Chapter 2: Badger in the Bar
"Well miss, what do you make of it?"
Celeste McTreggor, bedraggled and smeared with the sweat and dirt of her two month scouting mission, scratched her tangled head in bewilderment. She and her small band of Hunters were surrounded by blackened, broken bones of old houses that were now fuzzy with a thick glaze of moss and roped down by tangles of huge weeds. Here and there, a few species of domestic flowers bloomed, waiting faithfully every year for their owners to return and tend to them again. Time-eaten steel pails and digging tools were strewn across the dead grass. The mountains loomed blue behind the ghostly scene.
"Looks like it used to be a mining settlement or something," the Huntress said, hitching her hefty supply sack up unconsciously. "But it's ages old. Probably unauthorized, too. I'd love to know what happened here. Who kicked whose ass and all. Jody, any idea what our exact location is?"
A young human male stepped up. Jody was a newcomer to MHHQ and the scouting mission was his first get-out. He'd proven himself an excellent fighter and an even better tracker. He was a quiet, catlike sort, twitchy-tailed, with chewed up silvery hair that he kept out of his face in a crude ponytail. He always insisted on wearing an alien-looking black leather vest, now sweat-stained and dirt-dusted, over his regular drab Hunter garb.
"I'd say we're about 90 miles southwest of the city, in the more habitable areas of the Grasslands, miss...this little settlement here was definitely pre-World War."
"Habitable. That's good to hear," Celeste grunted as she lifted her plastered bangs. Decades ago, World War III blasted through the air and left some lovely fallout. With the help of robots, humans guiltily rebuilt wherever uncontaminated land could be found. This resulted in some very compact and bustling cities which were still surrounded by sadly burned, lifeless plains called Skeleton Grasslands.
The Huntress looked back at the wounded settlement and frowned. There was an odd air to this place, a familiar scent hung over it. It was quiet, uneasy, it stank of slaughter and cold murder. An icy dread slithered through Celeste's guts. This ain't right.
"Jody, mark this place," she said slowly. "I'm sure Cain'll be interested in exploring it sometime, you know how that man holds his archaeology next to his booze and girly magazines. Everyone else, let's get ready to go home. Two months wandering out here and I've had my fill!"
Happy chatter lit up the air as Celeste's small platoon of scouters packed their stuff up and headed to the long line of Landchaser Cycles waiting patiently in the hot sun.
The day darkened, the air turned black and refreshed itself, and the stars woke up to do their blazing nightshift. A tall sandy-haired human male named Jackal enjoyed the crisp air as it invited itself into MHHQ's garage with small puffs.
The square man was the caretaker of the Hunters' vehicles, including patient rows of Land and Sea Chasers, and the odd mobile suit or two. Each complex machine was kept immaculate, polished with a loving hand and a careful eye. Every single transport was christened with all seriousness, and as individuals. Their names glistened on their metallic flanks.
Bathing in the night air and reveling in the heavy smell of oil and diesel, Jackal now caressed his own baby, Lady Macbeth, with a buffering cloth. Lady Macbeth was a fine specimen of an Ocelot-class Landchaser, gold and black, sleek and trim, free and spirited as a wild horse. And she was everything to Jackal.
"Yes my girl, it's nighttime. You rest now. I'll see you in the morning."
Turning away from his life, Jackal frowned slightly as he arched his back. He wanted to close the garage and get to bed.but he couldn't close up until Celeste and her scouting pack arrived. They were due later that night. The mechanic thumped himself into his chair, which was arranged in his favourite spot.right beside the huge garage door, which still yawned open, waiting for Celeste's return. Jackal let the cool air hug him. He smiled and started to nod off.
Jackal twitched his ears as a faint hum reached him. He opened one eye. The hum grew into a low whine, then grew into an agonized shriek as it got closer to the garage, a shriek from a Landchaser engine in pain. Jackal's heart leapt and adrinaline pumped into every vein in his body as he heard the cry. He grabbed the sides of his chair and peeked around the door to see Celeste's party slicing through the keen air and dewy grass on their Chasers, laughing like red demons on hell steeds. The Landchaser being tormented was Tiamat, Ozzie's mount. Ozzie was the commander of the Night Vipers, a Hunting unit made up primarily of rookie humans. The boyish fellow blasted towards the open door of the garage and showed no signs of slowing down, much to Jackal's horror.
Tiamat came screaming into the garage. Ozzie, fool that he was, leapt off the speeding Landchaser upon entry, somehow without killing himself. The powerful machine cascaded head first into Lady Macbeth, pinning the latter's mangled corpse onto the far wall. The sound was a glorious monstrosity, that of Godzilla fighting with a cement mixer.
Ozzie picked himself up from the floor and punched the air with a fist. "SMASH! RAPE! The last beautiful free soul on this planet!"
Jackal leaped to his feet, upsetting his chair. "You damn whore, I'll kill ya!"
The rest of the crew did a considerably better job of parking their vehicles. Celeste watched them sleepily as she shut down her own pal, Blackfox. She was too tired to do anything about Jackal, who seized Ozzie by his black mop of hair and threw him into the wall, screaming something about suffering the same fate as his beloved. Instead, the Huntress dismounted and gave her dusty helmet to one of Jackal's garage monkeys, a small reploid named Bottle.
"How did the scouting mission go, miss McTreggor?"
"'twas a complete waste of time, Bottle me lad."
"Didn't find anything, eh?"
"No. Repliforce seems washed up for good."
Bottle played nervously with Celeste's elaborately-painted helmet. "Um, not completely true, miss. A trace of Repliforce DOES remain."
Celeste stopped. "You're kidding?"
"No miss. Bill's scouting party came in a day earlier. And they found a needle in a haystack some 30 miles west of here."
Zero tugged on his ponytail, gawking at the object on the desk before him. "I don't believe this."
X scratched behind his neck as he likewise regarded the relic. "Yesssss. Now THAT'S interesting."
Cain diligently picked up the object between his thumb and forefinger. It was a chip, hardly bigger than his pinky fingernail. "If you can say nothing else, you gotta admit that Iris here has lost some weight!" Cain laughed alone until the utter lameness of his joke spread slowly through his system and finally hit his brain like a poison. His laughter slowed as reality dawned.
"Oh my...that's a pretty godawful joke on my part, eh? First sign that I'm about ready for the Old Fart pasture. Anyway.yep, this here is Iris' life force, her control chip."
For once in his life, Zero's disbelief in what he was seeing staved off his desire to throw Cain's head up into the ceiling, a desire he experienced every time the old Doctor told a bad joke. He turned to Bill, who stood at his left arm, sweating profusely.
"Billy Boy, where'd you find the chip?"
Bill didn't look too good as of late. Time had been unkind to the lackluster Hunter, ripping out his hair, carving a few wrinkles here and there, fitting him with new rolls of fat. At his last physical, Genesis loudly declared that the time was just right for a 'When Is Bill Gonna Eat One Too Many BLT's?' pool.
Bill passed a hand over his glistening brow. "There was some wreckage of the Final Weapon about 30 miles west of the city," he puffed. "My crew brought back some other bits and pieces that might be of interest, but we thought you oughta see that chip for yourself, sir. You'll know what to do with it."
Zero squinted. "How do you know it's Iris specifically?"
Cain grinned. "Well, if you look real close, you can see the chip has frilly little laces all around its edge, and you can catch a whiff of old perfume wafting from it now and then. Oh, don't give me that look Zero. I ran a diagnosis the second I got the chip. I'm proud to admit that I'm a senile, drunken old fool 99.8% of my waking hours, but I still do my work damn well. And now that we have her chip, we can revive Iris. Isn't that nice?"
X now scratched at his ear. "Well. I don't rightly know."
Zero hit himself in the head with his fist. "Maaaaan...Cain, don't do this."
"Hm? Whateverfor not? Don't you want to see your little friend again, Zero?"
Zero gently took the old doctor by his shoulders and slowly led him to his chair behind his desk as if he were a sick child. The Hunter pushed down. "Sit, Cain. Here, have a nice drink and I'll try to explain this to you. Iris was Zero's friend. Iris followed Zero like a puppy dog. Zero killed Iris' brother. Iris didn't like Zero anymore. Iris tried to flatten Zero with a big Gargoyle mech. If Iris is revived, there will be major tension between Zero and Iris. Tension that no good can be born of. Do we understand?"
"Oh my yes." Cain slowly hauled himself from his chair using the waist of Zero's jeans as an aid. He poured the rest of his glass of scotch down the Hunter's pants as he did so. Zero just kind of stared at the wet spot that blossomed slowly on the obvious area.
"Now let ME tell YOU a story, friend! It's all about the time a charming fellow named Zero the Hun blew himself up during the first Maverick War. Bits of his stinking carcass flew from here to Ireland. But there was this real nifty doctor by the name of James Cain who decided to be a good fellow and glue him back together. Despite the fact that the job took weeks, and he froze his ass off that winter because he'd forgotten to pay the utility bill for the lab while he was absorbed in his work, Cain was smiling at the end of his trial. Yes, he even smiled when this nasty Zero demon woke up as a thankless screaming mess who couldn't remember anything and didn't make an EFFORT to do so, thus badly hurting the feelings of his two best friends, X and the fair maiden Celeste."
X, who was leaning against the doorframe, turned to his friend and grinned. "Yeah, you jerk."
"Make not a sound and don't look me too long," Zero grumbled as he fanned the front of his pants, attempting to dry them.
Cain brightly held up one finger. "Ah! But this story has a sequel! See, evil Maverick types were threatening the city not long after the third Maverick War. X and Zero the Evil took off after the threat in the good Doctor Cain's new toy that he'd built specifically for them, The Gryphon. Zero decided he couldn't play nicely with X and the other Hunters, so he went off on his own to kill the nasty Maverick types. This resulted in Zero being captured, turned Maverick, and shot by X and the others within an inch of his miserable life. But, once again, Cain to the rescue! And, once again, abuse abuse abuse. But why does Cain put up with types like Zero the Yecch? Why does he devote his life to reviving him and his ilk? Why should he revive Iris? There is a very good reason for that." Cain fixed Zero with a glare. "Reploids don't have half the rights in this city that humans have. But they all have one. A reploid who shows no signs of being a Maverick has the God-given (or rather, human-given) right to be revived, provided their main chip can be found. And that is the moral of our story. That, and 'Don't eat expired olives.'"
"But Iris DID go Maverick."
"No Zero, she didn't. Her actions were a result of emotions, not a virus. I doubt very highly that she'd attack you again, unless you provoked her by, say, prodding her with hot irons. She'd leave you well enough alone. Heck, she redeemed herself at the very end, didn't she? I'd bet she'd be thrilled to see you. Give this thing a chance."
Zero hitched his T shirt. "It's a mistake. That's all I'm saying."
"We'll just see about that, my fine young man. Reconstruction will begin tomorrow."
Celeste wasn't one for drinking, but she felt a stinging need for some alcohol when she heard the news about Iris' planned revival. The Huntress' feelings for good old Raspberry Barret were mixed, as mixed as Zero's own. She certainly wasn't too fond of Iris' clingy-ness to the Crimson Wonder, although, to give Zero credit, he had a bottomless bag of polite excuses to get the hell away from her.
But what would it be like now? Iris and Zero hadn't quite parted on friendly terms. Celeste summoned a mental image of a metaphorically feline Iris swatting and hissing endlessly at a doleful Zero. She had to chuckle.
But then there was the other side of the pond, the real fear that Celeste kept squished down in some icky, jealous part of her anatomy. What if Zero grew real affection for Iris? Wouldn't he be happier with his own kind?
In her head, Celeste conjured a picture of Iris, in all her frilly-laced and girlish glory.
Still, Zero's revival after the first Maverick War had been rough. He'd lost a lot of his memory, thus forgetting exactly how close he'd been to Celeste before his destruction. Admittedly, their relationship was almost restored, after years of growing together again, but bits and pieces of the past were still spinning randomly in space, waiting to fall into their old place. Zero had gone as far to propose to her before his destruction.but he seemed to have forgotten his vow. Or, at least, he never mentioned it. And Celeste wasn't going to bring it up, as hard as it was to wait for him sometimes, especially come spring. But hell, part of loving someone, regardless of their species, was learning how to simply put up with them. If Zero wanted the marriage back, he'd mention it.
Celeste jumped ten feet as Zero bounded stealthily up behind her and clamped his cold hands down on her shoulders. "Boo! Two months and no hello? Where ya going?"
"Two months and no shower. I figured it was a good idea to wash first, my good man. I'm going for a drink."
Zero grinned feebly "I guess you heard 'bout the Iris revival thing."
"Through the grapevine."
Zero pushed Celeste's shoulders a bit. "Yeah, I'll go with you on that drink bit. Zoom!"
Salamandastron's Illusion was a small but very inviting pub located at the west end of MHHQ. Constructed of soft red stones and oak, it seemed a friendly enough place, until you caught a glimpse of the mottled green dragon statue that clung, arched, to a ledge above the bar. The snarling serpent was famous for taking on fearful forms in beer-sloshed minds. Proof of that fact lay in its stiff, battle weary body, riddled with chips and dents where terrified drunks had whipped their beer mugs at it in 'self defense.'
Cass, the burly Reploid badger in charge of the watering hole, loved his pub. The only disasters that cause him scurry out from behind the bar were fire, flood, and falling dragons. The handsomely striped creature grinned as Zero and Celeste shuffled in. "Hey kids! Zero, you're in here plenty, I know, but why did you drag a nice girl like Miss McTreggor with you?"
Celeste grinned wanly. "I came of my own accord, believe it or not."
Cass gave the bartop a quick sweep with his big paw. "Well miss, what'll it be?"
"Ah, I don't know. Coffee?"
"Beer it is!" Cass thumped a frosty brown bottle in front of her. He fetched another for Zero, whose bottle gave a cool gasp as he flipped the lid off with ease and guzzled down some. Seeing Celeste hesitate to nurse, he allowed himself some air to reassure her.
"Ah!" Celeste started, although she took small sips compared to her companion's huge gulps.
Cass chuckled. "Given your last name, I'd expect you to be all over that bottle. But when I look at you, I just see your papa, God rest him. Fellow used to hang 'round here all the time and chew my ear off, 'till I had to tell him to buy a damn drink or get the hell out."
Celeste rested her cheek against her fist as she idly ran her finger around the beer bottle's rim. "That's kind of odd.I love my dad, dead or alive, but I really wish he'd had more to say to me."
Cass gave the bar another thoughtful swipe. "Overall, he was a shy man, miss. But he mostly lived a life that probably wouldn't make a good bedtime story for little girls. And, well, begging your pardon, but the relationship between Jake and your ma kind of..."
"Yes, that's the word. Seems they both kind of kept to themselves, eh? He kept quiet at home, if I'm to make an assumption."
Zero set his bottle down. "Yeah, Celeste...I met your mom once. No offense, but she was a bit...flighty. Hell, she scared Genesis."
Celeste set her chin in her arms and grinned sleepily. "Yeah, she could get rather loud. You never could miss her. But I wish I knew a bit more 'bout my dad."
Cass handed another bottle to Zero, unbidden. "Salamandastron's Illusion has been around as long as the Hunters have, miss McTreggor. I've seen and heard a lot about your pa's life. I'm sure he'd like you to hear more about it. Got some time? I'll tell you a bit."
Celeste rolled her head over. "I'd love it. Zero, are you in a rush to get anywhere?"
"Not at all my dear! I'd like to hear this myself. I was a latecomer to the Hunter ranks, so I never got to meet Jake."
"Great!" The badger set away some glasses he was drying before he sat down with the couple. "Let's see now.where to start."
The small training room was still new, almost virgin, unscuffed. The "new car" scent still hung in the dark air, tinged with the smell of reploids...diesel, clean metal, and ozone. It was a room for the elite, untouched by human sweat and blood.
"Hey Sting! When you poke this one, he gets pissed off and starts yelling at you with this kooky Irish accent!"
Laughter that resembled the dangerous hiss of a gas leak wafted from the rafters of the training room. Sting Chameleon swung down from his perch by his barbed tail and lashed the newcomer's arm with a lightning tounge. A heavily accented curse followed as the newcomer jumped back, right into the solid bulk of Flame Mammoth.
"It does, it does have a funny voice, it does!" Chameleon rasped. "And tasty blood, yessss. We have a human in our ranks, we do."
"Huh, a human among the Spartans," Flame Mammoth rumbled. He turned to the young black-haired man who looked small in his crisp new Hunting garb, complete with the blood red cape that marked all the elite fighters of the Spartan unit.
"What makes you so special that you can wallow with the big buffalo, hmmm? Human Hunters like you are supposed to be with the Night Vipers and Regal Dragons."
The newcomer pushed back into the shadows of the nearest corner, nursing his stinging arm. "I used to be with the Regal Dragons," he mumbled. "They sent me here."
"It blushes," Sting gurgled. "It's shy!"
"We don't need tree swingers here." Flame Mammoth's gleaming silver-and-red body closed in on the newcomer in the corner. "I don't advise staying, stranger. You could get...hurt...and we wouldn't want that, would we? Maybe you have offspring? What would they say if their daddy got...oh, I don't know...crushed somehow because he didn't know his limits?"
The newcomer looked at Mammoth, his dark blue eyes locking with the behemoth's beady black peepers as he slowly coiled in his corner, a threatened cobra.
"You won't touch my daughter. No one will."
Mammoth was blinded by a neon green whisk as a lightdagger flashed out of nowhere and stuck him in his upper left arm. The firey pachyderm bellowed, a misty red pain clouding his vision. He blindly bashed at the wall in front of him, eagerly anticipating the crunch and collapse of the lethal human's bones. But he hit solid concrete. The newcomer had slithered behind him somehow. Before Mammoth could grasp what the hell was going on, he was stung again in his back.
The other Spartans got a good look at the show, mouths hanging open. Sting's tongue flickered thoughtfully.
"Hmmm.now I see why he's with us Spartans, yes. He earns his red cape!"
Mammoth was mortified at being outsmarted by a human in front of his subordinates. Finally managing to turn his baggage around, he trumpeted directly in the newcomer's face, who barely flinched. His eyes just jumped sparks like a blue campfire.
"Well! You WILL die now!"
The newcomer's feathers went up as he held out his arms and lowered his head like a maddened bull about to charge. "Come on then, big fellah! Let's see you move that big fat arse!"
The voice rang through the room like the clash of a gong. It had the desired effect too; every Spartan in the room froze in place for a nanosecond before they leapt into formation.
A strikingly tall male Spartan strode into view, a straight-backed reploid with unnerving blank eyes and a chrome dome that would have made Mr. Clean cry in shame. He strode into his unit's view, his own red cape flapping behind him like the wings of a dragon. Sigma, the leader of the Spartans and of the entire Maverick Hunting army.
The Spartans exhaled in unison.
Sigma approached the newcomer, who was in complete awe of his new commander. Sigma placed a firm hand on the human's shoulder, guided him to the front of the room, and turned him around.
"My Comrades, meet Jacob McTreggor, the newest member of our unit."
A forced, mumbled greeting rose from the Spartans like a smog cloud.
"He used to be in the Regal Dragons, under the command of Lady Draco. She advised me of his uncanny love and skill for fighting. I am inclined to agree that he belongs with us, as I'm sure Flame Mammoth does too."
Now a snicker scurried about the elite Hunters. Mammoth's cheeks puffed out.
"Jacob is one of us, a dedicated fighter." Sigma continued, his rising voice grasping everyone again. "There WILL be respect between the Hunters in this unit...even if I have to bash heads to bleed it out of you lot. Dismissed."
Only Jake moved. The minute Sigma released his shoulders, he walked, red-faced, though an alley of Spartans who leered at him and snickered as he headed towards the exit. At that moment, he would've traded his world to be back among the playful lion-cub Regal Dragons, even if it meant enduring Red's gothic war songs.
You're very protective of her, Jake. I guess I'm to blame for that.
Jake's skin shuddered like a horse shedding flies as the all-to-familiar voice filled his head. Away to hell with ya.
You belong back with the Inheritors of Eden, Jake. We had a deal.
There is no deal, Torrent.
You owe me your first born, Jake. You owe me...no, you owe US your daughter.
I told you...leave me alone.
Remember the day she was born? While you were holding her, she cried when you gave me a good mental yelling-at. She has the old McTreggor curse, Jake. And you know what that means.
Stay AWAY from her.
Oh no no no. Mindspeak is such a beautiful gift. Once you're out of the way, I can hunt her down and bring her back to Eden myself! When the gates of communication are open between us, there's no closing them...she'll have to deal with having her mind raped every day for the rest of her life, or at least until she's driven to the point of near-insanity. Much the same way YOU are, Jake my boy. Gradually, day by day, you're losing it.
I'll kill you first.
Good boy! That's what I want to hear! You know where to find me.come and visit whenever you like.
Just keep away from her, you perv.
Who? Your daughter?
"Celeste! Miss! Are you okay?"
"Hmm." Celeste groggily lifted her head and pushed her hair out of her eyes. "What just happened?" she slurred.
"One too many drinks, perhaps?" Cass winked. "No, I was telling you a bit about your dad, and you kind of fell asleep on me. Didn't know I was quite that boring."
"Here." Zero dabbed the corner of Celeste's mouth with a napkin. "News flash: you drool in your sleep. Too bad you missed the story.quite interesting, your dad."
Celeste put her head back down and closed. "Heard every word...poor dad...you had to deal with so much..."
Celeste drifted into a semi-conscious state. Behind her closed eyelids, a blue and green Mechadrake leered at her and lashed his finned tail, laughing. Torrent Leviathan, the silent curse and rival of the McTreggor line whom she'd confronted years back. The psychic sea serpent hadn't invaded Celeste's head since their battle, but she still dreamed of him. Torrent considered himself the shepherd of the McTreggors, many of whom, including Jake and Celeste, were born fighters and were gifted/cursed with a special form of mental communication simply dubbed "Mindspeak."
The Inheritors of Eden want me to collect you for them, Torrent told Celeste when she confronted him. Don't ask what they do...but you'd be very happy there. But even if I don't succeed in bringing you there, they WILL find you, so don't resist.
Needless to say, Celeste constantly watched her back. And kept a difficult secret that came with her blood.
"She does this sometimes," Celeste heard Zero say to Cass from the end of a long tunnel. "Falls asleep, becomes exhausted all of a sudden...personally, I'm worried as to how it'll affect her rank. Genesis is keeping a close eye on her."
"Maybe she's just exhausted from the scouting mission. She needs a good night's sleep."
Zero slowly helped her up. "Easy does it." He and Cass shared a laugh as she slumped against the Hunter. "Man, people are gonna think she's drunk!"
Night was thriving by the time Zero half-carried his friend down the deserted hallways of MHHQ. At one point during the rough journey, Celeste stirred to life again.
"They weren't fair to him, Zero," she murmured. "He had it rough, he had a lot on his mind. Same way I used to...same way I still do. I shouldn't pry into his life. I also have a lot of secrets that I just can't tell anybody."
Zero pressed his cool hand against her warm forehead. "If you won't tell me about them, I can't help you, my dear. On the other hand, I have a few secrets of my own that I think are gonna catch up with me eventually...but we'll be alright as long as we watch each other's backs. It's a much easier trick with two. Now go back to sleep."