Chapter 24: You! Out of the Gene Pool!

No matter how cold and unfriendly the world outside became, the kitchen and cafeteria of MHHQ never failed to be a warm and welcoming place. On stressful days, Celeste found that she could always take comfort within its secure walls.

Hot and tired after a very sucessful round in the Training Gym, Celeste sat up on a table in the kitchen, idly kicking her feet and wondering with mild impatience when she was going to get to battle a real Maverick. Before her sat Terrence and Phillip, who were silently and methodically stripping potatoes of their jackets. Having a conversation with the two ex-kennel staff reploids was usually as thrilling as watching paint dry on a fence, but Celeste decided that she was desperate enough to talk to them. She needed to put her mind at ease.

"Hey fellahs..."

T and P instantly stopped peeling and whipped around to face the Huntress.

Now that she was in the hotseat, a fresh layer of sweat rose on Celeste's skin and replaced the traces left from her earlier training.

"Tell me something, guys...what do you think about love?" Celeste's right hand unconsciously tightened around the piece of paper balled up in it. It was the note that Zero had left under her pillow last night. It didn't have his name on it, but it was still pretty damn obvious who it was from...there had been brown and white cat hair all over it.

"Love...?" Terrence and Phillip blinked at each other as their sluggish minds tried to process an adequate answer to this oh so complicated question.

Phillip was the first to speak. "Isn't that what leads humans to make more morons?"

Celeste ground her teeth. "Fall on your knees and thank your God, Phillip, that I can't find anything good and solid to throw at you right this minute."

Panic swam in Terrence's blank eyes. "Have we been stupid again, Ms. McTreggor?" He squeaked. "Please don't tell Lady Draco! She can't stand it when fellow Canadians act stupid. If she gets word of this, she'll crack our heads together...again!"

Three surly knocks suddenly landed outside of the kitchen's locked door.

"Knock-knock-knockin' on the kitchen door!" T and P sang automatically, although neither of them made a move to get up and answer the angry summons.

A scarlet titanium boot kicked the door clear off its hinges.

"Uh oh," T and P said in unison. They both dove for shelter under the table that Celeste was still perched on.

A severely cheesed-off Zero barged through the maimed doorway. By the looks of his singed armour and the neat row of odd teeth-marks crisscrossing his shoulder, the Hunter had been at the losing end of some battle. Zero ripped off his helmet, revealing a rather humourus 'helmet head'. The Hunter flung the gilded headpiece against the wall opposite to him hard enough to make a dent in its sturdy twice-forged titanium. Then, with the loudest voice and most vulgar vocabulary he possessed, Zero told everyone present exactly what he thought of Sigma and his mother.

"That's the loudest profanity I've ever heard!" Terrence remarked from his hiding spot.

"Zero!" Celeste slid off of the table and threw caution into the wind as she ran towards the frenzied Hunter. "Calm down! What's wrong?"

Zero merely continued to howl like an unfed wolverene. Celeste could pick up only a few broken words...and she didn't like what she heard. The disjointed phrases consisted of "Draco...Sigma...Skysheen...Spartans...we're all gonna die!"

"Soooo..." Cain sighed wearily from across his office desk where Zero had officially delivered the bad news with Celeste there for him as support. "What you're saying is that Sigma, Red, Skysheen, and the Spartans went bats and offed all the human Hunters present before trying to get you to join them?"

Zero bobbed his head slowly, weighed down with disbelief.

"That's it, then." Cain mumbled, creaking back into his stylish chair. "By starting the mass production of reploids, I've effectively doomed the entire human race. And mother said that I'd never accomplish anything in my life. I've certainly shown HER, haven't I?" The elderly scientist gave a short, humourless laugh.

"Sir...shouldn't we start working on a counterattack plan right away?" Celeste inquired.

Cain lurched to his feet. "Of course, my dear...after I visit the pub downstairs for some...inspiration." He excused himself and exited, shakily singing something along the lines of, "It's the end of the world as we know it...and I feel fine..."

"Argh! This is by far the worst goddamned day I've ever had in my life! Damn Sigma! A fury is in my brain!"

X found it difficult to keep his voice devoid of the exhaustion that pressed down on him as his short steps tried to stay in time with Zero's long, passionate strides. "It...can't be all...that bad," the blue reploid puffed optimistically to his friend. "After all, Cain promoted you to the leader of the Regal Dragons..."

Zero gave a tremor of a growl. "It's not 'Regal Dragons' anymore, X. It's been renamed the 17th Unit. But whatever in bloody hell its name is, I don't want to lead it." Zero reached the training room and bashed its heavy doors open. The gym was empty.

"What are you going to do in here?" X puzzled.

Zero waved his arms around helplessly. "Oh...I don't know. Maybe I'll bash my head against the wall a few times. That should cheer me up."

"Come on Zero...maybe Sigma doesn't want to kill off the entire human race. Maybe he just wants to...enslave them or something."

Zero shook his head slowly, sorrowfully. "X, you're one of my best friends and I love ya like a brother, but you're living in a world of MAKE BELIEVE, with elves and moogles and little dragons named Smaug. Sigma wants the entire human race to go pppfht... off the face of the planet, for good. That'll be a gargantuan task to complete...it could take centuries. After all, to put things bluntly, most humans have sex drives that would send any jackrabbit into an early grave. But the point is, our best Hunters have gone Maverick WITH him. We have no defense against his attacks."

X shook his head defiantley, as if he had been thinking of a counterattack to this statement for ages. "Not entirely true."

"Oh? 'zat so?"

"I want to join the Hunters."

"Uh...what was that you said? I think we have a bad connection. Aren't you the one who thinks that violence is oh so wrong?"

X had seen this one coming. "I'm not saying that I think it's right. But I also think that it wouldn't be very nice of me to let the humans fend for themselves. Will you let me into the 17th?"

Zero blinked twice in rapid succession before throwing back his head in a long howl of laughter. "X, what do YOU know about fighting? You're not even equipped for battle! What're you gonna do, throw your shoes at the Mavericks? Or maybe you'll preach them to death with sermons on how wrong war is."

X retorted in a silent voice. He was absolutely heartbroken, and it showed on his contorted face.

Zero softened at the pitiful sight. "Aw come on X...I'm just looking out for your safety. Didn't you hear what I said earlier? The Mavericks now have Sigma and the Spartans on their side. What worries me most is the fact that they also have Red! That gal can crush beer cans against her head."

"So? Anyone can do that."

"While the cans are still full?"

"...Oh. She can do that?"

"You betchya. Look, Cain is organizing a counterattack on the Mavericks that'll involve the 17th. It's basically a suicide mission. Our best fighters have gone with Sigma. There's no one left who'll want to be a Hunter."

"Y'think?" A feminine voice challenged from behind the crimson reploid. The half-word wafted up from a sea of din that had suddenly appeared with the voice.

X and Zero both stared at each other for a second prior to turning around.

There was Celeste, decked in her light fighting gear. A prize smile lit up her fairly simple face, giving it a glow of beauty. And behind her were equally eager Hunters. A lot of them. A few reploids were scattered amoung the ranks, but most of the mass was made up of humans. Zero recognized a few of them with disbelieving eyes...he saw Paul Wells and his Night Vipers (most of whom had been humans in the first place), and a few residents from the refugee camp...including, much to his surprise, Tess and a young male beside her that Zero took to be Josh.

"We're all part of the counterattack, Zero." Celeste explained. "We're in the 17th, under you. I know that humans aren't as good at fighting as reploids are, but now that Sigma has officially declared war on humans, what're we supposed to do? Wait to die? If I'm going to be killed, I want it to happen while I'm protecting my existance, and the existance of my family and friends. The others agree."

A ripple of positive murmur rose from the large band behind Celeste.

'When humans are threatened, they can turn into nasty war machines.' It was Skysheen who had told Zero that on the first day he had arrived at MHHQ. Finally, the Hunter knew what the Mechadrake had been talking about. Celeste and the others seemed ready to fight to the death before they would be axed by Mavericks. A slow smile dawned on Zero's face, relaxing the worried lines that had been etched into it. Humans. They couldn't think ahead, they couldn't educate their young...but damn, they could fight. He had found a new respect for them.

"Okay Hunters!" Zero shouted with new energy. "Welcome to the 17th. When we can finally locate where Sigma is hiding, we'll be right there to kick him in the groin. Some of you won't return from the mission when that day comes...actually, a hell of a lot of you won't. But that's not what's important right now...let's get some training done!"

A small candle with a proud, unwavering flame lit inside of Zero as he watched his new troops practice what they knew about fighting Mavericks. Some of the recruits were already decently trained, and they helped out those who were not. Zero hungirly anticipated the coming battle. Shame was threaded in with the hunger, because Zero knew that he looked forward to the spilling of blood on BOTH sides. Some emotions died hard. Oh well.

X was beside the observant Zero. "Doesn't look too shabby," he remarked.

"Yeah, I guess." Zero sighed absently. His gaze was pegged on Celeste who was busy far across the other end of the gym.

X flicked his eyes up towards his new leader. "You still like her, huh?" There's no need to mention who X was referring to.

Half of a nod was the only response.

"A lot?"

"Oh yeah."

"I think she likes you too," X drawled, "but I doubt she'll ever say it to your face. She's a human, you're a reploid. I don't think the two species are...romantically compatible."

"Duh."

X nervously rubbed the back of his neck with a hand. "Well...it all might work out in the end. After all, did a cult of great prophets not once say, 'Love is sweet misery?'"

"That was Aerosmith, X, and they were a far cry from 'great'. No, what you said earlier is true. A reploid's mind has desires, but his body doesn't know what to do with them. It's a pretty cruel thing to do to us if you ask me!"

X patted his mourning friend on the slumped shoulder. "Come now, don't worry. Look...do you want me to talk to Celeste and see what she thinks about the whole situation?"

Zero actually flushed a little bit. "Uh..well...I guess if you want to." The Crimson Wonder thought that X meant he would talk privately to Celeste when he got a chance. He was sadly mistaken.

X took a deep breath. "HEY CELESTE!" The word rang through the gym like a gunshot.

Celeste (and about half of the occupants in the gym) looked up at X's hail.

When he had the Huntress's attention, X motioned towards Zero, who was paralyzed with a numbing species of shock. "ZERO MAY NOT BE A HUMAN LIKE YOU'D BE ACCUSTOMED TO, BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN HE CAN'T FIND WAYS OF MAKING YOU HAPPY!"

Laughter raged through the gym. Celeste turned about three different shades of red before she slunk off to hide somewhere. Zero remained an oil painting. Giggling, X wisely scurried away.

"Another day another box of stolen pens," Celeste quoted to no one in particular as she crashed on her bed. Between that day's training and X's nice public announcement, Celeste was completely spent...but she quickly regained some energy with an adrenalin surge when she felt a dreaded, unmistakeable presence trickle into her mind...

"I wanna be an Airborne Ranger!" Torrent sang to Celeste's subconsciousness.

Torrent? Just leave me alone for today...please?

"I wanna live a life of danger!"

Go away! Celeste couldn't keep the tremour out of her thought. I always get sick after we do this 'Mindspeak' thing...

It's quite normal to experience nausea after a session of Mindspeak, Pretty One, Torrent chuckled, after all, it puts an enormous strain on the mind and body. But you'll get used to it. After all, your father did.

Celeste didn't respond to this statement, but Torrent fed off of the wild emotions she was experiencing.

You're wondering why you have the ability to Mindspeak, right dear? Torrent asked for her. It's simple high school genetics. Somehow, through random mutations, this freakish telepathy gene found its way into your father's bloodline. The gene is expressed as complete dominence, not incomplete dominence...which means that you either have the ability to Mindspeak, or you don't. There's no such thing as just having 'a little' of it. Plus, there's a good chance that you're a carrier of the gene as well, and can pass it on. And that's what worries me. I've been studying your bloodline for almost a century now. Most of you are unaturally good fighters. A few of you have Mindspeak. A very few of you have both abilities, yourself and your father included. I can't stand humans with gifts such as these. They're dangerous For this reason, I worked on luring your father to a showdown. Killing him had been rather useless, for I found out that he had sired two children. I'm afraid you must be gotten rid of.

Celeste simply stared unseeing into the empty air like a corpse.

Torrent changed the subject quite suddenly. Have you ever read 'The Chrysalids'?

...no.

Oh. Screw you then. I'm going to cut this conversation short by asking you what I always do. When are you going to come and visit me? I'm afraid I can't have you running on the streets, especially now that there's an all out war versus the Mavericks now.

Celeste gave the same answer she always did. Never. She meant for the word to be bold and steady, but it turned out more like a kitten's mew.

Heh...we'll just see about that hon. You know as well as I do that you'll end up here eventually. Tune in for more Mindspeak later! Same Bat Time, same Bat channel! Torrent cut off his line suddenly like the slam of a door, leaving Celeste very much alone, frightened, and sick. Her heart gave a startled flip-flop as she realized what had happened to her father. He hadn't gone after Torrent because of pride, as was the popular belief. Rather, he had pursued the aquatic Mechadrake in hopes that Torrent's death would mean the liberation of his own mind. Mindspeak had been driving him to the point of insanity.

And Celeste knew that sooner or later, she would crack under the strain of constantly being on the other end of Torrent's communications. Eventually, she would do as her father did and hunt down the lizard before she lost her mind.

Chapter 25: "Shoot The Damn Bunny!"

"Hi guys." Joey joined the small, downcast herd of elementary school students at his school bus stop. There really wasn't much reason for the band to be so depressed; only one more week remained in the prison of books and authority that they called school.

A chubby kid named Eric waddled up to Joey and returned the greeing with "Hey Joe, can I copy your math homework from last night?"

"Nah."

"Awww..."

A low, ominous rumble suddenly ebbed through the street and thummed in childrens' ears. before trailing off mysteriously. Joey raised an eyebrow at his robust friend beside him. "What did you have for breakfast today?"

The sound shuddered through the neighbourhood again. This time, everyone took notice of it, as it was now more like a soft roar than like a growl.

"Whoa momma!" One kid squeaked.

A titanic nightmare then lifted itself from the horizon of city rooftops. A huge flying fortress, draped in black, savage purple and other war colours, began to drift slowly towards the children like a threatening stormcloud that promised to never lose its quietly terrible power. The all-too-familiar crest of the Mavericks flanked both sides of the gigantic vessel. Strangely enough, nothing about the winged behemoth approaching them scared the children. In fact, they were excited. It wasn't every day they were treated to such a magnificently fearsome sight. Questions and theories on the machine's purpose and origins flew thick amoung them.

"Maybe our schoolbus broke down and it's here to take us to school?"

"I bet it's a floating ice cream truck! I hope so...I missed breakfast."

"I remember hearing something about Mrs. Krabapple buying a new car. Do you think that's it? Some car!"

"Is it a Ford? Maybe we'll get to see it crash and burn!"

Vile restlessly paced back and forth in the belly of Storm Eagle's flying fortress, which had been christened The Roc just last night. The Maverick tried very hard to avoid looking out the porthole-style windows of the fortress -- viewing the city of Kapcom at such a height made his old wing mechanisms twich with a lonely ache for the wind. Yet at the same time, he wanted to take a look at what kind of turmoil the humans below were getting into with potential death floating above them. Vile hoped that the sight of the flying machine was at least botching up morning traffic. Torn between two urges, he finally decided on taking a trip to the cockpit and having a coffee with The Roc's proud owner, former Spartan Storm Eagle.

"Nice place ya got here," Vile commented over a cup of decaf with double sugar.

"Thanks," Storm returned through a mouthful of blueberry muffin. He swallowed. "You should thank Sigma. He got us the funding for this little baby, and got its construction underway ASAP. We even have the 1001 airport to ourselves to park it! Siggy said I only need to pay him back in charred human corpses." Storm winked. "Sounds good to me!"

Vile grinned broadly beneath his cowl as he hefted his feet up on the table between them and tilted his chair back. "And to me. But for today, why don't we just take it easy and drift around a bit...chase our prey until they're at their most hysterical...then strike."

"Ah...fun in the sun. Great idea Vile!" Storm tapped his wristcom and established a link to the navigation deck.

"This is navigator Black from the deck of The Roc," a fuzzy voice declared in a few seconds. "What are your orders, sir? Our weapons are ready."

"Don't use them just yet." Storm ordered his underling. "We're going to strike a little fear into a few human hearts first. What's our current location?"

"We're just a few blocks away from a large collection of human children." The navigator observed.

"Excellent!" Storm crowed. "Do something to scare them. Fire a false shot, or release the cage of Evil Clowns upon them. Stir up a little fun."

"Yessir." The navigator concluded.

Ten minutes later, the steady monotone hum of the engines remained unchanged. Vile and Storm simply held a staring contest. Nothing seemed to be happening. When Vile began to tap his finger on the table impatiently, Storm quickly and wisely slammed open the communication line to the navigation deck once again. "What's the freakin' hold up?" The avian snarled at Black.

"Umm...it's about those kids you wanted us to scare, sir..."

"Well, did they go running home to mama?"

"I'm afraid not, sir. We're currently directly above them...but all they're doing is chucking rocks at us."

"Hey Krabapple!" Joey shrieked above the roar of the Roc's engines. "This is for that 'D' you gave me on my report about World Countries!" With that, the small boy pitched a stone at the hovering craft directly above him. The projectile met and parted with the Roc's hull with a sharp ping! "Canadians DO live in igloos," Joey continued. "it's a proven fact! My dad told me so!"

Fat little Eric joined in the fun. Puffing with the effort, he also hurled a rock at the vessel that was supposed to have sent them running like rabbits in fear by now. "THAT was for the time I ate chocolate cake in class, and you sent me to detention just because I didn't give you any!"

Another hunk of mineral went flying up to meet the Roc. "There's one for yer old man!" A kid yelled gleefully.

Very soon, a thick hail of stones had the Roc under fire. The schoolchildren were having themselves a grand old time.

"This is crazy!" Storm yelled as he observed the school kids below from the naivgation deck. "What does it take to scare people these days? I guess we'll have to start bringing out the big guns. I really feel like breaking something." Storm turned on his heel. "Black, what's the nearest major structure?"

Black's fingers flew over a keyboard for an answer. "There's a school building just five blocks from this location, sir."

"Perfect! Aim and fire!"

The kids cheered as they watched the monster above them turn tail and begin to receed. They kept right on celebrating until a sleek cannon lowered itself from one of the Roc's flanks. A dim glow radiated from the cannon as it charged up...then...

Kaboom.

The kids watched in hushed awe as an orange ray speared from the weapon and stabbed some unfortunate building in the distance. A ghastly explosion followed, along with the blaring of car horns and the screeching yowl of a pissed off cat.

Joey was the first to speak. "Um, hey guys...what just went 'boom'?"

A slow smile thawed Eric's face. "I think...I think...that was the school that got blown up."

What followed was a spectacle of cheering and jumping and cartwheels. The kids broke off from each other heading towards the city parks and arcades. The children had earned their liberation. There was much pint-sized singing and dancing in the streets that morning.

"We got out of schooool! No more school todaaaaay!"

X looked at Zero with pleading, bleary eyes. "It's too early in the morning for training, Zero."

"Wuss. Look at all these humans around you!" Zero swept a hand around the gym. "They were all out of bed and into training today in mere seconds! Now come on. You're got a lot of practice ahead of you if you want to do battle with a major enemy. Let's begin." Zero hit a button on the wall next to him. A panel on the opposite wall hissed open. A small robot rabbit with cannons where its ears should have been timidly hopped out. Zero shoved X in its direction. "This is a typical class E Maverick drone," Zero explained. "you'll find them all over the place in occupied territory. They're simple to off. All right X...let's see what you can do!"

The rabbit cocked its head curiously at X and blinked rapidly. Shaking, X slowly raised his arm cannon...then dropped it again.

"I can't do it," he mumbled.

Zero narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean?"

"I can't do it. I don't wanna shoot the bunny."

"Aaaarugh! What am I going to do with you?" Zero pressed his fingertips against his forehead. "Let me show you something, X." Zero raised his head again. "Tess! Tessa Ewell... May I see you for a second?"

A young human female bounded up and saluted her commander.

"Tess, do you see that little bunny near X?"

Tess craned her neck. "Yes sir. It's a class E drone."

"And we know what to do with class E drones, don't we?"

In answer, Tess tore the two-handed laser rifle from the holster on her back and fired once. The deadly crimson ray that the gun produced smacked into one of the rabbit's ear-cannons, tearing it right off. The drone squealed in terror and hopped around in unending circles. With a hop and a flip, Tess cut off the rabbit's path, grabbed it by the neck and expertly cleaved off its head with a lightdagger. Reploid blood washed her hands. Tess grabbed the bunny's maimed head by its one ear and presented it haughtily to Zero, who smiled in proud approval.

"Well done, Tess. Here, give the nice bunny head to X."

Tess shrugged. "Sure." She placed the head in X's hands. X's mouth was slack.

"Y-your hands...t-t-they're covered in b-b-blood," was all he could stammer.

The Huntress observed her greasy black human paws. "Hmmm...you're right. There's only one thing to do about that." With that, Tess drew a happy face on the wall next to her with her pointer finger, using the robot blood that graced her hands as ink. She then returned to practicing her skills against a class A Maverick.

"There you go, X," Zero began to lecture. "if a human can shoot the bunny, then surely you could. If you learn how to make use of the abilities you have, you should be able to --" Zero was cut off by the impatient bleep of his wristcom. With a typical sigh, he switched it on. "Whaaaat ees it, man?"

"Uh...Zero?" It was Celeste. She was supposed to be on her break from training. "Could you come to the observation deck? We have a slight problem."

Being true to its name, the observaton deck of MHHQ gave a spectacular view of the city and its ongoings. Carefully placed video cameras and monitors allowed for an in-depth look at some of the more secluded parts of the city. And what Zero saw was not at all good. A magnificent Maverick flying vessel took up a great deal of the picture, along with some plumes of smoke rising from a couple of wrecked buildings.

"Well, it looks like the Mavericks have officially started their war!" Zero said almost cheefully. He had been waiting for this. "It looks like we're going to have to double up on the evacutations and start the counterattack. The Hunter turned around. "X, I want you to go downstairs and round up some..." Zero stopped in midsentence and frowned. "Where in the sam hill did that fellow go? He was right behind me a second ago."

A hasty search was conducted around the room until Celeste tapped a monitor and cheered, "Here he is! He's on Maplemain road..." Celeste's voice trailed off as a realization dawned on her.

"...chasing after the Maverick vessel..."

Chapter 26: The Pace Sickens

Joey could hear nothing but the wind whizzing by his ear as a dull roar. His father's mud-spattered navy blue pickup truck continued to barge down the highway; sitting in the open back of the vehicle, Joey got a great view of the grand buildings shrinking on the horizon as he was taken further and further from the occupied city of Kapcom.

The boy instinctively tried to flatten his tousled hair with his hand, but his mane was beyond salvation in the rushing wind. Joey didn't really notice; he had other things on his mind. He was bubbling inside with a strange brew of sadness and excitement. Sadness because he was leaving his home city ('twas the only home he ever really knew!) and excitement because he didn't know where the magical and mysterious journey of the pickup truck would take him. All he knew was that his mom and dad had made him pack a hasty suitcase that morning. Then the three of them had piled into the truck and, zoom! They were off. Destination unknown.

Joey had a good idea about why they had left Kapcom so suddenly. Maverick reploids had taken over the city, killing humans, destroying buildings, end of the human race, blah blah blah. At least, that's what he had picked up from his parents' earlier conversation. And apparently, Joey's family wasn't the only one to hit the road; several strange cars were neck-in-neck with their own. A frantic horse race for life where the winners would gain a slim chance of shelter and the losers would become dog food.

Joey crawled up to the sliding window that divided the truck's cab from its back. He poked his fair head into the opening. "Hey mom and dad, where ARE we running to, anyway?" He inquired.

Joey's father took one hand off the wheel and tilted his oversized cowboy hat forward just a little bit. "We're goin' to Canada, my boy...No Mavericks in Canada. Your pa's gonna teach you how to build an igloo and ice fish!"

The truck sped ever onwards to the boarder. It was probably for the best that Joey's father didn't know that ignorant Americans were a favoured snack amoung the Mechadrakes of Toronto.

Kill the beast...cut his throat...spill his blood...

These words ran through X's mind as he blasted himself a path through the sea of Maverick bad fellows. The chant was a favourite of Zero's; he claimed it fired up the killer instinct. And maybe it did. Although the sadistic poetry had chilled through X's head when he first began to recite it, he found that the more he chanted, the less the violence surrounding seemed to bother him. He was in a trance. Every bolt in his body was saturated with the will to protect humans. Freaky.

Kill the beast...bash his head...do him in...

X never took his eyes off of the shadow of the Roc. It was truly a nasty thing; although poison seemed to pulsate from its frame, its slow, careless way of floating in the air made it look almost passive. The blue reploid wearily wondered if he'd ever catch up to the fortress; wave after wave of baddies broke upon him. The city was completely occupied...

X caught very swift movement to his left. Without hesitation, without reason, he whipped around and fired at the new threat. "AY YAH! Take that! You can't have my ice cream bar!"

A red Ford with a pink lawn flamingo taped to its hood and a license plate that read 'LIL BSTRD' promptly screeched to a halt. A very irritated teenager unrolled his window and leaned out to examine the huge scorch mark that now resided on his car. Seeing X and his smoking arm cannon, the teen bared his teeth which were already showing some faint niccotine stains.

"YOU DON'T SHOOT AT THE CIVILIANS, YOU DOINK!"

Well exc-uuuuuse me for trying to save your lousy species...

"Um...Zero...X is doing very well on his own out there, but maybe you'd better follow him just in case..."

Zero resurfaced from inspecting his fingernails and looked up at Celeste who was studying X's progress through the city on one of the monitors in the Observation Deck. "Hm? You say something Celeste?"

Celeste was starting to get peeved. "You heard me."

"You're cute when you're mad."

Celeste ignored that. "What's X trying to do, anyway?"

Zero allowed himself a slow, casual intake of breath. "Oooh, I have a feeling that he wants to take down that entire flying fortress all on his own. Some sort of berserker battle program seems to have kicked in with the human race being threatened. I guess he was built to fight after all!"

Celeste became alarmed. "The entire fortress? By himself? Good God! He'll be killed!"

"I imagine so."

"Aren't you going to HELP him? He's your friend!"

Zero pouted mockingly. "Aww...I was gonna spend all day staring at Baywatch reruns. Well...I GUESS I can keep an eye on him for a little while..."

Zero ducked the paperweight that Celeste threw at him.

"Heheh! Okay, okay! No need for projectiles. I'm off!"

"Go away Mr. Bee!" X sobbed hysterically as a ferocious Bee Blader chased him relentlessly down Kapcom's wrecked highway. "I don't love you anymore!"

Zero slowly rolled his head around on his shoulders as he tried to take in what was left of Kapcom's main street. Destruction to his right. Death to his left.

What fun.

Continuing to track X down, Zero eventually came upon a yellow and black schoolbus that had obviously seen some action earlier. It now lay on its side, contorted and twisted like some nameless monster about to give birth. A pudgy child with an overturned saucepan resting on his head as a crude helmet suddenly ran from behind the bus and smacked Zero in the shin with a gnarled, blackened tree branch. The Hunter yelped.

"Take that, Maverick!" The boy crowed as five of his merry men sprang from behind the sheltering bus and proceeded to abuse Zero by whacking him with sticks, pelting him with rocks, or pulling at his hair. Zero caught a rock as it flew towards his face. "Okay. What's this all about?" He grunted.

The fat kid brandished his stick with boyish triumph. "I'm Eric, leader of the Rabid Squirrels Hunting Unit!"

"Uh. I should have figured. Look kid, I don't like to kill dreams, but you're too fat to lead much of anything other than a line to the cafeteria. Where are your parents?"

No answer; the assult on Zero promptly resumed doublestrength.

"Hey...(OW!) Cut it out you guys!...Let me pass...(ACK!) Damn, that smarts! If you stop now (OUCHIES!)...I'll give you chips...(YIKES!)"

A gutteral yet familiar voice suddenly pierced through the boyish battlesounds...

"'EY! YOU KIDS WANT SOME CANDY?"

The Rabid Squirrels unit stopped their beating and slowly looked at one another and around them for the source of that new voice.

The voice hailed again, a raspy sound that seemed to float from the leaves of a nearby tree on the roadside. "Hey! You kids wanna be in a movie? It's called 'Erotic Adventures in the Phone Booth!'

Now the boys looked at each other in utter panic, terrified by the unseen and potentially perverted summons.

"Um...Eric..." one of the boys wavered, "I think I've gotta go now..."

"Yeah...me too..." another boy followed up. Soon all of the boys were suddenly full of excuses to leave the Rabid Squirrels. They surrendered their 'weapons' at their commander's dirty running shoes.

Eric became startled. "Hey...wait! Come back!" As he watched his troop dash off without him into the afternoon sunlight, his squinty eyes brimmed with huge tears which begam to slide unchecked down his fat cheeks. "Screw you guys!" He finally screeched after his friends. "I'm going home!" He stomped off in the oppisate direction.

With that ordeal over with, Zero cocked his arm cannon in the direction of the tree where the mysterious voice had come from. "All right...who's there?"

The sheath of leaves rustled a bit before an unmistakeable reptillian head adorned with a black ponytail jumped out of the leaves like a jack in the box. "Hello!" Red Draco sang.

Zero lowered his arm cannon. He lowered his jaw as well.

"Thought I'd just help you out with that road block," Red declared as a forward flip brought her down from the tree. She plucked a few stray leaves out of her hair. "I've been keeping an eye on those orphaned kids, you see..."

"'Orphaned kids?'" Zero repeated in disbelief. "But...you killed those humans in the Regal Dragons. I thought you were a Maverick?"

"Hm? Oh yeah, that thing," Red said absently. She grimaced slightly as she pulled a tree snake from under one of her shoulder pads and handed it to Zero. "Here, be a dear and hold him for me. Reptiles is people too. Yeah, I still AM a Maverick. The reason I was looking after those kids is because I wanted to eventually use them in an experiment to see if humans can be molded into mindless machines that would kill their own kind without question. I was planning on submitting a whole huge report to the Mavericks, as well as Mechadrake Assemblies Inc. It's something they'd be very interested in."

The faint flutter of hope that Zero had dared to feel when he first saw Red pop out of the trees snuffed itself out like a candle flame. Angirly, the crimson Hunter drop kicked the tree snake that Red had asked him to hold. It went spinning through the air like a small coil of rope and out of sight. "Why did you get my hopes up by helping me, then?" Zero spat. "Why didn't you just let your 'test subjects' beat me into submission?"

Red frowned when she saw how Zero treated the snake, but the frown quickly dried up as she pinched one of Zero's cheeks. "Because it was the safest thing to do, Bunny. You have a short temper and that charming bloodlust...eventually you might have ended up hurting those kids badly, and my experiment would be shot. As it stands now, I can always just find those boys and assemble them when I'm ready to continue my research." Red suddenly glanced at her Mickey Mouse watch. "Holy Mother Tiamat, would you look at the time? Must be going!" Red leapt into the air and pumped her wings until she was wheeling above Zero like a scarlet bird of prey. "I'll be seeing you very soon, Honeybunny! Until then, remember to eat right and listen to heavy metal music! Oh, and my apologies for nearly killing you that day Skysheen, Siggy and I turned sour."

Zero's arm cannon hung forgotten at his side; he hadn't even thought about so much as lifting it. Instead, he waved his arms up at the Mechadrake above him and shouted "Wait! Where you going?"

Red pulled herself into a sitting position in the air and pointed to the east where the Roc hung ominously. "Going to the Roc to visit my dear brother, I suppose."

"'The Roc'?" Zero puzzled. "Is that what the fortress is called?"

The draco snorted. "What did you expect? 'Tommy's Holiday Camp'?" Without another word, Red glided off to the east as she had promised and was swallowed by the sunlight, leaving behind the deserted fortress of the Rabid Squirrels and an emotionally scrambled Zero.

Vile peered out of one of the Roc's portholes and pointed down in disgust at the blue speck squirming on the street directly below. "What ungodly thing is that?"

Storm Eagle, who had the sharpest eyes of anyone on board, looked over his commander's shoulder. "It appears to be X, sir. Remember him from MHHQ? He's jumping up and down like an idiot, waving his arms at us. I think he wants a confrontation."

Vile paused in thought. "X, hmm? He still owes me ten bucks. I'll confront him all right. Get the Chimera Mech ready."

Storm looked nervous. "Sir, that 'Mech' isn't meant for fighting. We use it to put books on high shelves. It won't hold very well in battle. In fact, the right arm is loose and ready to fall off at any given moment now."

"Storm old friend...it's not about how you fight...it's about how flashy and impressive you look while doing so! Now prepare to lower the Chimera and I to the highway."

X's world shook as the Mech that had been lowered above him took a step. And again. And again. X was jostled and jolted until the purple and blue breastplate of the Chimera, adorned with a silver sillhouete of a lion with a dragon's tail and wings, was right in front of his face. The Roc hung suspended above the two warriors, eagerly awaiting the battle to follow.

Vile was speaking. Smooth and seductive. It seemed as if all traces of Skysheen had been purged out of that nasty purple shell. "Hello X. Isn't it a nice day? Let's play a game. I'm going to see how many of your teeth the Chimera can punch out in a minute. Then I'm going to try to beat that record! Do you understand? Let's begin then. Oh, wait one minute." Vile smashed his way over to a nearby parking meter where he inserted a dollar for the parking of the Roc. With that done, the Maverick dashed into X and pretty much mowed him down.

X knew right then and there that he had made a bit of a mistake. When he had a chance to catch his breath and the red haze in his eyes cleared a little, X made a valiant attempt to fight back, but he may as well have been emptying the ocean with a teaspoon. The Hunter felt as if he were being bashed over the head repeatedly with a sack of hardcover Stephen King novels...you know, the really big and heavy sort that he likes to write on occasion. X collapsed, completely spent. From afar he could hear Vile gloating "See! I TOLD you it was a fun game!..."

A plasma shot flew through the air with a comforting sizzle, like frying bacon. It smacked into the Chimera with sharp report. The Chimera's right arm flew clean off.

"Argh!" Vile shrieked above X. "Who built this cheap thing? GM?"

Zero screeched to a halt just past the collapsed form of X. "Whup, whup, wahey!" He sang as he began to charge up another shot for the former Mechadrake and his cheap Mech suit. "Hey Vile! Yo' momma's so fat, the last time she saw 90210 was when she stepped on the scale!" He released the shot, but it just missed the Maverick as he hopped onto the Roc's lowered platform with the Chimera. Vile disappeared into the Roc's belly, but a styrofoam cup of coffee flew out seconds afterwards, obviously hurled by the irrate loser. "Here! Have some coffee! Coffee is the spoils of your stupid joke!" Zero ducked just in time and the cup landed behind him on X's still form. The scalding brew spattered all over the blue Hunter, bringing him around.

"AHHH! TOO HOT!" X rolled around on the floor for a bit before he noticed Zero standing above him with his hands on his hips. All at once, he came down from his berserker high.

"Um...hi Zero." He said with an edge of a whimper. "I guess I'm not ready to defeat him..."

"Gee whiz X, you think so?"

X fell silent.

Zero finally cracked a smile as he helped X up. "Don't worry about it. Vile was built to be a war machine, so he's not going to go down easily. We'll get a chance to throw things at him some day. For now, there's a lot of occupied areas in the city that we need to clear out. That should give you some practice, and who knows? You might even become as great and godly as I am some day."

X brushed himself off. "Cocky little bastard, aint'chya?"

"Let's not get sore. I've had a very rough day." Zero set his teleporter for MHHQ and was swept away by a crimson beam.

X did likewise. "Don't tell me about rough days..."

Chapter 27: You Want a Confrontation?

"All right X, it goes a little something like this." Zero tapped his finger twice on the lit up map screen beside him. "There are eight badass ex-Spartans -- or Mavericks, if you will -- who are on the rampage and are having lots of fun kicking people in the bum. According to my spies, each one of the nasties has vital information on finding Siggy's fortress...."

X narrowed his green eyes at the map before him. "Spies?" He echoed dubiously. "Are you sure your 'spies' always have their information straight?"

X saw an offended shadow splash over the alien-green light that glowed on Zero's face. "My spies are only the best, X my boy. I pick them all myself. The information I just told you came from my top man, Bill!" Beaming proudly, Zero jabbed a finger at the dark, far left corner of the computer mainfraime where a greasy-haired, alcohol-soaked slug of a human male lay snoring loudly. "Bill's NEVER wrong with his information! Right, Bill?"

Snore.

"I said, RIGHT Bill?"

Snort.

A white hot plasma shot fired by a certain irrate crimson reploid screamed through the air and ferociously burned the wall just inches from Bill's rolling head. The human merely scratched his rear and murmured "Yeah Martha, I'm getting up...ah hell, we're not playing cards again with the Wilsons tonight, are we....?"

Zero stormed over to the corner where Bill had quite literally made himself at home. He picked up the so-called spy by the flabby scruff on his neck like a firey red cat with an unruly kitten. Throwing the door open, Zero booted Bill out into the hallway. The human rolled down the corridor for a few feet but still did not wake up. The door slammed shut again and Zero walked towards X, brushing off his hands. "Okay, let's forget about Bill. But anyway, I know for certain that this information on how to find Sigma's hideout is correct. I suggest that you start by taking down Chill Penguin first. He has a base on the Alaska-Yukon border..."

X shook his hands with his palms outwards towars Zero. "Whoa, wait a second. I'm going alone?!"

Zero pretended to look surprised. "Why, yes. This is strictly a one man job." He moved behind X and started to give the blue Hunter little pushes on his azure plated shoulders, prodding him towards the door. "I would go, but there's far too much to be done at MHHQ as it is...organizing armies, filling out equipment orders, doing laundry...those kind of schlepps. Off you go now." Zero gave his friend a cheerful, final shove out of the computer mainframe and leaned grinning on the doorway.

Distressed, X slowly looked around him. "Where's the base? Where do I go?"

"On the Alaska-Yukon border," Zero repeated as he slid the door behind him again. "here's a tip: head north." A few ominous thunks and thuds were heard from behind X as the entrance to the mainframe was locked. The corridor would have been silent if not for Bill's thick snores.

X tapped the human lightly on his sagged shoulder. "Um, excuse me...do you happen to know which way is north?"

Bill roused himself, pryed one sticky eyelid open and tried to focus on X. "Ask the bartender in the pub," he rasped. "He knows all. He gave me tips on weaseling out of my third wife's child support payments."

X was disgusted. "Oh, isn't that just nice. Never mind, I'll find Alaska by myself, thank you."

Bill laughed harshly; his throat to his stomach was coated in a lovely beer-induced mucus. "Don't throw a hissy fit, Astro Boy. That base Chill Penguin took over used to be one of ours, and the radio frequency still seems to be up. Just go to the teleporation capsules on the third floor and ask the crew there nicely to beam you to the old base and they'll do so. Just don't ask them to teleport you to Disneyland, cuz they'll do something cute like teleport you to Death Valley, or put you in the middle of a crowded city street -- minus your clothes." A tiny hint of soberity seeped into Bill's bloodshot eyes. "Trust me...It's happened. Not at all a pleasant experience."

Genesis wearily removed his helmet and combed his shaggy fingers through the sea of flattened fur atop of his equally shaggy head. He inwardly pined for a cup of coffee as he regarded the wailing human in front of him.

"Mrs. McTreggor, we're doing all you've requested," the reploid fox rumbled. "Your daughter, Celeste, has been locked in room 215 of the infirmary, which is a private room. We will keep her under observation for as long as you wish...but you must forgive me when I say that I REALLY think you're overreacting..."

The young woman in front of Genesis promptly sunk further into rage and worry, carving haggard lines in her modestly smooth features. For an instant, she strongly resembled a rustled mother hen. "Genesis, I have every reason in the world to 'overreact' like this. Celeste came to visit me in the refugee camp earlier today...just by the way she was acting and talking you could tell that she -- oh hell, why am I explaining this to a reploid. You probably don't know the first thing about maternal instinct." Silvia McTreggor bit off her sentence with a choked sob.

Genesis fell silent for a few seconds, slightly offended. He had worked for months with injured humans. He prided himself in being an expert on the species, and thoughtless remarks like Silvia's often burned him up. Of course he knew about maternal instinct.

Silvia grabbed the stage again once she had regained her composure. "I'm sorry, Genesis," she apologized, reading the fox's mind. "I'm just so scared. The way Celeste talked to me today...it was almost as if she were saying goodbye. She had a distant, preoccupied look in her eyes." Celeste's mother began to stumble clumsiliy over her words again. "She looked the exact same way my husband did before he went after Torrent Leviathan and got himself...got himself..." The words 'Torrent Leviathan' escaped as a puppy's yelp. Silvia broke down again. "I just know she wants to go after Torrent. I think she wants to avenge her father. Please...keep her locked up and don't let her go anywhere, at least for tonight!"

By now, Genesis was damn sick of melodramatics. "All right...all right. We'll keep our eyes on Celeste. Now please return to the refugee camp...quite frankly, you're scaring the patients."

"You've got dat right!" An unidentifiable human voice chimed from a nearby bed hidden behind a drawn privacy curtain.

Silvia complied with a silent nod of thanks. Zero, who had been talking to Genesis prior to Silvia's outburst, stepped back up beside his ex boss and laughed. "Holy crow, what a woman. I can see so much of Celeste in her, and at the same time they're as different as night and day. Celeste's jammed packed with energy and youth, and her mother looks so tired and serious."

Genesis did not share in Zero's humour. He slowly shook his head. "Give her another 15 years or so, and Celeste will be exactly like her mother."

Genesis' unhappy remark slowly quenched Zero's amusement like a tall drink of water. "Are you serious?"

Genesis laughed lightly in his turn. "You've still got a lot to learn about humans, Zero. How old did you say Celeste was?"

"She'll be 20 soon."

"Ah yes. She's in the prime of her life now. She'll hunt tirelessly and recklessly, given the chance. But she's also at an age where she'll begin to seek out serious, life-long companionship." Genesis narrowed his eyes at Zero. "That reminds me, I wanted to talk to you about something."

"Oh goody," Zero sighed, hardly enthused. The sigh was more of a reflex action from his days of working in the Medical Unit than anything; the words 'I want to talk to you about something' were once dreaded bell chimes that preluded a lecture from Genesis about the latest screw-up that Zero had pulled.

"Zero, if I'm not mistaken, you're quite in love with Celeste."

"Hell," Zero snorted. "It ain't much of a secret, especially since X announced it in the middle of the training gym not long ago."

Genesis grinned teasingly. "Oh, don't be so bitter. I'm personally fascinated by this whole thing. It's quite rare for a reploid to fall in love as deeply as you have, and it's especially rare for a reploid to fall for a human. Is your love based on...how should I put this...physical attraction?"

The room all of a sudden became unbearably stuffy for Zero. "Yeah...part of it, I guess..." the scarlet Reploid stammered.

"Ha!" Genesis clapped his soft paws together. "Rarer still! Most reploids are lousy at judging a human's physical beauty. Do you know what makes a human appear 'beautiful' to another human? It's merely an instinct that subcontiously tells the observer that he or she has stumbled upon a potential mate that is healthy and fertile. Of course, we reploids have little use for such an instinct, so it isn't nearly as strong in us as it would be in a human. Yet, you're breaking a lot of reploid stereotypes by falling in love with Celeste. You're a strange little 'ploid, Zero."

Zero did not really appreciate being stuck in centre stage as an example for a report on the latest breaking biology news story. "I thought you wanted to tell me something, Genesis," he huffed. "Let's go. More matter, less art."

Genesis growled faintly and melted back into his grumpy, serious self. "Very well, let's dust off the sugar coating. You're spending far too much time with Celeste. There's a great chance that she's in love with you, too. Sure, it sounds sweet, but as I said before, she's probably beginning to look for a mate. In the short term, you would appear to be a prize catch. As much as I hate to admit it, you're a great guy...protective, fearless, blah blah blah. But you're still a reploid. If you were to do something radical like marry Celeste, a lot of sacrifices would have to be made by both of you, including the potential of children. I just can't see it working out in the long run. Humans are meant to spend their lives with other humans, not advanced machinery. I'd hate for either of you to get hurt like that. In short, try not to be so affectionate towards Celeste. It'll pay off down the road."

Zero's gears twisted, knotted and collapsed with each of Genesis' seemingly harsh but true words. Deep down, frozen solid inside him had been the very same concerns, but until now he had been to selfish to thaw them out. Now that they were exposed, they were raw and sore, painful to touch. They could not withstand the onslaught of Genesis' advice. Zero realized he could never tear himself away from Celeste, at least never completely.

"You're right Genesis," the Hunter announced. "As corny and awful as it sounds, a human probably couldn't prosper in the arms of a metallic. Nevertheless, I don't think I could ever stop thinking about her. Thanks for your advice, though."

Genesis raised one furry eyebrow behind his opaque shades. "Being in love must be something else," he remarked with a smirk. "No wonder the human population is somewhere in the zillions. I'm happy to give you advice at any time...whether you follow it or not is your own damn business."

Zero suddenly slammed his open palm against his forehead. He had completely forgot about X in Alaska. "I'm going to check up on X," Zero assured Genesis who was leering uneasily at him. The hunter flipped on his wristcom.

"X? How's it going up there? X? Where are yooooou?"

At first, there was nothing but the fuzzy cheer of static. Then: "IT'S FRICKIN' FREEZING UP HERE, MR. BIGGLESWORTH!"

"X! You're alive!" Zero howled with laughter for no reason whatsoever. "Is everything all right?"

"I'm fine so far." Even through the bad reception, Zero could hear X's teeth clacking together. "I'll be meeting up with Chill Penguin soon enough. I'm admittedly taking my time, I've met some nice people up here. Remember that innocent little bunny-type Maverick you tried to get me to kill back in training? I've been having a real nice conversation with one of them. He showed me the Northern Lights and some pretty icebergs. Too bad he tried to shoot me in the back at that time, and I had to kick him into the Arctic ocean. He was a really funny rabbit." X ended his sentence with a preoccupied giggle. "Here's a joke he told me before I offed him. Jack and Rose were standing together on the bow of the Titanic, when suddenly Jack says --"

"Whoops, got a call on the other line," Zero drawled apologetically. He had little patience for jokes that day. "Sorry, X. I'll contact you soon!"

The bare-walled room was as windowless and friendly as the Death Star. There was only one exit and it was guarded religiously by a lanky reploid nicknamed 'Roadkill'. Celeste was not discouraged; something deep from within called to her, lulled her. Calmed by the sweet nature of the summons, a hardly-noticeable current of yellow fear told that Torrent had run out of patience. She had not gone to visit him in the sewers as he had requested of her several times before...so now he was taking matter into his own claws and calling her to him instead.

Going over her escape plans one more time, Celeste plucked Matzah (now a good size) from his nap on the drab hospital bed. Matzah cuddled in her arms, completely content and trusting. Unfortunately, that trust would not last very much longer. She tucked her lightsabre handle into her pocket; she had been allowed to keep it while under observation. To be disarmed was considered dishonourable. She did not have her titanium vest with her; she would have to make do with fighting in street clothes.

Celeste poked her head out of the hospital room's door ("Wow, unlocked, how brilliant."). She thanked her lucky stars that Genesis had picked the lackluster Roadkill to 'guard' her. Roadkill was down the hall a bit and had his spiky back to Celeste, talking to a fellow Hunter about boring matters.

"I'm sorry about this, Matzah," Celeste whispered to the cat seconds before she wound up and hurled the screaming tom down the hallway. Roadkill and his friend exchanged 'What-in-the-hell' looks as they took off towards the commotion. Celeste slid out of her prison and pounded down the hallway, unseen.

Ah, so Celeste, you are on your way at last. Torrent cut off his flow of sweet mind-drugs.

Celeste stopped abruptly in the middle of Maplemain's crowded nightlife, earning her strange stares and plenty of breathing room from the passerbys. It was as if she had suddenly woken up from a sleepwalk and realized where she was.

Come now darling there is no reason to be scared, Torrent assured her, sensing her wildly mixed emotions and feeding off of them. I only wish to...talk to you.

A sleepy grey mist swathed Celeste's brain again and took over. She unconsciously plodded down a sleeping side street. The haze lifted, and the Huntress found herself before a sewer-manhole with the cover removed. Had she done that?

Come on down, Celeste. The potatoes are boiling, the kettle is singing, and I dare say that I'll catch us some fish.

Staring down into the black abyss, Celeste did not feel at all brave or heroic. She felt as if she were going insane. Over and over again, she recalled the feeling of her mind turning a sickly green from too much of Torrent's mindspeak. Over and over again, she saw her father die at the Leviathan's feet. Those images and feelings were the fuel that propelled her as she descended down into the manhole.

Darkness. Cold, slimy water closed in around Celeste's ankles. It took every ounce of will she possesed to keep from screaming like a doomed maiden in the Minotaur's Maze.

Thrilled with Celeste's terror, Torrent's howl rattled in her head. Ha! Daughter of Jake! Where do we go now? Where do we go?

Two clammy paws landed on Celeste's shoulders with a cold that seeped through the thin materal of her T-shirt. An unseen, damp reptilian snout nuzzled the back of her neck affectionately.

"Sweet Child O' Mine..."

Chapter 28: Hey Ho, Let's Go!

Pip was finding it very difficult to work at his computer with Zero leering eagerly over his shoulder like a psychotic schoolmaster whose yardstick swung freely. Pip cleared his throat once, twice, hoping that the sound would prod Zero back a few steps. The crimson reploid merely leaned in closer. Pip was finally forced to surrender his gentle British manners.

"Mr. Zero sir, with all due respect, I find it very hard to work on this banner when you're watching my every move like that."

"Just making sure you pick the right graphics, Pip old chap."

The medic reploid sighed wearily and regarded his work onscreen so far. Two bitmapped mountains flanked the bold "WELCOME BACK!" text. Oh how tacky and false those mountains looked. The banner was for X, who was expected back from his fight with Chill at any moment.

"Don't you like the mountains, Mr. Zero?" Pip ventured. "Mountains're nice."

"Too inanimate for my tastes," Zero snorted. "Try something else."

Pip scrolled through the graphics and highlighted a frame showing a frisky dolphin in mid-leap. "How about dolphins, Mr. Zero? Dolphins are such pretty fish."

"Dolphins are mammals, you twit." The Hunter muttered before pausing in thought. "Yeah...I say go with the dolphins. They ARE nice."

Several others in the vicinity strolled over to help Pip and Zero solve the banner dilemma. The computer mainframe, decked out in swanky dressings, was packed with Hunters eagerly waiting to greet X upon his return. In fact, the entire theme of the party was 'Welcome Back, X'. Zero grimaced sourly. A better theme would probably be 'Let's All Vomit in the Men's Room Sinks'. More than one human in the room drank up the punch bowl with longing, thirsty eyes; drinking had been forbidden until X's arrival. Many of the human Hunters were notorious for breaking up parties early by getting loaded and bashing beer mugs over each other's heads. Celebrations usually finished in the Medical Unit with a fine load of concussions to treat.

Zero was jostled by bodies in all directions. His mood began a dangerous downward spiral; he hated to be crowded. It was a phobia that probably stemmed from his cramped 30-year hibernation in the tiny subway tunnel nook. He took an unseeing step backwards, his heavy foot landing on something small and squirming. A frightened yelp leapt up to his ears, followed by a sharp pain lancing through his right hand. Zero let out a yelp of his own as he jerked up his hand and inspected the skin which was now broken by a crescent-moon of human teeth marks. He snapped his head behind him and was met with the wrathful glare of a miniature Paul Wells.

"Wha'dja do this for?" Zero seethed as he thrust his blood-smeared hand in the path of those burning eyes. His mood had hit rock bottom. "I'm sorry I stepped on you, but jeez -- you don't have to bite my hand off. You humans carry diseases! Have a little consideration!"

Paul Wells then pushed his way through the crowd to stand beside his son. The fear and hurt drained from the boy's eyes as he turned from Zero and buried his face in his father's stomach. The family resemblance was stunning.

"Clyde's sorry that he bit you," Paul drawled apologetically for his boy. "He does that a lot when he's hurt or scared. He can't help it...I guess I don't need to point out to you that he's..." Paul stumbled over his sentence. "Not really all there."

Shame rebounded Zero's foul mood. He had observed the kid a while ago back in the refugee camps, and it had been easy to tell that the lights were not all on upstairs. He apologized for snapping whilst patting Clyde on the head. Clyde recoiled at the Hunter's touch.

"Once the drinking starts, this place won't be suitable for kids," Zero reminded Paul. "Why don't you take him back to the camps?"

"I'm entitled to party," Paul grinned, "and there's no one to take care of him in the camps."

"What about your wife?"

"Don't have one."

Zero raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "Divorced?"

This question obviously struck a sensitive nerve. Paul glowered, turned red and veered back into the crowd with Clyde in tow. Needless to say, Zero was slightly confused until a nameless human boldly patted him on the shoulder and said "Zero, you silly beast...Clyde is literally what we call a 'little bastard.'"

"Oh dear," Zero sighed. "I have to learn how to mind my own business." Excusing himself, he swam through the crowd until he reached the punch bowl. Putting its blood-red contents to good use, the Hunter dunked his injured hand and began washing it, oblivious to the mixed bags of disgusted and surprised glares that were hurled by the disappointed humans. Of course, no one dared to even think of objecting to Zero's bathe.

The door to the large room smacked open. Everyone turned in unison to see who the latecomer was. It was Genesis. And judging by the snarl twisted on the fox's furry face, he had not come to celebrate. In his right paw, he held the scruff of a very miserable-looking Roadkill.

Genesis dumped Roadkill in a heap at Zero's boots. "My friend here has something to tell you, Zero," he said in a mockingly excited tone, like a child ready to show off a new toy at Show and Tell.

Roadkill trembled like a peasant before the feet of a wrathful god. He flicked his eyes halfway to meeting Zero's own before he lost his nerve and dropped them again. He had obviously done something dreadfully wrong, as he could not even bring himself to speak.

Genesis was all to glad to tattle on him. "I left this dolt in charge of guarding Celeste. You remember how her mother wanted her under lock and key, right? Well, not only did Mr. Brilliant not lock Celeste's door, he ALSO let her escape."

Zero tapped a finger against his jawbone and regarded Roadkill thoughtfully for a full three seconds before he leaned over and wrenched off the Night Viper's badge from the wild bot's shoulder. "In case you can't figure it out," Zero said in even tones to Roadkill who looked up at his commander in bewilderment, "that means you're demoted. We may as well put this in the bathroom, about all it's good for is toilet paper." Zero tucked the rent badge nicely amoung some hidden compartment in his armour before he let loose and wailed on Road.

"Are you a COMPLETE idiot? Answer me that one question, please! You're really in for it now. Because of your stupidity, Celeste's more than likely to be hunting an extremely dangerous Maverick on her own right now. I'll say his name slowly so maybe the worlds will penetrate your thick skull and make some sense. TOR-RENT LE-VI-A-THAN. Great work! Allow me to remind you that we NEVER allow human females to hunt on their own, let alone take down the big fellows!" Zero had to pause for breath. Using that time efficiently, he cut his eyes down at Roadkill who seemed to be trying to melt into the ground like a puddle. "Need I remind you why we enforced that rule? Remember what happened to that nice young girl, Katt Luck, a few months back when SHE went hunting on her own?"

Stories of the horrors that had been inflicted upon Katt while she had been a prisoner of the Mavericks had floated around the HQ like the whispers of uneasy ghosts. Roadkill's eyes grew wide as he recalled the very disturbing collection of events; torture, starvation, and the very worst of all...'genetic termination'.

"Oh no...oh no..." was all Road could manage to whimper. Zero clapped. "Wow. You remembered! I'm so proud of you. I was originally going to put you in the kennels, but you know what? I dare say you're smart enough to be more of a help in the kitchen."

Faint cheers from Terrence and Phillip wafted from the very back of the silent room. They were delighted at the idea of a new friend.

"No!!!" Shrieked Roadkill, flattening himself at Zero's feet. "Don't send me to the kitchen!! PUH-LEEEZE! I'm sorry! I'm so so sorry! You have no idea!"

It was Cain's human compassion that saved the weeping Roadkill from the potato manacles. The old man shuffled up beside Zero. "I don't think Road would be much use in the kitchen," he stated matter of factly. "I need a lab assistant...I'll take him on board."

Roadkill's sobs for mercy ceased at once. His eyes shone huge as he rolled over on his back before his saviour like a submissive puppy. "Oh, THANK you sir! I'll be the best damned lab assistant this side of hell's creation. You'll see!"

"As for the rest of you," Cain said out loud to the room's occupants, "what Zero said is very true; Celeste is in a great deal of danger. I want all of you to organize into a search party. I hope none of you mind getting a bit muddy, 'cause you're going to be searching the sewers."

Suddenly the faint buzzing of words in the room took on some meaning. It was obvious that no one minded getting dirty because a great deal of the Hunters in the room eagerly followed Zero to the Hunter-Dispatch area. Only Cain, Roadkill, Pip, Genesis, and Terrence and Phillip remained.

In the uneasy stillness that followed, Pip eagerly called his boss over to the computer where the banner he had laboured over was still displayed.

"Do you like it, Mr. Genesis sir?" Pip beamed with pride. "I made it myself."

Genesis rubbed his chin as he looked at Pip's hard work. "Wow. You made that all by yourself?"

Pip nodded proudly.

"It sucks," Genesis snorted, puncturing Pip's pride at once. The fox grabbed the small medic by one arm. "Come on, back to the Medical Unit with you. I have a feeling that Celeste's going to be in need of some major medical attention when she's brought back."

X hardly noticed the sad excuse for a 'party' that surrounded him upon returning to the mainframe from his battle with Chill. He was oblivious to Terrence and Phillip's wild confetti-throwing and singing. From far, far off he could see Cain smiling at him and asking how things went. Completely engulfed in the muddled maw of his trance, X could only mumble one thing in response to the scientist:

"My dad...I saw..."

X trailed off. His mouth went slack as if he had suddenly lost his mind. He collapsed in a blue heap, stray icicles dripping slowly off of his armour. Cain, Terrence and Phillip all died down at once. Cain narrowed his eyes, puzzled. He absently scratched his back with his cane and asked X to repeat himself, and to make some sense this time if it weren't any trouble. X complied to the best of his ability.

"I saw him. The ghost of my father. In the Arctic."

Cain frowned. "All right X. No more Shakespeare for you. That stuff is obviously rotting your brain."

X lifted his head from his arms. He got on his feet and stabbed Cain with a firey glare. "I saw him," he insisted in a low, monotone voice. "I don't care if you don't believe me, but I know what I saw. I asked him who I was, and why I was created, but he didn't answer those questions..."

Without warning, Cain whipped X over the head with his multipurpose cane. There was a percussive, bonking sound and X staggered a few feet before coming to a halt and shaking his head in a futile attempt to halt the out of control merry-go-round within. "What was that for?!" The reploid wailed.

Cain smiled, pleased with himself. "When I start to see things, I find that hitting myself on the head clears up the illusions. I just thought I'd share my folk medicine. Did it work?"

"I don't know, because I know for a FACT that I WASN'T seeing things," X snarled, still clutching his bruised head. "If Light's ghost was only an illusion, how do you explain how I got THESE?" X kicked out one foot. In the place of the dull blue paint that had coated it before, the boot was now covered with a racy red and white layer. The boot's new, streamlined nature told that the much-coveted Emergency Acceleration System (EAS, yay!) had been installed. Cain merely gaped, completely stunned. No one at the lab knew how to install EAS in reploids. What X was saying had to be true.

X absorbed Cain's shock with relish. "NOW what do you think?" He asked with a sharp and slightly smug smile.

"Oh, those colours are SO last season," Terrence lisped with a feminine wave of his hand. Only Phillip found humour in Terrence's imitation.

For the first time upon his arrival, X noticed the lack of Hunters in the mainframe. "Where did everyone go?" He asked. "Where's Zero? He was supposed to help me take down the next nasty."

"They were all called out to an emergency," Cain drawled absently, still focused on studying X's new shoes. "Celeste's gone hunting Torrent on her own. Zero's heading the search party."

Now it was X's turn to be stunned. "Whatwhatwhat?"

Cain joyfully tapped one boot with his own foot in a half-assed test of the EAS's durability. He could not be bothered to give X more information on Celeste. "I'm afraid the rest of the Mavericks will be left up to you and you alone, X. Oh, that reminds me." Cain resurfaced from his EAS worship. "When you beat Chill, did you receive any information about the location of Sigma's fortress?"

"Well, kind of," X said as he slowly extended his left hand. He uncurled his fingers and lying quietly in his palm was a small soapstone carving of a penguin. Its crystal eyes glittered teasingly, hinting that information might be stored within them. "When Chill blew up eight ways from Sunday, this was left behind. I have a feeling it won't be any good on its own. I guess all eight Mavericks are gonna have to go until we can learn what this is for and if it'll tell us the location of Siggy's fortress."

Cain caught the heavy note dragging down X's voice. "X...you don't mind going after the next few Mavericks by yourself, do you?" He ventured. "I don't think Zero can help you out for a while...finding Celeste is top priority for him, and you can't take any human Hunters with you. The terrain would be far too dangerous for any of them."

X shrugged listlessly. He didn't care if he would have to run a marathon across the Great Wall of China. He just wanted to rest for now. "I should be all right on my own. Besides, I have a feeling that Light will only show up again if I'm alone." Out of the corner of his eye, X glared wrathfully at Terrence, Phillip and Roadkill who had all started snickering again. They settled down once X's eyes cut through them. X continued. "I only wish I could do something to help find Celeste. I can't stand the idea of her with Torrent, especially after what happened to Katt."

"Hm, yes, that concern had crossed our minds," Cain grimaced.

"Why did she go after him in the first place?"

"The popular belief is that she is going to avenge her father."

X fetched a bucket and began to mop up the puddles of icicles that he had shed since his return. "What she's feeling right now is silly human pride," the Hunter drawled.

Cain shuffled through his disorganized memory. "I think there was once a hit song with those same lyrics."

X paused in his cleanup and leaned heavily against his mop. "At this point, it doesn't matter whether those words belonged to me or some drippy human singer. What's important is that Torrent is probably turning poor Cel into a pretzel right about now."

Chapter 29: Inheritors of Eden

One solitary fish. Alive without breath, as cold as death, never thirsty always drinking, all in mail never clinking. It swayed aimlessly through the thick sludge, completely engrossed in the important business of surviving. It was an old fish, a veteran that had been scarred by countless battles with fishermen and tossed ceaselessly by stormy waters until it had finally been allowed access to the calm haven of the sewers. Unfortunately, its heroic life came to a rather abrupt end as the vicelike jaws of a Mechadrake closed on its body.

Torrent Leviathan paddled his way to shallower waters in his beloved sewer. All at once he leapt from the soup up onto one of the ledges above the surface. Prying the freshly killed meat from his jaws he hummed a little battle tune as he poked his snout in the air, trying to pick up the scent of his prized treasure above the other interesting variety of smells that the sewer had to offer. He locked onto the desired scent right away...the fertile richness of a human female, bearer of life. Proceeding in that direction, Torrent hummed louder until he could eventually see, from far off, the dim fire he had put together for his treasure. It wasn't long before he was finally able to see the treasure herself. Surrounded by rare and delicate possessions that such a princess deserved, Celeste glared at her captor and 'breadwinner' as he approached with the daily kill.

Torrent tossed the dead, rubbery fish down before the fire. "Hello my dear." The fish slapped and flip flopped feebly at Celeste's feet, not completely dead. As she stared down at it in disgust, Torrent smiled. "Are you going to eat today? It might be a good idea. You haven't eaten much in the past three days."

Three days...the words echoed and bounced in Celeste's buzzing head. MHHQ was probably worried sick about her. "Have I been down here for three days, Torrent?"

Torrent wordlessly stretched his supple blue body behind Celeste and curled around her like a boa's embrace. Celeste's back was against the Mechadrake's flank and she could hear him rumbling contentedly in his chest, very much like the sly and malicious cat that he was. He began to drift off in what was most likely the pretense of sleep. Celeste was left alone to her thoughts.

She had been with Torrent for three days, all of which the drake had treated her like his queen. Piled around the fire and glittering in its uneasy light were wonderful gifts that Torrent had somehow managed to acquire and present to her in a futile attempt to please her...clothes, jewelry, money. Celeste had refused to even look at the loot. She was still in the casual T shirt she had been wearing upon meeting Torrent, even thought it was filthy by now. However, she was missing her lightsabre as Torrent had managed to disarm her on his 'sneak greeting'. Celeste was secretly mortified about that; a Huntress was never supposed to let her weapon out of her sight.

What frustrated Celeste the most was the fact that she had come to meet Torrent for a showdown...a final decision as to who would be the master of her mind. But from day one, Torrent showed no aggression towards her whatsoever. Just the opposite. He treated her like a prize. She was his finest treasure, and he was just going to enjoy her presence for a little while before anything was done. Torrent was a dragon at heart, after all; coveting and hoarding were his nature. But Celeste mind churned ceaselessly on the frightening prospect of what Torrent had in mind for her after he was tired of her 'visit'. He was extremely erratic, after all...

Next to her leg, Torrent's eyes suddenly flashed open and his aura stabbed into Celeste's mind. He chuckled low in his throat and hauled up a cruddy corner of his mouth in a smug grin. He had locked into her last thought very nicely. He hauled himself up onto his webbed feet and towered over Celeste who was frozen on the spot. Torrent's presence in her mind numbed her limbs.

"So my dear...you want to know what'll happen to you? I was hoping that you'd allow me to enjoy your company for a little bit longer...but if you're in a rush, I'll tell you your options now. Is that all right?"

Reduced to a paranoid child, Celeste chewed on a thumbnail and whimpered quietly.

"Very good." Torrent reared back his head and squatted down by Celeste's ear. "Here's option number one. I can make a lot of money on you. And I mean a LOT."

A terrible (and perfectly valid) thought then crossed Celetse's mind. Torrent read into it and snorted.

"No, not prostitution. That's so done. No my sweet...you don't know it, but in the underground there is a very pretty price on your head to anyone who can deliver you alive. The same price was on your father's head...and several other members of the McTreggor bloodline dating back several decades."

This news was extremely disturbing to Celeste, yet far within her she felt a faint note of strange excitement and pride sing out. All of a sudden she was an outlaw? Cool! But...

"Who wants to find me that badly, Torrent?"

Torrent laced his dirty fingers behind his head and tilted it back in a yellow smile. "This is where the age-old question pops up: 'How far will you humans go to guarantee the existence of your species?'." Torrent was able to sense Celeste's frustration with his stalling. "The Inheritors of Eden want you, child," he announced solemnly.

Celeste felt as if she were living a bad comic-book story. "Inheritors of what?"

"The Inheritors of Eden, an organization that has been around for ages. If I were to deliver you to them, I'd be rewarded an insane amount of money."

Celeste boggled slightly.

"It goes like this." Torrent moved closer to Celeste in automatic response to her shying away. "The Inheritors would love nothing more than to add the McTreggor bloodline to their ranks. They know about your fighting history and they also know about Mindspeak. You would not be mistreated if you joined them. You'd live a rich and meaningful life if you were willing to...cooperate with their program. I gave this offer of eternal happiness to your sire, and just to let you know the fool was too 'faithful' to his mate and children to take it. But you...you are not obligated to this world in any way. Will you allow me to deliver you to the Inheritors?"

Celeste felt like a sponge in a bucket of water. More had been thrown at her than she could possibly absorb. It took some effort, but she managed to wipe the slack-jaw off of her face to seriously consider what Torrent had said. The Inheritors of Eden. Somehow that sounded like the kind of thing that would change your life if you dared to indulge in it.

"Torrent, why don't you tell me what the Inheritors do?"

Torrent was taken aback. "Why, daughter of Jake...would that matter if you were happy?"

"Yes, actually, it would matter a great deal," Celeste grimaced.

Torrent suddenly thumped himself down on his hindquarters and drew Celeste close to him like a grimy child with an overused teddy bear. Celeste hardly flinched; she was getting used to this erratic behaviour. She simply marinated in the Mechadrake's stench as he rocked back and forth with the her head against him.

"Sweet Child O Mine," Torrent purred soothingly like a mother comforting a baby, "that question is irrelevant. If you are given a chance to live a perfect life, don't question it. That's what got your kind kicked out of paradise in the first place." Torrent paused. "No, I don't think you are ready to join the Inheritors of Eden. I guess we'll be going on to option two now..."

All at once, Torrent hopped to his feet. Celeste went for a bit of a tumble. She cowered, expecting the Mechadrake's claws to dig into her flesh at any second. However, Torrent wasn't even looking at her. He was looking over his shoulder, his spiny ears turning and scanning. Although Celeste couldn't hear anything, she could sense that Torrent had.

"Torrent, what -- ?"

Be still, Torrent's whisper trickled in her mind.

Celeste clamped her mouth shut and strained with her inferior human ears for a hint of what Torrent was so worked up about...

"Yum. Sewage."

Paul and a handful of his Night Viper underlings sloshed through the maze knee-deep dirty water. The foul sludge reflected their moods. They had found very few traces of Celeste and Torrent over the past few days, and they were beginning to lose hope.

"I wonder if the other parties are having any luck," one of the Vipers thought aloud.

"I sure hope so," Paul said. "This may not be fun, but at least we're not one of the groups that has to search the R-Section labyrinths. Down there, the water can get neck-deep."

"Double yum."

The group splashed on, Paul at the head. Bringing up the rear was his second-in-command, a human male named Ozzie. Ozzie had tripped and fallen into the scummy fluid earlier that day, and he was utterly miserable now as his wet clothes slapped against his skin. To top it all off, there was a chilly draft billowing from one of the many passageways. It was conditions like these in which a person could easily catch a --

"Ah--CHOOOO!"

The sneeze had snuck up on Ozzie without warning. It blazed through the catacombs and bounced off the walls happily, like bells ringing in the new year.

Paul glowered at Ozzie in disgust. "God bless you."

Ozzie grinned sheepishly.

"If Torrent was nearby," one of the reploids in the group remarked, "he's long gone by now."

The sneeze had reached them like a gunshot. Celeste's face lit up with hope upon hearing it. That sneeze HAD to belong to a member of a search party! She sprang up, intending to yell out her location, but before she could even make a sound, a clammy hand closed around her mouth with alarming strength. Torrent swept Celeste off of her feet and tucked her under one arm as he dove into the water, paddling swiftly towards an escape route. In a very few seconds, Celeste's lungs began to feel as if they were bursting at the seams, yet Torrent didn't show any intentions of surfacing for air. He merely pressed onward through the silent, watery tomb, oblivious to Celeste's mental screams of panic. The Huntress' mind fizzled out as her body went limp.

Celeste surprised herself by waking up. She was laying on solid ground and panting furiously, her body obviously retrieving its oxygen debt. Her throbbing head just about blew up when she tried to sit up. When she finally succeeded and the black spots stopped slam-dancing in front of her eyes, she was treated to Torrent Leviathan suddenly thrusting a vial of unidentifiable clear liquid under her nose. Celeste instantly drew her head back. Good move. Unfortunately, her back met with a wall and the vial was right in front of her face once more.

"Okay Torrent, what's with THIS?"

"Option number two, my dear!" Torrent cackled. "I need a guinea pig. You'll do nicely."

"Is...is it some kind of super virus?" Celeste cracked as she tried to become one with the grungy bricks behind her.

"Oh, puh-leeze!" Torrent rolled his eyes. "Not only is the whole 'super virus' thing cliche, it's also completely useless. Humans are one of the most genetically diverse species in the universe. Sure, a virus would wipe out a handful of them but there would always be a percentage that would survive. It's called meiosis and humans undergo the process specifically for protection against killer diseases. What DO they teach you in school?"

Celeste's pale mind could only recall learning the ABC's.

Torrent waggled the vile under Celeste's nose again. "What we have here," he announced, "Is a more fun and exciting way of Mavericks getting rid of humans. My pet name for it is 'Crazy Juice'. Once this stuff enters your blood stream, your sanity gets shot to hell. You quite literally become stark raving mad and will blindly attack anything that moves. Can you imagine it? Mavericks pitting one berserk human against another in the arena...placing bets on their favourite...raking in the cash. Sure beats horseracing! You save on oats, too."

"And you want to TEST this stuff on me?!"

"It would be very nice if you would cooperate," Torrent said airily. "See, at this point, I don't know if the effects are permanent. A...friend of mine ran a bit of a test for me. He/she used it on a pack of orphaned kids, but they ended up mangling each other in the final stages of their insanity before any results could be confirmed. Ever see a bunch of kids kill each other? Sad sight, my dear, sad sight indeed."

With the deadly speed of a cobalt cobra, Torrent had coiled around Celeste and held her fast, laughing at her desperate struggles. Celeste could see one of Torrent's claws glittering dully, poised just above her right arm, ready to draw blood. Just a little bit of the stuff rubbed into a fresh cut would do perfectly fine...

But no. Torrent dropped his hand and gave Celeste some slack. Celeste scrambled out of his hold. "I'm not being fair to you, child." He rasped. Celeste whipped around and faced the Mechadrake, adrenaline singing and pounding against her eardrums. She was ready to die fighting tooth-and-nail against the devil. But Celeste's foaming at the mouth didn't change Torrent's sad tone. "I'm not being fair to you," he repeated.

Celeste squared her shoulders and wiped the greasy film of sweat off of her forehead.

"I can't just infect you with a disease while you're defenseless, then watch you die without a prayer in the world. You came for a showdown. And a showdown you shall get. I allowed your father the same privilege, after all." Metal hissed against metal as Torrent the Tenderhearted suddenly unsheathed a six-inch hunting knife. Dark light flashed on its dim surface as it was jammed in a crack at Celeste's feet. Celeste gawked at the weapon as if it were a spirit. Dried, black blood dulled the blade's brilliance. Blood that could only have belonged to...

"Jake." Torrent finished the thought for Celeste and gave a lukewarm grin. "Yes, this is your father's blood before you. I used this knife to slit his miserable throat, and I never cleaned the blade after that. It was an unforgettable battle, let me tell you. Your dear old da' was a great representative for humankind. Here, this is for you." Torrent graciously tossed Celeste her lightsabre. He had ignited it for her, and in her trance Celeste nearly caught the weapon by its pulsating neon blade. That would have cost her a hand.

"Myself, I will be fighting with just these dirty little fingernails of mine," Torrent announced grandly to a make-believe audience. "But...let's add a bit of Shakespearean zest to the duel, shall we?"

Torrent hummed softly as he withdrew his vial of Crazy Juice. Holding it in his balled left hand, he carefully dunked each of his talons on his right hand in the deceptively harmless-looking clear fluid. Then he set the vial down and blew on his hand like a woman trying to speed up the drying process of her fingernail polish.

"One scratch and you're bats," Torrent rhymed for Celeste with a final shake of his spiked hand. "Awright...let's goooo!"

Chapter 30: Long Distance

The limited English vocabulary simply fails to come up with words that are spectacular enough to describe a battle between two individuals who have the ability to tap into each other's thoughts and feed off of each other's emotions. Comparing a fight that is fueled by Mindspeak to a normal fight between skilled fencers is like comparing the apocalyptic raging of divine warriors to grunting, clumsy cavemen splitting each others' skulls with crude clubs.

Shimmering waves of glaring, neon heat shed from Celeste's lightsabre. The false warmth spawned the perspiration that condensed on her forehead and gushed down her neck in rivulets. Her shredded T shirt was soaked with a nauseating mixture of dirt and sweat. The coppery scent of fresh blood was also seeping its way into the delightful concoction that was growing on the mangled cotton; just minutes ago, Torrent had delivered a stinging tail whip to the Huntress that had drawn a fine diagonal line of red from her right shoulder all the way down to the left joint in her hip. The furious pumping of her heart did little to halt the slow but steady flow of blood. For the moment, the wound didn't bother her very much. Celeste knew that the thing to watch was Torrent's poisoned right paw, which the Leviathan swung freely.

Any other human in the same furious battle would have dropped dead long ago of blood loss or dehydration, if not both. Strangely enough, Celeste did not feel any exhaustion whatsoever. The battle had forced her to learn how to use Mindspeak to her advantage. Raw emotions were cascading between her mind and Torrent's, and by feeding off of her foe, she was able to plead with her body to lend her a nonstop flow of adrenaline.

The wild emotions, thoughts and memories that ebbed and flowed between Celeste and Torrent during the battle were potent, random and nonsensical, a bizarre mix of everything felt by a newlywed couple on their wedding night to a rookie soldier on the front lines for the first time. Hate, love, anger, terror, lust, passion. Both their minds were so cluttered with the unusual emotional sludge that neither one of them could make sense of exactly what the other was thinking. Their fighting was completely wild with no strategy at all.

Numerous slashes crisscrossed Torrent's body. His eyes burned baleful and red with ambition. He was under the same drive as Celeste. He wanted to cut off this wild frenzy of emotions, he wanted to grab them by the neck and strangle them. Neither of them could continue to torture their bodies for very much longer. In the battle with Jake, it had been the human who had weakened first. But Celeste was younger and full of ginger by the looks of the calm blue fire burning steadily in her eyes...was it possible that she could outlast him...?

NO. Jaws agape and terror renewed, Torrent leaped for Celeste throat. The Huntress simply swerved to one side and rewarded Torrent with a gash along his neck. Torrent roared in pain and rage, unsheathing his claws once more. He would drive the (respectable) little crackwhore off of her prissy dry perch of land and into the water. THEN they'd see who would outlast who!

Torrent's webbed feet slapped against the brick floor, the percussion to his howls as he marched with unwavering speed to where Celeste was standing. But Celeste did not back away in terror as Torrent had planned, even when he bellowed a lovely dragon-roar just inches from her face. She had become a complete statue. She was not even looking directly at the Mechadrake; she was looking beyond him with glazed eyes. Her lightsabre extinguished itself as it slipped through numb fingers and clattered to the ground. Triumph thrummed through Torrent's cooling mind; he had driven Celeste to shock! Extremely pleased with himself, he delicately bared his lemon teeth to nibble on the Huntress' jugular. The first spurt of blood was always the best...

Suddenly, the statue was a she-cobra who flashed at her assailant's thigh with a dull black fang. A red arrow of burning pain shot through Torrent. Too dumbstruck to even bellow his displeasure at being skewered through the leg, the Mechadrake looked down to see the shaft of a blade protruding out of his muscular thigh like a blackened, broken bone...the shaft belonging to the very same blade he had slit Jake's throat with. Torrent had shown it off to Celeste and jammed it in the ground moments before launching his attack. But when had Celeste recovered the blade...? Torrent's fevered mind could not recall.

Torrent averted his slack jawed gape (which was very unbecoming on him) from his injury to Celeste's face. She was enjoying herself, feeding off of his pain as he had done to her so many times. It was apparent from the satisfied smug expression that oozed to every corner on her face and settled into the corners of her mouth and jerked them up into a malicious grin that did not seem to belong to her. Then Celeste opened her mouth to speak.

"Drink your own medicine, Torrie."

It was not Celeste's voice.

It was Jake's.

Heights. X liked heights, especially on windy days. X also liked airports, and seeing how he was now on the windy roof of terminal 5 of Airport 1001, he was having a pretty neato day all in all.

At that moment, X was supposed to have been confronting Storm Eagle who had taken over the port, but he was allowing himself a little rest first. His legs were stretched out before him, and on his lap was the new helmet he had just received as a gift from his 'dad'. It was a fine white and blue headpiece with a crest of dual tapered fins that would make ceiling bashing a whole lot of fun.

X ran his fingers along the edges of the bladed helmet as he prattled on to Light's form, which was still shimmering in the capsule that X was leaning against. The love-starved reploid insisted on talking to his father whenever he had the chance. Light still refused to tell X about his past and rarely said anything other than what X's latest upgrade doohickey was good for. X didn't mind; he just liked to have someone to talk to.

"So, let me tell you a bit more about this friend of mine, Doc."

"I don't know X," Light said in a hollow and exasperated tone of voice. "I'm really not joking when I say that this is long distance..."

"Ah, you're doing fine." X assured him as he fixed his new helmet onto his clammy, mussed nest of brown hair. "Anyway, like I was saying, this Zero fellow is quite a character. We didn't really like each other when we first met, but he turned out to be an okay fellow. Now we're pretty much best friends. I've noticed a few weird things about him, though. For one thing he has a hard time handling the death of anything that's important to him in any way. Like this one time he left me in charge of feeding his goldfish. I kind of...forgot to do it, and the stupid critter went belly up. So you know what Zero did? He dragged me down to the parking lot and slammed my head repeatedly with his car door. That's part of the reason I'm so grateful to get this helmet of yours, Doc. My old one is kind of bashed up."

Light nonchalantly stared off into the wild blue yonder. "This friend of yours does seem interesting," he drawled. "Who did you say his creator was?"

X shook his head. "I didn't. He claims to have been abandoned at activation."

For the first time during their long conversation, Light appeared to be interested in what X was saying. "Really? That IS interesting. I'd like to meet this fellow some day. Shouldn't he be helping you to defeat the Mavericks?"

X drew a long sigh that was saturated with self-pity. "Yeah...but for now, I'm all alone." The azure reploid then went on to tell the whole sad story of Celeste going after Torrent, and how Zero had gone chasing after her. "Remember how I said that Zero hates to see anything or anyone close to him die? Well, I'm sure he wouldn't be able to live with himself if anything happened to Cel."

Light's ghostly pale brow was furrowed in thought. "I see," he muttered. "You're saying that he cares for a human?"

"Oh hell yes." X craned his neck back to get a better view of his father. "He's admitted it several times to me. I kept it a secret, of course." X's voice wavered a tiny bit at the end of the sentence as he recalled just how much of a 'secret' he had kept Zero's fascination for Celeste.

Light suddenly began to laugh heartily.

X was puzzled. "Is funny?"

Light's laugh trickled off into a chuckle. "In a way, yes," he grinned. "Technically, humans and reploids aren't supposed to fall for each other because of all the nasty complications that can arise. But now that I hear it's happening...well, the basic idea is kind of nice! Maybe the two species can coexist after all. X, next time anyone is giving our happy couple a hard time about being together, kick them in the shins and tell them it's from good ol' Doc Light."

"I'm way ahead of ya."

Torrent braced himself. When he was ready, he screwed up his courage and grasped the hilt of the blade lodged within his leg. Setting his teeth he slowly freed the dirty metal from its fleshy bed. The acoustics of the nauseating self-surgery were particularly interesting, between the drawn out slurping sound the knife made as it left its sheath and Torrent's own high-pitched whine. Jake, in the shell of his daughter, was not taken aback at all. The Mechadrake could taste the acidity of Jake's triumph. It was an acrid spot on the roof of his mouth that was slowly spreading to coat his forked tounge.

"You're going to want a band aid for that, Torrent."

Torrent simply rumbled, hunched over his wound. Then he rose slowly, like a twisted weed growing out of filth. All at once he hurled the bewitched knife into the watery vein beside him. He no longer had any reason to be proud of it. Celeste had retrieved her lightsabre and was now advancing on her prey. The tables had certainly turned. Torrent was bleeding furiously. He couldn't fight with a lame leg.

Celeste was the mouthpiece for her father's spirit once again. "I didn't want anything to do with the Inheritors, so why would my daughter?" The Huntress (Hunter?) swung the lightsabre in a wide, lime arc. Torrent dodged none to gracefully. His leg was now dragging. Celeste was still advancing. "Leave my daughter alone. Leave her thoughts to herself. Leave the McTreggors alone. Do you think we ASKED for the 'gift' of Mindspeak? Do you think we're proud of it? Why do you think we never tell anyone about it? What have you got to fear from us?"

Torrent slowly coiled as his arch nemesis approached. "More than you think, Jake ol' chap."

There was a sudden, blue flash. Celeste could feel Torrent's hot breath hissing on her left arm a nanosecond before all five of the sacred poisoned talons on the altar of his right paw sunk into her skin. The Huntress' world turned upside down as her back slammed into the wall. As she slid down, she could feel the rough brick licking along her skin like the tounge of a very large cat. She regained her equilibrium just in time to see Torrent slither into the soupy water beside her ledge. The leviathan was gone, but he had infected Celeste with his experimental virus. He had left a happy Maverick.

"Another turn, another fork stuck in the road." Zero glared hatefully at the series of tunnels before him that snaked their way further into the catacombs. Frustration had free reign of his mind and it was tearing him apart. He couldn't keep half of MHHQ's fighting force way down under to keep up their fruitless search for Celeste. There was an actual war going on. That's where everyone was supposed to be...

Zero dismissed it temporarily as he irritably waved for his small troop to follow him down one of the randomly chosen passageways. The trio of nondescript reploids complied silently; their commander was in a very foul mood. About ten minutes later, the small group met up with a nest of three completely exhausted Night Vipers.

Zero regarded the two reploids and one human with bleary, hopeless eyes. "Did any of you find anything?"

"No sir."

"Not yet sir."

"We ain't found shit!!"

Everyone glared at the third Viper who was quietly upset to find that nobody shared any pleasure in his jokes.

"I'm pretty sure this is all useless," one of Zero's reploids dared to say once everyone had had a good stare. "kind of a needle-in-a-haystack type of thing --"

A pain-soaked roar from afar cut him off. Everyone was jolted at once.

Zero's eyes flared deliciously as he mentally pinpointed where the cry had wafted from.

"Bingo-bango!"

The virus got down to work very quickly. Celeste, still slumped against the wall where Torrent had left her, could feel it tingling all around her body like the marching feet of thousands of icy ants. The straight, sharp lines of the sewer brickwork began to melt down and swirl madly before her glazed eyes. The world in itself was rapidly becoming more and more psychedelic.

Hang in there Kitten, her father's ghostly mind whispered soothingly into her own. Ironically enough, the voice was the only truly real thing that Celeste could hang on to. Help is on the way.

Celeste became frantic at the thought of being left alone in a strange place while a freak virus was taking over her body. Are you leaving me here? You CAN'T go! I've been wanting to talk to you for ages!

Celeste could sense Jake's regret. Sorry my dear, but you might say that this is long distance. I'll just say that I'm extremely proud of you. Give your ma my love! The famous Hunter's presence burned out of Celeste's mind like a candle flame, leaving her very much alone.

It was at that moment that the virus slammed into the Huntress full tilt. Her eyes were drained of all traces of sanity. She rose slowly to her feet and unsheathed her lightsabre. She knew only one thing; some human had to die.

Her potential victim came into the light very quickly. Seven figures burst into the chamber. One of them, a huge crimson demon with a fire-yellow tail, spotted her right away and rushed towards her with open arms while chanting her name over and over in a slow, unearthly voice. Celeste was not interested in him. She could smell the hateful human that cowered in the very back of the group, safe behind a shield of reploids. She had to reach him and skewer him at all costs. With an alien battle cry, the possessed Huntress charged the red devil before her, the devil that was blocking the way to her rightful prey.

Forgotten Emotions, and Good Riddence to the Leviathan

"Holy fish on toast," Ozzie gawked. "Get a load of that look she's giving me!"

Zips the reploid tossed a wide grin at his young human friend. "Maybe she's coming on to you," he teased.

Ozzie shrugged and smiled feebly. "Hey, if you've got it, you've got it."

Nobody, not even Zero, said anything for a full five seconds as they observed the beast of a girl fretting across the room. She fearlessly padded around them, lightsabre drawn, growling and drooling like a blood-starved cat in a cage. She never pried her eyes away from Ozzie, the single human who was snug in a shield of reploids. The musty scent of his blood drove her wild, and the shrieking leviathan's voice in her head assured her that the blood would smell even better once it splashed on the pavement...

Ozzie suddenly reeled in surprise as he recognized the human girl that was tearing him apart with those bloody optics. "Whoa!" he yelped. "It is Celeste! We've found her!" He began to move towards her, but Zips pulled his arm back sharply.

"Not a good idea. Something's not right about her. She looks rabid."

"I know that," Ozzie snarled, insulted. He tried to pull away from his friend, but Zips gave him no slack. "I worked in the Medical Unit for a time. I need to get a better look at her! I can help..."

"Stay where you are!" Zero barked in a quietly commanding voice as he barred the way to Celeste with his arm. "Zippy's right. Something's happened to her."

Celeste chose that moment to strike. She bounded towards the Hunters, her sabre held in front of her like a knight's lance. Her tangled, unwashed hair flew behind her like a comet's tail, and the shredded ribbons of her shirt flapped like the banners of an unholy army. An unearthly scream, not unlike that of a banshee, wailed from beyond her yellow teeth. She was revved to cut through Ozzie's live shield with everything she had.

Luckily, Zero was prepared. He likewise charged Celeste, his arms outstretched like a fisherman's net, expecting her to break for him. Even Ozzie's inferior human ears could hear the shocked sadness that weaved into Zero's voice as it rose above the girl's hellish din.

"Celeste...Celeste dear, what did he do to you...?"

Unfortunately for Zero, Celeste wasn't breaking for anybody. A hot shower of sparks and black blood washed over the Huntress as she drove her lightsabre into the crimson reploid's upper left arm and ripped it out again. A terrible scream broke free from Zero, and he instinctively kicked at his attacker. The sharp steel toe of his boot slammed into Celeste's shin with a sickening crack of splintering bones. Issuing a pained wail of her own, Celeste collapsed on the spot, the agony of her broken leg making her violently sick to her stomach.

Leaving a spatter of blood as he pounced, Zero tackled the stricken girl and pinned her neck against the ground with his good arm. He couldn't help but crack a malicious grin at the irony of the situation. He secretly always wanted to have a nice 'roll in the hay' with Celeste ... and here she was below him, even though love had absolutely nothing to with the position. (so to speak!)

That's when Zero's nearly-forgotten 'dark side' suddenly surfaced like a bubble in bad jam and drew a sick pleasure from the situation. All of the reploid's compassionate feelings for Celeste drowned as Bass' cobweb-strung voice invaded his head.

That's the way to do it, little bro! Just like old times, huh?

Zero silently agreed with his brother. The female below him was his rightful quarry and was at his mercy. He could do to her what he pleased. He tightened his grip on the Huntress' neck, allowing his long-starved evil psyche to savour her terrified helplessness and pain. The blood that laced the vomit puddled around Celeste's head accented his rapture...

What was he thinking?! Zero panicked and quickly regained control of his emotions. He eased his death-grip on Celeste's neck. The smothered fire leaped back into her eyes as he did so. She clawed at the Hunter, but was still pinned under his bulk. She couldn't twist out from under him and she was only going to hurt herself trying. Zero was beginning to consider knocking her out with a careful blow to the head when a quick breeze whipped past his arm. Startled, he jumped off of Celeste just in time to see a nullifier dart burrow into her left shoulder like a tropical bird immersing itself into a flower.

The drug worked extremely fast. Celeste's face had already gone slack and stupid by the time she reached up and pulled the dart out of her skin. From his viewpoint, Zero could see that the dosage she was shot with was much smaller than what was usually given to a reploid. Studying the syringe with wild-animal curiosity, Celeste suddenly eased her eyes shut and allowed the dart to slip from her fingers. She settled down, but she did not lapse into total unconsciousness.

Weariness and fear invaded Zero. He clutched at his injured arm, his thoughts buzzing painfully through his head. For months, he thought it was safe to say that he fully converted from a villain to a good fellow ... but now he realized that a portion of his soul was still shaded black from his days growing up with Bass. And it was more than just his trademark bloodlust. Zero shuddered as he watched Celeste convulse in the swath of the nullifier. His mind played back the raven emotions he'd experienced during their struggle. Horrified, he realized that when he had Celeste at his mercy, he wanted to hurt her, rape her, even kill her. Certain circumstances could revert him back into the masochistic, power-hungry brother of Bass. He would have to be a lot more cautious with his emotions, or he could seriously end up hurting her...

"Hey Zero!" Ozzie suddenly called and grinned whilst twirling his nullifier gun triumphantly. "I TOLD you to let me handle this! I mean, I'll give you credit for trying to knock out Celeste like that ... but hell, it was totally unnecessary!" He stopped twirling and frowned up at the reploids around him. "ALL of you have got to give more credit to us humans."

The ring of reploids around Ozzie merely gave a collective grunt.

A small bucket of relief quenched a little bit of Zero's panic. The other Hunters hadn't realized the evil side of his attack on Celeste. That was one headache avoided. Temporarily pushing the ugliness out of his mind, Zero kneeled beside the semiconscious Huntress and carefully gathered her up, wincing as she weighed down on his injured arm. Celeste subconsciously felt the jolt to her broken leg and became fretful again, kicking and squirming.

"Do you want me to take her?" Zips inquired. "With the way she's moving around, I'm sure she's hurting your arm even more."

"No thanks. I've got her," Zero said. He grinned as Celeste flopped around like a landlocked fish. "Actually, when working for the Medical Unit, I had to handle a countless number injured humans. Ozzie had the right idea with giving her a small shot of nullifier." Zero nodded in approval at the human who grinned in acknowledgment. "But here's a trick that'll get her to settle down completely."

With that, Zero shifted Celeste slightly so that his left hand reached over her face, covered her eyes and pressed her head against his chest. In no time at all, the rigidity of the Huntress' body thawed and she became completely relaxed.

The observing reploids were impressed with the quick and effective results. "What did you do?" they all wanted to know.

Zero shrugged modestly. "Darkness and a heartbeat," he explained. "It's an instinctive reaction. It reminds most humans of being back in the womb, so they settle down. Doesn't work all the time, but hey, it's always worth a try! Now, who's up for getting out of this Happy Place of Fun?"

Celeste's dreams were stormy and vivid. It was hard for her to actually determine when she was dreaming and when she was awake. Furious activity spun around her. The first thing she was aware of was the icy sponge that washed and dressed the nasty wounds on her arms chest. Then there was the fiery agony of her leg being set. Celeste howled and cursed, frantically tugging at her restraints and scanning the room for a human to take her pain out on. Then something sharp bit her upper arm and injected a sweet, liquid lullaby. She surrendered to sleep's less troubled waters.

But in an instant, Celeste's eyes flew open and she was glaring at the reploid fox who was hovering over her and jabbering medical jargon to two nearby friends; the red demon she charged earlier, and a small British 'ploid with a stupid hat. Celeste could filter in a few broken phrases: "highly unusual virus", "uncontrollable lust for human blood", "can be diluted, but will be very painful".

The next thing Celeste knew, she was hooked up to an IV and the blonde-red reploid was beside her bed, gently squeezing her hand and telling her to be brave. Celeste had no idea what he was rambling about until a faint burning sensation began to pour into her veins. The burning gradually became more and more intense until it was downright excruciating. Celeste's screams respectively reached higher and higher scales until she finally passed out.

Torrent...? Celeste cautiously approached the Mechadrake, who had his spiky back turned to her. Torrent? she repeated.

Torrent did not turn his eyes from the sewer brickwork. This is the last time you shall dream about me, Daughter of Jake, he said. I just wanted to offer you my congratulations.

For...?

Torrent snorted and wheeled around. He slit his eyes at Celeste. For surviving my virus, of course! And for defeating me. The amount of physical and mental pain you've suffered is incredible. And yet, you've remained so damn optimistic and cheerful! You really are a McTreggor.

So...I'm going to be okay? Celeste ventured. Torrent nodded. Indeed, he rumbled. Thanks to your services as a guneia pig, I decided that I won't be unleashing the virus. I have more pressing matters to attend to back home at Mechadrake Assemblies. Besides, I trust you humans will breed yourselves out of existence in a little while, so why bother with genocide?

Um...good point, I think.

I leave you to think about that, Torrent lolled and winked. And I leave you with this final message. Sooner or later, the Inheritors of Eden WILL get their hands on you. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe years from now. Maybe they'll even wait for your children. But when the time comes, do yourself and the world a favour. DON'T resist them. Torrent snaked his neck around Celeste's own. He nuzzled at her cheek with his bumpy snout, chuckling at the Huntress' unspoken disgust. Well then, this is goodbye. Take care...Sweet...

'Sweet Child O' Mine', Celeste automatically finished up for him.

Torrent suddenly pushed her away roughly and lashed at her with his tail. Caught off guard, Celeste yelped and staggered backwards to the lip of the sewer platform. She teetered on the edge for a split second before falling off. She braced her body for the splashdown that was sure to follow, but it never came. She just fell...and fell...and fell...

"Mr. Zero sir...there's not much you can do for her. It's up to her to pull through the effects of the anti-virus."

"Shut up Pip."

"Oh...okay."

Celeste lay half-naked and almost motionless under a complicated net of wires and tubes. Why can't humans heal as quickly and easily as reploids? Zero mourned. He was anchored to Celeste's bedside, clutching a handful of her matted brown hair. He did his best to tidy the girl up a bit by running a comb through that handful of hair, over and over. The repetitive motion allowed his thoughts to crawl through his mind. He couldn't stop thinking about how he was responsible for Celeste's broken leg, and he couldn't forget how badly he wanted to hurt her when she was at his mercy. What if that happened again? Maybe it would be best to take the advice Genesis gave him way back and try to fall out of love with her ... nah, he couldn't do that. That was like asking him to stop breathing. Zero sighed, and started on a new handful of hair. I'm a selfish bastard, he thought dully as he gently wrestled with a fresh set of tangles. Celeste's safety was on the line, and he couldn't even make the effort to stay away from her. But that wasn't very important at the moment. All Zero wanted was for Celeste to open her eyes, look at him and tell him that she was okay...

The sickly sweet smell of charred flesh wafted into the Medical Unit. Zero grimaced as the scent introduced itself to his nose. Turning in the direction of the stench, he was met by a medium-rare X.

"Whoa! X!" Zero gaped at his charred friend, forgetting about Celeste's hair for a minute. "Good God! Are you all right?"

X's barbecued form swayed back and forth like a tree that was about to be toppled by stormy weather. His blackened hair stood up on end, indicating that he'd obviously been shocked repeatedly with several million volts of electricity.

"I have a headache," X mewed pitifully before passing out.

Genesis and Pip picked up the reploid between them and moved him to a more comfortable resting place. Zero reached over to pick up the small figure that tumbled out of his friend's grasp. The destruction of each Maverick boss always left a carving in its form. X's last battle had been with Spark Mandrill ... and yet, Sparky's figure was not that of an ape.

"Looks like some kinda yellow rat," Zero mumbled to himself as he studied the object. "But what kinda rat has a lightning bolt for a tail and red cheeks...?" Zero stroked the rat's puffy cheeks in curiosity, and was rewarded with an intense blast of electricity. That woke him up.

"Pikachu!" the seemingly innocent rat introduced itself sweetly once Zero's world stopped reeling.

"Well, at least Sparky had a sense of humour," Zero cracked. He delivered the bewitched carving to the computer mainframe, wisely deciding not to touch it again if it could be helped. On his way back to the Medical Unit, he realized X had defeated seven of the Mavericks.

Only one more to go...

Chapter 32: Run Runaway

"Come on, Celeste. Haul your cute little human carcass up into a sitting position. You can do it."

"No..."

"We have to start rehabilitating you."

"Lemme 'lone...too cold."

"You've got to be kidding. The entire Medical Ward is a sauna. Genesis insists on screwing around with the temperature, even on a beautiful day like today. Speaking of Genesis, he's sick of taking care of your bedpans, and he insists that you get out of bed today. So UP!"

Celeste's stale blanket was ripped from her. Sharp air needled her skin for the first time in three days. Celeste yelped from the shock and grabbed the tail of her quilt just as it trailed away from her. She yanked at it with all the fluttering strength she had. Zero responded on the other end with a much firmer tug. Celeste's woolly security slipped away from her. The Hunter grabbed her by one shoulder and helped her sit up. Totally washed out on drugs, Celeste contorted in response to the sudden cold, like a withering hag. Her inability to keep her right eye open did little to improve her looks.

"Lookin' fine," Zero lied. He parked a wheelchair next to the bed. "We're going to go for a little walk. The fresh air'll do you good. Here, I'll help you get in." Zero hefted Celeste into his arms. "The weather is beautiful, and ... uh ... ... why are you leering at me like that?"

Celeste ate Zero up with her good eye right before she threw her arms around his neck like an affectionate spider monkey. She pressed up against him. Severely flustered (and pleasantly surprised at the same time), Zero staggered backwards and did his best to keep his composure. What in God's name was this gal doing to him?! The startled Hunter opened his mouth to yell for backup.

"GEN--ulf!"

Celeste's mouth closed over Zero's own, cutting him off in mid-holler. Hey! This was fun!

Genesis padded into the room just then. He grinned as his shaded eyes fell on the tangled Hunter and Huntress. "Warned ya!" he sang in Zero's direction.

"About what?" Zero said aghast, looking down at Celeste who was now back to dozing with her head snuggled contentedly against his chest. "I was just about to take her out for a nice walk, but she took a hyper spaz when I lifted her up."

"I warned you to stay away from Celeste," Genesis said, his bushy tail swishing irritably from side to side. "But of course you didn't listen. Now she's fallen for you. The conditions are perfect...she's almost 20, you just saved her life, it's springtime, and she's under an ocean of medication. Ta da."

Flattered, Zero carefully set Celeste into the wheelchair. "What does her medication have to do with anything?" he wanted to know.

"She's on morphine," Genesis explained. "That stuff can really mess with your mind ... the truth suddenly becomes much easier to tell...or, in this case, act out. Under normal circumstances, I doubt that Celeste would've even told you how she felt. But thanks to the magic of morphine, her desires surfaced and she was perfectly comfortable with climbing all over you like an oversexed orangutan in heat."

"Oh...man..." Zero trailed off as he eyed Celeste's broken leg and was reminded how it ended up that way in the first place. Damn erratic emotions. So now the human was officially in love with him. Well, what good was that if Zero would always be at the risk of hurting her?

"Guys, please, could you give me five minutes? I'd like a moment to talk to my dad."

X's fan club -- a platoon of rabbit-like Tombots -- paid no heed. They simply bathed in their own silent awe, looking up at their blue mentor with adoring eyes. They were the only still and quiet animal life residing in Sting Chameleon's teeming techno-jungle. Reploid beasts and unnatural genetic hybrids squawked from every corner, their eyes flickering like unearthly flames. Dense foliage draped the pseudo trees and a dark green light shimmered in the humid air.

"That's quite a following you have there," Light's ghost remarked from the ice blue capsule behind X.

"I know," the Hunter sighed. "These dumb rabbit bots have always had a thing for me. Do I smell like carrots or something? I don't get it!"

"Maybe it's that new armour I just gave you," Light suggested jokingly. "I guess white and blue is a turn-on for rabbits?"

"Everything is a turn-on for rabbits," X snorted, his fingers running possessively over his sleek new jacket. Besides making him look snappy and sharp, the armour would reduce damage to his systems considerably. "All of ya go home now! 'kay?"

Nope.

Light chuckled sadly. "I guess we'll have to say our goodbyes with an audience."

X's eyes suddenly grew huge and blue with shock. "Wh-what goodbyes?" he stumbled.

"Goodbyes. You know, as in ciao, cherrio, au revior, shalom, God be with ye..."

"You're...leaving? For good?"

Light's holographic ghost shifted uncomfortably. "Yes,foralongwhile," he slurred, attempting to hide the emotion that was puddled around his words. "I've done what I can to help you...the rest is up to you...I can't stick around for any longer."

Reality bit into X's heart with icy teeth. "No!" he yelped. "You can't leave me alone like this!"

Light turned his back to X's face like a brick wall. "Sorry old boy..."

"I'll get REALLY mad..." was X's pathetic threat.

"I've told you before, this is long distance..."

"I'll throw one of these Tombots at you!..."

"If I could stay with you all the time, I would..."

"I mean it! I'll do it!...oh God, you're the only one who I can really talk to..."

"You're like a son to me..."

"I can hardly even say something to Zero without getting some smartass retort..."

" 'I never married and my dog is dead...' "

"Plus, he's too busy with his pet human to care about anything I say anymore..."

"Companionship is very important..."

"He's with her all the time...couldn't even help me defeat the Mavericks..."

"The bond between male and female..."

"Why doesn't he just SLEEP with her?..."

"Human and reploid..."

"Let us all offa the hook..."

"Those two could be the hope some day."

Father and son stopped ranting simultaneously. They simply stared at each other for a long time, sharing the same silent message of understanding. Light broke the spell by offering a last, sad smile to X just before shimmering out of sight. One second his solid image was there, and the next he was just diamond-like particles twirling in the heavy air like enchanted sparks rising from a mage's fire, scattering and dying forever. X was left very much alone.

Soaked with misery, the blue reploid plunked himself down next to the hollow armour capsule, listening to the liveliness of the forest around him and watching the sunbeams bounce off his new armour. The Tombots shyly loped away, abandoning their fallen hero. Only the smallest one remained faithful, and it cuddled up to X's leg. Moving in a daze, X scooped the little robot up into his arms and huddled over it so that his tears wouldn't drip on its metallic skin.

"Come back, dad...you're the only one who understands me..."

"Mmmhmmmmaaaaow." Sting Chameleon opened his beaky mouth in a yawn. "Good morning, Han. Milk, toast, and Eggo waffles if you please..."

No response.

Sting eased one bulging eye open and scanned his small chamber from his viewpoint on the ceiling. "Han, my dear boy...where are you?"

Still nothing.

"Wake up, old chap!" Sting swung himself down from his perch and slithered to Han's favourite corner. He scraped aside some of the moudly leaves and grass piled there. His efforts eventually revealed a trembling, middle-aged human male. Han. Han was once the head ranger of the forest until the day that Sting arrived. Sting thought it would be pretty nifty to have a human slave to terrorize, so he kept Han alive. Now the reptilian reploid loomed large over the terrified homo sapien.

"You humans really think you're something else," Sting hissed. "Am I right, Han?"

"N-no--no no no, sir!"

"Let's not lie. You all exist just to defile this planet with more of your kind, and -- goddamit, how many times have I told you to keep your fists BALLED UP, Han?! I can't stand the sight of those ugly opposable thumbs! Now hide them before I break them off!"

Han squeaked and sat on his hands.

"Good." Sting swung himself back up to his outpost. He closed his gruesome eyes dreamily. "Now sing me my song."

Han did as he was told without delay:

See Chameleon,
Lying there in the sun,
All things to everyone,
Run runaway.

"Wonderful!" Sting cackled. "Well done, Han. You may keep your thumbs for one more day...oooh...all of a sudden I don't feel so fresh...I think I'm being watched..." Sting turned around. X had entered the room as silently as a cat during Han's song, and judging by the Hunter's creased face, he was not in a pleasant mood.

"Hello, Sting."

Sting stiffened. "Hello, X. Please stop looking at me. You're making me feel ill."

X nonchalantly twirled a Boomerang Cutter with one finger. "Not an option," he drawled. "I want to see if it's possible to make paper dolls out of synthetic chameleon hide. I like to watch."

Sting blanched at the sight of X's new armour, and, most of all, the Boomerang Cutter, which happened to be the only weapon capable of jolting him off his leafy throne in the rafters. "I suppose this'll be one of those fight-to-the-death deals, won't it?" he said.

"Yep."

"All right then. Off we go."

"So you see," Zero said to Celeste as he aimlessly pushed her wheelchair up and down some of the HQ's hallways, "it's best that we remain friends...at least for now. Do you understand?"

Celeste rolled her head, too zonked out on morphine to really hear anything Zero said. "Hmmm...heh heh...."

"All right, Celeste?" Zero repeated.

"Heeee ha...sure. God, I'm stoned."

"Attagirl. It's for your own good. I don't want to end up hurting you."

"How 'bout no longer being masochistic?" Celeste sang to no one in particular.

"You don't hear a word I say," the Hunter sighed. "I'm taking the coward's way out by saying all this to you right now."

"Where's my Flintstone phone? I wanna call Ernie and Bert."

Zero's wristcom hissed into life. The Crimson Wonder stopped abruptly to answer it, and the sudden jolt nearly sent Celeste flying off her wheelchair.

"Mr. Zero sir!" Pip squeaked over the 'com. "X thrashed Sting, but good! Come to the Computer Mainframe."

The Big Kahunas of MMHQ filled the Computer Mainframe, including Paul Wells who was holding the sticky hand of Clyde. Clyde sucked on his fingers and looked around the darkened room with wide eyes, in silent fear of the illuminated Cyclops-eyed monitors that peered down at him. Zero was the last one to arrive, pushing Celeste along with him. Everyone pressed against the exhausted X and his spoils; a jade chameleon statuette and a fellow named Han. X was holding on to one of Han's arms, and the crazed man was straining to get out of the grip. X eventually let go, and Han clawed his way through the crowd, laughing, crying, and screaming something about Great Big Sea. He wailed all the way to the Men's bathroom, where he locked himself in a stall and refused to come out for the rest of the day.

X nervously set the jade chameleon on the table, like a magician preparing some grand trick for a new audience. Now the pieces of the puzzle were all together; the soapstone penguin, the jade chameleon, the sapphire eagle, the ruby mastodon, the onyx beetle, the diamond armadillo, the brass octopus, and the cheap plastic pikachu. The animals statues stared at each other, exchanging wordless greetings and ageless secrets with their glittering eyes...

And nothing happened.

Noiseless seconds dragged on into minutes. Some of the humans began to stir restlessly; a cough here, a mutter there. Celeste finally broke the spell.

"Well this is a whole lotta nothin'."

The silence in the room was shattered all at once. People suddenly became full of ideas on how to squeeze out the information on Siggy's fortress that was undoubtedly hidden in the animals.

"Cut 'em open!"

"Step on 'um!"

"Give them a right nasty scolding!" (This was Celeste in all her morphine-induced wittiness.)

Forgotten in the commotion, Clyde Wells became fed up with the nonsensical noise and heat. He was drawn towards the animals, which reminded him very much of his zoo playset back at home. He went over the setup with critical eyes. Why were the animals all staring at each other? Maybe they didn't want to look at each other. Clyde carefully began rearranging the figures to suit his taste...

Celeste turned around in her wheelchair to glare at her propeller. "This room is too small for such noise," she remarked. "Settle 'em down, great leader."

Zero smacked his hands together and raised one arm into the air like a schoolteacher. "All right, everyone," he called out. "Quiet down...quiet now...don't make me flick the lights on and off...all right, that does it. SHUT UP! I GIVE YOU ALL PERMISSION TO SHUT THE HELL UP RIGHT NOW!"

The roar of the rabble trickled into a murmur. Everyone in the room faced Zero, who smiled in relieved satisfaction.

"Thanks, folks. Now, as we all know, these statues most likely contain information on the location of Siggy's fortress. I'm not exactly sure on how to extract the info, but if we all work together and make a nice pot of coffee I'm certain that ... oh, for Christ's sweet sake ... Paul, could you get your kid away from the display?"

Paul sheepishly made his way up to the front to fetch Clyde. Just as he reached for his son, Clyde moved the last animal in its place. A blinding flash stabbed everyone in the darkened room. Hands flew up to eyes and curses were yelped. When it all settled down and the spots cleared, a hologram of Siggy himself was hovering above the table, in the centre of the circle of animals, sneering down at the sea of dumbfounded Hunters.

"An army of Mavericks," he said, his voice hollow like pebbles falling into a tin bucket.

Zero looked blank. "What?"

"An army of Mavericks," he repeated. "One in the million will have the coordinates for my fortress. Once you have those coordinates, two of you -- and only two -- may teleport in and have a nice chat with me."

"You mean," X said slowly, "it's not a walk-in deal?"

"Oh no no no," Siggy chuckled. "My fortress floats. It's quite spiffy, and I really can't wait to show it off. The battle between the armies will take place in three weeks. On the outskirts of Kapcom. Champion reploids versus bug-eating tree dwellers and a few broken-down tin soldiers. This oughta be fun." Without another word, Siggy's ghostly image faded to black and was gone.

"This is it, then," Celeste said soberly, never taking her eyes off the cold, lifeless statues on the table.

"Yep. Armageddon," Zero said flatly.

"Reploids versus humans," Paul chimed in.

"And no stupid meteors," X mumbled.

"Or Aerosmith," Tess added.

"Three weeks," Josh said.

"Everyone who can will have to fight," Cain concluded.

"One Maverick in the entire army will have the coordinates for Siggy's fortress. Terrible odds," Ozzie reminded everyone.

"We can do it," Zero said. "When I first arrived here, Skysheen told me that human Hunters could overwhelm with sheer numbers. Plus we have the Malamutes. The dogs. They can help us."

"Well!" Genesis clapped his paws together. "We've got a lot of planning ahead of us. Let's get busy."

Chapter 33: Starship Troopers

Celeste slowly picked her way down to the kennels, limping along with the aid of a crutch. Her thoughts dragged as heavily as her bound leg. She felt like a condemned horse.

"Won't be able to fight like this," she told Zero sadly.

Unable to bear his friend's slow, sorry plodding anymore, Zero swept Celeste up and plunked her on his shoulders where she teetered in surprise.

"Don't worry 'bout it. Genesis will really be able to use your help, anyway. Now, allow me to go off topic for a second and ask you an important question. Why did you go after Torrent by yourself? Were you single-handedly trying to restore your family's honour and put your father's soul to rest, or were you just on cheap horse crack?"

Celeste leaned forward over Zero's head. "Maybe it was a bit of both."

"Come on now, be serious."

Celeste slung her crutch on her shoulders, confident of Zero's hold on her ankles. "I guess a lot of people think I was going after Torrent to avenge my father," she said, "and a lot of folks think that dad went after Torrent to prove that humans don't suck when it comes to fighting. Maybe those reasons had something to do with the showdowns...but there was a lot more to it. Trust me."

Zero's interest smoldered pungently. "Like...?"

For a split second, Celeste tossed and dressed a few daring ideas in her head. Should she tell Zero about Mindspeak? Unload her anxieties and talk to her friend? Risk the information leaking out and her being alienated and subjected to endless tests?

"I'd rather not say. I have secrets that I'd like to keep. But let's just say that I have no more reason to go after Torrie."

"Spoilsport. But I'm not going to press. Lord knows I have my own secrets, too. But if you ever need anyone to talk to, I'm always...whoa, mind your head!"

The abrupt warning came a second too late; Celeste's forehead gonged on the top of the doorframe.

"Warned you," the Hunter laughed as Celeste yelped from her saddle. "Anyway, like I was saying, you know that you can trust me."

"Yeee-ah."

"Now, down we go to the kennels. Have y'ever met Mama Rowlf before?"

Celeste shook her head. "Can't say as I ever have. The name sure sounds interesting."

"Then it'll do you good to keep your mouth shut when you see her. When we say that the kennels are right next door to Hell, we aren't joking. You'll see."

Celeste saw. Mama Rowlf was a grade-A bitch, metaphorically and literally. She was a bipedal reploid German Shepherd with blazing red fur, blue eyes that shot icy glares with ease, a mouth that would have sent Genesis crawling under a rock, and a permanent sneer that registered never-ending contempt for her moronic staff and the world in general. She towered proudly over everyone else in the kennels, the undisputed ruler over the rows of silver cages that housed the yapping Malamutes. The kennels were dark, hot, noisy and reeked of doggies and incompetence. Celeste had to take only one look at the kennel staff as they shuffled, stared blankly and wasted time to understand why Mother Rowlf was on eternal PMS.

"Hey Rowlf," Zero said, his voice a sunny birdsong. He knew that he was not a favourite of hers.

Darkness rolled over Mama Rowlf's face as she looked at the Hunter and Celeste. "Well, well. Zero. Come to grace me with more of your demoted Hunters?"

"Nooo..."

"More of your stick-swinging yahoos who couldn't peel a barnacle off their ass, yet you expect them to learn how to properly take care of my poor puppies?"

"They're not your pups, they're Cain's. Listen to me..."

"You want me to take in this young lady, right? Once again you expect Mama Rowlf to flop out a boob and yell, 'drink up!' to yet another slack-jawed yokel. Forget it. No vacancy for vacant morons. Out out out!"

"ROWLF!"

"What?"

"We need your help, and the dogs'. There's a war going on."

Celeste and Zero witnessed an incredible event that would never, ever repeat itself; Mama Rowlf wagged her tail happily. "A war! My little puppies are going to war! Oh, what a world." She settled down and touched her cold nose to Zero's, which was wrinkled in disgust at his putrid surroundings. "I don't suppose you'll be handlin' one of 'em?"

Zero laughed shortly. "Yeah right. We're talking Armageddon here. Siggy's declared mass war a week from today. X and I will be going after Siggy himself..."

Mama Rowlf furrowed her fuzzy brow and rubbed her chin. "X...?" She did not know too many Hunters; frankly, no one liked to visit her.

"I brought X to meet you once," Zero reminded the kennel queen. "You knocked his head off his shoulders after he dropped a puppy that peed on him."

"Ah yes, now I remember. That Jack Aster in blue. Someone oughta call the fashion police on him. Anyway, if you won't be using the dogs, I suppose there'll be some other Hunters to mishandle them."

Zero nodded. "One of them will be this lovely lady over here!" He gave Celeste a friendly shove towards the unpleasant mountain of teeth and fur.

"Ah..." Mama Rowlf stooped down and squinted her "I See All" eyes at Celeste, who glumly allowed herself to be sniffed and poked.

"You're a human..."

Celeste remained silent, remembering what Zero told her about keeping her mouth shut before entering this hole of hell.

Rowlf smacked the Huntress upside her skull. New Year's Day bonged in Celeste's head for the second time in one hour. Zero put his hands on her shoulders to stop her three-legged staggering, but he didn't dare say anything towards her attacker.

"Answer me, girl! You're a human, right?"

"Yeee-ah. I am. Celeste."

Celeste's world quaked anew as Mama Rowlf grabbed her small hand in her huge paw and pumped furiously. "Wow! Don't get too many of your kind down here. Right proud to meet a Domesticator, I am! You'll do well with my dogs."

Celeste just wanted to go home and nurse her new migraine.

"Follow me." Rowlf started down the kennel hall, Celeste limping in tow. "These here are some of my fine Malamutes," she crowed, waving a hand at some of the cages they passed. "They CAN be used as attack dogs, but they're more effective at moving injured fighters to safety. Since you'll be helping Genesis (by the way, when you see him, tell him he still owes me five bucks), that's what you'll be using the dogs for. I like you, Celeste, so I'm going to let you use the finest we have."

With that, Mama Rowlf proudly opened a large cage. The huge Malamute inside immediately sprang to its proud feet. It was a fine dog with markings that would've shamed an Oreo cookie. Its back was a dark, rich black and its belly was a creamy white. Its eyes were bright and shone with playful intelligence. Its peaked ears moved about on the top of its lupine head, scanning the area like small satellites.

Celeste cocked her head at the perky creature. "Cute little bastard."

Rowlf beamed. "His name's Tommy."

"Tommy?" Zero snickered. "Jessi's playmate? The proud father?"

Mama Rowlf's smile wilted and pulled its roots to the corner of her mouth. "Let's not remind Mama Rowlf about that Terrence and Phillip incident. 'kay?" she growled.

Genesis paused long enough in his packing of medical supplies to look at Celeste and scratch his head in bewilderment. "No kidding. She gave you Tommy to help us?"

"Turns out Mama Rowlf really likes me," Celeste sighed. "For some reason, that makes me want to cry."

"I'm not surprised. She can be rather intimidating. By the way, I'm really gonna need your help taping ripped up humans back together in this battle, so thanks a lot for crippling yourself beforehand and gaining an excuse to stay out of the fighting! Pip and I will need all the help we can get."

"Sure..." Celeste flumped down on an empty bed beside her.

Genesis sensed the human's depression and pat her on the head. "Now now," he crooned. "Don't be so disappointed. You'll see plenty of action. You and Tommy will be pulling mangled people off the field. Doesn't that sound like fun?"

Celeste gave her friend a polite smile. "Of course. By the way, who'll be running the Medical Unit here while we're fighting out there?"

"Ozzie," Genesis drawled as he pawed through a mismatched assortment of items in a drawer. "He used to work here before he ran off with the circus -- er, I mean, the Night Vipers. He's a bit rusty, but he remembers the essentials."

Ozzie burst through the doors of the Medical Unit at that moment, lustily clutching a rubber tube above his head like Quasimido with the body of Esmerelda on top of the Notre Dame cathedral. However, he was howling "Enema!" instead of "Sanctuary!" It was definitely a disturbing sight, and every human patient in the room pulled his cover over his head and sobbed quietly.

"Yeah, what else does he need to know," Celeste mumbled.

Genesis' visor flashed in annoyance. "Celeste, your depression is not doing my karma any good. If I show you something neat, do you promise to pull your chin out of your cereal?"

"I didn't mean to depress you. I'll leave..."

"Shut up and look at this," Genesis said as he creaked a small velvet box open in front of Celeste's eyes. There, nestled in royal purple, patiently lay a tiny silver whistle. The lights in the room skated effortlessly across its surface, leaving a trail of rainbow that soothed Celeste's eyes. It looked pretty old.

"It's gorgeous," Celeste gasped. She meant it.

"Isn't it though," Genesis said. He snapped the box shut as Celeste reached for it, like a clam protecting its pearl. "Sorry my dear...I don't want greasy little human paws to touch this. Nothing personal. It just means a lot to me. I've had this trinket for as long as I can remember...and best of all, eet's got eerie powers."

"What does it do?"

Genesis tucked the box away with the rest of the stuff he was bringing to the battle. "I have a feeling you'll see soon enough."

"By the way," Celeste said. "What's our army being called?"

Genesis grimaced. "The Starship Troopers."

"Oh my Lord, that's lame."

"Easy, Tommy...heel!"

Those three words became Celeste's entire vocabulary the minute the "Starship Troopers" departed for Siggy's fortress and the massive battle that waited for them.

"He's just excited to see the light of day," Genesis chuckled as he waved at the huge open space that yawned every which way. Behind the troops lay the city, a nest of diamonds that glittered in the twilight.

Celeste said nothing, keeping a short leash on Tommy. Something was making her uneasy...very, very uneasy. And it wasn't just the battle at the end of the trail. It was the plain itself, the sprawling space that made her feel so tiny, the strangely lifeless, dried-up grasses which clattered softly like impossibly thin bones whenever a hot puff of breath stirred them.

"Genesis...I don't think I can stand this. This place is seriously creeping me out."

The fox chuckled. "Not surprised. Like most humans, you were born and raised in a city with noise surrounding you at all times. You're probably overwhelmed by the silence and sheer size of this place."

"No...it's more than that, I'm sure. Why the hell isn't this place developed? Where are the humans? Forget that, were are the animals? There's nothing here!"

Genesis laced his hands behind his head as he walked. "You ever learn about World War III?" he asked. "Happened just before humans started to seriously build 'bots."

Celeste nodded. "My great-grandmother lived through that war. Heard all sorts of stories from her."

"Nuclear weapons were used, as you know," Genesis said. "And although it wasn't quite the end of the world like people predicted it would be...well, I'll say this much; this area used to be developed. Hell, it used to thrive."

"Good God!" Celeste yelped. "You mean..."

"Kapcom definitely isn't the only city in the world with a huge, dead prairie surrounding it, Celeste. 'Skeleton Grasslands' like this one won't be able to safely support long-term life for quite a few generations yet." Genesis arched his back. "They've made for some excellent battle-grounds, though," he growled. "Humans sure love tradition when it comes to slaughtering each other." He wheeled around at the antlike line of Hunters who were staggering far behind under the weight of the medical supplies they were carrying.

"Come ON!" he roared. "My gramma can move faster than you idiots...and she's DEAD!"

Night flopped its dark flank on the Skeleton Grassland. Celeste found an unnaturally large hill that rose out of the flat land like a growth. She parked herself there, tucked her knees up to her chest, and watched the ongoings in the camp below her. Fires were being built, food rations were being burned, and eventually the humans slunk off to find some place to sleep...quite a few of them in pairs. Celeste could hardly blame them for having a good time together before they died tomorrow. Domestic discipline was lax for that very reason. The Starship Troopers had been accurately named.

The fires burned low and red and hot, but Celeste couldn't even think about going to sleep. She peered out across the west for a sign of the Maverick army. She didn't see any trace of enemy camp...but what she did see nearly made her strangle on her heart anyway.

The plains were glowing ever so slightly. A pulsating, calm purple that could barely be noticed. Its quiet subtlety is what squeezed Celeste's insides with hot claws...the way the radiation just lay there like some ancient but deadly beast...the terror it had been spawned of all those years back...the terror that ate acres of land, tormented thousands with slow deaths, caused hideous birth defects and mutations...

Like your Mindspeak, perhaps?

Celeste froze. Who said that? No answer, but at least it wasn't Torrent who'd spat ghosts in her ear. And tomorrow, it was all going to happen again. Humans clutching at their bloodied wounds, screaming and dying, the way they'd always done before...

"Hey. You all right?" Zero mounted the hill.

"No!" Celeste crackled as she pointed to the glowing plains. "LOOK at that!"

"Yeah, I guess it's kinda creepy," Zero drawled as he sat down beside Celeste. "I had a feeling you'd be disturbed, so I thought I'd keep you company."

"Thanks. I need it. This place is just so...I don't know."

The two sat in silence for a little while. Suddenly, something heavy and damp leaned into Zero. Surprised, the reploid turned around to find Celeste sobbing on his shoulder.

"You only seem to do this when I'm around," Zero chuckled softly as he put his arm around her and rubbed her back. "There now. That's what I came here for. Have yourself a good one."

The storm passed in a few minutes, and the two resumed their silent radiation-gazing, Celeste still in the crook of Zero's arm.

"I wonder what Gen would say about a human and reploid getting married," Zero mumbled.

Celeste snapped out of her sleepy state. "What?" she squeaked.

"Oh...just thinking up some long term plans," Zero smiled. "You know how I feel about you...and I know how you feel about me." Zero told Celeste about her antics under morphine. Celeste blushed, but she smiled shyly.

"It wouldn't exactly happen tomorrow," Zero said. "Hell, I gotta get out of Siggy's fortress alive. 'sides that, I want to learn more about myself and my past. But in the long run..." he gave Celeste a quick squeeze. "I want to take care of you someday." Unwinding himself, Zero reached behind him and placed the heavy, cold hilt of his lightsabre in Celeste's hands. "Here. I gave this to you once before, when I started to train you. I want you to keep it now."

Celeste stared at the metal cylinder, which glowed strangely in the purple-and-red. She was overwhelmed.

"It's a Lucas..."

"You bet. They don't make 'em anymore."

"But...you...have to fight tomorrow."

"Hell, I got plenty others. Not Lucas's, but the factory-run crap from the HQ. I'll manage."

"But...I can't take this! It's too valuable!"

Zero stroked Celeste's head with a quiet smile. "Well...it's not quite a ring," he laughed. "But I kinda figured the tradition called for an exchange of sorts. How about it? Will you marry me someday?"

Celeste stared at the sabre for a good while longer before she put it back down in front of Zero. Zero looked crushed, but Celeste put a hand on his knee for a second to reassure him. Then, she slowly rolled up her left pant leg. There, to Zero's astonishment, was a small leather sheath. And from the sheath, to Zero's additional astonishment, came a gorgeous dagger, which Celeste handed to her husband of someday.

Zero studied the dagger very closely. It was unlike anything he'd ever seen. The hilt was made of two crystal-studded snakes that twined around each other. In between its rich coils lay thin golden slabs...adenine, cynine, guanocine, thytocine. The blade was a simple point of silver.

"Two snakes forming a DNA helix," he mumbled. "Very clever. It must mean something. Where'd you get it?"

Celeste shrugged. "It was the middle of the night when dad left to go after Torrent. I was half asleep when he came into my room, hugged me and said he loved me. I woke up in the morning and that was beside my pillow. I guess he put it there. Damned if I know where he got it...he always had his secrets. Needless to say, it means a lot to me. I've been carrying it with me almost everywhere I go. I'd like you to have it. In case you can't get it through your blonde head by now...my answer is yes."

Celeste happily sank back into Zero and fell asleep in a matter of seconds. The Hunter quietly played the part of the pillow for the rest of the night, staring out over the slow, purple breathing of the Skeleton Grassland and thinking about what the future would be like with a human beside him. His thoughts almost drowned out the sound of Bass screaming in his mind.

Idiot! You'll turn back to us. Trust me. Why don't you listen to that fox who smells like piss?! Mark my words, baby brother. She's a human, and she'll break your heart. Just wait 'till she gets a hankering for some bacon in the oven. You can't give her THAT.

At some point in the night, a cold wind sprang up and shuddered through Celeste, who curled up into a fetal position but did not wake up. Zero gently swung his ponytail over his shoulder and covered the Huntress with a thin blanket of hair. Then he went back to guarding over her sleep like he'd done so many times before.

Chapter 34: Tommy Can You Hear Me?

"Oh, the city's alight with lovers and flame, and bright blue eyes..."

Maugrim sang softly in time to his marching feet, which swept over the dry grass like black death and cracked the blades beneath them. The sickly snapping was echoed hundreds of times behind him, mixed with a crescendo of clanking armour.

"An entire Maverick army at my disposal!" Drunk with excitement and anticipation, Maugrim draped his arms around J.T. and Duskclaw. "This is gonna be sweet. Lord Siggy made some good choices for his Generals, I'll tell you."

"Yeah, we get cool CB radios," Duskclaw giggled, lifting his black Motorola into view. Before anyone could stop him, he turned it on.

"310 calling Unit 323!" Duskclaw barked into the radio.

"Unit 323," a slightly-panicked voice choked out over the waspish sea of static. "What is your command?"

"Stop jerking off!"

"Uh...10-4?"

Duskclaw clicked the radio off and threw his lupine head back in a howl of laughter.

Maugrim frowned. "Dusk, behave yourself or I'm taking that away. This is no time to be stupid. In about twenty minutes, we'll be gutting sacks of humans like so many salmon."

Duskclaw lapsed into silence as he thought about the game before him. An entire Maverick army was at his hairy back, but only one of them possessed the coordinates needed to teleport into Siggy's fortres...

And Duskclaw happened to be that Maverick.

What fun! Dusk's smile dawned slowly with the sun. He gathered the coils of his weapon, a ferocious whip that was aptly named the Rattler's Fang. The objective of his sadistic 'game' began to form, and it entertained him as he marched. Some unlucky human female would discover that it wasn't so hard to get the coordinates from him after all...but in return, she'd have to stay and play for awhile. Just like Katt Luck. Life was dull without a girl to torment.

About a mile behind the advancing army, the rising sun spilled the shadow of Sigma's floating fortress across the Skeleton Grassland. The blackness slithered behind the troops like a guardian serpent.

"Papa sing my sing my song!..."

Day's dawnin', skin's crawlin'...

The army advanced rapidly towards the Hunters, a silvery river of chrome shimmering in the new sunlight. Celeste arched her back, narrowed her eyes, and allowed one longing hand stray to her lightsabre sheath. Instincts swam rapidly through her blood like fish in a stream, leaping playfully and calling to her tensed legs, daring them to beat down the hill towards the army along with the rest of the Hunters, like a little missile, weapon forward, mouth open in a war-cry...

No. Can't fight, won't fight. Will help Genesis like I said. Keep promise. Yeah. I'm a good girl, I am.

Celeste ground her teeth. Life was treating her like a little bitch lately. She turned her back towards the Mavericks, disgusted with herself. She certainly wasn't a fan of wars, but the sight of that advancing army was delicious in some twisted way. She marched back to the medical tent. X and Zero were leaning (carefully) against the flabby exterior, talking their plans over in low voices. Celeste snatched bits and pieces of their conversation.

"...get to the fortress...."

"...gotta find the bloody coordinates first..."

"...split up? Main attack force..."

"...on crack?"

"Bite me..."

Zero noticed Celeste standing beside him. He excused himself and pulled her aside.

"Good morn to you, missus. I assume you still have my sabre?"

"Of course."

Zero nodded. "Listen. Keep our little, uh, engagement under wraps for now, all right? Even after this whole Maverick mess is settled, I don't think that the idea of a human / reploid relationship would fly with the rest of civilization so soon after a war. It might take a while. But our time will come...all we need is a little patience."

Celeste nodded.

"Just a little patience. All right?"

"I know what you mean. Don't worry about me. I'm young, I can wait."

Zero grinned. "Thanks, Cel. This whole 'Maverick Fortress Go Boom' project is only the first step. X and I will be waiting here until we get the coordinates to enter the fortress." He gave Celeste a quick squeeze. "Whatever you do, watch your back out there. Mavericks don't give a damn if you're helping some poor Johnny Deformed off the field. They'll kick you upside the head regardless. Keep your eyes open, your ears strained, and your legs shaved."

"I will. And -- wait a minute -- my legs what?"

Tess wrung her sweaty hands over the handles of her heavy laser rifle. Her terrified mind rattled her thoughts until they strayed back at the day she decided to join the Hunters.

I did it just to get out of that damn refugee camp...for better living conditions...thought it would just involve training in action simulators...never thought it would lead up to this. Dirty trick. I miss maiming Class E bunnies...

Tess watched the glimmering vein of Mavericks slowly flow towards the heart of Hunters.

Now I'm on the front lines. One Maverick out of that whole mess has the coordinates we need. Oh, what in God's name do I do now?

"Steady, colt," Paul Wells murmured to Tess. "You're jittery. Don't do anything until I give the signal."

The head of the Maverick army was so close to the Hunters that Tess could see his red eyes burning in sunken pools in his head. Maugrim. He was flanked by two lackeys. On his tail was his army. The hoard rustled and clanked, eagerly waiting for their General's signal.

Maugrim's liquid eyes cooled as he looked up at the rise in the land where Paul and Tess stood. He raised a hand towards the Hunters.

"Humans. I hope you are prepared to kiss your monkey-asses goodby--"

A firey laser beam suddenly lanced from one of the Hunters' rifles. Maugrim's head exploded in a shower of synthetic fur, fluid, and metal.

Dumbfounded, Paul looked beside him. Tears streaked down Tess' face, burning paths in the layer of dust on her cheeks. The smoking barrel of her rifle slanted downwards and planted itself in the soft earth.

"I'm scared. I want to go home." she sobbed.

The armies leapt on each other. All Paul could see were wolf fangs...

Celeste learned very quickly that she'd be taking care of two types of people in the Medical tent. Those who were genuinely hurt and moaned like the dying, and the rabble with minor injuries who were well enough to leer and cat call.

"Hey Chicky! Don't I get to be shot up with drugs?"

Sweat plastered Celeste's bangs to her forehead. She lugged water and blankets to and fro, and now she had to deal with smartasses. She grit her teeth as she tripped over Tommy for the fifth time that day. The malamute rested after each run he and Celeste made to bring another injured Hunter off the field. She was glad at least one of them could rest.

"Bug Genesis," Celeste mumbled sleepily. "Drugs are bad, mmkay?"

"Heh heh...how 'bout a sponge bath?"

Oh, for the love of... "Ask Genesis nicely and give him lots of money. If he's in one of his 'moods' you just may get lucky," Celeste said as she dropped her huge load of blankets in Pip's outstretched arms. The small reploid was completely buried in the mass and very possibly smothering, but Celeste didn't give a monkey's butt. "I need fresh air. I'm going to have a cigarette now."

Rejuvenated by the sad means of nicotine, Celeste darted like a squirrel among the fighting troops. Tommy bounded ahead of her, his small cart bouncing and clattering against the uneven ground. He was a valuable companion; he could track down severely injured Hunters and move them to safety.

Tommy picked up the scent of fresh blood. He took off like a bat out of hell towards the source. Her breath rattling in her lungs and her lame leg slowing her down considerably, Celeste chugged behind, panting. Tommy was leading her to a rather secluded area.

"Tommy, where the hell are you taking me -- oh man ... is that ... "

Celeste screeched to a halt. Duskclaw towered in her path. An unconscious, unidentifiable human figure was sprawled face-down on the grass behind the huge wolf.

"G'day, miss."

Celeste's back bristled. Her lightsabre was already drawn. "You're Duskclaw, right?"

"Indeed I am."

"Who's that behind you?"

"Oh ..." Duskclaw shrugged nonchalantly. "A friend. He's kinda half dead now, and he's no good at Monopoly, so I figure I'll kill him in a bit. What a character he is! A great big bear of a man, and he's sobbing for his 'dad'. You wouldn't be interested in playing now, would you?"

Celeste's "witty comeback" cache was extremely low, and since she was always too short on time to refill it, she couldn't waste time with words. Instead, she slashed a red line down Duskclaw's maroon pelt; a bloody gouge that ran from the wolf's left shoulder to the right side of his hip.

Taken off guard, Duskclaw yelped and jumped back, panting with exertion, just as Celeste, who forgot her vow to take it easy, charged for him again.

This time the wolf was ready. The lash of a whip split the air like lightning. It coiled tightly around the Huntress' right arm and burned a bloody ring just above her wrist. Celeste howled, but she wisely kept her hold on her sabre.

The pain intensified as Duskclaw gave a jerk on the whip handle, drawing Celeste right up to his heaving, lupine face. "S-24, N-64," he breathed in her face.

Celeste blinked back the tears of pain that blurred her eyes. "W -- what?" she gasped.

"S-24, N-64. Those are the coordinates to get into Sigma's fortress. Two may enter. Go tell your little friends now, and have a nice day."

Duskclaw loosened the whip and bounded off, clearing the path to the wounded human behind him. Celeste was completely confused as to why Duskclaw left her alone, but she didn't have time to waste to stand and puzzle things out in the wind.

"Tommy? Where are you, boy?"

At the sound of his friend's voice, Tommy slithered out of a patch of long, dry grass. He had been hiding himself.

"Thanks for your help," Celeste snorted. "Come on, let's see who this is."

Genesis stepped out of the Medical tent to join X and Zero as they watched the violent sea of warriors churn below them. The smell of blood hung in the air like a thick red mist. X shook his head at the fighting. "Terrible," he mumbled.

"Arousing," Zero grinned.

"Tiring," Genesis sighed as watched Celeste and Tommy pull yet another maimed Hunter towards him. The three met up with the Huntress, who appeared very down in the mouth.

"Who you got there, Celeste?" Zero said.

"Paul. He's on his way out."

"Done all I can...not going to be enough."

Celeste and Genesis looked helplessly at Zero parked bedside Paul's bed. Paul was completely motionless, but the reploid was whimpering and murmuring to himself, clenching and unclenching his fists.

"It's really too bad about Paul," Genesis said, "but I'd like to know why Zero's so broken up about him specifically. There are plenty of other near-dead humans in here he could moon over."

Insensitive bastard. Celeste suddenly remembered something. She padded softly towards Zero and put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up at her with dead eyes.

"My poor boy," he said in a raspy whisper that was devoid of energy.

Celeste had no idea what he meant. "S-24, N-64. Those are the coordinates, Zero. I'm really sorry about Paul."

Zero blinked a listless thanks. Then he transformed. He knocked over his chair and stormed out of the tent. In a few seconds, the protesting voice of X wafted back to Celeste and Genesis.

"OW! Let go! That's my EAR! Where are you dragging me to--?"

X's squeals cut off suddenly like a door had been slammed.

"Celeste, I never knew you had the coordinates," Genesis scratched his head.

Celeste nodded heavily. "I got 'em from Duskclaw, the Maverick who sliced up Paul like that. It was weird, though...he just gave them to me and left. But he also gave me this." Wincing, Celeste held up her right arm that Duskclaw had lashed. The wound wasn't bleeding anymore, but for all the world, Celeste could swear that a small film of foam was gathering on it. "I think you'd better check it out. I haven't been feeling so hot since I got it."

Genesis took a close look at the ragged wound. He sniffed at it suspiciously and rubbed a bit of the froth between his fingers. He stuck out his tongue a bit ... a sure sign that he was disturbed.

"Oh hell...this we don't need."

Celeste blanched. "What is it?"

"Heh. Bad news, my dear. You've been poisoned."

A purple-red sunset flushed the sky as X and Zero touched down on the surface of Sigma's flying fortress.

"'Sigma's Flying Fortress.' Sounds like a casino," Zero snorted.

A summer evening wind brushed at the Hunters' skin gently. It was a ghostly feeling. Zero went over the plan.

"Here we are thanks to the sacrifices of many brave men and women, yadda yadda. I'd ask for a moment of silence for them and Paul," Zero's voice went heavy, "but I know that you're a fidgety bastard, X, and you couldn't lie still for your own funeral. Here's what we're going to do. We'll split up. According to reports, the fortress has a main defense force on the upper levels. I'll keep it busy and you slip in. How's that?"

Zero didn't wait for a whole answer. He sped off, leaving X hanging in mid sentence.

I have scaled these city walls ... only to be with you ...

Zero shimmied up a steep wall, a difficult venture due to the fact that the wall was as smooth as ice.

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for...

Indeed, Zero had no idea what he was looking for. Even after spelunking for 15 minutes, there was no trace of a "main defense force."

Could be just over this wall...

Zero swung himself over the top. From his view, he could see that four walls connected to make a box.

What the hell? Wonder if this is the place?

Zero leapt down from his perch. He was now completely enclosed; quick escape would be impossible if it were needed. He inspected the prison. On the far north wall, he noted some scratches ... a verse that looked like it had been etched into the wall with claws. Zero squinted at the words:

Come with me honey,
I'm your sweet sugar Candy Man
Run like the wind
Fly with me to Bounty Land
Bite me, I'm yours
If you're hungry, please understand
This is the end
Of the sweet sugar Candy Man!

The second Zero finished the last word, something huge whizzed by his ear and stuck itself into the wall just beside the Hunter's face. A lance. Spidery cracks, spawned by the impact of the weapon, skittered across the verse. Zero bit his tongue as a draconian shadow fell on the wall, its wings outstretched from one corner to the other. The crimson reploid didn't even need to turn around to figure out who the main defense force actually was. The guttural voice was a clue enough.

"I am the Lizard Queeeen!"

This was going to be a long night.

Chapter 35: Under a Blood Red Sky

Poisoned. Now why does this crap always seem to happen to me?

Celeste idly kicked her legs over the edge of the table while she waited for Genesis to return. Funny, she didn't feel as if she'd been poisoned … she was a bit sleepy, but that was it. Outside, the dull explosions of battle thrummed in her ears. At least she was safe here for the time being … Genesis returned. He looked puzzled, an expression that was very unbecoming on the confident reploid fox. "Well Celeste, I ran those blood tests. Good news and bad. You're not poisoned, per say. That's the good news. Now here's the bad. I don't know what the hell is in your blood right now. If anything, it's a narcotic. How do you feel?"

"Drowzy," Celeste yawned on cue.

Genesis scratched his head. "Wild. I guess the Mavericks use the stuff to slow down the human Hunters … but they would be more likely to use a poison that would kill you in screaming torments, y'know?"

That was a thought that had teeth, and it occupied Celeste's head all right.

"I wonder what's up?" Genesis mumbled. "This is too weird. Moreover, I don't like the way that poison smells."

Celeste blinked. "What smell?"

"You probably can't smell it," Genesis snorted with an air of reploid superiority, "but I can smell it from clear across the room, even though we washed your arm and bandaged it. Bitter stuff. I don't like this at all. At any rate, I want you to take it easy until I know what's up. Try getting some sleep."

Both armies were well aware that X and Zero were already in the fortress. The coordinates had been found. Any fighting between them was now just senseless killing.

And for that reason, it continued.

It wasn't about serving a particular leader anymore. It was just about taking out aggressions: humans were sick of living in fear of being overthrown as the dominating species. They were backed into a corner and they would fight claw-to-claw for their territory. This, of course, only aggravated the Mavericks further.

Deep in the swamp of clashing metal, oil and blood, Josh was dealing with J.T, one of Maugrim's last remaining Fenris soldiers. The humans were holding up surprisingly well; the Mavericks had underestimated them and were simply unable to match them in numbers. J.T. wasn't particularly fond of battle; he was not trained. But things were getting desperate.

Josh was on an adrenaline high, enjoying himself immensely as he easily danced around the staggering wolf before him who raked at his stomach with clumsy swipes.

Froth that was laced with grief for the loss of Paul and confused compassion for Tess' role in the death boiled in Josh's stomach and flecked his lips. He was in a furious trance. He slugged J.T. in the stomach with the butt of his laser rifle. As the wolf doubled over, Paul cracked him over the head. J.T. clutched at his abused skull and yelped shamefully like a puppy.

"J.T.!" Duskclaw called sharply to his companion from a safe distance. "He's berserk. Forget him, fall back!"

As Duskclaw spoke, a red beam grazed a hot path on his left shoulder.

"Bloody hell! J.T.! Get back here NOW!"

J.T. bounded away from Josh and took his place beside Duskclaw. Duskclaw glowered at Josh, who likewise glared down at the duo from a swell in the earth. His stance dripped silent pride. The dying sun graced his skin with blood.

"Who's in charge of your army, human?" Duskclaw called up to the Beast on the Tumour.

"What do you want? I'll relay any messages you have."

"This battle is becoming pointless. The Hunters already have the coordinates, and neither side can do anything now but wait to see the outcome. I say we quit the spat this evening, hmmm? We need a break and some repairs, and YOUR kind can't remain on this wasteland for very much longer if ya'll wanna hear the pitter-patter of little feet in the future!"

Some of the insanity drained out of Josh's eyes. His pupils dilated. He touched earth again.

"It sounds reasonable," he said. "I'll see what can be done. You'll get your answer in half an hour. Meet me back at this spot." Josh walked in search of authority, his laser rifle clacking hollowly against his armoured thigh.

J.T. scratched his head and grunted. "Well, you brought HIM around real quickly."

Duskclaw snorted in return. "I saved your green pansy-ass, that's what I did! Your problem -- no, every Maverick's problem - is the fact that they don't know how humans think. That's the key to winning the war. Oh sure, use brute force and hunt 'em out…they'll dig themselves deeper underground. They're slippery bastards. Back them into a corner and they'll fight like wild dogs."

J.T. still looked puzzled. "So why…?"

Duskclaw was gradually sinking into a pool of disgust. "You're supposed to be the smart one," he said. "Didn't you hear what I said to that monkey-boy?"

"Well…yeah!" J.T.'s eyes lit up as he recalled the brief conversation. He was starting to understand.

Duskclaw nodded. "Humans are really only terrified of threats they can't see," he explained. "Insanity, sterility, disease…you can't see 'em sneak up on you. You can't prevent them. And when they do attack, you can't fight back. You have no control over what happens to you. Humans can't stand that. And speaking of humans…" Duskclaw poked his nose into the air and picked out a foamy, bitter scent among the nearly overpowering death-musk that hazed the field. "…we have one stop to make before we lead the troops home. Follow me."

J.T. looked uncertain. "Do you really think that Maugrim would've stopped the battle?"

Duskclaw sighed and adjusted the black coils of the Rattler's Fang into a more comfortable position on his hip. "Well, you see, friend, Maugrim is kinda splattered all over the Grasslands at the moment and he won't be leading jack whoop from now on. I'm in charge. Now let's go pick up our package."

Celeste woke up slowly, her brain sending a sluggish wave of panic as she realized that she could barely move. Her limbs felt as if they were tied to cinderblocks. Around her, she could hear muffled cries.

This is screwed. I can't move. What's going on?

She was able to slit open her eyelids. Garish white light from the Medical tent opening poured onto her face and flooded her vision. For a panicky moment, Celeste thought she had gone blind … until an enormous wolf, a silhouette cutout in the white sea, hung its shaggy head over her bed.

"Well well, here's my little princess," the shadow said low purr. "The Rattler's Fang did a number on you, eh? Good! Come with me, little one. We'll take good care of you."

"Gen…" Celeste began, but the cry for help slid back down her throat and choked her.

"No noise now," Duskclaw whispered soothingly. "We don't want to wake up the other nice Hunters. Right, J.T.?"

Celeste's vision cleared enough for her to see a green wolf flank the other side of her bed. The lupine Maverick flicked one of his claws and a few drops of stray blood splashed on Celeste's face.

"Oh…I doubt they'll be waking up for a long time."

"Red, Red, Red. What am I going to do with you, my sweet Reddy?"

"Try leaving me alone and see what happens!"

Zero slowly turned to face the huge Mechadrake roosting proudly atop of the opposite wall. "That's not an option, honey. I want to get over that wall."

"Hmm. Probably not gonna happen," Red drawled as she held out her left and curved her claws towards the wall where her lance was embedded. Some unseen force caused the formidable weapon to wriggle out of its new crevice and fly back to Red's open hand.

"Magnetic Fetch," Red explained as she observed Zero's puzzled look. "I can call the lance back to me after I've thrown it."

"Ah," Zero said thoughtfully. "All this time I thought you'd have to get it yourself."

Red snorted. "That's stupid. Why be a throwback to the caveman era? I ain't huntin' mammoths." She fell silent, glaring down keenly at the Hunter below. She squatted diligently on the north side of the "box" that Zero was trapped in, leaning on her lance for support. The unbroken wind lashed at her raven ponytail, whipping it to and fro. It was easy to tell that her battle instincts were slowly seeping into her limbs.

Zero squared his shoulders. "So you're this 'main defense force,' eh?"

Red's tounge flickered. "Yare."

"And this is going to come down to a fight, obviously."

Now Red was grinning, showing teeth. "Yare."

"That's too bad. I was hoping for some melodrama. I'd sob and cry, ask why you betrayed me and killed all those nice innocent people. Then you'd break down, touched by my emotional side, and you'd say, 'Why bless my soul Zero, I've been a right nasty bastard! I have seen the light!' and life would be cool again. See?"

Red cleared her throat and slowly fanned out her wings. They blotted out the dusty purple sky like giant, leathery blinds. The Mechadrake looked like a huge bird of prey, ready to kill. "Well, Zero," she rumbled, "we have a saying back home in Toronto, and we go by it religiously."

"What would that be?"

" 'Life is short, life is shit, and soon it will be over.' "

The two warriors stared at each other, sinking in a suffocating muck of love and hate. Finally, Zero managed a lopsided, sickly grin. "I love you, Pumpkin," he smirked.

Red's grin likewise looked diseased, but it was sharper, hungrier. "I love you too, Honeybunny."

Red raised her head to the sky and bellowed. She threw herself down into the box, battle instincts churning in her eyes and fluids. The remains of the sun's light bathed itself on her lance's silver blades and glanced off as the weapon met Zero's light sabre with an echoing clash. The arena was quickly filled up with the battle-prelude until the ominous sound overflowed and splashed onto the rest of the Fortress and the Plains below.

The metallic scent of fresh blood was just beginning to bloom inside the stuffy Medical tent when Genesis walked back in. His eyes bugged out of his visor and his jaw went slack as he regarded the occupants of the tent, now silent, their throats cut open, their blood trickling down their necks and soaking into their sheets.

"Good God!"

Duskclaw's arms were full of limp Celeste, so it was J.T. who whipped around and tensed, ready to pounce on Genesis at the first sign of resistance. But Genesis only hung his head and wrinkled his nose sadly. He removed his visor and rubbed his damp eyes with the back of his arm.

"Didn't know you guys were quite this bad," he half-mumbled, half-sighed. "Kill a bunch of bedridden humans who have no hope in hell of fighting back…how low can you possibly get…" Genesis straightened up and replaced his visor. He ran his claws through his sweat-plastered hair. "Sorry Paul," he grunted quietly. "I'll take care of Clyde."

J.T. loosened up and took a look around the silent tent, the vivid splotches of red against the sterile white, the blood caked on his own claws and matted in his fur. Duskclaw, however, was unfazed.

"You need to stop talking to dead people, freaky little man. Come along. Quietly, now."

Genesis dried up in a hurry. "Like hell!" he roared, bristling. "Put Celeste down. So that's what that poison was for."

"Right," Duskclaw grinned. "Why do you think the whip is called the Rattler's Fang? Rattlesnakes bite their victims, then let them run off…but the scent of the venom lets the snake find its prey later, when it's too weak to move anymore."

"Hrrmph," Genesis snuffled. His hand unconsciously fell to the niche in his armour where he was storing his nearly forgotten whistle. His options were limited if he wanted to protect Celeste, who was writhing feebly in her net of fur and muscles. A plan was starting to unfold within Genesis. Thinking on his feet was his strong point. He was, after all, a fox.

"All right. I'll come, as long as you don't hurt her."

"Oh, sure," Duskclaw snickered. "Come on."

The four stepped out of the tent. Below them, the war was churning to a halt. The armies were separating, going their own ways, carrying their own who couldn't walk. A fresh breeze dropped from the blackening sky, washing the humid, sticky scent of war from the plains. Lightning forked the sky in the west, promising rain. Mother Nature was experienced in cleaning up after her children and their rebellious, more metallic children.

The two wolves and the fox paused for a second in a rare moment of mutual enjoyment. The cool breath of air felt good against their tired, sweaty faces. The break didn't last long: Josh came trudging up the hill to meet Genesis, thoroughly exhausted. A line of blood ran and dripped from under his left eye to his chin.

Duskclaw drew himself up to his full height. "Stay there!" he barked.

Josh looked up at the tent for the first time, confused. "The hell?!"

"Don't come near us," Genesis warned. "We'll be all right. Find Pip and the two of you do whatever you can for the folks inside the tent."

J.T. took a firm grip on Genesis' shoulder and led him away from the Medical tent and past Josh, who was completely taken aback, but stood his ground. Down the hill they marched, joining the river of Mavericks that slowly flowed its way back towards their Fortress.

Don't breathe fire…oh, for the love of God, don't breathe fire…

Zero prayed harder and harder as his viewpoint got less and less pleasant. He was on his back, Red's lance pressing against his chest, which he strained against with desperate strength. The Mechadrake's cavernous maw, lined with dripping, yellow teeth, snapped a bare inch away from his face. Zero dared to take one hand off the lance he was straining against to jam his lightsabre in Red's neck, just under her powerful jaw. She didn't appreciate that. Howling, she reared back on her hind legs again…raising Zero and his jammed lightsabre along with her! Zero's weight dragged him downwards, the sabre ripping through the Mechadrake's hide. A crimson rain of scales and blood showered the Hunter. The triumph that sparked in him was short-lived…as he fell downwards, Red smacked him with her lance like a child playing T-ball. Zero and his sabre went flying in opposite directions. The sabre bounced once against the concrete and rolled to a gentle stop behind Red's barbed ankles. Zero, however, splattered against the east wall. Red was laughing like a lunatic, despite the river of vital blackish-red fluid that positively flowed down her long neck.

"Got a one way ticket on your last-chance ride, got a one way ticket to your suicide!" she chanted as she tossed her head, beads of blood splashing in all directions. She leaped into the air, hovered for a second and chucked her lance where Zero lay, stunned.

And, by some miracle, she missed.

The lance cracked into the wall like a lightning bolt, right beside Zero's right hand. The Hunter's fighting instincts directed him as he groped for the lance and took hold of its cool shaft.

Cursing, Red held out her hand towards her weapon, claws curved. The lance wiggled free once more and flew back to its owner…this time with Zero in tow.

"Hey!" The Mechadrake snarled. She held up the weapon horizontally, with both hands. Zero dangled like an athlete who was too tired to attempt his last chin-up. "Let go, you little red monkey! No hitchhiking on the Deltawyrm Lance!"

"Hmrrmm…" Zero mumbled through the red haze that filled his eyes and mouth. "Get away from me Bass, I ain't dead yet." Instincts taking over once more, he booted Red square in the stomach, subsequently discovering the one weak spot of all Mechadrakes.

Not even Red, who could have half her neck chewed up without being fazed, was quite prepared for the fun of getting slugged in the gut with a sharp metal boot. Her eyes bulged out upon impact, her tounge flopped out of her mouth, and her claws loosened their grip on her lance, spilling Zero and the deadly weapon on the ground together.

Sense found a path into Zero's little head once more. Hardly missing a beat, he scooped up the lance and sprang at Red with every fibre of strength in his body. The stunned 'drake flopped and toppled like a stack of building blocks. By the time she was lucid again, she herself was on her back, this time with Zero pressing the lance against HER belly.

"Uh, man, not good," she whimpered.

Zero grinned. "Wanna cooperate now, Reddy?"

Red was in complete submission now, all fours up in the air. "Leave me alone!" she shrieked, utterly terrified. "Get away from my stomach!"

"Ah…so even MECHADRAKES have a weakness, huh?" the Hunter grinned. "I don't believe it! You guys can't stand being in a state of submission! You don't like having your stomach exposed! Once you're on your back, you're screwed. Please excuse my very poor choice of words."

"I'll let you go up the stupid wall! Just let me up!"

The lance receeded. Red shakily hauled herself up on her feet. "Jeeeeeeezzz…"

Zero stared at his former friend.

Red grinned, more like her old self now that she was back on her feet. "Nice fight, old chap."

Zero couldn't help smiling back. "Felt good, didn't it? If I were human, I'd want a cigarette. Now, you'll let me go up the wall?"

"Of course!" Red bowed. "I'm at your service."

"You're selling what now?"

"Silly. It's a little thing among Mechadrakes called "battle respect." You defeated me…I have to assist you in any way I can."

Zero's face lit up. "Great! Because, you see, there's this guy named Sigma…"

"Within limits," Red snorted.

"Oh. Well, maybe one day we'll be on the same side again," Zero said.

"Yes. And maybe one day, angels will fly out of my-"

"Take me to the top of the wall," Zero coughed suddenly.

"Certainly!" Red grabbed Zero by his ponytail. "Let's fly!"

The dragon tensed her back legs and launched towards the top of the east wall, massive wings slicing through the night air, her cargo screaming the whole way up.

Chapter 36: In The Name of Love, Dangit!

J.T. took a deep breath and tiptoed to the heavy, double-locked cell door. He pressed his body against the icy metal and peered in through the frosted window, his breath fogging up the translucent glass.

Celeste and Genesis were curled up together in the the black dampness of the corner furthest from the door. They looked like two sleeping, helpless puppies in a whelping box just emptied of their brothers and sisters. Celeste was the sickly pup that would eventually be culled, and Genesis was the protective, ferocious pup that no one could handle.

J.T. carefully grasped the door handle and turned it slowly, avoiding any noise, he couldn't afford to make any noise this time, oh please don't let the door squeak when it opens…

Success.

J.T. exhaled and padded softly to where the two pups lay, half shrouded by wet darkness. The wolf cursed inwardly when he noticed that Genesis was still draped over Celeste. He'd been protecting her since they'd arrived. But it would have to stop now. Duskclaw wanted Celeste in the lab, chop chop. J.T. carefully reached for the human at the bottom of the little jumble…

And received a face full of Genesis for his trouble.

J.T. shrieked and batted a big paw at the furry hurricane that slashed at his throat. The lucky shot struck home, and the fox tumbled across the dank concrete floor. He regained his composure and rolled back onto his feet just in front of Celeste, bristled and snarling, hunched over like a rabid dog.

"Stay away from her!"

Startled by Genesis' uncharacteristic ferocity, J.T. backed away. "You can't keep this up, Genesis."

"Watch me!"

The door boomed shut again. J.T. was gone, for now.

Celeste rose her head wearily. She was still slow, but the effects of the Rattler's Fang were slowly starting to slip away. "Thanks, Gen. I really wish I could defend myself, but they took my lightsabre."

Genesis cooled down and sat next to where Celeste lay. "I know, hon," he murmured. "Just try to relax." He'd stopped saying "We'll be all right" a long time ago.

The cell was alive with dead sounds, water dripping, paws scurrying. Celeste breathed deep of the blackness and steadied herself.

"Gen…we can't hold out for much longer, can we."

Genesis squared his shoulders. "Honestly? No, we can't."

"Any plans…?"

"Not really."

Celeste wasn't upset. Just beaten. Tired. She sank back down and closed her eyes. Seconds after she drifted into a troubled sleep, she was prodded awake again by a grinding sound…the haunting sound of a weapon being sharpened. Celeste opened her eyes completely. Genesis was still beside her. He'd unsheathed his claws, and we was filing them on the rough stone floor. Their points glinted wickedly in the dull light. Celeste's own powerful thoughts caught scent of the disturbing current running through the fox's mind.

"Genesis, what are you doing?" she said in alarm, now fully awake.

Genesis didn't stop whetting. "The second Duskclaw ushered us into this toilet, I swore to myself that I wouldn't let them take you alive. I intend to keep that vow."

"Uh…what do you mean?"

Genesis wasn't one to beat around the bush. "I'm going to kill you before they can get their hands on you, and I want to make it as quick and painless as possible."

Celeste blinked, disbelieving. "I don't understand," she said stupidly. "I'm your friend."

"You have the wrong idea," Genesis chuckled without humour. "I'm your friend, too. And Zero's. That's why I'm going to do this."

Terrified reality seeped into Celeste's eyes. "You don't have to. I can take whatever they dish out."

Genesis took a firm grip on Celeste's right shoulderpad. "If I thought that," he said quietly, "I wouldn't go through with this. If you were a reploid, or even just male, I'd let you go through whatever's coming to you. But it's not like that." Genesis tightened his claws. "See, Mavericks don't kill their human female victims. That's the problem. A few months ago, Katt Luck was in the same screw-up situation as you're in now…we found her a week later, starved and beaten…but that wasn't the worst of it." Genesis stared into space and bit his lip as his mind wandered back to that godawful day. Katt half conscious, her skeletal body draped between two Hunters, her eyes sunken, black and ghostly, and a rusty red gash across her lower abdomen, crawling with infection, roughly sewn up… "Well, you know me by now, I'm far from squeamish, but it's even difficult for me to think about what they did to her. But let's just say the Mavericks ripped her open, but they wanted her to live. They had a specific purpose for their 'operation.'"

Celeste didn't miss a beat. "Sterilization?"

"Bingo."

"Christ," Celeste said in a hazy voice as she turned her eyes down to the floor. "That's awful."

"Of course it is, and the smarter Mavericks know it," Genesis said. "Duskclaw is a known terror, he's dedicated his life to studying human behaviour and thinking patterns. It makes for a fun playtime. He knows that genetic termination is the cruelest thing you can do to a human, particularly females, and that's why he does it! He loves torture, and that's why I'm going to kill you before he makes you his new playmate!"

"But what about you?"

"Pah!" Genesis half-laughed. "No worries. I may be with the 'enemy', but I'm still a reploid. Worst they can do to me is give me a dignified death. But if I were to let you go through what Katt went through, Zero would never forgive me."

A curtain of silence fell over the duo. As Celeste digested the rather horrific information Genesis fed her, she drew a shaky, sob-laced breath. Genesis was right, but she couldn't just stand by and let herself get killed. Caught cruelly between instinct and reality, Celeste was frozen on the spot, a green current of adrenaline trembling through her body, washing away the last of the Rattler's Fang poison. Genesis sensed the restless tossing and turning of her instincts and grinned gently, pulling her into a hug. "There now dear, it's for the best."

Without warning, the fox shoved Celeste roughly out of the embrace. The Huntress took a bit of a tumble, instincts screaming through her blood. Panicked, she looked up just in time to see Genesis bear down on her, vicious teeth streaking white through the darkness, the glittering blackness of his claws aimed for her neck. Her system in overdrive, Celeste let her genes take over. She rolled into a sitting position. Genesis fell short of his target and thudded on the sandpaper-rough stone floor. He grunted, sat up, shook his head and leaped again.

"It's for your own good! Stop screwing around, you'll make this harder!"

Celeste silently locked her hands together and swung her arms. Her elbow caught Genesis in the stomach. An "Ulf!" sound sprang from the fox's gut and he rolled backwards, hitting the ground hard. A small, silver cylinder jumped from Genesis' armour and bounced twice before it rolled to a stop in the middle of the cell. Celeste watched it in a trance for a few minutes while Genesis lay flat on his stomach like a run over chipmunk, sucking in air. The whistle shone anciently, brilliantly, a spectre from a past life.

"Genesis!" Celeste said suddenly.

Genesis opened one eye, his tongue lolling between his fangs, his breath rasping. "Wh-what?"

"Your whistle."

Genesis' tinted eyewear fell on his prized possession. "Oh…"

"Maybe it can help us."

"Oh, nice, daughter of Jake. How?"

Celeste narrowed her eyes. "You told me the stupid thing had powers or some crap!"

"Yeah, well, I lied!" Genesis painfully hauled himself to his knees. "If I knew it would actually help us, I would've used it by now. I usually just carry it around as a good luck charm. Fat lot of good it did us, eh?" The fox grinned in spite of himself.

"Have you ever played it before?"

"Yes. It DOES sound kinda nice. Very soothing. But it does jack. Listen. We're both stressed out. Take a break, and we'll talk further about where you're gonna end up. 'kay?"

Celeste nodded slowly and lay back down to mull over her thoughts. Genesis sluggishly picked himself up from the floor and sulked with his bruises in the opposite corner like an unruly schoolboy. The whistle lay between them, watching.

With the cold of the floor seeping through her back like water, Celeste, who felt strangely at peace, thought about what route to take next. The situation pretty much sucked. There was no escape…

It works, you know.

Mindspeak. Celeste's eyes flew open. Oh no. Not THIS.

The voice in Celeste's head was smooth, and curled softly within her, like gentle grey smoke. It meant no harm. The whistle. The fox can't use it, but you can. It works.

I sure won't miss any of this when I'm dead. Who is it this time? You're not Torrent, I know that much.

I'm the very same who talked to you that night on the Skeleton Grasslands. I've known you all my life, and athough you don't remember me, I chose you to bring me into life. I'm obligated to get you out of this, although I'm in no state to physically appear. Close your eyes.

Celeste complied with little hesitation. After all, this newcomer was pretty tame compared to Torrent's loud, yet somehow subtle, perverted thoughts. And it looked as if Mindspeak was going to be a normal part of her life, sadly enough.

Relax. Go to sleep.

Whether by some force or her own exhaustion, Celeste tipped into a sleepy blackness as if she leaned too far back on a chair. She opened her eyes to a dream.

She was a little girl, not much older than four, with pigtails and a red yarn sweater that itched her badly. She felt weak, as if she'd just recovered from a long bout of sickness. Her chubby fingers were wrapped tightly around a silver cylinder -

A whistle! Neato!

It was a whistle like Genesis'. Its mouthpiece was still wet, as if she'd just played it. Celeste's breakfast jumped around in her small stomach. Before her was a forest of tubes, tubes that seemed to stretch from the ground to the sky from her viewpoint. The room was dark, the only light was the unworldly, greenish-white pulsing of the material inside the cylinders. In the tube directly in front of her, some kind of black, leathery creature stared at her gently with cinder-eyes while it floated in its bed of sustenance. Curious, it cocked its reptilian head at Celeste with a childlike curiosity. Satisfying approval flowed into her mind like warm soup running down her throat. Whatever the creature was, it liked her. It scratched softly on its glass wall. The top of the tube opened with a dry serpent's hiss, and the creature gripped the slippery rim, dripping, hauling itself into the biting cold air and slithering towards the floor, inching to Celeste, fanning its small wings to dry it off…

Celeste's eyes jumped open. She was her regular 19-year-old-going-on-20 self again, staring at the sickly ceiling of her prison. The droplet of dirty water that subsequently splashed on her forehead was the final kick that verified she was back in reality.

The hell was that all about? she asked fiercely of the stranger.

A flashback you can't recall, if you can figure that one out! It's a long story. But to make it short, that was me as a juvenile Mechadrake, and that was you as a little girl among the Inheritors of Eden.

Celeste moaned inwardly. Not this crap again. I can't take this anymore.

Never mind that, the stranger huffed. You'll know more someday. For now, you're getting the hell out of here. First step. Grab that whistle in the middle of the room.

With nothing to lose, Celeste rolled over sleepily as if she were in bed. She reached lazily for the wizened instrument. Genesis looked over his shoulder and cocked his head at her.

"Ya'll right? Whatchya on?"

Celeste didn't answer; the stranger was speaking to her again. Blow it.

The Huntress couldn't help but chuckle inwardly at this command.

Disgust. Oh, grow up! You used to be such an innocent little girl…ah, humans. Just do as I say.

Celeste put the whistle to her lips and drew one, clean note from the instrument. It was a lonely but purposeful sound that made her feel a little homesick. For the first time in weeks, she thought about her mother (as distant as she always was to her daughter), and her little brother. Most of all, she missed her father and the way he was always there for her, the way he understood her, the way he always smiled although underneath he was rather sad and confused. Genesis watched in interest as Celeste finished and lowered the whistle and breathed a sigh. The silence that was temporarily pushed up by the music rained down black on the chamber once again. Nothing happened.

"I don't want to say 'I told you so,'" Genesis said, "But I told you so!"

Celeste wasn't so sure. Something was suddenly different…something was stirring.

"Last stop!" Red sang as she perched on the top of the wall. Her chest puffed as she breathed in the clean night air. "Aaah, nice!" she exhaled. Suddenly remembering her package, Red swung Zero up by the hair as if she were pulling up a carrot, and set him down hard on the wall beside her. The Hunter was whimpering and rubbing his scalp.

"There you go, honey. All set! Look below you."

Zero did as he was told. The wall he was on seemed to plunge down forever, but when it finally met the bottom, it paved the way to a steel door that looked rather unfriendly…

Red read(!) Zero's mind. "Past that door. That's where Skysheen hangs out," she explained. "Or maybe you know him better as Vile. I don't know how you crazy Hunters talk these days. But if you wanna get to Siggy, you're gonna have to get past motherfargin' Vile first!"

Zero stared down into the pit. "Hooray."

Red reared and snuffed the air again. "X is coming," she said matter-of-factly. Sure enough, a small, timid blue form heaved itself onto the platform and stared at the door as if it was going to grow teeth and eat him. Zero drew in a breath to yell down at him, but Red smacked him upside the head.

"Shh! Skysheen's also in the area."

Zero snapped his mouth shut again. "But won't Vile get pissy because you helped me?" he dared to whisper.

Red snorted. "Well, let's all hope that the little purple bastard at least remembers a wee something about Battle Respect."

Zero sensed slight friction. "Ah, Reddy? You seem bitter. Don't you even care that I'm about to rip apart your little brother?"

"Hmph." Red cocked one arm on her hip and looked away from the Hunter. "Of course I mind, but at the same time I want you to rip his helmet off and feed it to his rear. Sky's been a real jerkoff since he became Siggy's second in command. I left my friends, I killed those humans, I nearly killed you, all in the name of love. I had every intention of sticking by Sky. My loyalties are to my brothers and sisters, as Sky's should be. But noooooooo, he's totally forgotten about Mechadrake Assemblies Inc. Hell, he's forgotten about ME! Look at me! I'm the stupid 'Main Defense!' Wowie zowie, thank you sir, may I have another kick in the ass?"

"Well…." Zero didn't quite know what else to say.

A purple streak hissed down the gothic tower opposite Red and Zero and materialized far below, right in front of X, who seemed to seep into a terrified blue puddle. Vile.

"And besides," Red continued as she glanced down, "I can guarantee that Vile's gonna flatten you. He's got the Chimera with him, and he's buffed it up or some crap. So best of luck to the two of you."

"Thanks," Zero sighed. "It's a nice day to die."

"It always is," Red chuckled. The sound bubbled in her throat and suddenly died. Her face twisted into a snarl and she twisted her supple neck this way and that. "Damn…"

"What's up, Red?"

"What the hell?" Red bellowed. She clutched her ears and howled incoherently. Her eyes darkened to the rusty colour of dried blood, a rather unnerving sight.

"Red!" Zero cried out, rather terrified that he was beside a Mechadrake going berserk.

"That SOUND!" Red shrieked, completely possessed.

"What sound?" Zero was slightly distressed.

Red didn't answer. She whipped around on her perch and launched in the air, the old brick crumbling under the impact of her takeoff. Her stinging tail caught Zero in the shoulder with such force that the Hunter lost his balance. Zero yelped and tumbled off the wall, head over heels. The raven wind shrieked and laughed at him as he fell…and fell…and fell…

Chapter 37: Prelude to an Ass-Whoopin'

"Well well well X, long time no see."

X stared wide-eyed at the faceless demon before him, his knees swaying and trembling.

"What, you have nothing to say?" Vile laughed shortly. "You come to confront me and all you can do is stare like a fish in an aquarium?"

X's tounge would not move.

"And you think you can beat me? Silly ignorant little boy."

"I…" X gulped.

"You can't run. No one can help you. Only me. And I'm the Beast."

Vile's dramatic effect was ruined by Zero, who came screaming down from above like a meteor, limbs flailing in all directions. He splattered on the ground between X and Vile. Both were rather taken aback.

Zero silently staggered to his feet and collected some of his loose bolts that were scattered haphazardly on the ground. X simply gaped at his friend.

"What the hell are you starin' at?" Zero snarled weakly as X slowly pointed over the crimson Hunter's shoulder. Zero turned around. "Oh my holy cow, it's Vile!"

The Maverick cocked his head at the two Hunters before wisely turning to retreat through the steel door that marked the entrance to his lair. His first attempt to escape was marred by the fact that the door didn't open and he ended up striking it with a gonglike clash. Vile staggered, shook his head to clear it, and tried again, this time succeeding. The dark hallway beyond the steel gate swallowed him up with ease.

X thawed and started towards the gate, but Zero thrust out one arm, which caught X in the stomach.

"Stay back ol' boy, I'm going after him."

Before X could agree, Zero kicked open Vile's door and was off like a shot.

Genesis was creeping up to Celeste again. The Huntress watched him warily out of the corner of her eye.

"Hold on Genesis."

The fox sat up. "Nothing's gonna happen!" he snorted.

Celeste calmly twirled the whistle between her thumb and forefinger. "You just watch. Follow me."

Celeste got up, dusted her pants with her hands, and calmly walked towards the tiny glass window in the door. She stood on her tiptoes and peered through it. Her heart leaped into her throat; there was J.T. again, tagging submissively behind Duskclaw, who strode with all confidence towards the cell. Duskclaw had a dart gun in one paw. Nullifier. Now she was in for it.

Four, three, two, one… the voice in her head whispered.

A tremendous crash roared through the room outside the cell door. A red and black reptilian form screamed down from a newly-bashed hole in the isolated tower's fragile roof. Duskclaw and J.T. turned at the same time to face the hulking red Mechadrake that glared at them, hunched over, with bloody, possessed eyes, her lance at the ready. A little tongue of fire lashed out of her mouth with every breath she heaved.

"Who!?" she frothed. "Tell me, who has one of those goddamned whistles in their greasy paws?"

Duskclaw and J.T. exchanged hopelessly baffled looks.

"Too slow!" Red swung her lance once. There was a coppery snick! sound, and that was the gruesome end of Duskclaw, J.T., and the Fenris Soldiers.

Red kicked the bodies aside and stormed towards the cell that contained Genesis and Celeste. Celeste yelped at the utter locomotive chugging towards her, and she leaped far back from the door. Wise move. The door bulged and groaned as Red slammed it with one fist, but it did not open. Snarling, the 'drake took a few steps back, pawed at the ground with one clawed foot, and charged the door with her tremendous shoulder. The hinges blew clean off and the door collapsed. Red filled the doorframe from top to bottom, her eyes blazing.

Genesis looked at Celeste. "Damn, it works all right. It summons berserk Mechadrakes! Ha, this is fun, isn't it? We're gonna die, aren't we? Hehe!"

Red dipped her neck at Celeste and pounded towards the Huntress, who pressed her back right up against the wall furthest from the door, her mind flashing back to her hellish fight with Torrent, her hand unconsciously groping the sheath where her lightsabre used to be.

Whoa now, calm down my girl. I wouldn't steer you wrong. Stand still.

What choice did Celeste have?

Now Red was charging towards Celeste, her lance lowered, aimed for the human's soft stomach. Celeste dug her fingernails into the bricks.

"Oh my holy GOD!"

Red still charged like a hell-bent unicorn, Celeste grit her teeth, closed her eyes, and prepared to meet her father on the Happy Hunting Grounds, while Genesis just screamed like some demented child.

The angry pounding of reptilian feet suddenly halted. The tip of Red's lance hovered a bare quarter inch away from Celeste. The Mechadrake's eyes drained and flared their normal(?) green.

"Well I'll be." She turned her lance upright and scratched at her oily black hair with one claw. "Where am I? What am I doing here? Oh, hello Celeste!"

Celeste opened one eye. "Yeep."

"And Genesis, nice to see you too."

Genesis just glared. "You are completely psycho."

"You just noticed? What's been going on? I feel like I've just danced mambo number five with Satan."

"I…uh…" Celeste shakily handed Genesis' whistle to Red. "I played this and you came barging in here like you were possessed. It belongs to Genesis, so kill him, not me."

Red's eyes expanded like ice at the sight of the little twitter-tube. "Hat rack of Mother Tiamat!" she swore in awe. "I don't believe you HAVE one of these!" She snatched the whistle from Celeste and thrust it in Genesis' face. "All right foxy boy, HOW did you get this?"

"I don't know," Genesis said flatly. "And that's the God honest truth."

"Yeesh," Red snorted. "Show me a reploid with a complete, normal past, and I'll show you a Mechadrake that doesn't like to snack on cats. Anyway, what you have here is a 'Caller.'" Red flipped the small flute over in her palm. "They can be extremely dangerous if you don't know what you're screwing with. The sound of a Caller is what 'shocks' a juvenile Mechadrake into life."

"Uh…" Celeste recalled her flashback with the whistle and the baby black Mechadrake swimming in the tube before her.

"Something up, Cel?" Red asked.

"Well, actually, I was wondering how something like a 'juvenile' Mechadrake could exist. Aren't Mechadrakes a breed of reploid? Reploids don't grow."

Red pat Celeste on the head. "Ah, little miss Rocket Scientist over here. You can't put a limit to the potential of the reploid species…that would defy our entire purpose, hmmm?"

Celeste narrowed her eyes in thought; she was not satisfied with this answer.

"Tell you what," Red bargained. "You give me a detailed explanation on where human babies come from, and someday I'll tell you all about baby Mechadrakes. Fair?"

Celeste slowly wiped her flushed face with her hand. "Nevermind."

"Thank you." Red continued. "Anyway, juvenile 'drakes like the sound of the whistle," she repeated. "On the other hand, play this sucker in the presence of a mature 'drake, and you've got trouble. We can hear the sound from quite a distance, no matter how quiet it is. And we hate the sound. If we hear it, we fly straight to the source and destroy it - anything to shut the stupid thing up. We can't resist the call, and it pisses us off. But you gotta be specially trained in order for the whistle to have that effect."

Genesis and Red both eyed Celeste at the same time.

"Stop looking at me like that," the Huntress said weakly. "I don't know anything more than you two do."

"Best leave the McTreggors to their own strange selves," Red grunted at last after a good long bout of silence. "Her dad was pretty flap-jackky too. Now, to business!" Red gave Genesis a friendly slap on his back. Genesis staggered halfway across the cell. "Gen old boy. I think this whistle is best left with me."

Red was a great deal taller and more foreboding than Genesis, but that didn't keep the fox from bargaining with the leviathan. "What'll be in it for Cel and I?"

Red gazed idly at the chewed-up roof of the prison. "Well, I can get you two out of here easily enough. The sooner the better. X and Zero arrived not too long ago…some nasty sparks are gonna fly shortly."

Celeste jumped. "You saw Zero?" she squeaked in terror.

"Saw him!" Red snorted. "Hell, I fought him!"

"Wh-what happened…?"

"I ripped off his limbs, tore his dripping heart out of his chest, ate it raw, and then I smote him good!"

"RED!"

"I'm JOKING!" Red guffawed. "Geez, you're gullible Celeste. We did fight, but it pretty much came out to a truce. Well, actually, I lie. But at any rate, I took him by his hand and led him to Vile's chamber. That's where he wanted to go. And now you two are getting out of here."

Celeste cocked her head at the red Mechadrake and summoned her courage. "Red…"

"Yare?"

"Are you with us or against us?"

For the first time in her entire life, Red looked completely exhausted. "Please don't ask me that," she sighed as she looked back at the seeping bodies of Duskclaw and J.T. "I confuse very easily. Grab my hand."

Something suddenly bit at Celeste's mind. "Wait a minute! Zero's lightsabre! He gave it to me, and Duskclaw took it! I have to…"

Several metallic boots were ringing on the steps up to the cell. Voices were shouting from the hallway.

"Forget it!" Red howled. "There's no time!"

"But…"

"We're leaving NOW!" Red grabbed Celeste by her collar and Genesis by his arm. "Those Mavericks'll be able to figure out that I was the one who skewered them wolves, and I'll be confronted about it soon enough. But why screw myself any sooner than I have to?"

I guess I should go in… X mused. He pressed his hot cheek against the cool metal door. But Zero said I should wait here… he strained his ears to the din beyond the door.

Thud thud thud.

Muffled cursing.

CRACK.

Louder cursing.

Errie silence.

"Hell with this!" X summoned his courage and dashed in.

Battered and completely spent but far from disheartened, Zero lay on his back in his tiny cage, his scorched fingers laced behind his dented helmet. He knew very well that he'd reached the end of the line, and he was quite prepared. Here he was, locked up tight, and his sabre was a little metallic smear on the foot of the Chimera. There was one alternative left, made possible by the love of Celeste, and Zero was ready to carry it out for the good of her race. He just had to bide his time and wait for the right moment-

The good of the human race. Good God, I can't believe what I'm thinking. What a stupid turn my life has taken.

Determined to enjoy his last few moments of life, Zero idly kicked at the trembling green bars of energy that locked him in. Each kick produced a surprisingly soild-sounding clang! that was murder for anyone who was sensitive to sound.

"I could keep this up all day!" he sang over the din

Vile towered over the cage in his Chimera, which had pounded Zero into his sad state. "Knock it off!"

"It's my cage, little man, and I shall do as I wish."

"My name is Vile."

Zero tired of his game and slowly sat up, his body creaking and groaning with the effort. "Wrong," he grimaced. "It's Skysheen."

"Bzzt, now YOU'RE wrong. Skysheen was a human loving jerkoff."

"…who was mauled by a human girl just barely out of puberty," Zero snickered.

"Ah yeah, your little pet human. Say, I have an idea. After I've turned your head into a handpuppet, I'm going to find your little friend, burn her alive, and then burn the ashes. Ah yes, that should be fun."

Zero rested his head in one hand. "Well gee, I dunno," he said thoughtfully. "See, she mangled you once. I have a feeling she'll do it again and again. Say, I'm being a real bastard today. If I were you, I would've killed me a long time ago. What're you waiting for?"

Vile's answer came dashing through his maw of a doorway. X slowly turned his gaze from the pent-up Zero to the behemoth that was Vile, and all hope abandoned his sinking eyes.

The former Mechadrake was quite pleased with X's predictable arrival. "TWO hand puppets!" he cackled.

X was quite bewildered by this statement.

Zero glared at his friend, half disgusted and half amused. "X, you're far too fond of getting yourself into nasty situations that involve little prick robots that like to hide behind big huge mech suits."

X buried his face in his hands. "Oh, I am SO screwed."

Chapter 38: This Phoenix Rises Up From the Ground

Outside the fortress was dark. The black air was thick, heavy and humid. A few lingering drops of water, the remains of the heavy thunderstorm that had roared through most of the night. Now it just fussed and growled; it was holding off for a bit, recovering for another tantrum.

Celeste was straddled on Red's neck, her legs dangling as the Mechadrake cut through the air with her massive wings, weaving around the ancient gothic towers that speared the sky. Lights from small tower windows flecked the night and provided some guidance for Red. Celeste tried to suck in the dank air, but it stuck in her throat, never quite feeding her lungs.

She was becoming rather uncomfortable. However, she had the best seat for the flight; poor Genesis was trusting his life to Red's firm grip on his body. The fox was facing downwards, frowning hugely at the mat of grass that sprawled far, far below the fortress. He was obviously not a fan of heights, Celeste observed. She took a firmer grip on Red's neck, and recoiled in disgust when her fingertips met with a ragged, scabby ridge of a wound. Red flinched a bit at the touch.

"Hands off that specific area of my neck if you please, miss McTreggor! No questions, thank yoooou!"

Celeste glumly shifted her grip. She wasn't having very much fun. The rain stung her in the face like wet bullets. Her clothes were soaked through, and even the oven-like wind was making her feel chilly. Besides that, Red was very fond of reckless flying. The dragon would head full speed towards one tower, banking sharply when she was just a few feet away from splattering all over its side. Then she'd laugh about it. Red repeated this sport several times until Celeste and Genesis were rightfully scared halfway out of their minds. If the two complained, Red would accuse them of having no sense of adventure shortly before breaking into a series of stomach-clenching barrel rolls.

Besides the slim chance of surviving Red Airlines, Zero's lost sabre was also gnawing at her brain…

"Stop pulling my hair!" Red suddenly bellowed into the wind.

"Can't we go back for the sabre?" Celeste pleaded.

"No no no a thousand times no! Grow some damn wings yerself, then you're welcome to get your stupid sabre."

Genesis, from the baggage coach: "What's so important about that sabre anyway, Celeste?"

"It's a Lucas, and it's Zero's."

"Well, why'd he give you something so valuable?" Red asked.

Celeste was cornered like a fox in a hunt, the hounds howling at her. Zero had warned her not to talk about the sabre, and now she'd screwed herself. How did she explain this?

"Well, we…"

"…'exchanged our weapons along with our vows,'" Genesis finished up for her with an unkind snicker. "Common tradition among human Hunters in love, given the fact that their crappy salaries couldn't pay for any piece of jewelry that didn't come out of the gumball machines at Walmart. But a human and a reploid? That stupid jerkoff. I warned him to stay away from you."

Genesis was disgusted, but Red was just confused.

"Why would anyone wanna get married, settle down, and end the good life of late night Hunting and wild moonlight?" the Mechadrake puzzled. "I don't get it. Must be a pain in the arse to have a mating instinct, eh?"

"Yeah, it sucks," Celeste sighed.

"You know Celeste," Genesis said flatly, "if you get married to Zero, the whole thing's gonna eventually go to hell. Too many biological and cultural differences between the species."

"Thanks for your vote of confidence," Celeste snarled. "Gee whiz, at this rate, reploids and humans will be running through flowered fields, hand in hand, singing 'Happy Shiny People' in no time at all!"

"Just speakin' the truth," Genesis grumbled, his voice drowned by the howl of the wind.

"No fighting," Red said sternly. "Now listen, both of you. Lecture time. No being understands the terrible beauty that is human love and sexuality, and the mystery has not been unraveled, even over centuries. But aside from desire, companionship, and its resulting offspring, there is obviously a deeper reason as to why a young pair decides to make two hearts beat as one. Celeste and Zero's affair is a pure example of love conquering lust, and is especially a prime example of patience, problem solving and thoughtfulness."

Celeste and Genesis went blank.

"All right, I'll translate," Red sighed. "Celeste's love for Zero, for obvious reasons, goes way beyond her just wanting to throw him down and mount the pony. Surely the feeling is mutual between them. And I admire that."

Blood bloomed in Celeste's cheeks as she hung her head slowly. "Reeeeeed…"

Genesis was laughing. "Tasteful!"

"What what?" Red said, dismayed. "I try to be deep and philosophical, and no one understands what the hell I'm trying to say. In such cases, I guess old ways are the best!"

Once again, the earth quaked in protest as the Chimera smashed it with merciless metallic paws. Once again, the nasty purple and blue bulk of the mech, with its silver hybrid silhouette, filled X's eyes. Once again, Vile was saying something about playing a game. And once again, X knew he'd gotten himself into a real fun fix. Only this time, Zero wasn't able to take him by the hand and yank him out of danger. No, his saviour was behind bars, cursing Vile in ten different languages.

Vile slowly reeled back one huge, armoured fist and let it fly. X ducked the blow and scurried under the Chimera's arm. He screeched to a halt beside Zero's cage, panting in terror, seeking useless protection. The behemoth reared, exhaled slowly, roared sleepily and lumbered its way towards the Hunters. Vile was merrily stalking his prey, he was in no hurry.

"Don't run to me, I'm not your mama," Zero hissed at his friend. "It's about time you grew up. Do your best to wear him down. I'll take care of the rest. All right?"

X widened his eyes at Zero. "You're kinda confined. How're you gonna manage?"

"You just watch."

X suddenly went flying, courtesy of Vile and the Chimera, so he didn't get a chance to watch anything. Shaking off his hangover, the small reploid David stood steadfast, staring down his demon, assulting the goliath with a hail of white hot plasma shots, but he wasn't getting too damn far.

But that was fine. All Zero needed was a diversion. He lifted his scorched and smoldering left arm up to his eyes. Clamped to his wrist was the typical nondescript chrome ring that clenched at the wrists of all reploids, and for good reason. The wrist was a vital area on humans and reploids alike, and a slashed wrist could likewise mean death for a 'ploid. Staring at his own smudged eyes in the metal ring, Zero carefully reached for Celeste's dagger, his last weapon, from a niche in his boot. This, too, he brought to eye level, silently admiring the mysteriously fine craftsmanship of the glittering serpentine DNA helix that formed the dagger's hilt. Against the background music of mechanical whirring and pounding and X screaming like a fisher's wife as he was splattered against and peeled off several of the walls in Vile's dimly lit chamber, Zero sadly thought about Celeste as he caught some of her scent wafting from the dagger. Oh sure, Zero thought, there was a chance that he would be revived. Reploids always had a second chance. But how long would it take? Months? Years? Decades? What would happen to Celeste in that time? She wouldn't get younger, that was for sure. Chances were good that she'd get married to some human Hunter and have a critter or two. Zero's Lucas would be forgotten, or given to the Hunter in question. But Celeste wouldn't be to blame. She couldn't help her instincts, could she?

Zero had a tendency to look at the worst case scenario.

At any rate, her kids would need a safe world to grow up in.

The reformed reploid sighed at his own philosophical cheese as he went to work with the dagger. With its tempered tip, he carefully worked at the minute screws that bit into the chrome ring and his wrist. He grimaced slightly as each screw left its deep sheath of metallic bone and skin. This wasn't a fun job.

But when the wrist guard fell away and Zero was left staring at the complicated network of veins and wires that swished and churned silently underneath his thin layer of skin. And he was scared of what he was about to do, scared of the cold knife biting into his warm skin and letting the blood flow.

But it had to be done.

The Chimera's mammoth back was facing Zero, within leaping distance. X was doubled over on the floor before the godlike, remodeled book-organizer and its proud rider. The Hunter's breathing was shallow and laboured. He couldn't take anymore. This was it.

Zero braced himself and dragged the serpent's knife along his exposed wrist. A thick black rope of blood instantly welled up from the gash. Cold nausea crept down Zero's stomach as he watched his severed wrist-wires turn about lazily like a nest of multicoloured adders, spitting sparks dangerously close to the slick black river of fluid. He liked the sight of fresh blood, but not his own.

Zero closed his eyes. He was all set. He hauled himself to his feet, his carefully thought-out battle cry ready to flick from the tip of his tounge.

Vile reared back one of the Chimera's legs, ready to kick the heap of X before him into oblivion. A sharp cry stopped him.

"HEY! VILE!"

The Maverick turned around to see Zero standing in his cage, clutching the shimmering bars, one of which had a oozing river of circulatory fluid inching down it. Zero's eyes darkened to a terrifying shark-black. A poisonous grin lit up his face, and a gritty red halo hung heavily around the Hunter, dancing faster with each passing second. His systems were going into overdrive.

"YER MA'S A WHORE!" The sound of Zero busting out of his cage was like a spray of bullets hitting a line of wine glasses. Debris rained down on all sides of X and Vile. Zero fell with the metal hail. He landed on the Chimera's back just as the severed wires of his wrist made contact with his flammable blood. Zero's fist was subsequently enveloped in a screaming, electrical fireball. The Hunter slammed the whole hellish inferno down the open neck of the Chimera, into the cockpit where Vile sat, stunned. The Mech's systems screamed under the fire as if it were alive, and it slowly buckled down onto its knees. The flame consumed it like a hungry beast, along with Vile and Zero. A dull explosion rocked the chamber, and everything went milk-white…

Heavy raindrops spattering down on her, Red, leaning on her lance, looked up sadly at Sigma's fortress, the sharp, stiff grasses of the Skeleton Grasslands biting at her bare ankles as they swayed in the baked wind. She knew exactly what was going to happen to Zero and Vile. One would never yield to the other. They would simply cancel each other out, like an acid and a base. Red heaved a sigh and waited for the moment. She didn't have to wait long. A very small but bright haze of white bloomed from one particular sector of the fortress like the birth of a new star. It was at that exact moment that the two most important scents in Red's life fled her nostrils forever: the scent of her brother Skysheen, and the scent of her best friend, the Hunter Zero.

"Both of ya are ijits," the Mechadrake muttered. "Especially you, Zero…fighting on a side you were obviously never meant to be on. Always had to bust me arse looking out fer ya, you silly twit. Now you're gone. What am I gonna tell Celeste?"

Red turned to look at the young McTreggor who was straggling back to Kapcom with Genesis and the last few Hunters left on the Plains. She stopped suddenly and stared back at Red.

"You all right?"

Red grinned slowly. "Sure, I don't know."

Celeste came to stand beside Red, rather dwarfed by the Mechadrake's massive frame.

"You think Zero's all right?"

Red paused. "He can hold is own." It wasn't quite a lie.

But lying to Celeste never quite worked out. Red knew the Huntress didn't buy a word. She could tell just by the way the human was staring at her with expressionless but piercing eyes.

Red gave it up and gave Celeste a quick hug. "It's all right. Things'll work out. I promise. Now go on home."

Celeste quietly did as she was told. Red watched the poisonous plains swallow her and the other Hunters up.

"Yes Zero, you ARE an idiot," Red snorted at her friend. "Proposing to a young human girl just minutes before you go off and get yourself killed? What do you expect her to do, wait for your sorry ass to be revived?"

Red made a decision. Fanning out her wings, she tensed her back legs and sprang into the air, raindrops hissing like grease on a frying pan as they spat on her ever-burning snout. Shielding her eyes from the small but stubborn storm, the dragon chugged her wings against the wind, thankful for the friendly darkness that hid her as she flew back to Siggy's fortress.

Zero…

"Uh…"

Zeeeeeroooo! I'm on my way to take you home!

"Oh. Oh damn."

You have some 'splaining to dooo!

"I know…"

"Zero!"

This time the voice was tangible.

"Zero! C'mon…!"

Not to mention stricken.

"Get up! Come on…" the voice slid down a notch to teary. The owner started shaking Zero's mangled frame back and forth. Without bothering to open his eyes, Zero slapped the hands away.

"Hey…" Surprised and a little hurt, the voice reared back. It sniffled wetly.

After some struggle, Zero managed to open his eyes a tad and lift up his head slightly, despite the hammer that throbbed and pounded inside his skull. He saw two things he could've done without; his own body, burnt and gnawed in half, and the sight of X weeping like little Nell Down by the Well. One thing cheered him up slightly; Celeste's dagger was at his side faithfully, completely unmarred despite the hell it burned through. Quite a weapon.

Zero gritted his teeth against the pain that ripped down his body with burning claws. He closed his eyes and lay back down, and the agony eased slightly. "Aw, c'mon now, X…"

"Zero…you're okay, right?"

"Uh…well, I don't know too much about the reploid anatomy, but I do know it's a bit hard to survive with only your upper half intact…" Zero broke off as his lungs started to rattle coldly. "Ah no." he coughed thickly. "You're on your own."

X started to quake. "Aw no!" he cried. "You're fine!" he started to pick up his friend, whose eyes flew open as pain racked him once more.

"Ow ow ow OW, put me DOWN!" Zero screeched, gurgling on a mouthful of blood as he did so. He spat the stream aside venomously. "Listen to me, X," the crimson Hunter began angrily, but his voice trailed off, his scalding words drying in his mouth as he looked up at X, who was shaking, sobbing quietly, trying very hard - with little success - to keep his tears in check.

For an instant, Zero was taken back to Skull Castle, a lonely and confused newborn who positively bawled as he watched his stricken brother wilt and die under some mysterious chip that their late father had planted in him. And Bass had been understanding of Zero's grief.

Zero grinned a bloody, blackened grin. "Aw, what the hell. You go on and cry it all out. You'll be a better man for it."

That was X's cue to howl like an abandoned wolf pup, but he didn't take it. Without a word, he just hugged his best friend tightly, tears spilling quietly. Zero surprised himself by hugging X back, with only one arm as he needed the other for balance. A lonely sadness bloomed in the dying Hunter as the embrace tightened.

"I'm sorry," X gulped suddenly.

"Sorry for what?"

X put Zero down. "Sorry for being such a jerk when we first met," he snuffled, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.

Zero grimaced at X's bad hygiene. "Make sure you don't touch me again or anything, X. And what do you mean 'being a jerk?'"

"Oh…when we first met in the cafeteria. Remember? You called me Astroboy, and I called you Ponyboy, and I threw that apple at you and you beat me up for it and…oh God, I'm going to miss you."

Zero chuckled. "I'd almost forgot about all that, you know?" he said faintly. He didn't have much more time. "You have nothing to be sorry for, X, so don't worry your head. Come now, take a second and collect yourself. You're up against Siggy by yourself. Here." Zero unfurled his fingers and inched Celeste's serpent dagger towards X. "Take this. Yeah, no need to say it, it looks like a crappy little pocketknife, but there's something more to it, I think. It might come in handy. Even if you don't use it, give it back to Celeste and tell her to wait."

"Huh?"

Zero smiled bleakly. "Nevermind, you'll see someday. Just take care of her for me. And for the love of Schweppes, take care of yourself. I'm not gonna be around to take you by the hand any longer. Now go away. Just let me sleep." He closed his eyes one last time.

Life had been good to Zero sometimes, and other times it screwed him over, but in general, it just confused him. Now he was at the end of it, and he had tried to live it the best he could.

So I'm no different from any human. Or better. No reploid is. What a great time to stumble upon the secret of life!

With that last thought, the black curtain fell and concluded the life of the Devil's Son.

X stumbled blindly through the corridors of Sigma's fortress, unaware of where he was going. Angry Mavericks swarmed him, but somehow he mowed down platoon after platoon, his arm cannon having a life of its own. Nothing was real. It was all a dream. Only Celeste's dagger was real. Staggering drunkenly into a cold blue cement pillar, temporarily out of range of any enemies, X clutched at the rough surface and sobbed. Zero was gone.

"Hey."

He was being watched. X shamefacedly rubbed at his watery green eyes with his palms.

"No sense in hiding it. Nothing wrong, we're all upset, eh?" the voice was friendly, but savagely familiar.

"Red…?"

"Yare."

X looked up at the Mechadrake for the first time since she betrayed the Hunters all those weeks back. She pearched on a gothic spire not too far up from where X stood, like a regal gargoyle, wings outstreched, dark ponytail fluttering as one with the night sky in the cool wind. She held a gorgeous, almost antique lightsabre across her chest. The blade was lit, and its lime light reflected off her dark armour, drenching the sombre metal with a shimmering green hue.

"Nice to see you, X!" she said cheerfully. "This is Zero's Lucas. Nevermind why I have it. I just have a feeling you can use it." She threw the relic down from the tower. It bounced once and rolled to a stop in front of X's boots. Upon impact, the blade quickly scurried back into its hiding place with a slurping hiss.

"Tell that friend of yours that he's an ijit," Red snarled, "and that I'll never let him rest as long as these wings drink air. Now get along, you! Siggy is close. He's very close. It's always easy to tell where that funny looking creep is hiding, 'cause he smells bad. There's a tip from me to you. Make the most of it, wha'!"

Red was gone as suddenly as she appeared.

Zero opened his eyes.

The air in Vile's chamber was stagnant and heavy, but still and peaceful. Zero yawned and pushed his arms upwards, and got a start as someone grabbed his outstretched hand and gently helped him to his feet. Zero scrambled up and rubbed his eyes in disbelief.

"Bass?"

Bass was looking his normal self, with his sharp toothed, self-confident grin and oily black armour which was still augmented with its usual gold trimming. Some things never changed.

Zero smiled lopsidedly at Bass. It was all he could do to let his brother know that he hated him and still loved him dearly at the same time.

"Hey Zero. Ready to go?"

"Where?"

Bass silently pointed down. Zero looked, and saw his shell, twisted, battered, scorched but peaceful, lying on Vile's grimy floor.

"Oh yeah. That thing."

Bass cleared his throat. "So Zero, we strayed from the path during our lifetime, didn't we."

Zero narrowed his eyes defensively. "I did the best I could in life. Your lessons on humans were totally bogus. I was forced to live among them, befriend them, save them, and even heal them. At first I couldn't stand it, but I learned to admire them after a while. There are reasons to, trust me."

Bass simply raised one eyebrow at Zero, arms folded across his ebony chest.

"Well, it's true," Zero finished lamely.

Zero received quite a surprise when Bass hugged him.

"I'm just glad to see you again, baby brother," Bass murmured soothingly in Zero's ear. "And if Wily ever saw this, he'd start to wonder about me." Bass let go and lightened up. "Besides, your life is far from over. You'll be revived some day…still plenty of time to go berserk against the humans you love, eh wot?"

Before Zero could respond, Bass grabbed him by the wrist. "We've got catching up to do, and so little time to do it in! Come on, let's go see that goldfish that stupid friend of yours X never fed."

Hours passed slowly and the dawn pushed over the darkness. Coloumns of the virgin light filtered through the blackened holes in Vile's chamber and snuggled on top of the still body Zero. A soft summer breeze wafted through the dank air and washed the blackness away. Then the roaring started, a tremor that thrummed from deep in the vaults Siggy's fortress and flowered through the rest of the soaring towers and stuffy chambers, growing more and more intense with each passing second. Then the whole structure of the floating warbase went to hell, the walls buckling like paper machee. The Behemoth groaned and turned slowly on its side just before it gave up and slowly rolled downwards into the sea, which shimmered quietly at the edge of the Skeleton Grasslands.

Chapter 39: Face to Face in a Dry and Waterless Place

The pipes were old. Rust flaked away under X's fingernails as he slowly hauled himself up the network. An evil smelling mist hung in the air, swimming around the Hunter, beckoning to him. Something unseen crept over his fingers. At the same time, a shudder crept through him. This was the final ascent.

A steel gate gaped open not far above X's head, leading to a room. But knowing Siggy, a going slowly through the gate would probably mean having a vice of metal lanced through his midsection. This was going to have to be quick. Gathering his strength, X coiled and sprang upwards like a cat. He cleared the gate as it clamped shut under his feet like the jaws of a malicious animal. X crouched, panting.

Well, now what? The room was dark. A deep throated humming emitted from somewhere.

A snarl.

X stood up again.

A particularly vicious looking wolf reploid slunk from the darkness to stand before X. It looked up warily at the Hunter with eyes of blood and copper. Its lithe puprle body twisted 'round and 'round as it paced in a tight circle around X, growling the whole time. Its claws gleamed dangerously. X tensed, watching the wolf's every movement.

A command boomed from the darkness:

"Velguarder! EAT!"

Utter chaos reigned. The wolf, Velguarder, rolled into X's legs. X lost his balance for one heart-stopping second, just enough time for the beast to pounce and bury its claws into X's chest. The unmarred chrome soaked up X's blood, staining the deadly weapons black. X and the wolf howled at the same time, one in slight discomfort and the other in triumph.

Velguarder curled his claws in X's chest, then reared, pulling them out cruelly, taking a good part of X's chestplate with him. Incredible pain screamed through X. The wolf was on his hind legs, looking hungrily at the dark lake of blood in X's new chest cavity.

Rather frightened, X could sense the wolf's intentions. Inspired, he rocked back a bit, got his legs under the wolf's stomach, and pushed. Velguarder yelped and went for a bit of a ride, tumbling to a halt about ten feet from X.

That was enough time. X drew himself shakily to his feet, blood running down his front like spilled food. Velguarder regained his composure, and, without a pause, jumped on the wall behind him. From there, he sprang, twisted his body in mid-air, and sailed straight towards X, jaws agape, foaming.

A sphere of plasma went flaming down Velguarder's throat. The wolf choked and dropped in mid flight where it writhed on its back, making shameful puppy noises. But he recovered in a very few seconds.

Plasma don't do much.

Well, there was one other option.

Velguarder sprang to his paws, infuriated. Snarling, he shot towards X and leaped, stained claws unsheathed once more. The Hunter jumped backwards, yanking Celeste's dagger into view and whipping it at the wolf in one fluid motion. The diamond-studded weapon somersaulted and buried its blade in Velguarder's chest as easily as a knife into a pat of butter. This time, when the wolf cried shrilly and clattered hollowly as he fell on its flank, he stayed down. The spark drained from his eyes until they were a cold, dead black.

X doubled over, panting greedily for air. He placed his hand over his chest to staunch the bleeding, but the black fluid just dribbled between his fingers and continued its course.

The Hunter was weak, tired, spent…and there was still no sign of -

"Sigma? Where are you?"

The humming grew more profound.

"Ah, X…"

X stood rigidly, his head whipping all about. The voice wafted from every dark corner of the room.

"My poor, wandering child…so lost, so helpless."

X stood up straight. "'Lost? Helpless?'"

"A reploid without a title, without a friend, gone astray of his race. Rest now."

Coloured lights flared before X like precious jewels, emanating a soft hue against an enormous breastplate.

"A generation without name, still trying to recover from a nuclear war, created us. Reploids, Lords of the Earth. And, unlike humans, we need not worship our creators. So why do you bother to fight for them, hmm?"

Far above X, two green eyes thrummed into life. Slowly, the entire frame of the behemoth was bathed in muted light.

X's eyes grew huge. "What in the name of sam hill is that…?"

A very good question indeed. The reploid leviathan before X looked like a terrifying cross between a rat, a dog, and a dragon. Hunched down on all fours, it shifted its enormous blue-and-purple bulk to glare at X with lazy but deadly eyes. It reared its triangular head in a sharp-toothed hybrid of a squealing roar, shaking the foundations of the fortress.

And there, towering far above, was Siggy, saddled on the neck of the Beast, still wearing his bloody Spartan cape proudly, silently announcing his position of authority in the past.

"But despite being superior to all creatures on Earth," the Maverick howled above the roar, "reploids still follow nature's iron rule of Survival of the Fittest. Let's see what you can do, X my boy!"

Sigma tapped the Beast's shoulder. The deceptively clumsy looking hybrid shot out a paw with unimaginable speed. The huge mass of metal smashed just inches away from the Hunter. Bits of the floor flew up in a typhoon, hailing on X's frozen face. The Beast was large enough to swallow him whole.

X took a deep breath to thaw his terror stricken body. He succeeded, and fired a volley of shots at the Beast's metal hide. No sense in fancy tricks yet. The Beast grunted as the plasma bounced right off without even damaging the shine.

Sigma chuckled. "Now THAT'S funny."

A plume of fire shot from the Beast's cavelike maw. The edge of the jet caught X, barbecuing him to be sure. When the inferno cleared, X staggered blindly, in bad shape. One more hit like that, and it would definitely be lights out.

His vision dark and blurred, X couldn't exactly see where he was going, and he smacked into the wall behind the Beast's hindquarters. He grunted. Groping, he felt…tubes of some sort…

A voice, eerily similar to Zero's, trickled in X's head. If you open your eyes, you could probably see a lot better.

X did.

He had his hands around a network of thick green tubes that were not at all unlike jungle vines. The tubes tethered the Beast to the wall and ran their course into the behemoth's metal-plated sides. The tangle rendered the Beast semi-immobile, but they probably fed its dangerous arse a great deal of vital fluids and power…

The enormous hind leg of the Beast flashed before X's eyes and buried itself in the concrete just a smidge beside his head.

"Not advisable that you play in that area, X," Siggy called down. "I'm getting tired of watching you scuttle. FIGHT! C'mon!"

X gazed up at the former Spartan and his faithful dog-rat-thing. He thought, lonesome, about Zero, lying dead and cold on the ground thanks to the war. And unconsciously he unsheathed his late friend's Lucas.

Strike, fall, and I will follow, Zero's voice whispered. X could almost see the former Hunter's confident grin.

The Beast twisted its bulk around with a grunt of displeasure. The wires chafed its every movement, and it obviously feared pulling itself out of the wall. It moved diligently whenever possible for this reason, like a hospital patient with an IV stand. When it was quite satisfied with its positioning, it let another paw fly and smash. X rolled out of the way just in time to avoid the deadly weight. The Beast snarled and hauled its paw back up for another try.

X was ready. With a catlike bound, he grabbed onto the paw and was lifted with it. The Beast, a little slow to catch on, realized a bit too late that X was hitchhiking. He jerked his head around and snapped at his flank where X was shimmying up, like a dog chewing at a flea. It was no use. X's fingernails scratched away at the hybrid's maiden coat of paint as he vaulted up and over its shoulder, where Sigma sat, stunned.

For a full three seconds, Hunter and Maverick stared at each other blankly. No emotion whatsoever was exchanged between their stoic eyes.

"Be still," Siggy whispered to the Beast, tapping its huge head. For an instant, X heard fright seep into the Maverick's voice, like yellow dye soaking through cloth. The leader hauled himself to his feet, balancing carefully, shrugging his cape behind his back like the wings of a raven. The blade to Zero's sabre jumped to life, seemingly on its own. X didn't take his eyes off Sigma.

"Listen to me, you little fool," the Maverick began gruffly, but X silenced him by pressing the tip of the lightsabre against his chest. A small hole slowly started to burn in the jade armour.

"No. There's nothing left to say."

Green electricity crackled and split the air like lightning as X slashed at Sigma. His heart jumped into his throat as the Maverick literally grabbed the sabre's blade. The lime fang bit the stricken Spartan's palm, which spat forth blood as he squeezed harder.

"X, stop! Listen to me!" Sigma was genuinely pleading now, terrified, teetering on the edge of his pet's head.

There comes a time when you can't give any quarter.

"No. I've listened to plenty on your behalf," X said very quietly. "Humans in the Refugee Camps wondering aloud if they'll ever see their homes again. Orphaned kids wondering where their parents are. No more."

One Last Kick.

Sigma, screaming like a dying bird of prey rendered flightless by a hunter's arrow, corkscrewed as he plunged from his mount. It was a bad landing; the Maverick's neck took the full brunt of the impact. There was a dry snap, like a breaking twig. Panting, X peered over at the spreading black pond that marked Sigma's landing pad.

The former Reploid King was unconscious, unmoving, but breathing very shallowly. He was still alive, and his pet could sense trouble. Tremors rocked under X's feet as the Beast pondered its next move.

The tubes! Jump! I will follow!

Aha… X was starting to understand. The azure Hunter ran along the Beast's shifting back until the life support wires were in full view below him, writing like a pit of angry snakes. X threw his arm forward, and the lightsabre cracked through the air like a spear. The deadly weapon cleaved through the Beast's wires in one clean cut.

X got results right away. The severed wires spat and writhed like wounded lindwyrms. Ironically, the Beast was fully paralyzed without the cumbersome tubes that served as his life support…and on the flip side, the main core, which drew a great deal of energy and coolant from Sigma's pet, began to overheat and complain.

The dog-dragon-rat lifted its head in one last mournful howl before it buckled over on its side like a stricken ox. X jumped just in time from the Beast's back - landing safely on his feet - to see the sad monstrosity roll over and completely crush Sigma's body, only leaving his head free.

The main core's complaining turned into a scolding, a bitching, and finally a ranting rave. The entire fortress began to shake and crumble as if it were in the claws of a giant.

X made no move to escape. Instead, he stared down at Sigma, whose eyes lit up with the faintest blue as they focused on the quietly triumphant Hunter.

"Why…" he laboured, sucking in whatever breath he could manage. "Why…did this happen…Reploids…we should be…Lords of the Earth…"

X surprised himself by throwing his arms back and laughing. He laughed long and loud, over the screams of the stricken fortress, an echoing sound that carried itself through even the dankest vaults of the battle base and flitted around the towers like gaily coloured birds. He laughed for the human race, now free to rebuild and breed, to create, to screw themselves over the way they'd always done before. He laughed for Paul and the other Hunters, who had not died in vain after all. Zero's voice mingled with his own, and they both laughed at Sigma, who was inches away from Death's scythe.

"Hey, buddy! Shit happens!"

Epilogue

Bill sat his big fat greasy-assed self on a rise in the Skeleton Grasslands. Morning emerged sunny, but strangely cheerless. Bill ran his hand, streaked with dirt and blood and sweat, through his matted mass of hair. With a quiet grunt, the human gazed at Siggy's Flying Fortress, the favoured name for the stupid contraption among the Hunters.

Genesis, noticing that one live Hunter was missing, came back for the deadbeat. He cleared his throat.

"Bill, you should be coming with us."

"Yeah, so."

"We're going home."

"Yeah, so."

"You stay on this wasteland much longer, you're gonna become impotent. And if that happens, you will not come crying to me, because I will not be able to keep my lunch down long enough to help you."

"Yeah so, I've had it with women. I was married once, remember? Bad idea."

Genesis sighed long through his feral snout. "Okay Bill. What are you standing here for, anyway?"

Genesis' question was answered in just a few seconds as the Fortress on the edge of the Grassland began to rumble. The two watched in quiet awe as the monstrous, gothic structure sank lower and lower on the horizon along with the moon, until the sea reached up to claim it. There was a spectacular flash of light as the sea took one last gulp. The fortress was gone.

"Action!" Bill sang.

Genesis snapped his dangling jaw shut. "X, Zero," he gulped.

On cue, a blue beam shot down from the ghostly grey sky and solidified into a very exhausted and battered X.

Genesis and Bill stared at the Hunter before them with huge eyes. They were looking at a ghost. X stared back. "Sigma's gone," he said blearily. "And so's Zero. He sacrificed himself to Skysheen for me. Genesis, looking at you right now is like looking upon the face of an Angel of Mercy, which is a sign that I'm beyond help." X swayed.

Genesis smacked his forehead against his palm. "Zero's gone. Huzzah. Which of us lucky bastards gets to break the news to Celeste? Well, I guess we'll worry about that one later. Come on, X. You need to get home."

"There's nothing for me at home," X mumbled.

Genesis playfully looped his arm around X's own. "Come now, don't say that, Sir! Hamlet came home from school to find his father dead, his momma fooling around with his uncle, and his girlfriend pregnant. And HE came through all right, didn't he?"

X glared wearily at Genesis. "Do you even know how Hamlet ends?"

Genesis shrugged. "I flipped through the book, I recall something along the lines of a group hug. Come on. You too, Bill."

The fox, the Hunter, and the human all ambled off into the sunrise. A sunset would have been a lot more fitting, yes…a nice and bloody sunset to represent the sacrifices of the Hunters. But the narrator is helpless to control the events of nature. That's God's department. If you have a problem with it, go call Him.

Genesis fiddled with his bow tie. His eyes bulged out as he nearly strangled himself. "Why do I have to wear a tux?" he urked.

"'cause it's a wedding," Ozzie Bono said absently as he expertly adjusted his own noose.

It was indeed a wedding, taking place in the huge back lot of MHHQ, as far from the Refugee camps as possible. Nobody wanted to be reminded of its squalid, depressing atmosphere now that reconstruction of Kapcom was in full swing.

But Ozzie, who'd been in the camps himself for a short while, refused to take his eyes off the squat ring of cabins and tents that lay like sick, dirty animals. "We gonna get rid of them cabins?" he grumbled.

Genesis finally managed to loosen his bow tie. He took a good gasp of clean air. "I don't think so. We may need 'em again. You know, tuxedos are stupid." Genesis was roasting alive in the heavy, black material. "It's summer, and I'm dressed like this! I don't have a death wish. How come Tess and Josh get to marry in traditional battle dress, and the rest of us schmucks have to sit like jerky under the summer sun?"

"Tradition."

"Me arse." X came floating over the freshly-manicured lawn to join his two friends. He'd put on his own tux, and it was just slightly imperfect for this reason. But he was proud of his achievement. "Ozzie is right, Gen. It's tradition." The Hunter stiffed proudly. "You may ask…how was this tradition started. I'll tell you!" X paused in thought. "…I don't know..."

Two lines of Hunters flanked the aisle on which Tess and Josh strode down. Every single one of them stood slack-jawed at the reploid who would be performing the ceremony.

"I'm sure there's a good reason why Cain chose Cass as the Justice of Peace," Genesis muttered to X, sweat trickling down his fur, "and damn, I can't wait to hear it from that fool."

"My guess is that Cain was 'liquored up' again," Ozzie murmured on the other side of Genesis, his head down. "Cass is his personal hero."

Cass, a large reploid badger, was the bartender for MHHQ's popular pub, Salamandastron's Illusion. And he was never, ever seen out of his domain.

"I've never seen him crawl out from behind his counter," Genesis said. "So THAT'S what his lower half looks like."

The wedding party began to shuffle restlessly under the beating sun. Murmurs of disapproval over the choice for the Justice of Peace began to rise in a cloud of contempt.

"This is a wedding, not a wine tasting."

"Speaking of wine, when do we drink?"

"Too late, I've already started."

"Me too." A pause. Then: "Ms Hoover! The floor's shaking!"

Cass calmly cleared his throat and waddled to his place at the podium before Tess and Josh, who likewise exchanged confused glances. Once he was quite comfortable, the handsomely striped badger slammed his Bible on the solid oak. The sound boomed over the microphone like the prelude to an avalanche. The crowd shut up at once.

"Thank you," Cass said sweetly. He began the ceremony.

Ten sweltering minutes later, Genesis was completely at his wit's end. "This is stupid," he snorted quietly so as not to invoke Cass' wrath again. "Dumbass human mating rituals. I ask you, what's wrong with 'em crawling off into caves together?"

"Don't ask me," X said weakly. He sighed. Zero would've gotten a kick out of this whole wedding thing…

A disturbance rustled through the crowd. Genesis woke up and started to pay attention. A slow grin soaked on the fox's face.

"Awwwhawhaw!"

"What's up Gen?" X whispered.

"Forrest can't find the ring," Genesis giggled softly. "Boy, between having Cass as the Justice of Peace and Forrest as the Ring Bear, this whole wedding was shot to hell before it started."

Josh was practically frothing at the mouth; he was seconds away from garroting the sheepish platinum reploid beside him. Forrest, squeaking with terror, was slowly inching away from Josh, gathering energy for the sprint that would take him clear to China.

A claw clanked on Forrest's shoulder. Forrest turned and found himself face to face with Red Draco. No one had seen her arrive, and now Forrest was genuinely terrifed. Overwhelmed, he hunkered down and began to cry quietly.

Red gently fished at Forrest's smudged tux collar with her left paw. She lifted him up again and held up her right paw. The ring was coiled around her pinky claw. She wiggled her scaly eyebrows at Forrest and smiled.

Gently, gently as if reaching for a live wire, Forrest took the ring from Red. When the Mechadrake made no move to eat him, the platinum Hunter smiled feebly at her. Red grinned back and snapped her teeth once - which set Forrest into terrified spasms again - and dropped the Ring Bear back beside Josh. Then, she reared her head and made an announcement.

"I'm goin' home." Red turned and walked down the aisle. Halfway down, she stopped again and looked at each individual in the wedding party, smiling.

"But…you can all come, if you like!"

Not surprisingly, no one took Red up on this. The Mechadrake chuckled to herself. She continued down the aisle and away from the crowd, her forked tail slithering behind her happily.

"Well," Genesis broke the stunned silence, "at least it ain't a dull wedding."

"That whole ring sequence was a blatant ripoff of a music video I saw once," Ozzie said.

X frowned thoughtfully. "I was thinking more along the lines of a Menthos commercial, Oz."

The ceremony continued as if the wedding ring had never been lost and an estranged red Mechadrake hadn't found the durned thing. Through it all, Celeste, who flanked Tess in full battle dress (an extremely high honour) grappled with her emotions. Her mind replayed the announcement of Zero's death, X hugging her as he quietly told the Huntress about Zero's last few moments. They'd both shared a good cry together. But she hadn't cried since.

The ceremony concluded with a grand flourish, which included several joy-drunk reploids firing off their arm cannons in some twisted semblance of a salute. Cain had to tell them to knock it off when they started hitting birds.

Celeste staggered away from the celebration. She stumbled blindly, not quite thinking of any destination in particular, when she found herself among the ghostly huts of the forgotten refugee camp.

She didn't wake up until she stumbled upon Clyde Wells. The young boy was smeared with dirt and neglect; like the Camps, he was also forgotten.

Celeste blinked and rubbed her eyes. "Clyde, you should go back to the big building, okay hon?"

Clyde threw a clumsy grin at the Huntress. "Dad'll come back soon, right?" he giggled. Without waiting for an answer, he obeyed Celeste and ran off in the direction of MHHQ.

Celeste sighed sadly and continued her aimless wandering. She walked into one of the empty cabins. It smelled lived in and hopeful…old love and sex. Suddenly very tired, Celeste clamboured up one of the bunks and stretched out on its sheets, wondering about the cabin's former inhabitants, and also wondering if she'd ever hear again from the mysterious stranger who'd helped her slip from Duskclaw. Not a peep had issued in her head since her escape.

Wallowing around in her thoughts of the stranger and Zero, Celeste eventually slipped into cool, deep sleep. She dreamed of the ocean bottom, where a mated pair of dolphins darted and clacked happily around the giant ruins of some fortress. The ruins were grim and forbidding, but the dolphins didn't mind; the ruins were in their domain, where everything was beautiful in their eyes.

And besides that, the ruins sheltered two treasures that the pair guarded relentlessly. An old Lucas lightsabre, rusted, but still profound. Beside it lay a serpentine dagger, encrusted with precious jewels. The two weapons were brought together through undersea storms and vicious undertow, but they were safe now, inside their crumbling walls with their dolphin guardians. They could rest.

Celeste woke up with a start. Far away, music wafted and champagne sloshed as the reception bulleted on. Strangely enough, a good deal of Celeste's loneliness had drowned with her dream and the dolphins. She had a feeling that everything would be all right again. All she needed was just a little patience, as Zero had told her back on the Skeleton Grasslands.

Rolling over on her side, Celeste faced the wall next to the bunk. Something was written there, etched in very small letters. The Huntress had to squint to read them:

I'll see you again
When the stars fall from the sky
And the moon has turned red
Over One Tree Hill.

And for the first time in days, Celeste smiled.

END