Chapter 21: Rats

Baby Paul wasn't a baby anymore. He was all growed up and he was a joke. His skin was stretched over his delicate bones as taut as a deer pelt over a tribal drum. His ragged blonde hair flopped over in his eyes, and he flipped his mop back with a reflexive jerk of his head as he looked at Tess and smiled. His baby teeth were insignificant chips in his swollen gums. Paul opened his arms to his mother.

Tess took a step back. "I can't hug you," she said in a disgusted voice. "You'll break."

Paul slowly dropped his arms and his smile. Behind him, Zero whistled and waved a stick in the air. Paul suddenly brightened and loped after the stick as the red Reploid threw it. Beside Zero, Iris clapped her hands and laughed. The pretty brunette looked at Tess and said something, but her voice sounded like pieces of metal hitting a hard floor.

"Iris -- what?"

Now Zero turned and spoke to Tess: "Oh sweet Christ, she's got a scalpel!"

Tess opened her eyes, yanked rudely from her dream. Celeste's head suddenly slammed down next to her own, and she yelped.

Iris had Celeste pinned to Tess' bed, collaring the Huntress with one of her large, slender hands. Celeste clawed and cursed, her eyes wild like a war-horse's. She had no weapon. Iris wasn't equipped for fighting, but in a brawl between an unarmed human female and a reploid of any make, one side has an obvious advantage.

But Tess didn't panic until she saw Iris' scalpel flash down at Celeste like silver fire.

Celeste jerked her head, and the blade licked her earlobe. Blood flowered black on Tess' white sheets.

"Can't keep that up forever," Iris hissed, lowering herself until her face nearly touched Celeste's. She unsheathed the weapon from the mattress and pressed it against the Huntresses' gunshot pulse. "Slit your miserable throat like your father's. Fitting end. You should thank me."

For years after that night, admiring humans would gather around Tess and ask her what it was like to kick Iris in the head with her bare feet. Tess told them that it was like kicking an iron ball wrapped in foam rubber; there was a definite satisfaction to it, even if your efforts didn't go too far.

All of Tess' strength went into the blow. Iris wasn't hurt, but it was enough to make her stumble sideways a little bit and cry out in surprise. Her grip on Celeste's neck loosened, and the human slithered out of the clutch. She stared at Iris wide-eyed for a second before she turned and ran towards the door, reaching out a hand to grab something off Genesis' desk as she passed. A waterfall of paperwork slid to the floor, and the mess crackled and tore under Iris' boots as she galloped after her quarry.

Tess looked wildly at her fellow patients, who were frozen with horrified looks on their faces, deer gone tharn. "Somebody do something!" she cried.

The Hunter next to her swallowed. Only his neck and mouth were alive. "You ever try to break up a fight between two females before, Garret?" he asked shakily. "You're better off separating two tigers."

"Then someone get Genesis!"

"Can't," said the Hunter. "Celeste's blocking the door."

"You're telling me this room has one exit? Isn't that illegal?"

"I don't bloody know!" the Hunter barked. "Your damnable suggestions oughta be illegal!" He suddenly ducked his head. "Sorry."

Tess' hand flew to her forehead. "Blocking the door!" she said in stunned realisation. "What's that fool of a girl doing?"

The door to the Infirmary was open, but Celeste had her back to it. No, she was filling it, head lowered, legs set firmly, the fingers on her left hand gripping the doorframe like white claws. Iris slowed her charge a little in caution, but then she leaped, her silver fang bared.

There was a percussive banging sound, and Iris suddenly reeled back a little, clutching the side of her face where Celeste had walloped her with the steel Emergency First Aid kit from Genesis' desk. The human girl was panting hard through her crocodile-grimace, still clutching the square box which now had a bit of black blood spattered across one corner. Tess could see something malicious light up Celeste's face, as if some demon living in her brain had put a hellish lamp behind the window of her eye. Tess only had a second to be startled before Celeste jumped at Iris, hammering her repeatedly across the face with the kit. Iris jerked back with each assault. The noise was tremendous.

Paul was howling. Tess' body moved automatically to pick up her baby and press him to her shoulder; her head never turned from the fight. When Iris gave a small bleat of terror and broke away from Celeste's barrage, the human girl snarled and gave chase, shoving over Paul's cradle without a glance, which had been occupied only seconds before. Blankets and pillows spilled hard out of the crib like guts.

"Oh God," Tess said weakly, looking at the ruin. "Celeste!"

Iris had retreated to the furthest corner of the Infirmary, where she curled up and quaked, her arms drawn up in a protective pose. Celeste still advanced.

"Leave her alone, McTreggor!" the Hunter beside Tess pleaded. "She's done!" But the one closest to Iris' retreat suddenly howled, "Watch out!"

Iris uncoiled and leaped at Celeste, who instantly raised an arm in defence. The scalpel traced a red arc, and a flap of bloody skin bobbed there like a slack lip.

"Damn," one of the Hunters said in awe. Celeste didn't even look at her wound. When Iris stabbed again, Celeste was quicker and shielded herself with the First Aid kit, which received a deep puncture. Metal crumpled around its wound, and the scalpel was stuck.

Iris tried to pull her weapon out of the kit, but she wasn't prepared when Celeste shoved it against her. Iris lost her footing and giggled back a few steps, reflexively grabbing the kit as Celeste aimed a high kick to her right hand. The metal box jumped away from the reploid and skidded across the floor, sliding into the shadows under a cot with the scalpel still embedded in it. Iris was jarred and missed the box's journey. She made a small sound and looked around for her weapon, but saw nothing. Celeste watched her, lifting her foot off the floor a little.

"She's hurt herself with that kick," Tess began to tell the Hunter beside her, but his bed was empty. She didn't have time to wonder; Celeste and Iris were suddenly entangled again.

Celeste fought like some mustang-cougar cross, punching rapidly around the reploid's neck, shoulders and face when she seemed steady, clawing shallow but visible furrows on Iris' cheeks whenever her rage seemed to spike suddenly. Thick, red lightning bolts of blood coursed down her injured arm and flecked Iris with every punch. She was on overdrive; her eyes were starting to glaze. Iris was empowered by the knowledge that her opponent was losing blood, and the fight along with it. Her punches were slower, but heavy and powerful. A few landed at the sides of Celeste's head, and the bruises were already spreading on her jaw line like shadows. The girl was still swiping at Iris, but she was starting to miss and looked disoriented, shaking her head to clear it.

Iris stopped punching when Celeste started to sway dizzily. She walked up to the Huntress and stared at her for a few seconds, the angry expression on her face smoothing to something almost pitying. Iris placed one hand on the top of Celeste's head. "You're nothing," she said in soothing tones. "Nothing. You're not good enough for him, but it's not your fault. You can't help who you are. You can't help what you are." Iris squatted a little and looked Celeste in the eyes, speaking softly so that only the Huntress could hear her. "I know everything about you. I know what happened to you after your father died, and what you did. I know you're sorry about it now, but your soul is still stained. A biting dog will bite again--"

Celeste's fist slammed into Iris' blue eye. Something in her hand snapped like a small twig, and she exclaimed with pain, but didn't stop her assault. She tackled Iris, who caught Celeste by the shoulders and heaved her backwards with surprising force. Celeste's feet actually left the ground for a second. She landed hard on her side, and she could feel something in her shoulder pulling apart like wet pillow seams. Celeste rolled on the linoleum and came to a stop against a pair of maroon reploid boots. She raised her head slowly.

Genesis looked back down at her, expressionless. "Seems I missed a good one, didn't I?"

"I think my stitches might've come apart," the Huntress said dully.

Genesis helped Celeste to a nearby bed. She tried to lie on her front so that the re-opened wound on her back wouldn't stain the Infirmary's sheets, but she forgot about her weeping arm. Genesis caught sight of it and hollered.

"I forgot about it," Celeste said. "I don't feel any pain right now."

"That'll change, I promise you." Genesis said. "You may as well just relax. I've been meaning to throw out this particular set anyway. A fellow died on this bed three weeks ago, and I haven't been able to get the smell of the death out of it."

Celeste looked around her apprehensively.

"What happened here?" Genesis said, turning to the rest of the patients in the Infirmary, all wide-awake now. Iris brooded by the windows, her head down and her hands folded in front of her. The fox motioned to the Hunter beside Tess, who'd gone missing halfway through the fight. "Stevens here said there was a rumble, and he came to get me. I'd been away from my desk for a bit, but of course, nothing can stay quiet and still at night in this damn Unit. It's against God's laws. Stevens said someone had a--"

"A scalpel," Tess said instantly. "When I woke up, Iris was about to stab Celeste with one."

Iris shot Tess a hurt look.

Tess felt the pinch, and looked sideways at the reploid. "I can't say who started things," she said. "I was asleep. But I guess Celeste fought back in self-defence."

Genesis said, "Iris? Why don't you tell us your side of the story?"

Iris looked back down at the floor and mumbled, "I want to speak to Monroe."

Celeste looked at Iris sharply.

"I think you'd best do just that," Genesis said slowly. "Celeste? How about you?"

Celeste didn't look away. "I'll speak to Monroe, too."

Genesis grimaced as if an evil smell were wafting by, but he stepped back around the corner to his desk and the ward was silent enough for everyone to hear his fingers clatter across his number pad as he keyed in the sequence to summon Monroe.

"You're in trouble, Celeste," Iris said emotionlessly.

"Oh, keep your cry-hole shut," Tess said in an icy voice. "Celeste's half Irish, but what's your excuse for being two chips short of a 386?"

Pain flew across Iris' face like a dark bird and was gone again just as suddenly. "I thought you understood me at least a little, Auntie Tess."

"That's why you scare the hell out of me, you frothing-mad walking rainbow." Tess shook her head and mumbled something to herself that sounded like, "Reploids who dream like that oughta be put back in the junkyard..."

Celeste wrapped a pillowcase around her arm wound and said nothing. The cloth sucked the blood up thirstily.

Genesis returned to the patients. "Monroe is coming, and he's pissed. His beauty sleep's been disturbed over a catfight, Heaven forefend." The fox stuck his tongue out a little. "I'm so happy he takes this establishment as seriously as his father."

Monroe arrived twenty minutes later, cranky and seedy-eyed, but dressed and combed. Genesis looked up from inspecting Celeste's slashed arm. "Thanks for coming, Monroe. I'm sorry to wake you up, but what can I say, you're a real lady killer." he pointed at Celeste, then Iris. "They want personal interviews."

Monroe hitched up his too-loose jeans. "What is it you two want?" he asked Iris in a black voice. "Why were you and McTreggor fighting at this hour?"

Stevens mumbled something off-colour about a monthly visitor. Everyone in the ward stared at him, and his ears turned pink at the cold silence. "I didn't think you'd all hear that."

"There are some neglected roach traps that'll need attention around the HQ tomorrow, Stevens," Monroe said dryly. "McTreggor? Why don't you start?"

Celeste cleared her throat and scratched at one of her bruises. "Couldn't sleep because my shoulder -- I'd had a small training accident and needed stitches -- so I came to see Genesis. He wasn't here, but Iris was beside Tess' bed there," the Huntress drew in her breath sharply when Genesis stole up beside her, peeled off her sopping bandage, and rubbed the wound with antiseptic. "Ow, damn. Iris ... she had Tess' baby in her arms. I asked her what she was doing, 'cause Tess already told her once to stay away from Paul."

"Is that true?" Monroe asked Tess.

"Yes," Tess responded.

Celeste continued. "Well, Iris gave me this look, like she was sizing me up. She saw I didn't have any weapons, and said she was going to carve me."

"And did she?"

Celeste held up her arm stiffly. "She had a scalpel."

Monroe seemed much less agitated at being woken up now. He spoke clearly and calmly, but his body was rigid. "Iris?"

Iris stood up straighter. "Sir?"

"Iris, due to the ... incomplete nature of your resurrection, you were to strictly follow Genesis' orders for the time being. I understand you worked well, he gave you more complicated tasks, and you rose to the challenge well. But I also know full well that you still weren't to interact with the patients, unless given a specific job."

Beside Celeste, Genesis threaded catgut through a curved needle and mumbled in a very soft breath, "Not nearly as out of things as he lets on. Or else he smells the threat hanging over us and is finally taking it seriously."

"That's true, sir," Iris said.

"Then why did you go near Garret's baby?"

The female reploid swallowed. "He was ... he was upset. I couldn't ignore him. I wanted to calm him down."

"I'm sure Garret is perfectly capable of taking care of her own."

"Mrs Garret has been ill. I figured she needed the rest."

Monroe looked at Tess.

"I've been feeling better," Tess said stoutly. "Genesis just wanted to keep an eye on me because births can come with all sorts of side effects these days, thanks to us clever humans playing with phallic nuclear toys all those years back. I got weak after I had Paul, and he was worried. But it's almost past, and I'm definitely capable of taking care of my own son, thank you. It never hurts a baby to cry for ten minutes or so."

"I can't ignore him," Iris said in a near-whisper.

"The more important issue," Monroe interrupted, "is the attack. Why did you attack McTreggor?"

Iris lifted her chin. "She's a danger, sir."

Cain's son looked puzzled. "Danger?"

"A danger to herself and others. She looked ready to charge me. I merely took precautions."

Genesis slowly looked away from Celeste's wound, stood up, and clenched his fist. His needle dangled and swayed like a spider at the end of the suture. "She didn't," he half-growled, half-whined through his bared teeth. "She wouldn't, the little blank-eyed weasel..."

Iris crossed her arms over her chest. "Celeste is not mentally sound."

Genesis flung his needle aside and it bounced on the floor with a quiet ping, dissatisfying against the fox's roar. "Who gave you permission to go through the patient records, you vapid HALF-WIT?"

Iris cringed, but she didn't wilt. "You -- you left them unlocked!"

"'Left them unlocked,' my tufted ass!" Genesis started towards his assistant. "You hacked them."

"They were unlocked!" Iris persisted in an anguished voice, and threw her arms up to protect herself from the advance. "You said -- said -- I was to learn what I can, to have access to your materials as long as I didn't interfere with the patients themselves. Since the patients' files were accessible, I thought I was to study them. I took initiative!"

"I'll bloody well give you initiative!"

"Genesis!" Monroe barked. "Ease off!"

Genesis, now in front of Iris, shook with rage, but he restrained.

"Step away from her."

The fox did as he was told, his ears laid back flat on his head. Iris lowered her hands a little and looked at him.

"Unlocked," she tested softly.

Genesis snarled at the floor.

Celeste's wounds silently bled.

Paul hiccupped and started to cry.

Monroe looked at them all and muttered a curse in his father's name.

Scouting missions, Zero reflected, were once cake and pie. Well, they still were ... he was forced to swallow too many of them at once, and now they made him sick. X was right about him. He was secretly wishing for a war, for something tangible to strike at, for something he didn't have to flush out of sour shadows.

The smell of the city didn't help. The concrete animal was too crowded, too saturated with exhaust, coffee and sweat during the day to shed any of its weariness after the sun went down. Still, the city was an impressive sight at night. The windows of the huge, stacked buildings winked like the eyes of jungle animals. It was very early in the morning, so the narrow sidewalks were mostly open to Zero's small platoon, and only a whisper of traffic was on the streets.

Zero stopped and looked behind him. "How're you feeling, Cass?"

The huge badger reploid caught up to his friend quickly, and the two caught their breath beside an alley. Cass was doing much better since he'd been infected by Blake's "flu" virus, but he was still a little sluggish. He looked down at Zero with mournful eyes. "I want to go back to my pub."

"I'm sorry, Cass," Zero said sincerely. "I'm trying to go easy on you. It wasn't my idea to bring you scouting."

"I know." Cass fingered his mace. "I blame Lifesaver. He insists that I get out and move around whenever I can."

Zero said, "It makes sense, I guess. Humans recovering from a virus get the same advice."

"Yeah, well, I'm not a human." Cass pointed into the alley beside him, where two teenagers were entwined in each other. The badger picked up a trash can lid discarded near the alley's entrance, and bashed it with his mace. The teens untangled and ran further into the darkness.

Zero watched them. "Aw, Cass, they weren't hurting anything."

Cass tossed the lid back into the alley and shrugged. A choked scream flew back at them from the dark.

"Cass!" Zero cried in alarm. "Did you hit them?"

Cass rubbed his head. "Oh Jeez, I hope not."

The scream came again, and ended suddenly with a cold, gurgling sound.

Zero immediately chased after the cry, and Cass tailed him along with the rest of the Hunters. The path was narrow, and the light was bad, making it hard even for Cass and Zero to see too far. They jostled into walls and each other, creating an unfortunate racket.

Something was definitely in the alley with them, something large, breathing heavily, and, if Zero's ears weren't playing tricks on him, leaping from wall to wall --

"Stop!" Zero hissed, barring his Hunters with his arm. The party slowed and listened hard against the blackness.

"Anything?" Cass breathed.

"It was something, all right," Zero murmured after a long time. "It got away quick. Flashlight?"

Cass handed it to him, and Zero turned it on, burning away a little of the dark. The red reploid swept the beam onto the greasy ground, and a rat squealed, frozen by the light.

"Oh Lord preserve us," one of the human Hunters warbled in a thick voice.

"Scared of a rat?" Cass snorted back to the Rookie. "You may as well go home and crawl back into your mother."

"N-no. Look at it."

"Blood," Zero said immediately.

The rat's bullet-shaped muzzle was slick and red. It trembled fiercely, and a tiny bubble of blood burst from one of its pinprick nostrils.

Nobody said anything. The vermin suddenly bounded away, and the flashlight followed it as it returned to its family, already burrowed deep in the slashed neck of the teenage girl.

The Hunters' rat scrambled up onto the shoulders of the boy, draped limply over his lover and missing his head. The creature squealed again, seemingly unhappy over being watched while it ate.

Silently, moving only his fingers, Zero extinguished the light.

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