A slow smile spread over Asmodeus 12's cracked features. Nytetrayn didn't care for the look.
"So then Nytetrayn," Asmodeus addressed the black mechadrake, "you understand what you're saying is a serious matter."
"But you won't revoke your words."
Nytetrayn steeled himself. "No."
"Well." Asmodeus arched his back slightly. His hands were cupped over his katana hilt, its point planted in the steel catwalk as usual. "Say them once more, please. I want to make sure I heard everything correctly."
Nyte could feel his hair bristle. "You've made a mistake, Asmodeus."
"Right right, I thought you said that. Continue."
"Sending Jody Loy to retrieve Celeste was a bad idea. He hasn't returned or made any effort to contact us. He's failed."
"Mmhm." Asmodeus scratched at his snout. "That might be. Now what is it that you proposed?"
"I want to go up above." Nyte fanned his wings out a little. "I want to do what Jody wasn't able to do. What Torrent failed to do. I want to find Celeste, bring her back to Eden, and make sure she stays."
"And your reasons?"
"Celeste is my girl. She was taken from me when I was young. I have a right to be concerned about her well-being."
"I like that," Asmodeus said amiably, raising a finger. " 'I have a right.' Quite commanding. Please, continue."
Nytetrayn felt like he was wading through a bog of tar. "I plan to take Caillou with me--"
"Caillou." Asmodeus cut the black mechadrake off and was very suddenly holding the point of his katana to Nyte's stomach. "Celeste's half-brother?"
"Yes," Nyte said warily, eyeing the katana while choosing his words.
"He is, as you mentioned, Celeste's half-brother. My girl doesn't remember me, so she might be startled if I approach her. Caillou, on the other hand, is valid bait. He could implore her help on some family matter, and lure her here ... "
"And she'll believe that they're related? They don't even look very much alike."
Nyte subtly placed his paw on the flat of Asmodeus' katana and pushed it down, staring the silver in the face. "They both have Jake's eyes."
"So they do," Asmodeus said flatly, and fell silent. He let the end of his weapon sag to the ground while he stared, almost bewildered, around Eden, the Great Tree, and its buzzing soldiers.
He suddenly threw back his head and laughed heartily. "You think I'm an idiot, Nytetrayn. You don't think I can't smell insurrection all over you and the McTreggor boy?" the old silver mechadrake's katana point was poised at Nyte's stomach again, and its point ground ever-so-slightly into the black's scales. His smile gleamed in the dull light of Eden, a broken, yellow picket fence bordering the dead lawn of a lunatic asylum. "But I'll tell you what. Let's make this sporting. Go on above and find Celeste. Caillou stays down here, however. And if you don't successfully retrieve your girl in a week, the little boy that Jake and Ange conceived beyond the blanket will die. Caillou means nothing to me, really. He's a waste of life who didn't inherit any of his father's remotely useful qualities, but he might be useful as a fox is useful in a hunt. One week. How does that sound?"
Nyte opened his mouth then snapped it shut again.
"You can't pull out now my friend. I've already started timing. Hurry now."
When Nytetrayn returned to Caillou's warren, he found the boy sitting at his table with his arms folded on the top. He looked up when the black mechadrake entered.
"How'd it go? Do we have permission?"
"It went all right," Nytetrayn said nervously, combing his claws through his brown hair. He cleared his throat. "Slight change in plans, though. I'm going alone. Oh yeah, and here's the interesting part: If I'm not back with Celeste in a week, Asmodeus is going to gut you."
"Well, I guess we'd better get ready, and--" Caillou slammed to a halt and gave his head a quick shake. "What?"
Nytetrayn sighed. "We both knew this idea came with risks."
"I figured the worst he could say was 'no.'"
"With Asmodeus, there is no 'no.' There's 'maybe,' 'I'm too drunk to care,' and 'come here 'till I slit your belly open for bothering me.' I'm afraid he sees you as a plaything."
"I'm that expendable, huh?" Caillou said sadly.
Nytetrayn started. He'd been prepared for a whiny complaint by Caillou, and had planned to snap back. But the boy's face was draped with a hangdog expression that Nytetrayn would've recognised as Jake's if he'd ever met the man, and he felt a little guilty.
"I'm sorry, Caillou."
Caillou looked down at the table. "I can't help what my mother's done. All I know is that she was a good woman."
Once again, Nytetrayn prepared to nip at Caillou's self-pity, but something in the boy's voice forbade it. Caillou wasn't thinking about pity. The boy had a fire in his soul and it was slowly gathering strength and flickering behind his strange blue eyes. He looked up. "You go, Nytetrayn. Go get my sister and bring her back here. If we can't make Eden fall from the outside, it'll die on the inside."
"Well..." Nyte was at a loss for words. He shrugged. "Sure."
"I've got a job to do."
Genesis protected his files with a password when he left the room, but she'd watched him type it often enough.
Her fingers flew over the keyboard, warming up to their work from her past life.
The mouse arrow zipped over the screen.
The screen glared like a monster's eye against the darkness in the room.
"And they treat me like I'm crazy."
She scanned the file once more.
"Monroe ... has Monroe seen all this?"
She leaned back in Genesis' chair like she always belonged in it, and she smiled prettily. "When Genesis asked me to retrieve her file after she came in with her shoulder hurt, I thought something seemed strange about the data. I was right." She looked up at the dark ceiling and whispered, "It's not your fault, Zero. I'll get rid of the daft little tramp and break her hold over you. We'll be together forever, as we were meant to be." Iris stared intently at Genesis' computer with Celeste's file. "If not one way..."
Iris fingered a weighty box beside her. "100 Scalpel Blades" read easily on its top, even in the dim light.
There was other business to attend to, too. She'd overheard Josh talking to Genesis. Tess and Paul were strong enough now to move off-base sometime in the next few days. The intensity of her dreams had doubled since hearing it. Such lovely dreams ... she couldn't understand why she started to quake uncomfortably at the thought of going to bed. Things were going to be all right soon. But she had to act fast. Her time was almost up.
Asmodeus evidently trusted Atticus again, because it was the big copper mechadrake who jabbed his crossbow into Nyte's back as he guided him up the Great Tree. They passed several warrens inhabited by warriors who were off duty, and they sat beside their rooms or leaned against the catwalk railings and rubbernecked at the two mechadrakes briefly before returning to their business of nothing. Nyte glanced at some of them out of the corner of his eye and wondered if they deserved to die. Oh well, business was business.
At length, the duo came to a long ladder near the very top of the Tree. Atticus grunted and pointed up it with his crossbow.
"Yeah yeah," Nytetrayn mumbled and started the ascent. The rungs were close together, not crafted for big reploid feet. Atticus had no hope of being able to climb with his fused-flipper fingers, but he watched from below.
Nyte crested the top of the ladder, which ended at a small opening in the wall. He squirmed through the cubbyhole and dropped a little into a room that was about the size of a standard, bare warren. There was a small door in the wall opposite from Nytetrayn, and a little silver mechadrake sat cross-legged beside it with his katana in his lap. He glanced up at the black with almond-shaped eyes.
"On your way then, Nytetrayn?"
"Do I have a choice?"
"How does it feel to be above ground?"
Nytetrayn glanced around at the small room. "Am I above ground?"
"You are. There are lots of little ins and outs to Eden." the silver indicated the door he guarded with his katana. "This is one of them. You'll find yourself in a mining town that dates way back to the Robot Rebellions. The people live in hiding here, but the leader went through an experience that didn't cotton her to robots or reploids, so she was more than willing to let us put an entrance here."
"Must be an easy door to guard from outsiders," Nytetrayn mumbled thoughtfully. "I've never heard of you or this entrance, which means you have a good record."
The silver snorted. "I just do my job well. I'm no Hawkmoon 269. On your way now."
He pushed open the wooden door, which squealed unhappily. Nytetrayn stepped through, and the door rolled quickly shut again behind him. The black mechadrake raised his snout and sniffed the air while glancing about. He was in a house, an old, musty house. He smelled mould and dust and under it all lay faint, cold traces of old lives ... generations come and gone, babies born, grandfathers dead. There was broken, dust-fuzzed furniture pushed into the cobwebby corners and a small window filtered in yellowish-grey sunlight. Nytetrayn looked at that alien slab for a long time. Sunlight.
Nytetrayn glanced behind him again and noticed how the door he'd stepped through blended in nicely with the dark walls. He was a little amazed at how that one small door led to something as massive as Eden. He'd always harboured a pleasure for secret passages and doors, especially when the ordinary was actually a path to the fantastic.
There was a taller, more obvious door on the wall opposite to Eden's entrance. Nytetrayn flicked his wings a little and opened it.
Light. As it stabbed him in the eyes and caused him to cringe with a weak snarl, a flash of a memory singed Nyte's brain. He once whipped up a device to emulate sunlight and he'd pointed it directly in Caillou's eyes. The boy hadn't reacted well, and although Nyterayn still thought he'd fussed entirely too much over a small matter, he was beginning to understand his pain. Nytetrayn had never surfaced before. He was used to artificial light, but the raw, blazing power of the sun was something else entirely. He was a reploid, though, and adjusted quickly to his new environment. The black spots were already fading.
Nyte gave his eyes a final rub. "So I guess my theory was right."
"Well, we haven't seen any of you in quite a while."
He turned sharply towards the hail, which was practically at his elbow. He saw the owner of the voice, and his alarm drained almost immediately. Beside him, smiling, was a middle-aged woman with a tattered blue cloak draped over her skinny shoulders. Her face was freckled by the sun and her eyes were pale. Her light hair followed a simple straight line from the top of her head down to the middle of her neck, no deviants and no rebels. She was a woman from the waist up, but below, she was a child. She sat on a frayed wicker chair that was grey with age, and Nyte could see that her legs were twisted and dwarfed.
Suddenly, there was a stout human at her side, and he glared at Nytetrayn.
"It's all right," the woman said to her guard. "He won't hurt me. He's with them. What's your name, milord?"
A village. Broken, grown over, peppered with a few scraggly looking humans hunched in the shadows of their past lives, looking mistrustfully at him. In the distance, mountains like dragon's teeth. Nytetrayn could smell blood. The village stank of it. "I'm Nytetrayn."
"My name's Eli. You're welcome here in Ciam." She smiled sadly. "Of course, you can probably see that there's not much here to offer you."
The mechadrake gazed around wonderingly. "What ... happened?"
"So no one in Eden told you?"
"That's good," Eli's smile brightened a little, and her teeth were straight and white. "The less who know about us, the better, I figure."
"I suppose you're right."
A shadow crossed Eli's thin face, and the change was so sudden and dramatic, it startled Nytetrayn a little. O Brave New World. "I'll tell you what happened, Sir. Ciam was once a prosperous little mining village. Lots of ore in the mountains. We weren't authorised by the Government to live here, but no one bothered us and we bothered no one in turn. The one winter morning a little over 35 years ago, two demons visited us. One was black and gold, and the other was blood red. I don't know who they were. I don't know what they wanted. They never gave us an explanation, but they ripped the town apart and made sport of it. They--"
Eli's words started to run together and she gave a great cough as if they'd slid back down her throat and into her lungs. The stout man gently rubbed her back. "Maybe you oughta go inside," he said, but Eli waved him away while she put her other hand over another spray of hacking. "I'll be fine, Dean."
"I can be on my way if I'm any trouble," Nyte said uncomfortably.
Eli shook her head. "No, I'm all right. The humid air gets to me. The devils -- they were robots, or at least the black one was. The red one ... I don't know ... he had something in his eyes that was beyond mechanical. I was a little girl at the time and my memory of the event isn't so good, but he stood over me at one point and I still have nightmares of him just towering over me like some great bird about to swallow me whole ... he smiled at me, but it was like a hyena's smile, you know? He cupped my chin under his hand, really gentle-like, and the smell on him, my God ... his hands were covered in blood. So was his hair. He had the most beautiful blonde ponytail, and it was streaked red with the stuff. I was just a little girl like I said, but in that one instant, my thoughts became grown-up ... I wondered just whose blood covered those hands. Which of my neighbours were already killed? I couldn't see my friend Sally in the confusion ... was she dead too, just a smear on those hands? What about my mother, my father?
"Then I saw my mother behind the animal, and I must've shifted my eyes because the robot looked over his shoulder and saw her, too. He figured out everything immediately, the bastard, and let go of me. 'Go on,' he says, and stepped aside. 'Run to your mother.' He didn't need to give me that offer twice and I just jumped to my feet and ran. But then he caught me under the arms, and I could feel myself flying through the air and falling to the ground like a comet. And when I hit, my legs splintered.
Nytetrayn winced unconsciously.
Eli chuckled a little despite the horrid recollection, and looked down at her twig-like legs. "No, they never were the same again. I can't remember much else. I blacked out and when I woke up, I remember I was lying on my stomach, which was numb with cold, but my back was burning hot. The village was on fire. Destroyed. Dead bodies everywhere, men women and children. My mother had been smashed to almost a pulp. I never found my father. But there were a few survivors besides me. We've all just lived here since."
"Here?" Nytetrayn said when he could speak again. He looked around. "You'll poison yourselves with bad memories. Didn't you ever get in contact with authorities? Try to move on with your lives? Tell them there were two lethal robots on the loose?"
"Some of the people here didn't have a good history with the authorities," Eli said in a low voice.
"Ah," Nyte said, understanding. "Life on the lam, eh?"
"Not me. I was born here. My parents ... well, I think they had separate 'histories' before they ran and met each other here. But they were good people."
Eli reached up for her shoulders and pulled her blue cloak tighter around her. She stared straight ahead at a small group of humans who sat with their backs against one of the broken houses. Among them was Dean. The large man flicked the stub of a cigarette onto the ground and lifted the toe of his boot a little to grind it to splinters before he turned his hawklike eyes back on Eli. "Dean and some of the older folks here believe those robots came 'cause their pasts caught up with them," Eli said. "They're pretty quiet ... I guess they think a lot about the children who died on their account. Some of them ran away from the bad memories, but some have also stayed to take care of me and other kids who were injured in the attack."
"I doubt those robots attacked because of the nature of the people who lived here," Nytetrayn said slowly, staring with Eli at the humans in the shadows. "It was probably, as you mentioned before, sport."
Eli shifted the wind of the conversation. "Don't worry much about us. The Inheritors make sure we're all right."
"I would think they'd at least rebuild this place for you, get you some medical attention for your legs."
Eli shrugged. "I just like their agenda. Get rid of robots and those 'reploid' things. I've seen a reploid or two ... sometimes they come by and look around, but it's easy enough to hide. They have the same eyes as that red monster who attacked me. Just last April there was a small platoon of them led by a human girl. I don't know what they wanted. They left us alone, which is good. We were hiding in that house you came out of, and Dean was like a wall between me and the door. I'm sure he would've flown at anything that came through it and ripped it apart with his bare hands."
"You've definitely had a bad experience," Nytetrayn nodded. "You think that getting rid of robots and reploids and the like will cure the world of its ills?"
"I don't know about the world and its ills. All I know is that I still have dreams about my mother's face being gone, and of her blood steaming in the snow." Eli's tone became softer. "Maybe you should be on your way, milord. I've kept you here long enough with my chatter."
"Yeah, I've got something to do," Nyte said, grimly recalling his challenge. "Do you know anything about the Maverick Hunters or their Headquarters?"
"Never heard of 'em. We don't get much contact from the outside world, and the people in Eden don't tell us a whole bunch."
"Are there any cities nearabouts?"
"Fairly large one that I know of about 130 clicks north of here. Few small towns in between."
"As good a place to start as any, I guess," Nyte nodded. "So long Eli. Nice talking to you. Are you sure you don't want me to ... help you somehow?"
Eli's smile was kindly again. "How do you figure to help me?"
"I don't know. I wish I could do something."
"You're the first out of Eden to offer. Thank you, but we've been getting by all right for now. We'll keep trudging. I have been feeling out of sorts lately, though. Don't tell Dean, he'll go orangutan with worry. But it's not so much me as it is the air around me ... like things are going to go bad soon, you know?"
"I think so," Nyte said softly. "Take care." They looked at each other for several seconds before the black mechadrake slowly turned and started north into the sprawling, empty grassland. he could feel Dean's eyes bore into his back until the last crumbling house was behind him.
"You're up late."
X surfaced from his book and glanced up. Celeste looked down at him with a cup of coffee in her hand. The HQ's mess hall was empty at this hour. "So I am. So are you."
"Mind if I sit up with you, fellow nighthawk?"
"It's a free country," X said, bending back over his book. "Thanks to us."
Celeste elbowed X's helmet out of the way and took a sip of coffee. She sat very still except when she raised her arm for another sip.
She reminded X of a lark drinking on the edge of a birdbath. He felt a little nervous and couldn't concentrate. "Why are you up?"
"Shoulder's bothering me some."
"Coffee's an excellent drink to have before bed."
"Ha ha. Why do you read in the mess hall? You have a room."
"I don't know. I like to read in here. Always have." He looked at her hopefully. "Do you have any favourite books?"
"I don't read much."
"Oh." X was a little disappointed. "If your shoulder is bothering you, maybe Genesis can help."
Celeste shrugged and looked down into her coffee. "Maybe I'll go in a few minutes. I just want to sit here for now. Go on with your book."
X did, but he found himself re-reading the same paragraph over and over. His eyes consumed the words, but his mind wasn't processing them. He felt distracted.
"You say something?"
X looked up. "No," he said a little more irritably than he meant to. "I didn't say anything."
Celeste frowned. "I thought you said my name."
"Well, someone did."
"You should really get some sleep," X suggested. "You look like you have a sleep debt you wouldn't be able to catch up to if you lived to be 200."
Celeste put down her cup of coffee. "I'll go see Genesis right now. Maybe he can hit me over the head with a mallet or something and I won't have to worry about not sleeping."
Damn it. I'm not getting through to her.
Nytetrayn cut himself off from Celeste and continued to trudge north, doused in the silver blue light of the sickle moon. Nytetrayn glanced at his shadow on the right and it went on forever, black and silent. It made him feel grand.
Why am I walking, anyway?
Eden never provided him ample room to spread his wings, so the mechadrake was used to life on the hoof. He hesitantly unfurled his wings and the gentle, warm wind batted them playfully, but he curled them around his body instead. He wasn't in any great rush to get anywhere; he had no idea how he was going to nab Celeste. She wouldn't respond to his mindspeak. Maybe he needed to be closer? It'd been a long time since he'd talked to her. He was out of practise.
I've got a time limit. Caillou.
Why did he care so much about Caillou? When he'd said he'd turn the boy over to lift any suspicion off himself, he'd meant it. But it seemed Nytetrayn admired the way Caillou put a stony face up against Eden. It was difficult for him. It'd be one matter if he only had to endure heckling; as it was, the Inheritors completely ignored his existence, which was far, far worse. If only he didn't look so unusual! Those blue eyes against his dark skin ... Nytetrayn recalled the times he'd sat in with some of Eden's other Mechadrakes while they chatted about past events (no dragon can resist gossip), including what had occurred between Jake and Ange. Just another chapter in Eden's long history, and the forgotten sequel moped around Eden itself, in the flesh. It wasn't as if forbidden storybook love was a new thing in the underground dwelling; it was just that in past occurrences, Asmodeus had immediately slammed the storybook chapter shut directly on the soft spot of any unwanted products. Caillou was different because he had been allowed to live (for now), although for all Eden cared about him, he may as well be in the cold ground.
Nytetrayn stood still and let the long, dry grass prick at his ankles as it rolled like a gold wave in the wind. He wanted to save Caillou because he simply wanted to make Asmodeus regret ever letting the boy live. He wanted Asmodeus to be humiliated through defeat by his own mistake.
Still a very self-serving reason to save the young McTreggor, and Nytetrayn felt a little relieved at that. Thought I was going soft.
But then he remembered sitting up with the boy at all hours of the night, helping him back to his room after Atticus had slashed his leg open with his tusk, telling him about his dad and his sister while trying to get the blood running back into his leg again ... and the look in his eyes when he found out that his life depended on Nytetrayn.
Of course he thinks he's expendable. I never gave him much reason to think otherwise. And now I've got my freedom, but he's got a stay of execution that's only valid if I go back for him in a week. God, I'd be scared green if I were him, too.
Except Caillou wasn't scared. He was angry, he was lonely, he was slowly being pushed to the edge, but he wasn't scared.
Nytetrayn shrugged and shuffled on.
The Medical Unit was dark, except for a thin stripe of light that speared from the open washroom door and lay itself across the floor and ran up Genesis' desk. Celeste looked at the desk; it was empty, but the computer monitor on top of it was on and it bathed the back of Gen's chair with a radiant glow. Celeste frowned. If the lights were off, Genesis wasn't here. She put her hand against the wall and listened to the deep breathing of the patients and the sound of cloth rubbing together as some rolled over in their sleep and sighed.
Genesis isn't here, she told herself again, but moved in a few steps deeper.
Genesis isn't here! something inside her insisted, but she ran her hand along the wall as she traveled further. Her heartbeat quickened, her instincts were aroused. Something was wrong.
In the dark, she heard baby Paul start to fuss, and a voice that wasn't Tess' implored him gently to calm down. She turned the corner into the main ward, and there was Iris standing in a patch of moonlight, cradling Paul. The baby was wrapped in a pink blanket and it looked like --
God, is Iris about to steal him?
Celeste cleared her throat.
Iris looked up and jumped. "Celeste!" she said a little louder than she obviously meant to, because she stole a quick glance at Tess. But Tess just rolled over and kept snoring away.
Iris' surprise then thawed into a smile. A glad smile. She held Paul against her shoulder, joggling him a little. Paul calmed down again and burbled to himself. The Yin of the most powerful fighting machine ever created looked again at Celeste and her eyes glittered in the barren light of the moon.
"Well, Celeste," she said quietly, her smile never wavering. "Do you still believe that reploids from beyond the grave shouldn't go near children?"
"What're you up to, Iris?" Celeste's hand moved on its own to her lightsabre sheath and twitched uncomfortably when it found no hilt strapped to her regular citizen's garb of denim shorts and a white T-shirt.
Iris didn't miss the movement. Her body swivelled to put Paul back in his crib, but her eyes didn't leave Celeste's. "The baby was crying. I was just calming him down so that Tess could keep sleeping. She needs rest."
"I've been in here for a few minutes, and I didn't hear Paul cry. Didn't Tess tell you to stay away from him?"
Iris' eyes hardened. She didn't stop smiling. She took a step closer to Celeste.
"...lovely in the moonlight. I can see why you hold a spell over him."
Celeste took a step back, but her body tensed. "...Iris?"
"But by the time I'm finished, he won't even be able to stand looking at you."
Waist-length brown hair, silver moonlight, and aqua-green surgical scrubs blended into one discordant comet as Iris flew at Celeste.