|Well, it started out as an RP, but then we left the RP, but we kept the story, so I decided to write it down. Drey (aka. Figment) and Z'nai are Justin's characters, and I think the rest pretty much belong to me. Working title. Less stupid than the other title.|
Prologue: Sleep in Heavenly Peace
She intercepted the transmission on an unlikely night of clear, indigo skies and a full moon bathing the snow with radiant light. Stars winked in and out of the velvety sky, and the snow mimicked the dance of light as she watched it, dusting past her paws on an errant breeze. Too dry for good packing snow, not that she could do much with it anyway. She was musing on the benefits of a good romp through the white dunes when the transmission came in, piercing and clear.
This is Unit 713, the Black Adders, requesting backup at the Reservoir. They have us completely pinned down -- repeat, Unit 713 requesting back-- The transmission sputtered and died, but she stood still for a moment, bending her ears to the wind in the hopes that something else would come through.
"Damn it." Her voice was surprisingly loud in the still air. "What are you thinking, Cody?" A distress call -- directly from and naming the Reservoir. He had to know no one would answer it. But she was on her feet anyway, heading in the direction she knew it was, paws crunching easily through the snow. A distress call at the Reservoir was dangerous. Mavericks knowing about the place was ridiculous.
Mavericks taking over the place was deadly. And impossible, given the amount of security surrounding the place.
She permitted herself a small, mental grumble as she ran. I'd rather be fetching sticks than running off to bail out a bunch of Hunters.
The armored wolf had made it her policy to stay close, but not too close and far, but not to far from places of serious importance to both Maverick Hunters and Mavericks, but her information network had been faulty of late. She'd probably arrive at the Reservoir in time to assess the damage. At least she was near it on her circuit, instead of way up in the frozen north watching scientists try to smoke out in the arctic blasts. That had been kind of funny, actually. But she preferred the southlands in winter, where snow fell just enough to be pretty.
An attempt to move faster sent her skidding and floundering into a deeper drift, and she swore as she struggled out of it, taking back her thought about it being pretty. Teleporting was tempting, but out of the question, as all flash-activity was monitored. She skidded out of the drift and gave herself a good shake. Hawaii was looking better and better as a place for a fugitive to winter, and the circuit be damned.
As she mused on the possibility, her radio crackled into life once more, a babble of noise flowing in on almost every frequency. Snarling something uncouth, she narrowed it down to one and limped on through the snow.
.. --ing, ladies and gentlemen -- and even those of you who aren't either one. In case you hadn't noticed, it's the holiday season, and we at the Maverick Coalition like to celebrate it as much as any of you.
She stopped dead in her tracks, the chill from the snow soaking up through her paws and into her very bones.
Perhaps even more, this year, since it's going to mark the most drastic change the world has seen since .. well, possibly since the extinction of the dinosaurs.
"Shut up," she growled. "You talk to much, Febriou."
And there's nothing you can do about it. Not even the mighty Hunters can save your worthless hides now.
The transmission paused, and the wolf guessed it was Febriou's superior, telling him exactly what she'd told him. She started to run again.
But what am I saying? How can I possibly keep you in suspense this long? Let the festivities commence!
The Maverick commander broke the transmission, and the air was suddenly awash with silence. Expectant, terrified silence. The wolf ran on, unable to stop herself even in utter futility, until a rock under the snow clipped her paw and sent her skidding again. When she looked up from the fall, time stopped.
Stars were glowing above her, too bright to be real. Too regularly spaced. Too bright. She was still trying to wrap her mind around the phenomenon when the stars turned into bolts of light, raining down like hammerblows on the unprotected earth. The shafts of white sprouted from sky to horizon and back, too close to be an illusion and too far away to be real. And she watched them come.
Once, twice, and again.
The earth trembled with the magnitude of the assault, but she couldn't remember hearing anything. Nothing like an explosion. Nothing like a scream. It threatened to burst from her own throat to replace the blank, white silence that surrounded her, but her radio crackled, filling the void with a wavering, broken tune.
all .. calm, all is bri..
She mouthed the words for a moment, filling in the blanks, then lifted herself slowly to her paws. This empty place was not home to the only living being left on the planet. The beat of life was far too strong for that. She started to run again.
peace.. sleep ... heavenl.. peace
Not yet. She had things to do. Shutting the radio off, she ran hard toward the source of the destruction.
Chapter 01: The Bounty Dog
Canis the Bounty Dog was a name held in the highest respect in every Maverick encampement across the former United States. His name sent a shudder of fear particularly through the denizens of the southern half of the country, where he'd done most of his work establishing himself -- primarily by squashing anyone who irritated him and performing his jobs with shocking efficiency. Even the higher ranking Mavericks, normally exceptionally paranoid of anyone outside their now-large brotherhood, were forced to concede that the bounty hunter was an asset to their cause, even if he did occasionally maul one of their cohorts.
Yes, Canis was a name to be feared, right enough, but Mia Dunkirk was absolutely stifling in his helmet. Why the Mavericks hadn't installed air conditioning in this compound was completely lost on her, especially in the brilliant summer heat wave currently scorching across the region. She was concentrating so hard on not turning into a puddle of Reploid right there at the table, she completely missed her employer's sentence and was fidgeting with the belt of her trenchcoat when she noticed the expectant silence that hung over the table.
She gazed at him blandly through the helmet, calling on Canis' sinister reputation to intimidate herself out of the corner she'd painted herself into.
The commander tapped his fingers on the table, gazing at Canis darkly. At least, she hoped he was gazing at Canis. The helmet, coat, gloves, and boots rendered her reasonably androgynous, and she kept her hair tucked up inside the headgear when she remembered. She hoped she had remembered. Of course she had. That was part of why the heat was driving her slowly insane.
She almost missed the question the second time around.
"Will you accept the job?" He sounded a bit testy.
"Pay?" Canis grunted dismissively. Mia had always been pleased with how masculine the helmet made her voice sound.
The commander gave the wolf-mask a hard look. "Double your usual. This is an important assignment."
Mia returned the stare, features going stony underneath the mask. "I don't do assignments, Roark," Canis said nastily. "If this job's so important to you, triple my usual and keep your people clear of me." Canis, of course, preferred to work without interference from generally incompetent minions, but Mia's reasons for being alone were somewhat different.
Roark's features darkeneed. He had more spine than most of the other commanders Canis had to deal with. Mia stifled a sigh. Thankfully, he was a lousy negotiator. "Very well," he snapped, but not before letting the silence stretch uncomfortably thin. "Triple. I trust you'll perform with your usual efficiency."
"Of course," Canis rumbled, rising from the chair. "Always a pleasure, Roark."
The Maverick dismissed him with an angry wave of hi shand, and Mia felt a strong desire to throttle him where he sat. She had more urgent things to deal with, however, and teleported out of the room without another word. The coordinates were set just outside the camp, since the military had a distressing habit of attempting to trace her energy signature -- she imagined they kept it up out of habit and the vague hope that one day Canis would make a mistake.
Who knew -- maybe someday Canis would.
Sighing inwardly, she strode away from the camp, glad they'd at least stopped sending scouts after her. She'd had to kill nearly a dozen of them before they'd quit. And they were usually such nervous little younglings. A large rock formation rose up before her when she was about two miles out, and she chirped cheerfully before darting around it and ripping the wolf-styled helmet off with a gasp.
"Aaaaaagh," she groaned, sinking to the ground. "Can Reploids die from heat stroke? It sure felt like it."
What Mia actually wanted to do was sink into the shadows and sleep for an hour or two, but this latest assignment precluded that particular course of action. She gave herself five minutes, then slid the helmet back on and activated her secondary sequence.
As dusk settled over the hillside, a dark, canine shadow loped out from behind the rock, making a beeline for the coordinates specified in her assignment.
She had held out hope for a long time that the Hunters still existed -- that they hadn't been completely lost in the Mavericks' overwhelming assault -- but in the struggling post-apocalytica they'd created, it was hard to hope for much of anything. She had seen resistance groups rise and fall and even participated in some of their activities, but the most recent of those was fifty years ago, and it had been so disastrous that she'd avoided any association with them since. Tracking the movements and activities of the Mavericks was still well within her capabilities, but they weren't very difficult to track -- not anymore.
They had conquered the world in one blindingly brilliant stroke and had enslaved it in the hundred seventy-eight years since then. Well, enslaved the humans, anyway. What was left of them. If they weren't carted off for experimentation or used for entertainment, they lived packed like sardines in containment camps.
That was one thing she'd never understood. Why keep them like animals? Why keep them at all? Some form of revenge, she supposed -- payback for their own years of "slavery".
She sat down hard, uttering a soft, disgusted snort. Slavery, indeed. She scratched behind one ear, sighing. Matters of race were always prickly, even for the best of people. And she had rarely found Mavericks to be the best of people, especially now.
"Power does seem to bring out the worst in people," she remarked to no one in particular. A small bird, which had been pecking at something a few feet away, cocked its beady eye at her, then resumed its previous activity. She stuck her tongue out at it and glanced toward the horizon. "Just about time, isn't it?"
She rose and stretched, peering down at the humble collection of shacks that threatened to call itself a human settlement. Fifty people, perhaps, many complete strangers, huddled together down there, looking for the strength to survive to the next day. The Mavericks wanted it razed.
Rather than taking care of the matter through military force, they frequently sent out special operatives -- particularly when they wanted the land cleaned out, not bombarded into uselessness, like so much of the rest of the planet. Canis, it amused her to admit, was one of the best.
The last rays of the sun splashed over her slim muzzle, and she nodded, running a final check of her secondary sequence. It wasn't something she trusted, particularly since she hadn't overseen its installation. The systems read green, however, and left her no excuse to avoid activating it. When it had finished, Mia rose to her feet, slightly wobbly-kneed, pushing her helmet up to whuff a sigh and breathe her ceremonial curse, "Damn all scientists."
Of course, she could only assume it had been scientists who'd done the dirty deed, as she had no memory of it happening. Putting the unanswered questions out of her mind, she skidded down the hill, slapping her helmet closed.
Tonight was going to be a tough sell. These people had been here for months, and they were preparing for battle, just judging from the rudimentary defenses they'd erected around the perimeter of their tiny hamlet. Hope really does spring eternal.
At her approach, she heard a faint clicking sound. Rifles. Two, at least, and very old models. Possibly from before her time, and that was really saying something. She shrugged and continued walking forward, watching the dust swirl around her heavy boots. They didn't stand much chance of hurting her, if their weaponry was all that old.
When she got within twenty feet of the farthest building, a middle-aged man stepped out of the deeper shadows into the middle of the dusky road.
"You can stop right there, if you don't mind," he said, forcing a casual tone.
She almost complimented him on his bravado, but she bit down on the flippant comment, realizing with considerable irritation that this entire affair was going to have to be handled delicately.
"I'm a friend," she began, realizing too late that it was an extremely weak beginning.
The man spat to one side in answer.
Oppression doesn't exactly bring out the best in people, either. She sighed. "Proof?"
Her offer was met with a snort of skepticism, but the man nodded anyway. "If you've got it."
If you've got it, she crabbed mentally, fishing in her coat pockets. Would I have offered it if I hadn't got it, fluff-for-brains? The man was growing impatient when her fingers finally closed on the cool metal of her insignia. She pulled it free, pausing to gaze at it silently for a moment before skipping it across the ground toward him.
He kept both his eye and his gun on her as he knelt to pick it up, and she revised her assessment of him very slightly. Not fluff, I guess. Just fear. When he saw the markings, his fingers clenched on the metal spasmodically, and his gaze shot up to her again, wide eyes trying to pierce her mask.
"Is this real?" he asked, voice a hoarse whisper.
"As real as they come." She smiled wryly, even though he couldn't see it. "It was a long time ago."
"Do they -- are they --"
She shook her head, eyes half-closing dully. "I really don't know, sir. May I?"
"Of course," he said weakly, shuffling his rifle aside and lifting his hand in a signal to the other people who had guns on her.
She relaxed and started forward again, pausing next to the man, who pressed the badge into her hand almost reverently. "I'm not an enemy," she told him softly, "but I do have very bad news."
His brows lifted, then knit, eyes taking on a dull look of fear. "They've found us."
"God above," he murmured, turning toward the village.
"I can help," she said, still standing at the gate. "I know a place you can go." If you'll go. She left the last part unspoken, but his ironic smile told her he'd heard it anyway.
"Many of us are old, and most of us tired of running."
"But --" She hurried forward, laying a hand on his shoulder. "It's safe -- I promise. It uses the old roads. Low profile. Low traffic."
He shook her touch off, looking hard into her face -- which she realized abruptly he couldn't see. Growling at herself, she yanked her helmet off, oddly-colored hair tumbling in disorderly and sweaty waves around her face. His brows raised again, and she grinned at him, a little sheepish.
The moment passed, and he waved his hand at the small crowd forming around them. Most of them were, as he'd said, old. The ones that weren't approached his age, aside from one or two in their twenties and a couple of small children.
"That's hardly the issue anymore," he said.
One of the younger men shifted restlessly. "We're sick of it -- no matter where we go, they'll find us."
A ripple of agreement swept through the crowd at his words, and Mia was hard put not to scowl at him. The herd mentality was hard to fight.
"If they're coming after us, we'll go down fighting -- we won't let them win this time!"
Idiot, she answered him mentally, but said nothing.
"At least we can take a few of them with us!"
"Idiot!" She clamped her jaw down, realizing she'd said it aloud this time, then forced herself to keep going, in spite of the remarkably affronted look on the speaker's face. "You really think they'll care if you knock off one or two of their soliders? Think they'll tip their hats to your mass grave and say you did a brave job fighting them? They don't care!" She stopped to take a breath, somewhat relieved to see flickers of uncertainty on a few of their faces. "The only way to fight them is to live. Live on and be safe -- and one day there will come a reckoning."
To her utter embarrassment, her last statement had included a passionate growl -- she hadn't done that in quite some time. She also hadn't had to do much persuading in quite some time.
A soft sigh drifted over the small gathering. "Ben, just let it be." The young man started to protest, but the old woman who'd spoken tapped her rudimentary cane firmly on the ground and he subsided.
She turned to Mia. "You said there was somewhere we could go?"
Relief spilled across her face. "Yes. Yes, there is. Let me show you a map."
She was well behind schedule by the time the villagers were safely into the woods, but it wouldn't have been terribly diplomatic to tell the people she was evicting that she -- or Canis, rather -- was on a timetable. She rubbed her temples with a small moan at the amount of work she had left ahead of her -- work to be done before dawn, no less. Well, some of it would burn, and the rest would scatter, and when she was finished, there would be only a few ashy traces left. Canis might have liked a kill, but she was unlikely to give him that satisfaction.
Morning came to find her smudging the last of the fires with her boot as she pulled her helmet over her head. The Mavericks would be along in an hour or two, and by then Canis would be back at the base where he'd gotten his assignment, collecting his pay.
The thought gave her a warm glow of satisfaction, which was lost in a blur of instinctive movement as her systems pitched her forward to avoid something that came hurtling out of nowhere to her left. She skidded around to face it, and discovered to her distinct dismay that there was nothing there at all.
"You could at least introduce yourself, you know," she offered shakily, which wasn't something Canis would say at all.
The invisible whatever-it-was didn't seem to find the idea compelling either, as it came at her again, nearly tearing the sleeve of her overcoat.
"Hardly a fair game," she complained, "when you can see me and I can't see you."
Her opponent paused -- or so she assumed -- then spoke. "Fairer, I think, than your game with those humans." The voice was crisp, cold, and metallic -- and male. Maybe male. Given her own experiences, she couldn't be too certain.
"The humans?" she spluttered, which was apparently the exact wrong thing to say, because he came at her again, even more viciously than before, and succeeded in landing a solid blow to her torso. The fabric of her overcoat split, exposing the armored reinforcement she was very glad she'd paid for. She stumbled back, nearly tumbling onto her backside, and swore brilliantly at her opponent.
He didn't respond, but she heard him step, readying another attack, and promptly teleported out.
"Not my most dignified exit," she muttered to herself after rematerializing on the ridge that overlooked the site of the village. She checked her internal chronometer and cursed again. Why am I always late? Her attacker was standing silently in the empty space below, evidently assuming she'd teleported well out of range. She decided to let him keep thinking that and jogged away, eyes fixed worriedly on a paling sky.
As it turned out, Canis was not late, thanks to a last-minute teleport, and he was leaning casually against the chain link fence of the outpost when Roark stepped outside, looking even more dour than usual.
He arched an eyebrow at the tears in the Bounty Dog's coat, which even casually folded arms couldn't hide. "I take it things didn't go so smoothly?" His voice had an irritating edge of smugness.
Mia ground her teeth and forced a nonchalant smile. "Nothing unusual." Roark would take just about any opportunity to knock a few credits off her pay.
Roark's scowl deepened slightly, and he thrust a credit chit toward her, holding it between thumb and forefinger as if it was something dirty. "Fifteen, as agreed."
Canis nodded and took the chit, pocketing it without bothering to verify the amount. Money, despite how he haggled, had never been one of his major concerns. Transaction complete, he walked silently away, pausing only to give his usual farewell. "Call me if you've got another job."
"Of course," Roark muttered darkly, then turned and strode back into the base.
Canis continued walking away. If they kept consistent, he probably wouldn't be getting a call for some months. Once he'd cleared an area for them, they typically bent all their efforts into securing it, which meant vacation time -- cleansing time -- and time to look for the Hunters, though that was becoming less and less a priority.
When she'd gotten far enough away, Mia pulled out a small, holographic map that she'd been working on and displayed a hundred mile radius or so. If she followed her usual patrol route, she'd strike north next, but there was a Reploid settlement fifty miles or so east she wanted to take a look at. She'd only been there once, and the visit had been hurried -- not only had Canis been on a job, but the town had been raided by a Maverick team looking for freedom fighters. "Ugly" was the best word she could think of to describe the whole affair.
Dun City, or Dunsitty, as the locals termed it, was one of a dozen independent Reploid towns scattered across the former United States -- independent meaning they were free from Maverick influence. The Mavericks left them largely alone, indulging in an occasional raid to remind them who ruled the world. If she recalled correctly, the settlement was also reported to have a couple of excellent bars. Not that they would do her a lot of good, she reflected ruefully. As unstable as her systems were, her foreign substance filters worked brilliantly.
And the town looked perfect for the kind of information-gathering she needed to do. Seedy, she thought on approach, was the very word to describe Dun City, from its ramshackle huts to its gaudy, half-lit neon lights. It was the product of scavenging, mismatched parts of buildings recycled into new structures, complete with jarring differences in architectural style. The front gate was a chain-link affair, bound together crookedly with barbed wire and sporting an unusual, scarecrow-like gate guard -- the internal frame of a Reploid, hung loosely by a noose around its neck.
When she drew closer to admire its sheer unlikeliness, its optics flared gold, and a tinny, broken voice warbled, "W'come toooo Dunsteeeeee!" It then flopped limp, mission apparently accomplished. A small burst of delighted chortling informed her that her reaction (a short and undignified squall of surprise) had not gone unobserved.
"Poor old Rico scare you, missy?" asked one of the observers, a thick-built Reploid designed to appear in his late forties. "He does like to surprise people."
She answered his grin with an impish one of her own and ambled inside the gate. "Actually found him rather charming, compared to the company I've kept lately."
The friendly Reploid laughed at that. "Must have been some company."
"You have no idea," she murmured. "Know any good bars hereabouts?"
With a final chuckle, he nodded, brushing a lock of brown hair out of his face. "Couple blocks down and left for one more." He wobbled his hand in midair. "Roundabout, anyway. Nothing much like a block in this town, you know? Old Kiev, 's called, probably 'cause the owner's name is Kiev, and he's old."
Mia nodded her thanks, smiling warmly at the garrulous gatekeeper. "Thanks for the help, stranger." Then she laughed at herself. Place even makes me talk like a bad western. The Reploid waved a cheery farewell, and she turned to walk up the street. It was surprisingly quiet, devoid of most of the crowd and activity she'd been used to in a human city -- but this wasn't a human place. It lacked the acrid smell of too many bodies occupying too small an area. Instead, its scent had the musty tang of metal and the grime of a machine shop.
Another thing she observed, ambling past a couple of rowdies with hovercycles, was that Dun City was ready for war. Everyone she'd seen on the street was armed, a fact that made her pat the spear she kept hung at her belt reflexively. And even if they lost the city, she imagined most of the buildings were rigged to detonate. She would like these people, she could tell.
Old Kiev was just about exactly where her informant had said it would be, doors propped open to the warm night, spilling music, laughter, and light out into the street. Mia stood silently at the edge of the sensation, drinking it in like a heady wine before she made her way inside.
No one noticed her enter except for the bartender, who nodded an acknowledgement and drifted off to a customer, leaving her largely to her own devices. She stretched casually, glancing around the room in what she hoped was the least suspicious way possible, then made her way to the bar, feeling slightly dejected. No one she knew.
Which really shouldn't come as a surprise anymore.
"Get you something?"
"Eh?" The bartender's crisp, friendly voice penetrated her self-manufactured cloud of doom with such finality that she decided he must have been doing this sort of thing for years. "Er.. what's the special?" she asked weakly, belatedly realizing that it was a restaurant question, not a bar question.
It didn't seem to faze him, though, and he rolled one shoulder lazily, polishing a clean glass in time-honored nosy-bartender tradition. "My little girl came up with a new one last week, and it's been pretty popular -- I've got it up at half price for a test run."
Your little girl? She decided not to give voice to the question, instead nodding agreeably. "I'll try it."
"How's your tolerance?" he asked her mildly as he set about mixing it. "It packs a punch, even on the regulars."
Mia grinned ironically. "I haven't met a drink yet my filters couldn't completely leech the fun out of."
"Got those old-school ones, eh? Let's see if she can take the edge off." He brought the mug down on the table with a slight bang and returned her grin. She decided she liked him.
She lifted the mug to her lips and swallowed the lot down in one breath. The alcohol hit her systems with a shock that faded almost instantaneously to a pleasant tingle, which was gone completely an instant later. She set the mug down with a slight sigh. "No good," she said, smiling crookedly. "It wasn't bad, though. I'll have another."
The barkeep nodded agreeably, and a laugh sounded next to her, warm and pleasant, to her surprise. "You sure can hold your liquor, miss," said the voice that followed it.
She turned to face the speaker, brows lifted. "To be honest," she remarked drily, "I don't see how a lady's troubles with drink are all that amusing."
He was a tallish Reploid -- looked to be pre-Disaster in make -- with hair scruffily cut and dirty blond and eyes a surprisingly dark brown. His features -- handsome, she noted absently -- were marred only by a scar that trailed from his left cheekbone down to his neck. When he grinned, as he was now, he was quite a charming rogue, earning him her immediate and cheerful mistrust.
"Well," he drawled, leaning his elbow on the bar, "I suppose they aren't, particularly if the lady has sorrows to drown. But that isn't any of my business, is it?"
The barkeep set her drink down, but she barely noticed, nodding an absent-minded acknowledgement. "Nope, it's not." She smiled pleasantly. "There are other reasons to come to a bar, though, unless things have changed a lot more than I think they have."
"Looking for a good time?" Skepticism colored his voice.
Mia felt hurt. Why don't they ever believe that line? "It's a perfectly reasonable excuse, if you ask me." She turned back to her drink, which was perspiring enticingly on the bar. She ran her finger through the pooling water, suddenly moody, and interrupted her accoster in the middle of an agreement. "But you were right in the first place. Cheers!"
"Hey, hey, wait --" he said suddenly, and she set the drink down again.
"What?" she asked irritably. "I'd like to drown said sorrows in peace, if I possibly can --" She broke off when he set a small, paper-wrapped object down on the counter.
"It might help." He spread his hands innocently. "Normally they run about two hundred creds a pop, but it's on me tonight."
"Sure, and I'm going to put something in my systems a complete stranger in a bar offered me."
He rolled his eyes in mock-irony. "Where is trust these days?"
"Can't imagine," she said shortly. "What is it?"
He shrugged. "It's a little device that shorts out your filtration system. Stays there for about twenty-four hours, during which time you can get as filthy stinking drunk as you ever thought possible, then it automatically disperses and gets swept out by your diagnostic system."
"Don't believe me? Then try it." He watched her eye the packet again and grinned. "Just swallow it down and take a swig of that drink."
She gave him a hard look. Getting drunk didn't merit such extensive measures, in her mind, but the man had just issued her a challenge, and challenges were difficult to ignore. In an abrupt motion, she snatched the packet off the table and tore it free, dropping the miniscule device down her throat. "Works immediately, does it?"
"Well, then." She wrapped her hands around the mug and once more swigged the stuff down. Moments later, she realized that this had been a mistake. It had been her habit of long years to gulp alcohol all at once, since the higher concentration got a better reaction out of her systems before the filters kicked in -- but this time, the filters didn't kick in. Mia reeled in her seat, clutching dazedly at the edge of the bar and attempting not to look as woozy as she felt. The stuff had gone off rather like fireworks, ending in a pleasant burn that finally tapered into a wonderfully mellow feeling.
"Oh my," she remarked, and her companion chuckled.
"Told you, didn't I?"
"So you did," she said agreeably, then turned carefully to face him. "What's your name, anyway?"
"Garret Chi," he said comfortably, extending his hand. She clasped it firmly, attempting not to wobble in her seat. "Call me Saber."
"I like Garret better," she informed him. "I'm Mia Dunkirk."
"Mia's a pretty name," he said, smiling again. "And I guess you can call me Garret if you like."
She beamed. For some reason, that seemed like a major concession. She found herself warming to him, despite her initial impression, and he seemed to enjoy her company quite as much, which pleased her. They talked on for nearly an hour, during which time Mia guzzled two more of the bartender's little girl's fantastic concoctions, until she finally slouched half over the bar, smiling at her reflection.
"Something wrong, Mia?" Garret asked her, and she fancied she heard a touch of concern in his voice.
"Just like old times, eh?" she pushed herself up slightly, grinning. "Like.. back before all this." She waved a hand wide at the bar, and nearly tumbled from her seat. "Before the Mavericks sent everything spinning to hell." An odd expression flitted across his features, but she was too far into her drinks to interpret it. "I used to drink with my friends .. bar a lot like this .. but now ..." Her hands trembled, and she stared at them, aware in a far-away sense that she shouldn't be talking about this. Possibly not even thinking about it. "They.. they were good people. The best of .. anybody I ever knew."
She turned to Garret, expression stricken. "Why did they have to die?" Her fists came down on the bar, hard, and she bit her lip. "I was the commander -- it should have been me! They shouldn't have -- they shouldn't have --"
"Hey.. hey." He caught her wrists in his hands, that expression flitting across his face again. "I'm sure it wasn't your fault. We were all doing our best, right?"
She stared at him blankly for a moment, then collapsed against his chest, practically howling, while he patted her comfortingly, casting apologetic looks at the other patrons in the bar. Much of the night after that was a blur, but she remembered being annoyed several times at the insistent bleep of her diagnostics.
Morning found her with a ray of sunshine cast directly in her eyes and a pounding headache that she couldn't attribute to anything immediately. An indistinct moan found its way from her throat, and she threw one arm over her eyes to block out the offending light.
A familiar chuckle sounded from another part of the room. "Finally awake, huh?"
At the sound of his voice, Mia's eyes snapped open, and she sat bolt upright, fumbling with her blanket, which turned out to be someone's jacket. "Aah.." she said weakly, staring at it for a moment while she attempted to thrust aside the symphonic pounding at the back of her head. Attempting to locate Garret's position, she pulled herself onto her knees and leaned over the back of the couch she'd been lying on. Couch? I was on someone's couch? "Aaahh.."
Garret grinned at her from where he sat at a rickety table, a drink in hand. "Feeling better?"
"What.. happened?" she managed to croak at last, drooping over the back of the couch.
"You don't remember?" he asked, then burst out laughing.
She moaned, twenty dozen humiliating possibilities running circles around each other in her head. "Don't laugh," she protested, leaning forward again and swiping her hand at him, even though he was well out of reach. "Just tell me --" She swiped too hard and lost her balance, tumbling over the back of the couch with a squeak and a thud. Groaning, she clutched her head.
"That must be some hangover." A pair of boots entered her field of vision as the rangy Reploid ambled over to help her up. "And nothing happened," he said, taking her hands and pulling her upright. "You fell asleep on the bar."
Oddly, that had been the one scenario that had not occurred to her. "Oh." She grabbed his arm to keep from tumbling. "I fell asleep?"
"Yep! Toppled right over." He made a motion with his hand. "The barkeep let you grab a room upstairs, and I stayed to make sure you were all right."
"Oh," she said again, stupidly, wondering why he hadn't had something better to do. She grimaced at a particularly vicious throb and grumbled, running a diagnostic to see what the problem was. As it did so, she double-checked the diagnostic logs from last night, only vaguely aware of Garret leading her to the chair and letting her sit down.
"So that's what happened," she sighed, taking her seat. At his inquisitive look, she explained. "My immune functions thought that jammer of yours was an attack on my systems -- which, technically, it was -- and activated an emergency shutdown when it didn't disperse."
He gave a long, slow whistle. "Those are some security systems you've got."
She grinned at him. "Yeah, I'm in a class of my own." She was about to add something similarly witty when her face froze in an expression somewhere between realization and horror. "I have to go." She got jerkily to her feet, ignoring the pain in her head, which had gotten, if possible, worse.
Garret was the picture of polite bafflement, but she pushed his concern aside, stumbling for the door. "I have to go," she insisted, unable to think of a convenient way to make him understand.
"Wait -- wait!" He caught her at the door, grabbing her arm and pulling her around to face him. "Just a minute, would you?"
She struggled for a moment, desperation twisting her face. "Please."
"All right, geez -- just -- can you meet me? Later? There's something I need to talk to you about."
Mia stared at him strangely. "Meet me later."
"Yeah. I promise, I won't take up much of your time."
Another stab of pain caused her to stumble forward. "Fine." Her voice was growing hoarse. "Fine. Old mine shaft -- east of here. Tomorrow." She twisted her wrists in another attempt to get free. "I have to go."
"Just one more thing --" He bent suddenly to kiss her lightly on the cheek, then released her. "Now you can go."
She stared at him for a moment as if poleaxed, then turned away, unable to process much more than her desire to go somewhere far away and hide. She had been careless -- remarkably careless. A slip like that in front of the Mavericks would have her dead, instead of consigned to a date with a complete stranger. Her feet took her to the place she'd hidden her helmet and gear, her head in no state for active thought.
It had been so nice to talk to someone -- she'd forgotten.
A stumble nearly sent her sprawling, and she used the momentum to lurch to the garbage can that contained her gear, scrabbling wildly at it until she unearthed her helmet. She activated the secondary sequence almost before it was all in place, and gave herself up to a whirlwind of wrenching pain. Several minutes later, legs tangled clumsily and tongue lolling out from between her teeth, she realized that she was still alive and her head hurt a great deal less.
"Excellent work," she slurred, stumbling to her four feet, which suddenly seemed much harder to handle than the human two. "That wasn't suspicious at all."
The canine trotted into the open, golden eyes blinking blearily, and nearly smacked headlong into none other than the Reploid she'd jilted moments before.
"Eh?" He glanced down, then chuckled, reaching a hand down to scratch behind her ears, which was quite a trick with her armor on, but he seemed to manage. "Hey there, pup. Sorry about that."
She bit her tongue to keep from replying, affecting an extremely doggy grin and an enthusiastic tail-wag. He patted her again and walked away, evidently preoccupied.
She followed him.
Even though he sat relatively at ease, arms folded across his chest and helmeted head half-bowed, the white-and-black armored Reploid still managed to be intimidating. They knew him by reputation, mostly, a bloodthirsty killer who didn't appear to discriminate between the Mavericks or free Reploids when he chose his targets. No one could figure it, really, but the most educated guesses pointed to a fault in his programming -- something akin to what made humans go mad and murder at random.
Figment, he called himself, and he came and went as he pleased, always masked by his helmet's faceplate. Rumor loved to tell that none had seen his face and survived -- there was much speculation as to why. The few walkers in the halls shuffled by him nervously, evidently worried that he was scouting out a new target.
Truth to tell, it was the last thing on his mind. Figment was bored and irritable, because the leaders of this underground group of self-declared Maverick Hunters had kept him waiting for well over an hour.
I'm starting to get sore, he complained mentally, shifting a little in an attempt to relieve the aching numbness that had settled in his tailbone.
His companion, the presence that had accompanied him for close to eighty years, was less than sympathetic. I'm sure you'll survive.
Are they trying to intimidate me by doing this? Figment persisted. Because whatever they think, all it's doing is annoying me.
Your constant complaining does keep me entertained in my dotage, his companion responded blandly. Something probably came up -- I'm fairly sure it has nothing to do with you.
About to make a snippy reply, Figment stopped, lifting his head to see a Reploid making his way hurriedly up the hall. He didn't even notice the imposing figure seated outside the conference room, pushing inside in such a rush that he didn't close the door completely. Under his mask, Figment permitted himself a faint smile -- and listened.
"It's about damn time, Saber!" snapped a female voice, probably belonging to the Reploid who'd brought him here and asked him to wait. She had a mild and pleasant British accent, causing him to wonder where she'd acquired it -- or whether it had merely been programmed into her. "Where the hell have you been?"
"Sorry, Winnie, sorry -- something came up."
"That's Wynn when I'm irritated at you."
Another voice broke in, once he hadn't heard before. "All this lively banter aside, what came up that you're an hour and a half late for this remarkably important little affair?"
"I thought I had another.."
"Another?!" Wynn again. "Where?"
"Ah, forget it -- she flaked. Asked me to meet her tomorrow, but I doubt she'll show. Sounded promising, too."
"Damn." This from the third voice.
"But anyway, where's our VIP guest?"
"Er, you should've passed him in the hall -- he hasn't left, has he?"
"Uh? That was him?! Why'd you leave him in the hall, Wynn?"
"Well, I didn't know what else to do with him -- you were supposed to be here!"
"Gah, forget it --" At this, the door swung open, and the tall, rangy Reploid smiled a greeting. "Figment -- sorry about all this. Please, come on in."
He rose without a word and stepped past the Hunter leader into the slightly cramped room. It was equipped with a table and several chairs, but no one appeared to be using them. The female Reploid was standing to the left of a slightly faulty holographic screen, looking almost as irritable as Figment felt. Near her, a male was yawning in affected sleepiness.
"Well," said the one called Saber, evidently unsure where to start, now that he had everything in order. He scratched the back of his head, looking uncertain. "I guess I'm not sure where to start," he admitted. "We've been trying to contact you for months --"
"I know." He'd been ignoring them for months.
The female, Wynn, snorted softly.
Saber frowned slightly, then nodded as if he'd come to a decision. "I guess what we'd really like to know is why you changed your mind."
I told you they'd ask.
Figment scowled and was grateful his helmet concealed his face. You don't have to sound so smug. He cleared his throat, avoiding their expectant -- and cynical, in Wynn's case -- faces. "One man alone .. is not enough," he said finally.
During the silence that followed, the masked vigilante worried that his sally hadn't worked. Then Saber's face lightened slightly, and the other male grinned. Wynn shrugged helplessly. "It's a valid enough reason," she said, "if not very specific."
The leader waved her off. "We need all the help we can get, right?" He turned back and extended his hand. "Welcome aboard."
Figment took his hand and nodded. Or something.
With the formalities concluded, Saber seemed largely interested in moving on to other things. "Wynn'll show you to your quarters -- we have plenty of open rooms," he said with a strained laugh.
Wynn gave him a hard look, evidently not finding that at all funny. "Just you get to work, Saber. I'll take him." Then she gestured for Figment to follow her and stepped out into the hall. When he joined her there, she extended her hand, eyes ironic. "I believe we've met."
"I believe we have," he replied, and completed the age-old ritual. "Where is my room?"
"This way." She started off down the hall, talking as she went. "He was right, we have plenty of open rooms -- and not just because there's so little support right now. It's a huge cave system." She nodded a greeting at a passing Reploid and continued. "Most everyone's quartered in the western section, but we assigned you somewhere a little more private."
She fell silent after that, and he was grateful, even though the walk was longer than he'd anticipated. The caves were more extensive than the nondescript entrance -- which was well-hidden anyway -- would have one believe, and that size, coupled with the Hunters' small numbers made them seem drearily abandoned, except for small pockets of activity in the form of minimal recreational facilities and a dining area. Figment wondered at the dining area, since most of the Reploids he'd run across had no need for food in the human sense. Perhaps they expected to hold refugees.
He was startled from his musing when Wynn stopped ahead of him, frowning slightly. "Right.. left.. oh yes." Then she started moving again, casting a reassuring grin over her shoulder. "I don't know my way around completely yet. There are some places here even we don't know about."
That didn't surprise Figment very much, but he felt a remarkable amount of cynicism for the abilities of Reploids.
The walk stretched on for several more minutes, during which time they passed the general quarters and some kind of ball game being played in one of the larger halls, until she finally stepped aside and gestured to a hole that branched off the passage.
"This is it -- we haven't gotten proper doors on everything, so you'll have to make do until we get the supplies in." Her smile was apologetic. "I have a blanket over mine, at the moment."
Figment grunted, momentarily unable to conceal his irritation. He was going to have to remedy the door problem -- and probably before their supplies came in.
Wynn hurried on. "There's a cot, a couple of blankets, and a power terminal if you like to recharge that way -- anything else you'll have to scavenge. We make runs to the abandoned cities every Tuesday, and the supply depot is just up this hall." She gestured. "Just don't get greedy -- it mainly works on an honor system."
He guessed she'd given this speech a few times before and simply wasn't editing it for his benefit. "All right," he said, when it became apparent she was expecting a response. "Is that all?"
She eyed him, an unreadable expression crossing her face. "Yes, it is. Meals are available any time, since we have some replication devices. Now, if you'll excuse me." She turned crisply on her heel and left.
You probably offended her.
I don't much care, Z'nai.
I rather suspected you didn't.
He stepped into the hole that was to be his home -- if temporarily -- and gave it a once-over, a small frown on his face. It was spartan, as she'd said, but he'd lived under worse conditions. With a sigh, he grabbed one of the blankets and draped it across the door-hole, stuffing it into the craggy rock.
This isn't going to work, he complained.
It will work as well as you want it to, Z'nai replied philosophically, eliciting an irritable grumble from his host.
When the door was fixed to Figment's satisfaction, he walked over to the cot and flopped down on it, ignoring its creak of protest and the discomfort of his armor. Some things were just going to take getting used to. In a place like this, infested with Reploids -- like much of the rest of the planet, but still -- he'd have to keep his guard up -- and his armor on -- every minute of the day.
That could become fragrant quickly, remarked Z'nai, not that such things mattered to a noncorporeal being.
Figment ignored him. Z'nai could scoff all he wanted. This was important -- more important, in his mind, than his duties as a Dreamwalker and all that they entailed. Truthfully, he still wasn't clear on the complete ramifications of his "enlightenment", or whatever one chose to call it. In the simplest terms, the being Z'nai, eternal and omniscient, borrowed a remote corner of his mind -- much like an otherworldly parasite --
Z'nai stirred indignantly at the comparison.
Symbiot, his host amended.
Better, the being retorted huffily.
-- until such time as he chose to leave or Figment died, an event now extended far beyond the typical scope, almost to eternity. Even in his wildest youthful dreams, he hadn't reckoned on immortality, especially in this world.
Whatever he was, Z'nai was connected to Figment's gift. If it could be called a gift. Discovering that Reploids dreamed had been one of the more unpleasant surprises in his life. For as long as he could remember, Figment had been able to travel the land of dreams, awake and aware, in his sleep. He spent his nights passing in and out of the thoughts of others while they slumbered.
And he hadn't slept in a place this crowded in a long time.
All the more opportunity to practice your craft, said Z'nai, monitoring his thoughts with annoying detail, which, I note, you have not been very often of late.
The ranger sighed. He'd been too busy, of late, to do much anything -- particularly sleep. His latest encounters with Mavericks had been particularly harrowing, and this deal with the Hunters, made under the falsest of false pretenses, gave him another secret to guard with his life.
His greatest waking nightmare was that anyone find out he was not, in fact, Figment the bloodthirsty vigilante, but, in his most private moments, Drey Farnelle, a human in Reploid's clothing.
She had thought about not showing up more than once in the twenty-four hours between her frantic rush from the hotel room to the appointed time of her meeting with Garret "Saber" Chi, but her conscience won her over in the end. It had helped that he appeared to be part of a genuine organization of non-Maverick Reploids. He had been kind to her, even after she'd gotten astonishingly drunk. The least she could do was turn him down politely.
Besides, it wasn't as if she had enough clandestine meetings with mysterious men to stand one up on a whim.
Mia chuckled, slapping her tail in the dirt. It was rapidly settling into twilight, and she needed sleep. If he was going to come, he'd come in the morning.
Most of her systems were still recovering from her lapse. Maintaining her humanoid form put a surprising amount of strain on them -- particularly her self-repair and routine maintainence systems. Bad ones to strain, really. She ambled into the mouth of the cave and settled down, stretching and doing her three turns like any good dog. At least this way she'd catch a few winks before he showed up.
This proved to be a mistake, as she was still snoring soundly when his footsteps crunched up to the entrance of the mine. She came awake with a jerk when her proximity alerts went off, freezing in place a moment later when she saw his shadow dim the glaring light of the sun.
How late did I sleep?
She didn't think to check her chronometer, ears pricking sharply as he spoke.
"Yeah, I made it okay. No patrols."
The radio signal buzzed the edge of her sensors, barely detectable, which probably meant the Mavericks wouldn't hear them at all. She leaned her head on her paws and eavesdropped, for the moment content to listen to another person's voice.
"No, she ain't here.. I'll wait for a little bit." A pause. "Geh. I'll make it up to you -- double duty next week, promise!"
From his tone, she gathered he made those sorts of promises frequently.
"Heheh.. Saber out."
The faint signal faded, and he sighed, shifting. Mia guessed he'd sat down on a rock. "So.." he murmured to himself. "Where are you, princess?"
One of her ears drooped. "Are you in the habit of calling women by demeaning nicknames?" she asked before she could stop herself.
A rattle of sound echoed back to her. From the noise, she imagined he'd leaped to his feet and bashed his elbow on the wall in the process, stumbling in the loose gravel. She grinned.
"How long've you been there?" he demanded, sounding a little indignant.
"Wrong question." She slapped her tail on the ground. "It's 'how did I not notice you were already here?' But why not be polite and answer me first?"
He chuckled, sounding sheepish. "Right, you got me." He cleared his throat. "It's a nervous habit. Hope you'll forgive me."
"Of course. And to answer your question, I've been here since last night, and I was sleeping when you came in."
"Nice of you not to shoot me."
"I'm not as trigger happy as some."
His silhouette moved; she could see him peering into the darkness. "You gonna come out where I can see you?"
She froze. "Er.. yeah.. about that.."
There was a puzzled silence. "What about that? I saw you in the clear light of day -- well, in the musty light of a bar -- just yesterday." She almost swore at him when he started moving toward the back, peering for her. Hoping he didn't have some sort of infrared enhancement, she crouched eeper into the shadows. "Then again, I don't see you at all."
"Only signature I'm getting is a dog.. you have a pet?" He stepped toward her in the gloom, dropping into a squat and extending his hand in a friendly manner. "Hey, pup. Don't need to be scared. Old model, too. Looks like from before the Maverick takeover."
Mia glared at him, then sighed, getting to her feet and sticking her nose into his outstretched hand. He patted her head and grinned.
The grin froze in place when she lifted her head and spoke to him. "No, Garret. The dog is me." She sat down and scratched behind one ear. "Woof woof."
Garret rocked back on his heels and fell, still staring at her with that frozen grin. She gave him a patronizing look. "It is still me, you know. Just me with paws and a tail."
"Sweet mercy, Mia."
"It's a very long story."
He fell silent, watching her expectantly, and she flattened her ears in irritation. "I'm not telling you. Feh, you think I'd pour out my soul to some idiot I just met?" She swung her nose pretentiously, noting by the flare of heat in his face that he had not gotten the joke.
"You were doin' a pretty good job of it last night," he said snippily.
She glared, annoyance touching her voice. "And you half-wrecked my systems to get me that way. "Why do you think I passed out?"
"Can't hold your liquor?"
"You just wanted me upstairs and undressed!"
"Well, that sure isn't a problem now."
"I bet it isn't."
She bared her fangs at him, fur bristling under her armor, and he pulled his legs under him, reaching for what was probably a weapon. They sat that way for several minutes, gazes locked, hostility thickening the air. It was Mia who broke the silence, snarl twisting into a feral grin.
"Your move, cowboy."
He gave her a long, measuring stare. "I'm workin' on it, princess." Then, with a grin, he relaxed completely, flopping down into a cross-legged position. "So, want to join the Hunters?"
"What?" The fighting stance vanished completely, and Garret was surprised to see the wolf wobble on her feet.
"It's why I came here, you see," he said, waving a hand absently. "To ask you to join us. You seem like you have a history, and I thought you might want a place --"
"No -- not that," she said hoarsely. "Who.. did you say I was joining?"
His grin grew so wide it threatened to split his face. "The Maverick Hunters."
Tears he had been prepared for -- even howls of joy -- but he certainly hadn't readied himself to be knocked over backward by 300 pounds of Reploid dog, snarling with a mixture of pain and disbelief. "You bastard," she roared. "Why didn't you say so?! Where the hell are they? Where? You have no idea how long I've been looking --" He shoved her off, hard, rubbing his chest where her paws had slammed him down.
"Jesus, woman, it wasn't anything personal." He glared at her, but she had subsided, shivering, a strange, distant look in her eyes. "We have to be really careful.. hey, is something wrong?"