Chapter 24: Two A.M.
"All right then," said one young warrior as he stood up from the campfire and brushed off his grey jumpsuit. His hair was jet and his eyes were the colour of the bloated moon above. "Are we ready to get down to what's known as 'reddish work at night?'"
The challenge pulled the rest of the warriors to their feet, and they started to shuffle and check their equipment. They doused their campfire, and the darkness of the Grasslands pounced on them. They didn't mind.
Far off in the distance was the city, its myriad lights pinpricking the night. The leader looked at the huddle of buildings, which seemed so timid against the half-wasteland that surrounded it. Maverick Hunter Headquarters was on the outskirts of the city, the leader knew well enough. He'd seen so himself, one of the few. He was sixth generation, he was considered ripe enough for the honour.
His shadow came to stand beside him. "Are you worried?"
The leader looked up. "You've known me practically since I was born. Since when do you bother to ask?"
A sharp grin lit up the night. "Protocol?"
"I'm worried for the safety of my fighters, because I know that not all of us will be coming back," the leader answered. "But it's a righteous thing that we're doing. The world needs us."
"The world needs Eden and its discipline. With each generation, Eden grows closer together. But above ground, like in that wreck of a city we're looking at now, the generations seem to grow apart, and become deviant. Look at how small the city is compared to the dead world that surrounds it. It's like a mere handful of civilisation, all that humans could muster after a savage war. And humanity will lose its way again soon enough, if we don't intervene. Especially if robots and Reploids are allowed to keep mixing with the populace." The warrior ran his fingers through his hair, then spat. "Humans are the children of God, and they're chaotic and disobedient. How far removed from the Light are Reploids? Far enough so that morals and laws barely touch them, and they run wild. What comes next?"
"Some sort of horrific reckoning that'll poke holes in the world, I imagine," said his companion.
"This world has already corrupted Jody Loy, one of Eden's finest. He was sent to retrieve Celeste McTreggor; he hasn't returned. And what about Ange Spar? My father told me that years ago, she was a highly devoted soldier, until she was seduced by that Outsider and the stink of a corrupt land. It's a poisonous thing we're up against here. I want to mount the attack immediately. The longer we're exposed, the more likely it is that we'll suffer the fate of those who've fallen."
"Try not to worry too much, boy." The shadow looked over his shoulder, and a hundred reptilian eyes glittered in the starlight. "You have backup."
Nytetrayn had decided to risk a small fire.
From the sandy central lot of the Refugee Camp, the black Mechadrake kept a wary eye on the sleeping beast that was Maverick Hunter Headquarters. A few scattered lights winked on and off in the building, but things remained quiet. Two a.m. was a lonely hour.
Nytetrayn stirred at the contents of a discarded pot he'd scrounged from under the bed of one of the cabins. The pot had been covered with ants, but those were easily brushed off. And if he missed a few ... hey, protein. He had a feeling that Ange needed all she could get. He was going to have a hard enough time getting the girl to choke down some of the rabbit that he'd caught and prepared for her. Ange did seem a little more lucid now. At least she wasn't snarling profanities at him anymore, and accusing him of being Blackavar, her Mechadrake in Eden that turned on her when she was cast out.
Nyte had spent most of the day trying to get her to talk sense, but she would have none of it. Some event had turned her into a wreck, and the Mechadrake pondered bringing her back to MHHQ, which would likely be a messy affair. He thought he remembered hearing, in some distant, foggy piece of Eden gossip, that a cataclysmic event in the Hunters' history made the organisation unfriendly towards the dragons.
So he squatted in front of the fire with his wings wrapped around himself, and wondered what the hell he was going to do. And, once again, he wondered why he cared about matters that didn't really concern him. He was surprised to see Ange alive; he'd been present when her sentence was brought down upon her. A deviant Child of Eden had their own Mechadrake turned against them, and Blackavar, jealous of Ange's dealings with Jake, had torn into his former mistress with pleasure. Mortally wounded, Ange had fallen into Eden's river, and Asmodeus was content to leave her there. He usually gave Outcasts a chance to live. Most died of their Mechadrake-inflicted wounds, and those that didn't and tried to expose Eden had an odd way of ending up in lunatic asylums.
Evidently, Ange had lived. And escaped. And she looked horrid. She was slumped against a nearby cabin wall, still wrapped in a grungy blanket, her bare feet up to her ankles splashed with damp, crumbling sand. She was asleep, snoring faintly. As Nytetrayn watched her, her eyes suddenly flew open and reflected the flickering firelight. Nyte braced himself for another salvo of raving nonsense, but Ange only blinked at him and then withered in her wraps a little. "Torrent? What do you want from me?"
Okay, Nytetrayn mused, if things had been interesting before, now they were downright nutty. "Torrent? As in Leviathan? I'm not him, if that's what you think. Are you feeling better, Ange?"
"Who's Ange?" the girl asked warily.
"What kind of question is that? You just spent an entire day cussing about your lost title, Ange, Third-Generation Warrior of Eden."
"You're not making any sense," the girl growled, rising slowly to her feet, "and I don't think I like you. My name's Jackdaw."
"Sure, sure, I'm the one who's Looney Tunes," Nytetrayn snorted and poked at a stick of wood which blossomed into a shower of sparks. "Everyone knows that all people who are sure of themselves stand around naked in abandoned sand lots, wrapped in blankets."
"I -- " Jackdaw began, and stumbled. "Oh, just go away. Get out of here, I'll tell Headquarters that there's a vagabond camping out on their property."
Nyte grinned. "After you explain why you were AWOL for a day, right? Just sit down and relax. I made you something to eat."
"Not hungry. Don't feel like being poisoned."
"I'm not out to poison you. I owe a debt to your son." Nyte removed the stewed rabbit from the fire. "Sorry, it's kind of spartan. It'll still do you good."
Jackdaw was stuck fast. "'Son?' I don't have a son. I'm not married."
"You weren't in Eden, either," Nyte said with warm amusement, and a breeze suddenly stirred. Nyte's face turned stony. He held his head erect. "Do you hear something?"
"What's this about a son?" Jackdaw demanded. Nytetrayn motioned firmly for her to be silent. There was no mistaking what he heard.
Creaking, snapping, tendons and metal fighting against air currents and gravity -- with ease.
Nyte jumped to his feet and kicked sand over his small fire in one motion. He grabbed Jackdaw by her upper arm and hauled her up roughly.
"Hey!" she objected, clutching her blanket tighter around her with her other hand. "What--"
"Shut up woman, shut up, shut up!" Nyte hissed. He smacked open the nearest cabin door and jerked the girl into the dark. He closed the door most of the way, but left a small crack open, which he peered out of. "If you value your life, get back and keep quiet!" Nyte looked over his shoulder to glare at Jackdaw behind him, and the feeble light of the moon and stars outside was only sufficient to illuminate his draconian head, which seemed eyeless and shapeless. Jackdaw shrank back.
Less severely, Nytetrayn added, "We're facing a very sudden, very unpleasant situation. Doubly so for you. You don't want to be seen."
"By who?" Jackdaw scratched in a whisper.
In answer, a boy crossed Nyte's line of vision about seven metres away from the cabin door. He was young, probably even younger than Ange, but he had the confident gait and grace of a racehorse, evident even through his mere walking. He paused and glanced around, fully alert but not on the defensive. Nytetrayn didn't even have to notice the make of the youngster's uniform before his heart sank into his tail; the boy was a Warrior of Eden.
A red Mechadrake with a bristling black mane came to stand beside him, and all doubt in Nytetrayn's mind, what little there was, was removed. The red Mechadrake was a huge fellow, typical of the subspecies. He also lacked the imposing black horns of his kind, and one ear was folded over and fused to the side of his head. When he twitched his good ear back and forth to scan for sounds, the dud ear also twitched like a huge boil rippling with pus. Typical Edenian Mechadrake flaws, Nytetrayn thought to himself. The result of hasty, counterfeit construction.
As if his ears were burning, the big red looked in Nyte's direction and cocked his head slightly at the smouldering campfire. He stooped his head down to his master's ear, and whispered something. The boy glanced briefly at the cabin, then slowly nodded his head. Then he cupped his hands around his mouth and made a low, owl-like sound which suddenly flared sharply in a series of cardinal-like twitters.
"Nice," Nyte muttered, "but kind of stupid if he's using code to keep himself hidden. Whoever heard of a cardinal singing at night?" Still, Nyte's heart raced. He was sure that his hiding spot had been discovered.
However, the boy moved on in the direction of Maverick Hunter Headquarters, and his Mechadrake followed. Nytetrayn crouched further in the darkness as a host of warriors followed the boy, some of them quite close to Nyte's door. They cut across the land steadily but briskly, like hunting cats, like men with murderous intent. Boots swept through the stubbly grass, kicking up small waves of sand. Then they were gone, but Nyte knew better than to relax.
He was right. Not a minute later, the sand in the empty lot began to stir as if possessed, propelled by the steady, dark wings that beat out of sight above. Nyte caught scent of the downdraft and smelled oil, machines, flesh and blood. Mechadrakes, a whole fat lot of them, were joining in on Eden's storm of Hunter Headquarters.
Or was it really a storm? Nytetrayn figured when the time came for Asmodeus' whacko holocaust, he would've thrown everything he had against the machines. A dose of the Mechanical Hounds and their Mechadrakes would surely rough things up, but it likely wasn't enough to take down the Hunters.
The outdoors fell silent. Nyte dared to stick his head out the door and taste the air. All clear. For now. He could see the Edenites far off, quite near Maverick Hunter Headquarters' south side. Dozens of Mechadrakes wheeled in the sky above them, but all backs were turned to the Refugee Camp.
Nytetrayn stepped back into the cabin and pulled the door shut behind him. "We'll stay here 'til we know what they're up to," he told Jackdaw.
"All right," Jackdaw agreed weakly.
Glass exploded behind him, and Nyte turned just in time to see one of his own.
The strange black Mechadrake perched for half a second on the splintered windowframe beside the door, like a great gargoyle. A long, ugly neck stretched out, topped with a triangular head that leered at the room with interest. But the Mechadrake, who was unusually small, swept his burning eyes around the room, but failed to notice Nyte, who was behind his head.
Or maybe the Mechadrake could see Nyte, and didn't care, as its attention was enormously focused on--
"Ange? Ange? No, it couldn't be you.
"For Christ's sake, who's Ange?" Jackdaw cried desperately, clutching her blanket tighter around her.
"You're Ange, you miserable bint." The Mechadrake swept down from the windowframe and landed easily in front of the terrified woman. His claws screamed against the slate-grey floor. "Don't try lying to me. You lied to me once. Do you think I couldn't tell if you were lying to me again?"
"Get out! I don't know what you're talking about." Ange's eyes darted wildly from side to side and she stepped back from the advancing reptile.
"I guess you survived my attack in Eden." He swung his head sharply to the side and a bit of drool escaped from the side of his maw, hitting the floor with a faint hiss. "Not that you look much better for it. You were once a lovely girl, quite beautiful. I was proud to be at your side. But that's over and done with, and you made the wrong choice. Goodnight, dear Ange--"
The Mechadrake's head jerked up suddenly and more wet flew from its dripping teeth as Nytetrayn leaped on his back. Ange gasped when the acidic drops hit her arm, burning it. Then she dove for cover as a storm of teeth and leather flew at her and smashed into the wall, toppling a pair of bunk-beds like matchsticks.
Nytetrayn couldn't remember the last time he'd fought for his life, but his blood warmed up to the old task very quickly. Swinging his head from side to side, he slashed at the invader's throat with his teeth, ripped into his scales with his claws until he could feel the metal beneath the thick cushion of flesh. He found his grip and hung on like a pitbull, even as his rival lashed across his legs with a wicked barbed tail. Not much damage could be done; Nyte had caught the other Mechadrake by surprise, and he was at too awkward an angle to fight back efficiently. Nyte pumped his wings once to give himself some leverage, then found a good foothold for his back claws in his enemy's belly. The strange Mechadrake gave an ugly screech as Nytetrayn thrust backwards to keep balance and lost his hold, ripping handfuls of flesh like a greedy kid going to work at a ginger-bread house.
For a second, Nyte hovered in the air, his wings causing broken bits of glass and wood to scuttle across the floor like misshapen bugs. His stricken quarry lurched beneath him, hunched over, his broken forepaws and wings nearly dragging on the floor, his mouth hanging open and gasping desperately to cool his overclocked innards. The Mechadrake tried to scream again, but the sound caught in his torn throat like the whistling breath of a dying man.
Nyte dropped the torn handfuls of the Mechadrake, and then made one last dive, smashing the invader into the rock-solid floor, which cracked upon impact and left his friend's head as little more than a smear on a piece of grey canvas.
The Mechadrake's cries ceased.
Nytetrayn's dizzy panting and the hum of his gears re-aligning themselves filled the cabin. Then the musty night air wafted back into the cabin, and the crickets outside began to call to each other once more. Or had they ever stopped? Probably not. Summer was at its height, and they were probably getting a little desperate.
Nyte stood up when he had the strength. "That was exciting."
Jackdaw re-appeared, mouselike, from behind some debris, her eyes huge. "Everything's going goddamn crazy," she said shakily, "and for some reason, I'm in the middle of it."
"No you're not, my dear," Nyte reassured her as he poked his head cautiously out of the cabin once more. The Inheritors of Eden were completely gone. They'd likely infiltrated MHHQ by now, but the building was still quiet. "You're involved, but not in the middle. A spear-carrier on the right, maybe. That was an old friend of yours you probably don't remember, but he wasn't hunting you specifically. He just happened to be sent here to dispatch any witnesses, and Fate decided to have a bit of fun. What are you going to do now?"
Jackdaw lifted her head, surprised at the abrupt change in the conversation. "What do you mean?"
"What do you mean 'what do you mean?' It's a pretty straightforward question."
"I ... really don't know what to do." Jackdaw was shaking. "There was a time when I knew who I was."
Nyte winked. "You're sure about that?"
"Well, if I ever was, I sure as hell am not anymore."
"My personal recommendation? Stay here. Don't worry about the Hunters. Or rather, do worry about them, but don't fear any repercussions for going AWOL. They're about to have some bigger problems than looking for you. Lay low for now. It was good to see you again." Nyte stepped out of the cabin and unfurled his wings.
"Where are you going?" Jackdaw called after him.
"Off to mingle, of course."
Maverick Hunter Headquarters' garage was almost completely still. Quiet, peaceful, serene.
"Until Cass wakes up," Jackal grunted to himself, buffing a ride chaser. He paused in mid-swipe when he heard a scratch at one of the garage's side-doors. Jackal knew that sound well enough.
"That you, Cuchulain?"
The human mechanic stood up, wincing as his knees popped and the pins and needles tingled in his veins. He opened the small door, and a she-wolf bounded in. She immediately curled up on the seat of Jackal's personal ride chaser, Lady Macbeth.
"No Cu, get down. You know you're not allowed on that."
The wolf slowly dragged herself off the seat as if she were fighting heavy gravity and hopped up on Zero's ride chaser instead, War Dog.
"Good girl. Pee on it while you're there."
She didn't. Jackal grinned anyway. He loved animals, especially wild canines of all kind, and he'd even owned a tame dingo while growing up in Australia. But he'd never met an animal as keen and bright as this lone wolf, Cuchulain, formally known as "Supertramp." Jackal frowned when he recalled how the wolf had gone missing for a long stretch of time, and Genesis said she probably ran away because she was humiliated by her stupid name. So when Supertramp found her way back home, Jackal changed her name and asked Genesis what he thought about the name Cuchulain.
"The Hound of Ulster," Genesis had remarked. "Fitting. But how is your female wolf going to feel about being named after a screaming testosterone-driven warrior who probably spent a lot of time fighting evil with his dangly bits hanging out?"
Apparently, she hadn't minded at all. At least, she hadn't wandered off since. She did tend to go missing for a day or two, but she always came back to the garage.
Jackal fell back to work. His assistant, Bottle, began to tinker with a wounded ride chaser beside him. "Don't you ever sleep, sir?" the small yellow reploid asked his boss.
"Sometimes, when you turn your back for a second."
Cuchulain raised her head two seconds before a knock sounded at the delivery door.
Bottle looked at Jackal. "Are we expecting a delivery?"
"Yes, actually, from Steel Depot. Though it's here a bit earlier than I expected." Jackal carelessly flung open the door and Cuchulain flattened her ears against her head.
"Sir!" Bottle just had time to cry out before a red Mechadrake with one ear dove at him with one sweep of its massive wings and seized the reploid's head with its back claw. With remarkable, silent grace, it tossed Bottle into the air and grabbed him across the neck with his jaws, like a bear with a salmon. After a sharp, deadly shake, Bottle fell to the ground lifelessly, and the Mechadrake scanned the room for further threats as it ran its forked tongue over its black-stained chops. Cuchulain rose quickly to her feet, snarled, tensed her body ... and dove under Lady Macbeth.
Knocked over flat on his back by the red hurricane, Jackal had mercifully missed seeing the end of the friend he'd come to depend on during those endless sweltering summer days and freezing winter nights of work. But he could hear Bottle's last, desperate cry well enough, and when he tried to scramble to his feet, a clawed foot slammed down on his arm and Jackal gasped sharply when it was nearly wrenched it out of his socket.
A blue Mechadrake with one dead eye looked down at him emotionlessly. "Keep still and you won't be harmed. Our quarrel is not with humans, even those who choose to fraternize with abominations."
"Wha--Wha--Wha--" Jackal didn't know where to start. "Who are you? Wha' ya do with Bottle? How ... security?"
A young man with black hair and pale eyes walked softly to stand beside the blue Mechadrake, and he kneeled next to Jackal's head. "We're the Inheritors of Eden. We have been chosen to goad lost humans back to the flock ... and we will start by breaking their dependence on hollow, soulless metallics such as your former 'friend'--"
"You killed Bottle?!"
"But we have freed you. You now have a chance at salvation, at helping humanity to become as pure as snow once more--"
"Oh, fuck OFF!" Jackal half-screamed. He struggled to get up, but he was still pinned. He tried to spit at the boy instead, but only succeeded in hitting himself on the cheek. "Damn it! Now look what you made me do!" Jackal shook his head like a dog. "Bottle never hurt anyone, and you killed him! So as far as I'm concerned, you can take your salvation, your speeches, your fleece as white as snow or whatever the hell you were mouthing off about just a second ago, and stick it where the unicorns don't roam!"
"As for security," the boy beside Jackal continued in the same toneless voice, "They weren't a concern. Seems as if you Hunters have gotten a little soft during peace time."
Doma learned early on that life pretty much sucks.
A sleek, gold reploid of medium build fresh off the conveyer belt, Doma was an otherwise nondescript new grunt at the lowest rung of the Hunters. In fact, it was only his second night on the job, and he'd been active for a mere week.
And he was realising quickly that life had its miracles and triumphs, and life had its kicks in the ass. Or, more accurately, it had searing pain inflicted by electrified, barbed ropes.
Doma didn't know why he was the lucky one to receive the slow, painful death. He'd been patrolling the popular footpath and garden that ran along the outside of MHHQ along with three other rookies and a veteran who was showing them the ropes.
"You've come at a good time," the gruff senior had told Doma as they strolled past the well-tended lawns and the trees in their full summer dress. "It's a good time to learn. Nice and quiet."
And then a dragon had landed on his head.
Doma's mouth hung slack as the Captain quickly lost an arm beside him, and another dragon charged him. The rookie recovered himself just long enough to brace for the inevitable impact, but the dragon merely gathered himself up, pounced over Doma's head, and sank his teeth into the reploid behind him.
Was this a drill? Doma had wondered, dazed at the blossoming stains on the walkway. No, something sensible told him firmly, it most certainly wasn't. And as he'd turned to run, that's when the barbed ropes had lashed around his arms and tore into his armour like a cardboard box.
And here he was. Being tortured by humans. He was new to the ways of the world, of course, but he was pretty sure that something about the scenario was slightly off.
"Stop daydreaming," one of his captors barked, a tall female. "We asked you a question."
"I told you, I don't know--" Doma threw his head back as the rope tightened. His wrist-armour had long since been worn to nothing -- the ropes were gnawing down to his metallic bones.
"Maybe he doesn't know anything," said her companion, a male. "Security is obviously lax on the outside, but it's likely far more intense inside."
"Which is why we have to know where X and Zero are," the female said grimly.
"They'll be on their way soon, if they're not already. Chances are highest that they'll run into Kincaid's team in the garage. If we find them first, we'll just take it in stride."
"No point in burdening ourselves, then."
In a world hazed red with agony, Doma heard a faraway bird-call of mercy -- a weapon being unsheathed. And he saw it just before it bit his neck like it was butter, a blade of alien metal, a twisted hilt formed by two silver snakes twisting around each other to form a DNA helix, a slim, feminine hand drawing it across his throat.
Better to have lived for a week, Doma thought as the clammy, dark curtain descended, than to never have lived at all.
What is it about babies, Tess wondered as she hefted Paul on her shoulder, that they won't sleep at night? Were they secretly demons and black cats? Oh well, she wasn't so sleepy herself, and the warm night air was doing both of them good. Tess was actually feeling fantastic for the first time in a long time. Genesis was on the verge of clearing them both from the Medical Unit.
Tess halted at a black blotch on the pathway, startling against the white stones. Her eye was dragged inexorably along a black trail that splotched down the path, ending at a pair of clawed feet.
Tess slowly looked up.
Standing quite near her were two blue Mechadrakes, a small pile of dead reploids between them. Two humans in unfamiliar uniforms stood alongside the 'drakes, and broke off their conversation when they felt Tess staring at them.
Tess said nothing.
One of the Mechadrakes touched his forehead in a salute. "Evening, ma'am."
Tess turned on her heel and walked very quickly in the opposite direction.