Eden's Diamondback Unit clattered down the catwalk on their way to training. Caillou watched them as he leaned against the cold steel railing, but he didn't move to join them. None of the warriors called to him, either.
The noise faded and Caillou tipped his head back and closed his eyes. Not too far below, he could hear Asmodeus 12 addressing some fighters from his elite unit, the Mechanical Hounds.
It was still too crowded to move around without drawing attention to himself. Nobody in Eden much cared about his comings and goings, but that didn't mean they didn't keep an eye on him--
Caillou heard a soft swishing sound, followed by a steely thump that made the railing vibrate painfully against the back of his head. He opened his eyes. Asmodeous 12 perched above his head and grinned down at him.
"Nothing from Nytetrayn yet, boy?"
Caillou swallowed what little spit was left in his mouth. "No, sir."
The silver Mechadrake shifted his weight and his leg, maimed but still able to cling like a vise, inched a little closer to Caillou's head. "Five days, you know. If he's not back by then, I'll have to do something about it. Something that'll probably involve your head in my jaws."
Burnt oil, rotting synthetics, jagged teeth. Caillou thought his heart would surely explode, but he didn't submit. He had nothing to lose anymore. "Asmodeus..."
"You're an asshole."
"I know." There was an immediate, cold scraping sound and Caillou heard a sharp woosh across the side of his head, which he jerked reflexively. Blood sprayed on his legs and the ground around him as if in preparation for some demonic ceremony. The railing quaked briefly against his back once more as Asmodeus silently spread his wings and swooped down into Eden.
Caillou reached up, and hot fluid was immediately slick on his fingers as they touched the cartilage of his upper ear ... now dangling upside-down, held to the rest of his ear only by a small scrap of skin. He pulled his hand back and stared dumbly at the black shavings of hair glued to his red fingers.
And then there was pain.
Jackdaw was dizzy and weak, barely able to remain upright on her thin legs. She pressed her long fingers against her forehead, which buzzed with the chatter of random thoughts and words.
No sun underground ... just water, water, clutching at your stomach nobody to help you, you'll die soon ...
She dragged herself across the empty lot of the refugee camp, the short grass stinging her bare feet, the sand mixing with the rain and plastering to her ankles.
It was worth it for a warm touch, whispers, long hair entwined around rough fingers, the smell of an outsider...
The air was cool, but she barely felt it or the mist of the rain. Her skin seemed nerveless, numb with fever. Cold blood, once crusted but now re-animated by the dampness, trickled down her face and she could smell nothing else.
Jackdaw reached one of the cabins that once housed a displaced human (or two, or eight) during the first Maverick War. She nearly collapsed against the rough, splintered door and simply leaned with her cheek pressed against the wood, resting.
The moon is out tonight. Run like hell.
Hardly daring to hope, Jackdaw drew her hand up to turn the doorknob ... and fell inside the threshold of the cabin when the door opened. She lay on the slate-grey floor long enough for the pain in her bones to recede, and it didn't take long. Everything was so far away, anyway.
She staggered to her feet once again, weaving as she walked into the centre of the cabin. The whole building was simply one large drafty square with crude bunk-beds pushed up against the walls. Rain pattered on the roof.
A small sink was installed to the right of the door. A green pressure suddenly surged up Jackdaw's stomach, and she lunged for the basin. She hacked and retched but only spit up a small amount of blood. She trembled violently, slick with cold sweat, fingers gripping the sink almost hard enough to crush the porcelain, and stared for a long time at the dark stripe of rust running from the basin's tap to its drain.
"What am I doing here?" Jackdraw mumbled, barely moving her lips. "What's wrong with me?"
She turned the tap, and to her surprise, water flowed out. She stuck her hand underneath. It was cold. She cupped a little and apprehensively tasted it. It was clean.
The refugee camp, inactive for years, suddenly had running water again.
The answer started to rise in the back of Jackdaw's brain, but she quickly squashed it. Regardless, the truth squirmed its ugly head around Jackdaw's block and shrilled. Everything was ready. Just in case.
Just in case.
It was peace time. But just in case.
Jackdaw slapped some of the water on her hot face and the shock of the cold made her gasp a little. She rinsed out her mouth, spit out blood, took a small drink and immediately sicked it up, along with more blood.
She watched the pink mess swirl down the drain and tried to remember exactly what she had done, but the harder she thought about it, the more lost she became. The roiling thoughts returned and darkened her mind like a storm. Jackdaw clung to the sink and broke a sudden spell of coughing with a low moan.
Eyes like his father's...
X's Ride Chaser barreled down the street as he weaved around morning rush hour traffic. The honks and threats of morning commuters blared in his ears.
"Oh for crying out loud," the Hunter mumbled, pulling his vehicle to the side to travel along the curb. The Chaser sliced through a large puddle and a wave of dirty rainwater washed over a hapless pedestrian.
"Sorry!" X called back sheepishly.
The sopping woman stared after X forlornly, her now-useless umbrella dangling from her hand.
It was one of those days, X thought mournfully, turning his eyes back onto the road. Waking up to rain was bad enough, but waking up to rain and the news of a shady double murder ...
X quickly arrived at the scene of the crime. The alley was easy to spot, roped off along with a significant portion of the sidewalk. Cass the badger waved his arms at the blue Hunter anyway, and somehow at the same time managed to physically remove a pedestrian who ducked under the tape barrier that cut him off from his morning walk.
X curbed his Ride Chaser, turned it off, and dismounted.
"I'm glad you're here," Cass said to him, wiping rainwater from his brow. "Zero hasn't returned--"
X walked past him without a word, and walked past the two human rookies who were resting by the entrance of the cursed alley. One of them seemed a little spooked, but managed to give X a weak smile. The other was pale, his huge dark eyes fixed frozen in his face, his arms slung over his knees. X gave him a brief pat on the head and walked into the alley. Immediately and inexorably, he came upon the bodies. The Hunter dropped to one knee, closed his eyes and bowed his head.
"What's he--" one of the rookies began, his words cut off by a loud yelp.
"Quiet, you knob," Cass hissed out of the corner of his snout, taking his elbow out of the human's ribs. "You of all the creatures on this miserable planet should know what he's doing."
The alley fell silent enough for X's soft whispers to be heard even above the falling rain. The wet rookie sniffled and coughed quietly in the beginnings of a cold, and Cass scratched at his striped neck. Several seconds later, X stood up again, looked down at the victims once more, and finally turned to Cass.
"We were on a routine patrol," Cass said. "We passed by the alley, and heard the screams. We ran in, and could hear something in the dark, leaping from wall to wall, making a quick getaway. Zero chased after it, and hasn't been back yet."
"And the victims were dead when you found them?"
"Well, they ain't getting any deader."
"Mavericks," X said simply, emotionlessly.
Cass looked uncomfortable. "We don't know that."
"We don't know a lot of things right now, and it's getting dangerous."
"Seems that way."
X suddenly said, "Would you and the patrol mind leaving for a second?"
Cass looked confused, but said, "Well, sure. Everything all right?"
"Hopefully. I just need a second to myself, here."
"No prob. Come on, you lot." Cass extended his massive arms and swept the rookies out of the alley with him.
X watched him go, and breathed in the quiet of the alley for a few seconds. Without turning his head he said, "You can come out now, Zero."
A steely thump sounded next to the blue Hunter as Zero leaped down from the rooftop. "Why'd you send them away?"
"You know damn well why I sent them away."
"Oh, this little thing," Zero said cheerfully. He pet the mangled Maverick corpse draped over his shoulders, very much a savage hunter.
X looked at Zero and shook his head. Something malicious was awake behind his friend's one good eye, some beast that smelled breakfast and now waited for its fill. Had X been present to watch Celeste fight Iris, he would've recognised that look. He kept steady. "What did you find out? Actually, what is that you're carrying?"
Zero carelessly spilled his quarry onto the hard ground. X jumped back a little. The Maverick's limbs were splayed out awkwardly, its green hide covered with welts and burns wherever flesh remained; everything else was gouged. Deep, burned ruts crisscrossed its body. The protective casing of its belly was almost completely gone, and its mechanical guts shone dully in the grey light, the rain evaporating off its silent but still-warm gears.
"Some weird fusion between Sting Chameleon and Wire Sponge. Not hard to take apart, either. Talk about pathetic workmanship."
X, who'd been initially stunned by the tapestry of carnage that his partner dropped at his feet, only then noticed that he was looking at a hybrid of two Mavericks he'd fought years ago.
"Vile's back," Zero said. "He doesn't have enough resources to build a proper army, so it seems he's cobbling together whatever he can out of old junk. He's hiding out in Doppler's old base, remember that dump? We took him out there, a few years back. He's weak. Now's a good time to see that he stays that way--"
"How do you know all this?"
Zero trailed off awkwardly at X's question. He shut his mouth, rubbed the back of his neck, then suddenly lifted his head, pointed down at Sting Sponge and shrugged. "I wrung it out of him."
"You tortured him?"
"I guess it's pretty obvious, huh?"
X leaned weakly against one of the alley's greasy walls. "And he talked, obviously. Did he die under the interrogation?"
"Nah. When I got what I needed, I gut him. He stopped moving after about twenty minutes."
"What the hell is wrong with you?" X barked.
"We're suddenly fighting a war. We can't waste too much time on thinking," Zero grinned. "So my method's a bit unorthodox. I found out that Vile is back, didn't I? And I know where he is."
"Perfect. He's throwing the contents of his Recycle Bin at us and we're supposed to go after him. It seems too easy. Did Sting--Sponge--whatever admit to killing the humans?"
"I was afraid of this," X murmured. "I don't know what to do."
"What's so difficult? We assemble an army while Vile's still weak, and then--"
"I'm not bloody well talking about Vile!" X snarled. "Look at you. Listen to what you've been saying. You wonder why I sent Cass away? Do you know what would happen if anyone heard you say what you just said to me?"
Zero started to speak, but shrugged instead. His grin resurfaced.
X stared. "You're going feral. You've tasted blood."
"Seems I have. It was nice."
Zero expelled a surprised "Ulf!" when X punched him.
The Crimson Hunter rubbed his sore cheekbone but he didn't retaliate. He just continued smiling at X, whose clenched fists were trembling. "Quite unlike you, X. You trying to take me down?"
"I'm trying to knock some sense into you," X said, then gave a weak cry and pressed his hands to the side of his head. "God above, what am I supposed to do with you now? You're not Maverick, but you're ... unstable. What if you--"
"Hurt another Hunter?"
"...Something like that. If I don't stop you now, it'll be on my hands."
Zero nudged Sting Sponge's corpse with his toe. "A biting dog is shot because it's said that the taste of blood makes it crave more, and it'll bite again. That might be true. But how do we really know? There are instances where a "vicious" dog evades his sentence and lives an event-free life. Marked as dangerous, but still loyal at heart. I guess some people aren't too keen on the idea of taking a chance, however."
"Come on," X said suddenly in a dark voice, turning on his heel. "I'll find a way to cover you this time. We can say that Sting's wounds were self-inflicted or ... or something. Monroe's going to scan you in a few days anyway, so whatever happens will happen. Just please don't do anything like this again."
"Of course. I've had my fun." Zero scooped up his quarry and followed the blue reploid out of the alley. "Still got that Unit badge I gave you?"
The waiting room's bench was hard, but Celeste didn't mind. It was cool and flat, and that's what mattered. She curled up and pressed her warm cheek against the orange plastic and watched the hazy, sideways hospital life pass her by. Her head ached abominably.
Jake sat beside her and put his hand against her neck. "Feeling any better?"
"No," Celeste managed, wondering why he bothered to ask. She squirmed, the effort of speaking making her feel stick to her stomach. She'd woken up that morning and gone outside to play, but couldn't seem to walk or run very far without stumbling and falling. As the day dragged on, she felt worse, and now ... well, here she was.
"Don't be upset. Here, look what I bought you at the gift shop!" Jake tucked something under her arm.
Celeste raised her head slowly to look at it. It was a small, black teddy bear with clear brown eyes and that trademark solemn teddy-bear-expression. Celeste put her head down again, squeezing the bear tighter. She didn't have the energy to thank her dad, but she knew he understood.
"You'll feel better when we see the doctor." Jake ruffled her hair, then muttered "Damn, don't they have any magazines in this place that aren't older than our Lord?"
Dr Kline kept his hands behind his back, expressionless as he watched the paperweight hurled by Celeste dent the wall about two inches from his face.
Monroe stood open-mouthed at the pitch, then looked at Celeste, stunned, and turned up his palms. Why?
Kline just smiled at his former patient gently. "There now Celeste, you don't want to hurt me. You're a remarkable girl, really, very special--"
"Oh, I'll show you something special!" Celeste started towards the doctor, and the world slid downward in an instant when something twined around her ankles. Her jaw cracked on something hard and suddenly she was staring at the intricate blue and gold latch-hook pattern that made up the carpet of Monroe's office.
Hawkmoon had her paw set down firmly on her back, the Mechadrake's claws digging into her already-sore flesh. "Don't move, McTreggor."
Celeste struggled to sit up. "He--!"
Hawkmoon pushed down harder. "Quiet!" she barked. "Lay still."
Celeste breathed through clenched teeth as Kline's brown loafers swept across the carpet and stopped in front of her face. The doctor dropped to one knee and squinted at Celeste. He had white hair, a seamed face and pale green eyes. Last time she'd seen him, he'd had brown hair and a smooth, angular face. But the eyes, they were the same.
Kline reached out for the Huntress. Celeste strained her neck to move her face away from his touch until she felt something pop a little in her shoulders. She emitted a small hiss of pain when Hawkmoon dug her nails further into her back, and she was forced into submission.
Kline pressed two cold fingers under Celeste's chin and he turned her profile this way and that. "You survived that fever, surprisingly," he said more to himself. "Less surprisingly, it seems to have affected your mental well-being."
"That's the reason I brought you here," Celeste heard Monroe say from the sky. "Celeste has been with the Hunters since she was quite young, and is a valuable veteran. During her early days, she was sharp and alert. But her health -- and I don't like to say it, but her sanity too -- has recently started to erode. Quite recently, she revealed the nature of her ... gift to the HQ's head of Medical. I thought we could work with her, and maybe help get her on the road to recovery while learning more about her skill. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to want to cooperate."
"Is that true, little Celeste?" Kline's smile was back, sweet like nightshade. "Are you being stubborn again?"
"'Are you being a revolting son of a bastard again?'" Celeste mocked in a pretty good imitation of the doctor's voice. She squirmed under Hawkmoon's paw. "I'm not four years old anymore. Don't talk to me as if I am."
"Then please don't act like a child. Cooperate with me, with us."
"What do you want?"
Kline looked back at Monroe.
"Let her up," Monroe told Hawkmoon.
The silver Mechadrake assisted Celeste to her feet. Hawkmoon guided her back to her chair, and she sat.
"It's pretty simple, Celeste," Monroe said. "We want to learn more about Mindspeak, maybe see how it can benefit us. When I was younger, I'd heard vague rumours about humans who are extremely, almost freakishly, intuitive. It's an exciting advancement for this race, if it's permanent. We need more study done on the subject. So we want to keep an eye on you. Make note of your ability and its..." Monroe grimaced slightly. "...side effects."
Celeste didn't miss the fact that Cain's son used her first name. "So you want to see what makes me tick."
"For lack of a better cliche, yes."
The Huntress flicked her eyes over to Kline, who stood beside her. "And I suppose he'll be the one to disassemble me?"
Monroe frowned a little. "Dr Kline is highly respected in his profession. I assure you he won't rip you open. He just wants to ... have a look at you. Talk to you."
"What about Genesis? Why can't I keep working with him?"
"Well, Genesis' documents don't tell me much. I asked you about your sessions, but all I got out of you was 'I don't know.'" Monroe sneered a little. "Besides, Genesis is in a bit of trouble for never informing me about your condition."
"He won't be canned, will he?"
"No. But he won't be working with you. Now listen. If you're under Kline's care and you don't destabilize any further, you can resume your duties." The hope bled out of Monroe's voice as he looked at Celeste, who gripped at her chair's armrests, white-knuckled. "But I'm already having my doubts about your cooperation. Why, exactly, did you try to bean the nice doctor?"
"It's a shame I missed."
"First the attack on Iris, and now this. And you're wondering why we don't think you're stable enough to remain with the Hunters?"
"No. I understand your reasons. I just don't want anything to do with him."
Now Monroe looked at Kline.
Kline's smile was now a little faint. "I wouldn't mind an explanation, either."
"So you can't do anything to help my girl?"
Dr Kline stared at Jake over his thick booklet of paperwork. "You seem to be the type of gentleman who only understands a simple answer. So I'll repeat myself without the sugar. We don't know what's wrong with her, but we do know she's not responding to any medications or treatments. She's dying."
Jake's arms tightened unconsciously, and Celeste, cradled, made a faint noise of protest. It was a detached sound; the fever was taking her further away for longer intervals. She still clutched at the black bear that Jake had given her, and its fur was so warm from pressing against her hot skin, it almost felt alive.
"We've seen this kind of sickness before," Kline said. He didn't break eye contact. "Seems to be genetic. We're not sure what causes it to be passed on. Maybe the parent's lifestyle?"
"If I wasn't holding my dying daughter," Jake said in a wry, fierce way, "I'd break yer arse and send the pieces to your mother."
"Calm down, Mr McTreggor. You seem to speak with a bit of an accent when you're upset." Kline's green eyes narrowed amusedly. "I find such dialects to be a little charming, but some of the nurses here never had much exposure to the ways of old-world gutterblood. You might confuse them."
Jake swiftly rose to his feet and Kline stood at the same time. "Yes, it's about time we move on. We're going to admit your daughter, run a few more tests."
"Here, yeh just said there wasn' any--" Jake stopped, closed his eyes, and opened them again. "You just said there wasn't any hope for her."
"And what would you do?" Kline said sharply. "Take her home, let her waste away there?"
"Sure. If nothing can be done here, at least it'll be dignified."
"That's illegal, Mr McTreggor. Maybe we can help her. You don't want to throw away the chance, do you?"
Jake looked behind him. Two members of the hospital staff -- big fellows, at that -- were quietly blocking the exit to the small triage cubicle. He dropped his eyes. "I just want her to get better," he mumbled. "That's all. She's all I have."
"And you can be assured we'll try," the doctor said briskly, taking Celeste before Jake could react. "It looks grim, but we must always hope." He started away, and Jake followed.
"Where are you going, Mr McTreggor?"
"Following you, friend."
"You can't. No relations are allowed to be present for the testing. You'll have to sit in the waiting area."
"No relations, huh?" Jake said. "I call bullshit on that one." He started towards Kline with the intent of scooping Celeste back up, but the two orderlies grabbed him firmly by the arms and snapped him back. Jake gave a loud yell of protest that set several pairs of eyes in the waiting area on the commotion, and Kline slipped out of the cubicle before he could untangle himself. The thrill of a potential fight drained from Jake's veins but his fists remained clenched.
Doctors are assholes, whispered a voice in his head that sounded like gravel being crunched underfoot.
For once, Jake returned, I agree with you.
"If we could just get you to sign some forms, Mr McTreggor..."
"No, there isn't any hope. She's destroyed."
Someone a million miles away drawled a response. Celeste closed her eyes and clung to her bear.
"Whose fault? I don't know. We still don't understand what causes this disease, but the fact that her father is a tick-bitten, roving stray doesn't help matters. Let me tell you, I worked myself nearly to death going through school. Up all night, all the time. I once passed out into a bowl of soup -- oh, stop smiling you jackass. I work sixty hours a week, I pay my taxes, and people like him think they can shrug off responsibility, then cry when Fortune collects her due. I don't know what can be done for his daughter, really, but we'll see what else we can try." Kline lifted Celeste up roughly, and white-hot pain streaked through her nerves. A raspy snarl leaped from Celeste's burning, paper-dry throat. She kicked out and caught Kline in the elbow.
"Miserable girl!" the doctor barked, and the other doctor laughed. Celeste's strength was rapidly waning, but she nailed Kline again, and he dropped her with a rough curse and a startling blow to the side of her head. The world darkened.
The other doctor dropped his laughter immediately. "You can't do that."
Another strike clipped her, and Celeste cringed.
"No, I didn't think you were so tough," Kline said through a fierce grin. "We've wasted enough time. Let's get to business. Get this out of the way." The doctor yanked Jake's bear from Celeste's arms.
Celeste grasped at the air. "I want my bear!"
Kline tossed the stuffed animal onto the hospital room's counter, where it rolled off and landed on the floor face-down. A helpless loneliness stole over Celeste and she cried out for her father, who'd let her be taken away.
Kline shook her. "Stop the noise. Stop the noise now, or I'll throw out the stupid bear and you'll never see your father again. You don't have much time left, so you'd better listen to me. Are you listening to me?"
Celeste didn't cry as she dictated the memory, but she didn't make eye contact. She looked at the floor and sniffled a couple of times.
"That's..." Monroe's leather chair creaked and talked as he shifted. "...Well..."
"That's all a lie," Kline said calmly but firmly. "That never happened."
The Huntress jerked her head up and glared. "I remember differently."
"You were not the best-behaved patient I'd ever had," Kline admitted, "but I understood how sick you are. Never, in my career, have I been that cruel. I would never hit a child in distress, or take away her toy."
"What the hell explains these memories, then?" Celeste snarled. "I can see them all, clear as day."
"Which is impossible," Kline countered. "You were so young. You were delirious, besides. There is no possible way you can have such a clear, accurate memory of the event."
Monroe suggested, "Maybe her enhanced abilities have something to do with this memory?"
"We'll soon see."
"You're not getting near me," Celeste tuned up again. "I won't let you. I won't be your test subject."
"Then you're dismissed from the Hunters," Monroe said simply.
Celeste closed her mouth and turned to Cain's son.
"You're relieved of your duties. Furthermore, I can't let you walk around unsupervised in your current state. You're erratic and unpredictable, and a danger. I'm detaining you. Your mother will be called to escort you home."
Seven years with the Hunters. Seven years hiding her secret. Suddenly, it was over. Celeste felt sick in her heart, but she lifted her head again. "Fine."
"You brought this on yourself, McTreggor." Monroe stood up. "Kline, thank you for your time. I'm sorry to have wasted it. Hawkmoon, please see that McTreggor is comfortably settled in cell 32."
Nytetrayn opened his eyes. He wrapped his black wings tighter around him. The rain had stopped, but it was still chilly.
"I'm sorry, Celeste," he murmured. "It had to be done." The Mechadrake cracked a sour smile. "I do the worst things to you poor McTreggors for my own personal gain, don't I? But everything will work out in the end, for all of us. I promise."
Nytetrayn's paws sunk deep into the wet sand as he crossed the Refugee Camp's sandy lot, keeping his eyes on the sprawling MHHQ building as he made his way towards it. He took little notice of the ramshackle cabins surrounding him until--
Nytetrayn stopped, surprised, and looked in the direction of the word.
A lean, pale-brown woman with black hair glared back at him from the doorway of one of the cabins. She was wrapped in a blanket, and although she was several metres away, Nyte could see her shivering under her thin covering.
"Blackavar, you treacherous, jealous bastard!" the woman screeched. "Look at me! Look what you've done to me!" She flung her arms back and her wrap opened a little at the front.
"Oh Lordy," Nytetrayn said with an embarrassed half-laugh. The woman was naked. The Mechadrake stopped laughing when he walked a little closer and saw that her body was raked with terrible scars.
The woman shrank back as Nytetrayn drew closer. "Get away, Blackavar."
"I'm not Blackavar," Nyte said. "But your scent is familiar. I can also smell that you're sick. Do you need help?"
"Don't come any closer!"
"Or are you just Maverick Hunter Headquarters' resident crazy cat woman?"
The canopy of grey clouds hovering over the standoff darkened, and it started to rain again.