TRIP THROUGH YOUR WIRES
Chapter 26: She Sells Sanctuary
Phoenix stood next to Vile on the crumbling rooftop of Doppler's old fortress and watched the sunset. She crossed her arms over her chest, a blazing goddess, kin of the fiery sun that threw out its last across the desolate wasteland. In his mismatched, patched armour, Vile looked like a broken peasant beside her ... except that the way the purple psychopath held himself was anything but subservient. No, in fact, he was reeking with pride.
Phoenix let him get away with it until he started humming a little tune. She jerked her head around and glared at him.
"I just want you to know, Vile, that I've seen some pretty stupid things come to pass since I started working with the Mavericks. There was that obsession that our soldiers had with board games, for example. And then there was the manner in which you got jumped by that human hootch and ended up in this state. Still, I think that you've truly touched the summit of Mount Retarded with that ... Sting Sponge thing that you just unleashed upon the city."
"Whatever is wrong with playing the hand we've been dealt, dear Phoenix?"
"Like the Hunters are going to have a problem taking apart a Maverick that's already been half-digested?"
"Oh, I think he's more formidable than that. He's got the most lethal qualities of two Mavericks in one body--"
"Such as that godforsaken floppy pink flower that you saw fit to restore to his misbegotten head?"
Phoenix expelled a small, angry sigh. Vile shifted a little on his feet, and a faint clattering sound pecked from inside his chest cavity whenever he moved. Nobody had really gotten around to retrieving Wheel Gator's lost peanut.
Neither Maverick said anything for a long time. They were content to resent each other's company under the blackening canopy that gradually became flecked with stars.
"Triumph will soon be ours, Phoenix," Vile said suddenly.
Phoenix rolled her eyes to heaven. "This isn't gonna be that thing about ruling hell and Rubicant and the ten thousand maidens in silver chains at your feet, is it? "
Vile picked up a beat-up radio that Phoenix hadn't noticed before, and drew up the antenna. "Reploids like yourself have not wrenched away from Death's clammy hand," he said tonelessly. "You have not developed the intuition that blesses creatures who defy their end."
"Maybe not, but I have been blessed with the bright eyes and good looks of someone who has managed to stay in one piece for her whole life."
Vile ignored her and fiddled with the tuner on his radio. He was rewarded with an unending shriek of static, but it didn't discourage him.
Phoenix grimaced. "What, have a craving for Country, or something? We're not going to get anything. We put up jammer towers so that the Hunters would have a harder time finding us, remember? To make up for our busted force field?"
Vile grabbed the topic at hand and ran in the opposite direction. "It's time for us to let slip the dogs of war."
"When you say 'dogs', you mean those miserable curs that you cobbled together out of spare Maverick parts, right?"
"They are hybrids, Phoenix. Questing Beasts."
"'Questing Beasts' my ass." Phoenix threw her glance back out to the barren mountains that surrounded Doppler's old fortress like a cancerous tumour. "See those mountains, Vile? Not too far beyond those, the Maverick Hunters have themselves this cosy little place. Much nicer than this dump, I'm sure. All it'll take is for one of your tin soldiers to get captured and talk under pressure, and the Hunters will be knocking on our door in no time. No, forget that, all it'll take is for the Hunters to put two and two together. I'll give them credit that they're capable of that much, seeing as how they've managed to wring our necks about a thousand times, and we've managed squat."
Vile didn't look up from his radio. "And what did you propose, my Phoenix?"
"That we hide here and live out our disgusting lives as quietly as possible. We had a chance with Bass' journal, but it's gone now, along with Overdrive Ostrich."
"Mmm," Vile murmured. "Here's what I propose." Vile held the radio out to her, and the phoenix took it. She frowned as she held it up to her ear. Nothing but static. The purple reploid was officially loony. It was time to --
Phoenix froze as the static ripped apart for a bare second. "What? Did I just hear--"
"Shh. It's a distress broadcast. You have to listen closely, but it's playing now."
Phoenix strained. She couldn't tell if she was listening to a distress call or a public broadcast, but she was definitely sure she heard some incriminating bits of vocabulary.
"It's the Hunters," Vile said helpfully. "They're under attack."
"Under attack?" Phoenix pulled back the radio and stared at it like a magic lamp. "...By us?"
Vile laughed jeeringly. "By a pack of useless curs, right? No, no. They're being invaded by unknown forces. Didn't you listen?"
"I tried," said Phoenix, "but I couldn't hear much about who's attacking them."
"Oh, that's the best part. Humans."
Phoenix stared at the former Hunter for a minute, then put the radio down beside her. She crossed her arms over her chest and breathed deeply.
"...So. What's your proposal?"
"Nothing special," Vile shrugged. "Just a return to our roots. What makes us 'Mavericks?'"
"Accepted theory is that we can't help being our bad widdle selves," Phoenix snorted. "Supposedly, we have a glitch that makes us susceptible to a virus that fries our brains."
"Let's put the liberal hippie doctrine aside and rephrase the question. What made Sigma a Maverick?"
"Oh, that's easy. He just couldn't embrace the gift of life if he was on his hands and knees, scrubbing toilets for some human who kicked him in the rear end whenever he wasn't working hard enough."
Vile chuckled. "I don't think Sigma was ever that lowborn. He had quite a high position in human society, for a time."
"Of course," Phoenix said. "But the metaphor still stands. The iron rule of Nature dictates that the strong barbeque the weak. And we reploids are as strong as they come. The very idea of us being ordered around by a dying race of walking water skins is probably giving Mother Earth an aneurysm as we speak. Sigma realised that."
"Which is why Sigma was so adamant about wiping out the human race," Vile finished for her. "We're Maverick because we subscribe to Sigma's newsletter, virus or no virus. We kill humans."
"We did. Once."
"And that's the problem. We've lost sight of our original goal. Lately, we Mavericks spend all our energy trying to trip up the one organisation who can stop us from doing what we're born to do -- and that's the Maverick Hunters." Vile spread out his hands. "We're obsessed with the big picture."
"With good reason, Vile. As I said, the Hunters are considerably stronger than us. If we hurt any humans, they'll sniff us out."
Vile motioned to the radio that was still hissing like bacon in grease. "Unless they've got bigger things to deal with, yes?"
"Bigger things..." Phoenix said slowly. She fell silent for a few seconds, and nodded. "I see."
"We can't do much in our state, no. But Sigma will be back--"
"He already was once, while you were taking your junkyard nap," Phoenix grinned. "He screwed up colossally because he misjudged the sparkly power of love and friendship. There was this whole thing with the Hunters and these wankers called Repliforce and a phallic cannon in space."
Vile jerked back a little in surprise. "Well ... how many humans died?"
"You see? This is what I'm talking about--"
Phoenix scratched the underside of her beak. "Of course, if Sigma had succeeded, we all would have been dust."
"What do you mean?"
"Sigma tried to use the cannon to blow up the whole planet. With all of us on it, human and reploid alike."
"What? What did he do that for?!"
"Because he's plumb loco!" Phoenix barked. "He's useless to us now. All that matters to him are the Hunters, not the rise of the Reploid race. Why do you think I've been wallowing in despair and hopelessness these past years? Why do you think I'm ready to help you ressusitate the original Maverick oath?"
Vile sucked in his breath and looked up at the night sky. Then he chuckled a little. "When I said that today's Mavericks are obsessed with wiping out the Hunters ... I had no idea how dire the situation is."
"Surprise," Phoenix muttered. "Anyway, I can take a guess at your plan. The cat's away, the mice will play, etc. Can the mongr -- Questing Beasts get all the way to the city while the Hunters are preoccupied?"
"Yes. The latest batch is built for speed as well as strength. I don't know how or why, but the Hunters have a serious distraction on their hands. I can't win a war, but I can take an opportunity to cull a few humans when it's given to me."
"How did you know the Hunters were going to be attacked by outside forces?"
"Destiny," Vile said simply. "Intuition. As I said before, I've been touched by Death and now know certain things. Azriel came before me in a dream, and--"
"Stop, stop stop stop stop." Phoenix held up a hand. "That's enough. I believe you, and I will follow you. Again. I think I need to get my CPU air-blasted for even thinking of going through this circus act again ... but for some reason, I feel confident. Hell, I feel great."
"This time, we won't fail," Vile said without grandeur. He was simply stating a fact.
Caillou leaned against the doorjamb of Eden's lesser Medical centre at the bottom of the tree, his cropped ear still bleeding furiously. The head doctor, Ison, raised an eyebrow at the blood that streaked down Caillou's wrist and forearm as the boy tried to staunch the bleeding with his hand.
"Sit," the doctor ordered, and Caillou moved like a dog to almost collapse on one of the beds in the small room. Ison pulled down his hand and whistled at the mess.
"Yeah," Caillou mumbled.
Ison's seamed white brow crinkled further as he mopped up the outsider's ear and neck with damp towels. "How did you ever manage to do this?"
"I didn't. Asmodeus did."
"Oh!" Ison gave Caillou a final dab on the side of his head. "Well, in that case, best be on your way, boy."
"Am I still bleeding?"
"Lord yes. There're some pretty big arteries in the ear. Go on."
Caillou slowly pulled himself up from the bed and left the Medical centre. He glanced back to see Ison changing the sheets he'd been sitting on. Slowly, with a sopping towel stil stuck to the side of his head, he began to trudge up the Great Tree's spiraling catwalk.
There was only one place left to go for help.
Aiden Spar sat at the doorway of his warren, sipping strong tea and thinking about nothing in particular. Traffic was low in his particular branch, so to speak, of the Great Tree; being a retired warrior, he had pleasant quarters near the top of Eden, quite close to the surface world.
Aiden's wife, Kathleen, joined him outside of the warren. He nodded at her as she stood beside him with her own cup of tea. After a couple of quiet sips, she sat down next to her husband and hooked a strand of dark hair behind her ear.
Aiden kissed the top of her head. "You feeling okay?"
"Mm. I was just getting ready for our company."
Aiden took another sip of tea and didn't ask, even though no visitors were in immediate sight. He'd been married to Kathleen long enough to know.
Five minutes passed, and Kathleen stood up a few seconds before Aiden caught sight of some stricken creature lurching towards them. Then he stood up as well, unconsciously liberating his rifle at the same time. He took a better look at what was coming, and a cold grin seeped out to the corners of his mouth.
"Well, well, well!"
Caillou flicked his eyes up at Aiden.
"Maybe you can help me, boy." Aiden said as he holstered his rifle, but not his barren smile. "Haven't seen my daughter around lately. Maybe you know something about that?"
"Don't call me that. Really. Don't."
"I don't know where she is," Caillou whispered, shifting his bloody towel and struggling to keep his voice steady. "I need her. I..."
Kathleen kneeled on the catwalk and draped one arm over her knee. Caillou looked at her, then Aiden, and his eyes hardened.
"No. To hell with this. To hell with you both."
Caillou didn't even have time to turn around before Aiden jumped him. He landed a punch on the side of his face that made something in the boy's jaw snap like a tiny twig. Pain prodded Caillou like a cattle brand, and he retaliated furiously, delivering an uppercut to Aiden's chin before he kneed his grandfather in the stomach.
Then a hand closed around Caillou's upper arm and after the world jerked violently on its axis he suddenly found himself on the ground, his injured ear burning as if doused in cold fire. Fighting to keep from being sick, he struggled against his grandfather's boot, which pinned his sweating neck to the freezing catwalk steel.
"Not a smart move, pup," Aiden said flatly. "The windpipe is a pretty fickle tube. Tends to swell shut under the slightest pressure."
Caillou slowed his struggles, and Aiden's boot lowered with the ease of a man pressing a gas peddle. Caillou finally grit his teeth and stopped fighting.
"That's a little better," Aiden nodded down at him. "I'm going to let you up now, but you're not going to talk like that to me or your grandmother ever again. If you do, I'll throw you over the side of the catwalk, and I don't think anyone'll write any ballads for you. Do you understand?"
"Yes." Caillou hissed the word.
Aiden withdrew his boot, and Caillou shakily stood up. He pressed his hand to his still-dripping ear and swayed slightly.
"Caillou," Kathleen called to him. She'd remained kneeling calmly on the ground during the row and when he looked at her, she stared back with small, dark eyes that glittered questions like a curious birds'.
"I don't know where my mother is," Caillou suddenly blurted. "I don't!"
Kathleen held out one arm. Caillou plunged into her embrace and broke down into sobs as he pressed against his grandmother's shoulder, smearing her neck with saltwater and blood.
Aiden was disgusted. "What a display. Not even girls cry. You're weak, like your cur of a father."
"Your poor ear," Kathleen mourned as delicately felt at the scrap of cartilage and skin that still dangled where Asmodeus' katana had cleaved. Caillou growled in pain and jerked his head away. Kathleen took his hand and started to lead him into the warren.
"Here now--" Aiden began, but neither his wife or his grandson paid any attention as they disappeared into the room.
"Weak," he murmured.
"Aiden, we need you in here for a moment," Kathleen called out to him.
Aiden stuffed his hands into his pockets and slouched back into the warren.
In the dark, sleepy cool of four a.m., it's hard to believe that the sun will ever rise and prod everybody out of their beds. Sam sat on the curb of a local Tim Dunkin's and chewed on a wooden stir-stick as he thought regretfully about the upcoming noise and heat of the day, and the rush-hour traffic he would have to struggle with soon as he made his deliveries.
He tossed his empty coffee cup into the deserted parking lot before he stood up and fished for his keys. His fingers froze in his pocket when he happened to look up and see a winged, metal monstrosity roosting on the roof of his van like a twisted archangel, glaring at him with huge, deep-sea eyes.
Sam slowly pulled out his keys, but his fist fell limply to his side. "You ... are you a goddamned flying seahorse?"
The spindly, reptile-like Reploid unfurled and stood at his full height, his whip of a tail lashing against the side of the van and shattering one window. "Maybe."
"Uh ... why?"
"Because I'm needed."
Sam stared. The reploid stared back, the parking lot lights etching it with a soft white aura. The first morning birds began to twitter.
"W-What do you want?"
"I want to see you dead."
The reploid bounced off the roof and threw out his wings. Sam received a clawed foot to his pudgy face and his worries about rush hour traffic were over.
Toxic Eagle chuckled slowly as fresh air wafted past his snorkel-like muzzle. He drank his new life like wine. Broken glass sparkled around him like a dragon's horde.
"Dead. All of you. Laying in the muddy ground. But cold concrete will do."
Ratty blue wings stirred the morning air, and the hunt was on.
A quick bolt of pain flickered through Caillou's ear, and then he was staring at half his ear as Aiden held it out to show him as if it were a newly-pulled baby tooth. Caillou automatically reached up to the side of his head, but Kathleen came from behind and gently pulled his arm down before she pressed something against the side of his head. Something that stung. Caillou gasped a curse and a heavy hand caught him on top of his skull.
"Mouth like a sewer," Aiden muttered. "That's what comes of gutterblood."
"This'll stop the bleeding," Kathleen said. "Hold it there for a while."
Kathleen left him to attend to a pot of boiling water, and Caillou studied his grandfather in quick, submissive snatches. Aiden leaned against the wall and puffed out an exasperated breath. His black brow was shiny with a thin sheet of sweat. Kathleen seemed to be at the complete opposite of the colour spectrum; she was almost ghostly pale. Working calmly, she placed a mug and a bowl on the table beside Caillou, and started to mop at the dirt and blood on his face.
"How's that ear doing?"
Caillou removed his compress, and Kathleen nodded in approval. "Good. It's stopped bleeding."
Silence reigned over the warren as Kathleen continued to clean up Caillou, other than one instance where the older woman said, "Hands, please." Caillou presented them, and those were wiped off as well.
"Good." Kathleen pointed to the mug steaming beside him. "Drink," she ordered.
Caillou had no idea what the cup contained. It tasted like some sort of meat broth, but before he was even finished, a warm sleepiness drifted over him and his troubles and pain pushed off like a boat across a pond. He put the mug down and sleepily cradled his head in his arms.
"God, look at him," Kathleen whispered from a faraway cloud. "He looks so much like Ange."
"Fortunately for him," Aiden snorted before the world around Caillou closed shop.
"X!" the Crimson Hunter panted when he saw his friend run up beside him. "You're okay!"
"Worried?" X asked, pressing his back against Zero's as the two warily crept down the battle-ravaged corridor. Moving like some awkward beast, they stepped over a freshly-dispatched black Mechadrake. X missed his step and jostled against Zero's shoulder a little. Zero hissed and X glanced backwards at his friend.
"Holy--! What happened to your shoulder?"
"Oh, black Mechadrakes do this nifty trick where they can spit acid," Zero said sourly. "Did you know?"
"I do now."
"I've had lessons galore since you and I got separated. Here, I think we're safe for now."
X and Zero broke apart and looked around, a little dazed. The scorched, bloody corridor looked like a damaged artery. X wordlessly pointed at a particularly huge hole in the wall near the exit.
"That was when I tossed the slippery little bastard off my back," Zero said cheerfully, but he was clearly nearing his limit. His damaged shoulder was a hardened blob of metal and it only called attention to the various nicks, cuts and dents that crisscrossed his body.
"Zero ... what exactly is happening, here?"
"I don't know." The Hunter placed a hand on the doorknob of the exit that would lead them into the Garage. "But if anything bad comes of it, I'm glad I won't die a dog's death."
He entered the Garage, and the smell of motor oil and tires hit him even before he noticed the human boy and the red Mechadrake standing like totems in the centre of the huge area. X tensed up immediately at the scene. He aimed his arm cannon at the dragon. "Let him go, Maverick!"
The Mechadrake and the boy glanced at each other out of the corners of their eyes before the boy crossed his arms over his chest and looked at the Hunter cooly. "He's my friend, you 'bomination."
"Oh, I can't wait to hear this one explained," Zero said. "That Mechadrake there's your friend?"
"My friend and steward."
"He's missing a ear. Did you know?"
A soft growl began to grind in the Mechadrake's stomach, and the boy said nothing.
"Nevermind." X drew back his cannon a little, but his body remained ready. "What do you want? Did you ... er, stage this attack? Somehow?"
"Maybe you were mad at your mom for putting you to bed early?" Zero offered, and X elbowed him with his free arm.
"My name's Kincaid," the boy said tonelessly, "and this is Niner."
"Sixty--" Zero began to whisper, and X's elbow ended up in his ribs again.
"We'll kill you," Kincaid continued in a louder voice, "and then we'll be on our way."
Confused silence filled the huge garage to the brim.
"Er ... ah..." X loosened up a bit and rubbed the back of his neck. "I think there might be a mistake. See, you're a human and we're Maverick Hunters. We hunt Mavericks, who want to hurt boys and girls such as yourself. See?"
"I know precisely what you are. Bastard offspring of lost lambs."
"Did he just seriously say that without laughing?" Zero asked X out of the corner of his mouth.
"We are the Inheritors of Eden, and we call upon our birthright to erase mankind's mistakes and allow him a new start."
"'Inheritors of Eden?'" Zero was suddenly alert. "We captured that boy, Blake, about a week and a half ago and he mentioned -- whoacrap!"
In the space of a second, Zero was suddenly dealing with a barbed steel cable lashing around his knee and a red Mechadrake closing its jaws uncomfortably close to the side of his face. In fact, Zero narrowly missed becoming the Phantom of the Headquarters by Kincaid's snakelike weapon, which jerked him away to one side just in time.
But not much can keep a veteran from reaching his weapon in the heat of a battle. Zero unsheathed his lightsabre and ripped it through his restraint. At the same time, Niner's misshapen head thrashed backwards and the Mechadrake bellowed when a burning hailstorm of plasma pelted his face and neck.
Zero hit his stride instantly, quickened by the familiar, comforting smell of plasma and ozone working in tandem. Kincaid abandoned his damaged rope, unsheathed a wickedly familiar dagger, and lunged. Zero braced himself, and wasn't prepared when the boy streaked past him and threw himself at X instead, jumping up and hooking an arm around the Hunter's neck like some perversion of a child flinging himself happily on a favourite adult. Momentum swung Kincaid around and he plunged his dagger into X's back as neatly as scissors cut ribbon.
"Oh, god damn it!" Zero half-screamed as the Crimson hunter watched X's eyes widen in surprise, and at the same time he remembered the virus that Cass had been infected with. Zero pounded over to his friend, and received a face full of red scales. Something burning-hot fell on his neck, followed by what felt like a dozen piercing with fiery daggers. The ground rapidly dropped from under his feet and Zero realised very quickly that he was literally as helpless as a kitten being carried in its mother's mouth. Its psychotic, one-eared mother.
Zero stabbed his sabre upwards and let the wheel of fortune fly.
A colourful scream of "OW! My bloodydamn nose!" accompanied Zero on his rapid trip to the ground. The Hunter landed neatly on the tips of his toes and the fingers of his left hand, his weapon still burning hungrily in his right. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw X engaged in a wrestling match with Kincaid. Fine. Good.
Niner dropped his paws from his gushing snout. Black blood fouled his snarl and drops whapped Zero in the face when the Mechadrake lunged at him with a bellow. He managed a healthy swipe across Zero's face that nearly put out the same eye he'd just gotten repaired after his encounter with Sting Sponge. With his body thick in the heat of battle-fever, Zero's mind took a small break and drudged up the memory of his repair job, and Lifesaver's disapproval.
Monroe specifically told me that I'm not to treat you until you get your scanning done, Zero. Did you tell him about this attack? Why ever not? I'll help you this time, but I can't do this again...
Sure, why not. One more thing to hide. His past, his emotions, and now his boo-boos. Irritation surged in Zero, and his sabre ripped across Niner's silver breastplate as the Mechadrake's claws cleaved his skin.
"I don't mind looking like a dog tried to drag my face home," Zero said, craning his neck around to speak in Niner's bloated wound of an ear. "At least I'm not dead."
And his sabre nuzzled into the intruder's exposed belly.
X kneeled in a jigsaw puzzle of wrecked vehicle parts, his back to his friend. A ripped wound bled between his trembling shoulder blades and he held something in his arms.
"X, are you hurt?"
"No," X mumbled. Then he seemed to consider something. "Not ... not in the usual way."
Crunching slowly through the debris, Zero knelt behind his friend. "Come on. Show me," he said like a parent coaxing a child to give over a deceased pet.
X slowly twisted round and unfurled his arms. Kincaid lay in them silently, one side of his face a bloody, swollen mess.
"Hm," Zero grunted. "Is he dead?"
"No. Just ... really, really hurt."
"Same could be said for you, X."
The azure Hunter was crosshatched with knife swipes and stabs on his face, his body, and his hands. He sighed. "He was quick. Never saw anything like it. I couldn't reason with him, so I knocked him down. Took a few tries."
Zero felt the boy's pulse and remembered Blake. "Not surprised."
"He still fought even after I tackled him and he smashed his head on the floor. I figured I had to knock him out, so I got him in the cheek." X's eyes grew wide. "His bones ... I barely felt them against my fist before they just ... collapsed. I've never felt anything like it. I never want to again."
"Well ... it's not a feeling I've forgotten, either."
"God above," X whispered. "We can kill humans so easily. We can utterly destroy them, if we wanted to."
"As four bloody wars have proven," Zero responded wryly. He stood up. "He's stable, and after he's treated, he'll be quite all right. For a time. He has information we need, I'm sure. We can kill humans, X, but this fellow is no ordinary human."
"Ordinary or not, I never thought I'd see the day where I had to raise my hand against one." X hauled himself to his feet shakily. He stared down at Kincaid. "Though we've seen some bad things in these wars, I never thought it'd ever come to this. I'm supposed to protect humans, not fight them."
"Come on, X. We'll take him to Genesis, and you need to see Lifesaver."
"You were right, Zero. We've gone wrong somewhere. This boy's turned bad because at some point, I didn't do enough to help him. Or his friends. Or his parents. Or ... Good Jesus, who knows."
Zero put his bleeding hand on his friend's battered shoulder and together they waded back to the wrecked corridor.