Buck Who? Chapter 15

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 15:  Gears in the Wrench Work…

April 29th, 2668 The remains of a mutant village.

“Please…” Gasped the thing which had once been a living, vibrant creature. “Kill me…”

Bradly Travis stood over the smoldering soon-to-be corpse, his white powered armor smeared with blood, smoke and ash. He held a laser in one hand and aimed it at the head of the mutant. “I’ll kill you once you tell me what I want to know,” his voice dripped with contempt and the sneer was audible.

The mutant, before the attack, had been strong and tall. He was clearly a member of the mutated humanoid species, having four arms and a pair of bug-like antenna. Now, three of the arms were nothing more than charred stumps, which did not even leak blood. His face was horrifically burned, with the left eye cooked to an egg-white and still steaming. The left side of his face and head was a mass of angry-red, blistered flesh. All the hair had burned away, further scarring the man. Oddly enough, the two antenna remained untouched.

He coughed feebly and blood-flecked spittle dribbled from the corner of his mouth. “I don’t know,” he coughed. “Who you are… looking for.”

Bradly looked up into the overcast sky and felt the first drops of rain pelt his armor. He shook his head in disbelief. “Your kind trade with the rest of the genetically inferior scum all up and down the coast, and you are trying to tell me you don’t know two fucking Exotics?”

The man’s one good eye rolled up into his skull and he shuddered, his remaining arm flopping loosely on the ash-covered ground. There was an audible rattle from the mutant’s throat.

Cursing loudly, Bradly turned away from the corpse and surveyed the ruins of the village they had attacked. It was the second community this week, one of the new settlements they had located using the recon satellite. It turned out to be a dead-end. He lifted the laser and checked the display. It still contained a seventy-five percent charge, more than enough to finish the task at hand.

All around him the makeshift buildings blazed. Screams of pain and terror could be heard coming from the structures, as many of the inhabitants were trapped inside. They had ensured many of the genetically damaged freaks would not escape. Those who tried were mowed down by Bradly’s troopers.

He was searching for one of his soldiers when a man holding an ancient assault rifle, stepped out from behind one of the burning structures and opened fire. The rounds from the weapon hammered his chest, stomach and right hip, but failed to penetrate. Still, the impact hurt!

Bradly raised the laser and barely took time to sight in on the man. He depressed the firing stud and a beam of red coherent light shot from the barrel. He cursed again when his target was no longer in his sight. Bradly blinked and scanned the surrounding buildings. One second the man had been there, the next he was gone.

Another burst smashed into him, hitting him from the back. He staggered forward under the onslaught of the heavy rounds. Still, the bullets failed to penetrate his armor. Bradly whipped around, his weapon already firing, but once again there was no sign of the attacker.

“I’m under attack,” he bellowed into his command comm. He initiated one of the many programs available to his armor, and brought up his battle-field display. Instantly a map of the surrounding area appeared on his HUD, showing him the general outline of the area. Despite the blazing buildings, they still appeared as intact structures, and his men were outlined in blue. There were twenty-three targets within the confines of the village. He had lost three men during the battle to level the dwellings. As it turned out, some of the mutants were better armed than anyone had anticipated.

There! A red blip appeared on the screen, except it was situated behind two of his men. As he opened his mouth to shout a warning, both icons pulsed several times and then disappeared. The only time that happened is when their vitals red-lined. A second later, the red icon was gone.

“Fall back to my position and check your sixes!” He shouted over the communication link. Bradly wracked his mind, trying to think of what the target might be using. It had to be a mutation of some sort, as none of the inhabitants of the village had anything higher-tech than a cobbled-together rifle.

And yet the man who attacked him was using an assault rifle. He holstered the laser and reached behind his back and unslung he heavy assault rifle he was carrying. It was an infantry assault rifle; instead it was a squad automatic weapon. If it were not for his armor, he would never be able to use the weapon the way he was planning to. He was strong, but not strong enough without the powered-assist provide from his armor. The SAW was just too unwieldy otherwise.

Holding the weapon in front of him, he pulled back the charging mechanism. On his HUD he watched as the red icon appeared near a trio of his men, but this time they were ready. A second later the red icon vanished but the three blue icons remained steady. They had escaped serious injury. Approximately half of his forces were converging on his positon and he could see their shapes through the smoke and flames.

“Sir, are you alright?” One of the men asked. They were all dressed in heavy tactical armor, which was quite effective against most of the weapons the mutants were capable of fielding. Heavy assault weapons, well, not so much.

“Yeah, let’s get back to the transport. This place is done, if anyone survived, let them go. They can spread the word.”

Just then the red icon appeared in front of them. Bradly looked up just in time to see the figure. He was certain the figure was male, but he was clad in a form-fitting suit of black fabric. The head was completely encased in a helmet with a black face-plate. The exterior of the suit was festooned with pistols and extra magazine pouches, as well as grenades of many different types. There was an unfamiliar but deadly-looking assault rifle strapped to the back of the figure, yet that was not what had his attention. The man was holding a circular object in one hand. He casually saluted and then slapped the object onto the back of the soldier Bradly was speaking to.

“What the fuck?” Bradly and the soldier blurted out at the same time. The figure in black then flipped Bradly the middle finger and as he was raising the SAW, the figure blinked out of existence. Bradly was tempted to hose the area where the man had been a fraction of a second before, but he risked hitting his own people.

“Get it the fuck off!” The soldier screamed as he desperately tried to reach around his back to grab the item. Bradly was about to order the man to turn around when his suit’s defensive systems automatically kicked in and he found himself launched into the air. The suit had detected the powerful explosive the item contained and had reacted in the barest nick of time.

The soldier, as well as four of his fellow combatants, disappeared in a super-heated flash of plasma energy. A ten meter globe of brilliantly blue-white light appeared, with the soldier at the epicenter. Even from the distance, Bradly’s armor rocked and he nearly lost control from the blast-wave of energy released from the explosion. He landed shakily, but otherwise unharmed.

He stood there, struck dumfounded by the explosion. In less than five seconds he lost nearly half of his remaining troops. Several of his men, who were far enough away from the blast-radius, managed to retain their footing, but otherwise the rest were down. Four of the icons were now blinking yellow, indicating the men had suffered injuries of one form or another. At the very edge of his suit’s sensor’s range, the red icon reappeared and then began to walk into the forest.

***

April 29th, 2668 Near the remains of a mutant village.

The figure dressed in black combat armor sat astride a beautifully maintained hover-bike. The rain was coming down, soaking the ground and running off his armored figure as he held the high-tech binoculars to his eyes. He was waiting on a hill-top, approximately three kilometers from the site of the Purists latest atrocity.

“Wrench one, this is control, do you copy?”

“I copy,” he replied as he continued to watch the Purists. Beneath the helmet he wore a smile tugged at his lips as he saw Bradly Travis throw a fit. They had spared the humans and human-looking mutants inside the village, and were going to take them back to the compound. The armored man decided to deny the murdering scum their prize. Before he had attacked, he had cut the bonds and freed the prisoners, encouraging them to make good their escape. Killing the single soldier who had been left to guard them had only been the icing on the cake. 

“Status?”

“Mission successful,” he replied neutrally. “We are well under budget on this operation.”

“Affirmative,” replied the unseen voice. “The council has new orders for you.”

“Waiting,” he answered, although a single eyebrow rose in surprise. He had expected to be recalled back to the installation, and was looking forward to some downtime.

“Proceed to the co-ordinates we are providing you. At their current rate of travel, Ahteen and her entourage should arrive at or near within the next eight hours. We will keep eyes on them as the progress and keep you updated. Observe and report in once you have eyes on target.”

“Understood, any further instructions?”

“Affirmative. Tail them as they make their way to Seattle. Provide any support they may require to ensure they arrive safely.”

“Roger. Final instructions?”

“Negative, Wrench one. We will have further instructions once they have safely reached Seattle.”

“Affirmative,” he replied and the link went silent.

He carefully slipped the binoculars into a padded case and secured it to the side of his Hover-Glider. A moment later he was racing down the hillside, dodging the trees and undergrowth with the skill borne of years of practice. Soon the ruined village and the hated Purists were far behind.

***

April 30th, 2668: North  of the ruins of Vancouver

The rest of the night remained uneventful and the party had broken camp around an hour after sunrise. Ra’naa was tired, as the encounter with the Ambusher made returning to sleep difficult, though she had held Otres close to her body. The heat from his fur and the steady rhythm of his heart was a balm, but it was not enough.

She was not surprised to see she had not been the only one who had trouble sleeping. Declan had bags under his eyes and he was moody when they woke him. Tara was utterly inconsolable and she practically hissed whenever someone looked her way. Gone was her usual markings, now she was as black as ebony from head to toe. The Ambusher’s defensive dye would eventually fade away, but she was stuck like this for several weeks, if not longer.

They ate a quick but hot meal, and then broke camp. The entire time no one spoke a word, although Otres had greeted her telepathically upon waking. He waved and chittered happily to everyone, but the glare and bearing of teeth from Tara dampened even his mood.

The day proved to be cool and it drizzled almost non-stop. Otres was the only one not bothered, but then again being an Otter, he preferred to be wet. After an hour of silence, Ra’naa had enough of it. She looked over her shoulder at Declan and Tara, both of whom were lost in their thoughts. “To hell with it,” she muttered. When Otres looked up at her, curiosity on his face, she grinned and tapped him on the nose. She then began to sing.

Tara rolled her eyes, but Declan listened intently. He was always surprised at how sweet a voice the Dragon-Exotic possessed, and though he did not know the songs, it was soothing to listen to. Within minutes his mood had improved dramatically.

Another hour passed when they came to the first of the major ruins. Ra’naa sat on Zeus and stared at the deathlands laid out before them.  Vancouver had been a sprawling metropolis before the final wars destroyed it. Hundreds of years later, the sea and land had reclaimed a great deal of the ruin sprawl. It looked dead, the towers having crumbled by the hellish energies unleashed by the city-killer weapons used so many years ago.

All that remained of many of the structures were the reinforced skeletal beams. They were jutting as high as one or one hundred and fifty meters into the air above the broken and rubble-choked landscape. It reminded her of the bones of some gargantuan beast, picked clean by scavengers and time, left to slowly decay back into the ground.

Ra’naa knew better however. The city was far from dead. Life always found a way and she knew the ruins were teeming with all manner of life. Mutant animals, humanoids, the Damaged and worse. All around the outskirt of the metropolis were small scavenger communities. They appeared hap-hazard at best, and knew they were dangerous places to visit. It was not like the city of Scav-Haven, the well-run and controlled community built on the outskirts of Seattle.

And that was the reason they were heading to that city instead of stopping to trade with the scavengers who plied their trade in the ruins of Vancouver. It simply was far too dangerous.

She whipped about when she heard a choking sound coming from behind. She looked to see Declan staring, open mouthed at the ruins of Vancouver. Tears were streaming down the pilot’s face and he was turning a deep crimson. It was as if he had been exposed to a high dose of radiation or was badly sunburned. “Declan?” She called out in fright.

His Brute had stopped moving and the animal had turned to gaze at him, the animal’s big eyes wide with actual concern. Declan reached out with one hand and tried to speak, but the words simply would not come.

Behind him Tara leapt from the back of her Brute and was next to him, reaching up with her arms. “Declan, what is it?” Her voice was filled with concern and more than a little bit of fear. Reaching up she grabbed his boot and gently tugged on it. “Declan, speak to me, you’re scaring the hell out of me!”

Try as he might, he looked down and his lips moved, but nothing more than a strangled moan escaped. He was in agony. It was not physical agony, but emotional agony. He had been back on Earth for just over a week now, and it was the first time he really, really had a chance to see the devastation wrought. When he looked at Tara, the Tiger-woman took a step back, her hands going to her mouth.

Otres, having scampered down from his seat with Ra’naa. Small he may be, he was very agile and had no trouble climbing up the side of Declan’s Brute. He stood on his hind legs and gently took Declan’s tear-streaked face in both of his hands and stared into the distraught man’s eyes.

***

April 30th, 2668: The Compound

A slight knocking came from the large doors and Martin Travis looked up from the report he had been studying. “Enter!”

A technician, escorted by a pair of the elite guards, entered the room. He was pale-faced and sweating profusely and there was a nervous tick above his left eye. He walked up to the desk, taking small, nervous steps, acting like a timid animal approaching a dangerous predator.

Martin placed the report on this desk and clasped his hands in front of him. He wore no expression on his face other than mild curiosity. “You have something to report?”

The nervous technician gulped and licked his suddenly dry lips. His Adams apple bobbed up and down as he tried to form words. Finally, after a supreme effort of will, he managed to speak. “Sir, we have lost the satellite. All our access codes have been locked out and there is no way we can re-establish control.”

“I see,” Martin Travis replied in a calm, casual voice. Inside the leader of the Purists was seething with rage. He was having a great deal of difficultly keeping himself from leaping out of the desk to personally punish the technician. He refrained from doing so, however. There were two reasons. First, it took a great deal of time and effort to train men to use the high-tech equipment. They were far more valuable than the myriad of shooters that made up the bulk of the forces under his control.

Secondly? He needed to change the outlook of his troops and people. For far too long they had maintained control through brutality and fear. As with his other changes, especially allowing women to join the ranks, this one was new and radical.

He stood and the man visibly cringed. “Return to your duties and continue trying to re-establish contact with the satellite,” He waved to the guards.  “Return to your posts.”

The technician stood there, blinking rapidly and looking confused. This was by far the best possible outcome he could have hoped for, and it showed. “Th… th… thank you, sir.”

Martin nearly burst out laughing, despite the rage bubbling just beneath the surface. He nodded, not trusting his voice. The last thing he needed to do was to show humor.

Bowing deeply, the technician backed out of the room, followed by the two guards. One paused only long enough to look back at Martin, to see if he had a chance of heart. Martin ignored him and picked up the report he had been reading. Shrugging, the guard closed the door, leaving the leader of the Purists to his thoughts.

Martin had read the same paragraph at least a half-dozen times before he sighed and gave up. With a casual flick of his wrist, he tossed the report onto the top of his desk and leaned back in his seat. He reached up with his left hand and squeezed the bridge of his nose, feeling the tension and the underlying anger.

Sighing, he closed his eyes. “Guardian?”

“Yes, Martin,” The AI replied instantly.

“Have you had any luck with tracing the location of the hack?”

“Negative, sir, although I have narrowed down the possible geographical location.”

Martin opened his eyes and sat up in his chair, adrenaline filling his veins. That was far more than he had expected to hear. “Really?” He asked, feeling foolish. Before the AI could reply, he ordered. “Guardian, display the location on the main screen, please.”

“Working,” the AI responded. A second later, the huge monitor came to life and it showed the coastal region of the Pacific North West. The ruined cities of Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria were outlined, but they were not what he was interested in. Off to the east of the coast, he could see a large area highlighted in blue, distinguishing it from the rest of the map. It was a section of the Rocky Mountains, stretching from the former border separating British Columbia from Washington. It stretched up nearly until it touched the former state of Alaska. The strip was narrow, only about a kilometer wide, but was hundreds upon hundreds of kilometers long.

He shook his head, feeling a wave of disappointment wash over him. “That’s a pretty big area,” he commented dryly.

“Indeed, sir,” Guardian replied dutifully. “However, as you already know, this strip was known as the Rocky Mountain Shield, before cessation of hostilities.”

Martin laughed and shook his head. He knew Guardian was being too literal minded. Sure, the cessation of hostilities meant the end of the final wars - too much damage had been inflicted on all combatants to continue. The Rocky Mountain Shield stretched all the way from the Mexican border, far to the south, all the way up to the very tip of Alaska. It was designed to intercept all manner of hostile attacks, from enemy missiles, to aircraft and drones. Nothing was supposed to be able to get past the overlapping fields of fire. It had worked, surprisingly well, until computer hackers had managed to infiltrate the various AI’s and systems, effectively shutting down the wall. In shutting it down, opened the installations to attacks from all sources.

The highlighted section of the mountain range had been seeded with fifty-seven missile and laser batteries. Most were automated, although several of the facilities had been manned by either Androids or Robotic units. As far as he knew, they had all been destroyed at one point or another during the final wars. He said as much.

“I have calculated a percentile on the likelihood of any of the facilities surviving the final wars. Several had been constructed deep within the mountains themselves, and these are the most likely candidates.” On the screen, five red dots appeared, each had a percentage listed above. They were spread out along the mountains, but one in particular caught Martin’s attention. It was a lot closer than he would have suspected, being several hundred kilometers to the north. It had the highest probability of survival out of the five listed, with only a 43% chance.

Martin walked up and tapped his finger on the nearest of the targets. “Guardian, I think this is our most likely candidate.”

There was a discernable pause but finally the AI replied. “I will assume it is one of your usual gut feelings?”

Martin nodded. “Right on the money.”

***

April 30th, 2668: Edge of the Vancouver Ruins

Declan, look at me, Otres ordered, holding the pilot’s face between his palms.

He tried, he really tried, but the sense of loss was too overpowering. Declan shook his head, trying to dislodge the Otter’s little paws, but the Uplift held on, refusing to relent.

I know you’re in pain, Otres thought, projecting his mind into the turmoil which threatened to destroy Declan’s. You are with your friends, and your lover is here. We want to help you, don’t give in!

That struck him and helped Declan get a toehold over his raging emotions. “Friends?” He managed to say, although his mouth was dry and his tongue felt four times its usual size. He blinked and saw Babs’ avatar, standing on the ground, looking up at him. The fear was clearly written on her face and her big ears were drooping low, showing her concern.

Yes, your friends, including me, you know, the squeak toy? Otres even chirped and squeaked for him.

Tears blurred his vision, but he tried to focus on the little Uplift. “You consider me a friend?” He managed to ask, his voice however, held doubt.

Otres squeaked and gave Declan a toothy grin. I’m still getting to know you, but you seem like a nice enough guy

He could clearly see Babs. For once, the AI had nothing smarmy to say. She stood, just watching, her face concerned. Declan reached out and ran his hand down Otres back, not really sure what to do. “Thanks, Otres.”

“Are you going to be alright?” Ra’naa asked. She too, looked concerned.

Declan could not stop the tears and he had a very difficult time speaking, but he nodded slowly. “I… I think so.”

“Should we stop and take a break?” Tara asked. She was standing beside the Brute and had to reach up, but she was gently stroking his leg. “Do you need some time?”

Declan shook his head. “If we stop,” he managed to say, “Let’s do it later. I don’t want to be looking at the ruins.”

“I’ll ride with you,” Tara said in a tone that allowed no disagreement. She was already reaching up to pull herself onto the back of the Brute and she settled herself behind him. She sat side-saddle and wrapped her arms around his waist, hugging him tightly.

Ra’naa steered Zeus over and Otres leapt deftly from one Brute to the other. “Are you ready then?”

Still not trusting his voice, he nodded.

The group rode in silence, but Tara hugged him tightly and planted tender kisses on his neck, cheek and ears. For once the attention was not purely sexual; instead it was clear the Tiger-woman was attempting to comfort him.

Babs watched, walking alongside the Brutes as they travelled. “Doc, you’re seriously losing it,” she said, not unkindly.

I know, believe me, I know. I don’t know how to control it. He admitted, but refrained from shrugging. Instead he placed his arms over Tara’s and held them tightly against his stomach. Though the fur was damp, he could still feel her heat. It’s really bothering me, too.

“How so?” Babs asked.

I’ve seen death before. You and I have watched entire task-forces go up in smoke. Do you remember when the ChiFed’s dropped those kinetic weapons on fleet base?

She nodded. “All too well. The end body-count from that battle alone was nearly forty thousand, and most of those were civilian contractors and their families.”

I was angry when I saw the crater and the ruins, Declan thought, still seeing the scar on the Martian landscape. I was sad about the loss of life, especially the non-combatants. The ChiFeds had no right to drop those rocks on the base. They knew how close the contractors housing was.

“And our own government was stupid to have built the housing so close. They knew the track record the ChiFeds had.”

We certainly never targeted their civilian population centers; he thought back, the sorrow beginning to wane, to be replaced by anger. He was about to continue when he noticed Otres was staring back at him.

The little Otter’s head tilted at an angle, the curiosity evident in his big eyes. He chirped and chittered. Are you talking to someone?

No, Declan lied, I’m just thinking about things I saw in the years before I was lost to cryonic suspension.

Otres continued to stare at him for several seconds. I’m a little worried about you. You’re taking this really hard. I grew up in this world, and it’s my home, so I can’t imagine what you’re feeling right now.

You got that right, Declan thought, I wish you could have seen what it was like. Your ability to fix anything, you would have been a billionaire.

Otres shrugged. I have no need for money, all I want is food, a warm place to sleep, a nice pond or river to swim in, and the love of my friends. Why would I want anything else?

“Declan, when we stop, let’s slip away,” Tara breathed into his ear. “I’ll help take your mind off the ruins.”  Her hand slid down his belly and over his crotch.

He sighed, not from desire, but from his utter lack of interest. Maybe it would help, maybe it would not. Declan was not sure. He considered pulling her hand away, but after gentle rubbing and no response, she moved her hand back up to his chest. For once, the Tiger-woman appeared to understand.

Babs watched and she nodded her approval, not at the lack of response, but what Tara was trying to do. “Doc, go ahead and fuck her brains out. It will help your mind back in the game. After all, you’re a fighter jock, the elite of the elite, seeing some ruins shouldn’t fuck you up like it has. You’re acting like a maroon!”

What would you know about sex and relaxation? You’re just an AI!

Her smile never wavered, but she winked.

What the hell did that mean?

***

April 30th, 2668 South of the ruins of Vancouver

As the kilometers and hours slipped past, Declan gradually felt his emotions calm and return to some semblance of normal. He had to laugh internally – what was normal for him? He and Babs had continued to talk, she performing one of her many duties. She held the programs and files to help him on a psychological level, and talking it out, discussing his feelings, was part of the process.

Otres kept looking back at him, the look of curiosity growing steadily on the Otter’s furry face. Declan knew, he just knew the little Uplift either suspected about Babs, or had a pretty good idea what was happening. Would Otres speak up about it? Would he confront Declan about it? The pilot did not know. He realized that eventually he would have to tell the rest about Babs. The thought of doing so to Tara - that was a real kicker. How would the Tiger-woman react? She had a volatile temper and was prone to making snap judgements and reactions without putting any thought into it. Then again, he had known plenty of women like that back before the final wars destroyed everything.

He would burn that bridge when he came to it.

Since they had circumvented the ruins of Vancouver, the trail they were following continued to parallel the ancient highway. The land around them was filled with ruins. Some of the structures were nothing more than misshapen heaps, almost completely overgrown by the temperate rain-forest. Others were still in relatively decent shape, and even more were homes and even a few businesses.

They also passed quite a few travellers. Some were clearly hunters or fishers, or those who toiled in the forests. Others were traders, using old fashioned carts or wagons drawn by strange beasts, some were equine in appearance, others – Declan could not figure out.  Those people who wished to talk were politely but firmly turned away.

The sight of so many different people helped Declan. He felt the sorrow and fear of the earlier day drain away. There were humans, mutated humans, some Uplifts and even some of the Damaged.

When the light finally began to fade, the party took a side-trail off the road and travelled for about half an hour into the forest. They steered clear of any signs of habitation or settlements. They found a small clearing near a swiftly-moving brook and dismounted. It only took a few minutes to get their camp set up and despite the nearly non-stop drizzle, Declan had a fire going.

“I’m going to look after the Brutes,” Ra’naa announced without preamble. “Otres, mind giving me a hand?”

He bobbed up and down and together, she led Zeus and the other Brutes a little ways off from the camp, so they could get their fill of water. Declan found himself alone with Tara. He was still getting used to the sight of the Tiger-woman’s new appearance. She looked more like a cross between a human and a Black Panther, now the dye from the Ambusher had settled in. She was still beautiful, of that there was no doubt.

Tara came over to him and wrapper her arms around him and kissed him very tenderly. The heat and passion was there, but it was tempered by something more than simple lust. “Are you feeling better?” She asked when she broke the kiss.

Declan nodded. “A little. I need to man up and get over it, this is my world now, and there is no going back to the past.”

She studied his face and eyes, searching for something. “I can help you settle in.”

He nodded. “You’ve helped a great deal,” he admitted.

Tara let go and stepped back. She began to undress.

Declan hesitated for only a heartbeat before he did the same.

This time the sex was far gentler than it had been before. He was reminded of Kate and for only an instant he felt a hot flash of shame. Normally Tara was quite insistent about achieving her own orgasm before she would consider letting Declan do so. This time around she worked her magic and brought him to a quick and hot climax. When he was spent, she lay on top of him, a soft purring rumbling in her chest.

“Declan?”

He stroked her back, letting his fingers run through the soft fur. “What is it?”

“Feel better now?”

“Yes.”

“Good,” she smiled and climbed off. As she was standing, she muttered something that Declan could not quite make out what she said.

Babs, who had been silent the entire time, suddenly appeared, staring aghast at the woman. She turned to Declan and shook her head in disbelief.

What? He asked.

“She just said, and I quote, I love you.”

Declan felt like he had been kicked in the stomach. No woman, except his mother - and she did not count, had ever muttered those words to him.

They dressed quickly. Declan was doing up the last button on his shirt when Otres and Ra’naa returned. She was carrying a bag that moved feebly in the light. Declan nodded towards the sack. “What’s that?”

Ra’naa grinned at him and then upended the bag on the ground. Several small items flashed in the fire-light. “Walkers,” she said. “Fried up, they taste great!”

He stepped closer and looked down at the flopping figures on the ground. “Wait, those are salmon?” He asked incredulously, and he leaned even closer still to get a better look. They were salmon, but they looked young. Each was about thirty centimeters in length and maybe six wide. The mouths were open and they were gasping, but he could not see any sign of gills. Then he noticed the fins were not in fact fins at all – they were shaped more like hands or feet. He recoiled in disgust. “I’m not eating that!”

Otres looked up at him and met Declan’s eyes. You already have, several times.

“I have?” Declan blinked and rubbed his mouth with one hand.

Indeed. Several of the meals you ate at the hospital were these, just cleaned and fried, like we’re going to do. He squeaked and held up a handful of mushrooms. These will add even more flavor and besides Otres grinned toothily. It’s good for you!

Declan thought back as Tara helped Ra’naa begin with the skinning and gutting process. He did remember eating some excellent Salmon while he was still recovering. It never occurred to him he could be eating some sort of toxin-twisted mutation.

“Stop that!” Ra’naa scolded and slapped Tara’s hand. The Tiger-woman laughed and quickly stuffed another piece of raw fish into her mouth and chewed noisily. Ra’naa rolled her eyes but there was still a smile on her lips.

“Go on, Doc, eat it. You know it won’t kill you, and you did like it,” Babs said. Her avatar was standing just on the edge of the fire-light, and she had her back towards him. She was scanning the darkness, taking in all the details his conscious mind was missing. If she saw something amiss, she would alert him.

“You’re right,” Declan said a second later. “I’ll eat it, it’s difficult thinking about where it came from, that’s all”

In less than an hour they were enjoying the fresh land-walking salmon and mushrooms. Declan found he really did enjoy the meal after all. Then again, maybe it had something to do with how close Tara was sitting. She was leaning against him, her tail wrapped possessively around his waist. Throughout the meal she would use any excuse to touch him. She was smiling far more than he had ever seen her do, and it was as if her entire personality had changed.

It kind of bothers me, the way she’s acting, He mentally told Babs.

“It’s certainly not her normal manner, that’s for sure Doc.” She commented. She too was sitting, but across from him, next to Otres. Her ears were fully erect and she kept scanning the surroundings. “I’ve gone over a lot of the data I’ve accumulated since you first met her.”

And?

Babs shrugged. Just then Tara leaned in and kissed his cheek and then nuzzled his neck. A soft, low purr was rumbling through her the entire time. She took the last of the fish and offered it to him, and when he opened his mouth, she popped it in. Her plate clean, she placed it on the ground and put her arm around him and leaned her head on his shoulder.

She really is quite feline in nature. Her temperament, how she can go from mood to mood in a single second, and how possessive she is. I have never seen her parents, or heard her talk about them. Judging from what I know about felines, you are her mate, period!

Declan felt distinctly uncomfortable with that thought. He was young – if you did not count the years he spent in cryonic suspension. Before the incident, he had dozens of lovers. He had not wanted to settle down. Then again, he never had found the right woman either. All the girls he had known were one-night stands who were into him either for his enhanced member, or the thrill of fucking a pilot.

Ra’naa watched them, a slight smile on her lips. She stood up and went over to the saddle-bags they had removed from the Brutes. Opening one, she removed four glass bottles and handed one to both Tara and Declan.

He twisted the cap off his bottle and took a swig of the beer. It was good, damn good, and tasted unlike anything he had ever drank in the far distant past.

Oh, and Doc?

What? He asked as he took another long pull from the bottle.

I think she’s pregnant.      

***

April 30th, 2668 South of the ruins of Vancouver

Wrench stood well beyond the firelight of the small camp, his arms crossed under his chest as he leaned against an ancient tree. He was still clad in his black armor and was wearing the helmet. Powered by a tiny power cell, the helmet had several different vision modes. Currently he was using the light-intensification mode, which allowed him to see the entire scene as if it was high-noon.

The people he had been sent to intercept and meet with were chatting away, enjoying a meal. He could not smell the food, due to the helmet, but his mouth watered none the less. He was getting hungry and would need to eat soon.

It was strange, watching the two Exotics, one human and the Uplift. He never had seen such a mixture before.  The exception was the surveillance video’s the installation routinely used to keep tabs on their neighbours. Watching their interaction was intriguing, to say the very least. He never personally had spoken to a non-human or one of the many offshoots of the parent species.

He yawned and instinctively reached up to cover his mouth, when he realized the futility of the gesture. Exhaustion had set in hours ago, and he needed rest to recharge. The journey from the encounter with the Purists had been long and arduous, but thanks to his Hover-Glider, he made record time. It also allowed him to stay away from potential danger as he skimmed just over the tree-tops. Many times he had to land to avoid potential witnesses, and those stops were much needed and welcome breaks.

Turning away from the firelight, he stealthily made his way back to his hidden vehicle. Upon landing he had secured the Hover-Glider under an electronic camouflage tarp. The old military technology allowed the complete diffuse of electronic emissions and other potential tell-tale signals. It used hidden cameras and nanotech projectors to perfectly match the surrounding landscape, rendering it invisible. If it was not for the miniature transponder, even he would have been hard-pressed to find it again.

Lifting one end of the tarp, he slid under to get some badly needed nourishment and sleep.

***

April 30th, 2668: The Compound

Bradly Travis felt the rivulets of sweat pour down his naked torso as he worked out all of his rage and frustration on the heavy bag. The training room in the compound was massive, and could easily accommodate over a hundred men at any time, but it was currently empty. As he landed blow after blow on the hapless bag, he screamed out his rage and frustration.

He had been pounding on the bag ever since they had returned from what should have been a walk in the park. He knew his father was fuming at the loss of good men. Instead of getting angry and taking it out on his son, he only shrugged and chalked it up to the inevitable losses.

Martin had hugged his only son and told him to go use the gym. Take out his anger by working as hard as he could. Bradly knew there would be a woman waiting, keeping his bed warm once he was finished. He also knew he had to get every last iota of anger out of his system before he saw her, otherwise she might pay the price for his failure. His father had always been very clear about what would happen to any man if any of the women were ever physically harmed. Bradly’s knuckles were covered in blood and each hit sent daggers of pain through his fists, forearms and bicep muscles.

It was a small price to pay for his perceived failure. Where the mysterious man had come from was unknown. None of the mutants or other sub-humans in the village had possessed anything even remotely close to the tech the man displayed.

Or was it tech? Maybe the man was using some sort of genetic mutation to disappear like he had. Bradly did not know, nor did he care. He slammed the heavy bag one more time with his fist and then launched a powerful side-kick into it. The bag doubled in on itself where he connected, but it did not split open.

He put his blood-covered hands on his knees and panted. Sweat poured off his face, dripping so hard and fast onto the floor it was almost like rain. He shook his head like a dog trying to shake water from its coat and finally stood up.

Could the man have been part of the Exotic’s group? He had no idea. Somehow, he figured that had to be the case. There was something about the whole ambush which did not sit well with him.

It was a terrible blow losing the men, and it was almost as bad losing all the humans they had liberated from the village. He figured at least half of the humans would have turned out to be mutants, and as such they would have to be put down. Still, though, with enough motivation, he was sure the at least a few of the remainder would have been potential recruits.

All that was required was the correct training and education.

Finally, his rage was spent. He knew he could deal with the loss and humiliation without lashing out towards any of the men, nor would the woman waiting for him suffer. Bradly stepped into the showers and cleaned his body and then spent twenty minutes cleaning and bandaging his knuckles.

He dressed and made his way towards his private residence, already feeling a powerful erection. The air was cool and invigorating, with the rain coming down. There was a slight wind blowing through the compound and it carried the scent of cooking. His stomach rumbled and he was not quite sure what he wanted more, sex or food.

Both would be welcome.

“Commander?” A voice called out.

He was rather shocked to hear the distinctive feminine quality. He turned and saw a young woman, no more than seventeen or eighteen, wearing the uniform of a recruit. She was standing in the rain, only a few meters away.

“Yes?”

“Two things commander,” she began. “First, your father wants you to get a good night rest, if possible. He is sending you to Seattle tomorrow.”

Bradly nodded. He had been expecting this. “Go on,” he prompted.

She did not meet his eyes. “And I’m to be yours for night, and if you are willing, I will come with you to Seattle, to keep your urges satisfied and warm your bed.”

He looked at her, really looked at her this time. She was young, but she had deep brown eyes, full lips and a pert nose. Her face was fine-boned and she was quite attractive. She was small, barely one hundred and seventy centimeters in height, but now he was looking at her, she was oh so feminine. “What is your name?”

“Becky Sanders.”

“Well recruit Becky Sanders, it all depends on just how good you are in bed.”

She smiled at him, some of the shyness washed away. There was a gleam in her eye he found – intriguing. “Commander Bradly, I spent several years in the brothels of Scav Haven. I will do things you could only imagine.”

He grinned wickedly. “I’ve got quite the imagination.”