Buck Who? Chapter 12

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 12: Hackers!

April 24th, 2668 – the Community.

Declan paused as he reached the gates. He stood there, panting and feeling weak-kneed. He was not in any shape to head out into the unknown to find the girl and her little squeak-toy friend. He was quite angry with Tara. She should have been more concerned about her friend and had gone with her. At the very least she should have stayed with him to show him where to go. Instead when he insisted he was going out to find them, she laughed and sauntered away, not a care in the world.

That really did sting. He was having a difficult time wrapping his head around the woman. He was attracted to her, there was no doubt. It is hard not to be attracted after the amazing sex. Still, sex alone did not make a good relationship.

Wait, had he really just thought that? A relationship with the Tiger Exotic?

“Didn’t really think this one out now, did ya?” Babs teased. It helped derail his current train of thought. She was still using the same avatar, but now she was wearing a leather bomber-style jacket and hiking boots. She was standing at the open gates, her arms crossed under her pink-furred breasts. There was a look of concern on her avatar’s face.

He shook his head in agreement. “No, I really didn’t,” Declan gasped and put his hands on his knees. “I don’t even know which way to go or where to look!”

Babs walked over to him and knelt. She looked up into his eyes and frowned. “Tara said she got the news from Momma Rathbourne,” Babs shrugged. “I guess we could go and look for her. I remember exactly where her home is.” It was true; Babs had mentally mapped out the entire town and knew exactly where everything was.

When he turned to head back into the community proper, the sight that greeted him stopped him cold. There were about a dozen or so children, all standing about three meters away. They had arrived so quietly, he nearly shouted in shock. Four were clearly human, six were Exotics of various types, and two were very clearly mutants. “Uh, hi.”

“Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad that was lame,” Babs laughed. Her avatar walked over to the group of children, and she carefully examined each of them in turn.

 One of the youngsters, an Exotic boy who had not quite hit puberty waved a hesitant hand. He had a decidedly canine appearance, with brown and grey fur, pointed ears, and a thick tail. “Hello,” he said.

Declan felt decidedly uncomfortable. He had never really been good with children. Growing up, he had no siblings, which was not all that uncommon. What the hell do I do?

Babs flicked the ear of the speaker, and much to his surprise, the ear twitched. If the young boy noticed it though, he did not respond. “Just act natural!”  She got a strange look on her face and then amended. “That is, don’t swear and don’t hit on the girls.”

Oh, right, ha ha, very fucking funny, He growled in his thoughts. He closed the gap between himself and the kids. “I’m Declan, what’s your name?”

The wolf-Exotic looked from side to side; to make sure he was the one Declan was speaking to. He stood tall and jabbed his thumb into his chest. “I’m Beowulf.”

“Kind of appropriate, isn’t it?” Babs laughed. She knelt to examine one of the obvious mutants. It was a girl, maybe six or seven. She had a strangely shaped head and five eyes. To top it off, she had two perfectly normal legs but three arms, one growing out of her chest. She stared up at Declan, curious and shy all at once.

“Nice to meet you, Beowulf,” Declan gave the youngster his best grin. He held out his hand to the youngster.

The Exotic named Beowulf stared at the hand for a second and then finally grasped it. He grinned like he had just been given a brand new toy.

Still not entirely sure what to do, he released the boy’s grip and ran a hand through his hair. “So, uh, what can I do for you?”

The little mutant girl with the five eyes took a tentative step forward. She looked at the ground and brought all three of her hands together, the fingers twitching nervously. “Is it true you come from the stars?” Her voice was melodic and breathtakingly beautiful. She sounded more like a fully grown woman than a girl.

For a few seconds, Declan considered lying to her, but he quickly dismissed the notion. By now the entire community will know of his existence and probably what he and Tara did. He decided to go with honesty. “Yes and no.”

One of the human children looked askance at him, her eyebrows furrowed. He figured she was about ten or so, just beginning to grow into a woman. She had pretty brown eyes and black hair. “How can it be both?” She asked.

“I was born here on Earth,” he explained. “I spent a lot of my life in space,” he pointed up to the sky above. “In fact, I only arrived here yesterday.”

The gathered children’s eyes went wide and there were more than a few muttered ‘ohh, and ahh’s’.

“How did you get here?” The same girl asked. One of the mutants, a boy about nine or so, shoved her in the shoulder. The boy had green skin and a light dusting of scales. A pair of insect-like antenna grew from his forehead. One of his hands, the one he had pushed, had only four fingers, which were thick and ended in claws. She glared at him and then returned her attention to Declan.

“I was in a battle, many years ago,” he began and then before he knew it, he had relayed the story of the fight. He described the battle, his subsequent years in cryogenic suspension, and then finally his crash and rescue.”

When he was finished, he had discovered that he was sitting on the ground. He had no clear recollection of when that had happened. The group of children were sitting in a semi-circle in front of him, listening raptly. He looked up to see Babs was standing there, her arms crossed and a smile playing her lovely features.

One of the human children, another girl, smiled. “Tell us more!”

“I’m sure he has plenty of tales to share with you all,” a feminine voice answered. “You have classes to return to, don’t you?”

He looked up to see another woman. She was yet another Exotic, although different from the rest. The woman stood at two meters in height and had a long, lean body. She was completely bald, no sign of hair anywhere on her head or the exposed arms or legs. Instead she had black, green and gold scales, which were patterned like that of a rattlesnake. She was wearing a simple white dress and was barefoot.

“I didn’t mean to impose,” he began.

She held up one hand, shaking her head. “Don’t worry about it,” the Rattlesnake-Exotic said with a slight grin. “The rumor of your arrival was all they could speak about. When Tara brought you past the school…” She shrugged and held up her hands in the universal ‘what can you do?’ gesture.

Reluctantly, the twelve youngsters were shooed away by their Exotic teacher. She paused only long enough to give him the once over. “I certainly would like to know more about you and where you came from as well.”

He shrugged and instantly thought of what the Rattle-snake woman would look like naked, bent over with her shapely ass in the air. He shook his head, annoyed at this rash of indecent thoughts. “Sure, anytime,” he managed to say with a smile that did not look like a leer.

“Friday night then?”

“Um, okay.”

She smiled, revealing sharp teeth and then followed her students.

For nearly a minute he stood there, staring out over the community and the receding gaggle of children. It was really becoming difficult for him to wrap his mind around it all. So much had changed so quickly it was disturbing.

“Wow, Doc, you thinking about sticking it to another one of the local girls?” Babs teased. She was standing just off to the side, her arms still crossed under her ample, fur-covered breasts. Her avatar was leaning up against the wall, and she had one leg propped up as she studied him.

Declan gulped in a lungful of air and then stood. “That’s a bad idea,” he finally confessed. Babs smiled and closed her eyes, shaking her head. It was just then he realized his hunger had grown exponentially and he needed to get some food in his belly. The banites were demanding a lot of calories and proteins to rebuild his system.

“Who are you talking to?”

Declan nearly jumped at the sound of the voice. He turned to see Max Ahteen standing a few meters away. The man was dressed in casual wear, a pair of jeans, boots, and a plaid work shirt. The Exotic looked calm and collected as he allowed his gaze to travel up and down Declan’s form.

“No one,” he said, shaking his head. “Just thinking out loud, that’s all.”

Ahteen’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “Really? You wouldn’t happen to have an AI riding along in that skull of yours now, would you?” Although his face remained passive, his gaze was as intense and focused as a laser.

He thought about his response, but did not ponder it too long. Why would he keep the AI a secret anyhow? At least when it came to Ahteen. No one but the former General would even understand.

“Yes sir, her name is Babs. She has been with me since I graduated OCS.”

Max Ahteen’s gaze softened and a smile creased his face. “Officer Candidate School,” he said wistfully. “You know, if the war hadn’t gone south the way it did, I was planning on retiring and taking a teaching position at West Point.”

“Funny how war tends to change our plans isn’t it?” Declan said, starting to relax. It felt strange talking to such a decorated war hero as he was, but he was always fairly adaptable and needed to fit in.

“That is an understatement,” Max agreed dryly. He nodded towards the open gates. “Planning on a hike?”

Again Declan thought about lying, but he could not for the life of him fathom why. He gave his head a shake. When he opened his eyes and looked back, he saw Babs was standing off to the side and just watching the interaction between the two men. For once his AI had nothing to contribute.

“Yeah, I was going to go and see if I could lend a hand. Seems your daughter and the squeak… I mean the Uplift Otres went out to rescue another Uplift from some sort of predator.”

Max Ahteen’s eyes widened slightly and his tail began to twitch back and forth. “How did you find out about that?” He put up a hand and shook his head. “Right - Tara, and from Momma Rathbourne.”

Declan nodded and wiped a fine film of sweat from his forehead. He was not sure if it was from the sun, or from feeling nervous around the man. The sun was beating down on him, and he had to admit it felt damn good. “Only thing is, I have no idea where to go.”

“I guess you could have asked Momma Rathbourne,” he mused and then turned and gazed back into the community. “You want to know something?”

“What’s that?”

“I’m not all that concerned about Ra’naa. She’s my only child, but I trained her well. There are few dangers she can’t handle,” he turned back to face Declan. “If it was a serious problem, Momma Rathbourne would have seen it and warned me.”

“I just can’t wrap my head around it,” Declan threw up his hands in frustration. “I have been trying to accept what I have seen, but telepathic squeak-toys? Old women who can see the future?”

“That’s twice you’ve referred to Otres as a squeak-toy,” Max Ahteen said in a low voice, but then his face cracked and he chuckled. “I know, he really does, doesn’t he? I always have such a hard time not laughing when he does that.”

They shared a brief chuckle before he continued. “If they disturb you, then you’re going to have a lot harder time adjusting than I had hoped.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve seen sights and encountered creatures that are the stuff of a drug-induced fantasy. I have seen all manner of psionic ability demonstrated from all walks of life. A telepathic Otter? Hell the little fella can repair damaged items just by touching them!”

“Seriously?”

“As a heart-attack. Before Ra’naa was sent to rescue you, she was to try and convince him to come and live with us. We have a cache of damaged weapons we wanted him to try and fix for us.”

Declan shook his head. “What else?”

“Empaths, telekinetics, and even more variety than you could think of. We’re pretty sure sometime during the final wars either the Annunaki or the Tuatha spread a genetic-altering virus.”

Ever since the two alien races had been encountered, it was discovered psionics did in fact exist. Both species made extensive use of psionics and had passed on the various genetic markers to the humans they had become allies with.

Why however, would the aliens – if it was the aliens after all, seed the ravaged planet with viruses. Like the Uplift virus, the intent was to modify DNA and produce psionics in the inhabitants. Was that the case? He could spend days speculating the how’s and why’s as to such acts.

“Why would they do that?” Declan found himself asking. He wanted to smack his head, but he refrained. Babs’ avatar was still standing there, listening. She was taking in everything being said and from the expression on her virtual face; he knew she was going over the data.

Max shrugged, although his tail continued to sway back and forth. “Who knows. I’ve got my own ideas, but that’s neither here nor there.” He rubbed his chin and glanced back into the community. “I see you’ve had a chance to meet some of the locals.”

Declan nodded. “Yeah, Tara tried to keep most of them away when she was showing me around, but after she left me here, those kids showed up.”

“What did they ask you?”

“Exactly what you might have expected. They wanted to know if I came from the stars.”

“And you told them?”

Declan nodded again. “I figured what was the point in lying?”

Max Ahteen studied him intently. The general’s tail was still lazily swishing back and forth in a slow, steady rhythm. “You’ve become the talk of the town, you know.”

“Uh-huh. I figured as much.”

They stood there for several minutes without speaking. Finally when Declan found the silence nearly unbearable, he broke it. “What’s going on Friday, and when exactly is that?”

The general smiled. “Friday night is just like it was back before the end. People tended to live for the weekends, so we have a get-together in the center of the community. It’s essentially a big party.”

“Oh, sounds like fun!” Babs commented, and the next thing Declan knew she was wearing a party hat, carrying a party favor in one hand and a Champaign glass in the other. She had changed her usual avatar’s clothing to a clingy, barely-there cocktail dress.

“Yeah, it does sound like fun,” Declan parroted without even realizing it.

 “They’re back,” Max said, looking out the gate and up the trail.

When Declan followed his gaze, he could see Ra’naa, Otres and a third figure. A dirty, naked girl who looked no older than about three. Ra’naa was carrying her and stroking the girl’s hair.

“So much for the talk,” Babs observed.

As if he could hear her statement, Max nodded. “We will continue this later.”

“Hey, Max?”

“What?”

“I really would like to keep Babs a secret.”

The general studied him for several seconds and then slowly nodded. “Sure, and we can discuss that later as well.”

***

April 24th, 2668 – The Compound.

Bradly stood in the command center of the compound, staring intently at the displays arranged in a semi-circle. Several technicians were carefully studying the images, which were being relayed via real-time from two recon satellites. The satellites had been in orbit for upwards of four hundred or more years and were still functional. How such ancient technology managed to last as long as it had when newer and more advanced satellites were failed was anyone’s guess.

“Any luck?” He asked, peering at a single image. The lone shot was of a community; located in the zone they had determined would hold the Exotics they were hunting. The image showed a ramshackle collection of log-cabins and other structures. There was a single large circular fire-pit located in the center of the cabins, and here and there figures could be seen moving about.

“No sir,” one of the techs replied, though his eyes never left his screen. “We’ve managed to isolate several unknown communities, but so far they seem to be home to mutants and Damaged.”

“Well,” Bradly breathed as he patted the man on the shoulder. “That’s a start; at least we know a few places to raze once we have the time.”

The man still did not look up at him, but Bradly could sense the smile on the tech’s face. “Yes sir.”

As he watched, he spotted several figures moving out of the largest of the log cabins and head towards the fire pit. “There, see if you can zoom in on them.” He pointed at the figures. The technician sitting in front of him did as requested and the Satellite focused. Soon he was looking down at a group of seemingly normal humans. Three women and one child. The women were carrying pots and pans and the child had the carcass of some sort of animal in her arms.

“Look human, don’t they?” The technician commented as he jotted down the latitude and longitude in a notebook. “Maybe possible recruits?”

“Certainly looks that way,” Bradly had to agree. He Stepped back and rubbed the small of his back. They had been at it for several hours without a break and he was starting to feel the effects. 

He walked around the control center and studied each display, looking for more signs. The need to find and then destroy the Exotics was burning in his soul with a passion he found shocking. They were a couple of women, but they weren’t even human! There were those in the community, especially some of the older folks and the teachers who had the gall to argue they were. These oldsters and educators said they had the same genetic code as pure humans, but their ancestors added modifications to change themselves.

For Bradly and the majority of the men under his command it was simple. If it looked like a mutant or genetic deviant, talked, walked and acted like one, it was one. And as such needed to be exterminated.

He had heard the rumors of the Exotics being able to interbreed with pure humans.  It turned out they needed to as it was the only way to pass along their unique genetic code. Of course others argued they could breed with their own unique sub-species, but he did not care to know or find out. The thought of some freak that looked like a chimera of a human and animal mating with the pure turned his stomach.

Bradly paused and stared at a single monitor. He instantly recognized the trail the satellite was homing in on. It was a stream that somehow managed to stay ice-free, even during the harshest of winters. It paralleled a dead zone, an area where a weapon of mass destruction had impacted during the final wars. They had explored the location at least twice over the past few hundred years, trying to determine why a weapon had been used there. At long last it had been determined the weapon had most likely been shot down. He placed his hand on the shoulder of the tech manning the station. “Zoom in closer and follow the stream,” he ordered.

“Sir?” The technician asked, glancing up from his touchpad. “I’ve already been up and down this area several times.”

“Indulge me,” Bradly said, biting down the wave of irritation he felt towards the tech. The man knew his job far better than Bradly did, and when push comes to shove, he should not interfere. It was just something about that particular area that caught his attention.

“Hold it, go back,” Bradly ordered. Something was not right, although he could not put his finger on it.

The technician did as was ordered and continued to pan the camera slowly, until Bradly squeezed his shoulder. “There, stop and give me as much magnification as you can!”

Staring at the spot Bradly indicated, the technician could not see anything amiss. He ran his fingers across the touch-pad and the camera obediently zoomed in. It took the software several seconds to enhance and clean up the image. There was a glint of light off glass or chrome and as the image became crisper, it was finally revealed. An ancient vehicle, probably a truck, was almost entirely concealed by foliage. The light was glinting off one intact window.

“Just another ancient wreck,” the technician sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Anything useful would have been picked clean by the scavengers years ago.”

“No, that’s not it,” Bradly frowned. Something about the area was not right. His subconscious picked up on the visual clue, which his waking mind still could not see. “Save this spot, I want to study it more in depth.” He removed his hand from the tech’s shoulder and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I want a full scan of the surrounding forest; go at least ten kilometers in each direction. Then something else caught his attention. “What the hell is that?”

Both he and the technician stared in wonder. The forest floor suddenly began to turn brown, as if something in the air was killing the plant-life. “What the fuck are we seeing?” Bradly asked quietly. He leaned in even closer to the screen. “Maximum magnification!”

The tech obeyed and soon they were looking at the forest floor, as if they were only a few meters above the ground. What Bradly and the technician saw made their blood turn icy. The floor of the forest was carpeted in hundreds of thousands of Voles.

“Oh my god!” The tech breathed out as he stared at the mass of creatures. “I’ve never seen a swarm that large!”

To Bradly’s knowledge, no one had. “Pull back; let’s see how large it gets.”

Obeying, the camera zoomed back, climbing higher and higher.

“Stop!”

In the center of the mass of voracious mutant Voles they could make out three figures. One was running and was carrying the other two. In an instant Bradly recognized the figure. “I’ll be damned,” he half chuckled.

“Sir?” The tech asked, although his eyes remained glued to the screen, unable to look away.

"It’s that bitch Exotic we ran into,” Bradly said. Seeing her predicament brought a smile to his face. “She’s going to die.”

As soon as the words had left his mouth, the entire situation changed. He was able to see an actual ripple flow over the swarm of mutant Voles. The next thing he knew, they were moving away from the Exotic.

His elation at witnessing the woman’s horrific death was suddenly pulled from his grasp. “Can anyone tell me what the fuck just happened?”

Finally the technician pulled his eyes from the screen. “I have no idea, sir. Maybe she is carrying some sort of repellant?”

Bradly cursed violently, but as quickly as the rage had taken him, it left. Another cruel smile appeared. He still had a chance to hunt her down and kill her. All he had to do was keep the satellite positioned on her. That way they could follow her wherever she went. She would lead them to her home, and they could raid it.

“Keep the satellite locked on her at all times,” he ordered.

“Yes sir.” He started to tap on his touchpad when the screen froze. He blinked in surprise and then hit the same sequence, but nothing happened. “Uh, sir?”

Bradly, who had been in the midst of turning away, returned his attention to the screen. “What is it?”

“I’m not sure,” the tech admitted. He moved his had away from the touchscreen and the image displayed changed of its own volition. “What the fuck?” He blurted out.

“Speak to me!” Bradly demanded.

The tech’s hands flew across the touchscreen so fast it was all but impossible for Bradly to keep up. “Sir, if I didn’t know better, I’d say someone else is now controlling the satellite!”

A thrill of fear and excitement filled Bradly. “We’re the only ones who have access to the old systems, how is that possible?”

No matter what the tech did, he could not regain total control of the satellite. The camera’s zoomed out and began to scan further south. “Let me try something,” the tech growled. He rolled his chair to the neighboring station and booted up the system. In seconds he was entering commands on the touch-screen.

It was at that moment Bradly noticed how quiet the entire command center had become. He looked up and around to discover every single technician was now staring at him and the other man, their attention fixed on what was happening.

After several eternities, the technician spoke. “Sir, we’ve been infiltrated, but I’ve managed to set up the firewall and I have defensive software running.”

“How is this possible?”

The technician held up his hands in a helpless gesture. “I don’t know…”

Bradly looked at the screen. Gone was the image of the Exotic and the forest. Where there had been crystal clear images was now a screen of static and lines of color. He felt his rage bubbling just beneath the surface. “Get the satellite back under our control.”

The tech heard the unspoken threat in the man’s words and he swallowed hard as his fingers raced across the touchpad.

***

April 24th, 2668 – Location unknown.

The room was sparsely furnished, with only a pair of plain, unadorned desks. The room itself was only about five meters to a side, and the walls were painted an immaculate white. There was soft light pouring from two strips, centered in the exact center of the ceiling. Very little light was required; as the whiteness of the walls soaked in the little light provided and project it a hundredth fold. The only exit was a slightly off-colored panel in the center of the rear wall.

 Both desks held a holographic projector and two people were at the desk. One was seated, the other was standing. The seated figure was studying the photons and beams of light. Both figures were female, and were dressed in simple one-piece coveralls. The one on the left appeared as average as it was humanly possible with short cropped mouse-brown hair, blue-gray eyes and plain features. The second on the right what most would have considered the pinnacle of womanly beauty. She had large breasts, curves that were almost inhumanly perfect, and long, silver-white hair. Her eyes were as blue as the finest Topaz gemstones and the face was one designed to set hearts afire.

For the past several hours they had been monitoring the usage of one of the recon satellites still in orbit. Long ago the men and women of the installation had captured the rogue device. It came as a total surprise when the ancient device, old and decrepit even before the end of the final wars, was functional.  Capturing it had been child’s play and they had repositioned it in a geosynchronous orbit, far above the former province of British Columbia.

For hundreds of years the inhabitants of the installation had used the satellite to keep an eye upon the land they called home. It helped them locate possible sources of supply and other valuable resources, as well as allowed them to keep track of their neighbours.

“It appears our rivals have discovered something of interest,” the woman manipulating the photons said in her quite voice. She touched a particular spot in the holographic display and spread her fingers, intensifying the image. It showed three individuals. One Exotic, one Uplift and a human child. They were surrounded by a roiling mass of brown.

“Could this be what the Purist faction has been searching for?” Asked the woman who was standing.

“I have calculated a ninety three percent possibility the Exotic we are looking at is the same one spotted at the crash site.”

“If that is the case,” the standing woman said, tapping her lip with one long, beautifully manicured finger. “Then it would be Ra’naa Ahteen, daughter of General Ahteen.” She continued to study the image. When the mutant Voles suddenly broke and ran, the only sign of emotion or surprise was her rapid blink. “That was unexpected.”

“Indeed,” agreed the seated woman. “We need to study this phenomenon more closely. I wonder if it could have come from the Uplift Otres?”

“I do not know, Ektelve, I do not know. The Uplift has exhibited only two psionic abilities and to our knowledge has not been exposed to any possible mutagenic compounds.”

“Awoan, the Purist operator is trying to lock in on Ra’naa Ahteen. I am predicting a ninety-nine point nine-seven percent probability they will use her to discover the location of the community.”

“Stop them,” Awoan said without hesitation. “We do not want them to discover the location, as General Ahteen and his people are going to play a very important role in the upcoming war.”

“Initiating takeover now,” Ektelve said as her fingers played the photons of the holographic display quickly and with ease. After only a few seconds she looked up. Her face remained neutral, although there might have been a hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth. “We have control.”

“Very good. Are we still on budget for this operation?”

“Indeed. Few resources are being consumed,” she paused and considered the other woman. “What are you contemplating?”

Awoan clasped her hands behind her back and did smile as she watched the Purist technician struggle to regain control of the satellite. “I want you to infect their system with a  data-worm. Have the system check for any hint they know of General Ahteen or the compound. Ensure the erasure of any traces found.”

She turned back to her system and her fingers were a blur of motion. “Working.”

“Excellent. I would like you to install a data miner virus. Let us leech any information they have. This endeavour will net us a profit as a result.”

“Working,” she said and without looking up from her task, continued. “I am sorry, Awoan, but did we not already do this?”

“We have, but much to our chagrin, the Purist AI, Guardian, found and deleted the program.”

Ektelve continued in silence for several seconds. “I have made the appropriate modifications to the data miner to compensate for their AI.”

“Excellent. There has never been an AI which we could not defeat or work around,” Awoan stated. Coming from the woman, many might have thought she was boasting. In her case, it was not a boast, it was the simple truth.

“Would you like for me to subjugate the AI?”

Awoan considered the request for nearly a full second before she shook her head in the negative. “No, let them have their freedom for now. It all depends on how this group of humans fare during the impending conflict. When all is said and done, maybe then. For now, let the AI be.”

“As you wish.”

Several more seconds passed in silence before Ektelve pulled her hands out of the holographic data display. “Finished.”

“The data miner has been established then,” it was a statement, not a question.

“Correct, Awoan,” the other woman answered. “We can begin to upload the data at any time we wish.”

Awoan reached up and cupped her chin with one hand as she studied the projections. “Open the display once again, I wish to see of Ra’naa Ahteen and her two companions.”

“Working,” Ektelve answered in her calm tone. A second later the holographic display changed and she could see the mutant Voles had disappeared. Ra’naa Ahteen, the Uplift Otres and the human child were making excellent progress back to their community. None appeared worse for wear.

She was intrigued at how they managed to cause the mutant rodents to flee. It could very well be some sort of technology they had re-discovered or possibly invented. She shook her head. No, from the effect and the lack of any visible device, she was certain it had to have been a mutation. Still, Ra’naa, like all Exotics, was immune to the mutagenic effects of radiation and other toxins. So that left either the uplift or the human child.  

If that were the case, then she had mislabelled the child. If she was the origin of the psionic or physical aspects, then she would have to be classified as a human mutant. Due to the lack of physical defects or other visible mutations, she could not be labelled as a Humanoid or Damaged.

Awoan wondered how much of a budget they could allocate towards discovering the nature of the child? Such a mutation could have its uses, especially if they were able to replicate it in a laboratory environment. At the very least they could add the genome of the child to their databank.

“Schedule a council meeting for fourteen hundred hours.”

Ektelve looked up at her, surprise evident on the woman’s otherwise unemotional face. “The reason for this?”

“It will be revealed during the meeting. I do believe we will gather valuable resources as a result and whatever budget we allocate towards the endeavor will be worth our effort.”

“As you wish,” Ektelve closed her eyes and bowed her head in obedience and respect.

***

April 24th, 2668 the Community.

She certainly is a quiet one, isn’t she?

Ra’naa had to agree. After they rescued the strange girl from the mutant squirrel and escaped the Vole swarm, the child had not made a sound. She clung with surprising strength and desperation to Ra’naa as they travelled through the forest. Ra’naa could almost feel the longing wafting from the child and it nearly broke her heart.

Her father and Declan had met them at the gates, and they quickly made their way through the community to the lodge. Upon entering, Declan had dismissed himself, insisting he was famished and needed food. Max was clearly upset when he heard his daughter speak, but there was nothing he could do for her. The damage she inflicted from using her acid breath would heal, all it required was time.

Ra’naa did not mind when Declan left. She had more important things to deal with first. Cleaning the child and making sure she too had the food she needed as priority in her mind. Before bringing her up to clean, Ra’naa tried to give the girl food. She grabbed some dried fruit and bread and offered it to the child, but after a tentative sniff and look, the girl shied away. Ra’naa was at a loss.

She took the girl up to one of the bathrooms on the second floor and was pleased to see the tub had already been filled with warm water. There were several towels laid out and some of the home-made soap they used. The girl looked at the water and then at Ra’naa, uncomprehending.

“Trust me, sweetheart, you’ll feel a lot better once I’ve had a chance to clean you up,” she rasped. Speaking caused her pain, but she was determined to endure it.

Otres looked at the tub with longing and his teeth chittered. After this, I’m going to the pool. I really need a good long swim.

“I’ve got work to attend to,” Max said and he kissed Ra’naa on the forehead, between her horns.

“I’ll talk to you later, dad,” she smiled and without another word, Max Ahteen left. She held the little girl against her body and could feel the youngster trembling. She was not sure if it was from fear, hunger, exhaustion or all three. Reaching out, Ra’naa tested the water and then gently lowered the girl into it.

She whimpered slightly but it lasted only a moment. The water had a soothing effect and Ra’naa began the long, arduous task of cleaning the girl.

A few minutes later, Momma Rathbourne appeared. “I see your rescue was successful,” she said, looking down at the wide-eyed child. The girl was sitting in water which was already a deep brown and red from the filth she had been coated in.

Otres was standing at the edge of the water, making soft little chirps and squeaks at the girl, which seemed to calm the child. When she saw Momma Rathbourne, the girl’s eyes stared up at her in wonderment.

“Yeah, it was,” Ra’naa croaked. “She’s all right and after we get her cleaned up, she needs food.”

I have not been able to detect any thoughts.  Otres turned his attention to the two women. His eyes were wide and his whiskers twitched. I get only the most basic concepts from her, hunger, fear, and those sorts of emotions. Mainly hunger, though. She is starving.

“What makes you think she’s uplift?” Ra’naa asked. She was holding onto the girl’s arm and inspecting several long and angry-looking scratches. “She looks like a pure-blood human to me.”

“I’m not entirely sure,” Momma Rathbourne confessed. She knelt by the tub and reached out to touch the child’s face. The girl flinched, but did not pull away. “It’s just the impression I got when I saw her in danger.”

I keep seeing a bear every time I try to probe deeper. And her memories, there are very few. I swear this pup is only a few hours old.

As if sensing he was talking about her, the child looked away from Momma Rathbourne and stared intently at Otres. He blinked and then waved at her with both paws, twitching his whiskers. When he squeaked, a ghost of a smile appeared on the girls face.

There was a quiet knock at the door and a second later, Tara entered. The Tiger-woman looked sheepish, if such a look was possible for her. “Hi.”

Ra’naa looked up from her task and considered ripping her friend a new one for the way she had been acting. With a sigh of resignation, she pushed the feelings to the side. She knew how temperamental her friend was. She also knew the reasons why. Sometimes instinct was too powerful, it tended to over-ride the civilized portion of a person. In Tara’s case, right now she was far more a predator and a feline than she was a human.

“Hi, Tara,” she said with a forced smile. “Come in.”

The words brightened Tiger-woman’s mood and she entered, although she could not hide the concern. Tara could clearly hear the damage Ra’naa had suffered. She strode over to the tub and looked down at the child, her whiskers twitching and her nose wrinkling at the smell. “This is who you were going to rescue?”

Ra’naa nodded as she lifted a bucket of warm, clean water. She poured enough onto the child’s head to soak into her hair. “Yes.”

The girl rubbed her eyes and wiped the water from her face. She looked up at Tara and her eyes grew huge.

Tara stood there and stared down at the girl, unsure what was about to happen. Then she noticed the girl’s eyes were locked on Tara’s breasts.

Everyone, including Momma Rathbourne, caught the silent interaction. Otres was the first to react. She thinks you’re going to feed her with those.

Momma Rathbourne began to laugh lightly and if Tara could blush, she would have. She grumbled and crossed her arms under her heavy breasts. “Most of the time it’s guys looking at them, not hungry children.”

The girl smacked her lips and started to move through the water towards Tara. She started to struggle against Ra’naa’s firm grasp, mewling and whimpering. “We need to do something,” Ra’naa said as she tried to calm the child down.

Momma Rathbourne stared at the girl and considered her. “I’ll go talk to the Maclean’s. Her daughter is almost weaned and maybe she would be willing to look after this little one.”

Otres looked up at Tara and chittered his version of laughter. It was contagious and even Ra’naa began to chuckle.

“Tara, I think it would be best if you left,” she said as the child continued to struggle against her. “The longer you and your twins remain, the harder it’s going to be on her.”

A shadow flew across her the Tiger-woman’s face but she nodded in agreement. “I’ll come back later, after she’s had a chance to feed.” She paused and continued to stare down at the child. “Maclean’s, you said?”

Momma Rathbourne nodded.

“I’ll ask them, so you can stay.”

“Thank you, Tara.”

The Tiger-woman nodded curtly and grabbed the door-handle.

Tara, don’t leave angry.

She took in a deep breath and blew out her cheeks. Her tail was twitching in agitation but she tried to smile. “I’m not,” and with that, she left.

The girl cried out after her, reaching and the struggling increased a tenfold. Ra’naa quickly became soaked with dirty water as she fought with the child, trying to calm her down. “We need to get her some food, and soon!”

Otres stood there, staring at the struggling figure. Is there anything I can do?

“Can you grow a pair of milk-producing boobs?” Ra’naa gritted out and then she cried in pain. “What the hell?”

The child’s fingers suddenly sprouted long, black claws and her mouth filled with sharp teeth, where before there had been only naked gums. She was digging her claws into Ra’naa’s naked flesh, drawing blood. The girl looked up at her, teeth bared and she was nearly snarling.

It took a supreme effort of will, but Ra’naa did not let go of the girl. Instead, she stood and lifted the child out of the water. The filthy liquid coursed down the girl’s body, the water mixing with the blood on Ra’naa’s arms. Her already dirty clothing was thoroughly soaked. She hugged the girl against her body and began to rock back and forth, slowly and rhythmically.

Momma Rathbourne came over and held out her hands, ready to take the child from Ra’naa, but she shook her head. “I have this,” she said and then she began to sing. “This is that morning, it’s waiting for you. The face of destiny, standing before you.” She grimaced, feeling her raw and burnt vocal cords wanting to rebel against her using them.

You’re only going to make it worse, Otres projected, almost pleading. When he saw the look on her young face, he only shook his head in resignation.

The words, the sound of her hoarse yet melodic voice, had the desired effect on the child. Slowly the struggling lessened with each passing moment.

“This is the zero hour, now is for you. Can you feel that power, inside of you? This priceless moment, in your possession. Answers to mysteries, stand in succession. This is the zero hour, and there’s no way back. Can you feel that power? In its arms you are wrapped. All through the night-time, ‘til the sun comes in. Now Heaven’s open, just fly right in.”

Finally the girl ceased to struggle and she stared up at Ra’naa, her eyes clear and bright, no longer filled with fear. Ra’naa glanced down at the girls hands. The claws which had appeared were now gone, just her unblemished fingers remained. They were coated in blood, Ra’naa’s blood, but that was all. Carefully Ra’naa lowered the girl back into the tub and continued to clean her, singing the rest of the song and starting over once again as she finished it.

Momma Rathbourne knelt beside Ra’naa and did her best to help. They had to drain the tub and refill it, but soon enough the girl was completely clean, even her hair. Despite the hunger burning in her eyes, her eyes began to droop and she was having a hard time keeping them open. As Ra’naa and Momma Rathbourne dried her off with the towels, the girl fell asleep.

“Get those cuts looked at,” Momma Rathbourne said, nodding towards the long, bloody scratches on Ra’naa’s arms. “I’m worried about whatever bugs the girl might have picked up before you rescued her.”

Ra’naa nodded and stood. She looked at the little girl, swaddled in the towels, sleeping in her arms. “Those claws and teeth,” she wondered aloud. “If anything, I’d say she’s a mutant, not an Uplift.”

Standing on his toes, Otres grabbed hold of one of the towels and pulled down slightly. Ra’naa lowered the child so he could get a better look at her. She doesn’t smell like a human or mutant. He looked between Ra’naa and Momma Rathbourne. This pup smells like a bear. I really think she might be an Uplift, but the most human looking one I’ve ever encountered.

“A bear,” Momma Rathbourne said. She reached out and gently stroked the girl’s head, feeling the softness of her now-clean hair. The heat coming from her little body was noticeable and she frowned. “I think she might have a fever.”

“Let’s find a way to get her fed, and then we can deal with that. At least she’s sleeping.”