Chapter 29: Run Like Hell

Zero closed his eyes, leaned back against his Ride Chaser, and lifted his face to the sky. The summer sun beat down on his armour and he could feel the stored heat waft up past his face. His internal systems cooled his insides nicely and kept him from overheating, but on the outside, he was a hotplate. Of course, he saw no reason to tell this to Jody, who reached out a tentative hand to get the Hunter's attention from his hiding place and immediately jerked it back with a muffled curse.

"Yeah, the armour tends to get hot, friend," Zero said quietly, keeping a keen eye on Monroe Cain as the young man took a swig of water several paces away from him.

"So I noticed."

"We on the right track? Seems to be some sort of structures on the horizon due south."

"We're doing okay," his bundle assured him. "There's a defunct mining settlement there, but Eden uses it as one of their gateways. Say, think you could cover me while I dash out and take a quick leak?"



"Cain's prowling nearby. You wanna get caught?"

Zero heard Jody's uncomfortable sigh. He thought about how the boy was also probably roasting to death in his hiding spot. And he smiled.

"Zero." Monroe wiped his mouth and approached the Hunter. He turned his eyes up to the large bundle on the back of Zero's Ride Chaser. "Why'd you take so many supplies with us?"

"Doesn't hurt to be prepared, sir."

"Maybe not, but I'm the only human who came on this expedition. We don't need so much stuff weighing us down."

"What can I say? Humans are high-maintenance creatures."

"I guess I can't argue that," Monroe sighed. The beginnings of a magnificent sunburn was streaked across his face and he rubbed at it painfully. "You didn't think to pack any sunblock, did you."

"Sorry, I forgot that much," Zero apologised. "If you're worried about having too much junk to tote around, did you want me to dump some of this stuff on the plains?"

"Of course not." Monroe gave Zero's Chaser a sideways glance, as if he heard the same small, angry noise that Zero did. "That'd be a waste. But let's move on to more important things. The group that attacked Headquarters didn't leave too many obvious traces. The Mechadrakes flew away, of course, and the human soldiers seemed lightweight for the most part, able to move quickly without damaging too much underbrush." Monroe glanced around the desolate knee-high sea of amber grass nodding in the hot wind. "Not that there's much to damage on the Grasslands, I guess. But the grass is brittle, and the soldiers left a broken trail due south."

"Oh, they want us to find them," Zero said cheerfully, unscrewing the cap off another canteen of warm water and handing it to Monroe. "That much is obvious."

Monroe accepted the water. "Exactly why we're going to be careful with every step we take."

"Well, we'd better start being more careful. Do you see that small group of houses? There, on the horizon?"

Monroe dropped the empty canteen and cupped his hands around his eyes, peering against the sun's glare. "Nope, too bright out here."

Zero felt a little smug. "I can. McTreggor and some of the Night Vipers scouted this area last spring, and mentioned finding an abandoned mining settlement. That's where the trail seems to lead."

"Oh. Think that's where the invaders live?"

"I dunno. They seemed to have nice clothes for a bunch of hobos shacked up in a run-down village."

Monroe snorted.

"I'm not trying to be a smartass, I'm just warning you that things aren't what they seem."

"Yes, I heard you the first fifty times." Monroe turned his back and bent over to pick up the empty canteen. "Let's get moving."

"Nice, trying to dump me here," Jody hissed a minute later. "Soon as this is over, I'm going to hit you with a rock."

"Quiet, he'll hear you," Zero said absently as he watched Monroe mount his Ride Chaser well out of earshot.

"Is this really her?"

"Mama says so, yeah."

Celeste stared dully at the two little girls hovering over her like flies she didn't have the strength to brush away. She'd climbed slowly out of unconsciousness a while ago, but her poisoned muscles still felt like dough. If it weren't for the mask feeding her air, she would've found it too much trouble to breathe.

"She doesn't look like much," said one little girl doubtfully.

"Go AWAY," Celeste barked hoarsely around her oxygen mask, startling both herself and the girls who scattered at last.

"Well, at least you're talking now," said a colourless voice, and a large hand removed the mask from her face. "I have to say, you're about as charming as your father was when he was incapacitated. Relax, breathe," the voice said when Celeste started to gasp for air. "You're not as bad off as you think."

Celeste automatically decided this was good advice, and her breathing regulated as her eyes focused. The voice belonged to a man with sand-coloured hair. He didn't smile, but he seemed pleased. "Feeling okay? Sorry about those girls, they snuck in when my back was turned. I guess news of your arrival has spread."

"What ... where...?"

"You're in Eden, of course. Is there any other place in the world where you would actually be welcomed? I'm Dr Ison. I'd be surprised if you remembered me."

Celeste blinked stupidly. Her brain was only just beginning to lose its coating of sleepy fuzz, but she pulled away a little when the man--Doctor Ison--reached over and rubbed at the side of her neck with his long fingers. She winced at the painful touch.

"Still hurts, huh? Silver Mechadrakes don't use their poison touch too often, but I hear it's worse than getting stung by a jellyfish."

"It's ... not that bad," Celeste said slowly as her world became clearer and she remembered the time she'd gone to the beach as a girl and brushed against one of the spectre-like creatures. What was she doing here? She curled her fingers against the bedsheets as her numbness wore off, but one of her hands remained frozen. It was in a splint.

The doctor watched her. "You weren't an easy one to net, or so Nytetrayn says. He had to go through some extremes to get you here."

Celeste tried to get angry. "What gave him the right?"

"Because it was for your own good," Dr Ison chuckled. "Not very good at grasping the obvious, are you? Don't worry about your hand, it's only a bad sprain. Though in retrospect, a broken hand would've been easier to mend. Sprains are notorious haunters."

The doctor had nothing more to say for himself, and Celeste had nothing more to say to him. She lay still and felt the strength gather back to her body, and she tried to collect her scattered thoughts at the same time. She had dreamed vividly about Eden for the past few months, and often in those dreams, she had convinced herself that she had actually returned. As real as everything felt here, with the rough sheets beneath her, the doctor shuffling at some work nearby and the alien smell of medicine thick in the air, Celeste still couldn't decide if she was deceiving herself again.

One person might give her answers. "Dr Ison?"


"Can I talk to Nytetrayn? I'd like to know his reasons for dragging me here."

"You mean you don't know?"

"I know bits and pieces, but not the whole story."

"What's to know?" Dr Ison drawled, snapping off his latex gloves. "You were here once, as a part of a deal. Your father broke that deal. You're back. Deal fulfilled."

"Just like that. Returned goods."

"You might say so."

Celeste grunted and a slow horror spread to the roots of her hair as she realised everything about this conversation was as solid and tangible as a brick wall. "I don't have any say in the matter? No rights?"

Dr Ison shrugged. "If Asmodeus decides that you should have rights, then you'll have rights."

"I want to talk to him. Him or Nytetrayn."

"Not yet. But I did give clearance to a couple of visitors half an hour ago. They'll be here soon to talk to you. Relax 'til then."

It was a simple suggestion, but it wasn't easily followed.

Monroe's ride chaser geared down and then stopped completely. He scratched at the corner of his eye. "Looks like we're here."

Zero noticed the way Cain's son put one foot down on the ground while the Chaser was at rest. The boy must have ridden motorcycles at some point in his life, and his father must have had plenty to say about that. "Yeah, seems we are."

"Not much of a place to live," murmured Seven, his eyes darting from one run-down shack to the next.

Monroe looked at Zero. "McTreggor told you this place was abandoned?"

"That's what she said."

"Bull," Seven retorted flatly. "Human senses are useless -- no offense, Cain sir -- but I can smell something hiding. And ... something else, like a whisper or a hum. But it's far away." He turned to the rest of the Black Unicorns gathered in a loose group at the centre of the broken village. "How 'bout any of you? You deny it?"

One Hunter crossed his arms over his handlebars. "No, I don't deny that I can sense something hiding here, but don't get stuck up about it."

Zero chuckled slightly. "Well, there was certainly some activity here recently. Doesn't take much to sense it." He waved his hand at the ground. "Those tiger lilies growing by that house, for example ... looks like someone pushed them aside to get to the door. Seems like our invaders ran here, all right."

Monroe looked around apprehensively. "Well, we should be careful if that's the case."

"That's the funny thing," Seven said. "I definitely smell people nearby, but it's not the same scent as the visitors--"

"Someone's still visiting," a Hunter suddenly growled and Zero instantly ignited his sabre and turned around.

A large human with a generous stomach-bulge stared balefully at the Hunters from the doorway of another house. His greasy jeans were in tatters around the hem and his ham-sized fists were clenched.

"Um, what?" was all another Hunter could manage.

"I'm sure I don't know," Zero said cautiously.

Monroe turned his head slightly. "That one of the invaders?"

Zero kept his voice low. "I don't think so. There was a certain rehearsed grace to those buggers. No beer bellies or hairy gorilla arms among them."

"Get!" the stranger shouted hoarsely.

"Is that even a sentence?" some Hunter asked. Scattered snickers rose up from the others.

Zero threw them sharp glances. "Don't relax just yet. You ever hear the legend about the schoolkids who had to retrieve a ball from a yard that was rumoured to have a rottweiler guarding it? They scaled the wall and found a Chihuahua instead. They laughed and made to grab the ball, the Chihuahua bit them and they died of infection weeks later."

Monroe raised his eyebrows. "Uh, can't say I've heard that. When I was in school, we used to always hear the one about the kid who stuck his head out the bus window and got decapitated by a telephone pole."

Seven leaned on his axe. "God, legends are stupid."

"They're not always supposed to make sense. They're supposed to keep you cautious."

Caution still seemed unnecessary. The human didn't move away from the door. Zero stepped forward. "All right, enough of all this. Who are you, and what do you want?"

"Shouldn't I be asking you that?" the human said in a cracked voice. "We're living here peaceful enough. You damn robots made enough trouble the first time you came 'round. Nothing left here to rip up. Now go away."

"Huhhhhh," Zero sighed wearily. A new day, a new negotiation with a weirdo. "All right, look. We're not here to hurt anybody living here. We're on the trail of a ... pack of humans who attacked Maverick Hunter Headquarters. I know, it's mind-twistingly ironic, but can you tell us anything that might help?"

"Don't know what you're talking about. Don't care. But if Eden caused you any trouble, good on them."

"Sharp lad," Monroe noted.

"Dean, Dean. You've said too much. Move over, let me talk to these people."

The Hunters' ears all pricked up at the new voice that came from behind the bulky man. It was soft, and, Zero noted, curiously low to the ground.

The big human's features softened and he looked into the open door behind him. "Eli, I don't want you to get hurt."

"I won't, I'm sure. Let me through."

The man hesitated but stepped aside. He stooped down as if he was about to retrieve something from inside the house.

"No, I'll get outside by myself," the voice was still quiet, but firm.

Now the Hunters waited as expectantly as children for a promised magic trick. Another human revealed herself in a few seconds, dragging herself slowly out of her house. "What the?" Zero murmured.

Monroe raised his fist to his mouth. "Her legs."

The young woman propped herself on her arms and regarded the group. She looked like a landlocked mermaid with her twisted, useless legs trailing behind her and the wind flicking her blonde hair into her face. Her blue eyes fixed on Zero.

"So," she said. "You've come back."

Sarah laughed as Jason dragged her towards the playground with the strength of a little horse. It had only been two nights since Evan had been put in the hospital, but their son was like any other kid; he had to check out every park he passed.

The noon sun was plugged in and searing the earth like a million-watt bulb, but Sarah felt her spirits lifting. She needed a break away from the hospital. Evan was in stable condition, thank God, but he still couldn't remember exactly what had given him a massive puncture wound through his shoulder while out for a cigarette. Sarah was able to hazard a guess after the newspaper headlines started screaming about attacks on humans by shadowy Mavericks -- the first Mavericks in a while, and unlike other instances, no nutcases were claiming responsibility for the latest movement.

Oh, crap. How could she have forgotten about the Mavericks? Sarah glanced around the park, but everything was still and quiet. Traffic rattled faintly on the highway over the now-useless tobogganing hill at the south end, but even the starlings had completed their morning chorus early and roosted quietly through the hottest part of the day. Sarah relaxed. Reports had mentioned that the attacks occurred most commonly at night and in the early morning, anyway.

Jason finally ripped away from her hand and pounded across the gravel towards the swings. "Slow down! It's too hot to be tearing around," Sarah called after him, but he flung himself stomach-first onto one of the swings and rocked back and forth like a juvenile Superman in a training harness.

Kids, Sarah thought to herself again and pulled the collar of her cotton shirt in and out to fan herself. It was hot, all right, and she wasn't dressed for the heat. She spied a bench located at the edge of the playground, underneath a thick weeping willow. Oh, wouldn't that be nice? The bench would probably be covered in guano, but at least she could keep an eye on Jason in comfort. Sarah started towards the tree and jerked to a stop when a female reploid peered out at her from the shadows like a jungle-cat.

"Er, hi," Sarah heard herself say. "Hot, isn't it? Mind if I sit here with you?"

The Reploid continued to stare, and Sarah heard a faint cry. She immediately looked behind her, but Jason was happily zipping down a slide.

"Paul, Paul, hush now," the Reploid said suddenly, and when Sarah turned to look at her again, she noticed for the first time that she was holding a baby bundled in heavy blankets. Oh, God, in this heat. She started to sweat in sympathy for the baby.

"He's probably pretty hot. You might want to loosen his wraps a little."

The Reploid turned on her with fierce eyes. Sarah shrank back slightly, but she couldn't let the kid suffer. "Really. He can overheat and die."

"Who are you? What do you want?"

"I'll tell you what I don't want, I don't want to watch that baby die on your lap!"

The brown-haired Reploid's expression softened, and she looked a little sad as she unwrapped the baby, who was dressed in a dirty sky-blue sleeper and cried more lustily now that he had air. Sarah noted with some surprise that he only seemed to be a few months old. Who would leave their newborn in the care of a Reploid sitter? One so incompetent, no less?

Sarah invited herself under the tree and sat down next to the Reploid. "You minding him for someone?"

"Yes," the Reploid said. "He ... he won't stop crying."

"Well, he was pretty hot. He'll feel better as he cools down. Here, can I hold him for a bit? Maybe he'll settle down faster."

"No," the Reploid said instantly, then lapsed into silence and the baby's cry became more insistent. "Yes. Okay." She handed the boy over to Sarah.

It had been a long time since Jason had been three months old, but her arms and intuition recalled the memory easily enough. She rocked and murmured to the baby, who quieted slightly but still kicked and twisted.

"Well, he's hungry and needs a change pretty bad. Ew. Probably got diaper rash. He's too uncomfortable to sleep, so he's probably grouchy too."

The Reploid didn't say anything.

"Is he on a bottle, or is his mother nursing him?"

"Bottle, I guess," the Reploid said.

"Maybe you should take him home. Get his mother to feed him, give him a nice bath and let him roll around naked for a little bit to clear up that rash." Sarah laughed a little. "He'll probably like that. Jason there, he's mine. Used to fling off his clothes at every opportunity. Good thing he outgrew that, I wouldn't want to see him in jail before he's much older."

The Reploid actually smiled a little. "I don't think we can go home yet."

"You didn't bring any supplies with you?"

"No ... I guess I forgot."

Sarah sucked on her teeth. She had figured some years ago that Reploids, no matter how advanced, were still machines and didn't have the instinct to take care of babies unless they were taught or programmed to do so. And yet, here was an interesting situation; Sarah could tell this Reploid beside her cared about the baby she held, but knew nothing about keeping it alive.

"The baby's name is Paul, right?"

"Yes, it is."

"And you're taking care of him for his mother? Where does she live?"

"Over there." the Reploid gestured vaguely to a skyscraper in the distance, one of many that ringed the city park. "But I told you, he can't go home yet."

"Why not?"

"He just can't." the Reploid's speech was quickening and she glanced around like a rabbit scouting out hiding places. She stood up. "His mother, his mother is sick. Here, give him back."

Sarah did as she asked, and instantly regretted it. "Where are you going?"

"I don't know. I guess we'll walk."

"That baby needs to be cared for. Here, there's a store nearby. We can get some diapers, maybe some formula to hold him over 'til he goes home--"

"Wow!" Jason suddenly exclaimed, and Sarah squinted over her shoulder. Her son was perched on the monkey bars, swinging his legs excitedly and gaping at the blue Reploid who approached Sarah and the Reploid, the gravel crunching briskly under his metal boots.

Sarah's mouth likewise dropped. Holy cow, is that X? The Maverick Hunter?

Her son drew conclusions more readily. "It's X! It's X! Hi, X!"

The blue Hunter gave Jason a quick smile without slowing his approach. "Stay where you are," he called out to Sarah in a voice that was gentle, but firm. Sarah couldn't imagine it being the voice that stopped Sigma and countless other Mavericks, but it made her blood run cold nonetheless. What had she done? She froze, and out of the corner of her eye, she could see the female Reploid beside her take off with surprising speed. X geared up in turn and tore across the playground to intercept her.

"Ah!" Jason suddenly said and started to howl a second later. Sarah instantly forgot her order to stand still and she ran to the monkey bars, where her son was curled up on the hot gravel, crying. To her surprise, X stopped his pursuit of the female Reploid and reached Jason before Sarah was even halfway there.

"C'mon sport, stand up," the Hunter said cheerfully to Jason, helping him on his feet. Jason stood up, wobbly-legged, and sniffed back his tears.

Sarah knelt down and inspected Jason quickly. "Are you okay? What happened?"

"He got a bit excited and fell down," X said, and smiled. "It's too hot to get all worked up."

"That's what I said to him earlier," Sarah said and laughed weakly at the private joke she suddenly shared with one of the world's most elite Hunters. "I don't think he's hurt. Is he?"

"Got a nasty scrape on the gravel, but I think he'll be okay once it's cleaned up--" X froze, shuddered for about five seconds, and opened his eyes again. "Sorry. Not feeling at the top of my game today."

"I'm sorry for moving even though you told me to stand still. Although ... I'm not sure why you asked me to."

"I wasn't after you, really. I was after that Reploid you were talking to."

"Oh! The one with the baby?"

X sighed. It was an interesting sound, Sarah noted, slightly more hollow-sounding than what would come from a human. "So she had a baby with her, did she?"

"She did. A hungry, dirty and tired baby. She said she was looking after it."

"It's not hers," X said, and seemed to reconsider something. "Er, well, I'm sure you were able to guess that much. But no one put her in charge of it, either. She kidnapped it."

"Oh my God." Sarah's hair stood on end. "And I was talking to her like ... she ..." Her hands flew up to her mouth. "I'm wasting your time! You're supposed to go after her! I'm so sorry--"

X cut her off with a wave of his hand. "Don't worry. It wasn't hard to track her down to this location, and I've got men all over the city." As if suddenly seized by that thought, X touched the side of his helmet and started speaking in jargon.

"All the same," Sarah said when he was done, "I'm sorry for delaying you. But thanks for taking care of Jason."

"No trouble." X ruffled the hair of the dusty young boy who slumped tiredly against Sarah, and she could feel gooseflesh pickle on his neck despite the heat. "I have to be on my way. Be careful. There's no immediate danger, but the city's in a bit of unrest." Then he was gone.

"That was X," Jason informed his mother solemnly.

"Was it?" Sarah humoured him.

"Yeah," Jason yawned.

Sarah hefted him against her hip. "You're getting too heavy to carry, but you've had a big day. Want to go tell your dad that you saw X?"

"Dad's always asleep."

"He can still hear you when you talk, you know. I'm sure he'd like to hear all about it. We can get Nurse Soule to clean up your arm too."

"No stingy stuff."

"No stingy stuff," Sarah promised absently, looking off at the buildings in the distance as she thought about the mother of the kidnapped baby.

Stupid, stupid girl! You nearly ruined everything!

"I'm sorry!" Iris sobbed, running hard down the sidewalk. Pedestrians turned and watched her curiously.

Don't go tearing down the main streets, you great cow. X has his Hunters sniffing you out.

Iris plunged into an alley and slipped on a greasy patch of concrete. She banged against some trash cans and the furious sound jangled along with the voice inside her. Didn't I tell you not to talk to anyone? Didn't I tell you to keep that baby wrapped and hidden?

"He was dying! That woman--"

--was a slovenly know-nothing. Whose baby is it? Hers, or yours?

"Mine, mine," Iris whispered desperately. She clutched Paul tighter to herself, who was motion sick and spit up on the front of her jumpsuit.

Stop for a minute. Do you hear anything?

Iris burst from the alley, darted across the a side-street, and ducked into another alley. She breathed heavily and listened. Beyond the usual city-sounds, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. "I don't think anyone's after me."

Like I trust your judgment. You're as stupid as a gelding, but I'll hide you anyway. Stay where you are, I have someone on the way to pick you up.

And someone did arrive only five minutes later. A small beaky head on a long beige neck stretched around the chipped alley corner and called, "Iris?"

Iris shrank against the red-bricked wall. "Who is it?"

"Oh, at this point, you may as well call me the Porter of Hell's Gate. I always liked the sound of that."

"Aren't you--?"

Overdrive Ostrich lurched into the alley and leered at Iris with squinted eyes. He swayed drunkenly on his spindly legs and he smelled like disease. "We've both gotten ourselves into far more than we can handle, trust me."

Iris turned to run, but the large bird seized Iris and wrapped a hand around her mouth. He dragged her across the pavement like a demon ushering a soul to the Pit. "You think the worst is up here," Overdrive said cheerfully as Iris kicked and struggled, "but let me show you that you're dead wrong, chickadee."

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