TRIP THROUGH YOUR WIRES
Chapter 7: Strange Days
It took Zero exactly five seconds to decide that he didn’t like Monroe.
During his drunker sessions of rambling, Cain often substituted his ex-wife’s name (Anita) for something that had a few more descriptive syllables (usually, “The Thing from the Pit of It”).
And now, as the Crimson Hunter got his first glance at the product of a fleeting period of friendliness between Cain and Anita on some dark night about thirty-three years ago...
“The Offspring of the Thing from the Pit of It,” Zero murmured too loudly.
Beside Zero, X dug his elbow into his friend’s ribs. “Sh.”
If Monroe were a dog, Zero decided silently, he’d be a toy poodle. It matched him. The quick step, the well-groomed coat, the haughty eyes. Yes, a poodle, or some other nervous little rat-dog who had soft-minded fops bending over at every hour of every day to feed him, bathe him, tug at his fur--
“Zero! Pay attention!” X hissed.
The poodle trotted over to the Hunter to have his belly rubbed, and Zero got his first good look at Monroe Cain.
He was a tall boy, good looking at the very least. He had a gold pond of curly hair resting on an egg-shaped head. Zero got the impression that Monroe’s follicles didn’t ever dare to step out of line. A tight black shirt showed off what little sinew was on his lanky frame, mismatched terribly by a sloppy pair of too-big jeans. His small muddy eyes shot daggers at Zero’s own baby blues, seeking confrontation and a reason to start up with the head of the Hunters.
Zero just blinked lazily. He wasn’t in the mood to play territorial domination games with any human males today.
Discouraged, Monroe looked beyond the Crimson Wonder and to the troops lined up behind him, including his own Special Unit 0, X and the 17th Regal Dragons, and Celeste and Paul with the Night Vipers.
“My name is Monroe Cain,” Monroe said at last in a voice that resembled a puppy’s yip. “I will be in charge while my father is gone. I’ve come to understand that some of you, for whatever reason, are actually fond of the fool and his beer-soaked philosophies. Understand, however, that he has now left these grounds, and his word is null and void. Changes will be made, things will happen. Some of you will not like the changes,” Monroe revealed a rag and blew his nose in Zero’s general direction, “but as they say in the old country, tough titmice. Dismissed for now.”
A great sigh rose up from the lines of Hunters.
“Hoboy,” X exhaled.
“Welcome to the Jungle,” Zero murmured to no one in particular. He watched as Seven the panther detached himself from the depressed herd of Hunters that sludged their way back into MHHQ. The cat bounded up beside Monroe and engaged in a lively conversation as the two walked away.
“Well, the Offspring of the Thing from the Pit of It already has a pet cat,” Zero sneered. “Does the furball cook for Cain‘s wastrel? Maybe he’ll clean Monroe’s lonely bachelor suite and rearrange the milk carton collection that’s probably scattered all over the floor? I’ll bet Bucky the Cat there will make himself very useful to Monroe, doing every task short of wiping his--”
Deep in his tomb of sewers, Torrent Leviathan began to think. A nearby sewer rat promptly died of a massive brain haemorrhage.
He sliced through the warm waters, hunting for one of the goggle-eyed scummy-scaled fishies that shared his veins, but his heart wasn’t in the search. He had too much on his mind.
Torrie was growing restless, hiding for so long in the sewers. Parasitic viruses like himself didn’t bode well in peace time. Torrent was the very model of evil. He didn’t power, and he could’ve given a good long fart about money. Not anymore. What he wanted was chaos, mischief, to morally bring others down to his lowly rat-runs.
And Torrent was disturbingly patient. A spider could sit for days on a web, feeding on faith that its meal would come if it just waited. Torrent could do the same, twisting in his filthy water like an adder on the hunt.
A little ferret of a chaotic idea burrowed into Torrent’s brain.
Asmodeus 12, the Mavericks, the Maverick Hunters...he was tired of them all. He wanted to see them spiral like shot birds. Simply for the hell of it.
The ferret was growing larger, feeding. Torrent leaped out of the water and made his way back to his nest.
“Well, I finally know what to do with you.”
Torrent Leviathan leaned his scaly back against the slimy brickwork and regarded his guest with his eyes narrowed. She’d come around from her deep spell of unconsciousness, but that was probably going to be the height of her future achievements.
“You’re a timid little bunny, aren’t you?”
Indeed. The girl’s skin, Torrent judged, might have been a beautiful brown at some point before her attack, rich and smooth as soil. But he had no trace of that noble pelt now, she had the sickly blue-white features of a drowned man. Innumerable rusty ruts slashed her face and arms, and they didn‘t appear to be healing cleanly. She was backed into the corner furthest from Torrent, obviously scared to death of the Mechadrake.
“No, I didn’t expect you to wake up with a tremendous love for Mechadrakes,” Torrent said mildly. “Can you tell me your name, my dear?”
The woman’s mouth filled with words that she couldn’t spit out; as a result, she merely choked.
“Try it again,” Torrent said with all the patience of a loving parent.
“A..Ange...” the woman managed this time.
“What a lovely name,” the dragon said, casually blowing a smoke ring into the wet air. “I won’t torment you with any more questions for now, Ange.” Torrent stood up. “You have severe blood poisoning from all those cuts, and you’re quite helpless. You’re on the verge of dying, if I’m to be totally honest with you. So get lots of rest! You’ll need it if I’m going to save you, twist you, and use you as a catalyst to the bloodiest battle this earth has endured since the Maverick Wars. This life demands some action, and you know what they say about idle hands, don‘t you? Wait...better not answer that.”
It became apparent that fate wasn’t going to allow Zero the convenience of time to build up a resistance to Monroe. Indeed, not even twenty-four hours after the boy arrived, Zero found himself the subject of a “visit.”
Zero, oblivious to the pleasant bath of sun and spring wind of the outdoors, had a clumsy pack of human rookies under his care, and the Hunter’s mood was foul. He shouted out curses at the rookies as they attempted to run an obstacle course. They stumbled like newborn calves, falling, bleeding, and, more than once, coming uncomfortably close to cracking their heads open like a fat boy on a deserted island. Zero knew from experience that Genesis got testy when he had to stuff brains back into fractured skulls.
Sometime during the exercise, Monroe trip-trapped next to Zero to watch the festivities. Zero’s curses unconsciously grew louder and more severe. The Hunter was typically tough on rookies. Especially humans. Aside from a select circle of friends, which included Celeste, the reploid never had any great love for the species and their wild tendencies, and the faster he broke them, the faster he could mould them into something a bit less repulsive.
Scanning the heaving, sweat-soaked human cattle, Zero spied a particularly fat boy struggling to climb over a plank wall, his feet skating on the smooth surface like a frog trying to escape from a jar. The Hunter chose his victim.
“Is the cow having trouble jumping over the moon? How ‘bout another donut, fatso?”
The young man had the shape and complexion of a sugar-coated Timbit, with useless toothpick arms and legs. Greasy hair was plastered over his piggy eyes, which gleamed with frustrated tears.
“C’mon Hamilton, you’re jamming up the works of the obstacle course! Give it some effort, you sloth. You pathetic waste of life. You thing from the dark corner of a bog.”
Zero was surprised when the tears in the Timbit’s eyes were dried up by determined fury. With one last heave, he mounted the wall...and sat helplessly while the whole thing toppled over like a tipped cow.
The rookies scattered like mice. Monroe and Zero clapped their hands over their ears for the pathetic scream of the rider on the dying horse. When the dust cleared, the fat boy lay flat on his back, stunned, the wall on top of him. The rookies cautiously recollected themselves and tiptoed back to the scene.
Monroe said nothing; he merely raised one immaculate eyebrow. A great curtain of exhaustion dropped over Zero; he’d had enough.
“All right, that’s all I can digest. Now get out of here! All of you! Go back to your barracks, and curse your mothers for ever bringing such ugly slugs as yourselves into this world!”
The rookies dispersed, leaving Timbit where he lay.
“Zero,” Monroe clacked at last. “May I have a word with you.”
Zero set his jaw. “Oh, sure.”
“Let’s go for a walk.”
Hunter and Founder’s Son went strolling through the lawn, back to MHHQ, metal boots and shiny loafers crunching pleasantly under the freshly cut grass.
“You command your own unit, am I correct?” Monroe said.
“Yes, sir. Special Unit #0. I also break in the rookies, though, before they get into the Night Vipers. It‘s fun to watch them cry.”
“Mmm hmm. Does your unit have a specific name?”
“Not really. Though, during the first Maverick War, we had a different Elite Unit called the Spartans.” Zero cleared his throat. “Sigma led that.”
“I see.” Monroe fell silent and only the swish of his steps through the grass were audible. “Well, why doesn’t your unit have a name, aside from 0? Every unit has a number, sure, but every unit also needs a name. And by the way, naming your unit ‘0’ after yourself was pretty damn tacky.”
“Cain chose the name,” Zero said flatly.
Monroe didn’t appear to hear. “A name should strike fear into an enemy, and ‘0’ doesn’t do it. The enemy should hear the name and say, ‘Oh no, we’re screwed now, unit Something-Something been dispatched!’”
“Do you have any idea for a name, Zero?”
Zero was suddenly overwhelmed with a stinging desire to seize the spawn of Cain and break his scrawny neck over his knee. He resisted, for the moment. “Forrest in the Night Vipers once suggested ‘Special Unit 0 Pissing Gorillas,’” he said instead.
“Roadkill in the Medical Unit had an idea a while back: ‘Special Unit 0 Squished Foxes.’ Of course, he was working under Genesis at the time, and they really didn‘t get along--”
“X was always partial to ‘Special Unit 0 Toronto Maple Leafs--’”
Monroe sighed. “I’m going to give you some quiet time,” he said. “I want you to think of something more worthwhile than ‘Special Unit 0.’ I know my father likes that name, but I’m not my father, and you can be assured that I wake up every morning and thank God for that small favour. Dismissed.”
Zero watched Monroe saunter away from him, and he wondered how long he could possibly behave himself around this freak of nature.
“Quiet Time.” God on His throne. What an era we‘re entering. I wonder, if Monroe is ever charged by a rabid Maverick, will he flick the lights on and off, and threaten him with a Time Out?
Under normal circumstances, Monroe would’ve simply irritated Zero. However, some undercurrent in the boy’s blood made him very wary--maybe even frightened. Monroe put on a show of being so passive about violence that it made X look like a chainsaw killer. But there was something pungent under Monroe’s prim exterior, and what was more, the Hunter knew that Cain’s boy didn’t much like him.
But Zero was determined to behave himself, for Cain’s sake. Putting the plesantries of the visit behind him, Zero headed to Salamandastron’s Illusion to make exceptional use of his “Quiet Time.”
A sneeze rang across the Centre Court of the Great Tree.
“Someone’s talking about me,” Asmodeus 12 snuffled to Atticus 15. The bronze behemoth merely grunted in reply and rattled his chain against the post he was shackled to.
“Yes yes, I don’t like you much either, you great big lummox. And I don’t like the fact that Jody hasn’t delivered Celeste yet. Well, time ripens the product, I suppose. And your boy is a smart one. He’ll succeed.”
Asmodeus had a fine view of the Court from his perch, and his deceptively cloudy eyes picked out Caillou from the stirring nest below. The boy was limping along to his business, jostled by the other Warriors of Eden who travelled in pairs of two or more.
“Odd boy, that Caillou, wouldn’t you say? I don’t expect he’s very happy under that skin of his. He probably misses his mother, that trollop. What was her name, again...?”
Atticus bit at his chains, his tusked jaw grinding uselessly against the twice forged metal.
“Ange, that was it. Yes, she was good, but not good enough to be allowed to break rules. Huh. Who did she think she was fooling? I saw the way she looked at that lover of hers, they were the same...lonely, I guess. But that’s no excuse. Then she gives birth to that thing down there...it doesn’t take a Bart Simpson to put two and two together, Atticus!”
Atticus thrashed his thunderbolt of a tail.
“But I might use him for our battle, when the time comes,” Asmodeus yawned. “It would be a shame to throw away anyone of the McTreggor bloodline...”
The air was cool, but damp, and Overdrive Ostrich perspired, but more out of fear of being caught than because of the grim atmosphere.
Oh please, oh please...
He traced one feathery finger over the thick dust that carpeted the room he was supposed to have been clearing out. The Ostrich had one true love...biological formulas. And the floor of the room was decorated with the mathematic scrawls, proof of his indulgence in the forbidden lust. Years ago, when the Mavericks caught Zero and turned him Maverick, it was Overdrive who created the mutated virus that turned the Hunter bad...but then the faulty virus turned on itself for some reason, and since then, Overdrive was not to touch formulas as a punishment, on penalty of having his neck wrapped around his bottom.
But a bird has to have desires...
Overdrive squawked at Phoenix’s boom, his finger cutting a swath in his hard work.
The dampness in the air melted in Phoenix’s blazing aura as the myth seized the biologist’s spindly neck and gave him a good shake. “I should have known I’d find you in here, biting the forbidden fruit. What have I told you? No mathematical formulas, no biological experiments...you’re supposed to be GROUNDED, my dear!”
Overdrive stuttered miserably. “But Miss Phoenix...formulas are the only things I know how to do well. I’m not a fighter like you, or Violen, or Neon, or--”
“If you could actually do formulas WELL, Overdrive, we wouldn’t be skulking around in this pisser. Zero would still be with us, and we’d be going places! Places worth being in! Like...oh, I don‘t know...maybe our headquarters would be in a nice...MOVIE THEATRE or something!”
Overdrive snuffled. “No ma’am, I don’t deny that.”
“I didn’t think you would. And you’re not to dabble in any sort of science until I’ve rolled over and died. And let me remind you of something. I’m a phoenix. We don’t exactly drop out of the sky stone dead too often. So turn your brain off and take the key out of the ignition. You’ll feel better that way.”
Overdrive drooped. “Yes, miss.”
“Good boy. Now get back to cleaning up this room.”
Phoenix walked out of the room, her talons purposely stomping over Overdrive’s scrawls, and her hellfire wings trailing streamers over whatever remained. Overdrive sprawled out over his ruined work and sighed. He was a bad little Ostrich. He knew everything that Phoenix said was true. Zero had been his responsibility, and he’d blown it. And yet...
“I’d go crazy without me biology.”
Overdrive’s brain was too powerful to simply park in the garage. He needed something that would get Phoenix to trust him again.
He needed a project...