Chapter 22: Morning Is Here
Dawn arrived, but it was grey and cool. Scattered drops of rain pecked randomly at the large window of Monroe Cain's office. Hawkmoon 269 sat in Cain's chair in front of the window, and her scales were almost dazzling against the drab picture outdoors.
Celeste always noted that it was a security hazard to have the leader of MHHQ parked in front of that window, such a tempting target for traitors and snipers. She involuntarily drudged up the same notion again when she was ushered into Cain's office by a nondescript Reploid. Maybe the glass was bulletproof? Celeste didn't know, and she knew that she currently wasn't in a position to ask.
Hawkmoon turned her sightless eyes in Celeste's direction when the young Huntress entered. The nostrils on her tapered snout twitched. "McTreggor?"
"I smell blood. You're wounded."
"Genesis took care of me," Celeste said even though the Mechadrake's voice didn't carry a note of compassion.
"Sit down, if you want. Monroe will be here soon."
Celeste seated herself at the chair across from Monroe's desk. The chair was small and looked suitably like a timid, subordinate animal grovelling in the grand presence of Monroe's high-backed leather monster. The office was silent, and the weather outside made up its mind. Large drops of rain spattered evenly against the pane. A patchwork of pain throbbed across Celeste's face, jaw, and shoulders.
"You're temperamental," Hawkmoon suddenly said. "But nowhere near as impressive as your sire in the follow-through. I don't even see what the big fuss is over you."
"What--" Celeste started, but Hawkmoon swiftly rose to her feet when Monroe suddenly entered the office. Celeste clumsily followed, her wounds and pride stinging. A blind Mechadrake beat her in protocol.
"It's all right, McTreggor," Cain's son said in a tired voice as he shooed Hawkmoon away from his seat. "Sit down. You're banged up."
Celeste obeyed, eyeing the thick folder tucked under Monroe's arm. He didn't sound angry. That relieved her a little.
Monroe slapped the folder down on his desk and leaned on his palms and stared down at the folder. He suddenly seemed pathetically young, with his skinny torso slung between the knobbly shoulders that stuck so sharply out of his back.
"Seems you've kept some secrets, McTreggor," he said, sitting down at last with a deep sigh.
Celeste didn't respond.
"The narcolepsy and recurring nightmares are bad enough, especially since both, according to the data from your sessions with Genesis, appear to be getting worse. Is that true?"
"Yes," Celeste said. No point in lying now.
Monroe's fist came down on the desk. Celeste jumped, then hated herself for it.
"You're the captain of a Unit!" the boy roared. "What you -- and Genesis! -- have done here is so irresponsible, it knocks my head right off. You could've had an ... an 'episode' during a crucial battle, and your headless troops would literally have become headless, thanks to some crazed Maverick. We would've found out too late that you're afflicted. I'm sure your mother would love us for that."
Celeste's insides quaked at the mention of her mother.
"Back to your mother is where I should send you," Monroe said with relish when he saw that he'd touched a scabby wound. "Stripped of your rank and title. And I will send you packing unless..." He rubbed a finger across the bottom of his nose and spoke in a softer voice. "If I receive your cooperation in a small matter, I might ... keep you."
Celeste, lost in the mild terror of having to go home to her mother, suddenly surfaced and noticed that Hawkmoon was gone. The door was closed. Real panic beat around her heart. "You want--"
"Your cooperation," Monroe said, looking down at his fingers.
"What?" Celeste blurted.
Monroe looked up at her curiously. "I was going to ask you about your Mindspeak."
"Oh." Celeste settled back in her chair, the frantic red flush draining from her face. She felt stupid for putting herself on such a pedestal. Monroe was about as sexually charged as an amoeba.
"Are you all right? You look kind of waxy."
"Fine," Celeste said stoutly.
Monroe asked, "Maybe you'd like to tell me why you hear voices?"
Mindspeak wasn't just about 'hearing voices,' Celeste corrected Monroe in her head. But the less said, the better. "I don't know why, sir."
"But according to your statements, this affliction has been in your family before."
Damn it. "Yes, sir."
"Namely, your father," Monroe mused while he shuffled through his papers, "who got killed. No one's sure why he tried to take down Torrent Leviathan by himself, but this does explain a lot." He looked up at Celeste. "Do you think the two incidents are related?"
"I don't know, sir."
"You're not being very cooperative."
"I'm telling you all I know," Celeste said in a dry voice. "This affliction ... 'Mindspeak ... it became a part of my life when I was 16. It's been very dominant since then. The voices I hear are usually benign. In other instances..." Celeste cleared her throat. "It hasn't been easy."
"And you didn't tell anyone about this?"
"Genesis sort of found out by accident and forced it out of me," the Huntress said warily. She'd told the fox about everything that Mindspeak brought with it -- the adrenaline surges, the shared emotions that could be used tenderly or maliciously -- but she wasn't sure how much of their conversations had been physically recorded and were at Monroe's disposal. "What you've got in front of you is all I know."
"It's not much," Monroe admitted, shifting again through his folder. "But I'd like to change that. This is where your 'cooperation' comes in. Work with me, and you can remain with the Hunters -- provided we can prove it won't be hazardous to your health."
Celeste stiffened. She almost missed Monroe's brief wink.
"Refuse and, well, I just can't in good conscience keep you here. Besides, it might be a bit harder to keep the Hunters in the Infirmary quiet about what they heard Iris say about your hearing voices and all. That's the kind of rumour that could cause a Unit's respect for its Captain to slip." Monroe propped his chin in his hand and drummed the end of a pencil on the folder. "Well?"
Celeste's brain felt dull and numb. "What's your proposal?"
"I did some research on your background, McTreggor. That's why I didn't call on you until this morning. You were born not too far from here, in a hospital called Saint Teresa's."
"You returned to the same hospital when you were four. Your father brought you. You were dangerously sick, quite near death."
"Ye--" Celeste stopped her automatic response and furrowed her brow. "What? What're you talking about?"
Monroe leafed through his folder and handed the Huntress a single sheet of paper. Celeste glanced over it. An Admittance Form for Saint Teresa's Hospital, e-mailed to Monroe. To Be Used in the Strictest of Confidentiality.
Patient: Celeste Siobhan McTreggor.
Date of Arrival: (chickenscratch)
Date of Discharge: N/A
Description of injury or illness: Patient was admitted with temperature of 106 F. Appears to be suffering from intense muscular pain and spasms. Frequent loss of consciousness and difficulty breathing.
Treatment Recommended, if Any: Did not respond to any medications. Recommend that the patient stay in the hospital for observation.
Name of Doctor: (more chickenscratch)
Name and Signature of Patient's Parent(s) or Guardian(s): Jacob McTreggor.
And there was her father's signature with its distinctive left-leaning loops and flourishes, which always proved impossible for Celeste to imitate properly on bad tests and report cards during her grade school years. She lowered the paper slowly.
"I don' t remember any of this."
"You were only four," Monroe said half in excuse. "Do you doubt the authenticity of the document?"
"No," Celeste said softly. She added after a pause, "That's my father's signature. And my middle name is there, which nobody ever used but him. It was my great-grandmother's name, and my mother hated it."
"Well, it is unusual," Monroe returned mildly. "How is it even supposed to be pronounced?"
"Shivon," Celeste said distractedly. She was thinking hard. No, the document wasn't a fake but not just because of a little-known middle name, or because of her father's signature. Her mother was still at large like the great meandering sacred cow she was, and knew her daughter's full name. She might've told some one. Her father's signature was unusual, but still forgeable by someone with skill. She knew the document was legitimate because ... because why? Because dreams and half-memories about that bout of sickness were randomised in her brain, and with the paper in her hand, she could feel her mind start to defragment. It was all part of a bigger picture. She'd fallen. Twice. And Jody had been there. Twice. Something else attached itself to the forming puzzle, something about the cold and, for some reason, vanilla ice cream ...
And the smoky smell of her father as he lifted her up easily from the strange sheets of Saint Teresa's and whisked her out the door. Doctors and nurses yelling in protest, making her head hurt, then the delightful cool and dark of the outdoors. Looking up at the stars that were close enough to claim her, but Jake's head silhouetted them and his breath puffed out in white gasps. She wanted to touch his face, reassure herself that he was there, but she didn't have the strength to lift her arms. She knew she was safe though, knew that her dad would never surrender her again --
"Siobhan," Monroe chuckled slowly. "That sounds kind of pretty. Well, McTreggor. You'll notice two things about that form. The doctor's name, and the fact that the date of your discharge from the hospital is blank."
"I noticed that about the Discharge box, but I can't read the doctor's name."
"Your father ran out of the hospital with you," Monroe told her, and a piece of her memory fit together with a thud she could almost feel. "Thus, you were never officially let go. As for the name, sorry, it came out a little incomprehensible on the form, but it says Dr Kline. He still works at St Teresa's. I had a talk with him. He remembers you."
Monroe shrugged. "You were pretty bad off. He's amazed you're alive. He's here, waiting outside the office."
Celeste bristled with suspicion. Something about the doctor's name was dark in her head. "Why?"
"It has to do with my proposal ... that is, if you want to keep working here." Monroe's voice pulled Celeste's attitude down like a leash on an unruly dog. He stood up and pulled open his office door. "We'll both explain what we want from you."
Dr Kline walked in and smiled warmly, his hands linked behind his back. "Hello, Celeste. It's nice to see you again."
Celeste took one look at the doctor and could suddenly remember every detail about those hands, hidden out of sight though they were. Light swept over her, and her reaction was automatic, bursting to the surface passionately after waiting, coiled for twenty years in a corner. With a desperate cry, she snatched a heavy paperweight off Monroe's desk and flung it at Kline.
Zero didn't have to examine the corpses for more than a second before he knew that there was no hope whatsoever. For all the miracles of medical science, once your head was off your shoulders, that was the end of the show. But at least you boasted a nice bowling ball for when you arrived at the Great Beyond.
Zero stood up while his Hunters searched for clues on the attack. A grey dawn slowly seeped across the black alley, and the crimson Reploid could make out the grimy walls and overturned garbage cans, splashed with blood. He looked at Cass.
"...I can't think of anything to say."
"I can. This is nucking futs." The badger brought his foot down and squished a rat that was trying to sneak back for a snack before bed. "Little bugger."
"Don't, Cass." Zero barked. "We don't need rat guts mixed up with the evidence."
"You're one to lecture me on protocol," Cass snorted. "Whatever killed these passionate younguns is still at large, and you've just been staring at their bodies with your gob wide open. The Zero I know would've called back to MHHQ and told them to release the hounds the second he had a chance. But instead you're telling your men to go search for treasure."
Zero glanced at his men who wandered dreamlike, looking more bewildered than investigative. He pressed the tips of his fingers against his forehead. "You're right," he murmured. "What the hell is wrong with me? It's been so long since we've had such a savage Maverick attack ... I think Monroe's hippie policies are starting to beat their way into my brain."
"Heaven forefend." Cass smiled grimly and looked up at the cool rain that drizzled them. "You're not scared of that wiener, are you?"
"He can be pretty pro-active, which might prove fatal to people with secrets." The badger gave Zero a sidelong glance. "Either way, we've got a job to do now. Let the rookies here handle the paperwork, know what I mean?"
"You'd better stay here in case something comes back for dessert," Zero said, rapidly hopping between the close-hugging alley walls. "Call Hunter HQ. Tell them I'm in pursuit of a Maverick, and there are two civilians down."
"Right," Cass mumbled, suddenly shivering from aftershocks caused by the dregs of the Flu. "I can't wall-jump like a great big blonde showoff anyway."
Jackdaw was dreaming that she was in a small bed, holding a baby and crying bitterly, which made no sense. The baby was quite beautiful. His hair was black, and he stared back at her with a startling pair of blue eyes, very unique against his dark skin.
Beside her, a vague, inhuman shadow rumbled, "This is what you get. You were a respected warrior, and then you go and fall for that lunatic. He's gone, did you notice? He ran like a dog with its ass on fire. Now you and that ... thing you're holding are both going to die."
Raindrops were falling on her head. Jackdaw opened her eyes, and the afterglow of the dream lingered, held down around her by the damp air. She didn't think about it for long, because she ached all over. Lying on her back, feeling the slimy earth beneath her, she stared at the rain for a long time before she finally wondered why the hell she was lying at the fringe of the old refugee camp with her mouth and sinuses packed with the taste and smell of blood.
The thrill of the hunt. How long had it been?
The rain bounced off Zero's armour with an undignified tinkling sound, but he barely noticed. He was feeling too good, darting from rooftop to rooftop, his blood stirring with the anticipation of battle, his breath sawing in and out of his systems in a cooling ebb and flow. If only he were running alongside X and an army of Hunters, he'd feel like his old self again. Worries about Monroe, Celeste, and Killer Humans from vague places named Eden all burned away when he was hunting.
A trail of fresh blood was flecked evenly across the asphalt rooftops, hard to follow on a wet ground but still possible. Zero bounded across another alley in one leap, and nearly lost his footing when he landed on a rooftop that had loose gravel instead. Cursing, he steadied himself and paused to get his bearings.
The blood trail was down to a few drops that staggered unevenly across the gravel. He could hear traffic crawling the streets below, slithering through rain-soaked streets. He caught a movement out of the corner of his right eye and whipped around to face it.
A middle-aged human man in a frayed brown jacket raised up his hands in alarm. "Whoa man ... don't kill me. I didn't know I can't smoke up here either."
Zero eased a little. "I'm not the building superintendent. I'm Maverick Hunter Zero."
"How about that? The One and Only Zero. That'll be something to tell my wife when she wakes up." The man huddled in the doorjamb of the stairwell and struggled to light a cigarette against the will of the wet wind.
Zero said, "It's not safe here. There's a Maverick in the area. I advise you to go back to your apartment."
"They don't let us smoke in our apartments anymore, those Nazi Commie bastards."
"All right, all right. Don't get your hair all frizzy." The human flicked his lit cigarette defiantly at Zero, and it bounced harmlessly off his armour.
"Sorry," the man muttered after a few tense seconds. He stepped out of the doorjamb to retrieve the smoke, and a gleaming silver stinger suddenly burst through his shoulder.
The human crumpled to the ground, and the sharp gravel sliced his palms. He wasn't dead, but he trembled violently, silently, blood and saliva foaming around his lips.
Whenever he pursued his quarry, Zero's first instinct was to go after the Maverick relentlessly. His instinct usually conflicted strongly with his Hunter Protocol, which instructed him to help stricken humans first in instances where there was no back-up available. This time, Zero's shock overrode both and he stared stupidly at this new enemy.
It was Wire Sponge. Looking back at Zero through Sting Chameleon's bubble-shaped eyes. With the barbed Strike Chain looped around his reptilian tail, and the petals of an oversized pink flower planted at the top of his head, flopping in his beaklike face.
Zero worked his mouth silently, but couldn't manage anything.
Sting Sponge broke into a huge, toothless smile. "Something to say, you big blonde bitch?"
In one ear, Zero could hear Wire Sponge's voice. But when he cocked his head slightly, he could pick up Sting Chameleon's rusty-kettle hiss. He finally found his voice. "What are -- what -- what do you want from the human? Let him go."
"Sss." It was clearly Sting Chameleon talking now. "He reminds me of Han, who used to sing to me in my forest." The creature looked down at the trembling human. "Go, boy. Run to your puny family. You'll all be dead in our own good time."
"Can you manage on your own?" Zero asked, not knowing what to do if the human said No.
"I .. I..." the man gulped down a sob, his hand plastered hard to his wound, his brown jacket now almost completely black on the punctured side. His dark hair was sopping with rain. "I'll be all right."
He dragged himself slowly back to the stairwell door, but couldn't find the strength to stand up and reach for the knob. Sting Sponge graciously opened the door so the human could struggle through it, and then helped him with a kick to the seat of his pants. The door swung shut and the Maverick faced Zero again.
"What are you?" Zero demanded.
"A Questing Beast," was all the hybrid offered. He flicked his tail and the coiled Strike Chain flew easily into his -- Wire Sponge's -- hands. He twirled it menacingly.
Zero's hand reached back for his Sabre. "Did you kill those humans in the alley?"
"Maybe I didn't. Most likely I did. Still, you can't be sure. I'm not the only danger wandering out there, Hunter. Is that fact finally starting to ooze its way into your walnut brain?"
"I found a trail of blood."
"And you can be sure of it in this rain?"
Sting Sponge nodded. "That's fine. I just wanted to make sure that the Hunters are still ending Maverick lives using circumstantial evidence."
"I like your pretty pink tea hat," Zero said.
The blade of the Strike Chain lashed out and cut a deep gouge across Zero's fingers, which retained their death-grip on his sabre. Zero charged. In the back of his mind there was a calm memory of X once telling him how, after a Hunting accident that knocked him unconscious, no one could pry Zero's sabre out of his fingers. Damn straight.
The hybrid Maverick was spinning the chain again, and Zero swiped at the weapon. He cursed when the blade of his sabre failed him, and didn't cut the jointed steel. Instead, the chain tangled itself around the lime-coloured blade, and Sting Sponge hissed irritably. Zero automatically drove his knee into the creature's stomach -- he couldn't decide if it belonged to the chameleon or the sponge, but it was soft nonetheless -- and Sting fell back a little, winded.
Before Zero could reclaim control of his sabre, he received a lightning-bolt lash to his cheek. The sight in his left eye went snowy, then white, then fizzled to black and received nothing more.
Zero barked another curse, but managed to keep his cool long enough to pull his sabre out of Sting's grasp. Sting was not counting on this. His eyes bulged further, then his left one exploded when Zero drove his weapon into the side of his head.
The wretched creature threw its head back into a howl that could only bubble pitifully in his squat neck. His steel tongue, still tipped with Zero's blood, flopped out of his mouth like a black-headed snake. Sting's one good eye darted madly, searching the Hunter out while his hands groped for the lightsabre that Zero kept embedded in his skull.
The Crimson Hunter pushed down hard on his weapon, and the blade ripped up through Sting Sponge's head, spraying an arc of black fluids perversely across his flower-hat, which now looked pitiful in the carnage. Sting's choir like shrieks reached an insane pitch and he buckled, clutching at his wound.
Panting, Zero stared. He stared for almost a full minute before he realised he was staring instead of finishing off the hybrid, or questioning him. Why?
Sting Sponge's blubbering tapered off a little. The Maverick looked up at Zero with his dripping half-face, blank as a newborn puppy. The rain rattled on the hollowed out shell of his head.
Zero didn't move.
Sting reached slowly for his Strike Chain, dropped after Zero's attack.
Zero flew at him, and drove his sabre into the back of the reptile's hand. When Sting's pained wails started anew, Zero suddenly realised what he'd been waiting for. He shivered with pleasure.
"Coward!" Sting Sponge's hiss ended in a sob. "Just kill me and be done with it."
Zero kneeled down next to his prey and toyed with what was left of the flower on its head. He grinned. "I don't know. It's nice to have company. I've been dormant for too long, you know?"
The tail that once belonged to Sting Chameleon flew up like a scorpion's to batter Zero, but the attack was feeble and blind.
Zero watched the attack flutter by. "Nice one."
Sting snarled weakly, his life mingling with the rainwater. The tainted puddle moved slowly to engulf the watery blood from the earlier attack on the human. It was a beautiful day.
The hybrid gave a deep, shuddering sigh.
"Not yet," Zero told him, retrieving his sabre. The green reploid winced and gave a weak cry, which Zero didn't miss. "You have some questions to answer first."
"I won't answer anything."
"I think that, in the end, you will."
After a long silence, Sting smiled tiredly.
"You're exhausted, Zero. It takes a lot of energy to stave the inevitable."
"It hasn't always been easy," Zero admitted, pressing his sabre against the back of Sting's stubby neck and watching with grim fascination as the smoking hole became bigger and made a sound in the rain like sizzling grease.
"You've made..." Sting Sponge gritted his jaw between words. "Some bad ... choices."
Zero looked down at him with his one eye. "You'll be saying the same for yourself in a minute."
Evan woke up on the floor and the pain in his shoulder was indescribable. He would've slipped back into unconsciousness if his wife hadn't turned his head around to face her. She was pale and her hand shook under his chin, but she smiled wanly.
"You went out for a cigarette, and you came back with a punctured lung, according to the paramedics."
Suddenly aware of the strangers moving around in their apartment, Evan closed his eyes again, but he managed to smile back. "Ah thin' ah'm goan' quit..."
"Evan, what happened? Do you know?"
He shook his head. He'd been lying here all his life. "Can' 'member."
"We're ready to go, miss," someone said. "He's stable enough for the trip."
Evan's wife nodded and shakily pulled herself up. A horrible, yowling scream from somewhere outside sent electricity through her nerves again, and she cried out.
One of the paramedics looked out the window. "What was that?"
"Cats, mebbe," Evan murmured as he was lifted onto a stretcher by two other medics. "Cats. Y'know how they c'n get ... terry-torial an' all."