“No no, a thousand times no!” Flame Stag snarled. “You’re not convincing me! You need a demeanor that screams ‘crack addict,’ and you just don’t have it. Try it again! And remember, this is our only ticket out of this rut!”
Overdrive Ostrich snatched the black wig he was wearing off his head and threw it on the sidewalk waspishly. “This is so stupid! I hate being the Acid Queen, I hate not having a home, and I hate YOU!”
Phoenix, lacking the energy to bash her underlings’ heads together, looked at what was left of her brood with that hopeless hangdog expression that seemed to be reserved only for tired mothers. The fire-plumed Maverick avian slumped against a building wall at the corner of Dune and Yundas, the busiest intersection in the bustling Reploid/Human city of Kapcom. Wallowing in her own self-pity, the once-splendid reploid hung her crested head until her beak nearly touched her chest. Her own natural heat accented the shimmering waves that danced off the baked sidewalk and street. Cars screeched, roared, blared, coughing up fumes. The sun beat down like a demon’s eye. Pedestrians of all species and ages pounded by, pretending not to notice the irate reploid ostrich who pulled on the antlers of his bellowing stag companion. They especially gave a wide berth to the dozing phoenix who was spilled on the walkway like a forgotten doll, ragged Icarus wings askew, in front of a stolen gentleman’s hat with “PLEASE HELP FUND OUR HUMAN HOLOCAUST - GOD BLESS YOU!” printed clumsily on a card pinned to its rim. All that was lacking for the full effect was the beer bottle emptied with remorse, and the stagnant puddle of pee.
Stag gave one mighty buck, and Overdrive went sailing into traffic. The glorious sounds of chaos ensued as the spindly bird was walloped by a few cars. Stag looked sadly at the wreck of Phoenix. Once so proud and hot tempered, the mystical reploid was now a chilly shadow of her former self. Flame Stag, Overdrive Ostrich, and Phoenix were all that remained of a horrific army that, under the red eyes of Sigma, brought terror to humankind during the third Maverick war … at the end of which Sigma and most of his lickspittle got their asses kicked into orbit by the Maverick Hunters, lead by X and Zero.
Following their defeat, Vile, with the help of Phoenix, gathered up the sad remains of the bad guy army and came up with the brilliant idea of capturing Zero and turning him Maverick. It would’ve worked, if not for those meddling Hunters and the fact that evil just won’t prevail in story land. Vile got chopped to bits, the fortress got squished, and the three Maverick survivours lead a nomadic lifestyle, running from the Hunters. At first, Phoenix talked hotly of rebuilding and destroying. But as days turned into weeks, and weeks aged into months, and months dragged into years, the dream of world domination seemed to giggle and scurry further and further away. The trio didn’t even have a place to live, never mind plot. With each cold and soggy night on the streets, with each snowy and windy day, with each kid that poked her with sharp sticks to check if she was just an evil clown in a bird costume, Phoenix’s inner fire went down just a little more. Now it was a mere flicker that threatened to be blown out with the next cold gust.
But, at the same time, the right fuel could get it to flare blazing hot again. Flame Stag knew this, he still saw something in her eyes. Phoenix could never be doused. She was…well, she was a phoenix after all. They specialized in coming back from the dead.
“Rebirth is what Phoenixes do best!”
“Huhhh…you say something, Stag?”
“Just talking to myself, miss Phoenix.”
“…and nobody’s home…” the bird of prey muttered.
Overdrive Ostrich, ravaged by the autos of the black asphalt sea, staggered back up onto the sidewalk. Silently, he picked up the black wig from where it lay and jammed it into place on his small head, where it hung like a hideous spider.
“All right, Flame Stag,” he said in a deathly quiet voice. “I’ll do it one more time. I’ll do it for a cup of coffee. I’ll do it for miss Phoenix.”
“Good for you, Overdrive! ‘kay, from the top then. I’m the Hawker, you’re Gypsy. Give it your all…we can’t expect donations for a crappy performance. A-one-a-two-a-three…”
“Shut up the both of yas.”
Overdrive and Stag blinked simultaneously. “Miss Phoenix?” It was the first time the Maverick leader spoke in days.
Phoenix shifted her sorry bulk. “Yeah…tell me something you two. How long have we been living like this?”
“Good few years now, I’d reckon.”
“Right. Since the end of the third Maverick War we’ve been sitting here scratching ourselves. God, not even the Hunters bother to come after us anymore. We’re a living joke. Hell, what were we doing while the Great War of Repliforce was raging? I was sitting here like a piss-soaked drunk, watching you two dress as a pimp and a prostitute, singing the same damn song, trying to earn some change. Well, I’ve had enough of - Overdrive, what’s that godawful wreck of a tune called again?”
Overdrive Ostrich’s beak trembled. “’Eyesight to the Blind,’ Miss. I’m sorry you don’t care for it. It’s quite a beautiful song that portrays the struggle of a former flight Captain trying to find a cure for his deaf, dumb, and blind son…”
“Bugger that!” Phoenix roared. “It’s sick! And anyway, it’s the anthem of failure, the mating call of the loser. It reminds me of what you two have been reduced to! Look at you! Stag, you were once a nightmare of speed and flame. Overdrive, you were a biochemistry genius. Now you’re singing some second rate song on a street corner?
Both Overdrive and Stag’s faces drooped.
“That’s right!” Phoenix’s eyes were mirroring a firewall. “Hang your heads in shame! We’re stuck in this miserable rut for the rest of our unnaturally mechanical and stinking lives.”
There was a choked sob born of a long neck.
Stag frowned. “Aw, Miss Phoenix, you’re making Overdrive cry…”
“No, come on now.” Stag pawed at the sidewalk with a split hoof and shook his fiery mane. “We’ll get out of this. We’ll raise some money and we’ll work hard to be the best darn terrors we can be. I swear it, Phoenix. We’ll rise again! All we need is just a little patience.”
Cold water poured on Phoenix’s heart once more, and her inner kindling was temporarily smothered. She softened.
“Aw…oh hell. Stag, you do me good. I shouldn’t dump on you two so much…you’ve been here for me this whole time, you’ve taken care of me, reminded me to breathe and swallow during my worse moments…I’m…I’m…” Phoenix gritted her teeth, she had a very hard time with the S-word. “I’m…sorry. Sorry. Sorry for doubting you, Stag. Sorry for making you cry, Overdrive.”
A watery smile chased the rainclouds away from Overdrive’s thin face as he wiped away a tear. “Then…you LIKE ‘Eyesight to the Blind,’ Miss?”
“No, I still hate its off-tune guts. But if that’s what it takes to raise the money…by Gar, we’ll keep on singing it!” Phoenix rose to her jeweled feet and punched a fist into the air for effect.
A smatter of clapping trickled from a small audience that had gathered in front of the evil trio at some point during Phoenix’s ranting. The observing knot was obviously moved. One human went so far as to wipe a tear from his eye.
Phoenix slit one of her own optics. “What the hell are you starting at?”
Intimidated, the group checked itself and broke off as if nothing happened. One young man twisted around and threw something in the beggar’s hat in one smooth motion before walking on. The object made a dull tink, a strain of music that happily clanged in the Mavericks’ ears. A donation! A sign of hope, of rebirth! Joy! They all dove for the hat at once. After some kicking and slapping, Phoenix got to the bottom of the pile and fished their bounty out.
“Just what the hell is this?”
Rubbing a bruised wing, Overdrive stood beside his superior. She was holding a large coin in her hand, a single piece of money with a brass core clasped by a silver ring around its edge. A wondering polar bear on an ice floe was etched onto the ‘tails’ side that Phoenix was staring at.
“That, madam,” Overdrive said, “is a Canadian two dollar coin, better known to those crazy Canucks as a ‘toonie.’ Kind of cute, isn’t it?”
“What you mean to say is, ‘here in America, it’s toilet paper.’”
“That’s another way to put it. No, actually, I think it’s worth one-twentieth of a cent here…”
Phoenix blinked once, and slowly drew herself to her full grand height, standing up straight for the first time in months.
“How…how could anyone be so…how…”
Phoenix staggered on her words, shaking her crested head back and forth in distress.
“Our first donation ever…I thought it was a…a sign…”
Overdrive could’ve sworn he smelled something burning in Phoenix’s systems.
Phoenix’s muscles steeled, her fists clenched and trembled, her talons extended and scraped the sidewalk with a sound that set one’s teeth on edge. She grit her teeth in a frightening mad-dog grimace and her eyes danced aflame. All at once she released herself with a whine and a howl, shot her arms to her burning sides, and threw out her wings. In one blazing second, she caught up with the unfortunate young man who had made the donation. Hopelessly left behind, Flame Stag and Overdrive ran to catch up.
Terrified by the sudden fiery breeze that breathed down his neck, the donator whipped around just in time to see Phoenix dig her claws into his shoulders. He screamed as eight individual spots of blood sprung to life on his virgin white T shirt.
“Excuse me, good sir.” Phoenix ripped one of her talons out of the man’s shoulder to hold up the toonie. “Did you just throw this at us?”
An opaque glaze was staring to mist the human’s eyes, but he managed a strangled “Y-yes. Yes…”
“And just what did you intend we DO with it? Eat it? Worship the cute little bear on its ass? Dress it up and have tea with it?”
The stricken human tried to get an excuse around his swollen tongue. “I…thought…you could…”
“Pssh, ha ha ha ha! Did you hear that, Overdrive,” Phoenix said to her underling as he dashed up by her side with Stag. A terrific frown chased away her amusement as she shook the boneless human. “Let me tell you something, sir, I’ve burned puppies alive, I’ve stolen manger scenes year after year from whatever churches I could terrorize, I’ve chucked donuts at old people. But never…never would I be cruel enough to give a panhandler Canadian money. Well, I might eat the panhandler, or gouge his eyes out, but that’s a horse of a different colour. There’s a fine line between just messing around and being an outright bastard. And you, my friend, have crossed that line while wearing yellow flares and a big rainbow wig.”
The human was pretty much drained of lifeblood, but he managed to weep, “What the hell does that mean…”
Phoenix cackled. “It means it’s time to teach you to fly! Here, Stag, grab his legs.”
Stag wasted no time. In seconds, their prey was swinging between them like a broken cradle.
Phoenix and Stag racked major points for style and distance: their plaything arced across the street like a monstrous bird attempting to fly with undesirable results. The limp body attacked a hot dog cart upon landing. The unfortunate vendor decided right then and there that early retirement was a nifty idea.
But back on the action end of the crosswalk stood a glorious sight: a Phoenix Reborn.
Phoenix was all fire, shimmering, clean, ferocious, black talons glittering, her huge fists clenched, her wings a firestorm, her eyes a red hell. She raised her fists and bellowed a scalding war cry…
“I am the Queen of the Ninth Ring, a goddess among reploids! Your children will be my pawns, unless I rip their little heads off first! I’m more special than all you human-type bitches, and you’ll hide under your cute little tea-tables when you hear my name…”
Without losing momentum, Phoenix gave a sharp little kick to Flame Stag, who likewise kicked Overdrive Ostrich.
“LONG LIVE THE PHOENIX!” the trio howled in unison like a pack of wolves starting a hunt.
“Damn right!” Phoenix said. “To hell with raising money! What are we, honest? We’ll simply lie, cheat, and steal our way to holocaust! Just like old times!” The Three Musketeers made their way down Yundas like cannonfire. Phoenix flicked the Toonie of Destiny on her thumb and caught it again. A collective sigh rose from the sharper humans as they realized their species faced extinction yet again. Uneven clapping came from the dimmer Neanderthals who thought they’d witnessed another show.
“Hold him! Altogether now, pull! Don’t let him coil, or we’re all screwed!”
Sweat pooled under Caillou’s thick gloves as he and the other Diamondbacks followed the commands that the black Mechadrake bellowed at the Unit. An even more unpleasant brew of blood and sweat ran down his hair and forehead, matting his mane and mingling salty in his mouth. But he didn’t have time to savour the exotic taste. At a frenzied word from a Diamondback beside him, Caillou yanked his end of the thorn-barbed rope. The hyper bronze Mechadrake that writhed under the cruel net bulged his huge muscles and screamed an unearthly song of pain and rage, but the ropes were held taut. Everything was moving sluggishly, though a fevered dream. Nytetrayn, the coal-scaled Mechadrake at Caillou’s left hand bared his razor whites at his huge bronze brother. His wings pumped furiously in a blur of black and gold as he struggled to maintain his grip on the dangerous snare. Nytetrayn’s hands were unprotected, and the thorns bit into his palms, drawing thick ropes of oily blood.
“Satan up a tree! Calm down, Atticus!”
Atticus 15 would do no such thing. The monster somehow managed to lash an ivory horn through the net, goring a red furrow in Caillou’s right thigh. Instincts and terror screamed through the boy’s blood as hellish pain flew up his body like a hotwire. But he swallowed the cry that begged to escape him and pulled his end of the rope harder. Atticus 15’s wings cracked like a whip as he clapped them once. Hot black blood spat on the Diamondback’s face. His throbbing leg started to lock up, and his mind started to go numb. He couldn’t keep this up forever…
Then, all at once, the storm exhausted itself and slowly poured to the ground like a mudslide, whimpering.
Caillou and the other Diamondbacks dared to ease off slightly, panting, checking themselves and noticing for the first time the real extent of their wounds. It was all done very sloppily, but not even Eden’s inhabitants could net and fight against a bronze Mechadrake without some exhaustion. The room spun around Caillou, but he didn’t dare to sit down, even with the red brook cascading down his leg.
Asmodeus 12 hadn’t moved during the whole ordeal that took place only a few feet from his face. He was perched in his usual spot like a great white owl, sense and sane thought chewed by age and battle, but wily cunning still very much intact.
“Thank you for your quick response Diamondbacks,” he said evenly. “Let Atticus cool down. Then we’ll talk. I don’t appreciate attempts on my life.”
When Atticus gave no more signs of unrest, Asmodeus 12 gave the word to remove the net. Nytetrayn grimly threw off the restraints with scarred paws. Atticus hoisted himself up onto his hind legs like a trick bear, covered in toothy puncture marks. All 10 feet of his deformed frame glimmered softly in the false light of the Great Tree.
Atticus, for all his bulky terror, temper, and intimidation, was not too spiffy an example of Mechadrake royalty and construction. Somewhere in the tube, something had gone wrong. Atticus’ last two fingers on his right hand and first three fingers on his left were respectively fused into a webbed, clawed mass that could strangle and break nothing. His wing-membranes were shriveled like dried animal skins, too stunted to ever have any hope of getting his dense skeleton off the ground. His teeth jutted out of his lower jaw at crazy angles, and his eyes were two jade mirror-pools, reflecting everything they saw, and letting no one in to see. And sleeping always at his side like an extension of his bony hip was his fearsome crossbow, a vicious wolverine of a weapon that no one in Eden really cared to ever meet the happy end of. In spite of his dwarfed hands, the Mechadrake was a one-shot.
Asmodeus 12 drummed his fingers together. “Now then, Attie…what seems to be troubling you?”
Atticus 15 grunted, clenched his fists, and made some guttural sounds. He never had very much to say for himself.
Asmodeus 12 never seemed to have a problem understanding his bronze “brother.” “I understand, Atticus. You’re worried about your human? You’re wondering where I sent him?”
Atticus made some noise in the affirmative.
“Well friend, I’ve been repeating myself over and over since I sent him off a month ago. But my vocal chords can use the workout, so what the hell. Your boy was sent to live and fight with the Maverick Hunters for a little while. I know this upsets you,” Asmodeus 12 said quickly as a trembling Mt. Atticus threatened to erupt again, “but your cooperation and understanding in this matter is appreciated, Attie. Your boy is going to catch her for us and bring her here, he’s going to do what our worthless friend Torrent Leviathan has failed to do. Once she’s here and is turned to us, I’ll be very confident of our forces. That could very well be the start of our Circuit Armageddon, the elimination of all reploid life excluding us, the Mechadrakes of Eden.”
Nytetrayn gave a choked laugh at Asmodeus’ name for his Armageddon game.
Asmodeus 12 lashed. “I beg your pardon, Nytetrayn?”
“Hmf. At any rate, even if we don’t choose to start our Armageddon when she arrives, we’ll keep her cool for other uses. Her blood’s very valuable, very rare, and even the most docile and subdued human can mother children for our future gain, yes? Do you see, Attie? Your Jody plays a vital part in Eden, as he’ll capture and deliver our cataract. You should be proud…”
Caillou was starting to sway a bit, Asmodeus 12’s reasoning with Atticus 15 became fuzz on his brain. It was then that Nytetrayn tugged on his collar and started to lead him away from the Great Tree.
“Come on,” the black Mechadrake said, slinging his arm around the stricken boy’s shoulder. “We oughta get that leg of yours fixed up before it goes stiff. Good work today, by the way.”
“Thanks…” Caillou’s vision was fading to black. He could only make out Nytetrayn’s glittering gold underbelly and membranous wing-webbing. “Heh…think I might…pass out! Couldn’t pass out…in front of …Asmodeus, though…”
“Nah, you don’t wanna do that if you know what’s good for you.”
Caillou’s darkened world seemed to skip a few frames, for all of a sudden he noticed something white bobbing up and down on Nytetrayn’s lower lip as he talked, accompanied by the blue smell of tobacco.
“Nytetrayn…are you smoking?!”
“Caught me!” The Mechadrake threw the stub of the white stick on the floor and ground it with his foot. “Keep it a secret, okay? It’s kind of an unusual behaviour, I don’t think it would fly with Asmodeus.”
“I’ve never heard of a Mechadrake smoking…or ANY reploid for that matter…”
“They don’t. However, I’ve been listening into my girl’s thoughts for too long, I must’ve picked up the filthy habit from her…”
“Celeste McTreggor. The very same girl Asmodeus was telling Atticus about back there.”
Although he’d been a resident all his life, Caillou was too much of an outsider not to be confused by the ways of Eden. “What do you mean by calling this ‘Celeste’ chick your ‘girl,’ Nyte? I also heard Asmodeus 12 refer to Jody as Atticus’ ‘boy.’ What’s that all about?”
Nytetrayn was starting to carry Caillou more than he was actually guiding him. “Well, I think you’re a bit too messed to understand it right now,” he said, “but I’ll give it a try. Children born in Eden are issued a Mechadrake guardian and teacher. More accurately, they bring the beastie to life, and the Mechadrake grows with them. For different reasons, Mechadrakes get very unhappy when they’re separated from their ‘boy’ or ‘girl.’ They can’t fight, they can’t concentrate, they become disoriented. In Atticus’ case, times that by one thousand. It’s a dangerous business, if you ask me. What if one of our kids were to die? Eden Mechadrakes are too unstable to deal with a permanent loss…”
Nytetrayn scratched behind a golden horn thoughtfully. “Well, yes. Unstable. Eden Mechadrakes don’t come from Mechadrake Assemblies Inc. They’re…” Nyte searched for words. “They’re…well, home grown! Right here in Eden. By a super-aging process called ‘Soaking.’ I’ll explain Soaking in better detail someday, but for now I’ll tell you that it doesn’t give the Mechadrake’s mind adequate time to mature with the biological features of his or her body. One often decides to run off with the other, hence the ‘drake’s tendency to cling childlike to comforting and familiar things…like their ‘boy’ or ‘girl.’ In some cases, Soaking can even leave the Mechadrake’s body deformed. You got a good look at Atticus 15, right? What do you say to that?”
“That’s screwed!” Caillou said. “Why not let the Mechadrake develop normally?”
“Because Asmodeus 12 is an impatient little lizard. How long has he been down here, breeding humans until they’ve become the brainwashed flock of deadly and beautiful sheep they are today? Years? Decades? Centuries? Hell, not even I know. I was just born in the middle of it all. Asmodeus wants unity, a hive-mind…and, to give him credit, nothing is stronger than the bond between a Mechadrake and his boy. They fight like a real team.”
“So…” Caillou’s eyes started to close, but he spit up one more question. “Why…haven’t…you gone crazy…without your…girl…like Atticus…has…?”
“Celeste was taken out of Eden very soon after my birth, Caillou. I had to learn to adapt without her. Thankfully, I incubated in the tube long enough for my brain to develop some sense of independence, so I didn’t go totally stark raving mad like I should have. Say, you don’t have a Mechadrake, do you?”
“No…I don’t belong. Mom…kinda…went with…someone else…”
“Aha.” Nytetrayn was silent for a second. “Yeah, types like yourself are usually killed. Guess you got spared because of your paternal blood…I’m sure Asmodeus has some use for you. Athough I see that you have an ouroborous band. That’s a pisser. Did anyone ever tell you who your father was?”
“Never heard much about him.”
“Did you ever care to know more?”
“Not really, no.”
“Probably for the best. Now’s not the time…the, uh, circumstances surrounding your happy coming into the world day aren’t the most noble on earth.”
Caillou looked alert for the first time. “How do you know?”
“I know stuff, I’m smart.” Nytetrayn dropped his voice to a hiss. “For example, I know how you really feel about this place…that is to say, you think it’s a loony bin, and you only stay to honour your mother, not to mention the fact that you have a better chance of drinking the ocean than you do of getting out of here alone and alive. But, like myself, you were born into unfortunate circumstances.”
Caillou’s jaw slacked stupidly. “How…how did you know…”
“Mindspeak,” Nytetrayn said simply. “I can’t read your thoughts directly, but I can catch wind and current of what you’re thinking and feeling. I use Mindspeak to check up on Celeste, though I haven’t actually talked to her in years. I prefer she doesn’t know I exist for now. She won’t remember me when she comes back, but we’re going to need her to get out, and we have to get a hold of her before Asmodeus starts making her…comply to the screwed up rules around here.”
“They’d breed her?”
“Oh, damn right they would! Asmodeus has been frothing to get the McTreggor bloodline into Eden permanently. Sure, they can’t FORCE her to do what they want, but they’ll find a way to mess her up, they can easily slip something into her food or water, and boom. Instant first-class child-bearing soldier for the (ugh) Circuit Armageddon. But we won’t let that happen. But unless I talk to you further, don’t say another word about this, don’t even THINK about it. Not all Mechadrakes have Mindspeak by any means…not even Asmodeus, although he’d like you to think it. But still, when it comes to Asmodeus 12, you can never be too careful. He’s a wily little bastard. Understand?”
“Yes…sir…” Caillou was a bit overwhelmed, between bleeding his life away and having a formidable black Mechadrake he hardly knew entrust sudden plans of revolution to him alone.
Nytetrayn heard that. “It’s also common sense, Caillou. You’re obviously unhappy here. Eden’s warriors have every need fulfilled, every desire granted, simply because they’re planned stock. They’re quite content to serve Asmodeus as long as he provides for them. But you? You’re an outcast, you don’t get bupkus, you have feelings of unrest. It was Asmodeus’ mistake to keep you alive. He’s going to regret it later, I promise you.”
Caillou rather liked the sound of that, even though it sent a chill slithering down his back at the same time.
“In the meanwhile…” Nytetrayn’s mood shifted to a toothy grin as he felt a twinge of addiction from his soulmate occupying the world above, and responded by likewise lighting a cigarette, “In the meanwhile, we’ll wait for my girl to come home!”