Celeste McTreggor leaned forward, hanging onto the doorjamb of the Medical Unit. Genesis, the undisputed leader of the Field of Cots, had his back to the Huntress, his fox-tail swishing thoughtfully. He didn’t answer.
“Gen, is he all right?”
The fuzzball cocked his head. “I heard what you guys did to push poor Cain over the edge,” he said in a low tone. “I won’t tell you what I think of you right now, miss McTreggor, because you’re a lady, and my friend. Be assured, however, that I kicked Zero’s teeth in. Twice. Once for you.”
Genesis crossed the room and lighted on a nearby bed. He sat with his legs crossed. “You’re quite welcome. Cain will be just fine with some rest. Lots and lots of rest. Far away from here. Let’s not mince words…he’s an old fart. He can’t keep on top of things the way he used to, as is evident by the way you Unit leaders let your Hunters revert from champions back into stick-swinging tree shrew spawn. In the old days, he would’ve kicked your asses good and proper before that happened. But the human mind and body starts to leak after a few good years. Activate, consume, reproduce and DIE, that’s the circle of life that you glorified monkeys follow and are doomed to follow until the end of time. I’m quite happy to be a cut above it, being among the reploid race thank you very much.”
Celeste didn’t fight the conviction; there was no fighting with Genesis. Besides, he was pretty much right about everything.
“Can I go see him?”
The reploid fox re-adjusted the beloved scarf that coiled his neck like a friendly slice of sunshine. It was the only real spot of interesting colour in his primarily maroon and silver attire.
“Sure, what the hell. Throw yourself a party.”
Cain’s private room was soothingly dark. Medical machines purred unseen in the background like big protective cats. Coupled with the relieving sound of Cain’s untroubled sleep, it was a comforting place to be in.
Zero, glowing dull red in the lesser darkness, was beside the doc, watching him. For an instant, Celeste was reminded of the way Zero had sat beside her bed watching over her while she had been lost in a deep black bog of viral-induced unconsciousness, her body struggling to stay alive after being infected with a strange disease courtesy of Torrent Leviathan during the first Maverick War. For all Zero’s love of ripping things apart and occasionally kicking puppies, the blood-red reploid had an excellent bedside manner.
Zero was holding the dried up hand of his elderly mentor, talking in a low tone. As he caught wind of Celeste’s approach, he quickly dropped the shriveled paw.
Celeste seated herself just behind Zero in the same cross-legged manner as Genesis had perched on the bed earlier. “Forget it, big fellow,” she said. “I know you, you’re soft when it comes to sick critters. How’s Cain?”
To her surprise, the spectre answered for Zero. “I’ve seen better days, dear. Like the time I got hit by that runaway Landchaser that, for whatever reason known only to God, was tearing through the lower hallways of the HQ…”
“I was driving that!” Zero said brightly.
Cain’s voice dropped off like a bar of lead in a well.
“It was a derby,” Zero explained.
“Oh…of course. How utterly stupid of me to get in the way.”
A change of subject was an order. “Cain, Genesis tells me you’re going to be taking a rest,” Celeste said.
“Yes, I was considering a long vacation away from here. I was just telling Zero of my plans.”
“But who would…”
“…run the HQ? My son, of course.”
Celeste’s jaw went slack. “Daaaaah…”
“That was pretty much my reaction too,” Zero said. “I knew Cain was married once before but I never knew he had a critter. I don’t know anything about this-Cain, did you say your spawn’s name was?”
“Monroe.” The scientist suddenly sounded very tired. “Trust me, I don’t want to leave him in charge…but he’s my legal heir, so that’s that. Messy divorce issue that I’d rather not get into. But if I don’t take a rest now, I’ll end up exploding or something, according to Genesis. And I’d much rather leave Monroe in charge for a short time as opposed to permanently.”
Cain was winding down. He needed sleep. But he managed to keep his eyes open long enough to toss one more bad-news potato in the stew of Ill Happenings: “That reminds me. Reconstruction of Iris is almost complete. Things’ll slow down in my state, but the lab tecchies can finish things off nicely.”
Celeste and Zero squirmed.
Timely Genesis kicked open the door to Cain’s room at that moment, flooding the warm darkness with a harsh light that attacked their eyes.
Celeste and Zero stood up to take their leave.
“Thanks for visiting, kids,” Cain said. “Take care of the Hunters. Be good.” He turned over and wheezed a sigh like a leaky bagpipe.
Celeste and Zero made their way to Salamandastron’s Illusion, their footsteps sounding around the empty hallways like the hooves of nervous ponies.
“I have this bloody awful evil feeling that things will be much different around here,” Zero murmured more to himself than to Celeste, although she agreed completely.
Bloody awful evil Phoenix kicked open the door to Doppler’s critically injured fortress, flooding the murky darkness with the soft light of sunset. A host of rats and roaches scurried away at the assult of daylight. The fortress hosted the pong of the dead, an overpowering musk that whapped Phoenix in the beak like a shifty boxer.
“AAAACK, blind me what a bloody stench!” Phoenix staggered backwards.
The smell was by no means pleasant, but Flame Stag decided that there was no need for dramatics. He passed through the small opening that his superior had kicked in the tremendous gate. The gate was layered with steel like a jawbreaker - layers that were now hideously weakened and peeling away with rust.
The Main Hall.
Not for any price would Flame Stag ever let his leader see the lonely tears that welled up in his red eyes as a massive recollection of memories hit him. In the bad light, the stag saw bits of his former partners half buried under rubble. Spark Mandrill, Storm Eagle, Toxic Seahorse in a blue baseball cap. They’d all been killed mercilessly, unarmed, by X and his pig-dog Hunters during their last invasion. Shot like fish in a barrel. Of course, the Mavericks had the same idea for the Hunters, but that was beside the point.
Phoenix wasn’t at all moved by the sight of the dead Mavericks. “Gung-ho, what-a-mess.” She picked up something ratty off the floor. It was Storm Eagle’s wing, mouse-chewed and slimy with mildew. She dropped it quickly. “Ick.”
Overdrive trotted in and dropped immediately to the floor. “Footprints!”
Phoenix and Stag looked blank.
“In the dust! Recent! Someone’s…living here!”
“Stand up, Overdrive,” Phoenix grunted. “And settle down. You look like you’re tracking pigs with Jack Merridew.”
But sure enough, in the thick carpet of dust that feathered the floor, there were footprints. Very very large footprints…footprints that were big enough to belong to…”
Violen was packed into a small room, sitting on a chair that was entirely too teeny for his bear-sized body. His stout legs were stretched out comfortably before him (although they hit the opposite wall) as he reclined, his small, round pig-face lit up with a tusked grin. “You all sure took your time finding us again,” he remarked, his voice noticeably rusty from spending so much time in the dank underground. His pink and yellow body armour was faded, its colour washed out. But he looked content.
Neon Tiger entered the room at that instant. “Hey Vio, any idea where my black stockings are and ho ho ho hello miss Phoenix, uh, nevermind what I just said, I’m a good boy, I’ve really missed yeh, and I gotta go over here now…” Neon flattened his little ears against his feral head and slunk into a nearby shadow.
Vio turned back to Phoenix after giving Neon a good glare. “Nevermind that idiot,” he grunted. “But we ARE glad to have you guys back. We’ve been waiting forever. Now, I’ll admit, there were times when our confidence flagged, and we had unholy thoughts of leaving. But then one fellow showed up at our doorstep, covered with mud and slime, screaming deliriously about finding the Blue Crystal Staff while swinging a stick at us. We cleaned him up and all that…once he got his marbles back, he wouldn’t stop gushing about how much he was wanting to see you. We figured if he could be so enthused about your return, we could stand the damp a bit longer…”
Phoenix grew tired of Vio’s run on sentences. “Who is ‘he’?”
Neon re-materialized. “He’s really down now cuz he’s lost hope that you’d ever show up…good thing you’re here to thaw him out…”
“WHO IS ‘HE’, YOU FETISH-SOAKED TOMCAT?”
“Meep.” Frightened, Neon pointed to the far corner.
Phoenix trotted over to study it, her inner heat searing away the damp layers darkness that swathed-
Presumably. The muddy thing slumped in the corner was little better than a green stump. The corners of Gator’s jaws were anchored to the dirty floor in a sad clown grimace. On the very top of his static head sat an empty beer can.
“Neon!” Phoenix snapped as she whapped the can off Gator’s head.
For once in her bastard’s life, Phoenix was touched. Touched by the sight of this great green lump, feeble as he was, waiting faithfully, unmoving, for her return, patiently playing the part of the coaster while it all happened. Faithful despite the fact that Phoenix had very much left him to die at the hands of the Hunters when Vile was last defeated…
“Gator…my dear Gator…” Phoenix gently tipped the sad reptile’s chin up. Her shimmering light lit up Gator’s eyes like slit candles. They danced into reality.
Phoenix got a lovely view of the ceiling as Gator pounced on her like a love starved dog.
“PHOENIX! YOU CAME BACK! These two…they said you’d never come back and that you didn’t love me ‘cuz I smelled, but I knew they were lying, I did I did, I knew you loved me, I knew you’d be back, let’s play a game!”
Flame Stag and Overdrive Ostrich gently lifted Gator’s happily squirming body off their leader. Phoenix took a gasp of air into her starving lungs.
“Yes Gator, it’s wonderful to see you too. And we’ll play games. Oh my oh my will we ever. Now that we’re all together and happy again, we’re going to rebuild and kick this city’s ass once more, Vile or no Vile, Siggy or no Siggy.”
Wheel snuffed happily.
“Overdrive,” Phoenix said. “Those bodies in the main hall…do you think it’s possible to rebuild some of them?”
Overdrive scratched under his chin thoughtfully. “It would certainly be a challenge that I’m up to.”
“Happy to hear it. As for the rest of you…” Phoenix kicked over Vio’s chair, and the piggy reploid flew a short distance before splattering on the ground, “get to work. Dig through this rubble. Start patching stuff up, this damp air is dulling my feathers. If you find anything of interest, bring it here. 3, 2, 1, GO!!”
She was smoking, and so was Nytetrayn.
The black Mechadrake reclined in his cold warren, watching the tobacco smoke curl like the breath of an ancient dragon-spectre. The rich blue scent chased out the damp smell of the warren. Nyte’s thoughts turned to Caillou. His leg was mended now, that was fine, but it was obvious that the boy was in a great deal of pain. But he didn’t say a word about it. Nor would he ever. And he’d be at training the next day, because he knew what was good for him.
Caillou wanted out of Eden, and not just because the place was Loony Tunes. The bond between the warriors of Eden was tremendous, but Caillou had no part in it. Humans were social, and it was not possible for the boy to thrive in his warren.
Or Nytetrayn, for that matter. Asmodeus 12 looked to the black for his physical strength and unnatural cunning (black Mechadrakes were not often blessed in the thinking department) - But Assie did not trust him for a second. Because he was cunning. Because he was an odd piece that did not fit quite right into the puzzle unless you hit him a few times. Because, despite all this, the black Mechardake was eager to serve Eden.
It just smelled bad.
And Asmodeus’ ‘cause’ was bogus. If he wants to give this world back to the humans, I’m a lizard, the Mechadrake thought.
Nytetrayn guessed his days in Eden were limited. If he wanted to survive, he needed out. And because it was practical, he’d bring Caillou with him.
And then what?
Nytetrayn hadn’t gotten that far yet.
Sooner or later, his girl, Celeste, would end up back in Eden. He supposed he’d get her the hell out, too.
And then what?
No, Nytetrayn was definitely parked at that spot. But it would all come in time. He was confident.
With Caillou, he’d think of a plan. Eden could not be left standing. A world run by Asmodeus 12 was a world better off locked in a galactic nuthouse. And Caillou had tremendous potential. It was a shame he was never told who his father was, or he might have more confidence. But perhaps it was best that he just develop his skills through experience instead of on a name.
In that vein…
Celeste had finished her smoke. Nytetrayn threw his own butt onto the floor and ground it with his foot into the warren’s dirt. She was tired now, poor child. She’d had a stressful day. Something was bothering her, something about the so called Maverick Hunters that existed in a world far above Nyte’s.
She’s about to have much bigger problems. She doesn’t remember a thing about Eden, and she’ll soon be dragged back here. Maybe it’s best I ease her in slowly and try to remind her of a few things…
Sure, why not. Nytetrayn reclined further, laced his paws behind his head, puffed a small ring of smoke, and eased into sleep, tuning into Celeste’s channel on the Dream Network.
She’s dying, Jake. You can’t deny it.
Jake McTreggor looked at little bundle before him, his little girl flushed and gasping for breath in a haze of pain so intense, it rendered her semi-conscious. Her sweat soaked the sheets of the hospital bed that held her nonchalantly. It did not care if she died. What was one more? No one cared, no one could help. No one knew what was wrong, but they would not admit it…
“My girl, my poor girl,” Jake wept, taking her broken body into his big hands and hugging her against his chest.
You can save her, Jake…
“My little girl…”
Just come see me. I’ll show you the way…
Celeste convulsed violently.
She’s only four, you can’t let her die this early in life…
“Fight it love, fight it…”
Come now, be reasonable…
“Where’s your mother, where’s your ma, why hasn’t she come back? Oh God, she has to come back, God, stop me from what I’m going to do…oh little Celeste, dear heart, please forgive me for where I’m about to take you, for what I’m about to get you involved in. I can’t watch you die, I’m just a big suck…you’re all I have…”
Torrent. You win. Show us the way.
Now I’ve got you. I’ll take care of you.
Nytetrayn hit a bump on the dream-path. His girl greatly disturbed by this telepathic intravenous feeding. She flopped over like a banked fish in her sleep, but this had to be done.
How did Jake sneak out of the hospital with his dying daughter? Even more curious, how did he find his way to Eden, a place that was, Nytetrayn had been told, concealed so seamlessly that it made Efrafa look like a Las Vegas night club? Nytetrayn had no idea, and he could not relay the information to Celeste. The dream simply skipped forward like a record skipping to a new song.
Jake was sobbing, on his knees, clutching his near-dead offspring to his chest. The hollow noises of the Great Tree surrounded him. The sounds of corpses simply existed for the sake of existing, never aware of the fact that their souls had been sucked out of their dry shells eons ago.
“It’s okay, Jacob,” Asmodeus 12 soothed the big man, his breath reeking with the souls of his warriors. “It’s okay now. Everything…will…be…fine.”
Asmodeus’ husked arms were lowered slowly by his last words like a drawbridge. “Everything…will be…okay…calmly now…and quickly…you know what to do…”
Jake’s body shuddered furiously with weepy hiccups as he gently set Celeste in those dry, scaly arms before him. They swallowed her up immediately. Torrent Leviathan stepped up silently beside Asmodeus 12 and took one glance at the burning child.
“Urathax,” he said simply, looking upon Jake for the first time. It was also Jake’s first meeting with the Master of his Mind, and he hated the stinking water Mechadrake, he hated the grin in his eyes that screamed, “I win!”, he hated the Mavericks in the world above him, and he hated reploids in general. If they all died and went to hell, it’d be too good for them.
But that was another matter…
“Urathax,” he repeated slowly. It wasn’t quite a question.
“World War III had a field day with human genetic codes, Jacob McTreggor. But you, with your Mindspeak, know that. Some people would say - if they knew about Mindspeak - that it’s a blessing, and advantage for the human race. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. But I can very well say that urathax is not nearly as beneficial. Rare genetic disease brought on by mutation through the radiation. Parents can harbour it for generations before it gets passed on to a child. There is no cure for it...no cure that humans know of, mind you. Your Celeste was quite unlucky.”
“But her wasting away and forcing me to give her to you to cure her is quite advantageous to YOU now isn’t it?” Jake puffed in a husky voice that burned with hate.
“Why deny it?” Torrent grinned. He tipped up Celeste’s face into the light with one claw - a claw, that Jake noticed nervously, came a bit too close to his helpless daughter’s tender throat. Torrent was getting a silent message across to Jake.
“I am a genetic genius, Jake. You can’t deny that, either. I can cure your daughter. Of course, such a procedure would take time and cannot be done without some sort of tender exchange…but I’m sure we can work out something. Can’t we, Jacob?”
Jake fell to his knees again, tears dripping silently.
“You’ll like it here in Eden, Jake. And your daughter will too. I’m sure you’ll grow to admire our cause. You’re a human after all. This planet belongs to your kind.”
When Celeste’s eyes flew open, she thought she felt Torrent’s venomous hiss drip into her ear. She’d gotten her first glimpse of Eden…and she didn’t particularly care for it.
But she knew she’d be going back.