The moon was a fingernail, a ghostly galleon bobbing over the grey clouds.
"I am beginning to think," X said after a lifetime of silence, "that it's all just shades of grey."
"I'm beginning to think that you're finally accepting life for what it is," Zero agreed slowly. "It'll save you some heartache in the end."
"Wily." X turned to Zero. "I've heard of him, of course. But I think there's more to it than that. I never met the man, but sometimes I feel like I had in another lifetime. And I guess if that's true, the encounters weren't pleasant because when someone says his name I feel like I'm reading a label marked 'poison.' Do you know what I mean?"
"I think so."
"So I feel a little uneasy when you tell me that he's your creator and that if Monroe finds out there'll be trouble."
"And Monroe is definitely going to find out if he scans your systems."
X paused. "You haven't shown any Maverick tendencies yourself. Why is your origin your fault?"
Zero jerked his head in surprise. "So ... you're not upset about me being created by Wily?"
"I already told you, I'm uneasy about it. But you've proven yourself."
"There's also my past. It's hazy, but I can remember that I've done some unsavoury things that I probably wouldn't want to reveal to you if I could even recall them properly."
"The past is over."
"Something about a village ... there was snow on the ground ... "
"Don't try to remember it," X said sharply, startling Zero. "What's done is done."
"That doesn't cut ice with humans. They're fickle pricks."
"I don't know if Monroe could eject you from the Hunters because of who you are," X said slowly, furrowing his thoughts into his words. "But I'll keep your badge and take over your unit when the need arises."
Zero grinned feebly. "So you feel it too."
X returned the thin smile. "Yep. Things are going to end up in a bad way. Somehow, everything is going to turn sour. I'll watch over you. You can't stop the hurricane, but you can batten down the roof."
"X, you're magnificent." Zero held out his hand. "Always be my friend."
X slapped his own palm into Zero's clutch and the crimson Hunter was surprised at his uncharacteristic confidence. "Nothing else."
"I was the King of Hell."
Violen looked at Flame Stag. Flame Stag looked at Vile. Vile stared straight ahead into the blackness as he hissed his piece from in between his underlings. The three warriors sat on the sole piece of furniture in the damp chamber -- a greasy green chesterfield.
"Rubicant bowed before me, offered me maidens in silver chains!"
Flame Stag rolled his eyes and tossed his arm over the back of the chesterfield. "Oh, here we go."
"Phoenix!" Violen called out. "Come fix Vile, he's talking crazy again."
Vile's voice rose in defiance. "Oh, how their screams of agony rolled down my spine in a hot torrent of pleasure as I took them--"
Vile cursed and whipped around. He saw Phoenix hunched over like a pool player, ready to flick his exposed neck with the end of her broomstick again if needed.
"Vile. Shut up."
"Accursed harpy. You think that leaving my neck bare for punishment will make me fall in line?"
Phoenix leaned on her crude cue. "No, your neck is exposed because all we could afford to do on you is a patch job," she explained tiredly. "Newsflash: a cockroach-infested hole only yields so much in the way of good scrap metal. And don't forget that Overdrive eloped with Bass' journal, the one we were supposed to use to blackmail Zero. We're doin' A-OK, Jack."
"You could rebuild me more than adequately if you were willing to put forth the effort," Vile scoffed.
Phoenix angrily smacked the back of Vile's seat with her palm. "Yeah, well, you know what Vile? You wouldn't be a Recycling Day mascot if you'd just listened to me in the first place. 'Don't taunt humans,' I told you. 'It's probably not a good idea to toy with the emotions of a species that averages 75 lousy years.' So what do you go and do? 'Oooo look at me Celeste I'm big bad Vile and I am going to drink your love interest's blood and chase it down with your family's eyeball fluids! Please come and rip me up, I know you Irish half-breeds aren't temperamental at all! Kick my ass! It'll be like old times! Here, I'll even pull my pants down for you.'"
Violen and Flame Stag guffawed at both ends of the chesterfield.
"S--stop it!" Vile sputtered, throwing his head back and forth at the two Mavericks. "Stop laughing!" he screamed at Stag and slammed down his half-melted shoulder-mounted cannon. The weapon snapped right out of its socket. Stag fell off the chesterfield the same instant that the cannon clattered stoically on the concrete and rolled away.
"Oh my God!" The fiery warrior shrieked with laughter and rolled on his back, eyes screwed shut as he hic-sobbed for air. "Oh my God! That was so perfect!"
"CELESTE!" Vile's eyes burned red and he swept to his feet like a snake rising to strike, the air whistling eerily between the cracks of his armour as he did so. "Mongrel bitch of the McTreggor clan, enemy of my kind!"
Violen looked up at his former master, one fat cheek slumped against his huge fist. "He's gone into mechadrake mode again."
"You will fall on your knees before me and beg for mercy when we meet again, but I will take you captive and peel your skin off your miserable bones inch by inch. You'll be driven insane by the agony long before you die."
Phoenix rubbed the underside of her beak thoughtfully. "Ah, the promise of revenge is the sweetest fuel for smouldering hearts."
Vile kicked Flame Stag, whose giggles were severed by a pain-filled gasp. "On your hoofs, you miserable hunk of venison. All of you, come with me. No more whining about bad luck and journals gone. It's time to show a little resourcefulness for once. I've got an idea."
Vile was back in charge, there was no doubt about it, even if his patchy armour moved in mysterious ways when he strode out of the room -- and the lone peanut still clattered in his chest cavity. Flame Stag stuffed his fists into his mouth to keep from laughing again. His side still stung badly.
Iris looked out the west window of the Medical Unit. It offered a spectacular view of the void. The Skeleton Grasslands stretched endlessly, dark blue waves of abnormal grass rippling like shadows of passing spectres. Maverick Hunter HQ stood sentry at the edge of nothing, keeping the city safe from what they feared; the wild, the unknown with its waning moon setting over the grasslands, an alien's slit eye looking away from a world it's studied far too long.
A hospital bed was shoved up against the window. When Genesis grew tired of a patient, he parked them there. He began the practise after he received complaints from some of the humans that staring out that particular window made them feel a little funny in the head and drove them to get up and back to work.
Jackdaw was lying on the bed now. She didn't seem to mind.
Iris looked at her. She didn't call Jackdaw a friend out loud, but she somehow felt drawn to the soft-spoken girl. Outcasts unite, hourrah. "How are you feeling, Jackdaw?"
"Mm." Jackdaw was curled up on her side. She looked even worse than she had on her arrival. Her frame was still too skinny, her features were too pale, and her eyes were dull. Even her odd limp hadn't healed. Last time Iris inspected the gimpy ankle (she couldn't figure out what had caused the problem in the first place, and Jackdaw couldn't remember), she silently marvelled at how slim the newcomer's legs and feet were. It wasn't necessarily becoming.
"You haven't eaten all day, Jackdaw."
"Not hungry." The words crawled like a traffic jam.
"Has Genesis checked you out?"
"Yes," Jackdaw insisted, but Iris caught the pause before she spoke. "Iris, don't. I don't want a parade about this."
But Iris didn't hear; she'd gone to fetch Genesis. Her old confidence was coming back, and it pleased Genesis when she showed initiative. "The road to recovery," he called it and saddled her with extra tasks these days, which she performed well.
The fox was at his desk, and Iris caught him just as he ripped a hunk out of a tuna fish sandwich. He looked at her, a bit of crust dangling from the side of his snout. "Hmfurrph?"
Iris frowned at the shower of crumbs falling onto Genesis' paperwork. It wasn't like Genesis to be so sloppy. "Jackdaw hasn't been well all day. Would you take a look at her?"
The medic crammed the rest of his late-night snack into his mouth and swallowed it in one gulp. "Ahh, that's goodness. Jackdaw, eh? What're you trying to do, screw up her probation?"
"Of course not."
"If she wants to lie in here, that's fine. But if I have to check her out, it'll be on her report. If that happens too much in the next three months, she could be out of here."
"Oh ... " Iris raised her hand to her mouth. "I forgot about that. I didn't mean ... "
Genesis walked into the washroom. "It's all right," he called over the steamy hiss of the sink. Iris could hear splashing; he was washing his hands. "I guess I shouldn't expect you to be at 100% just yet, even if you have been showing a lot of improvement. Work on that common sense of yours and I'll take a quick look at Jackdaw and leave the report this time." He exited shaking off his paws and a few stray droplets hit Iris on her face and startled her.
"Sorry," Genesis cackled and walked over to Jackdaw's bed. "How're you feeling, 'daw?"
The girl craned her neck around to look at Genesis without unfurling. " 'Daw?"
"Answer the question." Genesis said and took her wrist in one paw. "Well, your heartbeat's a little rapid, nothing serious. Will you uncurl already? I don't have a license to practise on armadillos."
Jackdaw complied and after a bit more vague prodding, Genesis stepped back and shrugged. Jackdaw closed her eyes and turned away from the fox and Iris once again.
Iris looked up at her boss. "Genesis?"
"Let her sleep." Genesis drew the curtains around Jackdaw's bed. "It's exhaustion, pretty severe at that. I don't know what would cause it; she wasn't in training today and even on days when they drive her like a workhorse, she doesn't end up like this. I guess I'll give her a vitamin shot and see how she is in the morning."
Iris stared ahead but couldn't see through the opaque curtain. "I hope she's not coming down with something."
"I don't think she is."
"Well," Iris said, "Thanks for not reporting this. I didn't mean to get her into any trouble."
Genesis waved it off. "If she gets any worse, I might have to. Still, many humans join the Hunters in the first place because they have histories they want to get away from. Unless it's necessary, I don't like to start up a new scroll for them to angst over. I just want to help them however I can and then we can all get on with our lives."
A low groan rose up from the corner behind Genesis and Iris. "Going on like a bloody virgin martyr," Tess rasped in a sleepy voice. "Talk a little louder you wretched animal, I don't think they can quite hear you in the Garage." The plastic-covered mattress under the girl crinkled as she rolled over. "Thanks for waking me up."
Genesis smiled at her. "Anytime, my angel."
Tess hauled herself into a sitting position and then drooped at the edge of her cot, her hair hanging in her face. "I need to get some fresh air."
"It's one in the morning."
Genesis threw his head back and let his tongue loll out of the side of his mouth. "Fine, whatever," he gave. "But you're not going alone at this hour. Iris, help Tess into her robe and take her for a short walkies around the grounds."
"On second thought--" Tess began.
"No no, you made this great big fuss about going outside. Run along and take Iris with you."
Iris didn't miss the dirty look Tess stabbed Genesis with, but she bottled up her hurt behind her tight line of a mouth and reached for the laconic blue robe hanging by Tess' bed. "Let's go, Mrs Ewell." Since Celeste and Tess had rebuked her for wanting to see Paul, Iris never talked to Tess unless it was necessary; and when she had to talk, her formalities were washed in ice water.
But while Iris helped Tess get dressed, she couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt. Of course Tess hates you. You tried to grab her baby. You've been acting like a weirdo since you were re-activated. Colonel's gone. Iris' soul shuddered. Deal with it.
Tess took a step and stumbled a bit. Genesis initially believed she was recovering well from the birth, but lately her dulled spirit and tired body were singing other songs. Iris wordlessly steadied her. I know Tess has a right to be mad at me. But I couldn't help myself. I keep having that dream ...
Iris shut her eyes and clenched her jaw, banging a lid down on her memories.
"Something wrong?" Tess looked back at her.
"Well, let's get this over with, then."
Crickets chirred in the dark grass, one of Iris' most favourite sounds in the world. The air was humid and still, and the nurse walked beside Tess along the perimeter of the building. Streetlamps washed their path in soft white light. Tess breathed deeply and looked better than she had indoors, although Iris knew the young woman would never share her feelings out loud. She answered anyway. "It is a nice night."
"Hm." Tess found something interesting to look at on the lawn.
Iris tested the waters once more. "I like summer nights. Don't you?"
"I like reploids in bad Rainbow-Brite dresses who shut up."
Iris sighed deeply through her nose and dropped her head, her hands folded in front of her as she quietly walked on.
"Oh Iris." Tess heaved a sigh of her own. "I'm sorry. That was harsh of me. I haven't been feeling well."
"It's okay," Iris said, eager to seize the moment. "I'm the one who should be apologising to you."
"The time I tried to take Paul from you."
"Oh." Tess squirmed. "Yeah, that was kind of creepy."
"I haven't been the same since Colonel died," Iris said, and the before she could stop herself: "I keep having this dream."
"Yeah, I guess I'd go a little crazy if I lost Josh," Tess replied, ignoring Iris' last sentence.
"It's ... " Iris stopped, and Tess was forced to stop too and watch as the pretty reploid buried her face in her hands.
"Iris, are you all right?"
"I can't stand it," Iris suddenly wailed, throwing her arms down to her sides. "I want a family!"
"Oh, Christ." Tess slapped her forehead. "One a.m., Hour of the Loon."
Iris sank to her knees and hid her face again. She could hear Tess mutter an oath behind the sobs that pounded in her head, but she also felt the girl bend down beside her and slip a comforting arm around her shoulders. "Come on Iris. Talk to Auntie Tess."
"Don't make fun of me!"
"I'm not, I'm not." Tess rocked Iris gently. "It's just my way of trying to cheer you up."
Iris withdrew her hands and swallowed her last sobs as she stared up at the black sky. The stars would have nothing to do with the two girls, chased away by the unnatural halos of the streetlamps. "I keep having this dream," she repeated softly. "Zero and I are together. We have children. We're happy."
"I know, I know," Iris spat. "Reploids can't have children. Cruelty."
"I didn't even know reploids had maternal instinct."
"We usually don't," Iris quaked. "I don't know why I'm different. But the dream won't stop coming. It keeps telling me to--" she bit off her words. "Never mind."
"Must've been something that came after your revival and upgrade," Tess mused and went silent as the weight of her words slid back on her. "Iris, I'm sorry for the overall crumbyness of the human race. Some idiot wanted to try something new, I guess. 'Hey Joe, let's see if I can make this one long for a baby she can't have.' 'Sure thing, George! Hey, it works. And she's the one suffering, not us. We rock. Let's go to a hockey game.'"
"I guess it's not Zero's fault that he fell for a human, then," Iris said quietly. A pause. "I hate her," she continued in the same soft voice.
"Don't, Iris," Tess said. But Iris was smiling, crocodile-like.
"I feel much better now, Tess. Thanks for talking to me."
Tess cocked her head dubiously. "Are you sure you feel better, Iris? Maybe you should talk to Genesis or Lifesaver. Maybe they can do something for you."
"I'll be all right. Are you ready to go back?"
Tess stared at her for a long minute. "I just need a few minutes to myself," she said slowly. "I'll be right behind you."
"Okay. See you inside."
The first thing Iris heard when she walked back into the Medical Unit was the voice of Josh over by Paul's cradle.
"Wheee, up goes little Paul!" Josh's words were a little slurred and the faintest hint of whiskey wafted from the direction of the young man. It explained why Josh would choose to visit his son at one thirty in the morning. "Loves his daddy, yes he does. Up he goes again, and--"
There was an audible thump and the baby wailed lustily.
Zero tore around a corner and startled Iris. Zero paid her no mind as he pushed past and ran in Josh's direction. "Did you drop that baby?" He snarled.
"Uh ... no?"
"You mad old bastard, did you just drop your prodigy?"
Iris watched them. The baby in Josh's arms. The reploid she loved. Her fists clenched and she tried to beat down memories of her dream, the children laughing, the sunlight woven in their long golden hair ...
She would have it, she would have her dream. He promised it to her every night it played in her head. There was a small price, of course ...
Iris glanced over again at the baby, who yawned and snuggled in his father's arms while Josh argued with Zero.
"See? Paul's fine! Caught him on the first bounce!"
Iris thought of Tess comforting her that night and she felt a thread of guilt wind around her stomach.
But everything had a price.