The day that Cain made his arrangements to visit Neo Disneyland was an uneasy one in MHHQ. It was no secret that the Hunters loved to torment their benefactor -- nary a day went by where Cain didn’t find his toilet seat covered in Saran Wrap, a nest of old-world vipers slithering in his bed, or the top of his salt-shaker loose -- but in truth, they all loved the old man and trusted his leadership. It was for that reason that the word “Monroe” bred an ill feeling in the pit of everyone’s tummy.
What would Monroe be like? If he was everything his papa cursed him as, MHHQ wasn’t going to see any jolly times in the near future. The worry over Cain’s son diffused through the Hunters like poison gas, sapping their zest and quenching their thirst for adventure and life with bitter water. It affected everyone. Cass’ drinks were little better than horse pee (to quote Zero, using less polite words), and even Salamandastron’s Illusion, which was never anything short of immaculate, was looking rather shabby. Cass’ brilliant badger stripes were dull with worry over his best customer.
The Hunters did poorly in their training, not that they were stellar five star warriors to begin with. But even Celeste was fumbling her techniques much more than usual, and her dreams, which were always disturbing , got louder and more intense. Sleep became less of an option in her life.
“Oh Lord above, help my unlucky blood,” she murmured one day, completely worn.
“You say something, Celeste?” Zero looked up from the papers he was sorting.
“Coffee is God.” Celeste got up from the cafeteria table to get a cup of cheer.
“Oh. Yes. Yes it is.” Zero went back to work.
Indeed, no one was up to par in the entire building. Even X and Zero were on edge enough to rediscover an old hobby they’d long forgotten: Senseless bickering.
Zero was sorting a field of papers on the table before him, his brow furrowed. Concentration was not his forte, he preferred to slice through the knot. It was his responsibility to keep the Hunters’ training scores organized, and, of course, he never did, as was evident by the shaggy mess of personal documents he was trying to swim through. But over the past year or so, Cain got too old and slow to bother with the records, which suited Zero just fine.
Alas, that was all due to change. There was little doubt in Zero’s mind that Monroe would want to see the Hunters’ records when he arrived, and the Hunter doubted that Cain’s boy would appreciate thumbing through a notebook that looked like the Augean Stable.
Zero’s train of thought was constantly derailed by the sound of X seated across the table from him, chewing loudly on a handful of potato chips and staring vacantly at a grease spot on the cafeteria wall opposite from him.
Zero‘s eyes flicked up. “Stop that.”
“I’m sorry. Do you want some?”
“Leave me alone.”
“Wow, you get testy when you have to use your brain for something other than pumping synthetic testosterone into your miserable blood.”
“Ho ho ho. I’ll just bet you’re cooking YOUR noodle by staring like a mongoloid at the wall.”
“Reflection clears the mind--”
“’Reflection clears the mind,” Zero mimicked X’s voice with emphasis on its less-than-masculine tone. “Know what, X? I spent twenty bucks of my own money getting these papers bound into a new book. The old binding was literally rat-chewed. These records are YOUR responsibility too. You’re a unit leader, are you not? And I didn’t see a cent from you!”
“Oh, HERE!” X waspishly threw a crumpled five dollar bill at Zero.
Zero threw the greasy wad of paper back at X with venom. “Don’t throw money at me like I’m some kind of cheap whore!”
This bantered back and forth until a human Hunter sitting at the table next to the duo snarled a warning that they’d best shut up if they knew what was good for them. Zero flared up in his seat, but X pulled at his hair.
“No-no Zero, mustn’t hit the nice human. Their bones tend to be more brittle this time of the year.”
Zero surprised everyone by cooling down and slumping in his chair. “Ah, I guess you’re right,” he said. “I’m just nervous about this Monroe bloke. Three more days and he’s upon us. Like a bloody...hurricane or something. And I have this godawful feeling in my gut that bad times are upon us.”
X shrugged. “And we’re not even at war. Though I have a feeling that, if we were, you’d be a lot happier.”
Celeste was sleepy, and that was an understatement. She was beat-up sat-on kicked-in-the-side exhausted. She couldn’t see straight.
The Huntress’ sleep, ironically, offered her no rest. Every night she was presented with images of Eden and her little self within it. Every night, something new was revealed. Every night, the overall picture of Eden became clearer.
So, I used to live there when I was a little girl.
Was it the truth? Oh yes. And she knew, by some way or another, her sorry behind would end up there again in the near future for whatever reason.
Celeste recalled something Torrent had said to her father in one of her dreams: You owe us your daughter, Jake.
Ha, there was the reason right there. Torrent saved her life as a little girl by request of her father...but there had been a price. Torrent owned her. Or so he figured. And Mechadrakes, like any dragon, didn’t readily give up their possessions.
So, Celeste thought, I’ll go into Eden when the time comes. I have before. But I got out. I don’t know how I did it the first time, but I can do it again. I‘ll do whatever it takes to make my mind my own...
A hunk of metal flew across the gym and gave Celeste a good whack upside the head, furrowing an ugly trench across her fertile thoughts and bringing her back to the plane of the living. She rubbed the rising bump and looked beside her where, not too far off, Seven the panther was perched on the broad shoulders of a training drone, and hacking up the unfortunate thing bit by bit with his clumsy but effective power-axe.
“Seven!” Celeste shouted above the screams of the tortured drone. “Seven! Stop! He’s already dead!”
Seven complied with a vampire’s grin, but only after he leapt off the drone’s shoulders, kicked it over, sliced it open from seam to chops, and pulled out its mechanical innards, revelling in the violent shower of fluids that sprayed him.
Cats. They’re never satisfied to just KILL something.
“Good job, Seven,” said Jody who, of course, was not far away from Celeste. The boy was indeed a gaunt, clever hawk, and seemed unfazed by the severe beating he’d taken by Zero only a couple of weeks ago. Jody was tough, Celeste gave him that. The scars he’d acquired during that battle were probably just another few streets on his bodily road map.
And besides, he’d certainly cut Zero up some, too. With that chainsickle of his, curled faithfully, as always, by his side.
Celeste didn’t have any sort of praise for Seven, however. The voices in the training gym became a muddled soup that slowly filled Celeste’s ears and irritated her tired, dull senses....but above it all, somewhere in a country far off to her left, Celeste could hear Seven saying that old-fashioned weapons were the only way to go, and Commander Zero could shove his lightsabre up his arse.
A scaly, clawed hand perfumed with the strong scent of the sewers fell on Celeste’s shoulder. “Time to go home, daughter of Jake.”
Celeste’s instincts drew fuel from some hidden resource as she flew around and slashed behind her in one motion. But instead of Torrent, it was one of her Hunters, a human named Smith, who staggered backwards and sat down hard with a bloody, burned gash that was fairly shallow, but dangerous nonetheless.
“I...just wanted to see if you were...all right,” Smith panted, grimacing with each word. “...You were...swooning...uh...I think...I ought to...have this...looked after...eh?”
Several Hunters ran to aid Smith. Seven smacked the human upside the head with a paw. “Idiot! You don’t sneak up behind a Hunter like that! You deserve what you got.”
Celeste blinked in disbelief. Her mind cruelly replayed a similar incident years ago, when she’d taken the life of a grand Mechadrake named Skysheen, and a slightly less regal reploid named Vile had been born in his place...
“He deserved that,” Jody grunted beside her. “Stupid moron sneaks up behind you--what did he expect? Don’t worry miss, we saw everything. It wasn’t your fault. Say...are you all right?”
Celeste rocked back and forth on her heels. “That was fun, but I think I’ll take a nap now,” she declared in a slurred voice before pitching forward on her face.
Celeste lay in the room, the walls were closing in on her, pulsing with her breathing, she was burning up...where was her daddy? She cried out for him with the voice of a sick wolf pup, but he didn’t come. It wasn’t his warm arms that enveloped her. It wasn’t his voice that soothed her...
“Drink this, my love. You’ll feel better soon.”
The arms were scaly. The voice was raspy, but had some strange essence of love rooted deep within. And there was that smell of the sewers. But this time, it was comforting. She drank from the cup the clawed hand held for her and snuggled her heated body against the cold chestplate of the reploid who held her, drawing the cool like nectar.
“Indeed, you DO belong to me. Sleep well, my dear...”
When Celeste awoke to the sound of a fox’s voice rasping out commands, she knew she was in the Medical Unit. With Genesis. Again.
“JOHNSON! JACKAL! Stop rolling those beds around and lie down before I pump you full of horse tranquilizers! This is NOT Nascar! Pip! PIP! What the hell kind of painkillers did you give those two!? Christ up a tree.”
Celeste stroked the rough sheets under her fingertips and listened to the water-torture rhythm of her heart on the monitor behind her. It was all she had strength to do.
Genesis, accustomed to the constant din of the Medical Unit, was able to hear her minute movements. “Oh, it’s you,” the visored fox said, coming over to take her pulse. “I need words with you. You did a number on that idiot Smith, eh? It’s a good thing the jerk never grew up on a farm. He’d probably stand behind all the horses and pull their tails, then wonder why his Captain Winky disappeared back into his lower abdomen. Anyway...how are we feeling?”
“Yeah, I know the feeling. But listen, miss. I’m not beating around the bush. We’ve got a problem here.”
Celeste wearily turned her head. She knew what was coming, and she didn’t want Genesis to look her in the eye.
Genesis, however, reached out and turned her head. “No, look at me. This isn’t the first time you’ve fallen down on the spot. You’re narcoleptic.”
Yes, Celeste had seen that one coming. And she was too tired to voice a protest. Besides that, there was no protesting the obvious truth.
“And besides that,” Genesis continued, “you’re just...a funny human being. I’ve been around long enough to know humans very well. You’re keeping something from me, from everyone, some secret that’s ultimately affecting your performance. And, even worse, your health. And you refuse to talk about it. I don’t suppose your stance has changed on THAT matter?”
Genesis burned the tender spot in Celeste’s car-wreck of a mind, and tears welled up in her eyes despite herself. She turned her head away again.
Genesis knew by Celeste’s reaction that he’d found her box of secrets, the box every human held in his or her heart. He just had to pry a bit more to make the locks splinter. “You’ve been a tough one all your life, miss,” he said gently. “but when it all comes down to it, you’re still young. Still a little girl, in many ways. I’m always here to talk to. You know that. Right?”
Celeste rubbed her eyes with the sleeve of her blue gown. “Yeah...”
“Good. I hate to see you cry. Rest for now and consider what I’ve said.” Genesis arched his back. “ ‘cause I haven’t gotten to the bad news yet. I’ve covered you before when you displayed narcoleptic behaviour...lied on your medical records and such. That goes against everything I stand for, and I’d never do it for anyone but you. But my dear, I can’t keep it up. I’m going to have to report you this time around.”
Celeste’s eyes grew wide. “You can’t!” she cried. “If Cain reads my medical records and sees THAT, he’ll demote me. Maybe even kick me out for good.”
“I imagine so. But what if you got into a Hunting accident because of it? I’d never forgive myself, and my ass would be fried, besides. But...I’ll tell you what. We’ll work on a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ basis, all right? Unless Cain bothers to LOOK at your record...which is unlikely...I won’t tell him. Deal?”
That was the best Celeste was going to do. She accepted.
“In return...you’re going to talk to me. Tell me what’s wrong. I’ll grant you immunity. Nothing you say to me will ever leave this room, for all the glory of the patients within. All right? You HAVE to talk to someone. It may as well be a stupid old bastard like me.”
“...all right. I’ll do it.” Celeste was miserable and she still refused to look at Genesis.
The fox looked down at her in pity before he removed the scarf around his neck and tucked it into bed beside the stricken human like a teddy bear.
“It always makes me feel better when I’m down,” he chuckled. “Now rest up...it won’t do for Cain Jr. to see you lying here upon his arrival...”