Chapter Four: Street Fighting Man

Even a mere three thousand feet above the city, the world still managed to take on a whole new shape.

The horizon curved away from the sky like a rind, a gentle elliptical shape so profoundly sharp and significant against that backdrop of blue it made you wonder just how the hell peple had ever botched it so badly and imagined the world to be flat in the first place. Off his right wing was the ocean, big and broad and a deep sapphire blue, a pale and shimmering aquamarine along the shoreline where thin crescents of yellow sand finally broke up through the depths to greet the beaches, the whole great mass unfurling to the very edge of the sky like a blanket. Even at that distance the whitecaps were visible, frothy and white as they rolled across the ocean, and his sharp eyes easily picked out the colourful triangular sails of a number of light boats already out skimming the waves; evidently the local yacht clubs were taking full advantage of the new morning wind blowing in from the east. Banks of thick white clouds were piling up along the horizon, as if in preparation for the rest of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the city itself swam far below him, a long sward of metal and concrete stretching out languidly along the shore, the white buildings glowing nearly orange in the late morning sunshine. Tiny cars zipped along the dense mesh of streets and byways weaving between stores and apartments and sprawling mall complexes, their occupants oblivious to the aerial observers flying high overhead. Parks turned into simple patches of green scattered randomly between buildings, highways becoming nothing more than nondescript grey ribbons snaking off to the east and west. From above, the city looked more like a roadmap than a jungle of glass and asphalt, all angular shapes and long winding lines. From that height even the tallest spires and blue glass skyscrapers and high income luxury condominiums looked squat and square and subdued, crushed to the earth by the cruel laws of perspective. Expense and elegance of design at street level suddenly took on less meaning and importance when you were the one soaring so far above everything else that they had to look up just to see you. Flight was a handy equalizer, he reckoned lazily.

The reploid's wings thrashed through the air furiously for a moment for greater lift, then fanned out to either side of him and remained perfectly still, basking him in the warm currents and updrafts rising sluggishly from the great urban cooking pan below. The sweet tang of atmosphere and salt off the ocean fought and won against the usual bilinous reek of smog coughed up from the city. Griffith inhaled it deeply and grinned happily to himself, enjoying the familiar giddy sensation of flight and the feel of the sun brightly beating down onto his back. It was a hell of a day to be alive and about, and despite everything that had already happened that morning he was in a fantastic mood.

"And I dreamed I saw the bomber jet planes riding shotgun in the sky," he sang out lustily, sticking out one hand alongside him and surfing it through the air. "Turning into butterflies above our nation!"

His internal radio crackled. They'd learned long ago that it was bloody useless to shout at each other when they were tearassing through God's own blue skies, as the rushing sound of the wind at altitude all but ripped the words straight out of your mouth and contemptuously cast them down to the earth. "Hey, Captain! Get on the horn!""

"I wanted a mission," Griffith continued gleefully, flipping to the proper frequency, "And for my sins they gave me one."

There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Uh, what was that, sir?"

The hawk twisted his head until one tawny eye was looking back at the reploid that had paged him, who was flying on a loose formation just off his right wing. "Whoops! Sorry, soldier - I was just channeling the spirit of Francis Coppola again. You know how Saturdays are, heh heh. What can I do you for?"

The reploid who had spoken up was a sturdy looking bird in black armour, with a vivid scarlet patch painted over each wing that had earned him the extremely uninspired name of Redwing. Even at that distance the pained grimace plastered on his face was very visible. "I hate to say it, Cap, but I've got some bad news for you."

"There is no such thing as bad news," Griffith affirmed loftily, accentuating his point with an idle thump of his wings. "Just good news with a bad upbringing. What, what happened?"

"Remember that warp signature you had me tracking?"

"You betcha. What about it?"

"Well, uh, I just lost all signs of it."

Griffith actually staggered in mid-flap. "Damnation and hellfire!" he bellowed, thunderstruck. "Even at this height?"

"You bet, Cap. Not even a blip's showing up anymore. It completely disappeared off my sensory grid about two second's ago."

"Hell's bells!" Griffith swore. "I thought you said the extra altitude would help clear the signal?"

The voice over his radio was apologetic. "Well, that's just it, sir - we're high enough now that we've weeded out all of the other radio waves and whatnot from the rest of the city that were getting mixed in with it, but it was so weak to begin with that now we're flying too high to even pick it up."

"Oh, for the love of Mike!" a second voice broke in testily. "What dump does Supply and Engineering order all of our sensory equipment from, anyway?"

The last member of the unit broke in with a snicker. "Radio Shack?"

"It wasn't a strong signal to start with," Redwing argued feebly. "It's not my radar's fault it can't read it anymore-"

"It's stupid. You're stupid."

"Hey, shut up!"

"That's it!" Griffith suddenly bellowed out loud, annoyed, twisting around in mid-air and shaking a threatening fist back at the members of his unit. "I've had enough of yo' jibber jabber! I'm officially calling a heads-down time! The next person who talks writes lines after class!"

The Airborne Division frequency immediately fell into a sullen silence.

"Yes! Right! Thank you! Redwing," he added, calming down by degrees and switching back to radio. "If we go back to flying a low altitude patrol, do you think you'd be able to pick up on that warp signature again?"

"Er, yeah, I think so, Cap," the tracker said, subdued.

The brown hawk pointed down beneath him, to the scores of the big industrial warehouses crouching along the shoreline fringe district as if expecting to be evicted at a moments notice. "And what do you think the chances are of it leading us straight to one of those suckers?"

"Pretty good, I'd say. I mean, a tank is a big machine to hide, so whoever warped it away would need a big building like that to stash it in. This area's sparsely populated, and the only people who come around here are dock workers and union shippers and unloaders, so there's no one around to accidentally stumble across the thief. And before I lost it, the signal was getting stronger and clearer the closer we got to the ocean anyway-"

"That's good enough for Griffith!" the big hawk boomed. "So we fly low and do a building by building search. There's only - what? - a couple hundred of those warehouses along the entire city shoreline. It shouldn't take us longer than a couple days to inspect them all."

A dismal groan echoed up from his unit.

"Days, sir?" another reploid whined.

"Building by building, sir?" the third bellyached.

This time, Redwing wisely kept his mouth shut.

"Ah, stow it! Kee-rist! What, did you all have something else you were supposed to be doing this week?"

"No, Cap," the three reploids chimed in glumly.

"Then down we go!" Griffith roared cheerfully, his good mood miraculously restored. He closed his wings and began a sharp banking turn to port, slicing through the air in a shallow powerdive that sent him easily spiralling down to earth, the three other fliers in airshow perfect formation close behind him. "There's mines over there, there's mines over there, and watch out - those goddamn monkeys bite, I'll tell ya!"

In a subterranean level of the Maverick Hunter headquarters, the peaceful mid afternoon silence of the emergency medical ward known only as the Swamp was being rudely blown apart by three powerful concussive explosions.

"Whoa, Nellie!" a lone technician shouted.

He turned away from the cabinet he had been studying and stared in amazement at the source of the blast. "Stop spreading your 'teria!"

"Oh, thanks," it wheezed.

He grinned. "You okay there, Chief?"

"Yeah," Frog said, sniffing, her eyes watering madly. She had turned away from her computer just in time before the coughing fit hit, and was now bent over at the waist and staring at the floor beside her chair. "Crickey. Enough of that could give a person tunnel vision."

"You're not sick or anything, are you?" he asked.

"Naw," she said, inhaling experimentally. "It's just a spring cold or something. I usually get one around this time of the year."

"It must suck being human sometimes," the technician, who was indeed a reploid, said with half-felt sympathy.

"You better believe it ain't all kittens and roses, bub. Cripes. I think my ears are actually ringing."

"They probably heard that upstairs!" the technician laughed. Then a new thought seemed to suddenly strike him and his expression grew sly. "Somebody must be talking about you."

"That's sneezing, doofus," the chief medical officer chided half-heartedly. She rubbed her nose with the back of one hand and straightened, turning back around to face her computer and obliterating the screen saver with one tap of a key. "Heigh ho, heigh ho, back to work we go. What were we at again?"

"The part where you suggest we take a break for lunch?" the technician supplied, feeble angels of hope shining earnest in his eyes.

Frog let out a short bark of laughter, typing listlessly. "Nice try, clever pants. The rest of my staff may have abandoned me for the Roadhouse like complete bastards, but you're still stuck here until we get the inventory finished. Cain wants it done today, and by god the old coot can be an outright fascist when reports don't make it to his desk on time. The faster we get this done, the faster we're outta here. If we're lucky, it'll be in time for Friday's soup special."

"But Chief-" he started to whine.

"Butt Chief? What do you think I am, some twisted ass freak?" she unenthusiastically joked. "Now quit yer bitchin' and start listing what's left in that cab… that cabine… cabi- oh, Christ!"

Another round of coughing rocked the Swamp.

"I hope they are talking, talking about firing you," the technician muttered sulkily.

The corner of Gibson and William Steet had definitely seen better days.

Ordinarily, it was a pleasant, well-groomed plaza popular with shoppers and tourists cruising idly through the area. The two streets were among the city's longest and boasted a rich arrangement of shops and malls and restaurants, and therefore they attracted a lot of human and reploid traffic. The point of their intersection was always alive with activity as the flow of people from both streets finally met and meshed together; it was mercilessly preyed upon by hawkish street performers and guys with pamphlets and competing venders that crowded the pavement and alternated tried to sell passerbys hotdogs or cheap plastic sunglasses. It was a large and open area, tiled nicely with round paving stones, littered with benches or low stone walls for sitting, and well planted with bushy green hedges and young maple trees and gardens thick with big purple and red geraniums arranged in artful rows. A small marble fountain was erected in the very middle of the plaza and sprayed a white plume of water up into the air. Traffic crawled past in either direction on each street, and the tall glass skyscrapers rising up from the cityscape all around it brilliantly mirrored the sky.

The main entrance to the big Euromancer Mall also stood on the corner of Gibson and William, and like the rest of the square it was usually one of the city's more attractive and popular landmarks. At that moment in time, however, people were more concerned with stampeding away from it as quickly as possible, and for once it wasn't exactly because a better sale had been discovered down the street.

A Maverick was standing on the steel arch above the entrance, cutting a dramatic figure against the rest of the building, rising high above the screams.

He was a tall reploid, but lanky and bent and stood with a pronounced hunch, his heavy reptilian head and its fan of spikes settled well in between his shoulders, his arms drawn close to his chest with the sharp claws pointed outwards. His armour was bottle green and yellow, long chewed from battle and laced with old silver scour marks that were already busy encrusting themselves with a fringe of rust. His long spine-shanked tail was coiled around his legs, the bladed tip twitching edgily. One large eye roved restlessly over the skyline, whirling madly in its socket as it scanned over the streets snaking through the city beneath him, over the stores and apartments and the cars zipping along between them, the glassy orb a wary guardian never stopping for long on any object as it kept its vigilance against attackers. The other eye, however, was fixed resolutely on the promenade directly beneath his lofty perch, eagerly drinking in the beautiful scene of bedlam and carnage taking place there-

He frowned and scratched his chin. No, wait, carnage - that wasn't right. A little grandiose, perhaps? Okay, wrong word. He tried out 'massacre' for size and it just didn't seem very fit to describe the scene taking place in the street below him either. Maybe in the old days it would have been a more appropriate word, back when he was at the height of his strength and ruthlessness and could pull together a really nasty attack against the meatsacks and not this sad sort of ambush. But that was then, and this was now, and he was just pale spectre of the killing machine he'd once been, scraped thin and hollow over what was left of his life and rapidly approaching that final desperate end…

Huh. Happy thoughts, think happy thoughts before he depressed himself stupid. Lots of dead humans. X's head on a spit. The Maverick Hunting Headquarters nothing but a smoking crater and him dancing through the ashes. Right, that was more the spirit! Then how about chaos? 'Disorder' was a little too wussy for his own liking… slaughter? Anarchy? Madness? Madness? A scene of madness? Yes! That was it! Madness! Utter madness!

"Haw!" he crowed aloud, fists on his hips, delighted with his own cleverness. "No, Neil, it's madness this week!"

The little death drone hovering obediently above his left shoulder beeped a curious query.

"No, I wasn't talking to you," he told it snippily, adding under his breath, "Dangum union dips."

The eye meanwhile gave it a baleful basilisk stare and then resumed swirling relentlessly over the scenery again, lovingly taking in the panic, the fear, the hordes of screaming human bodies all fighting tooth and claw to get away, away from the Maverick on the arch and the certain death prowling through the air like a swarm of killer bees-

He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, "Make sure you aim for the knees a couple times! They aren't just there for decoration, you know! If you shoot those out you cripple the monkeys hard enough that they can't run away, and that's always good for a few laughs! The knees! The knees! Hack the bone! Hack the bone!"

The street beneath him was full of killer robots.

Each one was a stunted child of technology, barely more than a tiny green flying helicopter held aloft by a simple spinning rotor. Although they were little more than hovering guns, they darted over the corner of Gibson and William with a vengeance and cut a wide swath of destruction behind them, their violet lasers shaving cleanly through everything that happened to fall across their path. Each robot was only the size of a small toaster over, but what they lacked in size they more than made up for in sheer malevolent tenacity, zipping hither thither though the trees and swooping low over the ground and firing blithely at anything that moved and, in the case of several cars unfortunate enough to be parked on the curb that afternoon, anything that didn't move as well. The air was soon filled with an acrid haze of smoke and shimmering heat waves, the grass with blood and glass and burnt debris. The whole scene was brightly lit up with orange flames and hot purple tracer flashes as more and more of the tiny drones continued to drop out of the sky like avenging angels, lasers blasting madly in a very un-celestial way.

The Maverick took in the sight of their murderous rampage with the critical eye of an artist. The drones were his own design, built by his own two hands, and this was their first test killin', so to speak. Truth be told, he wasn't very happy with them. They were much, much smaller than he would have liked, and he personally thought he should have added more guns, but eh, what are ya gonna do? He was no fool. The seriousness of his lousy situation hadn't lost its impact on him over the past few years. He was nothing but a shell of his former self, defeated, dirt broke, a beaten down warrior in rusting battle armour, an old victim of their war against the humans and probably long forgotten as well. In short, Home Hardware wasn't exactly knocking down his door to give him the free material from which he could forge an invisible army of killer robots. For now, he had to settle with whatever filth-slopped scrap he could scavenge up from any outer city dumps he stumbled across, and a bunch of puttering little drones.

Indignation burned white hot across his mind. Oh, for the glory days! Back when the humans were at the top of the food chain only because the Mavericks hadn't quite figured out a way to serve them, ahaha. Back when he could have taken up his whip and to hell with the humans, and to hell with the Hunters, and killed as he pleased. Back when he'd still commanded fear and respect. The stupid apes still ran when they saw him, but now it was only because they'd gotten used to doing it so often that it was practically a daily exercise. He was just another Maverick now, just another petty pain in the ass of humanity. He'd refused to go out with a whimper, but he couldn't quite manage a bang anymore. Not in this wretched state, alive but not really living either. Just... there. An feeble threat. Empty noise. Thunder without lightning. And some other trippy junk.

He moodily watched a couple of his drones as they viciously ganged up against a sports utility vehicle parked illegally nearby, blowing out its windows first then savaging its hood and engine. Christ. There was probably a metaphor in that, or something.

"Good one, guys," he applauded. "What dumbass drives an SUV in this city, anyway? Do you see any rugged mountain rivers or cougars around here? Geez."

His internal radio chimed and he turned away from the scene below, although one eye continued to regard it with great interest. "Yas? Whaddya want?"

The voice that came through was snowed under in static, but still clear enough to vibrate with anxiety. "I've got good news, and bad news."

The Maverick muttered something foul deep in his throat. "Ah, crud. I just knew it was going to be another one of those days. I felt it deep in my chassis. All right, what's the bad news? Let's get it over with first so we can all go back to being happy and smiling again soon after."

"Well, the bad news is that you'd better keep your eyes peeled - in about five minutes you'll be having company."

"Huh? Really?"

"Yeah. Talk about getting kicked in the fork when you're down."

The Maverick shrugged indifferently. "Eh, don't sweat it. No big loss. I was just getting ready to scram anyway. This scene is getting old, man. All the humans have buggered off and we're shooting cars now, and it just isn't the same thing."

From the corner of his eye he spotted something going up in a lusty fireball of yellow flames and white fluttering papers, and then a satisfied drone swooping away. He arched a brow at it. "Whoops, no, I'm sorry, we're down to mailboxes now. Oh god, this is lame."

"Ah. Actually, you may want to hang around for a while when they get there."


"Yeah. One of them is an old friend of ours. You get one guess towards who it is."

"Gee, I dunno, I'm stumped, I need more hints," the Maverick said, sarcasm dripping from the words like venom. "Batman?"

There was a long pause. "Try again, pal."

The Maverick rolled both of his eyes. His partner was a stand up sort of reploid and a fierce fighter, but god, he swore somebody had really snipped the balls off his sense of humour. He groaned into his hand, then rubbed it slowly down his face. "All right, then what's the good news?"

There was an embarrassed cough from the other end of the radio. "Actually, that was something of a complete lie about the good news. We're totally screwed."

"Whoa! Now hang on for just one blue-eyed minute!" the Maverick cried out, stomping about on the arch, anger finally bubbling its way into his voice. "I thought you said the Hunters would be too busy messing around with that tank nut to have the time to catch onto us! I think you even called it 'co-ordinating attacks', or some such happy soldier garbage! What up, buddy?"

"Don't look at me," the other reploid snapped back, deeply offended. "It's not my fault they've upped their response time. I thought they'd still be chasing that thing around on the other side of the city too. I'm just flying over Gibson Street now and spotted the two a couple blocks away and charging hellbent in your direction, so here's your warning. Man."

The Maverick let a deep breath of air hiss out slowly between his teeth as he fought to regain control over his temper. "Great. How peachy. We finally get one lousy break and some crazy bastard in a tank helpfully provides us with the nice big distraction we've been waiting for to keep the Hunters busy, and yet here we are still getting hassled by Dr Cain's favourite pair of boy scouts. God just opened a window all right, and took a leak on our laps."

"Don't worry, we can still get out of this. You've still got all those drones with you, don't you?"

"Yes, and the only thing they're good for is fodder."

"Well, sit tight. I'll be there soon enough. If I can catch them off guard maybe we can both get away."

The Maverick's head jerked around. His sharp audio sensors had picked up on the ominous sound of a muffled explosion from the direction of Gibson street, then another, and then the shriek of a tortured robot whistling a long death spiral through the sky. There was a pregnant pause, and then a noisy detonation of plasma and glass indicated that it had finally met the same grisly end as the rest of its mates.

"Well, you'd better make it pretty damn quick, because I think I can hear them on their way," he said feverishly, his claws clacking together. "If I couldn't beat that little blue jerkoff the first time around, I rather doubt I'll be able to hold both of them off my back for very long in this state."

"Give me five minutes. Just, uh, try to stall them until then, or something."

The Maverick snorted. "Oh yeah, I'll entertain them with my sagely wit and charm until they're so filled with trust and crap that they lower their guard, and then I'll try to cripple them. Or visa versa. Either way, I guess it's better than sitting around on my butt back at the factory waiting for the diseased lab monkeys to come to me."

"Wow. No more afternoon movies for you, pal. All right, I'll be there soon. Have fun."

"Oh, thank you so much for that," the Maverick growled sourly, but the radio had already cut out on him.

Silently fuming, he turned back out towards the plaza in time to spot one of his drones go careening drunkenly into the leafy embrace of a big maple. It struck a heavy branch that sheared its rotor cleanly off and sent the rest of the crumpled debris smashing into the trunk. Almost as an afterthought, it exploded into flames on its way down to the ground, then burst open into a lovely orange blossom of fire as it struck the pavement. Evidently it was lonely there, because in less than ten seconds two more burning piles of electrical wiring and metal had joined it, and then a third carcass was captured by the tree and had soon set the leaves merrily ablaze. The counter-carnage was already upon him.

The Maverick signed dismally, his shoulder slumping. He was having some wicked déjà vu, here.

However, fate still seemed destined to surprise him. When the first Hunter came heroically charging into the plaza like the hell of a guy he was, it wasn't the reploid the Maverick had been expecting. Armour flashing blood red against the sun, his hair a golden dervish behind him and the neon green blade of his sabre scything through the air around him like a plasma field, Zero's appearance was definite an indication that his day had just taken a sharp turn for the worse, his luck plummeting somewhere into the deep dark nether regions of total disaster. The Maverick fought down the urge to claw at his eyes and scream aloud in sheer frustration over it all. Zero! Of all the lousy luck! X would have been bad enough. The crimson Hunter was a hundred times worse. At least you could talk to X. X was usually perfectly willing to listen and debate with even the most wild-eyed psychotics. X was reasonable. On the other hand, Zero's conversational skills seemed to mostly revolve around snarky insults and decapitation.

Oh hell. And here he was underpowered, running out of energy, stripped of all his formidable old weapons, at desperation's end... frankly, if he got out of this one alive he'd be shocked stupid.

At least the red terror hadn't noticed him yet, a small consolation. Instead he had taken up a loose and easy stance in the centre of the square and was entertaining himself by blithely slicing up as many of the little airborne drones as possible. Eager for moving targets, they vectored in on him with a single minded determination to maim and shortly afterwards discovered just how much of a moving target he actually was. The blade hissed through the air, carving pell mell through the pack of robots, easily deflecting all of their lasers. Severed slabs of metal fell like rain around the Hunter's feet shortly afterwards, until he was wading ankle deep through a sea of mangled machinery. His face never once lost its look of intent enjoyment, his eyes their alert gleam, and his entire frame seemed charged with a vigorous battle energy as he joyfully hacked about with his sabre. At least one of them seemed to be having fun, the Maverick reflected glumly.

He watched Zero with morbid interest for a while, then decided that he'd seen enough of his hard work and effort go down in flames for one day. "No, no, no, you little savages!" he barked, his voice ringing shrilling across the plaza. "Let him through, let him though. He and I need to sit ourselves down and have a little chat anyway. Go find something else to mutilate for the time being. Like that stupid fountain. Marble offends me."

The drones obediently peeled off, flitting aimlessly around the rest of the square in search of other targets. Zero meanwhile jogged across the pavement, warily keeping track of them from the corner of his eye, his sabre loose in his hand and still ignited. He wound down to a stop beneath the arch and reared back, shielding his eyes with his other hand and staring up at the Maverick standing high above him with a look of mild amazement plastered all over his face.

"Well, inspect my butt for flying monkeys!" Zero exclaimed heartily. "Sting Chameleon, old boy! Whatta surprise!"

Sting chuckled, crossing his arms over his chest and flicking the end of his tail. "Zero, you big blonde retard, if I said I was shocked to see you here I'd be lying like a rug."

The Hunter smiled at that, his lips compressing into a thin white line. "What on earth do you think you're doing?"

"What does it look like I'm doing?" Sting said brightly, and spread his gangling arms wide. "I'm attacking the city, stupid."

"What, all on your lonesome?"

"Yeah." The arms flapped limply back to his sides. "I'm ambitious that way."

Zero looked amused. He deactivated his sabre and leaned back on his heels, squinting up against the sun. "Well glorioski, ain't this a right miracle. So far as I knew you you were supposed to be as dead as disco."

The chameleon grinned and clicked his tongue disapprovingly. If the Hunter wanted to go for a round of the Happy Chappy Casual Conversation Game, then he could play along too. "That's funny, I'd heard the same thing about you. Small world, ain't it?"

"That's god's own truth," Zero admitted easily. "So. You're looking well for an exploded guy. Who's your doctor? I really must get his number."

"Nuh uh!" Sting chortled. "That would be telling!"

"Come on," Zero wheedled. "You know you wanna."

"Not on your life, bub, for what that's worth." Sting narrowed his eyes into thoughtful slits. "Why all the curiosity? I can plainly see from here the question's practically burning a hole through that half-evolved knot of grey matter you call a brain."

The red Hunter lifted his shoulders in a noncommittal fashion. "No reason. Just wondering."

"I bet you're 'just wondering'," Sting said dryly. "Right. And Satan mows my lawn for popsicles. But never mind that, now it's my turn, my turn!"

"Knock yourself out."

Sting eyed the other reploid with a keen and terrible interest. "How'd you come lurching back to the life of the living? Shouldn't you and Vile be an indistinguishable mass of melted stupid right now?"

Zero grinned. "Life's been good to me so far."

Sting snorted loudly at that, then mockingly smacked his forehead with his open palm. "Wow, but what am I saying? For once in his life Vile got lucky and somehow managed to get all his bits stitched back together by that big dingus Doppler, and all you fancy-pants Hunters have to do to get your dents welded out is just go crawling back to the old wanker Cain and that crack-happy bunch of dope fiends he calls his medical staff and poof! Everything's groovy again, baby! It's as easy as that! Cain wept bitter tears of pain and loss over the death of his precious golden boy, then hoovered up your remains and slapped you back together again. That's what happened, isn't it? I'm right, aren't I?"

"You sound bitter," Zero drawled. "Going through a bit of a rough patch lately? Having some regrets about leaving the Hunters?"

The chameleon harrumphed. "Just answer the question, dickwad."

Zero shrugged. "That's not the whole story, but you've got the gist of it. Oh, but you missed one part - Vile got dead again. It's a bad habit of his."

The Maverick sneered. "I'd heard that lunatic went completely crackerjack at the end and got the shaft a second time - not that I care, mind you, I never liked the silly bastard or his stupid mech much to begin with - but you, you're something different, aren't you? You just won't stay down, will you, not even if it's for your own good?"

"Was that a threat?" Zero said merrily.

Sting gave him a look that could have withered stainless steel, his tail lashing behind him like a living thing. "Only you could think that way. So, was it good for you?"

"What, being dead?"


"It was educational."

Now that was interesting. The chameleon quirked an eye at him. "Oh? Funny, you don't look any smarter. In what way?"

"In that I learned a lot," Zero replied evasively.

Sting's expression soured. "Has anyone ever told you that you have a real knack for witty conversation?"

"Oh yeah, I hear it all the time. Look, this has been really fun and emotional and everything, and god knows I'll have to write all about it in the next letter back home, but seriously, let's stop hashing around here. Just what the hell are you up to, you scaly squirrel humper?"

The Maverick howled with laughter, reeling back. "Now that's the Zero I remember! Abrasive and straight to the point and just brimming with sassy backtalk."

"Whatever. Look, are we going to scrap or what? 'Cause I'm all for a reunion and everything, but this is starting to eat into my TV time."

Sting only grinned back saucily and changed the subject, his tail coiling stealthily around his left leg. "Hey, where's that little blue fink, X?" he asked, idly inspecting the heavy claws of one hand. "I still haven't forgiven him for that whole killing me thing. I want a reunion with him, all right."

Zero smiled pleasantly. "He's off shooting down those little flying menaces of yours. No offence buddy, but were you on the can when you designed those things? I think I've coughed up stuff with more firepower."

The chameleon's expression grew injured, the corners of his maw drooping down into a frown. "Hey, hey! Watch your mouth, sonny. When you're down and out in Paris and London you work with what you've got."

Inwardly, he seethed. The last thing he wanted to hear was a pointed reminder of his current lousy status from Zero, of all people. Prick.

The red Hunter was continuing, looking away from the Maverick and regarding the drones now puttering aimlessly around the plaza with a disdainful air. "Well, whatever you've been doing doesn't seem to be paying off much. I hate to be the one to bring this up, but I've seen allergy attacks scarier than this one. You just aren't putting the same effort into your evil plots as you used to. What gives, eh?"

Sting gave him the evil eye. "Hey, you don't get welfare when you're dead, pal. You go get killed by that dopey friend of yours and see how far you get in the war against humanity when you're living off scrap from the dump and canned soup."

Zero yawned and scratched his chin. "I'm sorry, but was I supposed to care about this?"

The two round globes that were the chameleon's eyes squeezed into thin slits. "You know what, Zero? I never did like you very much, even when I was back with the Hunters. You've always flounced around like you were King Shit of Turd Mountain, haven't you? I don't know about the rest of the herd back at Cain's happy smiletime retreat, but that got pretty bloody annoying for a lot of us to watch, I'll tell you what. Zero, Zero, Zero! Even Sigma used to rant on and on about you without end, about how it was your destiny to join us, how he'd swing you over to the Maverick cause one day come hell or high water, yadda yadda, ocean of blood. I never really bought into it much. The Hunter's little prince, go Maverick? Haw! And my butt sings showtunes. Besides, just look at you. You even look human. Man, have the monkeys got you whipped."

He let out a short bark of laughter, his mouth a gaping red cavern. "You know what really makes me giggle? I can't even figure out why you're a Hunter to begin with. I mean with X, it's obvious. I hate the little twit and I'd like nothing more than to hit him in the face with a power saw, but at least the lousy hippy seems to actually believe all of that 'peace between the species' mumbo jumbo that Cain just loves going on about like an old Lovin' Spoonfuls record. But what about you, eh? Do you really want to fawn all over the humans, or is the good 'ole Hunters gig just a handy way to channel your youthful angst and murderous urges? Well gee, I'm sure the entire Maverick population must love you for that one. We're just a convenient excuse for you to kill like the damned, eh?"

Zero's rude reply was interrupted by the timely arrival of X himself on the scene, who made his entry into the open square all the more dramatic by doing it at a flat run and then leaping over a park bench with all the zest and zeal of an Olympic hurdler. Safely ducked behind cover, he then oozed an arm over the back seat and fired off a few hasty shots from his Buster, which lanced into the small swarm of drones that had been flying hot on his tail and turned them all into tiny comets streaking down to earth. Even from his towering roost above the mall entrance Sting could easily make out the faint lines of black soot criss-crossing the blue Hunter's arms and torso - plasma burns from a low level laser, mild ones, but plenty of them. A dose of malevolent satisfaction began to burn deep in his chest at the sight, with a hearty dollop of petty vindication served on the side. Oh well. If the drones couldn't kill either Hunter, he'd happily settle with injuring them somewhat. Sting aimed to maim.

Beneath him, the two Hunters were greeting each other in a less than congenial fashion. "Cripes almighty, X, do we need to drag you out into the back woods and put you out of your misery already?" Zero said sardonically, his fists on his hips as his friend staggered out from behind the bench and wobbled over to join him.

"Oh yeah?" X challenged, panting, his hands on his knees and his chest huffing mightily. "Big words from the guy who ran down the street and left me behind to deal with hell's whole horde of angry robots on my own."

Zero's eyes darted. "That's because I was, uh, gallantly blazing a trail ahead for you like the super guy I am. Besides, you did fine. See, you're not even bleeding uncontrollably this time around."

"Oh, thanks awfully," the blue Hunter retorted. "That's just the thing I needed to be reminded of right now. Thank you, Zero. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Anyway, I think I've cleared out the last of them on Gibson Street. That just leaves the ones here and any that may have wandered off down William Street, and holy frig, that's Sting Chameleon!"

Zero sighed. "Congratulations, X. You just passed the Obvious Quiz."

X was too busy gaping up at the green Maverick on the arch to pay him much mind. "You!"

"You!" Sting yelled back at him.

He pointed down at the blue Hunter with an accusing finger. "Oh ho, never mind Zero - have I ever got a beef to air about you, pal!"

"You're alive!" X said, bewildered. He seemed to be having some difficulties with the concept.

"That's right, and I'll thank you not to stare!"

"But, how-"

"Quite frankly, that's none of your bees wax," the Maverick told him with a crisp clack of his mouth. "Just accept that I'm here and mightily ticked off at the both of you and leave it at that."

X looked vaguely hopeful. "I don't suppose you're the one who stole that tank, huh?"

The chameleon gave a lusty snort. "Don't I wish! No sir, I have my own agenda, thank you very much. I have no clue who pulled that job, but I wish him the best of luck. I look forward to hearing all about his future bloody rampages in the news."

"Sting here says he's attacking the city," Zero chimed in helpfully.

X started and looked around himself. "Er, really?"

The red Hunter shrugged. "Personally, I think that's balls, but we probably should be doing something about it."

"Let's not and say we did!" the Maverick bellowed. He whipped out something from behind his back and punched it up into the air, holding it aloft triumphantly between his claws. "Yee haw! Do you see this?"

"Not really," Zero said, squinting.

"Shut your pie hole! It's a detonator! And do you want to know what it detonates? Well, I'll just tell you!" Sting made a sweeping gesture with his free arm, taking in all of the streets and the plaza below, and the smattering of drones still buzzing fitfully about the area. "My robots! Yes, that's right, the same robots you were badmouthing not five minutes ago, you big red tool! Not only are they nifty little kill machines, but each and every one of them is a flying bomb as well, all lovingly crafted with my own mighty hands. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!"

Without warning, his partner's voice broke in over his radio again. "You miserable lizard, you never told me that!"

The chameleon quickly turned his head away so that the Hunters wouldn't see him talking, and lowering his voice to a dusky drawl he said, "Believe it or not, old boy, but I'm perfectly capable of masterminding my own plans without your supervision. I'm special that way. Now get your ass on over here!"

Without bothering to listen to the outraged reply he swung back around again and let out a maniacal laugh, pleased as punch at the sudden muteness of the two reploids beneath him. "Well now, this puts a new spin on things, doesn't it! Old Sting Chameleon suddenly doesn't look quite as sad and pathetic as he did before, eh? You may have shot down a buttload of my robots already, X, but I'm willing to bet you didn't get all of the ones on the other street as well. So let that be your warning! If you even look at me funny, I'll carpet bomb this place faster than the 8th Air Force."

A long moment of silence yawned before the trio as the Hunters absorbed this new information.

"Well, shit," Zero finally declared.

"Ha ha, yes, well put! But hey, what am I saying? I'm a Maverick, for the love of Mike. I should just hose this place on principle."

One finger circled tauntingly over the detonator's button. X looked thoroughly alarmed at that, but Zero's eyes only wandered to the left of the Maverick and widened, as if a new thought had suddenly struck him. He shook his head and grinned and dryly suggested, "You may want to give that idea some thought before you do anything drastic."

Sting stared down at him blankly. "Eh?"

Zero tapped his shoulder in a meaningful way, and the Maverick warily turned his head, one round eye still suspiciously fixed on the Hunter while the other swirled around to look for whatever he was indicating. It spotted the drone almost immediately, still placidly hovering over his left shoulder. Sting let out a yell and recoiled away from it sharply, cringing back as if the mother of all cobras had suddenly reared up beside him and spat in his eye.

"Great galloping Genghis, are you still here?! Go!" He waved it away with great, sweeping shakes of his claws. "Go! Git! Find some humans! I don't want to be exploded!"

"Again," Zero added, grinning nastily.

Sting pointed a claw down at him sternly. "Hush, puppy. If I wanted biting commentary out of you, I'd squeeze your head. Oh, to hell with this. There's no use talking to you people. You're all bastards and I hate your guts. I hope you die."

He closed his hand into a fist and slammed it down onto the button with a terrible relish.

The drone screamed down towards X and Zero like a harpy from hell. A white-hot explosion of fire and plasma completely neglected to rip apart the plaza.

Sting gaped down at the device in his hand, his lower jaw flapping uselessly in the breeze. "What the friggola?!"

Somewhat surprisingly, X was the one to react first. Shaking off the stuporous cloud of shock that had descended upon him the minute Sting had hit the button, he raised his Buster and took aim. Two quick shots and the tiny drone went down in a blaze of fireworks, veering off and smashing into an abandoned T-shirt stand, shredded stabilizers and sparks and smoke gently fluttering through the air in its wake. Its fiery death seemed to galvanize Zero, who blinked once sluggishly and then ignited his sabre and charged forward without a furthur word, the green blade whistling death into the wind. Sting stopped bashing the detonator with his fist and let out a terrified yowl at the sight of the red Hunter barreling hellbent in his direction. He scrambled back along the arch until his back was flattened against the glass wall behind him, his mind gibbering at him in panic. Without his robots he was unarmed, his tongue whip nearly useless at close quarters, his armour all but falling apart at the seams, and he had no doubt that Zero could leap up onto his perch faster than you could say "decapitation really hurts, eh?" -

- and something all wings and talons had just dropped out of the sky like a missile and was attacking X with a vengeance, hosing down the bewildered blue Hunter with a hail of plasma fire. Even Zero was taken completely by surprise, the red Hunter stumbling in midstride as he tried to turn and run back to his friend's aid. But this new ambush was exactly what Sting had been waiting for, and in a matter of seconds the chameleon had quickly saddled up his brain again and brilliantly taken advantage of the sudden distraction by viciously hurling the useless detonator down at Zero. The Maverick's aim was unerringly fantastic that day, and the blocky device pegged the Hunter smartly between the eyes. Zero reeled back, momentarily stunned.

Giddily tasting opportunity in the air, the chameleon then whipped around and cupped his hands around his mouth. "Hey guys, the truce is officially over!" he hollered out at the robots still hovering about the plaza or wandering down the streets. He gleefully pointed down at the two Hunters. "You can handle things from now on! Feel free to take out an eye or two!"

"You're boots, pal!" Zero bawled angrily, shaking his head to clear it. "I'll wear your lousy lizard hide for this!"

With a cheeky wave the chameleon threw himself off the side of the arch, activating his camouflaging in mid-air. He'd disappeared from sight before he'd even hit the ground. "Ta ta, chum!"

Zero let loose with a loud profanity, the heel of one palm pressed against his forehead. A teeming mass of flying robots swarmed on him like angry bees, but he irritably batted them aside with his sabre and dashed off in the direction the chameleon had last taken. "Sting, you damn dinosaur, get your ass on back here!"

"No!" the empty air around him shouted back.

X meanwhile had his hands full trying to ward off his aerial attacker. Being crushed by five hundred pounds worth of titanium and steel on a one-way trip down from the heavens was no laughing matter; it had hit him square in his left shoulder, and it currently felt as though that entire side had caved in upon impact. The earth and grass around him was scorched black and crumbly with plasma burns, and his feet tore through it without purchase as he grappled against the other reploid, who was making a very spirited attempted to shove the snub-nosed barrel of his Buster into the blue Hunter's face for a killing shot. X obviously wasn't trucking with that idea, and the instinctual desire not to have his head blown off roared up and down his brain like a freight train, until he fought back against his assailant with an uncharacteristic ferocity.

"Gitoff!" he finally yowled, and let loose with his own Buster. The shot he'd been silently charging ripped into the ground between them and exploded outwards, hurling both reploids off of their feet and throwing up a massive haze of dust and torn up earth and finely shredded grass that quickly swallowed them from sight. Staggering to his feet some distance away, his attacker barely had time for a yell of surprise before the dustball rolled over him like a wave and then continued hungrily eating up the rest of the plaza. For the first time that afternoon, silence reigned supreme.

Flat on his back, X groaned loudly, then gagged as long plumes of dust vacuumed eagerly into his mouth. Spitting out grit indignantly he surged up into a sitting position and looked around, fanning one hand in front of his face. Bits of debris were still plinking into the grass around him, and the air was little more than a misty cloud of disturbed dust and silt, through which he could barely make out even the vaguest of shapes. He grimaced guiltily. Okay, so maybe that hadn't been one of his brighter ideas - but hey, his head was still attached, wasn't it? The dust would settle soon enough. In the meantime he squinted about himself warily, and within minutes a park bench swam into his line of sight, and then two big feet.

X stared, and slowly walked his eyes upwards. The wind whipped around him, chasing away the haze.

A Maverick was standing astride the bench, a vivid silhouette against the sky, his legs akimbo and his head thrown back, his stance straight-backed and proud. Two great blue wings beat about the air for balance, fanning the grass and whacking about the dust.

"Hullo, X," the Maverick said calmly, the metal claws of his feet digging into the back of the bench and sending tiny green chips of paint falling gently to the grass like snow. "Fancy seeing you here."

X gawked. "You too?"

Storm Eagle smiled grimly and folded his arms over his chest. "Yep, me too. Life's a real kicker, isn't it?"

"I'll say," X said faintly.

They both fell silent, X on the ground and the Maverick on the bench, each silently sizing up the other, for the moment neither one of them making any signs of moving. Despite his air of quiet confidence and pride the eagle wasn't looking a personal best, X noted. His armour was weatherbeaten and worn and caked with dirt, a veritable roadmap of old scars, his wings chipped and cracked and great tufts of metal feathers missing outright. There was a ragged edge to his voice that X didn't remember from before, although his eyes were as bright and sharp and stern as the blue Hunter had ever seen them. The final effect was of a polished soldier gone slumming for the day, and didn't help X much in convincing himself that the entire day really wasn't as weird as hell.

He finally shook his head in disbelief. "I- I can't believe you two are alive."

"Quite frankly, neither can I," Storm said grimly.

X looked stricken. "So, where do we go from here?"

Storm shrugged once. "That largely depends on you and Zero and the rest of the Hunters. Sting and I have had a rough time of it lately, but we've got our own plans for the future and we don't intend on putting them aside solely on your say-so. Stay out of our way and perhaps we'll stay out of yours, hmm?"

"Do those plans still include attacking humans?" X accused.

The eagle was unmoved. "We are Mavericks, in the end."

"Then I guess we'll be butting head again," the blue Hunter said gloomily.

"I guess so, yes. That's the way she goes."

X sighed. "You were a good guy once, Storm."

"I still am," the Maverick replied severely. "I just pick and chose my friends more carefully now."

X stared at him blankly. "Sting Chameleon?"

"He has less tangible qualities," Storm replied quickly. Then he snorted and threw up his hands. "Wait, why the hell am I still here talking to you? There are more important things I could be doing right now, like putting salt into my eyes. See you around, X."

He turned around on the bench and heaved himself into the air with a powerful thrust of his legs. His wings thumped the air once and within seconds he'd burst out through the bubble of dust and disappeared from sight, leaving nothing but a sucking hole in the hazy wall behind him and long lines of deep scratches in the top rung of the bench. X remained sitting for another minute or so, leaning back on his hands and staring after the eagle with his mind in a churning turmoil, then pushed himself up onto his feet and wandered out of the dust cloud himself, one arm thrown over his face as a shield against the swirling grit.

Zero was waiting for him on the other side, his expression as dark as a thunderhead. "Storm Eagle too, huh?" he said when X had drawn near.


Zero's eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he chewed over that. "We'd better get on the horn and get this news to Cain," he said finally. "He's not going to be too happy to hear we've got two more veteran Mavericks to deal with, on top of everything else."

X only grunted his agreement.

Sting Chameleon lay on his back on the glass roof of the Euromancer Mall, one foot resting on the opposite knee, his arms crossed behind his head, both eyes staring up meditatively at the clouds.

He'd thrown off Zero somewhere along the street and had doubled back to find a good hiding place, the whole task greatly aided by his invisibility. His prized cloak was still on, and it did its best to mimic his environment, which at that height was mostly bold blue sky and white glass. He was little more than a gently shimmering shape against the atmosphere, hazy and indistinct, like heat waves beating up off a sunburnt stretch of highway, a slight ripple in the air. If anyone was still inside the mall beneath him, and hadn't fled for cover after his arrival, they would never even know he was up there. For the moment, that's exactly the way he wanted it to be. He needed some quiet downtime to do some serious thinking, to sort things out, and he didn't want those damnable Hunters getting in his face any more than they already had.

He clucked his tongue thoughtfully, his mind whirling away along its own orbit of thought.

X and Zero were probably long gone by now, or off hunting down the rest of his useless robots. They never had figured out a way to pierce his camouflage shield, not back when he was with the Hunters or when he was one of Sigma's Mavericks, and now that he was just some homeless vagabond with a whole lot of grievances against the world in general he was willing to bet that they still couldn't see through it. With the handy cloak on they'd never spot him now, and would probably never even guess that he was still loitering in the area to begin with. Storm Eagle had provided the excellent distraction he'd needed to get away, that one in a million opportunity, and now that he was out of the line of fire all he had to do was sit tight and wait for the air to clear and the Hunters to leave. He could handle that. When it came to just hanging around waiting for things to happen, Sting was nothing less than a champion.

His long tongue flicked out and he caught it there between his lips, thinking hard. All right, so his attack hadn't exactly gone as gloriously as he'd been hoping. They'd hardly crippled any humans or seriously damaged any public property, his robots were being enthusiastically shot down at the moment, and to top things off he'd only escaped from from the whole mess by the grace of Storm Eagle. Still, the whole thing was hardly a total bust. His robots were toast, but the meeting with X and Zero had given him ideas. Cunning ideas. Big ideas, with lots of nasty gnashing teeth in them.

Plans were forming, bubbling up in the back of his brain like a poisonous brew. Clever Plans.

He flipped on his radio, half lost in thought. "Storm, you out there?"

Static. And then, "Where else would I be? What, what is it?"

Sting let out a yowl of laughter. "Hey hey, you made it out too! That was some good timing back there. The swine never knew what hit them! Pow! Argh! Complete shock! It was great. You know I hate saying it, but thanks for the save."

"Uh, you're welcome?"

The chameleon grinned up at the sky. "Didja get a chance to talk with X, or did you just settle with ripping the little bastard a new one?"

The other reploid's voice went flat. "Oh, we talked all right. Shortly, but it was enough."

Sting hooted at that. "It usually is! But never mind that now, I've got a bit of good news for you to chew on. I've been doing some thinking, and it looks like old Sting Chameleon has got himself yet another brilliant plan."

There was a long pause over the radio as this news was digested.

"I'm so happy for you," Storm finally said uncertainly. "You'll pardon me for saying this, but did you perhaps take the time to notice how splendidly your last plan worked out? Or were you too busy chatting with Zero to pay it any mind?"

Sting waved it aside, unconcerned. "Hey, that whole thing was just a dummy run anyway - no big loss! I was just testing the water, is all. But the next one will be really something, something really grand, that one big score we need to set us right once and for all. Plus, we'll get to pound lots of humans while doing it. It'll be keen!"

There was a dismal sigh from the other end. "Whatever. I really think you should fill me in on it first. A second opinion can't hurt."

"Hut! Not over the radio - evil ears are everywhere. Besides, I'm still hashing out the details. It's a work in progress, you could say. I'll see you back at the factory tonight and I'll tell you all about it. I think you'll like it. It's got sneaky backstabbing and stolen property and crazy rampages and everything."

"How nice," the eagle said glumly. "Sounds great. I guess I'll see you in a couple hours."

"You betcha," Sting chortled. His good humour had been restored with amazing speed. "But don't wait up too late for me, because the summer's here, the time is right for fighting in the streets, and I've got me some serious thinking to do first."

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