Shoulders slouched, Zero shuffled into the ill-kept computer lab of Maverick Hunter Headquarters, dragging his feet slowly and clutching a three-legged stool like a crude, prehistoric weapon. That's what he was ... a caveman, a relic, a useless dried up old sack of -
"Blessed be the fruit, Sunshine."
The crimson hunter glanced up at his best friend, X, who grinned like a Cheshire cat at the sorry display Zero put up. The smallish, sapphire-plated reploid was spilled sloppily in an isolated seat, an open book in his lap.
"May the Lord open," Zero said wryly as he threw his stool down under a ceiling light that sputtered and gasped in its last few seconds of life. He glanced up at the struggling bulb, climbed the stool, and reached for it with his bare hands.
X cocked his head. "Might wanna turn off the lights 'fore you do that."
"Away to hell with that safety shite," Zero grunted as he yanked out the old bulb and unceremoniously passed the Responsibility of Light onto a new one. "Suicide would do me good."
"Oh. Bored, are we? A world without fighting makes Zero a cranky-pants."
"Oho," Zero snorted as he jumped off the stool. "Don't give me that haggis. Look at the way you're slouching. You don't even see a damn word on that page. It's been almost four months since Repliforce went floating on down the River Styx, and you're just as restless as I am!"
X's grin didn't dull. "Naw, I'm just lazy! The whole reason I fight is so I can enjoy quiet moments like this."
"Yes, of course X," Zero drawled. "And Hendrix herds ghost-cows through my bedroom at three a.m. every night with Slash." Zero walked over to the open window on the west wall of the lab. Soft April air billowed into the room like the breath of Persephone. His molten gold mane swinging gently in the sweet breeze, Zero leaned out the window. Directly below, clashing against the black asphalt of the parking lot, glittered the platinum figure of Forrest. The unpopular reploid appeared to be reading a magazine. He seemed happy enough.
"Pokeball go!" Zero sang as he dropped the dead lightbulb on Forrest's head. The bulb emitted a gaseous pop! as fragments of frosted glass flew hither and yon. Forrest jumped about twenty feet into the air and frantically looked around him. It never occurred to the dull lad to look up for his assailant, who snickered loudly as he pulled his head back into the room.
X gave his friend a sidelong glance. "We need to find you something to kill."
Zero's cruel pleasure evaporated quickly. "I'm just bored," he grunted. His eyes jumped about the room. "Hey now...where IS everybody?!"
The lab was unusually deserted. Aside from the two Hunters, two of the kitchen staff, Terrence and Phillip, were present, messing around on one of the computers. But they didn't count as any sort of company.
X sighed as he closed his book. No point in reading while Zero was around, he was the cat that twined around you while you were doing your homework. "Aw come on now, Zero. You know what happens to this place every time spring rolls around. The reploids try to form a softball team, but usually beat each other up with the bats instead...and the humans...well, they've got one thing on their minds this time of year, and it's quite the opposite of war."
Zero yawned and cracked his knuckles. "True enough. Huh, gotta love them apes. Maybe I'll go bug Genesis..."
Josh Garret, a Senior from the Night Vipers Maverick Hunting squadron and a veteran from the first Maverick War, walked into the room. The wild-haired twentysomething looked about him and blinked slowly at Zero in a lizard-like fashion.
Zero jerked his head back. "Whoa. Carbon."
"Hi Josh!" Terrence and Phillip piped frantically for the Hunter's attention.
"Er, uh, hi guys. Listen Zero, I wanted to tell you..."
Terrence and Phillip would not be brushed off.
"How's Mrs. Garret, sir?"
"Hope she's doing well?"
"When's the baby due?"
That last line sent Zero reeling. X quickly opened his book again and shoved his face in it, apparently not caring that it was upside down.
Josh ducked his head and whimpered quietly, his ragged crop of hair hanging in his eyes. "Tess ... Tess is ... well along the way, Terrence ... thanks for your ... concern ..."
"Wow! So she's gonna pop any day now, isn't she?"
Josh frowned. "For lack of a better term ... yes. That's why I wanted to talk to you, Zero. Tess won't be hunting for a good while, but I figure that's not too bad seeing as how it's so quiet now and all..."
Zero raised a hand. "Hold. Let me get this straight. Tess was pregnant this whole time and I was never informed?"
"I never advertised the fact," Josh admitted, "but I figured you could tell! You've caught glimpses of her over the past few months, and she's as big as a house!"
"Lawks-a-Mercy Josh, I just thought she was getting fat, and I didn't want to say anything to you!" Zero paused as he slowly ran one hand down his face. "All right..." he said quietly. "Something doesn't compute here. How far along is Tess?"
"'bout seven months."
"Which means our adorable little future Hunter was conceived during the Repliforce War, eh?' Zero's voice was starting to rise.
Josh grimaced, well aware of his crime. "Eh, yeah."
Zero folded his arms. "Soooo, why didn't Tess get her mandatory birth control injection when the war started? Or, at the very least, why didn't the daft lass tell me she was pregnant?! Hunting while there's bacon in the oven is not only prohibited for safety reasons, it's just plain stupid! Good God! Where was Genesis when all this was happening?"
"Tess refused to get the injection when the war started," Josh said, wringing his hands. "She said that she wasn't about to drop her pants for some fox who calls himself a 'doctor' to stick a needle in her rear. Genesis said he didn't want a hairless human ass in his face so early in the morning, so they kind of reached an agreement on that front."
"That's the problem with everyone these days!" Zero snarled as he kicked over his footstool. "Nobody listens to orders! Discipline has gone straight to hell!"
Josh coughed. "Well...at any rate sir, Tess won't be hunting 'till the baby's born ..."
"You bet your grandmother's preserves she won't be hunting!" Zero bellowed in Josh's face. "And I'll thank you for getting out of my sight right now!"
Josh scurried out like a mouse being pursued by a cat.
X was still reading his inverted book. Zero kicked his chair out from under him, and the blue Hunter went flying.
"You knew about this all along! Why didn't you bloody well TELL me anything?! If Tess got hurt during the war with Repliforce, there could've been major legal trouble!"
From his uncomfortable stance on the floor, X snickered.
"It's not funny, X!"
"I'm not laughing at the situation," X giggled. "I'm laughing at you. It's ironic that you can't relax when it's so quiet! This whole issue isn't that big of a deal. Tess is safe now, that's what matters. You shouldn't be so upset over this!"
"The thing is, I was disobeyed, and to top if off, we're down a Hunter," Zero growled like a starving pitbull as he picked his footstool back up. He was teetering on the edge. "And even in peace time, I don't like that." The fuming Hunter spied Terrence and Phillip leering cautiously at him from behind the door.
Phillip cleared his throat. "Excuse me sir, but did Shakespeare not say that conception is a blessing..."
Zero screamed obscenities about Shakespeare as he whipped his much-abused footstool at the door. Terrence escaped, but poor Phillip got it right between the eyes. Terrence was too frightened to drag his unconscious brother to safety.
Still flat on the floor, X smiled and laced his fingers behind his head as he listened to the beautiful sounds spawned of boredom. It certainly beat the music that came along with war, i.e. happy fun screams of pain.
But underneath his skin, something was hiccuping and poking at his ribs. He was fooling himself; there were tremors of worry running through him. And X couldn't locate the source.
Why am I so damn uneasy...?
Caillou's room never saw sunlight, but his body prodded him awake at the appropriate time. The black-haired boy muttered to himself as he sat up in bed and wiped at the sleep that gummed his blue eyes shut. That done, he yawned massively and swung off his warm mattress and into the chilly air of his cramped sleeping quarters, which were better known as 'warrens' among the warriors. Given the structural nature of the rooms, it was an appropriate name.
His breath hanging in the air like icy fog, Caillou scrambled to get dressed as quickly as possible. The warrens weren't heated for just that very reason.
The colder you are, the faster you move, Asmodeus 12 often said.
Fingers numb, Caillou laced up his boots as best he could, their beetle-shell surfaces clouding with every breath he puffed. That done, the youth yanked his black vest off its hook and punched his hand through the sleeve. He weaved his belt around his pant-waist and packed his lightweight Wyvern-Walker laser pistol into the holster by his side. The Wyvern-Walker was the boy's silent pride. It was an old but very rare and dependable weapon, a gift from his father to his mother. Now it was his.
As he finished tightening his belts and girths, Caillou's eye fell on the small wooden table where his mother, Ange, used to sit during the chilly mornings. Sometimes she was there to exchange a few cheery words with her son, listening with a soft white smile as her boy singsonged about his training sessions. She was a gentle woman with dark skin and dark hair. Pleasant to observe, but rather jumpy when approached, like a robin at a birdfeeder.
And she was faithful to Asmodeus 12 and his cause.
"They treat you differently," she often said to Caillou, "because you're not 'planned stock.' But be patient. One day you will fit in, and you'll be a part of the workings. Until then, you must never be ungrateful for what you have here. We all need to stay focused and do our part if the Flesh and Scales project is going to succeed. The earth was intended for humans, not reploids, and Asmodeus 12 plans to keep things that way. So serve him with your heart."
But she was gone now, she'd been gone for years, and all that remained was her lightsabre, lying on the tabletop, a cold, lifeless spectre of the past. Uneasiness and isolation moved in with him the day he came back to his warren to find his mother gone. He'd sat faithfully at the table, waiting for hours, becoming lonely, realizing very quickly that he'd always taken advantage of her company.
Ange never returned, and Caillou knew better then to ask Asmodeus 12 where she'd gone.
The boy dashed out of his warren, the Wyvern-Walker slapping against his thigh and his boots clanking on the mesh-like metal of the catwalk that snaked outside the warren doors. No one else was in the immediate area; he was early. The members of his platoon were apparently still getting ready. Settling down to wait, Caillou folded his arms on the catwalk railing and rested his head on them, looking down at the main hall. There, he saw the same sight he'd seen every day for his entire life, but it was a view that never failed to take his breath away.
The main hall was not a hall, but rather a huge, upright cylindrical room known more commonly as the Great Tree, the meeting place of the dozens of hallways that stabbed the circumference of the Tree, like the rays on a child's drawing of the sun. The catwalk Caillou stood on ran around the teal and tan walls of the Great Tree, feeding off into the warrens. Activity and colours bustled below on the main floor, never ending. People came and went, decked in jumpsuits coloured according to their unit and rank. Each life had a purpose. Men, women, inseparable mates stepping in time with each other , toddlers who didn't toddle but rather walked with a steady, confident gait, boys, girls, and their multicoloured Mechadrakes, heads held high, wings fanning gently as they walked.
And Asmodeus 12 watched them all.
Asmodeus 12 was an ancient Mechadrake. His scales might have been a glorious silver at one time, but were now aged to a mottled grey leather that streched tautly over his whiskered draconian face like the skin of a starving man. A frazzled, bleached crop of hair sprang from his scalp, shaggy, like a badly kept lawn. The Mechadrake's eyes were a faded blue, almost to the point of being white. His wings were tattered and useless, creaking painfully with every movement. His white and blue battle armour was sparse and mismatched. His weapon was a chipped katana that nearly matched him in size, forged during wars fought in times out of mind.
But the skin was tough, the eyes were sharp and watchful, and the wings were a mark of battle, a diary, a shredded scroll that held the words to a war-chant. The armour was still polished daily, and the sharp edge of the katana still shone wickedly.
Asmodeus 12 was perched in his usual "morning" spot: the railing of the section of ramp that ran below Caillou's room. The dragon clutched at the steelwork with his vicelike hind claws, his thin frame hunched over like a weathered gargoyle on a porch step. His left leg was a normal Mechadrake affair, a padded and armoured drumstick, bare at the foot to expose formidable talons. But his right leg was another matter, completely stripped of all skin, exposing a steel skeleton from the knee down, like the claw of a gryphon.
Caillou watched silently as the beast straightened up and yawned hugely, muttering something about beer as he smacked his lips and scratched behind his sinuous neck.
But he didn't watch for long. Footsteps clattered on the catwalk as the rest of Caillou's platoon came slithering out of their warrens and headed down the ramp to the main floor. They were all boys his own age, swathed in dull green jumpsuits that were topped off with black leather vests and hard boots. The markings of the Diamondback Unit
Caillou cringed slightly as the fighters cantered past him. The noise rattled around in his ears and pierced the soft, sensitive areas of his head like a needle. He was getting a lot of headaches as of late.
One of the Diamondbacks slapped Caillou on his leathered back - not necessarily in a friendly way - and the young warrior was forced to forget his pain and join the herd on their way to training and breakfast.
Caillou tried hard - very hard indeed - to squirm his way into the heart of the stampede. The platoon's path of travel would run directly under the perch of Asmodeus 12, and Caillou had no desire to be noticed, considering yesterday's events.
The Diamondbacks ran around the massive coil of the ramp until they finally hit the main floor. Caillou rejoiced in being given the opportunity to blend in further with the thick crowd. Even better, Asmodeus 12 was looking the other way as the boy, heart squirming passed under the Mechadrake's 'throne.'
"Caillou!" The voice was a scratched record, a throat full of sand, a reptile's bellow. It was unmistakable. And it was powerful. It carried all throughout the Great Tree.
"Caillou! To me, boy!"
Caillou's sheath of bodies parted, and the mass of people huddling around the boy scuttled away like clouds after a storm. The path to Asmodeus 12 was clear. Caillou swallowed a sigh as he trudged back to the ramp. He honestly tried his best to serve the Mechadrake with his whole spirit as his mother wished, but some kind of rodent in his heart always gobbled up any respect he had for Asmodeus 12 before it could take root. There was something in those cunning eyes, in that grizzled, dragon-whiskered face that was not to be trusted completely.
Nevertheless, something in those pale eyes also forbade dawdling. Caillou sprinted back up the ramp to the second floor of the warrens. He slowly picked his way to Asmodeus 12. The medium sized Mechadrake had one arm cocked on his thin hip. His rodent-thin tail lashed back and forth on the ramp's cold steel like a stepped-on snake. His breath rattled in his lungs and dank guts. He didn't look at Caillou, but he had a conversation ready on his forked tongue.
"Caillou my boy...how're you feeling this morning?"
Caillou blinked. "Better, sir."
"Hmm," Asmodeus 12 exhaled as he looked down, hawklike, at the jungle of fighters swarming below him. "I know you must be upset with us, given yesterday's...ceremony. But precautions have to be taken, boy. You cannot help your lineage, but you don't want to repeat your mother's mistake."
Caillou's neck hairs bristled hotly, but he managed a short "Yes sir."
"Indeed. Let me have a look at the band, boy. I want to see how it's settling in. I don't need you getting any infections."
The outsider mechanically rolled up his sleeve. The damp light of the Great Tree bounced off the golden clamp that circled his wrist. Sinister and serpentine in design, the band was molded in the image of a dragon in a circle, clutching its tail between its fangs. It was an ouroborous band, and it was grafted onto Caillou's wrist less than 24 hours ago. And it represented a hell of a lot.
Asmodeus 12 poked at the humiliating jewelry with a critical claw. "Well...seems to be doing fine. And if you're feeling all right, then everything is okay." The Mechadrake turned away from Caillou again. "And you understand fully what the band is for, correct?"
Face burning furiously, Caillou ducked his head and said nothing.
Asmodeus 12 kindly gave him a reminder. "The ouroborous band is reserved for those who are not planned. See, your mother, Ange, fell in with a man I didn't give to her. You were a result of their meeting." Asmodeus 12 spread his shattered wings to full as he talked, wind-shorn sails on a ghost ship. "This place runs on careful chemistry and planning, Caillou. Each person has their mate assigned to them on basis of loyalty and selective breeding. And, of course, the mates must be happy with each other. Those factors all contribute to healthy and strong offspring. That, and intense training are what humans need to overcome the reploids and take back the earth. And that's what we're here for. Do you understand so far, boy?"
"Oh, sure." Caillou surprised himself. Sarcasm was seeping into his words...he had to be more careful, or he'd get himself into severe trouble.
Luckily, Asmodeus 12 missed the acidic words. "Then you'll understand why that band is so important," he prattled on. "It marks you as 'Unplanned' and sterilizes you. That way, your bloodline won't jam up the works any further than it already has. In most cases, Unplanned children are culled at birth...but given your paternal lineage, I figured you'd be useful. But there are limits. We can't afford random mating here. Right, Caillou?"
Hate spilled over hotly in Caillou's heart. But his voice remained cool as he remembered his mother's wishes. "Yes sir."
" 'If you plant the Demon Seed, you raise the Flower of Fire.' Remember that, Caillou."
"Good boy. There's hope that you might be recognized as normal after all. Do a good job of things, and you just might be recognized and given regular rights. Now go on for breakfast. Mashed potatoes get crusty when they're cold."
Caillou muffled a curse into a cough as he turned vault face and galloped back down the ramp to the main floor of the Great Tree, losing himself quite comfortably among the other Inheritors of Eden.