Eamon the blue Mechadrake leaned back in his chair, stretched his wings and caught himself with a curse when he nearly tipped over. He glanced around the infirmary to see if any of his patients had spotted the show, but the big ward was sparsely-populated and all his charges were dozing. Eamon drew his hand down his snout and allowed himself a quick thought about how nice it was to have a quiet day without lacerations, broken bones, burns-
He wasn't allowed to complete the thought before a groan summoned his attention to the entranceway. The Loy kid was there-Jody-doubled over, struggling to stand on trembling legs. Eamon was already on his feet, and a growl automatically boiled in his chest when he saw Zero half-carrying, half-dragging Jody.
Knew that Reploid couldn't be trusted. Told Dr. Ison, told Asmodeus, told them told them-
"Easy, Puff," Zero growled in turn as Eamon strode towards him. "He did this to himself. Thought he could take me on in my own class."
Eamon reared back a bit, then motioned for Zero to park Jody on a nearby bed. He did, not gently, and Jody rolled a little as the Mechadrake pried open the boy's jumpsuit. His fingers found an easy hold courtesy of a black-lipped tear in the fabric (The work of a lightsabre, Eamon thought, and he felt himself bristle), but it was still a slippery, bloody job.
"Good God! What have you done here, Zero?"
"I already told you - he did this to himself. He wanted to show off in my class. Tried to take me on. I put him straight."
"Was it necessary to wreck him?"
"Other Reploids won't hold back when they're fighting for their lives," Zero said, "So why should I? Anyway, when you examine him more closely, you'll see that I actually used restraint."
It was true, Eamon noted grudgingly as he peeled away the remnants of Jody's jumpsuit. The charred cut left behind by Zero's sabre was ugly, blistered, and, if the screwed-down grimace on Jody's chill, clammy face was anything to go by, painful-but it was shallow. Eamon doubted that Jody would require a transfusion.
"I think he'll be okay," Eamon said, pushing away from the boy and turning around to retrieve a surgical pack near the autoclave. "Lucky for you."
"I'm terrifically damaged," Zero said, "not to mention half-starved for Energen. If Jody is the best Eden has to offer, Asmodeus is going to have a big problem wiping out my kind."
Eamon began cutting away at the dead flesh that rimmed the wound and murmured assurances to Jody as he worked. "Going to have a hell of a scar at any rate."
Jody didn't cry out as Eamon worked, but he hissed cursed through his clenched teeth and occasionally writhed. "Hold still," Eamon said more than once. Zero watched silently, waited. He felt grim admiration for the boy-not for the first time.
Jody slit open his eyes and said, "Get my mother."
Eamon paused in the middle of returning a bloodied pair of mosquito clamps to his tray. "What? Adina?"
Jody's eyes opened wider, and Zero saw they were bright with pain. "Yes, unless there's some other mother I'm not familiar with."
"Well, if you can find the energy to be a smart ass, you'll probably live," Eamon said. "I'm sure she's busy; you really want to drag her here?"
"Yes. I want her here."
Eamon shrugged and wiped his hands off with a nearby towel. "If you insist. Zero, can you find her? Dr Ison isn't around today and I have my hands full here."
"I can. Where is she?"
"Ever been to the Hollow at the bottom if the Tree? I think she's hunting there today." Eamon grinned and tossed the towel on the table next to Jody's bed. "Hope she doesn't mistake you for prey. If you're served for dinner, all of Eden will end up in here with the heaves."
The air inside the Hollow was thick and warm. It smelled of hardy plants being born in the dim light and old vegetation dying and turning to compost. Celeste felt generations of wasted plants slide under her boots as she struggled to keep up with Adina. She peered hard through the gloom, but the older woman flitted like a shade through the foliage. Celeste's vision blurred, and a jolt of pain flashed through her head and seemed to make her legs entwine around one another. She fell with a grunt and felt wet leaves and dirt slide up under her fingernails.
Celeste heard a pair of feet go crump-crump-crump against the vegetation, and then Adina's hand drifted out of the gloom. Celeste took it and hauled herself to her feet. "I'm sorry," she said.
"I'll go slower," Adina said. "I forgot that you don't have your night-eyes anymore. Don't worry; they'll come back in time."
Celeste's insides shuddered at the thought of being in Eden long enough for her eyes to permanently dilate like some murk-lurking sea creature's. But if Adina's comment meant anything, they had been like that once before-
"Look," Adina breathed, putting a hand on Celeste's shoulder. She nodded at some movement that was rustling beyond the thicket they knelt behind. Celeste focused her eyes. "A deer?"
She felt Adina nod again. "Concentrate, Celeste. Tell me what details you can make out."
"Ah, well, uh-" Celeste exhaled hard and Adina shushed her.
"Keep calm. Do it to the best of your ability. Concentrate on the larger details first."
"It's a doe," Celeste said; even in the humid grey light, she could make out the deer's lack of prongs. "Not very large, so she's young, I suppose. A yearling?"
"Excellent," Adina said. "She's not yet learned what the smell of humans means." She unhooked the laser rifle hanging over her shoulder and nudged it against Celeste. "It's an easy shot."
"Oh-" Celeste curled her fingers around the cold barrel, then drew her hand away. "I don't hunt with guns. When I was younger, I was in an accident that damaged my arm-"
"No excuses," Adina said. "If you don't know how to shoot, you're going to learn. It's abhorrent that the Hunters let you go this long without teaching you to respect guns. Here. Take mine, and shoot."
"Crap," Celeste said before she could stop herself. She accepted the weapon and drew it up to her shoulder. She was surprised at how light it was, though that wasn't enough to keep the sight from dancing in front of her eye.
"Steady," Adina said in a low voice. "Breathe. Aim for the heart or the eye; otherwise you may cause her undue suffering."
No pressure. Celeste squeezed the trigger in a rush of terror and temper. The gun kicked back and she nearly fell over, but not before she heard a sound that was between a bleat and a squeal, followed by the snapping and rustling of a blind, mad animal fleeing.
"You hit her," Adina said tonelessly as Celeste pulled herself upright, "but I don't know where. Took a lung, I'd wager." She collected her gun. "Come. We'll find her."
Celeste could feel the blood in her face rise a few degrees. She thought to apologize, but she figured it wouldn't be much good. Her best hope for redemption was to find the deer and land the killing blow cleanly, quickly, and intelligently.
They walked; the heavy air smelled of panic and blood. Before they'd gone far, Celeste felt as if her shadow had gained weight. Something was trailing her. She tossed a look behind her shoulder, but saw nothing except for dark leaves nodding in the drafty, dim blue light.
This time she had no problem catching up to Adina and keeping in step with her. "Adina, I think there's something behind us."
"Good," the woman murmured. "I was hoping you'd notice. Can you tell what it is?"
"No. Except I don't think it's an animal. The four-footed kind, I mean."
"Heavy steps, but quick on its feet," Adina said. "Stealthy, carrying a smell that doesn't belong in the natural world." She stopped, put a hand on Celeste's shoulder, and called out, "If you need to speak to me, Zero, do it face-to-face instead of trailing us like a convict."
Zero was smiling when he stepped out of the shadows. "Caught me," he said. He let his eyes fall on Celeste for a fraction of a second, then focused on Adina. "You'd stand a chance of giving me a run for my money-Adina, was it? Not like your son."
"Jody's got a lot to learn," Adina said shortly, "but he carries potential, and I'll thank you to remember that, Reploid."
"That potential's going to be nothing but a big red puddle on the ground if your kid doesn't watch his step," Zero said.
The strap belonging to Adina's gun slid down her shoulder a little. "What are you trying to tell me?"
Zero put up his hands. "Your son tried to fight me. Showing off, I imagine. I defended myself. 'Excessively,' according to Eamon. He'll be OK, but he's hurt. He wants to see you."
"Hell," Adina hissed. She was holding her rifle, but its barrel was lowered. "He had better survive for your sake, Reploid." She looked back and forth. "That deer is long gone. Celeste?"
"I'll track her down and finish her off while you're gone," Celeste offered, keeping her voice carefully neutral.
"I don't feel comfortable leaving you with the machine," Adina said.
"I don't feel comfortable leaving that deer in pain," Celeste returned, "and it's my turn to feed Eden. But I need help finding her and bringing her down."
"All right," Adina said. "Fine. I won't be gone long. I trust you, Celeste."
"I understand," Celeste said.
Adina's trot took her into the foliage and out of their sight in seconds. Celeste looked at Zero, and listened. When Adina faded entirely and there was only the distant hiss of the river and the sporadic rustling of small animals darting through the vegetation, Celeste held out her hand. Zero's own hands swallowed it, and he folded her into a slow embrace.
"How are you?" he asked, resting his chin on top of her head.
"Surviving." She let herself breathe in the chill scent of steel, paint, and oil for a few silent seconds. "You look like hell, Zero. What happened? What are you doing here?"
"Surviving," Zero echoed with a wry smile. "Jody guided me here."
Celeste automatically stiffened at Jody's name. "The Hunters sent you to find me?"
"No. I don't know what my role with the Hunters is anymore."
"I'll explain it all to you when we're above ground and kicking dirt over the smoking hole that was once this goddamn crypt." Zero pulled away from her. "We're a pair: Way I heard it, the Hunters dismissed you, too."
Celeste took a couple of steps away from him. "They did. Marked me as a nutcase and threw me out." She tucked her elbows into her hands. "Well, not quite like that. My mother signed me over to be institutionalized. A Mechadrake named Nytetrayn kidnapped me and brought me here. Worst thing is, I don't know if I should thank him or throttle him."
"All that needs throttling will be throttled in due time," Zero said dryly. "But I don't understand why the Hunters-"
"Locked me up? To paraphrase the doctor they brought in, I'm not right in the head." Celeste listened to the river slither through the impossible world around them. "Seems I'm in my element then, aren't I? And I'm in grand company."
"More than you know. We're getting out of here, Celeste, but not before we gut Asmodeus. I'm going to meet up with your brother, and I'd like you to come with me."
"Caillou?" The name still gave Celeste an uneasy turn. "Why?"
"You've seen him already, right? You saw that bracelet around his wrist?"
"Yeah, I think I saw something of the sort."
"Well, it's got to go," Zero said, "and getting it off him isn't going to be fun for anyone involved. If you're there, it might be easier on him."
"What, he can't just take it off?"
"It's not that kind of bracelet." Zero absently ran his fingers down a wrecked patch of flesh bubbled on his cheek. "It's grafted to his skin, for starters. I don't have much time to explain. I just think he'd do better with you there."
Celeste swept her hands out to her sides. "Zero, I barely know the kid. We had nothing in common when we talked. How-"
"Please trust me."
Celeste fell quiet. She ran the back of her arm across the perspiration pricking at her forehead. "All right," she said. "All right. Where is he? When's this happening?"
"He hasn't arrived yet. I gave him a specific time; if he adheres to it, it'll be a little while still." Zero exhaled. "Thanks, Celeste."
"Don't thank me yet," Celeste said. "Adina keeps me under constant watch. She'll be back to collect me soon enough."
"That's why I got Jody to volunteer to keep her busy," Zero said. His smile returned, and it looked wet in the half-light.
"I'll do this," Celeste said, "if you do one thing for me in return."
"Hunt with me."
"It would be my pleasure."
It felt like time had little command over the Hollow, but Celeste couldn't stop thinking about the march of the hours as she read the vegetation and conversed with Zero on where the deer had fled to. How long until Adina returned? How long until she was scheduled to meet up with that strange outcast brother of hers?
But once she and Zero began to canter through the fragrant haze side-by-side, old instincts smothered her questions and doubts. She reached the deer before Zero, collapsed next to the river. Its red-rimmed eyes followed Celeste's hand as her sabre found its heaving throat and spilled its life into the water.