TRIP THROUGH YOUR WIRES
Chapter 11: Jake
Genesis waddled into the Medical Unit with piles of sheets dripping from his furry arms. Tess' birthing experience left the starting gate about an hour ago. Some babies came as easily as a girl running down the lane. The fox knew this particular birth wasn't going to be so tranquil. No, it was going to be a difficult and nasty event like prying open a rusty gate. Today's miracle of birth was going to be a miracle of drugs and acoustics.
For now, Tess was quiet. She'd been ordered to keep still, and for once, she was obeying Genesis. So the doctor took advantage of the downtime to get some other odds and ends done. Zero was on his way to help, as promised, and Iris was preparing--
Genesis stopped. He blinked his eyes behind his shades and peeked out from behind the mountain of cloth he was holding.
Iris was about ten metres in front of him, oblivious to the world as usual and fixated on the task before her. Genesis had sent her to re-organize some simple insturments, but Iris' pretty brow was creased deeply, as if she were performing a triple bypass on the President. That was nothing new. Iris, who was a renowned multitasker during the Repliforce Wars, now seemed to have a difficult time with the easiest jobs. The matter still boggled Lifesaver.
What boggled Genesis, however, was the fact that Iris stuffed herself into a dress again. Literally. Somewhere, she'd found a castoff from a human woman. The dress was no better than a rag. It was a vomitous puce colour, and looked as if it'd been dragged through the dirt a few times by coyotes. The hem was chewed, likely by a cat or raccoon. The pathetic scrap was also about four sizes too small, and just not meant to fit the reploid frame. Iris stood out like a monument to filth in Genesis' immaculate den.
Best of all, two human boys whom the fox had never seen before were boldly lifting up the back of Iris' skirt, peeking and giggling. Genesis wordlessly dropped his sheets and grabbed the two budding perverts. He cracked their heads together soundly, and threw them out. Iris didn't even turn around.
Genesis laid a paw on the girl's shoulder. Iris nearly jumped through the ceiling. The insturments she was working with clattered to the floor.
"Iris," Genesis bent over and scooped up a pawful of surgical steel. "why are you wearing that?"
Iris went back to her fumbling. "I like it," she mumbled.
"My ... brother always liked me to be ladylike."
Genesis recalled the Colonel's fondness for his sister -- and good grooming. Men were men. Women were ladies. Colonel wasn't chauvenistic ... just chivalrous.
"Colonel isn't here, Iris." Genesis never had any trouble telling it like it was. "And Lifesaver dressed you in a jumpsuit for a reason. Those hoops of yours don't have any place in medical work."
"This dress doesn't have any hoops."
"No, dear," Genesis grunted as he recollected his pile of laundry, "but smocks that are swimming with disease don't have a place here, either. Look, stable 2 is empty. Draw the curtains and get changed back into your suit. Better yet, here." The fox expertly sifted the pile he was holding until a pair of surgical scrubs dropped into his hands. He tossed them at Iris. "Get dressed in those."
Iris looked at the limp scrubs like they were a skin cruelly peeled off an animal. But she did as she was told -- at decelerated speed. She seemed unsure of every step she took.
As Iris changed, Zero dragged himself into the Medical Unit. He'd not been having an easy time with life lately. He plodded up to Genesis. "Whee."
"Ah, Zero. As promised."
"Is Livesaver here? Because I can do without him."
"No, just you and me," Genesis said. "Iris can lend a hand, but personally ... with the way she's acting lately, I wouldn't trust her to look after a dead Sea Monkey collection."
Zero's mouth twitched. "I didn't scare her that badly, did I?"
"No, she was demi-gonzo before you did that. She's missing a part of herself. Lifesaver can't get it through that square block of his, since his Ford-model brain regurgitates anything that isn't recorded scientific fact or data." Genesis lay the sheets on a nearby vacant bed and began to fold them with Zero's help. "But it's simple. She and Colonel were supposed to be one whole, but their personalities clashed and they became two instead. And it wasn't so clean cut as one being Yin and the other being Yang. I'm doing my best to be understanding of the 'new' Iris, as much as I sometimes feel like ripping out her tongue and rubbing her face all over with it. Her life's been pretty sandy." Genesis didn't need to mention the events that made it sandy. Zero knew perfectly well.
One thought lead to another. "Has she met Celeste yet?" Zero asked.
"Not personally. Celeste's kept away from here. Besides circumstances leading her to be uncomfortable around me, she doesn't want to meet Iris, if she can help it. But Iris knows what Celeste means to you. Speaking of which, you'll have to forgive me, but I'm in the mood for poking you with a stick. I know you care about Cel as a good friend, but is there anything more than that?"
"Before you died in the first Maverick War, you proposed to her."
The words slapped Zero across the face. "I, uh, er, oh, yugh ... sigh. How did you know that?"
"So you do remember?" Genesis' furry snout was wreathed in grins as he took the stack of folded laundry to the storage shelves and struggled to house the clean sheets. Zero helped out since he was considerably taller.
"Don't worry, old man," Genesis said as he dusted off his paws. "She let me in on it quite by accident. You gave her that Lucas-class lightsabre of yours. The humans around here have several stupid mating dances. That's one of 'em, and I'm surprised you took such a gaudy route. But I already know that your taste is swill. What I want to know is, why haven't you brought the matter up to her since your revival?"
Iris, donned green in scrubs, whipped aside the curtain to stable 2 and made a beeline back to her daunting task. She didn't even notice Zero.
Zero looked at her and blinked like a lizard in the sun. "That's why."
" ... you have the hots for Iris?"
"No, but I did try to kill her."
Genesis cocked his head at Zero in a very doglike manner. "Oh." he said after a brief lag. "I get it now."
"And I nearly killed Cel once," Zero drilled the steel toe of his boot into the floor tiles. "I never told anyone that, but I damn near came close. Remember when she was infected with that virus from Torrent? And whe went whacko and skewered me through my arm? I broke her leg in a reflex action, and I enjoyed her suffering a lot more than a healthy reploid should've."
"Don't forget Jody," Genesis said helpfully.
"Yes, and Jod --" Zero snapped his mouth shut like a fish on a fly. "Why am I telling you this? I hate your guts."
Genesis showed teeth. "Because I'm so cuddly and fatherly. Anyway, I was just curious about you and Celeste. I'm not about to offer sympathy for your troubled lovelife, because a reploid shouldn't have one. And I always thought your relationship was bogus."
"Go ahead Genesis, show us that famous charm of yours."
The fox ignored Zero. "Why don't you explain to her what's going on inside that boiling little head of yours?"
"Wrong time, wrong place, wrong motives. This whole organization is a cauldron right now. No time for personal comforts."
"'Thus spake the lonliest reploid in the world.'"
" ... What the hell?"
Nytetrayn enjoyed long bouts of thoughtful silence, but he wasn't displeased when he saw Caillou arrive to sit beside him. Not feeling obligated as a conversation catalyst, Nyte merely continued to sharpen his fangs with a small bit of flint.
"Hi," Caillou said at last.
"H'lo." Nyte spit out a mouthful of dust onto the turf. "Haven't seen you in quite a while."
"Hiding. Yes, of course." Nyte put his flint away. "Asmodeus sent some scouts to the surface. I wonder if he's actually planning on making some sort of attack before we all grow old, or maybe he's just wasting more time."
"I'm putting money on the latter," Caillou said.
"Not so sure," Nytetrayn countered, "or I wouldn't feel so uneasy about my personal safety as well as your own." The black Mechadrake's voice trailed off at the end of his sentence, and a sharkish grin seeped across his predatory maw. "I wonder ... "
"Oh ... " Nyte was lost in another dimension. "Nevermind. It's probably nothing. No, Asmodeus would never allow such a stupid weakness to thrive in the warriors. Or would he ... ?"
"What?" Caillou was irritable.
Nyte didn't like Caillou's tone, and a hard crack across the back of his head told him so. "You'll know if I want you to know. But believe me when I say the Wankers of Eden might not be so difficult to defeat when the time comes. Watch yourself Caillou, and don't question me. You want out and I'll get you out. I'm obligated to for reasons your dense head hasn't sorted out yet. But I could just as easily turn you into Asmodeus and take a load of suspicion off myself."
Caillou rubbed the new swell in the back of his skull, his mouth ajar in stunned silence. He was used to hard knocks, so he barely felt the sting, but Nyte's vicious monologue was a side of the 'drake he'd never seen before -- and didn't care much for, because the dragon meant every word.
Nyte took out his flint again, thought better of scraping his fangs, and walked the flat rock between his long fingers instead. "Times are tense, boy," he answered, "and you have an odd manner like your father that betrays every thought on that long, ugly puss of yours. You're going to end up in trouble because of it. Like your papa."
For the first time in his life, Caillou was puzzled about his heritage. "Well, feck, was my old man that bad?"
"I was a little squishy newt when he was here, but your father was a certified, in writing messed up psycho with no control over his fevered little brain. Thus, he was destined for trouble and he found it. I'll tell you a bit about him, if you want."
"It's not that important--"
"I'll tell you a bit about him, if you want," Nytetrayn said louder. "Us dragons need a good story exchange once in a while or we get testy. Besides, I owe you something for that clout I gave you upside the head, and a little infusion of your father's history might fortify your common sense." Nytetrayn leaned back against the convex wall, his black hide flecked with light from the grate-like catwalk above him. "It's the quiet hour now, and we shouldn't be disturbed. I've told you about my girl, Celeste, right? And I mentioned that I was obligated to get you out of here? Well, it's because you two share a lot in common. Let me tell you about a fellow named Jake McTreggor ... "
"Eden." Of all the stupid, ten cent comic book cliches ...
Jake McTreggor sat indian-style in the belly of the Great Tree, beside a rushing vein of mean-tempered water that was about ten feet across. Revelations came thick and fast.
Who're they fooling? The security in this place is as feeble as an old dog. Why, there's no doubt this river runs to some underground cavern and eventually empties in some God-blessed place far away from here. The water's not friendly, but I'm a decent swimmer. I could take off any second I wanted to.
Jake's thoughts got stuck in the mud.
But I'm not about to go anywhere without Celeste. They could care less if I ran, as long as they at least have her.
Celeste, Jake had been told, was making a fine recovery from the genetic disease that had chewed her up. Of course, this was going by the word of Torrent Leviathan. But since handing his girl over, Jake had been forbidden to see her during her treatment. Torrent, however, promised that the two would be reunited soon. Jake was fast learning that "soon" was a very fickle word to a species whose lifespan made his own look like a mayfly's.
Thirsty, Jake crept down to the edge of the river, cupped his hands, and caught himself a drink. The water tasted metallic and refused to settle well in his stomach. Nevertheless, he slurped away until he heard the scrape of ancient talons on the synthetic rock behind him. Jake whipped around. Perched on a boulder was the last sight he wanted to see; Torrent Leviathan.
Torrent wagged an empty plastic cup in front of Jake. "Hello my friend!" the relic said cheerfully. "I've a glass. We use it for drinking. Perhaps you'd like to try it."
Jake planted his palms on the slimy bank behind him and leaned back casually. "I'm done. Besides, I'm too old for any of your new fangled fads."
"Nonsense. You're never too old. By the way, I don't recommend drinking out of that river. It's not the purest water in the world. You can easily get water from the Mess hall. Which you like to avoid. Like everything else here."
"Yes, Torrent. I hate it here. Imagine that."
"You haven't given it a chance." Torrent set the glass down beside him. "You're misbehaving, fighting, not fitting in. You don't show up for regular training sessions, even though you do score extremely well when you choose to bless us with your participation."
Jake wiped a stray trickle of water from the corner of his mouth with his sleeve. "Was I supposed to participate?"
"Yes, you have an obligation to Eden."
Jake's accent became more pronounced. "What the flying Jesus is with this place?" he half laughed, half snarled. "Everyone here talks about taking back the world from robots or some such garbage, but all everyone ever does here is 'train' all day and get zombied all night! And this has been going on for how many generations now? Everyone follows that Asmodayfrig, or whatever his name is, without question. But he's not doing a damn thing except sitting on his high perch and saying a bunch of pretty words that roll like thunder across the assembly, but mean nothing. It's a farce."
"Why yes Jacob, it is." Torrent said mildly. "Asmodeus loves to talk. Will he ever act on his words? I do believe he will, eventually, but he takes his time. But this doesn't solve the problem of you being a thankless troublemaker."
For the first time since Torrent's arrival, Jake noticed the Mechadrake was holding something alive and unpleasant-looking. It was about the size of a housecat, and Torrent had it tucked under one scaly arm. For a fleeting instant, Jake was reminded of --
"Yes, you used to hold Celeste this way," Torrent reminded him in a lazy drawl.
"What ... is that?"
The dragon thrust the creature at Jake, who instinctively shuffled back and ended up with sopping shoes. "Jacob, meet the latest product of what we call 'Soaking.' This is the start of one of Eden's Mechadrakes. He'll be known as Atticus 15."
Atticus was not charmed. The red-gold lizard rolled an ugly tusked head on a squat neck, and opened a blunt red mouth to hiss silently at Jake. Its hind legs jutted out akwardly from its body, toes spread wide and tipped with needle claws.
"That's a Mechadrake?"
"The start of one," Torrent shrugged. "We do things a little differently down here. Mechadrakes are primarily robotic, but there's a great biological factor in there, too. This little fellow's hungry."
Jake didn't like the abrupt change of subject. Atticus glared at him with filmy, watery eyes.
"It's nothing pesonal, you understand," Torrent said. "Well, actually, it's everything personal. You don't want to be here, and I don't want you here with your odd manner. I'm sure Asmodeus will be a little miffed with me, but that's the way the weasel pops."
The water dragon threw Atticus at Jake. Atticus twisted in midair, landed on his paws, and speared himself at the human. Jake , who was disarmed sometime earlier by Asmodeus' Mechadrakes, dissapointed his instincts when his hand fell on vacant lightdagger sheaths. His frantic thoughts collided in a tangled wreck, jumbled up his signals, and, for the first time in his life, the young warrior lost his footing and took a tumble on the slimy rocks on the bank of the river. A tusk the size of a pocketknife carved a "U" shaped slash on Jake's belly and a smashed snout immediately burrowed in the wound to feed. The repast was short; Jake grabbed Atticus by the rolls of melted skin bunched around his neck and ripped the infant Mechadrake off his stomach. Squealing, Atticus was hurled against the flat-faced rocks and kicked violently in his side when he struggled to get up. The wretched creature's flank scraped raw against the concrete before he came to a stop directly underneath Torrent. Torrent looked at Atticus, who mewed pitifully. The adult Mechadrake shrugged, scooped up the juvenile, and bounded out sight, leaving Jake to pant like a thirsty fox.
The front of his garb was sopping and sticky with blood, but the wound, while ragged and certain to scar, didn't appear too serious. Certainly nothing worth dying over.
Then why did Torrent leave me here?
A low-key, evil burning began to heat up Jake's slashed belly. Slowly, like a towel sopping up a spill, the burning spread from his belly and seeped outwards to consume whatever nerves it could gnaw. And it brought Jake his answer.
Caillou blinked. "So my father is--"
"Hush, boy." Nyte struck a match, touched it to the end of a cigarette and shook it out. "You shouldn't stop a story right at its climax. Lord, no wonder Asmodeus makes you wear that band. With the way you're always flapping your mouth at the most crucial times, there's no way you'd make any woman happy." Nytetrayn bumped the ashes off his cigarette with an expert flick of his pointer-claw. "Yeah, you've probably realized who Jake is. But that doesn't give you the right to interrupt me. He has a background worthy of a campfire circle, so shut up and learn your ass some culture. Now where was I ... "
"Jake got poisoned or something."
Nyte brightened. "Ah, that's right. See, our very own Atticus took a chomp from Jake's belly, and -- " the coal Mechadrake bit off his sentence. "Uh ... Caillou. I just remembered. Try to stand up."
"I can't," Caillou said instantly.
Nyte grinned, his cigarette poking out of his clenched teeth like a dowel in a vice. "We forgot about that injured leg of yours, didn't we? You've been sitting too long. How badly is it locked up?"
Caillou grimaced. "I don't think I feel like any more stories for now."
"No problem," Nyte said, untucking Caillou's rigid leg from under him. "We'll get this thawed out and you can go to bed. I'll finish the story some other time. That's the neat thing about stories ... they keep well."
It was over. Tess sank back in her drenched pillow, her breath sawing in and out of her tormented lungs. "Well?" she exhaled. "Is it a boy or a girl?"
"No," Genesis said.
"It's a boy," Zero said above the baby's keen wail. "Kind of a placid little fellow, too. Guess he takes after his father, thank God for small favours." Zero knew Josh, who was away on a long scouting trip, would be happy to hear it. "I'll send word to Cain tommorow. I'm sure even that jerk'll give Josh leave to come see his son." He wrapped the pink, wrinkled creature in a soft yellow blanket. "What's this thing's name, anyway?"
Tess didn't pause. "Milton John Garret."
"That's the stupidest name I've ever heard!" Genesis fired. "And I've visited Canada!"
"Oh sure, listen to Mr. Profound here," Tess snorted. "I'll just bet you're the only reploid in the world with an original name like 'Genesis.'"
"Hey now ... " Genesis looked stung.
Zero was stuck holding the baby, who squirmed with hunger. Zero instinctively gave the boy his finger, which was accepted with relish. Some ancient memory from a life beyond ticked into his heart, and he smiled before he could stop himself.
"'Paul," Genesis said suddenly in a warm voice. "That's a wonderful name."
Zero surfaced. "Huh?"
"'Paul.' That's what you just said, didn't you? I agree, it'd be nice to name a new life in his memory."
Tess smiled. "I like that."
Zero shrugged, but his smile resurfaced and he said nothing.
Iris kept clear during the majority of the birth. Genesis found enough little trinkets to keep her busy and out of the way. But now that the chaos was over and Zero was gone, she severed her tether and wandered freely around the Medical Unit again.
She found that she kept returning to Tess' stable. She kept peeking around the curtain to watch the new mother as she fawned over her baby. Iris felt a fascination, a longing, every time she saw the two together. And she couldn't shake the feeling that she was being watched by a foreign pair of eyes somewhere in the pit of her stomach, like an alligator peering up at a storm drain from the warm bile of the sewers.