Chapter Four: Hawk, Panther, Demon
For all the changes Kapcom endured daily, for all the pavement was constantly bleached by the harsh light of day, time stood still in the sewers where he lived, time didn’t dare flinch in his presence.
Torrent Leviathan sat with his back rubbing against the cat-tongue textured brick of the sewers he dominated without question. Falling upon a particularly itchy bit, the huge aqua-hued Mechadrake filed his shoulders against the wall, rumbling thoughtfully as he did so.
“Ah good, nice.” He stopped and folded his finned arms across his plated chest. “Even a Mechadrake enjoys a good scratch now and then. And Mechadrakes also love to scratch. Eyes, for example. But you know all about that, don’t you my dear?”
Torrent looked at his latest guest, a deep-skinned woman, her healthy dark tan skin crisscrossed with nasty scars…deep gouges that healed over years ago, rusty and infected. Her hair was thick and sticky with crusted blood. The warrior looked to be in her late twenties, and she lay on her stomach before Torrent, mouth open slightly, bile and blood pooled under it like sewage from a drainpipe. The back of her dark green combat pants was shredded, and in the mucky light, Torrent could see the Mark on her ankle. His powerful mind devised a story to go with the unconscious fop.
“Lucky you, you’re Marked. You’re from Asmodeus 12’s stock, eh? That little jackal always annoyed me. I did some recruiting for him a few years back, I would bring fresh prospects into his cruddy Eden, or whatever the hell he calls it. I even landed him that slippery little Jake McTreggor for his army. Is it my fault that he didn’t hang onto him tightly enough and he slid away? Tries to put the blame on me. Huh. Well, I’ll tell you this much, missy. I’ve had just about enough of the Inheritors of Eden, and I wish them the success of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The woman hiccuped in her sleep and her lungs drained themselves a little more.
Torrent raised his dirt caked snout in the air and sniffed deeply of his rank stable. “What did you do to deserve being hacked up like that, dear?” he said. “Perhaps you spoke out? Maybe you woke up from the brainwashing, maybe it didn’t latch to your mind and suck all the sense out like a leech on a wound? Maybe you’re just a strange duck. Or maybe you went with another man, one Assie didn’t give to you. Yes, I’m willing to bet that’s it. Who did you lie with? How were you found out? You broke the rules, you were to be slain accordingly; your own Mechadrake was turned against you. Not a hard feat if you have a Caller whistle. You must be damned good to have survived this long…seems as if you’ve been hunted all your life…until you somehow stumbled into my home. Eden probably marked you for dead ages ago.”
The aqua-coloured Mechadrake raised his massive frame off the ground as easily as a snake slipping up a tree. “Well…”
Torrent flicked a mite off his arm.
“…that’s THEIR mistake.”
Torrent fell silent and chattered with his own thoughts for a second. You need a hobby. Project!
“You will survive,” the serpent tenderly assured the mouse that was within a few hours of presenting herself to Death in a puddle of her own bodily fluids, “and you will help me put a right end to things. I do need a project.”
“Habitat sweet habitat…”
The wind slithered through the dried husks of grass that spiked the Skeleton Grasslands. Unhindered by the skyscrapers of the city, it flew as it pleased, like a hunter-spirit, screaming, swooping, supreme ruler of the poisoned plains where humans feared to tread. It embraced a fellow predator, Phoenix, who stood oblivious to her cold cousin’s hug as she looked down at the rubble of Doppler’s old fortress that lay like the fossilized bones of a once formidable beast. The rack of fire atop Stag’s head danced with the wind’s fury.
Overdrive walked with his head stooped against the invisible knife that cut at him.
“Doppler’s fortress, where we grew, where we learned so much…”
Silence but for the screaming spirit.
“…let’s go find that hot dog tree we planted!”
With a wild whoop, Phoenix leaped in the air and gave herself to the wind for the first time in years. The wild breeze took her with passion, running itself through her luxurious fire-feathers like eager fingers. She lifted off the ground effortlessly, supported by her only love, and blood red plumage embraced the orange sky, fluttering like a banner. With a primal scream that streaked across the sky like a lance, Phoenix dove for the place of her birth. As shattered as it was, for all it reminded the Mavericks of their defeat and the utter stupidity they exhibited at times, the fortress symbolized the end of their shameful wandering, and the beginning of rebirth. As often as it was said, it never felt any less good to say it…
“This time, we’ll rebuild! We will not fail!”
The reploid panther’s jade eyes cut into its opponent, its deceptively soft hind paws making no noise on the narrow metal girder of the rafter. A growl trembled from somewhere inside its dark guts, sheathed within a silver breast and stomach plate. It carried a huge poweraxe in both forepaws, naked jet-black legs tensed to throw its full weight into the coming swing. Its tail waved slowly, feeling the situation.
On the other side of the beam, his red and gold armour screaming in discord, Zero held his pulsating lightsabre to one side as he beckoned with his other hand.
“You big hugable housecat, you!”
The panther, Seven, flattened his ears in a jaguar scream and charged. A clumsy weapon like an axe wasn’t such a hot idea for a creature of supposed stealth and grace; the weight of the swing overbalanced Seven. He missed Zero by a British mile, staggered with the extra bulk, lost his footing and briefly resembled a squirrel on an icy roof as his limbs splayed in all directions. The huge cat fell off the perch with a final war cry:
Zero peered over the rafter in disgust. Seven lay flat on his face on the hardwood of the training room floor.
“You’re supposed to land on your FEET you lummox!” the Hunter shouted irritably at his subordinate. “What kind of a cat are you?”
Seven groggily sat up. “Ain’t my fault! Programming mix up. Someone put my head circuits where my feet should be.”
“You mean someone put your brain circuits where your arse should be! What the hell are you doing with a poweraxe? You’re a panther! Use your claws, your teeth, rip out jugulars and leap like a pretty ballerina the whole time. That’s the joy of being what you are.”
Seven flattened his ears ever-so-slightly at his commander and gathered up the dented weapon. “I like my axe, Zero. You want to try to make me give it up? Come on down and I’ll carve The Birth of Man all over that pretty little hide of yours!”
Insubordination. Quickly, Zero glanced around the huge training area. He apparently wasn’t the only one stuck with a surly, hopeless unit. Terribly out of practice after months of peace time, none of the commanders had much bothered with regular training for their units. They’d always filled in their training logcards with exaggerated hours to satisfy Cain every week, then yiffed off to get drunk and play ping pong.
Then came the merry day Cain decided he would personally watch the Hunters in training. The moment Cain sat down to observe his pride, the toxic lies on the logcards leaked out of containment and poisoned the Hunters and their commanders, and knowing that the Big Cheese was watching them wallow in their own lies infected them with panic, incompetence, rebellion, and unadulterated stupidity.
Below the rafters, on the plane of those who could not jump to such tremendous heights, Celeste was having problems of her own. One of her rookies simply stood like a drooling gork as the black training droid in front of him smashed him repeatedly in the face, point blank. Celeste, driven into a frenzy by the fact that Cain was evaluating her, reverted into a totally different entity. She frisked up and down the sidelines like an alley cat on the prowl, spouting profanities.
“SMITH! Good MORNING! Are you hungover AGAIN? You wanker, you’ll break your mother’s heart! Don’t just sit there, you’re getting your ass kicked! Fight back, you masochistic bastard!”
The droid slowly advanced on the stoned young man and eventually had him crushed against the wall. Still Smith did nothing, but Zero caught a glimpse of his face turning blue.
“Jesus Christ in a chariot-driven sidecar!” Celeste snatched up a nearby folding chair and brought it down on the droid’s triangular head with all the strength her little body could muster. The droid wailed and backed off like a beaten cur before it buckled and fizzed out. Smith likewise crumpled to the ground, his mouth agape and bloody. Seething, Celeste hauled him off to see Genesis in the Medical Unit.
Seven was still sizing up Zero. Out of the corner of his eye, Zero stole a glance at the booth where Cain sat. The scientist had very “I-may-not-show-emotion-very-well-but-boy-am-I-pissed” look on his face, and it was slowly deepening into a lovely shade of crimson. The old man didn’t appreciate being taken for a fool. Zero figured Cain wouldn’t be in the mood to watch the leader of his life’s project, the Maverick Hunters, get pushed around by a kitten newcomer that had a Freudian obsession with his axe.
“Seven,” Zero said slowly, “you don’t want to make me come down there.”
“It will hurt. And besides, Cain is evaluating us all right now on our performance, including ability to follow orders. So be good and look busy.”
Seven spread his arms wide. “What’s he watching for? What’s he making us train like this for? Cain KNOWS we suck. Does he have to prove it to us?”
Before Zero could respond, Seven sprang merrily away. Zero heaved a sigh. Sure, it was fine and dandy to preach anti-war like a stoked hippie, but the sad reality was that the creatures of earth, especially humans, needed war to keep their asses in check and give them a goal to strive for. Otherwise, they ended up a bunch of rear-scratching Joes with sloppy guts. Humans were fighters at heart.
X passed underfoot (literally) and looked up, noticing his treed friend for the first time.
“Hi there!” he called up. “Come on down, cat. You look frazzled. I’ll buy you some milk, we’ll talk.”
“Will the milk be spiked with some Irish Cream? ‘cause if it isn’t, I ain’t getting up off this here rafter.”
“I’ll see what Cass can arrange.”
“Good enough.” Zero slid off his perch, dangled for half a second, swung around once completely and flipped to land neatly in front of X .
“Bah,” was all X had to say.
“You don’t like Seven,” X said. It wasn’t a question.
“Damn right,” Zero growled. “And I’ll thank you very much for dumping him on me.”
“Hey, what can I say. He was too good for the 17th, and he was so damn eager to advance. I don’t have any control over certain things.”
The two friends stood in relative silence and watched the horrid training ongoing around them.
“This is pretty sad,” X said slowly. “Anyway…yeah. Seven. He’s a ferocious fighter all right, and he swings a mean axe when he wants to. But watch him. He kicks people when they’re down. That’s how he advanced in the ranks.”
“Oh, for…” Zero clamped his hand down on his helmet in despair. “Things really HAVE gone to hell in a handbasket around here! They promoted a dishonourble soldier?!”
X shrugged weakly. “Maverick disposal is Maverick disposal. And Seven is good. We don’t backstab as badly as the Mavericks, but we’re far from innocent, Zero.”
“Hmph. I smell insurrection on that pissy synthetic fur of his.”
“That’s why I told you to watch your back. He eyes your leadership of the Special Class 0 like a pretty woman’s curves.”
Celeste reentered the gym, brushing off her hands. “Speaking of pretty women…” Zero muttered.
X noticed a sudden severe shift in Zero’s nonchalant demenour when the silver-haired tracker, Jody, suddenly bounded, catlike, out of nowhere to stand beside Celeste. It was like being beside a dog who went from wagging his tail to bearing his teeth in a second flat.
X’s eyes grew wide. “That is some severe hostility,” he said in alarm. “Zero! I mean, you…holy fish! What’s up with Jody that you should hate him so much?”
“Look at him X, just look at him…”
X peered at the couple across the gym. He recognized the flaunty body language of Jody, the grinning, the utter uninterested air that Celeste radiated as she turned away from Jody’s empty prattle.
“Bunnies in springtime,” X said wistfully. “No big deal.”
“No, don’t look at them, look at him. Seven just pisses me off, and I think he’s a whiny little jerk, but Jody…he’s far too keen and cunning for any human. Look at those eyes, those movements. He knows what he’s doing. And he has no compassion. I think he might end up hurting Celeste somehow.”
X peered harder, but he didn’t see any of the hawklike qualities that Zero pointed out. He just saw a boy with unusual silver hair who was trying to make a pass at his commander. The blue Hunter shrugged.
“Zero, you need to relax. Lots of guys have made passes at Celeste at inappropriate times before, and you’ve just boxed their ears in. What’s stopping you now?”
Zero sighed. “X, you don’t understand me at all if you feel that way…it’s not so much what he’s doing as the fact that he…he…well…” Zero trailed off like a wound up music box that was running out of spring.
He stopped completely for about three seconds.
“You’re right…what the hell is stopping me?!”
Celeste inwardly shared many of Zero’s outlooks on Jody…but she was his commanding officer, and she had to show him respect.
“Miss McTreggor.” The silver haired hawk swooped out of nowhere and alighted silently beside Celeste. “Miss McTreggor…I must apologize for Smith’s disgraceful performance…”
“Why are you apologizing, Jody?” Celeste asked, though she knew full well that the boy wanted an excuse to talk to her. “You had nothing to do with his drinking.”
“I felt the need to apologize anyway. We are all one.”
“Well…lovely. Now please, get back to training. Cain’s gonna roast our asses after this is done, so let’s give him SOMETHING worth praising.”
Jody was not easily shaken. Wherever she seemed to move, Celeste found that Jody circled her slowly, like a tiger shark about to kill, talking the whole while, causing her to drop her guard.
On and on he droned about nothing at all. Celeste tried to pay no mind, telling him to get back to work, but his voice slid around her like a friendly serpent, smooth as honeyed lotus, pleasant, sleepy, hypnotic, a rowboat on gentle sea waves. Celeste snapped to full attention again when she thought she heard the words, “you will be mine, you’ll be by my side” from some far distant plane…
“Wuh…what did you just say, Jody?”
Jody reached for her arm like a talon. “I said…”
Jody was suddenly splayed against the wall like a dead bug. Zero was beside Celeste, cracking his bloodied knuckles.
“Don’t pull any of that mating season crap on your commanding officer,” the crimson and gold warrior advised the leather-vested portrait of roadkill. “It is quite unprofessional.”
Jody peeled himself from the wall and groggily raised a hand to the huge purple welt that slowly blossomed where Zero had punched him. He looked up at the sleek reploid with disbelieving eyes and back down at his hand, which was smeared with blood.
Then he did something quite surprising.
Whereas even the hardiest of reploids would have run home crying with their tail between their legs at a clout from Zero, a fire simply ignited in Jody’s icy eyes. That’s when Zero noticed for the first time the formidable but beautifully light and effective weapon that was coiled at the boy’s side…one single sickle blade of some unknown metal on the end of a chain…
That was all Zero had time to see before the silvery adder lashed out and buried the blade in his chest armour.
What happened for the next ten minutes was all blood, oil, leather, gold and silver in one big tangled ball. Zero bellowed like Cass the badger on a drinking binge, but more out of surprise than pain. Lucky for the Crimson Wonder, the blade didn’t cut too deep past his armour…
But only, Zero realized later when the event had passed, because Jody hadn’t wanted it to.
The blade ripped out of the blood red breastplate, leaving a gaping hole. Zero was fluent in the warrior’s dialect, he knew when he was issued a challenge. His lightsabre was out and he was on Jody’s head in one motion.
And the boy fought like a little demon from hell.
Time and time again the chain glanced off Zero, the blade gouged furrows in his face and hands, the blood was tremendous. But Jody was by no means untouched. He was burned, slashed, pumping, and he just didn’t stop. The two were landlocked, feeding each other’s fire, colossal beings.
That’s when Seven came padding out of nowhere. Before anyone could stop him, he leaped into the air, axe raised high above his catty head.
The axe came down on Zero’s shoulder. Now the Hunter screamed in pain as the axe head bit deep into his arm, severing vital wires. A new vein of blood whooshed open to join the black crescendo.
Not that blood loss had ever stopped Zero before.
Blood made him hog wild.
The Hunter rose to his feet like some variety of storybook Lucifer, screaming in rage, arms flayed out. He tossed Seven off his back like a wild horse bucking a rider, and below him, he kicked Jody square in the stomach with a massive red hoof. The boy was certainly forced to yield at that point. He rolled on the gym floor, yelping in pain, vomiting blood.
As for Seven…
Zero had the poor panther by his neck, and he was not squeezing any less harder with each passing second. Seven’s ears were flattened so seamlessly against the rest of his head that it seemed as if he had no ears at all; his green eyes were turning white, and were rolling madly. Zero shook him like a rag doll, and the cat’s supple body bent and twisted with each assault like a hanged man in the wind.
Zero was gone; a huge red demon with burning eyes, blazing gold hair, and a cavernous mouth that frothed like a hell-steed’s was in his place, squeezing the life out of Seven.
The gym was as silent as a graveyard. No one moved. No one wanted to see Seven die, but no one could turn away from the gruesome sight, the roaring beast. No one dared to touch Zero, he was a live-wire…
“You little bastard, you son of a ditch-whore! I will NOT stand for insurrection! Try to kill me, will you? I think Old Man Splitfoot would like to chat with YOU instead! Go on Seven! Go meet him! Tell him I couldn’t make it this time around--!”
“ZERO! THIS STOPS RIGHT NOW!”
Forgotten, Cain’s voice fell on the gym like a cool mist. His insides wet with icy water, the blood drained from Zero’s eyes and he gave Seven some slack. The panther took a huge gasp of air and sank to the ground beside Jody, like a sack of potatoes.
There was Zero again, hands limp at his sides, sweating blood, all eyes on him. He didn’t know what to say.
But Cain did.
The old man rose stiffly out of his point of observation, his Olympus. He stared down every man and woman in the entire gym.
“What I have seen here today has saddened me greatly. I am just shocked and appalled. And there is no need for me, I think, to waste my breath explaining why. BUT THAT AIN’T GONNA STOP ME! I just want you to know that I have never even HEARD of such a DISASTEROUS display of ‘training.’ Sex, and drinking, and God only knows what all you commanders were smoking when you thought you would fool me by screwing with the logcards. Hell, all we needed was a little bit of ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ in the background, a tape recorder, and we would’ve had a damn fine music video! But never mind the training in itself. I want to get to the real issues at hand. Jody! Zero! Seven!”
Only Zero was in any condition to step forward to endure the god’s wrath.
“Zero,” Cain said quietly, almost sadly. “I understand your anger towards Seven…and your disciplinary action taken against Jody…but what you became…what you were…that was not you.”
For the first time in his life, Zero couldn’t look his mentor in the eyes. He looked off to the side, hands linked insecurely behind his back. No, that hadn’t been him. But he knew damn well who it was, and it had to do with the extremely unpleasant fact that he was the bloodthirsty, synthetic offspring of a crazy guy in a crazy labcoat with crazy hair. He knew this. No one else did. But he was sure they were taking some pretty damn good guesses by now.
“Zero,” Cain said almost friendly. “Is there something you’d like to tell us?”
Zero swallowed hard. “No, sir,” he could barely say above a whisper. “Except…I’m sorry…”
The lull was gone in Cain’s voice. “It doesn’t become you to hide like a thief in the night, my boy! Your violence is getting out of hand! One more display like this, and I’ll have to consider relieving you of your duties. It is NOT setting a good example of self discipline by strangling your subordinates. Shocked and appalled! Yes indeed! And Seven! Attacking Zero like that? What the hell is wrong with you? Someone has itchy pants. I’m guessing you either got caught up in the moment, or you wanted to off Zero and take his place. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt and reporting the former. One more fiasco like THAT, however, and you’ll be demoted as well! Then you can both scrub toilets together and speak of the good old days! Oh, you’ll become best buddies THEN, I promise you that!” I ought to flay your hide for insubordination, but seeing as how Zero nearly killed you, I figure the two events cancel each other out.”
Seven was too busy bleeding out of his ears to pay Cain any mind.
“And Jody, it doesn’t do you well to hit on Celeste. Turn your hypothalamus once in a while, listen to the birds singing in the trees instead of the testosterone singing in your veins! It’ll do you good.”
Jody was too busy trying to breathe to listen to Cain’s aged wisdom.
“Shocked and appalled! All of you! You’ll all get your behinds out of bed by four tonight, and you’ll see how fast you remember to take your training seriously when your breakfast is at stake…”
And so it went on. Zero was becoming disturbed by Cain’s furious reddening, his ragged, frail breathing, his clouded eyes. The Crimson One had worked with Genesis as a doctor’s assistant years ago upon first arriving at Maverick Hunter HQ…he recognized the body language Cain was radiating…he was going from red to pale…still he raged…his words started to slur…still he raged…he clutched his left arm, sweating…still he raged…and Zero fairly screamed.
“Cain! Sir! Calm down, please! Your heart! If you don’t settle down NOW, you’ll have a--!”