Chapter 8: Hawkmoon
Torrent Leviathan liked wolves. There was a lot of respect to be had for such powerful, social animals. The lupine warriors were adept hunters, endowed with glorious speed and poetic motions. And although it took a pack of wolves to bring down a strong enemy, Torrent was sure that it would only take one wolf to make the Maverick Hunter organization keel over on its ancient flank, its lifeforce spilling on the dust like a great beast with a bit jugular.
"Indeed, indeed, indeed," Torrent thrummed cheerfully as he pumped a syringe with a murky pink liquid. He stole a glance at Ange, who was swathed in dirty cotton blankets in a far corner, semi conscious and shivering. Her body was assaulted with numerous infections, but she was incredibly tough; she seemed to be fighting them off successfully.
"Excellent," Torrent said as he raised the syringe to the thick green light that filtered into the sewer, observing the pink liquid's level. He slunk over to Ange's corner. "Just a little pinprick...there’ll be no more...but you may feel a little sick.”
“Cass...Cass....eeeeeasy big fellah. There’s a good badger. Back away from Monroe now.”
Zero’s pleas were eaten by the general din that drowned the bar. Cass, the giant bartender of Salamandastron’s Illusion had the son of Cain treed on the giant dragon’s head that snarled high over the bar counter. The speed at which Monroe had squirreled up onto his hiding spot to escape the reploid badger’s wrath would forever remain a legend among the Hunters.
Cass looked truly frightening, his teeth bared and dripping, his fur fluffed, his eyes outfitted with a bloodlike sheen. His wrath was directed at the Billy Goat Gruff on the dragon’s head above him. Monroe was pale and trembling like a little cat in a tree.
“Damn you humans!” Cass roared. “You all think you’re so hot just because you can climb away from danger, eh? Just like your long-tailed wang-thumping ancestors used to do, those glorified lice-taxis. Not much has changed with you lot, I can tell. Come down here and fight like a real gorilla!”
Zero had no idea what Cass was going on about. Despite the badger’s temporary insanity, he didn’t appear to be Maverick. He seemed to be angry at Monroe alone, and wasn’t targeting any of the surrounding humans like a real Maverick would have. Far above, Monroe gave a terrified squeak. Zero almost felt sorry for the human; his terror was not misplaced. If Cass so chose, one swipe of his great paw would send Monroe’s head flying off his shoulders like a bloody bowling ball.
Seven came flying into the room. The panther’s black fur was sleek with authority. “All right people, nothing to see here, no badger is threatening to kill Monroe, everyone just move along now--Awk!”
Zero stepped on the cat’s tail as he strode by, pinning him in mid-step. Seven’s poweraxe fumbled and spilled out of his paws.
“Good grip on your weapon, cat.” Zero said, kicking the axe across the room as an underline. “Those paws of yours...how many times have I told you that they’re no good for...oh, no matter. What the hell is going on with Cass and Monroe?”
Seven’s annoyance was amplified by the fact that no one was respecting his authority. The barflies were all too busy enjoying the sideshow to bother listening to him. “Monroe gave Cass a simple command,” he sniffed. “But the big lummox found it unreasonable--”
“What kind of command?” Zero didn’t like how this was blossoming.
“Mr. Cain decreed that Salamandastron’s Illusion would become Persephone’s Spring, an establishment that would replace all hard liquor with a healthy array of juices--”
“Oh dear gentle Jesus.”
Zero unpinned Seven and dived into the crowd, tearing away at handfuls of spectators until he was next to Cass’ ear.
“Cass! Cass!” he shouted again. “Calm down! I‘ll talk to Monroe!”
Cass was finally cool enough to hear a voice besides the future screams of deprived drinkers in his own head. He turned and faced Zero.
“Sure, he can turn this place into a juice bar. When I’m dead and buried. Then he can turn this place into a juice bar.”
“I have the Hunters’ health in my best interests,” Monroe dared to say from his perch. An empty beer mug subsequently shattered on the wall just inches from his head, courtesy of a brawny badger arm.
It was time to put an end to this. Zero drew himself up to his full height. “That’s enough. Everyone, back to your posts. I highly doubt that every single one of you is on break.”
Sure enough, the crowd dispersed, having witnessed their fun event for the day. Seven frizzled slightly when he noticed how cleanly everyone obeyed the head of the Hunters. O, sweet respect! Thine creed is hard to hold. The panther-cat slunk into a dark corner.
With the bar cleared out and Zero barring the way to Cass, Monroe dared to climb down to earth. The giant behind Zero growled deep in his throat. Protected by a wall of crimson, a haughty air gathered around the boy again, and he soaked it up like a sponge.
“We will discuss this further at a later date, Ass--”
“Yes, of course. Cass. Now if you’ll excuse me...” Monroe took his exit. Seven tagged him like a shadow.
The mammoth badger cracked his knuckles wetly and growled obscenities about Cain’s offspring--obscenities that would have surely earned him Reprogramming on Suspect of Maverick Intentions under normal conditions. But these days of late spring didn’t bring anything normal about them. The weather was too hot and still, bad moons and frequent storms made the atmosphere temperamental, often driving humans to fight each other, and something in the dark was poised to strike...something that couldn’t be seen or felt or discussed, making everyone far more jittery than any war could ever have.
Although something told Zero he wasn’t the primary catalyst, Cain’s boy and his stupid antics were undeniably a factor in the bad air of MHHQ.
Zero was frustrated. When Monroe did something retarded, everyone came crying to him. But what could he do? Monroe was now the head of Maverick Hunter HQ and Cain Labs. Zero was the leader of the Maverick Hunters--no less, he was the Commander of the newly-baptized Special Unit 0 Black Unicorns. Maverick Hunting was his life, and thus, Monroe was his god. And he owed it to Cain Sr. to be on his best behaviour.
Zero toyed with a spoon on the greasy Cafeteria table. The Cafeteria, which was now serving a “delicious selection of healthy vegetarian dishes,” was almost empty. Zero missed steak. There was nothing like tearing your teeth into a hunk of dead cow, chewing on the grilled, dripping fat while warm blood and juices ran down your throat in a salty torrent. Oh well. At least carrots were satisfyingly crunchy. But they didn’t go moo.
Forrest sat across from Zero, enjoying a Coke. The weather, which was still unusually hot, combined with the crappy new menu to kill most of the Hunters’ appetites. All anyone wanted to do was drink.
Forrest’s normally blank eyes looked past Zero for a second, widened, and filled with disbelief. The next moment, he sprayed a shower of pop on the warrior.
Zero didn’t look up from his spoon. “Thanks for sharing.”
This time, Zero’s head shot up. He turned around. Sure enough...
The Mechadrake was not of any subspecies that Zero was familiar with. Her frame was a glorious molten silver, slim and light, supported by two legs that were as long and delicate as a stag’s. But Zero was certain that those legs, which looked fragile enough to break with two fingers, packed a lot of power. The drake was undeniably female, as Zero could tell by her slender snout and cascading white mane. A thin band of cloth circled her forehead, stuck with a single feather of an unidentifiable bird species. Her eyes were blue and gentle.
The Mechadrake seemed to be new to the establishment. Zero observed the way she snuffed at objects and ran her long fingers over them, rather than peering. Most Mechadrakes had a lizard-stare that would melt wood. This one didn’t. Her optics were as cool as marble.
“Look at those wings,” X murmured from beside Zero.
Indeed. Mechadrakes, a strong, distinct species of cybernetic/reploid dragon often had a broad pair of leathery wings that made them lethal in mid-air combat. This silver, on the other hand, had wings that sacrificed width for length. Zero had little doubt they could cut through the air like nothing.
“Built for speed,” Zero murmured back. “Remember Red Draco?”
“God, who could forget?”
“Really. She had wings that were broad...like sails. She was a red Mechadrake, and they’re built for strong flight. This girl here, though...she probably can’t fly very long, but she could take off like a jet. Now, the question is...what’s a Mechadrake doing here?”
Zero had every right to be concerned. Mechadrakes had few scruples. Their loyalties were very shady. One second they’d fight alongside you, and the next, their claws would be in your back. During the first Maverick War, Zero became good friends with a red Mechadrake, Red Draco, who lead the 17th Regal Dragons. Red decided it would fit her schedule to go wild, kill her Unit, and join Sigma. But in the end, she helped to end Sigma’s reign. So it was hard to say where Mechadrakes stood in the war of Humans vs. Reploids, but it was safe to say that they weren’t necessarily welcomed in MHHQ. But of course...
“Yeah right, who’s gonna tell her to leave?” X grunted.
“Touche. I’ve never seen a Mechadrake like that before.”
“It’s a silver,” X said. “I’ve never seen one, but I’ve heard of them. They’re diplomats, not fighters.”
“Oh yes,” Zero said. “Look at that mother of a katana strapped to her back. She must use that to dole out lollipops to children.” he propped his chin on his fist for a second. “I’m going to talk to her, see what she wants.”
Zero approached the lanky ‘drake, who was chewing tentatively on a lunch tray. Long before Zero was anywhere near her, she turned around and smiled at him with dozens of needle-sharps.
Zero dealt with Mechadrakes enough to know that, good or evil, it was wise to deal with them in a formal and respectful manner.
“Good afternoon, milady.”
The Mechadrake surprised Zero with a sort of graceful variety of dragon-curtsy, which involved a small leap and a deep bend on those spindly legs. “Good afternoon, Hunter Zero.” Her voice was velvety, as opposed to Red’s sandpaper-oesophagus rasp.
“May I ask you your name,” Zero said at last, “And how you knew mine?”
“You may call me Hawkmoon,” she said. She walked to where X and Forrest were sitting, her step remarkably light and her head bobbing slightly, like a bird, with each movement. She gave the two Hunters a sweeping bow. “Gentlemen!”
X blinked. “Uh, hi.”
“As for how I knew you,” Hawkmoon continued, “I am a personal friend of Monroe Cain. He asked me to take up residence in Maverick Hunter HQ. He told me all about you.”
Now Zero really WAS worried about Monroe’s sanity.
“I am sure we’ll have lovely times under this roof,” Hawkmoon said in a neutral tone. “I look forward to working with you all, but if you’ll excuse me...” the Mechadrake bobbed out of the cafeteria swiftly, her petit paws barely touching the ground.
“Monroe is hosting sleepovers for Mechadrakes now,” Zero said flatly. “That’s just super.”
“She had a funny air about her,” X mused.
“She was blind.”
X started. “What?”
“Didn’t you see her eyes? Look at the way she explores things with her hands. Look at her ears, they’re completely erect. Look at the way she tilts her head from side to side to pick up sound. Her eyesight is either gone, or else it just really sucks.”
X was still puttering. “A blind reploid?”
“No, it’s not right,” Zero agreed. “A human might be born blind, or an animal. But not a reploid. No engineer would build a blind reploid. Hawkmoon is a funny old thing, even if she IS friendly and more or less sane. But I don’t like any variety of Mechadrake sharing my air space, thank you.”
“But if Hawkmoon is a friend of Monroe’s, she’s here to stay.”
Zero snorted. “Mechadrakes aren’t anyone’s ‘friends’. My dear X, this place is going to town on the Spanish Train.”
“I don’t see how things could get worse,” X agreed.
Zero pretended he didn’t hear Monroe pelting down the hallway behind him.
It was fun to pretend. Big Bird said so.
Okay, he couldn’t ignore that. The Hunter turned around as Monroe caught up to him. The boy was panting a bit (so much for health food). But what interested Zero the most was the broad reploid that tailed Monroe. The reploid appeared to be a medic of some kind, judging by his attire. He wore an odd armoured smock, white, with pale green trimming. His eyes had a hungry-eagle look to them and his square jaw was set in a brown bit. His mouth was static. Zero could tell that the corners never ever turned up towards the sun on any occasion. He was not a happy looking fellow, but neither did he appear to be nasty or cold. He was just a businessman.
“Did you need something, sir,” Zero said slowly.
“Yes. I’d like you to meet the newest Service recruit on our team. Lifesaver.” Monroe motioned towards the bricklike medic.
“How do you do,” Zero said with sincere respect. Lifesaver nodded back in a silent but friendly manner.
“Lifesaver is an expert on reploid systems,” Monroe explained. “He’s going to oversee reploid repairs and maintenance, including the rest of the reconstruction of Iris. Aside from that, he’ll be overseeing activities in the human ward--”
“Wait, wait,” Zero shot. “Genesis runs the human Medical Unit.”
Monroe stared blanky. “Lifesaver will be overseeing activities in the human ward.”
Zero returned the vacant stare. “Genesis runs the human Medical Unit,” he repeated, slower this time.
“Lifesaver will be overseeing--”
“Monroe!” Zero finally exploded. “What’s with you? Do you have a death wish? First you screw with Cass’ bar. Then you invite blind Mechadrakes to run around like little pixies, with no regard for what happened during the first Maverick War. Now you want to tango with Genesis? That fox won’t tolerate you, Monroe. Maybe I do, but HE won’t. He’s and old fellow. Old and very set in his ways. Some days I get the feeling he’s older than any of us could guess. And he takes care of the Medical Unit, and he deserves it. The humans trust him. God knows that’s a rare thing between humans and reploids these days.”
Monroe’s mouth was as wide as a flycatcher’s. Lifesaver raised one eyebrow, intrigued by Zero’s outburst.
“Zero!” Monroe barked at last. “You won’t question my motives. I will not tolerate another outburst. You should be thanking me. I’m bringing this dump back up to code. And I’ll have you know that Hawkmoon has been a very close friend of mine since I was young. She is nothing like those savages my father let run loose during the first Maverick War. And if Genesis has a problem with Lifesaver’s supervision, well, he can find someplace else to polish his shades.”
Monroe flitted off, Lifesaver following dutifully behind.
Zero’s patience was wearing mighty thin.
Ange was sick, and that was an understatement. She trembled and sweat violently, unable to draw herself up from her sleeping mat in the corner. Torrent gently helped her into a sitting position. So, she’d survived step one. That was very good.
“Can you stand up?...I do believe it’s working. Good. That’ll let us keep going into step two...”