Chapter 28: Mothers of the Disappeared

Well, I've done some dumb things in my life, but trusting that little Repliforce weasel was certainly the dumbest.

Tess Garret flexed her fingers slowly. Soil slid under her fingernails and she shuddered. The grass under her cheek was wet with either dew or tears. It was hard to tell at this point. All she knew for sure was that her head felt like someone was driving a wedge into the back of her skull, and she was going to throw up in about one minute.

Iris had obviously learned something about taking down humans after her fight with Celeste. And why not? She was one half of a two-piece wrecking machine, after all. She'd better damn well have learned something. Tess hoped most of all that Iris had, at some point, learned about taking care of babies. She had Paul now, after all.

And Paul's last memory will be of me dropping him. Tess' head felt like it was floating off her shoulders, but the pain didn't lessen. I'm in for a lifetime of bad Mother's Day presents, if I ever see him again.

It was a half-ridiculous thought, and Tess hardly knew where it came from, but bizarrely, she couldn't think of much else. She didn't even have an idea of what direction Iris had run off to. An earwig squirmed through the damp earth half an inch away from her nose, and she couldn't muster the spirit to be repulsed.

"Over there!"

Tess watched the earwig disappear into the taller grass like a panther slipping into the jungle. She thought dully about how little the two creatures varied from one another. She closed her eyes. Heavy footsteps jarred her brain and very suddenly, she was on her feet, sagging against a strong arm.

"She's got a nasty wound on the back of her head. Should we take her with us?"

The voice behind Tess' head felt unusually hot, almost scalding. She groaned. Her fighting instincts trickled into her limbs like guests late to a party. She felt at the arm holding her and stiffened when she felt not flesh or armour, but something cold and bumpy. Scales!

Her rescuer sensed her agitation. "Don't fret ma'am, we won't hurt you."

"It's too late!" Tess rasped, kicking her heel uselessly against the Mechadrake's shin. "It's your fault! We were running from you, and she took him!"

"...Who took who?"

"Whom," corrected a separate unseen voice.

"Piss off. Answer me, ma'am. What happened? Maybe we can help you."

Tess gripped feebly at the arm encircling her. "Iris took my boy ... lemme go, I have to find him."


"Use't be with Repliforce!" Tess said irritably. "Everyun' knows that."

"A reploid stole your kid, you're saying? Start from the beginning. Think clearly."

The command was almost more than Tess could bear. She dropped her head until her chin touched her chest and took a deep breath to cool the sob that was aching to escape from her throat. "I was taking a walk with Paul ... I saw some strange humans an' Mechadrakes gathered on the lawn by the west wing of Headquarters. That was you, wasn't it?"

"Er, no, can't say so. Haven't seen you before. A Reploid took your son?"

"Somehow, I'm not surprised," murmured the second voice.

"When I saw what was in front of me, I tried to go back into the Headquarters. Iris stopped me before I got to the entrance. She said the building was in security lockdown, but she knew another way in." Tess groaned again, working hard to keep the contents of her stomach down. What was her problem? Why didn't she take a good look at the young Reploid's eyes? Surely she would have read her intentions ... Iris was not good at masking her emotions. Tess hadn't even noticed that Iris' voice definitely sounded even flightier than usual ... she just chalked it up to nervousness. She'd been pretty uneasy, herself. Strangers emerging from nowhere and throwing their coils around Maverick Hunter Headquarters didn't happen often. And human assailants, besides? The whole experience had been disorienting, even for a veteran like Tess.

And Iris ... well, she played her cards well.

Come on, Mrs Garret. I know another way in. I'll keep you and Paul safe."

Grabbing her hand and pulling her along. Tripping her. In an instant, panic that Paul might be hurt. Then, before Tess could recover herself and pull up to her feet -- kablammo.

Had it even occurred to Tess to ask Iris why she was out of the Medical Unit in the first place, when Genesis gave her strict orders never to leave without his permission? No, of course not. Something about that damn robot felled a cloud of stupidity around all who occupied her space. Tess grit her teeth and pounded the Mechadrake's arm with newfound strength.

"Ouch! Well if you wanted me to put you down, you didn't have to bloody well hit me!" The Mechadrake set her on the lawn, and she swayed as she got a good look at her helpers for the first time. There were only two of them, a red Mechadrake and a human woman who looked about her age. At the sight of her, Tess leaped back like a cat startled by a strange dog.

The woman smiled thinly. "Ironic that you're seemingly scared of me and not my companion here."

Tess recovered part of herself and wrapped her arms around her body, shivering in the early morning cool. "It's just confusing to see one of my own kind attacking the institute that's sworn to protect them. What in God's name is wrong with you freaks?"

The strange girl was wearing an earth-coloured jacket over her grey jumpsuit. On the left shoulder, there was an insignia, two snakes forming a DNA helix. Below that, there was some odd mark, possibly indicating rank. The girl removed her jacket and swept it over Tess' shoulders. "You need to relax. I'd gladly explain our intentions to you, but I don't think you'd appreciate them in your disoriented state ... even if it is a Reploid who has done you wrong."

"'ware movement," grunted the Mechadrake suddenly, indicating Maverick Hunter Headquarters with his snout. Tess glanced over and saw the invaders spilling briskly from the gutted building like blood from a wound.

"Was the mission successful?" the woman murmured.

"Don't know. I think my comm is down again, because I didn't hear anyone say they'd retrieved McTreggor or Loy. Either way, we got the Hunters' attention and the sun's coming up, so we'd better run."

Tess looked up sharply. "Celeste?"

The woman didn't seem to hear her. "Shoddy repair jobs on the tech lately. I hear Asmodeus sent away Nytetrayn. He was in charge of that sort of matter."

"Well, that's his business," the Mechadrake grunted. "See, looks like the Mechanical Hounds are retreating pretty quickly, so we'd best do the same." He eased his wings open.

"Here, wait!" Tess angrily grabbed the woman by the wrist. "You can't leave! Celeste--Iris--"

When she became aware again, she was staring at the grey morning sky, which was mostly taken up by the snarling red face of the Mechadrake, who pressed down hard on her shoulder with his foot. "It's not my girl's fault if you decided to fraternize with abominations, woman. Kindly keep your hands to yourself or I'll make sure you do."

"Keer, back off," the strange girl said in a weary voice. "She didn't hurt me, and she's not in a right state of mind. What would a mech like yourself understand about these matters?"

The dragon emitted a sound like a small thunderstorm.

"Yes, yes, I referred to your mechanics," she said in a bored voice. "Get over it." She crouched down next to Tess. "If you come with us, we can help you find your baby."

Tess' energy bled away as she looked from the kindly face of the woman to the twisted mug of the Mechadrake that guarded her. She shook her head. "Nuh," was all she could say.

"Then we'll leave you now." The woman helped Tess sit up and brushed her off. She glanced about at the tide of feeling invaders that passed them closely. "They're going to wonder why I'm talking to you if I'm not taking you prisoner. I'll take my jacket back now, if you don't mind."

She got Tess on her feet completely and steadied her for a moment. "Will you be okay?"


The girl patted her cheek lightly and turned her in the direction of MHHQ. Tess felt the hands on her shoulders clench a little bit when Hunters poured out in close pursuit of the human invaders, who did not turn to fight, but only quickened their pace. A sour metallic wind brushed through Tess' hair as one after another, Mechadrakes bounded through the wet grass, snapped their wings and took to the sky.

"Go on, you'll find help," the grey girl whispered to Tess. "I have to go. Good luck." Then she was gone, and Tess jerked backwards a little bit as the coat vanished from her shoulders.

Tess drank in the chaos for a second before staggering towards MHHQ. Her vision faded in and out, and at one point a green-armoured Reploid from the 17th ran directly towards her, then reared like a spooked horse when she didn't get out of his way.

"Paul," Tess muttered, shivering.

"Er, no, my name's Aero," the green Reploid said in a quiet voice that nevertheless carried over the thunderous river of Hunters pouring around them. "Are you okay?"

Tess crouched at his feet and began to cry. Aero cleared his throat nervously, put a hand on her shoulder, removed it, then put it on her again. Then he gave up and called for help.

Monroe Cain pressed his finger-tips against the cool glass of his office picture-window. Then he turned around slowly and put his hand lightly on the coral paper-weight resting on his desk. Seven the panther eyed him nervously, but Genesis kept his face straight.

Monroe coughed. "A Hunter, you say? Chewed up?"

"Yes, sir," Genesis said gruffly. "I tried to help him, but he was too far gone."

"And you think that--"

"I think that a wolf did it."

"A wolf that--"

"A wolf that Jackal kept in the garage."


"Because I helped heal her."

Monroe coughed again and grinned fiercely. "Oh, wow, where do I file this fantastic bit of information. Maybe under 'P' for 'Psychotic wolf.' It'll nestle in nicely after 'N' for 'Nonsensical Invaders', and after that, 'R' for 'Revived Mavericks Ripping Up the City.'" Monroe spun suddenly and hurled the paperweight at his window. It cracked with a thick thudding sound, but it didn't shatter. Monroe swore in a half-scream and took a flying kick at the injured glass, only succeeding in bouncing back against his desk and spilling paperwork everywhere.

A strange look was fixed on Seven's face, but Genesis calmly picked Monroe up and eased the head of HQ back into his seat. Monroe let himself settle in before he whapped the fox's arms away. "Genesis, if things weren't such a mess right now, I'd find a way to assassinate you with my shoe. But then I wouldn't be able to ask you, how did you get to me so quickly? Didn't any of the ... visitors stop you?"

"I saw a number of them, yes. But they didn't pay attention to me. They all seemed to receive some sort of message because a lot of them stopped any fights they were engaged in and just turned tail and ran."

"You didn't engage any of them?"


"Why not?"

"Because I'm not retarded."

"Fair enough, though you certainly owe it to the Hunters to get your crap together. First there was the incident with hiding McTreggor's health record, and now this wild wolf business." Monroe's temper began to boil again. "What on God's earth prompted you to think that a wolf made a cool pet?"

"In all fairness sir, I only healed her. Jackal kept her."

Monroe threw his hands up in the air. "Whatever! What I'm trying to say is, the invaders would've been pretty preoccupied with a retreat, maybe enough that it would've been easy to take one as a prisoner and learn just what the hell happened in the halls of this godforsaken establishment. Those claws on your fingers aren't for picking your nose, Genesis."

"I'm well aware."

"And then there's the reports of Maverick ... hybrids attacking the city. Something about Toxic Seahorse and Storm Eagle fused together, among others. Either the entire city is on some seriously awesome drugs, or these incidents are all related. With the exception, perhaps, of your wolf, who simply went crazy in the party atmosphere."

Genesis adjusted his shades. "Sure, but maybe it's best to deal with one thing at a time."

"Oh, that's noble," Monroe said coldly. He tapped his fingers on his desk, coiling for another verbal attack, but Genesis' communicator beeped, and he eased back into his chair with begrudging curiosity.

"Uh huh," Genesis answered an unvoiced question. "I'll be down in a few minutes."

"If you set foot in the Medical Unit again, you'll have to step over my dead body," Monroe automatically growled when the fox cut communications.

"Well, do you want your prisoner in any condition to answer questions, or do you want him dead?"

Monroe's face wiped itself of expression. "What?"

"A sole prisoner was captured and brought back by X and Zero. Some boy of rank, no less." Genesis wrinkled his nose sadly. "You're also going to want to talk to Tess about a few things. And get Lifesaver to meet us down in the Medical Unit. X needs him."



Genesis was never sure what sound hit him first when he walked into the Medical Unit. There was Tess' thin wail, X's low moan and the rattle of his armour as he shook violently, clinging to an unconscious boy like a teddy bear. Zero fought angrily with Josh Garret, who sat on one of the beds and pillowed his wife's pale head with his lap, and the general din of Hunters made desperate by injury filled the room.

Genesis put his fingers in his mouth and whistled piercingly. The noise in the ward cooled slightly, and the fox began to feel more like himself as he took charge.

"Monroe, talk to Tess. X, Lifesaver is coming to take care of that virus you've been infected with--oh, don't start fretting like a little girl, it's not the Maverick virus. You'll just feel out of sorts for a while, I think. Pip ... Pip, get over here. No, here, you damnable prat. Take care of the wound on the back of Tess' head, but before that, get the Ninesnakes Unit to see to the injured Hunters. Don't get in Monroe's way, all right? Josh, settle down, your wife needs you right now. And Zero, do you think you could stop your pissing contest long enough to bring X's prisoner to Room 11?"

If the noise didn't settle down, it at least sounded like it had purpose. That was better. If there was one thing Genesis couldn't stand, it was unproductive discord.

Zero sobered and managed pry the strange boy from X. It was curious work, as X was holding onto the prisoner seemingly with his life, and his eyes looked far away. Genesis stared hard at the blue Hunter. "The humans who invaded us ... they were carrying those same knives as Blake had, weren't they?"

Zero nodded.

"Looks like X got a back full of one, and it's affecting him worse than it did to Cass. I hope Lifesaver can straighten him out."

"His issues amount to more than a hole in his back," Zero said dryly, indicating his prisoner with a downward jerk of his head.

"You can tell me all about it in a second." Genesis shut the door to Room 11 behind Zero and himself. The red Hunter propped the unconscious human on the cot in front of him, and the boy immediately fell over like a sack of potatoes.

"Tsk. Zero," Genesis sighed with a shake of his head. The fox tilted Kincaid's swollen chin up towards the light and whistled. "Fine job on his face. This your work?"

"No, X's."

"For serious?"

Zero nodded and crossed his arms over his chest. "I'd like to take the credit for giving this little punk the walloping he's needed since he cut his first tooth. We found him in the garage, and you know what he called me and X and the Reploid race in general? 'Lost lambs', or something trite like that."

"What was his deal? Why did all those humans and Mechadrakes attack us?"

"It has to do with an organisation called the Inheritors of Eden."

"Maniacs du Jour, eh?" Genesis sneered, though his gears lurched when he recalled his talks with Celeste regarding her oddball dreams. Zero's leaden expression didn't buoy his sinking feeling.

"More than that, I think. A bunch of pale humans don't come to town waving pointy sticks because they've nothing better to do."

"You haven't even heard the really fantastic news about hybrid Mavericks attacking the city last night at about the same time the kids visited."

"Not surprising." Zero lowered his voice. "Couple of days ago, some misbegotten cross between Sting Chameleon and Wire Sponge killed two teenagers. We had a little ... talk, and I found out that Vile's back. We dispatched some scouts and fighters in case of any more trouble, and I was going to speak with Monroe this morning and discuss if it was worth it to hunt down and kill Vile--and trust me, it is--but now we have a bigger problem on our hands. And while we're on the topic of good news, Iris has run off with Tess' baby, Paul."

"My turn! I found a dying Hunter who said a wolf attacked him. What a toboggan ride." A sterile, stinging smell flooded the small room as Genesis swabbed at Kincaid's face. The boy's nose was caked with blood, dirt and mucus, and he breathed in snoring gasps. He was missing a couple of teeth, and a number of others were significantly loose. "I can't believe X did this."

"Neither can he. We don't have much training in subduing humans, to be honest ... and this kid may be lousy with diction, but he fought like a tiger. We might have strength as Reploids, but these Eden people have speed, those damnable knives, and pet Mechadrakes to blindside you. X did the best he could, but it's never enough for him."

"Isn't that always the way with him." Genesis threw his swab at the wastebasket and missed. "This's been some night. Mavericks, kidnappers, a bunch of rabid humans and an equally rabid wolf. You'd better talk to Monroe and see what's next. I'll keep an eye on our friend and tell you if he wakes up, though I don't think it'll be for a while."

It had only been an hour or two prior that Zero had hunted Mechadrakes in the halls of MHHQ, and he couldn't remember feeling much emotion beyond getting business done. Things always looked bleaker in the daylight, however, with certain corridors being inaccessible due to damage and every staff member running in two directions at once trying to sort out the attacks, and figuring out where to start rebuilding.

Zero reached Monroe Cain's office by ignoring every plea for answers and advice. The corridor and stairwell leading up to the leader was mobbed, but he pushed his way through mechanically until he reached Hawkmoon, who was in charge of crowd control. The silver Mechadrake reveled in her role, and was well equipped for it with her tail, wings and beaky snout.

"Mr Cain's not seeing anyone today, you idjit! He's got enough problems without your hangdog mug in front of him. Oi, you there! I may be blind, but I can smell you trying to sneak past me ... and I caught the spoor of the female clerk you evidently 'comforted' last night during the attacks. I bet that's a topic your wife would be interested in next time I meet her for tea. Oh, you don't think so? Then take off, quickly. Hello, Zero."

Zero was so surprised to hear such a civil greeting chase Hawkmoon's threats and insults that he couldn't respond.

"Yes, you need to talk to Monroe, right? Step over my tail, and do it quickly because I'm about to brain some of these vultures."

Zero did as he was told, and bounded up the stairs. The noise melted behind him, and the quiet was eerie. Seven was crouched in front of the great doors of Cain's office, leaning on his axe. He glared at Zero.

"Hello, Seven."


"Haven't seen you in a while. I thought you were dead."

"Eat me."

"I need to talk to Monroe."

"It's a free country." The panther stood up and stepped aside, and Zero felt a black wind chill him when he entered Monroe's office.

Monroe's huge chair was empty, but his office wasn't. Zero was surprised to see X standing in front of the young leader's desk. The hole between the blue Reploid's shoulders was patched up, but he still shivered and looked miserable in general.

Zero gripped his arm. "You look like you're about to pass out. You shouldn't be here."

X was trembling so hard, it was easy to miss him shaking his head in the negative. "I'll be f-fine. I'm just a bit under the weather."

"More like underground and next door to hell. Go get some rest."

"I won't. There're a bunch of people a lot worse off than I am, and they need me."

Monroe burst into the office, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

Zero took notice. "Cain, sir, I didn't think you smoked."

"Well, today's a bloody fantastic day to start," Monroe barked, causing his cigarette to fly out of his mouth and tumble down his shirt. He caught it quickly, stuck it back into place and struggled with an ornery pack of matches. "Do you have any idea what we're up against?"

"The news isn't good, way I hear it."

"That's an understatement. I can think of -- X, for God's sake, go back to your room."

The azure Reploid stood motionless, save for the tremours that rocked his body.

Monroe shook his head. He discarded another burnt match, then another, then he ripped the cigarette out of his mouth and threw it and the pack of matches over his shoulder. "Let me lay out the scenario for you. First and most obvious were the visitors. Largely human, from what we can tell, though there were some Mechadrakes in tow."

"What did they want?"

"To rattle us up, I think." Monroe flipped through a thick binder of papers, evidently the type who was a little calmer with hardcopy in his hands. "Or so I thought at first. Apparently, everyone fled as if on a signal."

"What was the signal?"

"It's only speculation for now, but--" Monroe paused and shuffled a few more papers before his eyes widened slightly. "Well ... it's just speculation for now, so I'll get to it after our affairs are settled a little. There's a lot more to go over."

Monroe knows something about all this. Zero scratched at one wrist. He knew he'd never get a straight answer about anything until the day he could crack open heads and suck out thoughts. He'd have to settle. "What else happened?"

Monroe shuffled his binder under his arm and counted down on his fingers. "In the confusion of the attack, Iris grabbed Tessa Garret's baby, Paul and fled towards the city. An immediate chase seems appropriate, but the city suffered another attack of those hybrid Mavericks, and there were five casualties, including the Hunters who were dispatched to quell the uprising and the patrols who were combing the city for any more evidence of Vile or the hybrids. The Mavericks fled at sunup."

Simultaneously, X mumbled "Poor Tess," and Zero snorted.

"Some sort of wild animal -- Genesis suggested maybe the pet wolf that he stupidly let Jackal keep in the Garage -- attacked and killed a human Hunter by the former Refugee Camps. We couldn't find the animal, but tests run on the, er, corpse made it clear that no disease was involved. I think maybe it was an isolated incident, but Genesis seems disturbed about it in general."

"Should we do something about that?"

"I don't know. I'm making it a point to ignore Genesis 'til his brains grow back."

Zero narrowed his eyes. "Let's go back to square one. Why did those humans attack us?"

"Well, it might have something to do with the fact that McTreggor is gone."


"No, her father's bloated corpse rose from its soupy grave so it could take a walk. Who else?"

"Maybe the invaders took her for some reason?" X ventured.

"Possible," Monroe agreed. "An unconfirmed source mentioned that they saw a black Mechadrake run out of Headquarters with Celeste slung over its shoulder, and at that moment, the rest of the fighters fled as well. But it's equally as possible that she ran away in the confusion of the attack."

"Run away? From what?"

Monroe pitched X a frustrated look. "Isn't it obvious? She was locked up. Hell, to be fair, if I were going to be sent to the same place her mother wants her to go, I'd run, too."

Zero held up his hands. "Wait. I feel like I've missed something here."

Monroe sighed. "I found out that Genesis had been hiding McTreggor's medical records. There was a lot there, so I'll just tell you that she's got a lot of physical and emotional issues that are festering inside her, and she shouldn't be within ten miles of her rank."

"...You're talking about Celeste?"

"Yes, I promise you I'm talking about Celeste. She attacked Iris viciously, but I might've let that slide because Iris attacked her first. She--"

"What in God's name were they fighting about?"

"Girly matters that are of no concern to you," Monroe said wryly, and Zero fought a tremendous urge to swing his heavy boot up and into an unmentionable part of the young man's anatomy, where he certainly would feel it. "At any rate, she needed a doctor--a head-doctor, mind you--and she refused, so I had no choice but to let her go. Her mother was set to pick her up this morning."

Zero was silent.

"You never heard any of this?"

"Been busy," the Hunter mumbled.

"Well, I guess I can't argue that," Monroe grunted. He ran a hand through his hair. "I think we'll have to split up our forces to deal with things as best as we can. Of course, our top priority is the city. X, I don't want you going too far away in case something happens to you in your state. You'll assemble twenty of your best and see what's going on in the city ... such as if there's any truth to the claim that Vile is behind the Maverick attacks. Report back to HQ at 1400 hours and neutralise any threats. It goes without saying that you'll seize and deliver Iris immediately, if you should locate her. Zero, you'll be taking the Black Unicorns and accompanying me as we try and sort out what's going on with those human attackers. Intelligence notes that they fled towards the southwest."

"You're coming with me, sir?"

"Didn't I just say that?"

"But ... it might be dangerous."

"Why do you think I'm taking you and the Black Unicorns? For tea? Now listen. We have one prisoner in our possession, but he's not in any condition to talk just yet. We need to take care of matters while the trail is fresh."

"Feels like a trap."

"We won't be plunging head-long into any rabbit holes. I'm not that stupid. I just want to take a look around, and there's not many opportunities for an ambush on the open plains."

Zero stared hard.

"All right, well, there was that attack on Josh's unit a month back," Monroe relented. "But we'll be prepared this time--and by prepared, I mean 'Not hung over,' yes? No more questions. You're both dismissed. Get your asses in gear."

Sweet mother of God, Jody Loy declared inwardly as he peered cautiously over the top of his toilet stall. How pathetic.

Maverick Hunter Headquarters' lobby-level washroom, reserved for visitors, was eerily empty. It had remained so for the duration of the attack, which Jody had heard quite clearly once he'd dived into his hiding spot.

He had a good idea about what the Inheritors meant by invading MHHQ, but they hadn't found him. In fact, no one had entered the room at all. They obviously still thought enough of Jody that they'd try rooting him out from the barracks, or even the training gyms; they never would've believed for a second that he'd cower like a yellow dog in the stall of a washroom. The Ladies' washroom, no less.

When he was sure the coast was clear, Jody leaped off the toilet and stepped out of the stall. He didn't even spare a glance and thought to the ways in which the architecture of the room varied from the same facilities that were used by his own gender, a mild wonder that afflicted everyone who crossed the border into new territory. He'd been in a woman's washroom once before, though he'd been much younger, and his intentions, ironically, far more honourable.

He remembered it pretty clearly, especially the way the cold enamel of the floor bit through the cloth of Eden's issue jumpsuit as he kneeled, and the manner in which Celeste's limp weight against his arms caused him to struggle for balance. "Mr McTreggor, sir! She's here, she's in here! Come quick!"

Jake bounded into the washroom, saw his daughter's blood on the immaculate white floor. "Jesus and Mary! Don't touch her, you miserable little disease. What happened? What happened?" Jody's head thudded hard against the wall when Jake pushed him away, and he saw stars. "Celeste! For God's sake, open your eyes, love!"

"It wasn't me!" Jody cried out. "I found her! Mister Arlen had us practise protocol 3, and Celeste couldn't keep up. Mister Arlen tried to help her, and she still couldn't do it, so he hit her and she started to bleed. She managed to run away, and I followed her and found her asleep in here--"

Instead of listening, Jake babbled to some invisible entity. "I don't care, I don't care what kind of deal I made with Asmodeus. I care for you, Ange, but I can't stay. I won't let Celeste grow up in this bog. Arlen ... I'm going to rip that hypocritical bastard, and then we're leaving."

How about that, Jody thought to himself with bitter amusement as his mind swam back to his powder-scented surroundings. He'd run after his friend and playmate that day, who staggered into one of Eden's washrooms like a wounded deer. He'd stood up to Arlen--and gotten a hell of a thrashing from the sadistic robot for doing so--and he'd survived the wrath of Celeste's dog-blooded father. All when he was naught five years old. Now, a seasoned warrior of an elite troop both inside and outside of the Maverick Hunters, he'd run away from his enemies. There was no doubt about it; the Outside had made him soft.

Jody exited the room stealthily and stepped into the wrecked lobby. He gave a low whistle at the sight of the overturned couches and plants, the scorched marble and the Hunters flitting from one damaged area to another. His rational side opened up one eye. I didn't protect Celeste, but would I have been able to?

No, he would've died like some noble but idiotic warrior, or he would've been captured alongside Celeste to suffer some horrid fate at the hands of Asmodeus. Celeste had been captured, of that he was sure; Eden had come to finish off the job Jody hadn't even started.

The young Mechanical Hound spit on the scuffed floor. He hadn't captured Celeste specifically because he cared too much about her to force her into being his wife, and yet he felt cheated. At the same time, he felt validated. He hadn't been captured, and he knew he was far more use to Celeste alive and free. He would descend into Asmodeus' damn ditch, and he would rescue her. He would protect her, as he used to when they were children. It was an easy thought, but it turned his bowels to ice, nonetheless.

He took a deep breath and adjusted his fingerless gloves to get a grip on himself. It wasn't like he'd be going alone, after all...

The Garage whirred with activity, the sounds of Ride Chasers starting up, Reploids shouting orders, ropes tightening bundles. Jackal, however, was stone-faced and silent as he helped Zero make ready his Adion-class Chaser.

"Sorry to hear 'bout Bottle," Zero said gruffly.

"We all lose friends," Jackal said flatly. "Happens in wars." The bundle on Zero's vehicle was tightened with a final creak of ropes, and the Captain of the Garage moved on to help Monroe get settled in. Zero placed one hand on the bundle to test its binding, and he watched Jackal for a second before he turned around and found himself in the sudden presence of an unwanted visitor.

"We all lose friends, all right. I think we both know something about that."

Zero glared at Jody. "What're you doing here?"

"You're on the trail of those warriors, right? I want to come with you."

"That's nice, but you're a part of the 17th Unit, not the 0 Unit. In fact, you may very well be on the roster to help X with his investigation of the city, so get lost."

Jody anchored himself by adding his hand to Zero's bundle of supplies. "I'm not. And I know what you're up against."

"Congratulations. Now move."

"I mean to say, I know more than any half-assed intelligence. You're up against the Inheritors of Eden, and if you want any hope of doing anything against them, you're going to need one of their kind."

"'One of their--'" Zero clicked his jaw shut in mid-sentence.

The boy pierced the silent Hunter with his grey stare. "You can apprehend me, you can yell for security, you can do whatever you want, but you should know that if you do anything besides listen to what I have to say, it'll be all over for the lot of you. Especially Celeste."

Zero breathed sharply and watched the activity that buzzed far away from Jody's locked bubble of conversation. "So," he said at last, "They do have Celeste."

"Will you take me with?"

"I'm undecided," the Hunter said flatly. "I might just run you through. You're obviously a spy, and I don't know why you'd care about helping us ... or why you're crazy enough to admit to what you are."

"I don't care about the Hunters, but I do care about Celeste, and I know my way around Eden."

"Grown fond of her, have we?" Zero snickered unkindly. "I don't care if you're a walking map. I'm not about to risk harbouring a trecherous stowaway just so you can run Celeste down."

"She was promised to me--"

As automatically as a puppet on a string, Zero shoved Jody and the boy smacked hard into the side of the Adion. His palms slid down the blood-red paint and he looked up at the Reploid, seemingly confused for a minute. Then the disorientation evaporated and a knowing smile tugged at his mouth. Zero picked Jody up roughly by his collar and pulled his face close to his own.

"You goddamned humans," the Hunter hissed. "You all point to us Reploids as the cause of the world's problems, and yet you're violent, you bite the hand that feeds you, and you put yourselves on a pedestal above Nature and instinct, but you're worse than jackrabbits."

Jody's smile showed teeth. "I bet Cain would love to hear that coming out of the mouth of one of humanity's supposed protectors."

"I bet he'd really love to hear about the turncoat in his midst." Zero threw Jody to the ground in disgust. The traitor sprang up instantly, his body tense, but he didn't make a move to fight.

The crisis passed, and Zero turned back to his cycle. "Celeste is not your property."

"So, she's yours, then?"

"Are you stupid?"

"No, just observational. You never liked me to be around Celeste. Tension from day one."

"That's because I never trusted you, and it looks like I was right. But I will admit that I try and watch over her for my own reasons." Zero grunted as a memory of starlight flickered through his head and it was chased away by the vision of Celeste lying on the hard ground, dead and broken by his hand. "And unlike you, I do what it takes to protect those I care about, even if it means staying away."

"What about Iris? Oughta stay with your own kind."

"That was a brief fling with a bad end, not that it's any of your business. It didn't end well, and if Iris' recent behaviour is any indication, Act Two isn't going so hot either."

"So you're going to die alone," Jody grinned. "Fantastic. But this doesn't change the fact that Celeste still needs your help, and you need my help."

"...Monroe doesn't plan to have us enter Eden yet, you know. What good will you be?"

"I might surprise you," Jody said mildly. "If worst comes to worst, I think Celeste will definitely be safe for a time. If she follows orders. Which ... she probably won't."

Zero cursed and pounded his fist into the side of his Adion, then cursed again when he saw the chipped dent he left behind. The storm cooled as he shook his hand and chased his thoughts to the first Maverick War. Starlight, a bloody battle, truth and then resurrection. He was a time bomb, but Jody was a predator. It was hard to decide which was more dangerous, but that could be decided after the scouting was done, the war plans were drawn, the threat of Eden was squashed, and Celeste was retrieved. If she managed to live that long.

He turned to Jody and indicated the bundle on his bike with a thump.

"Well then ... Are you claustrophobic?"

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