TRIP THROUGH YOUR WIRES
Chapter 12: Young Vectors
Zero was unable to find Monroe Cain.
"Monroe's gone for a day or two," Hawkmoon told the Hunter as she seated herself at the leathery perch of Cain without a second thought. "You'd think they'd design chairs for those of us with tails," she murmured. "Long live P.C."
"I understand," Zero said. "Being a full-time ijit probably keeps him on the road."
"A full time what?"
"Oh, uh, 'ijit' is a term of respect meaning 'leader' or 'boss.' Lifesaver uses it all the time in conjunction with Monroe."
"Hm, he'll be happy to hear that," Hawkmoon said. "I'll be sure to let Monroe know what Lifesaver thinks of him. Why do you want to see him, anyway?"
"Tess' baby was born," Zero explained. "Her husband, Josh, is out on a scouting mission, and I was hoping he could get leave to see them for a little bit."
"Lovely, lovely. The baby's fine? No ... er ... irregularites?"
A fresh breath of air billowed into the office's open window with a flowery sigh. The curtains fed on the pleasant summer air until their bellies swelled. The feather in Hawkmoon's hair bowed, and the mechadrake tasted Zero's sad longing.
"'Ijit.' a wanker," she grinned. "And wanker: noun. One who wanks. I know you don't like Monroe much, Zero. And you've got a headful of worries. So I'm going to give Josh permission to come home. And you're the one I'm sending to retrieve him. You need the vacation."
"Sure, why not. Cass has likewise been on edge since Monroe arrived. Have him shut down the tavern for a day or two and go with you."
A grin seeped over Zero's furrowed features. "Hey ... thanks, Hawkmoon."
The silver mechadrake swept it all away with her hand. "No trouble. Now that there are no city-wide massacres anymore, maybe we can focus on getting the birthrate up again, and expanding the city limits. I think we're going to witness a rebirth of humanity." Hawkmoon 's last sentence faded in the prime of its life. Zero waited for her to finish, but she merely sat and wrinkled her snout. Zero blinked.
The eclipse passed. "You still here, Zero? I thought I told you to get lost."
Damn these creepy lizards. I hate them all. Even the nice ones. Zero took his leave.
Zero arrived at Salamandastron's Illusion just as its burly owner chased out the last sod. The Hunter was properly awed; he'd never seen Cass in full battle dress before. As the badger locked up his bar, the innumerable other keys on his ring dangled and clanked against a silver wrist-cuff which had a mate on his other arm. The bartender's breastplate was polished to a mirror shine and was either very well kept, or just hadn't witnessed many battles. A mammoth mace was strapped to Cass' striped back.
"Monkey-damned noisy armour," Cass growled as he fumbled with key after key. Locking up the bar was not something he did with any regularity. "Up 'till now, I always ran around in the nude. What do you think of that, eh?" He bunched up the keys in his balled fist and punched Zero in the shoulder.
"Naked badgers are the best kind of badgers."
"You got that right."
Jackal's head popped up from behind the belly of a sick Ride Chaser when Zero and Cass walked into the Hunter-Dispatch area. "Oh, it's you guys. What is it?"
"We're taking off on a mission that's none of your business," Zero said as he threw his leg over the saddle of his Adion class Chaser, War-dog. Cass had no Ride Chaser appointed to him, but he eyed Jackal's baby, Lady Macbeth with amiably. Jackal positively flew from his repair job and draped himself over his Chaser, growling.
Cass knew when he was on to a good thing. "I think I'll use that Chaser."
"No you won't." Jackal's eyes were bits of brimstone. "This is mine. No one else is allowed to use it."
Cass flexed his thick fingers and smiled cheerily but said nothing more. He opted for an unnamed, clattering Cheval class Chaser to escort him out the open garage door and into the Grasslands, where the warrior experienced an afternoon of choking on Zero's wake.
The white memory of Cass' happy smile chewed on Jackal's stomach for the rest of the day.
The Grassland nightimes were unchanging, a chunk of near-barren wasteland smothered with darkness. A bonfire flickered on its black pelt, dancing to spite its surroundings and stirring up memories in the souls of the Hunters ringed around it.
"Nice night," one Hunter drawled, his eyes lost in another world.
The others lifted their noses to the moon and answered the leader with affirmative grunts.
Josh Garret started to bawl, tears sliding down his sunburned, shadowed cheeks. Three drained whiskey bottles rattled as he shifted his knees.
"Aw, listen to him go off again," Cass said. "Now what's your problem?"
"It's so beautiful," Josh sobbed wetly as he wiped his runny nose on his cuff, leaving a trail of mucous. "There's a little boy back in that city with my name."
Cass spit out a mist of beer and the foul-smelling stuff drained from his chops as shook with laughter. "Oh God, for a recorder. 'I'm a father now, boo hoo!'"
"Go easy on Josh," Zero grinned, dragging lines into the dirt with a stick. "He's all saturated. But he's entitled to it. It's not every day the Screaming Queen of the World and the Lane Beyond gives birth to a child you fathered."
"Dun' talk that way 'bout my dawg," Josh mumbled through a mouthful of hardbread and alcohol.
Cass shook his head. "Oh, you sick, sick person."
When Josh woke up, the demons of Hell were hosting the World Cup Finals in his head and his mouth tasted like a sewer. Grunting, the Hunter shuffled a little ways away from his snoozing fellows. Zero and Cass, who'd offered to keep sentry, talked in low voices and elbowed each other in the ribs, giggling as Josh peed for weeks against a stunted bush.
A bit of the sun began to bleach the eastern sky. "We'll get going soon," Zero told Cass as he watched the ascent. "I've got a lot of work back at HQ, unfortunately."
Cass wasn't paying attention. "What's up with Josh?"
The young Hunter was staring off into the west like a cat watching a mouse. Or rather, a mouse watching a cat. A cat that suddenly pounced into the fray.
Josh howled a warning and ripped his lightsabre into battle. His Hunters, actual credits to their founding organization, responded immediately and were on their feet and at their weapons in various states of undress.
The intruders bounded into the camp like a hellbent herd of stags and ripped into the circle of fighters. Zero recieved a faceful of one of the snarling strangers, a gaunt male with eyes that looked like mudpuddles stomped in wet turf. A barbed rope hissed and snared Zero's arm before he could properly react, and a ripping jolt of electricity immediately woke him up. The jolt didn't do any immediately serious harm, and Zero wondered what kind of state the world was in when assasins couldn't properly kill their targets. His fighting blood, cold from inactivity, warmed up as he yanked on the whip, which was still in the hand of his assailant. To the Hunter's surprise, the attacker kept his head and let go of his weapon at a crucial moment. Zero, poisoned by the previous zap and a little off balance as a result, stumbled. His hunter pounced, splayed and feral like a gremlin, brandishing a dagger tipped with a wicked metal that dyed itself in the colours of the sunrise. Zero had never seen the likes of such a metal, and he didn't care for the way it jabbed and ripped through his armour like paper machee. He bucked, and the dagger-wielder flew off him, landing lightly on his feet. He was fast, but Zero was a luge. His lightsabre was evicted in a mouse's heartbeat and cleaved through the young hunter's arm in half that time.
And the stump belched blood, red blood, human blood.
Even better, the downsized warrior still flew at him after allowing himself to balk for a nanosecond at the sight of his arm, which ended in a bloody gnaw below his elbow. But the young man's charge was bloodless, probably for obvious reasons, and Zero was easily able to grasp him firmly by his shoulders and force him to the ground.
The camp, drenched in shades of blood and dawn, was quiet. The intruders were all dead; Zero's boy was the only survivour. Josh was fine, but most of his Hunters were hurting.
"No casualties. Wouldn't have been so if we hadn't been here," Cass grunted, shivering. His eyes were cloudy and sluggish. "Josh has some of the best Night Vipers in his crew, but holy ghost, what the hell was that all about? Those were humans, Zero. I smelled it right offhand, and you probably did, too. I had my doubts, given the way they moved like monkeys. But then I smashed one right in 'er skull, and she bled 'er life away in technicolour."
Zero's quarry stirred at his feet, and the reploid slammed his foot down, hard, on his bruised back. The boy swallowed a pain-rattled moan, and Zero was impressed. "Josh," he called to the Viper, "are your men okay? Can you handle them?"
"No one's in any immediate danger," Josh said, limping among his ranks, "but some of them should be stableized a bit more before travelling home."
"That's a bit of a risk," Cass pointed out. "We don't know what we're up against here, or why those dancing savages attacked us in the first place."
"We should be all right for a little while." Zero rolled the survivour over, who'd long since given up maintaining his rigid stance on pain and allowed himself to pass out.
Wooziness constricted Blake's head as soon as the sunlight poured into his eyes. He tried to shake it off, but the coils tightened in an unnatural way.
"Yeah, you've been drugged, so don't bother asking," said the red reploid he'd attacked earlier. The automation sat nearby, cross-legged and using Blake's captive dagger to shave a curved splinter of animal bone to a fine point.
Blake tried to talk, but his words poured out in a slur.
"You'll have plenty of time to talk later," the reploid said, heating up the smoothed bone in a small fire that popped beside him. "I'm going to waste my time fixing you up best as I can and letting you rest. Then you can answer some questions, because I'm very curious. Especially about this dagger, which is morbidly familiar."
Blake's words turned to sand in his throat. The reploid tossed him a canteen, which bonked him on the head and bounced a taunting few inches out of range. Blake's mouth burned, his glands pumped nothing but salt, but the ground was a storm and wouldn't let him reach the canteen. He slowly withdrew his hand and merely lay still, staring at the yawning sky that slowly roasted him.
The reploid sighed and swung to his feet. He retrieved the canteen, uncorked it and handed it to the prisoner, who guzzled down half the water in one breath and threw it all up.
"Smart. Try again, slowly this time."
Blake sipped again with more desireable results, but his thirst ran deep and couldn't be slaked. He felt incredibly drained, an ill feeling that probably had a great deal to do with missing the latter half of his left arm. A bloody bandage made out of someone's spare shirt was all that kept Blake from splashing the rest of his life in the dust.
"This is going to be rough," said the reploid, who now sat at Blake's left side. "My name's Zero, by the way. And given the materials I have, I don't know how successful I'm going to be at stitching a wound like that closed. At least you've stopped gushing, but one wrong twist could set you off again. And I don't intend to let you die that easily." Zero held up a shimmering strand of gold. "See this here? My own hair, thank you very much." He picked up the bone needle he'd smoothed earlier, removed Blake's bandage, and got to work.
Zero chattered away while sewing the meat back together, his fingers limbering up as they recalled their old work from years ago in the Medical Unit of MHHQ. His homemade tools held well and he said so. Blake's head turned away from Zero, and he didn't respond except for a feathery flinch every time the hunter poked at him with the needle. Zero didn't prod the boy too much, and assumed he was merely sulking ... an attitude that could be soaked up quickly by unpleasant means that he wasn't strong enough to endure. Yet.
But Blake was merely confused. Something was amiss. His platoon hadn't gone scouting with the intent of being seen, but they'd still packed the proper weapons in case of discovery. And they attacked thusly. And they were overpowered. Blake closed his eyes, spent. The needle continued to bite and drag its web, weaved by a red reploid who was far too jovial. Something had gone wrong. Maybe his weapons were defective? Or maybe this was exactly why he was bred as a scouter and not a warrior.
"Hullo, what's this?" Zero tickled Blake's ankle with the tip of his new dagger and pulled up the muddy pantleg bottom a bit. "Odd tattoo you got there, boy. Doesn't look anything like a kid'd get out of his own will. Want to talk to me yet?"
"No..." Blake's throat felt like it was lined with gravel.
"You will. When we get back to MHHQ, you and I are going to have a big talk. There, all finished. I'm pretty sure the wound's infected. You've got a fever that's creeping up slowly. But it's not too urgent yet." Zero doused a fresh shirt with some leftover brandy and slapped it on the wound. Blake's eyes opened wide and floated like saucers on his thin face. The hunter touched Blake's neck, read his pulse and slowly helped him sit up next to the small fire he'd made earlier. The boy got a good look around the camp.
"You tried, I'll give you that," Zero said as he draped a blanket over Blake's shoulders. "But as you can see, everyone's pretty much okay now. Here, drink this." He put a cup of broth in the fighter's hand. "We're going back in an hour, and you're going to need some strength."
Indeed, all the humans seemed fine. A few of the more desperately injured lay on mats, but were lucid. Most of the camp's residents were packing rolled bundles onto Ride Chasers.
And moving sluggishly amongst them was a huge reploid badger in battle armour. A reploid who shivered with chills and rubbed his failing joints when he thought no one was looking.
Blake watched and smiled, reassured. He suddenly felt good enough to take in a little broth.
Celeste picked up Paul, and the newborn gazed back at her with his father's eyes, his father's face and his father's manner.
"Uh, wow Tess. He looks just like you."
"Of course he does."
"How do you feel?"
Tess shrugged. "Pretty okay. A little tired. I'm supposed to move off-base now, but Genesis says there's no rush, and he's letting me stay here for a while longer to make sure Paul's healthy." she took her son back from her friend. "I'm not about to oblige Moron-oe by skipping out the door, either. Look at all the rugrats running around in this place. One more won't kill anyone, especially during peace time. Besides, I -- Mother of God, Iris! Where did you come from? Don't scare me like that."
Celeste, for all her sensitivity, hadn't seen the female reploid materialize at Tess' bedside. She hadn't even heard her. The former Repliforce agent moved like a snow leopard, soft footed with hungry eyes, which she turned down to Paul who snoozed by his mother.
"Oh Tess ... you're so lucky! Can I hold him?"
Tess, who'd seen more than one object fumble through Iris' hands and spill to the floor said "No, Iris."
The reploid's pretty face fell. "Why not?"
"What does it matter? I said no. Anyway, he's sleeping. Maybe later."
Iris' eyes never wavered from Paul. She made a desperate, thin noise through her clenched teeth, like a caged animal, and her arms suddenly shot out.
Celeste knocked them away, hard. "Iris! What's the matter with you? This is not your baby and you should get down on your two knees and thank God for that because if it was your baby, it would've wasted away in a matter of hours. Zombie reploids from beyond the grave do not make good mothers. Now get out before I call Genesis."
Iris stumbled backwards, her face numb and shattered. It was a terrible, heart-twisting mess to look at, and the reploid mercifully masked it with her hands before she fled.
A curtain of silence dropped over the Huntresses. Finally, Tess opened her mouth and let loose a bray of laughter that woke Paul up. "Oh Jeez, Celeste! What happened? You finally got some guts in your belly and a mouth in your head to spit them up through. You little cur. I salute you."
Celeste managed a smile, but Iris' broken face was frozen in her brain and watered down her triumph. "I ... didn't mean to be so harsh, honestly."
"Pah." Tess rocked the fretting Paul with one hand and waved with her other. "She needed it. That little meter-maid's been watching me a lot, and it's starting to give me the creeps. You're a great oul' bundle of Irish flesh, Celeste. A great judge of character. Keep some of that fire. You'll need it someday."
The lawn of dust muffled Phoenix's footsteps, which thumped like a heavy tomtom beat in the main hall. In a storybook universe, the haunting bass would've been sufficient encouragement for the spirits of the slain Mavericks to swoop down and re-animate their ghoulish remains; but instead they remained cold and dead at the firebird's talons. Phoenix threw back her wings, gulped a great breath and opened her throat.
"WHERE IS THE PRESENCE OF OVERDRIVE OSTRICH?"
The hot blast struck every chilled corner of the fortress, and the Mavericks felt their backs pickle.
Wheel Gator, ever-helpful, braved his mistress. "He's ... gone, Miss Phoenix. We've searched everywhere."
Phoenix raised a hand with intent on bringing it down hard, but she shifted gears and merely pat Gator on his sleek head. "Oh, he's gone alright. I could've told you that much. I want to know where. I don't care so much for that vomit-coloured doiley duster as I do for what he took with him. Overdrive took the journal, Gator. What d'you think of that?"
"Bad, Miss. Very bad."
The remaining Mavericks answered Phoenix's summons and collected around her. Flame Stag. Violen. Neon Tiger. All sneezing and covered with mould. They were trying, trying so hard. Trying for her.
"What's the news?"
Violen rubbed his smashed nose with the back of his fist. "Dug up some more Maverick bits," he snuffled. "Not enough to revive one whole Maverick ... except ... "
Neon Tiger scratched his back. "Miss ... we've found Vile's body. Intact."
By the time Josh's scouts returned to the Hunter Dispatch area, Cass was beyond disguising his sickness. Zero would've insisted that the badger abandon his Ride Chaser and pair up with someone if Cass were actually petite enough to share a vehicle. But the party got home safely, even if Cass' Cheval lurched like a thing gone rabid. Jackal gave the feral bartender a long stare as he weaved into the garage and parked the Chaser in the middle of the gangway, moaning with his head pressed against the handlebars.
"Gads, Cass," Zero said in alarm. "Get to Lifesaver. Now."
Cass lolled his head and spilled off his bike. Panting, he staggered over to Jackal and brought himself eye to eye with the young human, who seemed very sad about his back being up against the wall.
"I was all ready," Cass panted every word. "I was all ready. See that hobo over there?" Cass motioned to the human prisoner linked to Zero. "I was going to take that scum, see, and force him to piss on Lady Macbeth like. 'There,' I'd say. 'Now you're riding with hobo-musk for the rest of your life.' And then I was gonna laugh. But now I feel like my insides are being cooled with diseased bogwater, and I'm not in the mood for a good joke. So I'll settle for this." Cass thumped Jackal upside the head and staggered on his way to Lifesaver, escorted by a couple of Josh's men.
Zero shot daggers at Blake. "He seemed to get sick after you circus sideshows attacked us." He shook the spidery boy, hard. "You wouldn't know anything about this, would you?"
Blake smiled, lighting the dim with a string of perfect white teeth. "All I know is, I can't wait to hear your explaination on why you aren't affected by the same virus."