wound was bandaged neatly, and his skin felt very cool above the drab blanket on Ange's bed, bare against the chill air of the room. Blackavar looked at him for a second, then turned his triangular head away, saying nothing. Ange herself was slumped at the table in the middle of the warren, her head in her arms, her body shuddering. Jake's heart squeezed into his throat; she was so desolate. He tried to tell her not to worry, that everything would work out. Blackavar didn't hear Jake's words, and they couldn't get through to Ange. She was too upset.
"Ange has seen death before." It took Jake a few seconds to realise that Blackavar was talking to him. "She's seen several Warriors of Eden die in training accidents, and she accepted their deaths. Why does she care about you? Why does she risk her rank, her life?"
Jake looked at the black mechadrake without hostility, but Blackavar's eyes were old, hot cinders.
"If she suffers, I'll kill you. You'll wish for Atticus' poison to jump back into your veins and carry you off long before I finish with you. Outsider."
"Do you mechadrakes get high off overdramatics? It must be nice."
"You want to see overdramatics?" Blackavar snarled, but Jake didn't fan the embers. He sank slowly under the covers once more and lay quietly. Ange pulled her hands down from her face. Some of her colour returned, and she looked better for it.
Blackavar looked at her. "Ange, are you all right?"
"I'll be fine," Ange said shortly. She stood up.
"I told you Eamon would want to know why you needed antitoxins. Even so, neither of us know enough about first aid to have fixed this wretch without Dr. Ison's help."
"Yes Blackavar, I know."
"Now Asmodeus 12 will know about this." Blackavar swung his head slowly, like a sad grandfather clock pendulum. "Ange, what have you gotten yourself into? Why did you save him?"
Ange walked to her warren door and leaned against the jamb with her arms crossed. She stayed still for several minutes. Jake was dissapointed; he liked watching her move. She stepped quickly and gracefully, like a colt. Ange looked at her guest and smiled a little and Jake caught sight of a faint blush dawning across her face just before she broke the line and turned her head away.
"I don't know why I did it, Blackavar. Seemed like the decent thing to do. Maybe Asmodeus will understand."
"We'll just see about that."
"My jumpsuit is still ripped."
"I'm afraid you'll have to deal with it, Jake."
Jake fingered the gash in the green material, which still had dried blood smeared around its lips. His bandaged stomach showed clearly through the rip, and it made him feel somehow exposed and vunerable in the midst of the Great Tree's morning traffic. He still felt quite stiff and weak from Atticus' poison, but some summons couldn't be ignored.
"You'll be lucky if it's just your jumpsuit that stays ripped once Asmodeus 12 is done with you," Blackavar growled behind him, slapping the back of his head lightly.
The blow didn't hurt very much, but neither did a glove to the face. "God, I'm tired of you," Jake told the black mechadrake, and slammed his elbow into Blackavar's exposed stomach. The synthetic flesh was far more yielding than Jake expected, and a loud expulsion of air flew out through Blackavar's mouth and snout.
"Stop it," Ange said. "Asmodeus is below us."
Indeed, the mottled leader of the Inheritors roosted on the opposite side of the catwalk, some storeys down the slow spiral that hugged the cylandrical wall of the Great Tree. His katana was unsheathed, its wicked point planted firmly in the ground, his hands resting on the hilt like an English gentleman leaning on a cane. Whether by intuition, or just some cruel fate, the shredded silver mechadrake looked up at them as Ange said his name.
"So, there you are." Asmodeus was across the Tree, which was buzzing with activity, but Jake heard him as if he were standing beside him. "Join me, please. And be quick about it."
Jake set his teeth, squared his shoulders, and put one foot in front of the other. Whatever happened, the worst part, the anticipation, would end soon, as long as he kept moving towards that hateful, crazed monarch. Time can only go forward,Jake reasoned, and dole out the future, for better or worse. Ange kept step with him and held her head high. Jake stole a glance over his shoulder once, and noticed that Blackavar was nowhere to be seen.
As Asmodeus' gaunt body grew larger in their eyes and the expression on his face became clearer, Ange stumbled. Jake put an arm around her shoulders to steady her.
"Don't touch her, Jacob."
Jake didn't remove his arm until he and Ange stood side by side before Asmodeus. Jake caught sight of something squirming and worrying in the shadow cast by Asmodeus, like a worm in the mud. Torrent? Maybe. The grand scientist seemed downsized somehow, a morsel of a mechadrake. He dropped on all fours and peeked around the ankles of his silver brother, his fangs and eyes glittering as he opened his mouth at Jake in a silent, vengeful hiss. He's Asmodeus' dog, Jake thought, dumbfounded by his own simile.
"Jacob. " Asmodeus stated. "Dr. Ison paid me a visit this morning. Seems you two know each other."
"I did not expect Torrent would make an attempt on your life."
This was not what Jake expected to hear.
"I did not expect Torrent would make an attempt on your life," Asmodeus repeated, "and I apologise for it. He will be disciplined. It's a lucky thing you were found and healed. Ange?"
She startled like a swallow. "Sir?"
Something seemed to unwind in the marrow of Ange's bones. She relaxed a little. "T-thank you, sir."
Asmodeus looked at Jake again, his hands still cupped over his katana hilt. "Jacob. I want to talk to you. This is Eden."
"So I've been told."
"Yes," Asmodeus said. "So you have. And yet, you're not happy. I don't desire you to be unhappy, and I wish you'd understand that. You fight us every step of the way. You--"
"I want to see Celeste."
"--seem to--" Asmodeus stopped. He looked comically flabbergasted, an expression Jake figured he wasn't going to get to see twice. "I'm sorry. What did you say?"
"Celeste. I want to see her."
"You mean you haven't?"
Jake rolled his shoulders, which were starting to lock up a little. "Not since I came here."
"Well, that's just ... " the mechadrake swung his head at his shadow. "Torrent. You haven't let this man see his daughter since he arrived with her?"
Torrent was standing on his two legs once more, although he slouched some. "No. I suppose I haven't."
"Couldn't be disturbed during her treatment," Torrent said sullenly.
Asmodeus lifted up his katana and brought the point down again with a firm clink. "Well Torrent, that's one more thing you'll have to remedy. Now come here and say your piece."
Growling softly, Torrent paced up to Jake and stooped eye-to-eye with the young warrior, squinting down his slimy snout. "I'm ever so sorry for trying to poison you out of my life. It was wrong. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me."
The sarcasm was fantastic, but Asmodeus nodded his head in satisfaction. "Thank you, Torrent. But you're not done."
Indeed, for very suddenly, Torrent's hands were full of pointy things. Jake's confiscated lightdaggers. He handed them back to him. "They're your weapons of choice, are they not, Jacob? Since you work best with them, they're yours again."
Jake ran his fingers lovingly over the weapons' hilts. He stopped himself just in time from saying, "Thank you."
"Seems almost a shame to give them back to you," Asmodeus said with a cracked smile. "From what little training I've seen you perform with that pistol we issued you, you're a force to be reckoned with long-range."
"Pistol? The Wyvern-Walker?"
"Yes. It's a rare cast, you know. We thought you deserved it at the time, but you never seem to use it."
"I use it," Jake muttered half-heartedly, like a kid being chastised for never playing with some aunt's lame Christmas present.
"Sure, but you prefer to look your opponent in the eyes. And I admire that." Asmodeus rustled his wings. "Well, it's getting late in the day and we all have things to do. Torrent, take Jacob to see Celeste."
"Oh, this'll be a lovely outing," Torrent grinned. He mockingly held out his hand to Jake, who stared at it for several seconds before pushing past.
"You know the way to my lab? Fine, go ahead and take point. See how far you get."
Jake slammed to a halt and silently let Torrent step in front of him. He recieved a summon and turned around. Ange, heading in the opposite direction, threw a quick good-bye and will we ever meet again? over her shoulder. Jake smiled clumsily.
Torrent didn't look back. "Enough of that, Jake." He said. "And watch your step. You're cruising for trouble."