Buck Who? Chapter 14

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 14: A Journey Begins

April 29th, 2668 the Community.

Declan was not sure what he had expected. After the party on Friday night, he thought everyone would sleep in and then get back to work. As it turns out, he was wrong. Sure, those who did not have critical jobs to perform, such as the guards, were working. The rest of the community however took full advantage of the weekend.

Everywhere he looked people were gathered socializing, or playing. The kids in the community were playing various games, some familiar, some not. He noticed all the games were physical. Some were playing a strange form of soccer, while another group of younger children were playing tag.

He was sitting on the porch of Tara’s home. It was pretty much identical to all the others he had seen, at least on the outside. The interior was a different story. She had very little in the way of personal belongings and furniture. There was a table with two chairs, a single bookshelf, an ancient and patched armchair, and of course her bed. The only other notable piece of furniture was a huge tub. When he took a closer look, he discovered it was in fact a hot-tub, although the motor had ceased to function many years before she obtained it.

For some reason he thought her home would be a mess, but when he first laid eyes on it, he was surprised to find how fastidiously clean it was. The woman never ceased to amaze him. He glanced over his shoulder into the cabin. She was still out like a light, lying on her belly. Her tail was laying half out of the bed and he could have sworn he heard light snoring.

He could not sleep. Sure, her bed was wonderfully soft and comfortable, as much as she was. He had woken up only an hour ago and try as he might, he could not coax his mind to relax and allow sleep to overtake him. Babs was present, although she had been quiet the entire night, despite the multiple sessions of passionate sex he had with Tara.

Declan shrugged his shoulders and stood up. He found the boots someone had been kind enough to donate to him and pulled them on. Looking up into the sky, he saw the low-hanging clouds. They were so low in fact; they were brushing the tops of the nearest trees. He could smell the moisture in the air and from how fat and pregnant the clouds looked, rain could not be far behind.

There was a bite to the air and he took the leather jacket, like the rest of his wardrobe, had been donated by the locals, and shrugged it on. As quietly as he could, he closed the door to the cabin and walked to the street.

He had no particular destination in mind as he walked and he barely noticed his surroundings. When he reached the communities gate, he turned to his right and began to walk along the wall.

“Babs, talk to me, would you?” He said after several minutes.

“What do you want?” She asked testily. Gone was her usual cheerful tone and the way she typically addressed him as Doc.

He could not believe what he was saying. “I just need to hear your voice.”

There was a pregnant pause but when she finally replied, her tone was gentle. “Doc, it’s beginning to hit you, isn’t it?”

He nodded and then her Avatar appeared. She adopted a similar style to his own, donning home-spun leathers and boots. She had a wide-brimmed cowboy hat on her head to keep the rain away. Although her avatar was literally a figment of his imagination, she wore a noticeable look of concern. “Is that way you had sex with Kate?”

Declan blew out a breath he had not realized he was holding. “I guess so. The fact everything we knew is long gone was always on the periphery of my mind. I’ve been using Tara to help distract me, but…” he sighed.

"It’s getting harder and harder to keep the thoughts at bay, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” He stopped and took in his surroundings. There were no homes or buildings constructed against the wall, and the grass and plants which grew there were well maintained. He noticed a few of the cabins, and took in the neat, tidy yards.

He picked up his pace once again. As he walked, a light drizzle began to fall. Declan paid it no mind, finding the cool rain refreshing. “I think it’s a bit strange there is no central government. This community is run more like a little fiefdom or kingdom. I’ve never heard anyone talk about allegiances with other towns, no ruling bodies, nothing of the sort.”

Babs nodded her head in approval as she walked alongside him. “I’ve noticed it as well. There seem to be individual factions, such as those assholes, the Purists. They have patrols, and they trade, but you’re right. Was there really that much damage inflicted to the world it has taken all this time for the survivors to recover?”

Declan reached up and wiped the moisture from his face. He blew his breath out and marvelled how it misted in front of him. It had gotten colder, but not that bad. He had spent so many years on board a ship, being out in the elements was pleasant and he found he liked it. “It is possible. I haven’t had much time really talk to anyone about what happened after the end of the conflict. You know, what they call the final wars?”

Babs nodded. “And since I’m sharing your body, I don’t have any access to wireless equipment,” she laughed and waved her hand in the air. “Not that there are any signals to be intercepted as it stands.”

“True enough,” still, I want to find out more, get more of a feel of what happened. Maybe I should go and talk to that woman Momma Rathbourne. Next to the General, she seems to be the oldest one here. Maybe she can fill me in.”

She stopped and looked at a freshly planted garden. “Wonder if they have any carrots?” She chuckled. “Maybe talk to that Rattle-snake exotic, you know, the one who is the teacher?”

It was his turn to laugh. “With my record as of late, I’d be balls deep in her within an hour.”

Babs frowned and shook her head. “Stop thinking with your dick, would you?”

“Can’t help it,” he said earnestly. “After all, I did pay a king’s ransom for the genetic modification.”

“And I still think you were an idiot for doing that!” Babs scolded him and she shook her head and looked out over the mist covering the treeline. “And the pheromone enhancement? Really?”

“Everyone in my squadron was doing it, even the women, remember?” He shot back defensively.

“Oh yeah, I remember. Just going into the showers was like walking into the middle of an ancient Greece style orgy!”

He had to smile at the memories. “If I hadn’t have done it, I would have been left far behind. I was the wing commander; I needed to maintain my edge.”

“And look at what it’s doing now. Most of the women you encounter, especially those with heightened senses, practically want to rape you on the spot!”

Declan sighed. “Yeah, that is becoming a bit of a problem, isn’t it?”

She huffed and shook her head. “You’ll just have to deal with the consequences. I always thought there were far more important items you could have spent your money on.” 

“Like what?” He shot back.

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe a house on one of the outer colonies? Maybe you could have mustered out and taken a ship to one of the frontier worlds. You know you could have made twenty times as much as a commercial pilot for some of the private firms out on the rim.”

“Okay, okay, let’s just agree to disagree then, alright?”

She nodded, but a smile tugged at the corner of her lips. “So, you think you’ll be able to put up with Tara?”

He continued to walk and soon they came to another corner in the wall. Without really paying attention, he turned and paused, looking out over the field ahead of them. It was the part of the community which had been given over to the livestock they kept. He could see the gargantuan horses they called Brutes, calmly munching on the new sprouts of green in the grass. “I don’t know. She’s so fucking temperamental. Or maybe she’s just mental, although she is without a doubt one of the best fucks I’ve ever had.”

“She is a hard one to figure out, isn’t she?” Babs stood about ten meters in front of him, staring at the Brutes. There were other animals, regular sheep, goats, pigs and even a scattering of chickens and turkeys.

He was about to turn around to return the way he had come when he heard a familiar chittering squeak. When he looked around, he saw the Uplift Otres running across the open field towards him. There you are, entered his mind.

“Hi, Otres. What’s up?”

The little Otter stopped and stood on his hind legs. His whiskers twitched and he gave the pilot a grin. Ra’naa’s dad wants to see you.

That caught his attention. “Any idea what about?”

Otres bobbed up and down excitedly. Yes, he wants to send me, Ra’naa, Tara and you to Seattle.

***

When Declan entered General Ahteen’s office, he was not surprised to see Ra’naa already seated. There was no sign of the Tiger-woman, and from what he knew, she was probably going to be late. Max and Ra’naa looked up from their conversation. Ra’naa waved and Max nodded then indicated a quartet of chairs. “Take a seat.”

Otres scampered over and clamoured up into the seat nearest Ra’naa. His tail made it difficult to sit the way a human would, but he made due. Max nodded in approval as Declan took the seat next to Otres, leaving only one empty.

“You let Tara know to come?” Max asked.

Yes, and she said she would be on her way in a little bit. She had just gotten out of bed when I spoke to her.

Max nodded and gave Declan a wry grin. “I’m not surprised. I’m guessing you two had a late night?”

Declan felt his face flush, but why deny it? Everyone knew about the two of them. “And then some.”  He noticed Babs had her avatar dressed in her usual outfit and was walking around the room, glancing at the trophies and books.

“I’m not going to wait for her, whatever I tell you now, you three can relate to her later.” Max said without preamble. “I’m sending you to what’s left of Seattle, specifically the city which has grown up on the outskirts.”

“Scav’s haven, right?” Ra’naa asked. She was seated in her chair, her legs tucked underneath her body and her long, spiked tail hanging out from the armrest.

“Yeah, that’s the place,” Max confirmed. “Although it has changed names more times than I can remember over the years.”

“Why are we going there?” Declan asked and then amended. “More specifically, why am I going along?”

Max stood next to Ra’naa and placed a hand on the back of her chair. “There is a war coming, one started by those racists’ assholes, the Purists.  I have several tasks for you while you are there. First, we need intel. We have a pretty good picture of what is happening out along the coast and further south,” he explained. “Which is all fine and dandy, but what we glean from the traders we deal with is simply not enough.”

Declan nodded. “Makes sense. I know you deal with traders once or twice a week, and get your news that way,” he stated the obvious. “It’s just not anywhere near enough.” He looked thoughtful. “Why though, why bother getting involved in some fight with a bunch of upstarts?”

“They want to kill anyone who isn’t a human,” Ra’naa snarled, the venom in her voice startling Declan. This was one side of her he had never really seen and it shocked him. “If they have their way, all mutants, Damaged, Uplifts and even Exotics will be exterminated.”

“Why? You’re human,” he protested.

Max reached down and placed a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “We are human, but we don’t look human.”

“How large is this group?” Declan asked, starting to see some of the bigger picture.

“We don’t really know,” Max confessed and pulled his hand off Ra’naa shoulder. He began to pace around the four chairs. “That is what I’m hoping you will be able to ascertain.”

Sounds simple enough, Otres thought. You mentioned you had other reasons?

Max nodded and stopped. “I want you to see if the Legion may have troops they’re willing to hire out to us.”

Declan held up a hand and shook his head. “Wait, what? The Legion? Who the hell are they?”

Ra’naa spoke before her father could. “They’re a mercenary company, and from what we know about them, they have cells all over the continent and possibly even the world. They take anyone who wants to join their ranks. Those who are accepted are then trained, armed and armored and taught the Legion’s code. They are then hired out to anyone who has the gold or trade-goods they demand.”

“Sounds like the same Legion that was active before I had my, ah, accident,” Declan said.

Max nodded. “They are.”

Babs was standing over Otres and examining him, a huge smile on her face. “He is so adorable!”

Declan nodded but kept a grin off his face. He replied mentally. He is a squeak toy, after all, he should be adorable!

Otres sat straight up and glared at him, his tail twitching and he bared his teeth. I am not a god-damned squeak toy! He began to bark loudly, which only emphasized the squeaks he made.

“Okay, sorry!” Declan threw up his hands defensively and tried not to laugh, and then the realization hit him like a ton of bricks. The little Uplift had heard his thoughts. Could he hear Babs as well?

Stop calling me a squeak toy, Otres demanded. Although if you think I’m adorable, that’s fine.

Before Declan could answer, the door opened. Tara, clad in a white dress, had taken times to weave flowers into her hair. She was positively glowing, she was so clean. “Sorry,” she smiled and her tail flicked and twitched.

Max waved off the apology. “We were just getting started, so why don’t you take a seat?” He indicated the last remaining chair with one hand.

Tara glided across the floor and sat in the chair. Seeing her friend with her legs curled under her, she followed suit. Declan could not help but think of a cat, getting comfortable for a nice nap in the sun.

Otres looked from Declan to Tara and then back to Declan. Really? You know, I never thought of her in that light. I’ve seen the cats the people here have as pets and to keep the rodents in check, but you’re right!

Max quickly brought Tara up to speed with what they had been discussing, and the Tiger-woman looked excited at the prospect of going on a trip. As soon as he finished, she twitched her whiskers and grinned at him. “When do we leave?”

Max shrugged. “I was assuming in the morning.”

“We can leave after lunch,” Ra’naa interjected. “That will give us a couple of hours to prepare and get the Brutes ready for travel.”

No one disagreed.

“Anything else you want us to do while we’re there?” Ra’naa asked. She probably already knew everything he had wanted to accomplish, but she asked for the benefit of the others.

“Buy as many scrapped and junked weapons as you can find,” Max said. “I’ll be sending a stash of gold and platinum, as well as some gemstones. It should be more than enough for anything you can find.”

Declan looked confused. “Gold? Platinum and gems? Why?”

Max looked amused. “How else did you expect us to pay for our purchases?”

Babs, who had been standing next to Tara, perked up and turned her avatar’s gaze upon the general. She was clearly interested in hearing what the man had to say.

“I don’t know,” Declan shrugged and shook his head. “Credits?”

Max boomed out a heart-felt laugh. “Son, no one has used credits since the end of the final wars. Credits are pretty much worthless!”

Declan felt his face flush and he looked at the floor, embarrassed. “There has to be entire vaults filled with credit vouchers and chips, and not to mention the data drives with people’s balances still on them.”

“There are indeed, and many people still stash the old forms of currency away, especially the vouchers and the chips.” He waved his hand towards the window. “Go into any ruin out there, and you could probably come out with a few million in credit chips. He raised one hand and touched the side of his nose. “And that is the problem! That is exactly why hardly anyone uses the chips.”

Declan felt his face grow even hotter. It was a simple lesson in economics. If it was so easy to come by huge sums of credit chips, then it would essentially make them utterly worthless. “Right, I should have thought of that,” he blew out his cheeks, trying to recover from the faux pas. “So instead the survivors go by the old gold standard.”

Max nodded. “Right on the money,” he laughed. “So to speak. Gold, platinum, gems and even rare metals and other sources are what pass for money these days, that and trading.” He paused and looked out the window. It was really raining now and the window was streaked with running water. “Oh, and I wouldn’t refer to the people as survivors. The war has been over for centuries.”

“Right, got it,” Declan nodded.

I can hardly wait to see the city, Otres thought. I’ve seen plenty of ruins, and even seen a few other communities, but nothing ever like Seattle.

Declan felt a strange, sick sensation in his stomach. He realized what it was – fear. He knew the world was in ruins, vast tracts of the once green and fertile planet were now wastelands. He could remember seeing the city all those centuries ago, although to him it was only a few years. The megatropolis. Huge towers and archologies which spread out kilometers into the ocean. The teeming millions of men, women and children living out their days, their hopes and dreams, their future.

All of it gone. Those millions were long dead, skeletons or ash. He felt like he was about to vomit.

Instantly, Babs was kneeling before him, her virtual hands on his knees, even if he really could not feel it. “Come on, Doc, don’t lose it on us, not now.”

His AI friend and companion were not the only ones to notice his reaction. Everyone was on their feet, and Tara replaced Babs as she knelt before him and grabbed his hands in hers. “Declan, what’s wrong?”

He could not breath, he began to gasp and then hyperventilate. It was too much for him. “I can’t…”

Max cursed and came over. There was a hypo-spray in his hands and he jammed the end of it into Declan’s neck. The pilot, in the midst of a panic-attack, did not even notice until his racing heart began to slow. He blinked several times and felt Tara’s strong, soft and warm hands clutching at his. He looked into her eyes and saw the concern. Looking away, he could see the same feelings echoed in the eyes of the others.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “It just hit me, what has happened since I went into cryonic suspension.”

Max placed the hypo-spray back into the pocket he had been carrying it in. “I was afraid of this,” he nodded. “That’s why I kept it on me. I figured you might need it.”

Declan looked away from Tara, but he did not let the woman’s hands go. He needed their feel to help him maintain his tenuous grip on his emotions, which despite the drug, still threatened to take control.

Babs interposed her avatar over Tara’s form. She looked worried and somehow, that really touched him. He felt a surge of love for his AI friend, something he rarely felt for anyone he had known. “Easy, Declan – I’m here. I may get pissed off at you from time to time when you let your little head rule your big head,” she smiled. “You know I’m here. I’ll do whatever I can to help you get through this.

“It’s okay, I’ll be fine,” he gasped. He was talking to Babs, but his words would work just as well for the others. “I’m not sure how I’ll react to seeing Seattle, though.” He ran his fingers through his hair and then rubbed his eyes. “Maybe it will help, or maybe it’ll turn me into a catatonic wreck.”

Max nodded and crossed his arms. “I was afraid of this,” he sighed. “It’s one of the reasons I made sure I had the tranq with me, I have had it since you first arrived.”

Ra’naa stood from her seat and came over to stand next to Declan. She placed on soft, warm hand on his shoulder. “Declan, no one is forcing you to do this, but who knows – it might help you gain some closure.”

Otres was there as well, he stood with his paws on the armrest of his chair. He tilted his head in a very curious manner and chirped quietly. You are among friends, I hope you realize that. He thought. Even if you think I’m a squeak toy.

Declan had to smile, and then he looked up at Ra’naa. Her face was filled with concern, but there was compassion as well. He felt his heart skip a beat. She was beautiful. Most of the women in the community were beautiful. It was something he had thought many times already. Ra’naa had a quality about her though, something he could not quite put his fingers on. In many ways, he found her more sexually arousing than Tara, but at the same time, there was something pure and untainted by the world.

“Declan –,” Babs warned, sensing his thoughts. “Tara, remember?”

“I know, I know,” he said aloud, answering both statements at once. “Look, I want to go. Just,” he dry-washed his face. “Maybe send a few doses of that with us?”

“I can arrange that,” Max said. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Declan took a deep breath and then blew it out slowly. He was glad for the drugs, as it helped relax his tingling nerves and racing heart. Panic attacks were not something he had experience with, and never should have. He was a fighter pilot, after all. Jesus Mohammad and Buddha, if he ever experienced something like that during a fight, he would have died for sure. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

Max Ahteen nodded. “In that case,” he walked over to his massive desk and opened a drawer. He pulled out a small box. It was the general size and shape of an old-fashioned jewellery box. He handed it to Ra’naa.

She hefted the box, and Declan could hear the clink of metal on metal. From the way she held it, the box must have had some weight to it.

He then pulled out several smaller boxes and four leather purses, each with a thong. He tossed one to each of them and Declan barely managed to catch it. The weight surprised him and when he opened to peer inside, he saw the yellow of gold and white of platinum. There had to be at least a year’s pay in the purse.

“This should be more than enough for your trip,” Max said.

“Thanks, dad,” Ra’naa gave her father a hug and kissed him on the cheek.

“Hey, that reminds me,” Declan said, standing up. “I really could use my handgun!”

Max nodded. “We made sure it was cleaned and serviced after your swim in the Pacific. I’ve also taken the liberty to have a suit of armor fashioned for you.”

“Excellent!” Declan beamed. “Thanks!”

Max Ahteen waved a dismissive hand. “Go and get ready. I’ve even made sure the Brutes have been saddled and they are waiting for you at the stables.”

Ra’naa beamed at the prospect of taking Zeus out on the trip to Seattle. “How long do you want us to stay there?” She asked.

“A week, two at the most. Get as much information as you can for us and then return home. If worse comes to worse,” he paused and reached into the desk and removed a data-pad. “This is encrypted. I doubt even the Artificial could break the mil-spec encryption on this.” He grinned. “Use one of the couriers and have them drop it at the wreck.”

She nodded. The wreck was a well-known landmark along the highway. It was often used by traders and others as a post-apocalyptic mail-box and bulletin board.

With that, they said their goodbyes to Max and left the lodge.

***

It was still overcast and there was a light mist hanging only a few centimeters off the ruined highway. The air was cool and pregnant with moisture, and the clouds overhead looked as if they were ready to burst and drown the world.

The four rode in silence for the first portion of their journey. Ra’naa, and Otres were astride Zeus, and were in the lead, while Declan rode in the middle. Tara brought up the rear. Everyone except Otres was armed. Declan had his handgun and was issued an assault rifle. He was familiar with the design, having trained with a similar model back before he became a fighter-jock. It looked as if it had just come off the assembly line and it felt perfect in his hands. He learned the weapon’s condition was due to Otres’s strange, but incredibly powerful psionic ability.

Tara and Ra’naa both carried identical assault rifles, although Ra’naa had a heavy sniper rifle slung over her shoulder, and wore two pistols. Tara carried a single handgun and that was the extent of her armament.

When Declan closed his eyes, he could imagine he was out on a ride with his friends from the academy. They did not get dirt-side often, and when they did, other than bar-hopping and finding marks for sex, trips to the wilderness were common. He enjoyed the feel of the light and sporadic drizzle on his face. The air smelled clean and damp, and he had a difficult time identifying many of the scents.

Otres curled up on the saddle in front of Ra’naa and either dozed or watched the surroundings. Everyone with the exception of Declan kept a vigil on the temperate rain-forest around them. He understood the reasons why. The forest was filled with all manner of life, many of the creatures mutated beyond recognition. Some were intelligent, others were feral and dangerous.

It was the Damaged he had to be most concerned about. During his many sexual encounters with Tara, a lot of the pillow talk after their sex involved him asking questions about the world. She did her best to fill him in and explained how so many life-forms became mutated. Humanity was not spared the fickle touch of the energies released by the atom. The worst, and the best, tended to be the Damaged. These were human mutants, often hideously deformed by mutation. Many were bitter and hateful, and preyed upon anyone not so afflicted.

There were plenty of others though, who accepted what the god of radiation had inflicted upon them and tried their best to live good lives. The forest was filled with the hateful Damaged. They loved to wait in ambush for those unwary enough to fall into their traps. Many of these Damaged were cannibalistic in nature and often the only remains found were picked-clean bones.

Tara did not hate them. She feared them, and rightfully so, as did most of the members of the community. Of course there were other dangers and few people travelled alone, and fewer still travelled without some sort of weapon.

During his short time in the community, Declan had come to see the handful of damaged who called it home. They were pretty hideous to look upon, but he quickly discovered they had gentle souls. Despite the deformities, or possibly as a result of, they possessed keen minds and other beneficial mutations.

Declan had to admit when they finally stopped for the day, the trip had been outright boring. He was feeling very tired and the nearly non-stop drizzle had eaten away at his cheer. Even Babs, who had been relatively quiet the entire trip, seemed relieved. She had been busy scanning the surroundings and taking notes, locating landmarks and other useful tidbits of information.

Ra’naa was the first to dismount. she held out her arms and the little Uplift slid off the back of the Brute and she deftly caught him, and then lowered him to the ground. She over at Declan and their eyes met. “Want some help?”

“Nah, I’m good,” he replied and likewise slid off the back of the animal. He landed without stumbling, and for that he was grateful. He felt weak and exhausted, and he owed that to not being at his full capacity. He was nearly there, and a few more large meals would do the trick.

“Nice,” Babs commented. She had chosen to wear a wide-brimmed hat and a rain-slicker over her usual avatar garb. “I knew you could do it, without making us look bad.”

Being so close to Otres, he carefully worded his mental reply. In fact, the entire trip he was very careful whenever he spoke to Babs. He always worded his thoughts in such a way as to make it appear he was simply musing. If Otres suspected, he did not show it. Glad I didn’t fall, it would have been embarrassing.

No one would have made fun of you, Otres replied. Although maybe Tara would have, she can be like that.

So I have discovered, and would you please get out of my mind? I do like my privacy!

The little Uplift chittered and gave him a toothy grin. I promise but under one condition.

“That you don’t call him a squeak toy,” Babs guessed.

Stop referring to me as a squeak toy!

“Okay, okay, I promise!” Declan laughed, feeling some of the tension and exhaustion slip away. “Just cut me some slack if I slip, alright?”

And I expect the same from you as well, then. Otres countered.

“Deal!”

They spent the next twenty minutes getting a camp set up, including a warm fire. Declan did what he could to help, and he surprised both Tara and Ra’naa with his knowledge. He helped them gather and build a quick lean-to in order to keep the rain off them. When he was finished, he noticed Tara staring at him. He shrugged. “Back when I was training to become a pilot, one of the hardest courses I had to learn was escape and evade. It was gruelling as hell and encompassed a great deal of survival training.”

Ra’naa went over to the horses and gave each one a rub-down and then provided them with grains and nuts to supplement the underbrush they were happily munching upon. Tara broke out several bundles of food and a pan. She then began to cook a meal for the four of them.

Soon, their bellies were full and they were relaxing. The daylight slipped away into full night before anyone even noticed, as the day had already been dark due to the thick cloud-cover. All around them the forest was alive with the sound of dripping water and the occasional cry of a night-creature.

Declan felt his eyes grow heavy with each passing minute and he yawned loudly. “I guess I’m about ready to turn in,” he said to no one in particular.

“Which watch do you want?” Ra’naa asked. She was stirring the last bits of their supper in the pot and was adding some grain and water to the mixture. When he did not reply right away, she looked up from where she was kneeling. “Well?”

It took him a moment to realize she was talking to him. “Watch? Seriously?”

She nodded and continued to stir the pot. Her tail began to twitch slightly. “Yes, seriously. You have a choice – you can stand watch until midnight, or from midnight to three or three until sun-up.”

Declan shook his head and grinned. “You’re kidding, right? Don’t you have some remote sensors and alarms we can use?”

Her face became very serious. “Do I look like I’m kidding?” She closed her eyes, clearly annoyed as she shook her head and mumbled something under her breath. “No we don’t have sensors or alarms, and we need to stand watches. If we don’t, it could cost us our lives.”           

“He will take the first watch then,” Tara stepped in. “I’ll relieve him at Midnight, then you and Otres can have the last watch, fair enough?”

Ra’naa nodded, satisfied. She lifted the ladle she had been using to stir the pot and tested the food. She smiled and then added a bit more grain. “Fair enough.”

“So much for sleep,” Declan grumbled. He sat there, staring into the fire, fuming. Of course they needed a watch. It was part of the training he had undertaken, although it was often very difficult to set a watch when you were alone. He felt foolish and more than a little ashamed at how stupid he must have sounded.

Tara grabbed several bed-rolls from one of the packs and placed them on the ground next to him. She tossed two to Ra’naa and she did the same, but on the other side of the fire. Declan stood up and grabbed the assault rifle he had been issued. At least he had Babs to keep him company.

“Mind waking me up at midnight?” Tara asked. She was already stripping off her clothing and placing it near the fire so it could dry out in the heat.

Declan nodded. “Sure thing, Tara.”

“Better keep a close eye out,” Declan said aloud.

“You got it, Doc.” Babs answered. She knew he was speaking directly to her. Thankfully she was able to use his eyes and her superior computing power to spot something he might have missed.

The next few hours were uneventful. The temperature remained the same, although it was cool enough for his breath to mist. The three Brutes were standing off to the side, and two were clearly asleep, although the alpha, Zeus, was wide awake. Declan noticed the mutant horse was acting as a guard as well, watching over the entire camp.

When he approached the animal, it turned and regarded him with those big, intelligent eyes. He felt as if Zeus was evaluating him and after a minute, the Brute came to a conclusion. Zeus took several steps forward and butted his head into Declan’s chest. Tentatively, Declan raised his hand and stroked the Brute’s nose.

“Doc, I think the big fella likes you.”

Declan grinned. No accounting for taste. He thought.

He stood there and listened to the night sounds. The forest was alive and anyone saying it was quiet certainly never spent time in the deep woods. With the Brute standing guard, he felt safer and after a moment he patted Zeus on the side of the neck and turned his attention back to the camp.

He moved quietly and entered the camp and stood by the fire. As he warmed his hands, Babs’s avatar wandered around the perimeter, staring off into the darkness. He looked at Tara, who was sound asleep, lying on her belly. She was completely enveloped by the bed-rolls and for once the woman looked innocent and peaceful. As he stared at her, he realized he would like her a lot more if she dropped the bad attitude and started to show a little more concern for others.

“Doc, you realize she is a lot like you, don’t you?”

He snorted quietly and pulled his gaze away from the sleeping Tiger-woman. I’m not that conceited.

“Wanna put a wager on that?” Babs asked. She was now standing across the fire from him, likewise holding her hands out. Her avatar did not need the warmth, but it helped maintain the illusion. “You can be a real asshole.”

Declan did not reply. Instead he looked away to the other lean-to, the one Ra’naa and Otres shared. He smiled when he saw them together. She had shed her wet clothing as well and the garments were near the fire, drying out. At least she had brought additional clothing with her, and was now wearing them.  Ra’naa was a grown woman, but she looked like a child as she cuddled the little Uplift tightly against her body. Otres was likewise sound asleep and was perfectly at home in her embrace.

“It looks perfectly natural, doesn’t it?” Babs asked, looking at the sleeping figures.

Declan nodded and then returned his gaze to the darkness surrounding the camp like a comforting blanket. He stepped away from the fire and the warmth it provided and walked to the edge. It does, Declan agreed. At first it kind of bothered me, as she is a human – well, an Exotic and he’s an animal. It was creepy to me, especially how they like to sleep naked.  He returned his attention to the sleeping figures. Now though, since there is no sex involved, it’s like she is hugging a large stuffed animal.

“I’m still getting used to how much love there is between the two of them.” Babs said. She returned her attention to the forest. “It’s pure and untainted by feelings of lust and desire.”

Just what the hell did you mean by calling me an asshole? He thought. Declan wanted to change the subject. He was starting to feel morose and depression was threatening to return.

“You can be. We’ve been together long enough, you know. You’re selfish, you take chances, and you don’t typically give a flying fuck about other people’s emotions. Especially women.”

Declan blinked. Wow, that was right out of left field!

Babs turned to face him. Suddenly she was naked. She grabbed her breasts and pushed up on them. “You see women as playthings and never bother to stop and think how they might react after you’ve fucked them.”

Hey, I just want sex. I’m not ready for a relationship. I never was, especially being a pilot. There was always a chance I would not return, and if I did find a woman I actually give a shit about, would that be fair to her? He was starting to get a little angry. He shook his head and turned away, staring off into the darkness.

A moment later, Babs was back, her avatar once again fully clothed. She shook her head. “You have a point there, but you have to stop playing around with women, especially now.” She looked miffed. “I wish there was some way you could turn off your pheromones. They’re going to get you into a lot of trouble. After all, you’re stuck here and there is no going back. What if it turns out Tara falls in love with you? What happens if you knock her up, considering all the times you two have had sex? What if you happened to get Kate pregnant?”

“That won’t happen,” he wave a hand dismissively. “All women have birth control.”

Babs burst out laughing. He stood there and stared at her, angry and a little embarrassed. He certainly did not like having his sex life talked about, especially with his AI friend. “What the hell is so funny?”

When she finally managed to control her laughter, she wiped her eyes with one hand. “You’re a real maroon, you know that?  We’re three hundred years into the future! The world was all but destroyed by a holocaust! These girls don’t use birth control!”

Declan felt the blood drain from his face. He had not even considered that possibility. Back in his time, every woman was on one form of birth control or another. It was so common that accidental pregnancies were all but impossible. The rare time it did occur, aborting the fetus or putting it up for adoption was always the alternative. Babs was right.

“Sweet Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad,” he breathed aloud. He had pumped so much sperm into Tara over the past week, if she was ovulating, there was no doubt in his mind he would end up getting her pregnant. Was that her intention? “I knew I should have had myself sterilized!”

Babs was about to reply with something sarcastic when she stopped and whirled around. She was staring intently into the forest, just on the edge of the light provided by the fire. “I think something is there!”

Declan’s hand reached for the handgun holstered at his waist. As he drew it his smoothly flicked off the safety and held it in both hands, the muzzle pointed at the ground. He could not see what Babs was talking about. She had seen something and the capability to take the sensory input from his eyes and examine it in far greater detail.

“What is it?” He asked, as he began to cautiously approach the spot. He was approximately three meters from the location and he was sure he could hear something. It sounded… squishy. It was the only word he could describe.

“I don’t know,” Babs confessed. She was standing at the very edge of the firelight and was peering into the undergrowth. “There is definitely something here, but it’s hidden by the plants.”

Declan paused and looked back at the three sleeping figures. He noted the Brutes were now all asleep, even the big alpha leader Zeus. With a sigh, he knelt and pulled a burning brand from the fire. It would make due quite nicely as a torch. For a second he considered waking the other two, but if it turned out to be something harmless, he would feel like an utter fool.

Handgun in one hand, torch in the other, he approached the spot Babs was staring at. As he advanced towards the undergrowth, he caught the occasional flicker of light shining off something reflective. He knew it was not eyes reflecting the light, he had seen that plenty of times. No, this was almost like the reflection off something liquid.

A moment later he was next to the bush and he took a quick look at his AI friend. She wore a look of concern and was chewing her lower lip. Her big, floppy ears were lying flat, a sure indication she was agitated. “Be careful, Doc,” she practically begged. “You remember them talking about predators and dangerous mutants.”

He nodded and reached out with the hand holding the gun. He put the barrel under one of the big leafs and pushed it aside. It revealed a long, slick-looking body, lying on its side. He instantly recognized it as being a fish, but he did not have a clue as to what type. “What the fuck?” He said aloud. “What the hell is a fish doing this far away from the water?”

Babs was staring at the fish as it feebly moved in the underbrush. “It’s a Salmon, and a big one,” she filled him in. She had an extensive database, which she had downloaded with her when she took up residence in his internal hard-drive.

Shrugging, Declan stood up and took a step back from the flopping fish. “Damn, that’s just weird.” He was about to turn and go back to the camp when the underbrush exploded in a frenzy of movement. It took Declan completely by surprise and he barely had a chance to draw in a breath when four ten-centimeter thick tentacles wrapped around both his legs. The next thing he knew, he was on the ground, being dragged into the underbrush. The torch flew from his hands, but he had enough sense to keep hold of the handgun.

Declan’s intensive training had prepared him for uncounted possible scenarios. He knew how to survive in nearly all types of environments, was better than average at escape and evade, and many others. Getting grabbed by some unseen mutated monstrosity however, was one of the topics which had not been covered.

Instinct took over and even as the unseen creature dragged him deeper into the brush. He lifted the handgun and aimed it in the general direction the tentacles were dragging him and fired. The flash of the spent propellant lit up the forest around him and the boom of the weapon was nearly deafening. There was a high-pitched squeal of pain and two of the tentacles let loose, but the other two tightened.

The shock of the sudden ambush finally wore off and he drew in a breath. The scream which erupted was very un-manly even as he pulled the trigger three more times. He had no idea if the rounds connected or not, but the pressure on his leg lessened.

Declan cursed his lack of foresight for not having taken the time to acquire a blade. It was exactly what he needed right now. Instead he took careful aim at one of the two tentacles still clinging to his limb and fired.

There was an ear-splitting snarl and roar as the bullet tore through the rubbery flesh of the tentacle, severing it. A fountain of thick, black goo spewed from the severed appendage and it disappeared from sight.

The roar came from a white, orange and black streak of feline fury. Tara, still naked from her bed-roll, landed upon something unseen less than two meters from where he lay, struggling against the remaining tentacle. She screamed as she bit down onto something he could not quiet see. A high-pitched scream came from the creature as she tore and bit, rending huge chunks of a mottled grey-green flesh.

At last the remaining tentacle released its grip from his leg and it was pulled back. Declan scrambled to his feet as Otres raced past him and the little Uplift launched its body at the strange creature. He looked around and saw Ra’naa standing next to him. The Dragon-Exotic was holding her assault rifle at the ready, but she refrained from firing.

Declan watched in horrid fascination as Tara ripped and tore into the hidden creature. Her fury was so unbridled and animalistic, even Otres backed off, for fear he might get in the way of her claws.

A moment later, there was one final shriek of agony and the beast released a thick, viscous fluid. It coated Tara from head to toe, but she never relented. Though Declan could not see the beast, he instinctively knew it was the creature’s death-cry he had just heard.

As suddenly as it had begun, the furious assault was over. Tara stood up and backed away from the dead beast. She turned, her eyes glowing in the firelight, feral and full of rage. “Did it hurt you?” She half-growled.

Declan realized he was more afraid of her than he had been of the beast at that moment. He shook his head mutely.

Ra’naa lowered the weapon and gently took Declan by the arm and prodded him towards the site of the battle. The four stood there, staring down at the torn remains of the beast. Declan could not for the life of him make out what it had been, the damage Tara had inflicted was so extensive.

“I can’t believe it,” Babs breathed out.

Declan looked up from the remains of the beast and stared at her avatar, which was standing on the opposite side of the remains. What was it? He thought, hoping only she could hear him.

“I think this thing is, or was, an octopus!”

“What the hell is that?” Declan pointed a trembling finger at the remains. He could see the overall shape and realized Babs might be correct. Still, he wanted confirmation.

“We call them ambushers,” Ra’naa said as she thumbed the safety back on the assault rifle. “Mutated Octopuses, which have adapted to life on the shores and forests. They hunt by using bait to lure prey in close enough for them to grab.”

“I was right,” Babs said, but the usual smugness was gone.

He noticed Tara was still looking at him, although her breathing had slowed down and the claws had been sheathed.

“Are you hurt?” She asked again, this time her voice was lower and did not hold the same threat.

Declan nodded. “Just scared, that’s all.”

The last trace of her anger left and she came over to him. She reached up and stroked his face with one black-smeared hand. The worry and fear he saw in her eyes scared him more than the creature had. “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“Uh - oh, this can’t be good,” Babs said, eyeing the woman.

Declan had to agree.

“Let’s get you cleaned up,” Ra’naa said, looking at her friend. “That ink’s going to be all but impossible to get out!”

Otres looked down at his pelt and let out a sad squeak. He too, was completely covered by the thick goo and it even dripped off the ends of his whiskers. Great, just great! Now what am I supposed to do?

Since the ocean was less than a kilometer from where they were staying, it was quickly decided they would break camp and travel there. About an hour later, they had another cheery fire going, and Tara was in the surf, scrubbing and cursing nearly non-stop. Otres joined her while Ra’naa and Declan sat on a large chunk of driftwood, warming themselves by the fire.

“Sorry about that,” Declan confessed as he poked and prodded the flames with a branch. He really did feel bad about what had happened. At least no one was injured.

“You had no way of knowing,” Ra’naa turned and smiled at him. She reached out and took his hand in hers and squeezed. For a woman who spent so much of her time working, her hands were soft and warm. “Let that be a lesson, next time, wake the rest of us up!”

“Seriously, an Octopus?” He did not let go of her hand until she pulled away.

Ra’naa nodded and returned to watch her friends. She winced as Tara let out a particularly long and colorful string of invectives. As they sat, she explained the ambushers had adapted to life on land. They used the forest to hunt for prey. The creatures had a strange ability to alter one of their tentacles to appear as a fish or wounded animal. Once something took the bait, they pounced. It was lucky for them all it had been an immature ambusher and not one of the adults.

About thirty minutes later, Otres returned to the fire. He looked no worse for wear and there was no sign of the black ink on his pelt. He grinned and chittered. It must have something to do with the oils in my pelt. He glanced over his shoulder at Tara, who was still cursing and trying to get the ink out. She on the other hand? I guess she’s going to have to go for the black-cat look.

It had to be nearly midnight by the time Tara returned to the fireside. Indeed, there was no trace of her usual orange and white pelt. She was black from stem to stern. Still dripping, she sat down heavily and stared into the fire. “This sucks!” She whined and then placed her head on Declan’s lap and wrapped her arms around his legs.

“Do something to comfort her, Doc, quit being such a maroon!” Babs scolded. She was sitting directly across from him, watching with a disapproving look on her face.

“Tara,” he began.

She pulled her head up from his lap and glared at him. “Don’t you ever do something so fucking stupid like that again!” She snarled and her claws slid from their sheaths to dig painfully into his leg.

“Ow, Fuck!” He snapped but then softened his tone. “Look, Tara, I’m sorry. I had no idea. I don’t know this world.”

She continued to stare into his face, her eyes searching. There was something reflected in her gaze. It was possessive and he thought he could see something else, a little deeper.

“Shit, doc…” Babs said in a voice filled with awe and worry. And, maybe a little jealousy?

Instead of replying, she pulled his face down and kissed him softly and far more gently than she ever had before.

It was in that instant Declan knew she was, in fact, in love. He also realized just how possessive and protective she was becoming. That thought scared him more than a little bit.