Chapter One: Tank!

There seemed to be certain constants in his life. Being shot at and occasionally winding up gruesomely mangled as a result were two of the more unpleasant and frequent of them, but on a lazy morning like this one both seemed reasonably distant possibilities.

Zero ambled, staring absently at his feet. He didn't bother to look up as he walked, but continued on his meandering path down the hall outside his quarters and acted on the assumption that any traffic that flowed into his path, whether human or reploid or any of the miscellania that fell in between, would get one good look at him and then just flow on out of his way again in a damn hurry. Overhead, the dawning sun shone down through the skylights in a wash of watery yellow light, casting his shadow in indigo against the hard, spotlessly shiny floor. The sky glowed pale blue through the thick glass, turquoise and white with puffs of clouds.

He was thinking. It was something he did quite often. More specifically, he was thinking about of the mundane constants that marked his life, those a little more routine and comfortable and everyday. Like the mother of all paperwork piles currently residing on the floor of his quarters. That was a constant. In fact, in an establishment like the Maverick Hunters you couldn't find anything more ordinary and everlasting than massive amounts of paperwork. Zero was rather fond of his pile. It was the closest thing he had to a pet. It grew and it ate like any living entity, mostly more paper or whatever other crap he left lying around on the floor of his room. He watched its growth with a great deal of interest, fascinated with the way its internal layers unsteadily shifted and slid in an alien form of inanimate biology. It had been kicked over so many times that it was starting to spawn little colonies, until the entire area around his sleeping berth began to look a lot like some sort of Caribbean paper archipelago arising out of sea of blue carpeting. No matter how much of it he actually tackled and shipped back to Cain or foisted off on some other unfortunate ranking Hunter in his unit, the heap remained at a steady level, never changing in its size or mass or ability to loom threateningly. Thus, a constant was created.

Like it or not, his life was loaded with them. Like the fact that he woke up every morning with a big blond mat of untameable hair on the right side of his head, on account that he'd stopped sleeping on his left side after someone had told it was hard on all the life support systems stored there. Or maybe that was humans and their heart, or something. At any rate, unmanageable morning hair was another of those fun little constants in his life.

And then, he mused, there was X, quite possible the largest, bluest, most vocal constant of them all.

He could always count on his friend being there, somewhere, such a permanent fixture within Hunters that it required some serious warping of your imagination to phase him out of the picture. Even when the blue Hunter wasn't nearby, the vacuum his absence left behind created a familiar situation. Zero wasn't really certain why, but another of the charming constants in his life seemed to be his constant habit of gravitating towards his closest friend like he was some sort of small red moon, apparently doing it without notice at times. Like he was doing right now, come to think of it. Here he was, on his first free Saturday in ages with the entire weekend spread out in front of him like a blackjack hand, his hair knot-free, with his feet carrying him away on automatic, casually gravitating him across the spacious, sun-white lobby of the Maverick Hunter Headquarters. And now he was gravitating down the hall that would eventually lead him right to the common room of the 17th Unit - X's unit - where he promptly gravitated in through its doorway and then, upon entry into the room beyond, gravitated directly into an elbow.

"Agh!" he yelped in surprise, reeling back, his hands flying to his left eye.

"Agh!" the reploid he'd run into yelped back, leaping to the side as if he'd suddenly stepped on a poisonous snake and sloshing the beverage he was holding down the front of his armour. "I've blinded an officer!"

Zero stared out across the room with one eye. From wall to wall, the 17th common room was packed with Hunters.

Now, this positively reeked of the unusual. The common room of X's unit definitely wasn't a typical gathering ground for Hunters from around all corners of the headquarters, who tended to veer towards either the Air Cavalry common room or Rhino's Roadhouse, a small pub that maliciously lingered just down the road and sucked up any hungry Hunters that happened to wander past it like a liquor licensed black hole. Usually the 17's room was a serious, papery, studious sort of place, devoted mostly to idle chat and quiet downtime and games of backgammon, and that was hardly the type of atmosphere conductive towards any brand of spontaneous festivities. It was a dry, clean, airy sort of place, with institution-blue and white walls and big, curving bay windows offering a view out over the street below. It was the last place Zero would have expected to find a small party erupting inside, especially at this ungodly hour of the morning. The 17th common room was usually about as exciting as damp moss. On top of that, the television was too small, the couches too starched, everything smelt strongly of carpet cleaner and pine air freshener, and the variety of fruit drinks served in the vending machines frankly sucked.

And yet here it was that nearly a quarter of the Hunter population had taken refuge, jammed in nearly elbow to elbow and laughing like a bunch of lunatics. And half of them he recognized as being off-duty at this time. They weren't here because they had to be, or because they needed to kill some time. They were here just to have one hell of a good time. He'd already spotted most of X's unit mixed in with the crowd. To a reploid, they were all looking strangely amused rather than annoyed at the rowdy interruption currently spilling grape juice all over their spotless carpeting and sitting on their end tables and completely neglecting to use coasters.

On the other hand, X himself was nowhere in sight, which was both unusual and suspicious in itself. He figured it was safe to assume that the blue Hunter was out on a morning assignment already and thus unaware of the ruckus taking place, because there was no other way to explain the fact that the 17th common room had been taken over by noisy invaders without the leader unit having something stern to say about it.

"Are you all right, sir?" the reploid he'd run into was asking earnestly enough, even as he made a half-hearted attempt to mop up the juice running into his armour with the fabric of his uniform.

"Yeah," Zero said with uncharacteristic charity, blinking rapidly until his vision had reoriented itself again. "Eyesight is overrated anyway."

The Hunter gave him a friendly, confused look. "What?" he shouted as the crowd suddenly let out a raucous yell.

Zero decided to try a different tack. "What's going on in here?" he bawled over the dim. "Who died, and just how unpopular was he?"

"What?" the Hunter shouted.

"What gives?" Zero bellowed, waving at the throng of Hunters.

"Beats me, sir," the reploid cheerfully shouted back, nodding as he finally understood. "I just sorta followed the crowd here."

Zero gave him a flat look. "Ah. The crowd."

He knew all about crowds, all right. One didn't spend any amount of time as an active public defender without learning a few things about basic crowd biology. A crowd, Zero had come to realise, had a head like any other animal. It did the thinking for the rest of the body and constantly wove the entire being through its surroundings in pursuit of something that would spark its curiosity, like food or a public stoning. The head was the first to arrive at a scene of interest and usually clever enough to be the first to leave once the riot police started amassing.

A crowd also had a tail. In fact, like a snake, the majority of its body could be considered tail. The tail provided the momentum for the locomotion of the entire animal. It was the strength and muscle. It pushed everything along. However, it never led. The tail faithfully followed wherever the head damn well chose to take it. The tail made no destination plans. The tail was basically just along for the ride. As a result, it was usually the last to get anywhere and then tended to linger afterwards long after the head had made its prudent disappearance, usually to point and laugh and throw some bricks.

Years of dealing with crowds had left Zero with a simple, solid understanding: when you wanted to know what the hell had attracted the interest of one, there was absolutely no point trying to ask the ass end. It was always infinitely better to just hack your way straight to the head and sort things out from there. The head usually knew why it was there and just what it was doing. And at the head you could find the mouth, and almost every crowd had at least one mouth; that sole individual at the very front of the pack doing most of the yelling, typically through some sort of amplifying device. The mouth was loud. The mouth tended to stand out and attract attention. The mouth did most of the plotting, to the point that sometimes the best way to kill a crowd wasn't to chop off the head, but simply shut the mouth.

At this moment in time, however, he'd settle for just finding out what had started this odd gathering in the Maverick Hunter's most unobtrusive common room and why the hell he hadn't been invited beforehand. The fringe lingering at the back likely wouldn't know, not if they'd just joined up with the crowd because it looked like it knew where to find a good time. He needed to find out who was in charge, around which interesting spectacle or loudmouth this zesty little get together had formed. He carefully pushed his way past the elbow and the reploid attached to it that had accosted him at the door and began a long fight through the pack to the front of the room, deftly fending off any drinks or attempts at friendly conversation thrust upon him as recognition of his red armour swiftly needled through the crowd.

As he beat his way to the front he began to realise that somebody had turned the television on. Evidently it was someone who really knew how to work the volume knob for all it was worth as well, because as he drew near he could easily pick out the singsong voice of a television reporter riding effortlessly over the general din, drowning it out with a drone of morning news. Zero would have ordinarily expected something like the city weather report and news of local overnight stabbings to kill a party right quick rather than spark one, but sure enough, as he broke through the head of the crowd he spotted a flash of images across the flat-screened television mounted into the wall at the other side of the room and recognized one of them as being the neatly pressed reporter for the Channel Eleven News in all of her blonde and beige glory. He could see her lips moving through her big smile and he paused for a moment, straining to hear what she was saying.

"-early reports and still preliminary, but chances are a verdict will be reached by sometime tomorrow evening. And now," she added brightly, shuffling her notes and beaming into the camera, "We take you back to the outskirts of the Nelson Military Base and the dramatic turn of events that have been unfolding there since early this morning-"

"Shut up, shut up!" somebody in the pack roared over the hubbub. "It's coming back on!"

"Shh!" the crowd hissed back.

Zero marvelled at the way the room immediately fell into an eager, anticipatory silence, save for an excited murmur that still rippled through the back of the throng. He took the opportunity to scan the front of the room and quickly espied a cluster of common room couches that had been pushed and hauled and finally dumped into a shallow U shape directly in front of the television. They were packed from end to end with Hunters, all of whom were gawking at the television, held mindlessly rapt by the picture playing across the screen. A small sea of empty cans and junk food wrappers radiated out around the couches like the world's messiest blast radius. Wherever X was right now and whenever he got back, chances were he was going to be mightily pissed when he saw the small landfill forming in his common room, Zero reflected.

There were several humans crammed in with the Hunters on the couch, and even at that distance he had absolutely no trouble in recognizing one of them. The female was comfortably mashed in between two heavy reploid Hunters, sprawled low on the couch with her legs splayed out, evidently without a care in the world for the fact that either of her neighbours could easily reach over and snap her brittle human neck in an instant if they ever felt so inclined. She was short and stocky and, for reasons known only to anarchists and the terminally stoned, had dyed her hair a blinding shade of neon green that could likely been seen from a low orbit. That, combined with her large, watery grey eyes and fish pale skin, both resulting from long weeks spent working and living in a subterranean medical bay deep within the Maverick Hunters Headquarters without seeing the sun once, had gone a long way in earning the chief technician her nickname.

"Zero!" she boomed delightedly when she caught sight of him lingering across the room, waving madly to catch his attention. "Zero! Hey! Over here! You made it!"

"Shut up!" someone in the crowd hollered at her.

"You shut up!" someone else screamed back.

"Go to hell!"

"Down in front!"

"We can't hear anything back here!"

"Turn it up!"

"Would you just shut up?"



"BOOM!" the crowd gleefully bellowed en mass as something loudly and violently exploded over the television.

"Be quiet, you unbelievably inconsiderate screwoffs!" Frog finally roared with insulted impatience, twisting around in her seat to chastise the crowd from over the back of the couch. "Some of us are trying to watch this! Man, they're noisy," she added in a conversational tone to her neighbour on her right when the hush sullenly reasserted itself, sliding back into her seat.

Zero meanwhile shook his head sadly. Looks like he'd found the mouth, all right.

Frog was grinning broadly up at him as he began to pick his way towards the the couches, sidling carefully through the mess of empties, his head ducked low to stay out of the line of sight of the rest of the crowd all eagerly watching the television. "Just sit yourself on down, Big Red," she said when he was near enough. "I saved a special place on the couch just for you."

"It seems to have gotten cold and occupied," Zero pointed out mildly, staring down at the millimetres of free space separating her from the Hunters jammed in to either side, none of whom appeared particularly inclined to budge from their well cushioned piece of real estate and its superior view of the television.

Frog looked to the left and right with nothing short of pure surprise. "Hmm. You make an interesting observation, my friend."

Turning around awkwardly in place until she was almost sitting on the lap of her immediate neighbour, the mechanic reared back one foot and reefed it firmly into the side of the Hunter on her left, who let out a surprised WHOOF of air and slithered off of his seat. "Off the couch, you. You're being relocated to the floor in favour of ranking tenants."

The rudely displaced reploid turned himself around on his knees with as much dignity as he could scrape up from the level of the carpet. "I call discrimination," he said sulkily.

"Get yourself a petition and take it up with the new management," Frog told him with a shrug.

The reploid glanced up at Zero, who looked back down at him and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Screw," he said.

Starting with surprise, the reploid hesitated for a moment and then seemed to come to the unspoken decision that life would be a whole wad easier if he didn't challenge couch territorial rights with a ranking officer. Muttering darkly to himself, he slunk off into the crowd instead to nurse his grudge while the red Hunter himself dropped down heavily into the narrow space on the sofa he'd left behind.

"Cosy," Zero noted as he kicked up his feet onto a cluttered coffee table and wormed his shoulders into the cushions until he'd found a comfortable position, much to the annoyance of the Hunter on his left.

"Ain't it though?" Frog smirked.

He eyed her warily and said, "And I'll thank you to wipe that look off your face, young lady."

She just laughed at that and said, "Want some warm orange drink?" while offering him a can that she'd been keeping upright by squeezing it between her knees.

He fended it off with his hands, feeling vaguely queasy. "No, not really."

"You sure? It's not like we're strapped for it. The vending machine started coughing up freebies after we jammed a bunch of Japanese yen in the slot and then jiggled it with a clothes hanger."

"Oh yeah," Zero remarked to the room at large. "X is gonna be real happy when he sees all this."

"I'm sorry?"


"Have some," she urged again. "Just a sip."

"I really don't want your lousy orange drink," he told her flatly.

The mechanic looked deeply disappointed and held up the can to inspect it. "Well, damn. You just can't give this stuff away. Now I'm stuck with twenty odd free cans. And I hate this fruity crap!"

"That'll learn you not to screw with things that don't belong to you," the red Hunter said piously.

"I've learned nothing. Oh well," she sighed in dismay. "Maybe I can grow to like the taste of this stuff."

She took a long, tentative sip from the can and her face immediately shut down all expression. "Five kinds of fruit, my ass."

"Just do what I do when faced with something containing a nutritional value. Observe," the red Hunter instructed, and deftly plucked the can from her hands. After looking about himself for a moment he gingerly reached far over the shoulders of the reploid seated next to him and carefully tipped the liquid contents into a conveniently placed potted plant sitting on an end table nearby.

Frog looked impressed as he passed the can back to her. "You are wise beyond your years, white man,"

"Whatever. Look, what's going on in here? What's with the news and the crowd?"

The mechanic looked surprised at that. "You no hear?"

"Hear what?"

She gave him an accusing look. "It's been on the news and going around the building since five am, you know."

"I miss out on stuff when I'm sleeping," Zero said dryly. "What with being unconscious and all."

"Smartarse. Well, as the story goes, apparently early this morning some nutjob ten kinds of Crazytown managed to steal one of those big Gilgamesh robot tanks from your friendly neighbourhood military base and has been taking it out for a joyride on the streets of our fine city."

"A robot tank?" Zero exclaimed, sitting bolt upright in surprise and staring at the television. "You're saying someone actually stole a tank?"

"And how!" Frog cackled.

"Mavericks?" he asked quickly.

"No idea. But there's been plently opportunities to shell and/or mow down a whole lot of humans and nothing's happened, so I'm guessing no."

Zero gawked at the screen. "Then is this guy on crack, or something? How the hell do you steal a tank without getting your ass beaten into a puree and then fed back to you by ten beefy army guys?"

"Beats me," the mechanic replied. "Somebody figured out how!"

"Didn't anyone think to ask him what the hell he was doing there in the first place?"

"Apparently not. Either everyone guarding the base was off in the can at the time, or the guy is some sort of superbeing, because it looks like he just walked right in without being spotted or questioned or anything, jumped into the biggest death machine he could find and then just drove the thing right back off their property like it was a rental off the lot. Nobody knows who it is. No pictures of names have been released over the news yet. Nobody IDed him. Nobody even saw him!"

Zero was shaking his head in amazement. "That's insane," he said. "I mean, it's an army base. It's not like shoplifting at the Wal-Mart."

Frog laughed. "Whoever pulled it off is fast becoming a personal hero around here. We've been here watching the whole colourful event unfold after someone over in the 6th got wind of it over the radio, and have been generally just cheering the guy on ever since."

"This is the absolute greatest thing that's happened this week," the red Hunter declared, an incredibly evil grin coming over his face as he leaned back into the couch and slung one arm over the back. His eyes never left the television as he drank in the mayhem playing out over the screen. "No, this month. I'm so impressed."

Frog grinned sharply at him and sank back, folding her arms over the top of her head and scratching her fingers through her hair. "They've been running the story on the news since dawn, and it makes for some mighty fine viewing, let me tell you. Too bad you slept through the best parts. He's been cruising the thing up and down the streets running over stuff with a whole slew of really angry MPs and cops on his tail, all trying to figure out just you stop a great big tank without injuring anyone when all you've got are some spike strips and a bunch of light laser rifles. It's been a real hoot and a half watching him vengefully mow down parked cars, all right."

"Dammit, I always miss the good stuff," Zero swore regretfully. "Somebody's recording this, right?"

"Damage!" roared the crowd in delight over the excited chatter of the reporter, throwing up its hands in time to the carnage playing out on the television screen.

"Hell, yes," Frog assured him after the ringing stopped. "I don't know about you, but a copy is going straight to my video collection."

"Sweet Betsy Ross," Zero exclaimed in awe. "A tank. And just how many casualties are they wading in down there?"

"Dunno," the mechanic said, shrugging casually. "We've been watching for about a half hour, and so far nobody's been squished yet. But he smashed up some mailboxes and kiosks and crap, which makes up for the disappointing body count."

"A runaway tank and nobody mauled? That's wild," the red Hunter marveled, slowly shaking his head.

"That's what we all thought," Frog said agreeable. "Especially when he ran it through that intersection. Boy, that was a tense two minutes!"

Zero looked around the crowded common room. "Speaking of which, just why is everyone short of Cain and his dog in here watching this?" he said. "Aside from the enormous entertainment value?"

Frog gave him the long, patient stare usually reserved by adults for children who have just said a very stupid thing. "It's a tank, silly lad. And it's running amok and crushing stuff and basically just inflicting large amounts of public property damage. You figure it out."

"I didn't mean it that way," the red Hunter told her testily, giving her a look of his own from the corner of his eye. "What I meant is why did everyone came running down here to watch it, to the 17th's common room? I would have expected this sort of luau over at the Roadhouse, or the cafeteria or something, but not here. This place makes things like the library and mental institutions and the music of Leonard Cohen look outright exhilarating in comparison."

Frog had opened her mouth to reply when a massive, wall-rattling cheer suddenly erupted from the crowd, drowning out anything she might have tried to say. The pair reeled from the sheer concussive force of the noise as roughly twenty Hunters jammed together in the common room around them all appeared to go insane with malicious glee all at once, howling with laughter at something that had appeared on the screen.

"Well, there's your answer right there, scrabbling for adequate cover behind that overturned truck," the mechanic shouted over the clamor, pointing at something on the television and grinning nastily. She then turned to the Hunter seated on her other side and plucked vainly at his sleeve. "What did we miss, what did we miss?"

While her neighbour filled the mechanic on the details they'd missed while talking, Zero let his attention drift back to the footage on the television, which had been reduced to a small box in the corner of the screen while the studio reporter rattled off a list of details about the story. The video quality wasn't very good, he noticed - the picture occasionally crackled under white snowstorms of static and was joggling a bit, as if the unseen cameraman was either running to keep up with police or laughing quite hard - but it was still clear enough for him to recognize the street that the crew was filming. The tank itself was little more than a dark island trundling briskly through a sea of traffic. Indeed, as Frog had mentioned, the driver seemed more interested in randomly running down things on the street that happened across his path rather than actively attacking anyone, and the main gun hadn't moved once. It was angled unthreateningly towards the sky. Aside from a couple mangled cars and shattered public kiosks lying in its wake and two long lines of crumpled pavement left behind whenever it went from its treads, the damage didn't seem particularly inspired. He was vaguely disappointed.

The military police didn't seem to be taking things as lightly, however. Greatly amused, he watched as they either scampered around ahead of it as if debating the wisdom of being a hero and jumping aboard, or just stood about glumly in the deep path it was carving through the street with their rifles canted on their hips. A couple cruisers were skimming along in pursuit at a safe distance, and overhead he thought he spotted a helicopter, hovering like a white fish, its rotor whirring sleek and silver. Nobody seemed particularly inclined to get all that close. The turret hadn't budged yet, but clearly no one really wanted to take the chance that it wouldn't in the future. He was suddenly inspired by the thought that, if it really were a Maverick behind the wheel, he probably couldn't blame them for not being enthusiastic about the idea of being violently exploded. Mavericks tended to get a big kick out of human death statistics, particularly the high ones that happened all at once really quickly.

Something suddenly caught his eye and he quickly leaned forward, his hands on his knees, squinting curiously at the television. Just as he did the footage flipped back to full screen and the camera angle shifted, and he instantly recognized what it was the crowd had gone nuts over, and just who it was Frog had pointed out keeping under cover behind some crumpled vehicles. In an instant, a whole lot of things about the current situation suddenly made a whole lot of sense.

"It's X!" he yowled, and fell back against the couch with a loud burst of laughter while the fuzzy image of the blue reploid warily scampered hither thither about the screen in an attempt to keep up with the tank without attracting undue attention to himself. It wasn't hard for him to spot several other Maverick Hunters from his friend's unit mixed in as well, most of whom appeared to be from his friend's unit. He grinned broadly when he saw that they all appeared to be as hopelessly lost as to what they were supposed to be doing as their leader was.

Frog suddenly turned on him with a wild, glassy look in her eyes and immediately began plucking at his arm like an excited child at the fair. "You won't believe what I just heard!"

"Let's just back it up a minute here, sister," Zero interrupted, still guffawing, holding up a hand to silence her. He then jabbed an accusing finger at the screen. "Hi there! How come you didn't take the time to mention that X and some of the guys from his unit were off playing around with that thing?"

"Because I thought it would make a simply lovely surprise for you when you found out," she told him pleasantly, after regaining some of her composure. "Merry Christmas. Now, get this - if this thing ends up dragging on for another ten minutes, the military police just made the statement that they're going to have to haul out another tank to break the stalemate!"

The red Hunter abruptly stopped laughing and stared at her instead. "They're going to battle them?!"

"I hope so," Frog said mistily. "A great big ripping tank fight would go over real well right now. This sort of thing is almost enough to convince me that there really is a God."

Without warning, the crowd suddenly boomed out a loud exhalation of surprise and disappointment and the room filled with the sounds of confused, noisy chatter. The neighbour she'd been talking to a moment before turned and nudged her in the side with his elbow. "The tank just warped out," he announced helpfully.

"God is dead," the mechanic said flatly.

The red Hunter's head meanwhile whipped back around towards the television. "The what did what now?"

"Aw, damn!" Frog exclaimed, gesturing in disgust. "It really is gone! Just look at that!"

"What the hell do you mean, the tank warped out?" Zero said, ignoring her. He leaned forward and around her to regard the Hunter on her right while the human continued to glare accusingly at the television set with an expression of great, wounded insult.

"It drove up underneath a highway overpass and suddenly just poof! disappeared," the Hunter explained patiently. "There was a lot of blue light for a moment, so somebody must have teleported it right on out of there."

"Teleported?" Zero exclaimed.

He glanced over sharply. Sure enough, the scene playing out on the news had degenerated into one of mass bewilderment and chaos as the military police and Maverick Hunters began to angrily swarm over and around the place the big machine should have been but quite obviously wasn't like a nest of disturbed ants. The overpass arched over their heads, and the street disappeared beneath it and then continued off into the city on the other side. The white helicopter prowled through the skies over the area, hunting out any signs of the fugitive machine as the cruisers began to descend on the spot beneath the bridge it had last been seen. He even spotted X standing on the hood of a car that had swerved over onto the side of the road when the driver had caught an eyeful of the approaching tank blithely barrelling down on him at a clipped pace. The blue Hunter had his hands in fists on his hips as he looked about himself with an blank expression.

"Tanks don't warp," Zero said lamely.

"Well, go explain that to this one," the Hunter said, shrugging. "'Cause it apparently doesn't know that!"

The red Hunter looked down at Frog. "Tanks don't warp, right?"

"Not on their own, they don't," she said sulkily.

"So, somebody must have helped this one on its merry way?" he pressed.

"I don't know. Maybe. Yes, probably."

Zero turned around on the couch when he realised it was suddenly getting a whole lot less occupied. Hunters were beginning to drift out of the room in acute disappointment, although several remained behind to stare at the television and entertain vain hopes that the tank would make a miraculous reappearance, and to shake down and pilfer the few straggling drinks still remaining in the common room's vending machine. He felt the cushions to his right depress and then spring back up again as Frog hauled herself out of her seat and brushed discarded candy wrappers out of her pants, her face black.

"Well, it's back to the Swamp for me," she muttered sourly. "There's no point sticking around up here now."

"Cheer up," he told her. "If it got teleported that means it's now considered extremely stolen, which means parts of it might be showing up again on a police scan sooner or later."

"I guess," she said grouchily, clearly not willing to give up on her sudden bad mood altogether. "Oh well. I was supposed to be doing inventory anyway, so I probably should run downstairs and actually help my guys sort through it before they all start plotting ways to vandalize my car in revenge for cruelly abandoning them to the job."

"Yeah, that'd be a good idea," Zero said with a yawn. Over on the television, the police continued to buzz excitedly underneath and about the overpass, which was lit up in red and blue lights from the cruisers. He gave it a brief, disinterested look long enough to catch sight of the picture before it closed back to the studio reporter, just in time to spot X in the corner of the screen lowering his communicator and warping out of the scene from his perch on the car with the remaining members of his unit. One quick glance revealed the couch had been sorrowfully abandoned by the rest of its previous occupants, so he swung his legs up and around until his booted feet thumped hard into the opposite armrest. He crossed them at the ankles, then flopped back with his arms folded comfortably behind his head and a beatific expression settling across his face.

"Well," he said lazily. "I guess I'll just kick around here until X gets back-"

As if on cue the PA suddenly chimed, and there was a warning burst of static over the speakers before the unmistakable voice of the Hunters' receptionist floated over the room. "Bonjour, y'all! The time is whatever it says on your watch. Due to unfavourable conditions beyond our control, lunch will be served today. Single scientist going by the name of Cain seeks three gentlemen for a meeting in his office in twenty minutes. Must be single, fun loving, and go by the names of Sainfoin, Zero, and Griffith. We've already sold four off the lot today, so get a hustle on, sirs, before this offer runs out! Tell all your friends!"

There was a moment of silence as the PA switched off again, during which the Hunter and the mechanic exchanged odd, contemplative looks.

"Or not," Zero finally said with a grimace as he dragged himself back up into a sitting position. He swung his feet back onto the floor and eyed Frog, who was regarding him with a great deal of amused curiosity. "You get one guess as to what this is going to be all about."

"I dunno," she said with false brightness. "House painting?"

As the director behind Cain Labs and one of the chief minds behind the Maverick Hunting organization, the old scientist named Dr Cain naturally had the authority to take his pick of the offices scattered throughout the sprawling white buildings that made up the Hunters' headquarters. Whatever room he took a fancy too was practically promised to be his, as respect for him and his accomplishments ran deep and true throughout the establishment. After debating between the jealously coveted fourth floor offices that claimed wall to wall windows opening up towards the sky and the spacious first floor quarters a stone's throw away from the building that housed both the gyms and the pools, Cain had spent a week in deep contemplation and finally chosen for himself a working space that many later agreed was the evolved form of the common broom closet.

His reasons for doing so were baffling and, ultimately, his own. When asked about it, Cain had merely grinned devilishly and started hauling in houseplants by the dozens. While ranking Hunters continued to quarrel over office real estate several floors above, the doctor had first called in some carpenters to upgrade the walls of his dingy little home from peeling, mildew soaked drywalling to a deep, attractive shade of caramel-bronze pine, and then blithely set about installing a small part of the Amazon Rainforest into the tiny workspace. With his desk and cabinets and computer and hordes of framed pictures and certificates finally moved in and artfully arranged about the room, the final effect was that an autonomous, well educated jungle had settled into the office, claimed it as its own, and was planning to start work the following Monday morning.

The end result was that it was a cramped space that smelt strongly of pine, earth and newly wet leaves. It was also the closest thing the Maverick Hunters Headquarters had to a greenhouse, however, so nobody really complained whenever they were called in for a meeting with Dr Cain, and then left with a new understanding of herbal medicine and when the best time to plant your perennials actually was.

Zero paused outside the office long enough to rap his knuckles briskly against the door and then strolled on in. He was mildly annoyed to see that the other two Hunters Cain had called to meet with had already arrived and had gingerly arranged themselves and their chairs around the front of his desk. As both were fairly sizeable reploids, particularly in full impressive battle armour, it left him with precious little room to manoeuvre in and as a result he could practically feel internal mechanisms grinding down into a halt as he squeezed in between the wall, an attractive spread of flowering African violets, and the back of one of the Hunters in an attempt to reach the lonely chair across the room clearly intended for him.

Cain himself was barricaded safely behind his desk and was grinning openly as the red Hunter fought through the foliage to get to the sanctity of his seat like a stranded Vietnam soldier bolting for his trench. "Want some help?" he finally said, taking pity on Zero's plight.

"It's all good," Zero grunted, and then gave the seat of the Hunter he was currently pinned behind a hard, aggravated shove. "Hi there, Griff! Chairs are made for moving, eh?"

The Hunter sniggered, but obediently slide his chair forward a couple life sparing inches, bending his knees and folding his lower legs under the seat before they were crushed against the desk. Zero shot past him like a champagne cork and lurched into his chair with whatever shreds of dignity he had remaining.

"Glad you could make it," Cain remarked dryly when he'd finally settled into place.

"Glad to be here," Zero replied, and tried to make it sound like he meant it. He kicked one foot up onto the opposite knee and tried to casually throw an arm over the back of his chair without smashing his fist through the liquor cabinet directly behind him. "So, what's up?"

The old scientist displayed some admirable conversational dodgeball skills by skipping around the question entirely. He wagged a finger between the three reploids sitting in front of him instead and raised his eyebrows. "Sorry I sound so hideously out of touch, but, uh, you three all know each other fairly well, right?"

They all glanced at each other and exchanged a mutual shrug. "I guess you could say that, yeah," Zero replied.

Privately, Zero admitted to himself that it was a half-truth, anyway. While the Maverick Hunters wasn't a large organization in numbers, it occupied and operated over a very broad area of territory, which meant that a lot of people were spread very thinly. It also meant that you tended to meet members who had worked there for years for a first time on an almost daily basis.

"Particularly by reputation," the larger of the two other reploids added in a deep, dry, rumbly voice, glancing at Zero, and the other laughed aloud at that and then returned his attention towards looping all of the paperclips on Cain's desk into a great long chain.

Zero himself certainly had no trouble recognizing the Hunter who'd spoken, mostly because his sheer size and bulk made him nothing short of a walking, talking natural landmark. Sainfoin was a black unicorn reploid clad in heavy yellow armour that many remarked made him look something like the world's most animated road sign. He was as big and broad as a tank, large like a prize fighter, as hard as the stock of a shotgun, with fists the size of battling rams. Although he looked the type who knocked over buildings and ate cinderblocks for fun, he was as docile as a kitten and as clever as a cat. He rarely shouted, rarely smiled, and had never fired a shot in anger. He fit into his position of command over 8th Armoured Unit like a brick into mortar, and led his troupe of Hunters with a great deal of tolerant intelligence. Zero rather respected him. He had no patience for the big reploid's steady brand of policing, but he respected it all the same. He had to repect a fellow who had once folded a hoverbike neatly in half in order to make a point clear to a pair of Mavericks who had attacked a public bus. It had been a subtle point - that being that he could very easily do the same to a less inanimate object of roughly the same size and weight - and one that had not been missed by the Mavericks, who had come to the conclusion that a hasty retreat would be a really super idea shortly afterwards.

And as for the reploid who had laughed…

It was hard not to know Griffith. Griffith was like the weather, in that he was highly erratic, often aggravating, and seemed to be everywhere at once. And he was unusual at that, and people tended to notice the unusual and remember it. For one thing, Zero had learned that he was both built and hailed from New Zealand, and as a result he had the rich, fashionably Australian-esque accent that not only clearly branded him as being from a foreign land, but made people stop just to listen and giggle at his easy drawl. Secondly, he was a hawk reploid and therefore a skilled flier, and air jockeys typically soaked in a great deal of attention. As the leader of the 7th Air Cavalry Unit he was all of the famous characteristics of the dashing airman all rolled into one: he was fearless and cavalier and reckless and freehearted, and Zero absolutely couldn't stand the showy bastard.

"Now this is talent," Griffith was remarking as Zero's attention resurfaced back to the moment at hand, proudly hoisting up his paperclip train for all to admire.

"Beautiful," Cain said dryly. "I'll be sure to hang it on the tree next Christmas."

"I'll be looking for it," the hawk reploid threatened half-heartedly, and then pounced eagerly on a box of new pens sitting on the corner of the scientist's desk.

Cain rolled his eyes and turned to Sainfoin and Zero and said, "I'm sorry for this delay, but we're just waiting for X and Mistigri- oh, wait, here they are now."

All three reploids tried to turn towards the door at once, with semi-disastrous results as they all immediately tangled in Griffith's wings. Zero irritably folded one to the side and out of his face so that he could get a good look at his friend as the two Hunters trudged in wearily through the door and promptly found themselves fending off an attractive azalea arrangement.

"Sorry you two," Cain was saying apologetically. "But it looks like it's standing room only in here."

"That's okay," X said mildly, flattening himself against the wall in what little space was left over. "When it comes to standing around I'm a regular Jedi."

X looked tired, Zero noted, like he hadn't quite gotten enough sleep the night before and had then been cruelly hauled out of bed in order to chase around a machine of mass destruction, which, in actuality, was probably the case. His eyes were lined, his smile wilted, and he had to fight back a yawn with the back of his hand every half a minute. He wobbled on his feet like a punching bag clown and seemed to be blinking a lot more often than usual. His blue armour was caked in a layer of fine dust and grime and his helmet was rather scratched up, like he'd recently put his head through a wall. Next to him, Mistigri, a tall, lean reploid with cropped black hair and decked out in a suede jacket thrown over casual street clothing, was looking positively spruce and wry in comparison.

Old man Cain had evidently gotten around to noticing X's state as well, because he said in rising concern, "Good grief, don't tell me it attacked after all?"

"Not really," X reassured him, carefully shaking his head like he was expecting it to fall off at any moment. "I got a little close at one point and it suddenly turned a bit and made a spirited attempt to mow me down. I got clipped a little by the tread but at that point I'd thrown myself behind a car and it got crunched instead."

"Yeah, that bit was a riot," Zero agreed, chuckling heartily as he fondly remembered the news footage, and X lanced him with a evil look that smouldered like the business end of a lit cigarette.

"Would you like to drop in on the infirmary before we continue?" Cain said, bemused.

"Naw," the blue Hunter said instead, looking down at himself. "It looks a whole lot worse than it actually is."

"While we're on the topic," Cain continued, lacing his fingers together and leaning forward over his desk. "Just how bad a casualty report can I expect to read up on in tomorrow's paper?"

"Zilch," X replied. "Nadda, nothing. Nobody was hurt at all. The police did a great job keeping people out its path and out of the way, and all the cars and stuff it hit were all empty anyway. I think the worst case I saw was one of my guys, who got a bit banged up by some flying debris. And even he shrugged it off okay. We were pretty lucky all around I'd say, all things considering!"

The scientist cast a quick glance at the female Hunter standing placidly next to X. "Mistigri?"

She nodded. "He's right; the police confirmed it. No injuries were reported. The property damage costs are reputedly going to be quite high, but that seems to be the worst of it."

"Then you don't think it was the Mavericks?"

"Not really," X said, frowning slightly. He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the wall. "They would have at least tried to take out a couple humans, and considering that it was driven through a heavily populated area and that the energy cells on that thing were fully charged to begin with..."

He trailed off suggestively and his expression grew grim.

Cain made a gruesome face at the thought and then grinned half heartedly at the three reploids seated in front of his desk. "I take it you know what we're referring to?"

"I think we sorta figured it out for ourselves, yeah," Zero said dryly.

"What does Nelson make of the theft?" Sainfoin suddenly asked.

"They're rather stunned it managed to happen in the first place," Mistigri told him. "Doubtless a very serious inquiry and investigation will be made towards their security, and the threat of that is embarrassing them greatly."

"Just how did the guy pull it off in the first place?" Zero asked.

The black haired Hunter's face grew amused. "He walked in, jumped into a tank, and then drove right back out."

"That's it?"

"That's it, at least until the MPs go back and review all the security tapes to see what went wrong. Or right, depending on your perspective of it."

"And for the time being, that will be little concern to the rest of us working grunts," Cain stepped in firmly. He nodded conceding towards the female Hunter and added, "Save for you, Mistigri. I believe that dogging those investigations pretty much falls into your department, so stick to the police like glue as you've already been doing and try to sift whatever interesting bits of information you come across back down to us so we don't get bored and lonely. I'm real curious to know who took the time to warp that thing out in particular, and just how they did it, so if you could look into that for me I'd be ever so grateful. I'm thinking positive monthly personal performance review type grateful, here."

"Right-o," she said amiably. "Warp info equals shot in the arm for career. Gotcha."

The scientist grinned broadly at the remaining Hunters as she silently stole from the office, leaning far back in his chair until it thumped into the wall and comfortably folding his hands over his stomach. The snowy slope of the top of his head disappeared beneath the feathery green fronds of a fern hanging directly overhead. "The rest of you gentlemen get the dull and dreary task of trying to stop that thing whenever it puts in a second appearance, and you just know it's going to pop up sometime soon in one incarnation or another. Somebody doesn't steal a great big machine like that just to park it in the garage and then arrange their tools and gardening supplies around it."

"We're on tank duty, then?" X said, blinking in surprise.

"Sort of," the scientist admitted, scratching his beard. "More like tank prevention duty for the time being. Sainfoin, your unit is best equipped and armoured for going toe to toe with the ordnance that kind of big nasty is packing and still be standing around afterwards, so I'm sticking the lot of you fellows on the backburner and thus on home defence on the chance it winds up resurfacing and wants to pick a fight."

"Sound enough strategy," the big reploid rumbled, shifting slightly in his ill-fitting chair and looking vaguely pleased with the arrangement. "I'm confident we can deflect anything it dishes out."

"I'm inclined to agree with you," Cain told him, smiling benevolently.

"Ever been squarely hit by a bolt charge from one of those big Gilgamesh robot tanks before?" Zero asked him, twisting around to face the unicorn with a toothy grin.

"Not yet," Sainfoin replied, yawning unaffectedly. "But life's just chock full of little surprises."

"Griffith," the scientist meanwhile continued. "I'm putting you and the rest of the Air Cav on offical patrol duty. Be a good chap and see if you can't find me a missing tank, would you?"

"No worries," the hawk drawled, stretching in a lazy fashion until his black banded metal wings nearly touched the walls on either side of him. He shook his head and clacked his beak and grinned sharply and added, "I'll even skin and dress it with ma bowie knife and mount its head on a nice little plaque for your fireplace viewing needs."

"That's mighty kind of you, mountain man," Cain said dryly. "But I'll be more than happy to settle with you just finding it for me, or any sign of it."

"We can do that too," Griffith said affably.

"X and I are starting to get lonely over here, Doc," Zero chimed in pointedly without looking up at the scientist, scratching absently at a non-existent mark of dirt on the booted foot resting up on his knee. "Lonely and unwanted."

"Eh?" X said intelligently, rousing himself and staring owlishly about the room as if suddenly started awake.

The old man favoured the red Hunter with a grin that toed the shallows of evil and steepled his fingers together. His eyes shone bright and grey and nasty just above the fingertips. "Just cool your jets, there. Would you feel any better if I told you that you two are going to be on Team Strike Force?"

"Not if you're going to insist on referring to us with that ludicrous title, no," the red reploid promptly retorted, all indignant pride.

Cain laughed loudly at that, pinching the bridge of his nose to stifle his laughter. When he got his mirth roped back under control again he lowered his hand and said, "Well, what it all boils down to is that if we ever wind up getting into a great big scrap with that thing, were going to probably going to need the both of you and whoever you can spare from your units right there on the front lines to suppress the sucker. Gilgameshes are notorious for being a right pain in the arse to attack with anything short of another tank and can suck up all sorts of abuse before going down, so, uh, bring a lot of friends and have fun!"

"If what you mean when you say 'suppress' is beat the living hell out of it and then spit in the ashes, then I'm way ahead of you," Zero affirmed loftily.

X's expression, however, was one of cagey wariness. Like a wild animal sniffing around the steely jaws of the hidden bear trap he said, "What kind of abuse?"

"Mostly lots and lots of it," the scientist said brightly. "They're heavily armoured against energy and plasma fire around the turret and the front of the machine, so shooting at them there is just not a keen idea. Their weakest spots are their treads and the underplating. Of course, if you're looking up at the bottom of a tank then that means you're the incredible unlucky twit who has just been run over by it, so I really don't advise that angle of attack either."

"Rats," Zero said sardonically, half in jest, throwing both his arms over the back of his chair and stretching out his legs as far as room allowed.

X cast a sly look towards his sprawling blond friend, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "I guess that effectively rules out one of your crazy kamikaze head on charges, then."

"Don't mock my violence," Zero said sternly.

The blue Hunter sniggered at that, and Cain clapped his hands together once loudly to catch their attention, his expression bright. "Right then," he said pleasantly when four pairs of eyes were redirected back on him. "You've all got a pretty good idea of what you're supposed to be doing and there isn't much left you need to know about the whole situation that I can rightly tell you, so feel free to scram. If you've got any questions or need any additional information or data, don't be shy about hunting down Mistigri and pestering her into insensibility, on account that she's the one who's going to be keeping an eye on all police and military reports. Everyone good with that? Fantastic. Now off you trot. Hup, hup!"

"Got one of those meetings where a bunch of you all get together and talk science while working on your short game today, Doc?" Zero said brightly as he was unceremoniously shoved into X by the hard rubber end of a cane, and then gently herded with the rest of the Hunters around the chairs, through the office jungle and off towards the door at a brisk pace.

"In ten minutes, as a matter of fact," the old scientist replied without pause or shame. "And I'm paying for the rental cart this time and the clubhouse charges you extra if you're late, so don't walk, my boy - run!"

Minutes later, after departing company in a friendly manner from the Armoured and the Calvary unit leaders, Zero and a slightly scratched up X found themselves idly weaving their way off through the heavily trafficked halls of the Maverick Hunters Headquarters on a path that would eventually carry them out of the main building and then onto the grounds just outside the front doors. The sun burnt down hotly through the windows far above and chased away the dawn shadows, even as the morning sky deepened into a band of brilliant blue. A lot more of the Hunters appeared to have roused themselves from sleep by that time, and the narrower halls were fast approaching a state of gridlock as armoured humans and reploids, clearly intending to enjoy the beginning of the weekend, leisurely cruised their way up and down the passages on their way to the computer and common rooms or, at a last resort, the cafeteria. The atmosphere seemed saturated with a kind of lazy, sociable energy all around, and the two Hunters basked in it as they strolled side by side across the lobby.

"So, somebody has had a busy day today," Zero remarked gaily as they walked, in a tone of voice that warned he was only warming up to something a lot more cheerfully malevolent.

"You could say that, yes," X said warily, sizing up his friend from the corner of his eye as if he were half expecting him to start pointing at laughing any minute. "And you probably will."

The red Hunter was shaking his head from side to side with mock dismay, the end of his long blond ponytail lashing lightly along his lower back. "You preach and you preach and you preach about preparing for peace, and then the minute I turn my back you run off to get all hostile with a tank."

"Whoa, there!" his friend said in protest, half sliding into a halt. The flood of people in the lobby automatically shifted and flowed around him, although his sudden stop prompted more than one annoyed glance back in his direction. "Let's just back up the truth train a ways, shall we? I'll have you know I never touched the thing. Not even once! Not even when it tried to run me down, curse it!"

"Yes, about that," Zero continued mercilessly, with a kind of serene, fatherly patience. He had walked ahead a ways when X had stopped, but now he turned back to rejoin his friend and his hand descended onto one of the smaller reploid's shoulders like an avenging angel. The blue Hunter immediately cringed in dread at the thought of the impending lecture he'd already heard multiple times before, even as they started rambling off across the lobby again, X firmly in tow.

Zero continued. "We're really going to have to teach you something about the concept of self defence, and what it has to do with arming yourself with car keys and shouting 'no' and not getting gruesomely killed. Pacifism is nice and fun and shiny and all, but it's not going to do you much good after you've been smeared over a half acre from a lucky shot. How would you feel right now if that tank had meant business and killed you but good, hmm? Pretty darn crappy, I'm willing to bet. Being nice and peaceful and passive only gets you so far, and then it gets you buried. And nobody wants to see that, mmm?"

Zero gave his shoulder a chummy shake and then released him, even as X veered away with one magnificent surge of indignance.

"Okay!" X said with forced cheer and mounting annoyance, warming up to an argument of his own as he kept on walking several paces away and out of the reach of the other Hunter. His hands balled reflexively into fists that swung at his sides like wrecking balls. "Here's another thought you might like to stop and consider - how do you think I would have felt if I fired on that thing and it fired back, missing me entirely and instead flattening a whole lot of populated real estate? You know, I'll pretty sure I'd feel a whole lot worse in a completely different way, and I'm definitely sure that a whole lot of other people would be sharing that feeling. I won't have anyone else getting hurt because I pick stupid fights. That's not fair, and it's not right either. Sometimes the guy you shoot at shoots back, Zero, and sometimes he deosn't care that he has very bad aim."

X broke off, panting. He was feeling rather savagely pleased with himself for that one. Usually he couldn't rouse the virtuous anger to start up a really good argument in any sort of debate, but sometimes something deep within him just got rubbed wrong in the perfect way to spark off a firey rant he would ordinarily never have suspected he had anywhere in him.

To his amazement, Zero seemed to be actually considering it. The red Hunter's head had tilted and he stared off in thought as he walked.

"Well, the important thing is that you came back safe and sound in one piece and relatively unmolested," the red Hunter finally concluded after the space of a second, blithely oblivious and with a spring in his step. He put his shoulder into the front door as they finished crossing the lobby and gave a mighty heavy. Sunlight spilled inside and warm air smelling strongly of cut grass vacuumed into the building as the door swung open. "Now, let's first go find someplace where we get you hosed off and then we'll go figure out how we're going to spend the free weekend. I'm thinking laser tag, but I'm also officially broke as of this moment in time, so I guess it's all up in the air at this point in the game."

X's shoulders slumped as the anger fizzled out like a wet fuse. And so ended that conversation. He meekly followed his friend out the entrance instead. "Yeah, whatever's good."

Once outside, the sun buffeted them in a ferocious wave. The air shimmered with lines of heat, and the city profile shone yellow and pale blue off in the distance. As the pair of reploids leapt down the steps leading from to the building to the walk that wound about the front grounds, they could hear the faint blare of street traffic rising up from unseen places beyond the Maverick Headquarters' gates. Beads of morning condensation stood out vividly on leaves and parked cars and the grassy front lawn, which was buzzing with Hunters. After a moment's pause, Zero sprucely started off towards the sprawling eastern buildings that accommodated the training centres, X following only after he remembered that they also housed showers for the swimming pools, which would supply him with both running and conveniently chlorinated water to wash his armour off with.

Seconds later, however, they were both making a valiant attempt to scatter in three directions at once as something heavy and large and brown violently crashed into the earth with tremendous force merely inches in front of them like a heaven sent cruise missle, spraying them with liberal amounts of grass and dirt thrown up from the impact. While they sprinted about in a panic it calmly righted itself, vaulting lithely to its feet and enthusiastically shaking the dust from its wings like a wet dog. It clacked its beak in a self satisfactory sort of way, primly straightened its armour, and then casually turned back to regard the two wild-eyed reploids staring at it with an unsmiling expression.

"Ahoy," Griffith intoned sombrely after what he reasoned was a dramatic enough pause.

Zero inhaled sharply, desperately damping down his temper as he tried to reorient his scattered wits. "Manalive, Griffith, have I mentioned before just how much I really hate it when you do that?" he seethed instead.

"Aye, you have," the hawk reploid said, finally cracking a grin. "And that was your first mistake. Top of the morning to you, gentlemen! The lot of us were just up on the roof getting ready to leave on a wild tank hunt when I happened to spot you wandering on down below and I thought I'd give you a little friendly taste of death from above."

"That's real neighbourly of you," Zero said sourly, still feeling remarkably silly.

Griffith beamed at him. The tall, lanky Air Cavalry leader was indeed dressed and primed for action, the red Hunter couldn't help but noticing. His armour was light and painted a dull shade of brown, but the brass eagle insignia of his unit proudly flashed golden on his right shoulder and his broad wings were handsomely striped in black. His long laser rifle hung from a simple crimson bandolier, and had been slung over one shoulder so that the muzzle angled upwards and the butt nestled securely against his hip. Zero craned his head back and spotted several other fliers from his unit all perched like a ragged flock of starlings on the lofty eaves of the building and looking back down at him. To a reploid, they all appeared to be laughing both noisily and hysterically.

As he glared up at the sight he sensed X moving up beside him, and a second later he heard the smaller reploid remark in a neutral tone, "Are you really heading out to look for the tank this morning?"

"You bet we are," Griffith said, planting his hands on his hips and gazing up at the members of his unit cackling up on the roof with an expression of soldierly pride. "There's no time like the present, says I. Besides, it seems it's still pretty hairy around the spot that big bastard disappeared in, so we might be able to stumble across a trail of some sort while it's still hot."

He grinned down at the blue Hunter and threw out his chest and winked and added, "And besides, there's an area near that overpass that's Charlie's point, and I'm sure as shootin' not against the idea of a tidy little fight to tide me over while chasing down the big game."

"So long as you find the damn thing for us to deal with," Zero said blandly. "Try not to get too distracted by all the big, shiny things out there, would you?"

"What, me?"

"Charlie's point?" X echoed blankly.

Zero glanced at him. "He means the Mavericks," he explained dryly. "Somebody watches far too many war movies."

Griffith graciously let the comment slide without comment and just guffawed good-humouredly instead, then suddenly inhaled deeply and blew out a sharp, blasting whistle that made everyone in the immediate vicinity jump. At the cue the three fliers on the roof immediately hurled themselves into flight and began to bank around in lazy circles overhead, waiting for their commander to join up with them. Down on the ground, their shadows passed over the three reploids gathered below. The hawk eyed them approvingly for a minute or so, and then turned back to the two Hunters with a big open smile and jaunty salute.

"I'd love to stay and chat a while longer, but I've got a tank to track and the day's already getting old," he drawled. "And thus I leave you to your weekend and your English Patient, lads. Ta!"

Before Zero could think up an appropriately sarcastic reply, Griffith had already scampered straight up the side of the building like a winged monkey. Once he reached the first set of eaves he vaulted up onto the shallow sloping roof and immediately turned, cheerfully waved down at them, and then launched himself airborne with a single thrust of his powerful legs, his wings beating madly as he clawed for altitude. After he'd reached a safe height he turned back and beat his way swiftly over the lawn, fanning about the grass, waggled his wings in a friendly good-bye when he passed over the heads of the two Hunters and then angled up towards the sky as he began a long climb out to the east with the rest of his unit straggling and weaving behind him.

Zero regarded his departure in a long minute of mildly insulted silence.

"I can only hope that there really is some sort of justice in the world, and that somewhere out there is a big glass window with that idiot's name on it," he finally declared as he watched the hawk reploid gallantly soar away over the tops of some nearby trees, with the three other fliers in his unit forming up into a tidy formation off his wings.

He shot a look back at X when he heard his friend making some strangled, stifled noises. "What are you laughing at?"

"Who's laughing?" the blue Hunter sniggered.