Buck Who? Chapter 11

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 11: Why did it have to be Voles?!?

April 24th, 2668 – the compound.

Bradly Travis paced the floor in front of his father’s desk, shaking his head. “Dad, I just can’t explain it,” he growled and stopped. He looked down at the older Travis and placed his hands on the flat surface of the desktop.

Martin Travis was leaning back in his chair, his fingers steepled before him. The older man’s face was a mask of neutrality, but Bradly knew his father – he could see the anger simmering in his eyes.

The elder Travis blew out his cheeks and placed his hands on the armrests of his chair. “And the techs checked out all three vehicles before you left the compound?”

“Yes, hell I even went over the reports, I wanted to make sure my Mercedes was fully functional.”

“And yet,” Martin released the armrests and pushed himself out of the chair. He paced around the desk to stand next to his son. “And yet it turns out they all suffered severe mechanical failures at the exact same time.”

“That’s the extent of it. The techs were sure it was not nanites, but you were there when they gave us the report.”

Martin’s face grew stormy. “I have a feeling it has something to do with the Uplift your men spotted.”

Bradly gritted his teeth and he pulled away from the desk, his hands automatically clenching into fists. He could feel his fingernails dig into the flesh of his palms. The pain helped him focus. “Filthy genetic abomination,” he bit off angrily, his face reddening. “The little freak probably has some sort of mutation.”

Martin clasped his son’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “The idiots released the Uplift plague during the final wars – which caused all manner of mutation and mutant to test the pure like us.”

“I just don’t get it – it was as if the parts had been left out in the open for decades, exposed to the elements. Frankly it should not have happened.”

“Do we have the replacements available?” Martin asked.

Bradly shook his head. “No, so we’re either going to have to send out scavenger teams to see if they can find the parts we need. Another option is we’ll have to make a trip to Scav Haven and talk to the professional companies there, just as the tech suggested.”

“I’ll consider it and let you know in a day or two,” Martin answered.

“Well, those genetic deviants certainly made a laughing stock out of me and my men,” he fumed, turning so he could look his father in the eyes. “Who the fuck knew they would be so well armed and trained?”

“We knew this would be coming,” Martin released his son and began to walk towards the edge of the room. “We’ve had it easy the past several months. We hit the primitive tribes and communities with our superior weapons and equipment, and you’ve seen the results – they don’t stand a chance.”

“You’ve been expecting us to run into better armed and trained genetic deviants then?” Bradly asked - the shock and disbelief loud and clear.

“Yes, I have,” Martin confirmed. He stopped and pulled down a single tome from the wall and opened the cover to inspect the interior. A second later he replaced the book and faced his son. “I still find it hard to believe that a couple of sub-human beasts, let alone women, were so aptly trained.” He paused for dramatic effect, staring at his son “However, as angry as it made me, I have been thinking about this for several months.”

“What is that?” Bradly asked, curious evident in his question.

Martin sighed. “I’m a little disappointed you would not have reached the same conclusion. They may be the spawn of radiation and toxins, released during the final wars, but many are intelligent. Many have access to the same tech we use.”

Bradly’s face burned hot. He knew his father was right and he was ashamed he had not thought of it before. It was something he should have realized a long time ago. “They were women!” He said, almost defiantly.

Martin shook his head and smiled sadly. “Actually, I wasn’t talking about those two Exotics. We treat our women a lot differently than our forefathers did, believe me.”

“What do you mean?” Bradly looked perplexed. “They raise our kids and care for our homes, but they aren’t fighters – they’re not supposed to be!”

“Come on, Bradly,” Martin said, suddenly looking perturbed. “Use your head. You’ve seen enough old vids and read enough history to know it hasn’t always been like this.”

“Dad?”

“Before the final wars, women were combatants. They held many different roles and were in all levels of the government and military. They owned businesses, dictated how their lives went and were teachers and even the leaders of various countries.” He dropped his gaze and stared at the top of the desk. “It was only after the war that we forced a change in their role in our lives. We turned them into nothing more than domestic servants.”

Bradly seemed shocked at the tone and implications of what his father was saying. “Dad, what are you trying to tell me?”

He looked up from the table and met his son’s eyes. “That our ancestors made one big fucking mistake. We have cut our potential forces down by half because we only want to have women for breeding and to care for our homes.”

This time Bradly took a step back and stared in open amazement at his father. “Dad, we’ve always treated our women well.”

That much was true, Martin had to admit. Sure, their women took care of their children and homes, but they were more than just domestic servants. He certainly had loved his wife, and she was more than just his friend. At least she had been until she disappeared. He knew his son used women for sex, and to clean and cook, and to him, they were only servants. Martin saw the necessity required to change that.

“We have, but I’m going to start opening the ranks of recruits to women. This decision pains me greatly, and I know we’re going to receive a lot of resistance from our troops.” He shook his head, as if not believing his own words. “If they can fight, if they can prove their value as warriors, then we will allow them to do so.”

Bradly shook his head. “And then what, dad? Are we going to allow them to take jobs as medics, techs, drivers and other positions?”

Martin met his son’s eyes and held them with his own intense gaze. The only sound in the room was their breathing.  After over a minute had passed, Bradly realized that was exactly what he was planning.

“Why?” He asked at long last.

“I already said why,” Martin held up his hands in a shrug. “We can double our combative forces by adding women to the ranks. Owen had his reasons for what he did, knowing that women needed to be kept out of harm’s way. That was hundreds of years ago, when the final wars ended and survival was paramount. No one knew if anyone would survive in the wastelands that were left behind.  Women were a precious commodity that had to be protected at any cost.”

“I don’t like this,” Bradly said. He crossed his arms across his chest and looked angry.

Martin shook his head. “Son, I don’t really give a fuck if you like it or not, it is my decision to make and I’m making it.”

Rarely had the elder Travis ever spoken in such a manner towards his son, and it took him but complete surprise. “Dad, no one is going to like this, and you gave no indication how you felt yesterday.”

Martin held up his hands in a placating manner. “I’ll explain, but remember, I did say I had been thinking about this for many months now.”  He spent the next several minutes going over the basic facts. Pure humans, those who were un-touched by genetic mutation, were becoming the minority. If trends continued as they were, in several generations there may be no pure humans left on the world. The purists needed to actively recruit and train every single able-bodied man and woman they could find. They had started the war, and the encounter with the two Exotics had proven, their foes were about to get a lot tougher.

As his father finished, Bradly shook his head, his eyes closed and his brow furrowed. “I see your point, dad, but I still don’t like it,” he opened his eyes and held up a hand to prevent his father from arguing. “I will accept it and I hope over time I’ll get used to it.”

Martin nodded, and then a slight smile creased his face. “I know you will, and I need you to be by my side and support me. You hit it right on the nose – there will be plenty who don’t agree and will actively resist the change.”

Bradly nodded, already thinking of those who might have to be purged from the ranks if his father’s totally unexpected changes were to be implemented. “Dad, I still don’t agree, but you know I will always have your back.”

“Good,” Martin beamed. “Go grab a meal and then take the night to relax. I know it was a hell of a fight you faced while waiting for us to show up.”

Bradly nodded. “Yeah, you can say that again,” he turned and walked to the door. He paused and looked at his father, his hand hovering over the knob. “I meant what I said, dad. You have my unconditional support.”

Martin nodded his thanks.

***

April 24th, 2668 – the community.

Declan ‘Shard’ Starett still felt as week as a newborn kitten as he laced up the boots Anita had given him. The mutant woman had barely spoken a word to him since their earlier encounter, but meant little to him. He wanted to get out of the room and see the town which was to become his home.

“Think it’ll take you long to adjust?” Babs asked. She had taken to using her avatar once again, placing it in his visual range whenever he happened to be looking around. She even modulated her voice so as to make it sound like she was talking to him from inside the room.

He nodded and looked up. She was standing over at the single window, her arms resting on the windowsill as she pretended to look outside. She was leaning over slightly, giving him a view of her avatars nicely shaped ass. He found himself looking away. “Yeah, I don’t know if I will ever fully adjust. I had so many plans and ambitions, now they’re meaningless.”

Her voice lowered and filled with sincerity. “I’ll be there to help you, Doc. You can count on it. We’re alone and have only each other now.”

He felt a lump forming in his throat. Many of the pilots treated their ship’s AI systems as just that – a system. He had formed a real bond with his AI, and she had been with him almost from the beginning of his career. Every time he had changed ships, he always insisted that Babs be downloaded into the new ship’s AI core. There had been some grumbling, but in the end, he always got his wishes. “Thanks, Babs.”

She turned to face him, her usually cheerful expression somber. Her arms were crossed under her breasts as she walked over to knee before him. “You’re my best friend, Doc, it’s the least I could do for ya!”  Her avatar’s hand reached out and she placed it on his knee, even though he could not feel it, he appreciated the gesture.

“We need to figure a way to get you out of my head though, and a body of your own.” He managed to say a few seconds later. When he saw the look of hurt cross her avatar’s face, he quickly added. “Not that I don’t mind having you sharing my mind, but I’m sure you would like to be able to interact with the outside.”

She nodded. “True enough, Doc, but where can we find the equipment, and more importantly, where can we find a body?”

“I’ll ask Max when we have a chance,” he said. He stood up on slightly shaky legs and tried the boots. They were well crafted and felt comfortable enough when he took several steps. He did up the buttons on the jacket they had given him and looked at his reflection in the mirror. He gasped, as he always did, when he saw the gaunt face staring back at him.

“Doc, you already look a lot better than you did yesterday,” Babs tried to sooth him.

He ran a hand over his hollow cheeks and nodded. It was true; already the five huge meals he had eaten were showing. “Yeah, but it’s still a shock.”

There was a light rapping on the door. He turned and gazed at it for only a heartbeat before he called out. “Come in.”

The Tiger-woman entered. She had changed into more sensible clothing and was wearing a light jacket, which looked one size too small for her, as her breasts threatened to burst out. “Good morning, Shard.”

He felt his throat go dry for only a second, remembering what she had done to him, several times before dawn. “Hey, Tara.”

She looked tired, but had a grin on her face. Her whiskers twitched and her tail swished long and lazily as she took him in. “You look like you’re getting ready to go for a hike.”

He nodded. “Yup, I want to have a look around this ‘community’. Since it’s going to become my new home, I might as well get to know it.”

She walked into the room, placing one foot in front of the other the way models used to do before the final wars. She walked slowly and languidly, her bright eyes never leaving his. “Do you want an escort?”

Babs burst out laughing in his mind, and her avatar appeared behind the Tiger-woman. She motioned giving head and Declan had to control his face, least he burst out laughing. “Doc, she wants to be your ‘escort’. Think you have enough money to pay for her services?” Years of keeping his emotions in check when dealing with superior officers paid off in spades.

When Declan did not reply right away, Tara stopped and placed her hands on her shapely hips. A slight frown twisted at the side of her lips.

He immediately put on his most winning smile. It helped that Babs was standing right next to Tara, pretending to bounce the woman’s breasts up and down. The smile came naturally. “Sure, Tara, I’d love to.”

The woman relaxed and her smile was genuine. She strode up to him and offered her arm, which he took. He was an officer and a gentleman, after all, even if he liked to get really raunchy.

Together the two of them strode out of the room and into the hallway. He noticed the architecture of the building had a strange feel to it. Here and there he could see the original structure, but most of the building had been replaced by newer construction. New, but old at the same time, being comprised mainly of wood and logs. Still, it gave the structure a unique charm he could not deny.

They were on the second floor and she led him to the stairwell. Downstairs they entered a small reception area. Anita had long since returned to her home and there was another woman seated at the desk. He did a double take when he saw her. She was yet another exotic, but not appeared far more human when compared to the others he had already encountered. The woman was undeniably attractive, having big brown eyes, wonderful curves and a regal face.

“Hiya, Kate,” Tara waved as they walked past.

The woman waved back, returning the smile. “Declan, right?”

He nodded and gave her a smile. The woman named Kate had huge, fox-like ears, which grew out of her thick mane of deep-brown hair. She had a long, slender neck and a trim body, and small yet perky breasts.  

“Where are you going?” She asked, standing up.

It was then he noticed the huge, bushy tail. The foxes he knew of before the final war were typically red, but the fur on her tail was brown. Again, he could not deny how attractive this woman was.

“I want to look around a bit, get to see the community,” he answered her truthfully.

“What is it with all these hot women?” Babs asked. Her avatar stood next to Kate, eyeing her up and down. “Seriously, I was expecting to see a lot of homely, inbred freaks, but these exotics…” She paused and looked between Tara and Kate. “If I was a man, I’d be all over them like white on rice!”

He managed to keep from laughing and kept his reply strictly to himself. Babs, if you were organic, you’d be a woman, and probably an exotic just like them.

“True enough, Doc,” she laughed and then out of thin air produced a carrot and began munching on it. She stepped away from the Exotic and fell into place, just ahead of him and Tara.

“Are you feeling strong enough?” She asked, concern showing on her young face. Her ears twitched slightly and her tail moved slowly from side to side. “You don’t look all that well.”

He was not sure if he should be insulted or not, but decided to take it as it was meant to be. “I’m tired, but I won’t be going all that far. Besides,” he indicated Tara. “When I’m tired, she’ll help me get back here.”

“Okay,” Kate was unsure as she chewed on her lower lip, but then she shook her head. “Don’t wear yourself out.”

“I doubt you could do that,” Babs laughed. “I see the way Tara is looking at you, looks like you’re her boy-toy.”

Declan was not sure, honestly not sure, how he felt about that. Still, he nodded graciously and left the building with Tara on his arm.

The day had turned out to be quite a bit warmer than the previous day, although that meant little to the pilot. There was a pleasant scent about the air, promising of summer and new life. He took a deep breath and held it, relishing how clean and wonderful it was. On board the ship he had been deployed to, the air was always a little stale, and smelled of machines, heat and sweat. Even the few times he had managed to get dirt-side, the air never smelled as good as it did now.

Together he and Tara walked from the clinic. She showed him the sights, pointing out the various structures and their uses. People openly stared at him as they passed, for it being such a small community, word spread like the plague. Everyone knew he had come from the stars and as such, was the center of attention and gossip.

Whenever someone approached, Tara politely turned them away. She had to get downright nasty a couple of times when politeness did not seem to sway the visitors.

“Wow, Doc, she can be quite the bitch, can’t she?” Babs observed.

Tell me about it, Declan replied in his mind, realizing how correct Babs was. He was not all that certain if this side of her personality made her less attractive… or more.

It was not long before he had seen the community. It had a small population, he figured just shy of two hundred souls. The number of Exotics was a little surprising, there were more of them than there were regular humans. He also saw a large number of mutants, although some were hard to distinguish from regular humans. He suspected some of the humans he saw were not, in fact, pure humans.

Finally they returned to the clinic. He had grown hungry once again and realized his body was demanding more nourishment. “Where can I get some food?”

“Most people have a stock of food they maintain year round. As you probably saw, every home has a garden, and we did pass the larger communal plots.” That much was true. A lot of cleared land around the homes and other structures were in the early stages of being readied for planting.

He snapped his fingers. “Where are your friends? Ra’naa, right? And the little guy who sounds like a squeak toy.”

Tara laughed at the description. “Otres, and yes, he really does sound like a toy, but don’t say that to him.”

Declan nodded. He could still remember how offended the little Otter had become when he called him that the night before. He had to shake his head. Otres was an uplifted Otter, but he was larger than most of the members of the species he had seen. Otres had to be around a hundred centimeters, maybe a little taller. Still, despite the increase in size compared to the rest of his kind, he was small.

“Nope, and you have to be careful how you handle him,” Tara related how angry the Otter got when they lifted him onto the horse without warning him.

“Well, where are they? I kind of expected to see both of them by now, and Max too.”

Tara waved a hand towards the lodge. “Her father is busy running the town, doing leadership thingies,” she said breezily. “Tara and Otres went off in that direction a few hours ago.”

He looked where she had indicated and could see nothing but forest and the mountains. “What are they doing?”

The Tiger-woman shrugged. “Going to find some uplift that’s in trouble, I guess.”

He stared at the woman, wondering if she was serious or not. “Wait, they left to help and uplift?”

She nodded and brushed her hair away from her eyes. “Yeah, Momma Rathbourne said that some uplift was being stalked and asked her to go and rescue it.”

He looked irate. “And you didn’t go to help?”

She met his gaze without flinching. “I was tired!”

Despite the hunger he felt, he decided he should do something. “Where is my flight-suit and handgun?”

“Why?” Tara demanded, as she put her hands on her hips and her tail twitched agitatedly.

“Because,” he said with as much patience as he could muster, “I intend to help them.”

***

April 24th, 2668 – Radiated Zone, about 5 kilometers from the Community.

Ra’naa stopped as soon as she saw the formerly irradiated zone. As Momma Rathbourne had described, the growth was nowhere near as thick, and many of the trees were stunted and twisted. Sharp, glistening thorns grew from the trunks and branches of many.

She had been to this location in the past, drawn out of a morbid curiosity to the strange life, which could sometimes be found in the zone. The radiation which had poisoned the land for centuries had finally decayed to the point it was only slightly higher than normal. Any trace of the weapon which had caused the blight could not be found.

This is the spot? Otres asked as his eyes took in the twisted trees and foliage.

“Yeah, and there is the stream,” she pointed to the north. About fifty, maybe sixty yards from where they stood there was a small but quickly moving stream. “Your nose is pretty sensitive, can you smell her?”

Otres tested the air. The twisted trees gave off a strange odor, something that tasted like poison to him. Mingled in with the scent, he could detect death and decay, some of it ancient, but that was the extent of it.  Otres sneezed several times to get the stench out of his sensitive nose. He reached up with one paw and wiped at it for good measure.

We should split up,  He suggested. 

Ra’naa gave her head an empathic shake. “Not a chance, you’re not armed, and I won’t be responsible for you getting hurt or worse.

Otres stared at her for several long moments, digesting her words. He really had no idea how much the woman actually cared for him. Then again, he mused, over the years he had known her, she was always so kind to him and never intentionally looked down at him. He blew out a very human sigh and bobbed up and down in agreement, chirping quietly. How do we know what we’re looking for? Momma Rathbourne said the uplift looked human, but do you think she really does?

Ra’naa shrugged. She also remembered Momma Rathbourne warning her that the uplift girl was being stalked by some sort of predator, although she could not describe what it was. She pulled her handgun from the holster and pulled the slide back to ensure there was a round in the chamber. Satisfied the weapon was ready to fire, she thumbed the safety off and held it. “Stay close,” she said.

She was no expert when it came to moving stealthily, and that always annoyed her. Max had taught his daughter to fight, and how to handle most types of firearms. He even spent hundreds of hours teaching her how to be the best shot in the entire community, if not the region. Stealth, though, was still a skill she had yet to become proficient in.

Though he did not like the smell, Otres tasted the air around him, trying to differentiate the scents his sensitive nose encountered. They moved slowly, Ra’naa sounding like a wounded Brute as she tried to step quietly, while Otres was as silent as a shadow. It was then they both heard the sound of something crashing through the underbrush, coming towards them.

Ra’naa held up her hand, but Otres had already stopped moving. The sound was maybe ten meters ahead of them, and coming fast. The underbrush, as scarce and sickly as it was, still hampered their view. She lifted her weapon and held it at the ready, not pointing directly at the sound, but just above and to the right. That way she would be ready and capable of acquiring a target with little effort.

Neither were prepared for what burst through the brush a second later.

***

April 24th, 2668 – the compound.

Bradly Travis stood over the mechanic as the smaller man read the report to him. The garage was a beehive of activity, where the techs and other mechanics were working hard at restoring various vehicles. All of the vehicles had been scavenged from the ruins that dotted the land. Most were only good for spare parts, but more than a few could be brought back to something resembling working order. All that it required was a little elbow-grease and luck.

“I’m sorry sir, but nothing we have here will work. We need to head to the Scav Haven, unless you want to send out salvage crews. The Mercedes is just too unique a vehicle.”

He cursed and resisted the urge to reach out and throttle the smaller man. Well trained techs and mechanics were worth their weight in gold or artifacts and they could not afford to lose any of them. “Alright, I understand and I’ll let my father know,” he said and turned without another word.

As Bradly traversed the compound, he thought of the events that led to where he was right now. He felt the humiliation and rage burning deep inside every time he pictured the Exotics who had defeated him. Moreso, he wanted to take some of his most experienced men and hunt the bitches down himself.

That was something his people were already working hard to accomplish. They were using the recon satellites they had control of, to scour the land, looking for signs of habitation. It was a useful tool, one they had employed many times to track down tribals and others for termination. Of course it meant any positives would have to be investigated, and doing so would require manpower. Some may lead to exterminations of more mutants, others possible allies.

His musings eventually led him to the armory. Without any conscious thought, he entered the heavily fortified structure after submitting to the guards for identification. He move through the halls and bunkers until he came to the maintenance station. Here the few suits of precious powered armor were routinely maintained

Bradly stood at the entrance and took in the view. There were tables everywhere he looked. Tools, some he could easily recognize, where neatly stored on the wall or in huge tool-boxes. Diagnostic equipment and computers were also in abundance. There were maybe ten technicians, all hard at work performing routine maintenance, or trying to rebuild suits they had recently acquired.

Everyone looked up as he stood at the entrance. Some saluted, others bowed differentially. Only one spoke up. “Commander Travis, come in!” The speaker was a man slightly below average height, just barely topping 172 centimeters. He had closely cut blond hair and blue eyes and was wearing grease-stained coveralls.

“Thomas,” Bradly said gravely. He made his way through the maze of tables and equipment until he came to stand next to the shorter man. “How does it look?” He waved a hand to the suit of armor laying on the table. The suit had been stripped of its armor plates and the internal workings were exposed. The sight was disturbingly similar to the veins and muscles of the human body.

“I have good news,” the tech smiled. When he did so it made his eyes appear larger and he took on an owlish appearance. Bradly had to suppress a smile, as he had done so many times over the years.

“Don’t keep me waiting, Thomas.”

“The damage is nowhere near as bad as you might have thought. A few of the servo motors were fried, and I have to replace quite a bit of the internal wiring and a few molecular circuit boards.”

Bradly understood little what Thomas was saying. He knew a little about tech, but he was a warrior first and foremost. He left the technical side to the men under his command. He rubbed his chin with his hand and leaned forward to look at the small pile of damaged parts already piled on the table. Even to his untrained eyes he could see the scorch marks and melted metal and plastic. “How long?”

“Your suit will be ready for use by oh ten hundred hours, as long as I don’t run out of parts.”

For the first time in hours, Bradly grinned and felt relief flood him. “What about the onboard computer?”

“We have to reboot, and there was some file corruption, but that was the easy part to fix.”

Bradly continued to stare at his armor. The brilliantly bright overhead lights chased every shadow away, leaving nothing hidden to his eyes. He could see the scuffs and minor scarring that marred the otherwise perfect finish of the suit. Reaching out, he grabbed the chest-plate and held it up for closer inspection. The trace of the EMP round was still visible and he absently ran a finger along one of the pathways.

“I can have that removed,” Thomas offered, pointing at the blackened pattern defacing the plate. He was using a screwdriver and reached up to chase away an itch under his hairline.

Bradly considered leaving it as a badge of honor, but dismissed the though almost before it had fully formed. He knew there would be a time he would face the Exotic on the field of battle once again. The thought of her recognizing her handy-work galled him and he did not want to show any signs she had hurt him.

He placed the plate on the table and looked at the tech. “Yeah, do so. I want this suit to be polished to the point I can shave while looking at it.”

Thomas grinned and placed the screwdriver on the table. He picked up another tool and showed it to Bradly. “Got just the toy for that. I’ll use this to buff it to perfection. You won’t even see the other scars or scratches.”

“I’ll see you in the morning, then,” he said and made his way out of the room. His next stop would be the tactical ops room, where he and his father would begin the search for the Exotics.

***

April 24th, 2668 – Radiated Zone, about 5 kilometers from the Community.

What appeared out of the radiation-twisted foliage looked to be a girl of maybe three or four years. She was filthy, covered in dirt, leaves and far less identifiable liquids, which had dried in strange patterns and colors. Her brown hair was matted and filled with twigs and dirt, and when she saw the Exotic and Uplift, she stopped. The girl’s big brown eyes widened in terror.

Instantly Ra’naa put her hands out in front of her, holding the pistol so it was not aimed at the girl. She fell to her knees and put on as beatific a smile as she could manage. “Easy, easy! We’re not going to hurt you!”

The girl looked over her shoulders, her eyes frantic and wild. She looked back at Ra’naa and the woman could see the half-formed thoughts in the child’s face.

Otres dropped to all fours next to the Exotic and squeaked several times, and then he stood up and waved both forelegs at the child. The girl, still filled with animalistic terror, saw Otres and a strange look came over her young face. She looked back over her shoulder a second time and screamed so shrilly it hurt their ears.

I do believe our little Uplift has some sort of sonic mutation, Otres observed.

Before Ra’naa had a chance to reply, a misshapen figure burst onto the scene. The creature had to be a meter and a half in length and about half that in breadth. It had six twisted limbs, which ended in large serrated claws.

Ra’naa blinked. She had never seen such a mutant before, but again, she had yet to see many of the mutated life-forms which haunted the rain-forest. Instantly, she twisted the gun in her hand and in a fraction of a second, she aimed at the monstrosities head and pulled the trigger.

The hand-cannon boomed in the quiet of the forest, sounding like an explosion instead of a simple gun-shot. All around them the trees suddenly erupted in a flurry of angry and frightened squawks as birds took to the air.

The mutant’s ancestors had been squirrels at one time. Radiation and other toxins had horribly damaged the genetic structure of the creatures, turning this particular specimen into the stuff of nightmares. Not only was it at least ten times the size of its ancestors, but it had taken on a decidedly predatory aspect. The head still bore a resemblance to the little creatures. Instead of the eyes being on the sides, they were now close together, as one would find on a predator. There were seven eyes three spaced evenly to the right and left, with the final in the center of the forehead. The ears were larger and swiveled freely. The mouth was open to reveal twin rows of backward-pointing teeth, which like the claws, were serrated and made for tearing.

Ra’naa’s panicked shot hit the mutant squirrel in the open mouth, shattering several of the monster’s teeth before drilling into the soft pallet and through the nasal cavity. The round continued up and into the brain, until it hit the back of the skull. The mutant’s skull was far more heavily armored than it had the right to be. The end result was the bullet shattered and the jagged fragments bounced around in the monster’s head, ripping and shredding the brain.

The mutant came to a halt, sat on its haunches and lifted two sets of limbs in confusion. It cocked its head to the left, even as blood and organic material poured from its mouth. A second later, it seemed to sigh and it lay forward, as if going to sleep. Six of the monster’s eyes closed, but seventh remained open, staring accusingly at Ra’naa.

Remind me to stay away from the nuts, Otres’ voice rang with a slight hysterical note in Ra’naa’s mind. Look at what they did to that one!

The girl looked at the monster, then at Ra’naa, and back to the monster. The fear and panic was still evident as she desperately scanned from side to side, looking for a way to escape. She clearly did not know what to think or how to react to her rescue.

Otres, seeing her distress, scampered to within a meter of the girl. He did his best to pour on the charm and look as cute as his kind was capable. He stood on his hind legs, waved his paws in the air and squeaked a greeting.

The squeak caught her complete attention. She crouched, ready to run. Some of the panic fled out of her, now that the monster she had been trying to evade was dead. Her big brown eyes were wide, but no longer held the fright they had only seconds previous. Instead the fear was slowly being replaced by a sense of wonder.

The little Uplift dropped to all fours and took several tentative steps towards the girl. He moved slowly but kept bobbing his head up and down, chittering and squeaking a pleasant greeting to the child.

“That’s it, Otres, keep it up,” Ra’naa said quietly. She did not drop her guard, however. The forest was deadly to those who did not pay close attention to their surroundings. Many predators hunted alone, but she knew there were others, especially wolves, who hunted in packs. Squirrels were for the most part, solitary, and she hoped the mutant monster she had just killed was a lone hunter.

It appears acting like a squeak toy has its uses after all, Otres observed dryly.

“I would never treat you like a toy,” Ra’naa said aloud. “I have too much respect for you.”

And I appreciate that. He paused, close enough that if the child wanted to touch him, she could. I’m trying to speak to her mind, but all I’m getting are random images and emotions. There are no coherent thoughts. If I did not know better, I’d say we were dealing with a newborn.

Ra’naa slowly stood, although she did not holster the handgun. She stared at the strange girl. Although Momma Rathbourne said the Uplift would look like a human, she never expected the girl to look completely human. “Hello, sweetheart,” she called out in her softest and friendliest tone.

The girl’s eyes were wide and feral, but instead of pure fear, the eyes held wariness. It reminded her of the stray dog she had once befriended, when she was but a child herself. The animal had slunk into the community and had avoided everyone. Except her, for some reason she could never fathom.

At first, the animal always stayed just out of sight, although she caught the occasional glimpse of it. Then as the days slowly passed, she began to see more and more of the dog. Even all these years later, the mental image of the poor animal still brought a lump to her throat.

Finally after a week, she brought some meat, leftovers from the meal her mother had prepared that night. When she offered the cooked flesh, the dog finally came forward, wary and hesitantly, acting as if she was going to strike it. The dog took the offered meat and then scurried off, looking back only once.

She never did see the animal again, after that fateful night, although she continued to look for the animal for several months. Ra’naa still wondered what happened to the animal. She was saddened to think the dog had succumbed to the incalculable dangers found in the temperate rainforest around her.

The girl looked at Ra’naa, her eyes wide and wary. She clearly could not understand the words Ra’naa was saying to her, and the fear was still there, just beneath the surface. She lifted her head as if to sniff the air, a very inhuman gesture.

“Hi, sweetheart,” Ra’naa repeated. “I’m Ra’naa, do you have a name?” She continued to speak in as soothing a tone as she could muster.

The girl stiffened as Ra’naa came closer, obviously ready to bolt. Then without warning she looked down and shrieked shrilly. A small creature, about the size of a kitten, was sniffing at her foot.

Oh shit, Otres projected. The fear palatable in his thoughts. Voles.

The name sent a thrill of fear down Ra’naa’s spine, all the way to the tip of her long, spiked tail. It began to swish from side to side out of its own volition, projecting her fear and agitation for everyone to see.

As good a shot she was with a handgun, she was far better with a rifle. The little carnivorous monster was too close to the child for her to possibly even consider using the weapon.

It would not make any difference. She knew she had maybe a heartbeat, two at most. The first Vole was probably only a scout, the rest would not be far behind. Her mind was made up in less time than it took to draw a single breath. Moving with an alacrity that surprised even her, she rushed forward and scooped up the child.

The girl did not even have time to react before she had turned tail and was running for her life. “Run, Otres!” She screamed. The girl in her arms screamed in unison, and began to struggle.

You don’t need to tell me twice, his thoughts told her.

“Easy, sweetheart!” Ra’naa said. It was proving to be difficult to run and carry the girl, but she did not want to think about the alternative. They had travelled less than fifty meters when there was a horrible rustling sound just ahead of them. It was right on the very edge of the blighted zone, and she nearly peed. Ahead of her, she could see countless little furry monstrosities.

Where the hell did they come from? Otres cursed his chittering frightened. The Uplift’s thoughts were filled with a mounting terror, which threatened to overpower her own.

“I have no idea,” she admitted. The girl, sensing the danger they were in, stopped her struggling and looked in wide-eyed terror at the creatures approaching. At first glance the Voles did not appear all that much different from their un-mutated ancestors, except for being larger. If someone got close enough to examine one of the little creatures, they would find them cute and cuddly. Once a person got that close, it was typically already far too late.

Ra’naa had heard tales of fish that thrived in the Jungles far to the south called Piranha’s. It was said individually these fish had a nasty bite. According to what she knew, an entire school could strip a Brute to the bones in less than a minute.

The mutant Voles were cut from the same cloth. Hidden in the little furry faces were needle-like teeth and a powerful jaw, which could easily bite through leather. They were possessed of a tenacity which would cause a wolverine to slink home, whimpering in embarrassment.

She looked to her left and right, and then directly behind her. Little brown bodies were flowing like water across the thin and twisted foliage, seeking warm meat and blood. Ra’naa had one recourse. She would have to run as fast as she has ever run in the past and pray to the gods of life and nature she did not slip. The little monsters would be able to jump and she would be bitten many times, but it was the only hope she had.

She, the child and Otres, that is.

Ra’naa was determined to not to become a pile of picked-clean bones in the forest. She reached out with her free hand and unceremoniously grabbed Otres by the scruff of his neck. He let out a undignified squeak of protest, but she did not care. She gritted her teeth and began to run. The distance between her and the lead Voles was less than five meters, so it did not give her much of a running start.

She sensed the child she clutched against her chest. Through her clothing she could feel the heat radiating off the girl. Ra’naa could feel the little one’s heart beating so fast it threatened to burst through her chest. Worse though, she could feel the fear.

The fear was not due to her, on the contrary, she could sense the girl felt safe. Instead the fear was directed at the creatures swarming to engulf and consume them all. Wait, directed? She realized it was not fear at the Voles, but instead being directed towards the Voles.

Her boot landed in amongst the little monsters, crushing several as she landed. All around Ra’naa could hear their high-pitched squeals and squeaks. It was not the pleasant, happy sound Otres made, but far higher in pitch, so high it made her teeth ache.

As she ran, more of the monsters were crushed under her boots. It was as if for every one of the little voracious creatures she killed, a hundred appeared to take their place. She looked out and ahead, trying to judge how far she had to run before she was out of danger.

Her heart nearly stopped in her chest as her breath caught in her throat. For as far she could see in the foliage, the ground was a writhing, wriggling mass of little brown-furred bodies. Ra’naa felt despair well up and threaten to engulf her.

I’ve never seen so many of them, Otres projected.

Ra’naa, despite the hopelessness of their predicament, was not one to give up and let fate have its way. She clutched the child and Otres closer to her and put just a little more effort. She reached deep within herself to the well of energy, the will she needed to carry on.

That strange and curious sensation of fear was still with her, emanating from the child she carried. It grew exponentially with every long stride she took. Instead of paralyzing her, it bolstered her. When she thought the fear would break her will and spell their death, it exploded outward.

She could actually see a wave ripple through the tens of thousands of bodies that surrounded them on all sides. The little creatures suddenly stopped in their mad, hunger-fuelled rush and stood up. In one smooth motion, nearly all the creatures turned and fled in the exact opposite direction.

A wave of incredibly pungent odor met her nose and instantly her eyes began to water. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, she continued to run, even as her mind processed what she smelt. It was the scent of feces and urine, ejected from tens of thousands of tiny bodies, all at once.

Not all the creatures fled, and they were still far from safe. Here and there she saw pockets of the little monsters, somehow unaffected by whatever had scared the rest. They were quickly converging towards her, and she knew she could not stop.

The monsters were fast! Soon there was a single swarm of the creatures, maybe a meter square, rushing to intercept her. Ra’naa knew they could still inflict hideous damage, if they swarmed. Otres and the child were far more vulnerable than she was.

Still only about a meter square. It pained her to think about what she was about to do, but it would more than likely finish off the little voracious monsters. Ra’naa stopped and without warning, dropped the girl and Otres on the ground behind her.

Otres landed with a squeak of protest, but was instantly on his feet. He grabbed hold of the back of Ra’naa’s pants and stared out from between her legs. The naked, filth encrusted child sat on the ground, staring wide-eyed at the oncoming little brown mass of death.

What are you doing? Otres asked and then he heard it. The sound issuing from Ra’naa’s throat reminded him of a person who was about to be violently ill. He had seen her use this attack before, in fact on the previous day.

The gagging, choking sound was followed by a long exhalation. Ra’naa spewed her powerful stomach acids at the oncoming mass of carnivorous Voles. The acid hit and she turned her head from side to side, soaking as many of the monsters as she could.

Human stomach acid was pretty potent. The acid her body produced was far, far stronger. Many of the creatures were killed instantly as the toxic attack ate away at their fur, flesh, muscle and organs. Others were only splashed by the fluid, but it was still enough to cause mortal wounds.

The attack broke the tide and the few surviving members fled to all points of the compass. She stood there, looking down at the destruction she had wrought with her attack, a look of pain on her young face. Carefully she spit to clear her mouth of the remaining acid and the grabbed some clean foliage to wipe the rest away.

Wow! Otres chittered. That was impressive, and more than a little scary!

“And it hurt,” Ra’naa rasped. Her voice was barely above a whisper and sounded as if she had torn her vocal cords. “I won’t be able to talk properly for a few days at this rate,” she managed to say through burned vocal cords.

Otres moved out from between her legs and grabbed her hand in his two paws. He stared up at her until they made eye contact. Thank you.

She ran her hand over his head gently, doing her best to smile, despite the pain burning in her mouth and throat. Ra’naa opened her mouth but Otres shook his head. Save your voice, don’t speak. We can talk easily enough this way.

There was a strangled sound and both turned to face the child. The girl was staring up at both, still wary but all traces of fear were gone. Ra’naa knelt beside Otres and held out her hand to the child. She continued to smile and gestured for the little girl to come towards her.

Hesitantly, the child stood and took several small, unsure steps. Then as if she had finally made up her mind, she ran the last few steps and flung her little filth-encrusted body into Ra’naa’s waiting arms.

“Easy, sweetheart, you’re safe now and I’m going to take you home.”  It hurt a great deal for her to speak, but she did so. Ra’naa had no idea if the girl understood or not. From the way the child clung to her, she believed the girl got the gist.