Chapter 31: Another Sort of Homecoming

Zero shook his head. "What a terrible plan."

Jody's hands tightened on his crossed knees and he spit on the grass. "You come up with a better one and we'll follow it, sweetheart."

"I didn't say we won't follow it, I just think it's terrible. I have a right to my opinions." Zero ran his fingers through his ratty hair and glanced around. He'd hear any intruders long before they'd sneak up on him, but he was as jittery as a racehorse on marbles. "How do we get into Eden? I guess there was an entrance from that village, but I'm not hot to go back there just yet."

"We go in the same way Celeste's father got out."

"How was that?"

"The Hollow." Jody looked at the blowing foothills. "You chose a bad direction when you ran like a girl. Off to the east, deeper in the mountains, there's a river. It runs out of Eden."

Zero pulled himself to his feet and sighed when his joints sizzled and groaned in protest. "You sound like the Book of Genesis. I think I can smell water somewhere, but it's very faint. I'd try and get a better look around, but the mountains keep me from a clear view. Getting an iron tongue in my eye didn't help matters, either. Lifesaver fixed it best he could, but I can't focus as easily as I could."

"I sympathise with your poor bones, old man. I think you're imagining things. The river's really not that close."

"What's the 'Hollow?'"

Jody smiled. "You gotta feed an underground city somehow."

"So, it's..."

"Eden's hunting grounds. The river I'm referring to runs at the very bottom of Eden and through a large cavern. We keep animals there. Deer, mostly, but some rabbits too, though they aren't more than a mouthful. We once even bred a few bison."

Zero frowned thoughtfully. "Aren't bison nearly extinct?"

"Dunno. They were definitely tasty."

"So you keep animals holed up in the dark and kill them when it's time to eat. That's nice."

Jody plucked a dry grass stalk and twirled it in his fingers. "About as nice as the way you all feed your cities with animals born and killed in factories. And anyway, it's not that bad. There's some light, though the plants down there are mostly nocturnal. The deer roam free and feed 'til it's their time."

"Who gets to ice them for dinner?"

"Whoever, I guess. Though, when it's time for a boy to get married, he kills his own deer and prepares it, and the families come together for a meal." Jody glanced up. "I was looking forward to hunting for Celeste, when the time came."

"I think Celeste is far more capable of kicking a deer's ass than you are."

"I never said she wasn't. It's just a tradition. Women in Eden are raised to be equal to males on the battlefield, but a husband is ultimately responsible for providing for his wife. Hunting for the deer proves that to the girl, and her family." Jody pulled a face. "Not that I would've had much desire to prove anything to Jake."

"Hmm," Zero murmured distractedly, trying to get a better fix on the river. "Seems like the whole damn world got to meet Jake 'cept for me."

"You weren't missing much."

"Not prime father-in-law material, I guess? Celeste was crazy about him, though she doesn't say much."

"Then how do you know how she feels about him?"

Zero shrugged. "I can just tell."

"We crossed paths once or twice," Jody said darkly. "And he cracked my head against the wall."

"Well, there's a shame. You're a big man, I'm sure you walked it off."

"I did, but it would have been much easier if I weren't five years old at the time."

Zero whistled low. "He did that? He was supposedly not one to subscribe to typical morals, but you gotta be kidding me."

Jody shook his head. "I'm not. Celeste was hurt and I tried to help her, but Jake whacked me."


"Hey, you two have something in common. You both like to hurt little kids."

Zero gripped his fist, but no matter how often he tried, he couldn't fire off a round of machine-gun knuckle-pops like humans did when they tried to impress a rival.

Jody eyed him. "Too far, big guy?"

"Get up. You want to get into Eden or not? Tell me more about this river."

"Not much more to know. It runs fast. It's wet."

"Oh, aren't you clever. But think about it. For your plan to hold any water, 'scuse me, it wouldn't do for you to slink into Eden like a whipped dog coming back home. You're better off walking through the front door like the grand hero you are."

Jody chewed on the grass stalk pinched between his thumb and forefinger. "Hate to admit it, but you're right. And your earlier performance has blocked off our nearest entrance."

"So there's another."

"There is." Jody shifted into a kneeling position and started to pull up grass. "But it's not going to be an easy trek." He scratched at the grass stubble with his fingernails and revealed hard-packed dust. He started to trace vague shapes with his finger. "We'll need to go deeper into the mountains, heading northwest. There's a tunnel that eventually winds down the mountain and into Eden. It's a long walk and I don't know if we have enough supplies with us. I was trained to fight on an empty stomach, but water's another matter. I have to admit, I'm still a bit wrung out from riding in cargo. I guess we could try for the river, but I think it'd be a futile attempt, ultimately."

"We'll think of something," Zero said calmly.

"Easy for you to say. But I think you're right. Either way, we need to get started."

"I know. The Hunters are probably after me by now, but we'll be much harder to track in the mountains."

Jody snorted. "Nevermind the Hunters, I bet they're too busy weeping into their hankies to get organised enough for a man-hunt. I'm more worried about Celeste. If she doesn't cooperate, they'll find ways to make sure she does. Or they'll ditch her entirely if they decide she's not worth the trouble. They had enough of a bad time with her father."

"Let's go, then. How long do you think the trip to Eden will take, overall?"

"Four days, I'd wager. Maybe three if we're lucky. It'll have to be on foot. I don't think the Chaser will go much further in this terrain."

"Let's go," Zero repeated grimly.

"I'll kill you before I let you hurt Paul."

"For the love of criminy woman, I'm not going to hurt your miserable human spore. You might be another matter if you don't shut your trap, though."

Iris stumbled a little on the slimy bricks when she was pushed from behind. "I don't care about myself, but I won't let you touch Paul."


Paul's cries rang off the yellow-and-grey concrete walls of the sewers as Overdrive Ostrich ushered Iris through the tomb. Sometimes he wondered sluggishly why he, a reploid originally built to patrol wide-open savannah, was allowing himself to die slowly underground, knee-deep in humans' waste-water and runoff. He could vaguely remember something about wanting to impress Phoenix ... something about a pony? Nice girl, that Phoenix. Oh, a bit abrasive at times, but what was a thump upside the head once in a while in comparison to working for an utterly, utterly twisted Mechadrake who turned nice girls into ravenous wolves and used desperate Reploids as pawns to kidnap babies for God-knew-what?

"Where are we going?" Iris whispered, and the sound slithered across the walls.

"To give tithing to the man who delivered you from X. It'll be grand."

"The one who led me to Paul?"

"The very same."

Iris pressed Paul closer to her, but the baby wouldn't stop crying. "I'm grateful. I'm very grateful. But..."

Overdrive gave her another push. "Stow it, dear. I have enough troubles without listening to the lamentations of a single mother who has no business being one."

Iris was quiet for the duration of the march. Before they'd quite reached Torrent's lair, the water dragon's grinning head flew from around a corner and Iris screamed, stomping Overdrive's large toes as she leaped backwards.

"Happy to finally meet you, my dear," Torrent cackled.

Iris didn't break her terrified gaze even as Overdrive squawked in pain and shoved her away from him. "My God! Who are you?"

"Your benefactor." Torrent's smile dropped and was replaced with a bored stare. "I was hoping you'd be a titch less predictable."

"You're not him," Iris sobbed. "Leave me alone. You have to leave me alone!"

Torrent smiled at Overdrive and swept his hand forward to indicate Iris. "This is more like it! If I have to deal with something as sad as a delusional bint who was once mankind's deadliest weapon, I like to at least be entertained. Listen, girl. I'm not interested in plea bargains or negotiations. I never have been. You owe me a great deal, and I'll collect my dues now. Namely, that babe in your arms."


"Oh, but yes. You're not capable of taking care of him. You can't even follow orders, so what right have you to tell me otherwise?"

Iris turned on her heel and tried to run, stumbling instead into Overdrive's plumage. A metal-tipped feather pricked Paul under his eye, and a bead of blood swelled and traced a swift angle down his pale cheek.

"Don't bother asking me for help," Overdrive grunted, grabbing Iris by the shoulders and turning her around to face her nightmare.

Torrent chuckled and tipped Iris' chin up. "I'm not without morals, sweet girl. Tell you what. You calm down and be a good girl, and I'll let you hold Paul for a little longer, okay?"


"Do we have a deal or not? You're free to refuse, but I'll be taking Paul from you otherwise. Unless you believe you, as a guest in my house, can overpower me. Go on, punch me."

Iris shuddered and swallowed. "I'll cooperate."

"Now that's what I like to hear. On our way, then."

Iris and Overdrive's' quick footsteps pinged through the labyrinth, and Torrent's stride was more of a shuffle and drag, kin to the movement of something re-animated. The pace he set was nonetheless brisk, and in a few minutes he led his apprentice and his guest to his favourite clearing, a large concrete island surrounded by dawdling sewer runoff.

"A river runs through it," Torrent said mildly. "What do you think of my latest?" The Mechadrake nodded his head towards some sort of capsule-like creation hobbled together with bits and pieces like some glass and metal Frankenstein. A jungle of tubes crept up a glass front, filled with murky water and it looked fiendishly elaborate ... and small.

"What is it?" Iris' voice was sharp.

Torrent lifted a scaly eyebrow at her, and shrugged. "A trifle. A gift for my good apprentice here, who's been so patient through my deep musings and potent rages."

"A coffin," Iris said softly. "A coffin for a baby."

"What are you, mad? A baby's coffin is a grim little thing. This is quite the opposite."

"Then why? Why do you want to take Paul away from me?"

Torrent narrowed his eyes mirthfully. "You're not using him, are you? Just clutching him like a teddy bear. You're a bunny-hugger."

"A what?"

"Someone who likes to hug and pet cute little kitties, bunnies and babies 'til you realise how much work goes into taking care of them. That's why you've been having such a hard time looking after Paul ... you simply don't want to."

Overdrive blinked sleepily as he lifted his eyes from Iris, looked at Torrent, and dropped them again. He didn't know what kind of game his mentor was playing, but what else was new? Whatever the game was, Overdrive figured he was involved in at least some small way; Iris thrashed, and Overdrive had to brace his limbs to keep her from breaking away.

Torrent scratched at the side of his neck. "You're angry because you know I'm right. I told you what you had to do to grab Paul--and it took you long enough to do it--but what's become of your grand plans? Where's your happy family? Isn't Zero supposed to be by your side? And a smiling baby? All I see is a soggy, hungry sprog and a twit of a girl. No Zero, unless he turned invisible."

Overdrive felt a little more awake when Iris' scream of rage and pain, exaggerated by the sewer's hollow, rattling acoustics, pierced his brain. He opened his eyes wide. "Ouch. Torrent, I think--"

Torrent ignored him and laughed at Iris' torment. "I wish I could visit the future and see all of Reploidkind's achievements documented. It'd be a mighty small pamphlet, mind you, but I think you'd have a sentence or two in there. You're this century's greatest comedy act. 'Iris: the less exciting half of an impotent battle machine. Flew clear over the cuckoo's nest when her brother died. Robbed cradles to satisfy some oddball glitch that was exclusive to her empty little head.'"

Overdrive's fingers nearly wrenched out of their sockets when Iris ripped away from him and threw herself at Torrent. Her ferocity was so potent, Overdrive hesitated before he sprang after her. There was no danger to Torrent; the Mechadrake merely stretched out a paw and caught the female reploid by the head before she even got within swinging distance. Overdrive winced a little when Iris' neck snapped clear back and she crumpled to the ground as silently as leaves in October. Paul fell hard where Iris' limp arms dropped him, and his cries took on a more urgent pitch.

"That's an annoying sound," Overdrive observed, massaging one of his sore hands with the other.

"Humans and alligators are a lot alike," Torrent said as he scooped up Paul with one hand. "Aside from the fact they're both dawdling, reptilian and largely useless, both species have obnoxious, shrieking offspring that have no defence other than to scream like something demented, so that an adult might help them."

"What about Iris?"

"What about her?"

"Is she dead?"

"Oh, well, I don't know." Torrent tickled Paul delicately under the chin with one claw, and the baby's cry, surprisingly, turned into a gurgling laugh. "Take her to sector 3-I and throw her in the soup. She'll wash out into the dam and get sucked into the turbines. That'll dead her good and proper if she isn't already. Then come back here ... we have work to do. You didn't believe me when I told you this creation of mine was a gift, eh? I'll show you a thing or two."

"Sure," Overdrive mumbled, gathering Iris into his arms, shifting them to keep himself from spilling her. It was like holding a bundle of laundry. He exited the crypt and heard Torrent tune up his raspy-rich voice in a song about the elemental properties of water.

"Iris, Iris, Iris," Overdrive addressed his company once they were out of range of Torrent's concert. "What can I say? You got caught up in some bad business, and it's too bad you didn't realise it until it was too late. "

Overdrive walked in silence for a little while, in the opposite direction of 3-I. He narrowed his eyes. "You know, I've been around since the first Maverick War. I was a decent enough fighter, but I was a great scientist. I was a sharp cookie. You wouldn't know it by how stupid I was to latch myself to that maniac, Torrent. You were once something great too, weren't you, Iris? It's a shame you had to become as dumb as I am. You have a better excuse than I do, though ... Torrent shuffled you around like a chess piece. I, on the other hand, threw myself at his disgusting feet like a hungry dog."

As he talked, Overdrive paused in front of a ladder that led up to the surface world. He propped Iris beside it and started to ascend the slippery, mouldy rungs.

"And as I should've expected, he treated me like a dog. Fetch this, fetch that, hold still while I boot you across the room." Overdrive stopped short of the surface; a rusted manhole blocked his way. He stooped his head as low as he could, and pressed his shoulders and arms against the ninety-pound disc. It shuddered and gave. Overdrive slid it aside, lifted his sore neck, and peered. Crickets whirred and a fresh breeze caused him to recoil with unfamiliarity. He inched his head up once more. He was under a sidestreet, steeped in red and purple twilight. A gaggle of children played basketball in a driveway about twenty metres away.

Overdrive descended the ladder and felt relief coupled with a dull sense of alarm; he had undeniably grown more comfortable in the close, silent murk of the sewers. He gathered Iris' limp body and slung her over his shoulder before he started to climb again.

"I can decide later if I'm being stupid, merciful, or if I'm just doing this because I'm jealous and don't want you to slip through this mess so easily by dying."

Overdrive crested the lip of the manhole once more, and heaved himself onto the street. The pebbled concrete bit at his spindly knees and he wobbled a little as he righted himself. He headed directly for the children playing basketball.

The children continued to shout and jump at each other and one by one they faded into silence as they saw a battered Reploid ostrich(?) sway towards them with something slung over his shoulders. When they all dropped their voices, their ball bounced on the driveway once, twice, then rolled out onto the street like a tormented stray finally making its escape.

"Don't stop on account of me," Overdrive said flatly. He threw Iris on the curb where she rattled and clanked before settling on her back with her eyes staring lifelessly at the darkening sky.

The children pressed against each other and stared.

Overdrive shot his head forward, threw his arms into the air and screamed.

The children screamed a return chorus and scattered. At least one of them darted into the house belonging to the driveway.

"There you go, Iris," Overdrive cackled. "These people'll take good care of you. On the other hand, I'll lay equal odds that you're dead. When you get to hell, stop by and say hello sometime." The ostrich nudged the girl with his foot and rolled her over. "Yum. Pavement."

Someone in the house, an adult, pulled the heavy green curtains aside and peeked out. Overdrive turned around, presented his rear end, and took off.

"Status from the Medical Unit. Cain's stable."

The sudden voice buzzing in his ear made X jump. He gathered himself and opened his own communication. "Copy that. Is he conscious?"

"He is, but too zoned out to say much."

"Did he wish to see me?"

"All he's asked for is to see, uh, Ernie and Bert."

X bit down on the corners of his mouth. "Ten-four. I'll remain at my twenty. Contact me right away if there's any change in Cain's status."


"By the way, have there been any further sightings of--" X grimaced, "--the Maverick?"

"No sir, no one's seen Zero since he fled."

Nice. "Copy that. What's the priority on his status?"

"Undetermined. The Tribunal will be calling a meeting at twenty two hundred hours to discuss what's to be done, but since Zero was last seen fleeing deeper into the Grasslands, he's not considered Priority One."

No, there are plenty of Priority Ones causing wanton destruction right now. "Copy. X out."

The radio went dead. X held his elbow and rested his chin between his thumb and forefinger. A small garter snake, hunting in the evening cool, slithered across the stubbly, sandy grass and flicked its forked tongue at X's boot to determine friend versus foe. X stooped down and picked up the small reptile. He pat its head with his thumb. "This is no place for you, buddy. Not anymore."

Doors banged open and shut. Adults called out and children responded. A mud-spattered Labrador retriever bowed on its front legs and barked at X, then bounded away with a stupid grin on its face. Hastily-rolled bundles and objects were strewn all around the trampled dust.

There were only a few families present. Only one or two houses had been destroyed by these mysterious hastily-cobbled Mavericks. Most of the other people were just here as precaution against the seemingly aimless pattern the new Mavericks took. The Hunters were just spread a little thin, that's all. It was all very temporary.

X put the snake down and it flailed away from the noisy crowd. X let his arms hang limp and he drew a shuddering sigh. Things weren't pretty, no matter how he looked at the situation. Maverick Hunter Headquarters' refugee camps were occupied again because the Hunters were failing at their duty. Colossally.

That's all there is to it.

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