Buck Who? Chapter 16

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 16: City of Scav’s

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

At hearing Babs statement, Declan spewed the beer he was drinking out his nose and began choking and coughing. Tara immediately began to pat his back as he fought to regain his ability to breathe. When he was finally able to draw a proper breath, he saw Babs literally rolling on the ground, laughing.

“Declan, what happened?” Tara was practically shouting, holding him by the shoulders. Her eyes were pools of fright.

Strangely enough, it touched him deeply. “Just…” he coughed and spat, then reached up and wiped the snot and beer from his nose and face. “Went down the wrong way,” he gave her a sheepish grin. Mentally, he grimaced. Babs, what the fuck are you talking about?

The AI’s avatar continued to laugh as Tara handed him a cloth and she fussed about, trying to help him clean up the mess. Ra’naa and Otres watched in amusement, saying nothing as he cleaned up.

Thanks a lot, smartass! He mentally grumbled when he finally got his face cleaned and he could breathe without pain. You did that on purpose!

“Doc, I’m serious! She’s fawning over you, she said she loves you, and her whole demeanor changed. The two of you have been bumping uglies so much, it was inevitable. She’s pregnant!”

Instead of replying, he turned to face the Tiger-woman. Even with her fur as black as pitch, he could still make out the lines of her face and the shape of her eyes. Then there were those magical, tantalizing lips. “Sorry, just did something stupid, drank and tried to take a breath at the same time.”

The concern was still evident as they sat down and she molded her body next to his. Her breath was hot and sweet-smelling on his face as she buried her face in the side of his neck and the purring resumed.  “Are you sure that’s all?” She asked softly.

Declan nodded. “Yeah, it’s just been one hell of a day, that’s all.”

Ra’naa came over and handed him another bottle. “You know, I can always let you use Zeus. He can take you back to the community if you’re not up for the rest of the trip.”

He met the Exotic’s eyes and held them. For the second time in only minutes he was touched by the concern the other woman showed him. Sighing, he put his arm around Tara’s waist and slid his hand under her shirt, feeling the warm and soft fur as he rubbed her side. “I have to learn to deal with this, or I’m going to be nothing but an emotional wreck. I don’t want to be a burden on you.”

Ra’naa mulled over his words and finally nodded. “The offer stands, if you want to go back home.”

I agree with Ra’naa, Otres chimed in. He squeaked and scampered over to him. The little Uplift put his paws on Declan’s knees and stared into his eyes with the same intensity. I like you being with us, but if you don’t think you can handle it…

“No, seriously, I need to do this. Otherwise, you might as well just kill me now and be done with it.”

Tara pulled away and looked horrified. “You can’t die!”

He almost laughed but he held back. Before, he would have, but it was not right. “Why?” He asked, deciding to take a shot, to see what her answer would be.

“I love you, that’s why!”

The bottle of beer slipped from his fingers and landed on the ground with a soft thunk.

“See Doc? I told you that’s what she said!”

***

May 1st, 2668: The Compound

The Mercedes was still out of commission, and it would remain so until they could secure replacement parts. It rankled Bradly to no end he was unable to bring his baby with him. He loved to travel in style, and the presence of the vehicle was as much for show as it was a status symbol. It showed the commoners and the other people who inhabited Scav Haven the wealth and power possessed by the Purists.

Anything to help their cause. The commoners and others were always drawn to power, to wealth and the potential of wealth. It would go a long way to help them recruit even more men from the rank and file of pure humans. There were a lot of mutants and other genetic deviants in the city, and that was unfortunate, but it was a certainty they would find more recruits.

The company which, for all intent, was owned Scav Haven had a very strict policy about violence inside the walls of the city. Anything in the ruins was fair game, outside the walls of the city; they had patrols and had hired the Legion to act as guards. Outside the city wall, it was still possible to engage in acts of violence, but you had to be careful. Once word got to the patrols, they would deal with the offenders – permanently. It did not matter who started it, both sides would be summarily attacked and executed. This ensured the peace was maintained.

It would be very difficult not to pull the trigger on every mutant they encountered. Despite the power and wealth they controlled, it was nothing compared to the might the scav companies and cartels.

He was proud of the fact his people, the Purists, possessed many suits of powered armor.

The scavenger cartels? Every single soldier patrolling the streets wore powered armor. To take them on would be suicide. He and his father had discussed the possibility of recruiting the pure humans in the company, and he was to do his best to try. It did not seem very likely to succeed however. He was willing to try – there had to be humans who disliked or outright hated the mutants. They would not be too hard to draw out.

What really bothered him however was he needed to figure out, or have Guardian process it, a way to reduce the Legion’s effectiveness. If the mutants and other genetic deviants could hire the Legion to defend their communities, the purge would turn out to be a hell of a lot harder than anyone had anticipated.

Bradly secured the last buckles and double-checked his suit was carrying a full charge. All system diagnostics were in the green and every weapon system held a full-load out.

Becky Sanders, who had relieved his tensions the night before, was inspecting the exterior of his armor. “All set, sir?” She asked.

He nodded and tucked the helmet under his arm. He could still feel her wetness wrapped around him and her sweet taste lingered on his lips. She had been good, very good. He had to admit she had been the best woman he had ever bedded. She would make the journey and stay in Seattle a hell of a lot more pleasant, that’s for sure. “Yes, let’s mount up.”

They were taking three full squads with them on the trip. A lot of raw resources had to be obtained, and they were also planned to recruiting as many able-bodied pure humans as possible. Every day a handful of new recruits trickled into the compound, but for the war they were planning, it was not enough, not by a longshot.

He climbed into the front of the lead truck and closed the door. The driver waited only for a few seconds to ensure all passengers were aboard before finally turning over the engine and putting the ancient vehicle into drive.

Bradly placed the helmet on his head and secured it. Once ready, he turned on his external sensor suite and linked into the command line, putting him on the same frequency as all the troops under his command.

“Keep your eyes open,” he demanded. “Many of the genetic deviants are looking to get revenge for our attacks, so expect at least one or more ambushes on the way,” he paused and took a breath. “I don’t want any losses on the way out, or the way back. We are to bring home as many new recruits as possible.”

A chorus of affirmative’s and yes sir’s came back. Satisfied, he nodded to the driver, who deftly brought the vehicle through the compound’s gates and into the wilderness beyond.

***

May 1st, 2668: Between Vancouver and Seattle

Thankfully the night was uneventful, although cold and wet. Declan had taken first watch, and had remembered the lesson hard won from the other night. Bab’s kept watch with him, using her superior computing capability to spot what he could not. There had been plenty of animals, some regular, some mutated, which had stopped and observed the camp. None of the creatures approached anywhere near the light, preferring to stay hidden in the dark.  She used her ability to manipulate what he saw so he could make the creatures out once they were spotted.

Still, it was peaceful and when he woke Ra’naa for her turn, Tara was waiting for him. She was sound asleep, but when he climbed into the sleeping furs with her, she hugged him tightly and buried her face in his neck.

“I still can’t get over the change in her,” Babs commented. She had been sitting next to him and the Tiger-woman, staring down. “Talk about becoming clingy. It probably has to do with her being pregnant.”

Declan held Tara’s arms., and she mumbled something in her slumber, then sighed contently and ran her hand up and down his chest and stomach. I can’t believe she is in love with me. There is no way! We’ve barely known each other for a week now.

Babs picked at her fingernails, examining the cuticles. “She’s a woman. We’re fickle creatures and despite being an AI, I do believe in love at first sight. That has to be the case here.” She turned away from her fingers and looked into the night sky. “Then again, once she gets to know you, she might castrate you!”

Hah hah, very fucking funny. He ran his hands up and down her arm, feeling the silky fur beneath his fingers. She wiggled in closer and he could feel her breasts pushing against his back. How am I supposed to react if she really loves me?

Babs looked at him as if he was something nasty, which had just crawled out from under a log. “You really need to ask? Love her back!”

He stifled the snort. Easy for you to say. I just met her and to be blunt, the way she acts is really starting to rankle me. I don’t know if I could stay with a woman like her for more than a few weeks.

Laughing, Babs stood above him and stared down. “You’re one to talk, Doc! You can be a real winner sometimes. It has driven me nuts the way you fuck them and leave them!”

Declan was starting to get annoyed so he changed the subject. She can’t be pregnant, we’ve only been together for just over a week now, Declan protested. It’s way too soon for her to show any signs of pregnancy.

“I’m a woman, I know these things,” Babs countered.

Babs, you’re an AI, not a real woman. Declan declared. He instantly regretted the words as he thought them. The look of hurt on her avatar’s face was plainly visible. I’m sorry, Babs. You’re more than an AI, you’re my best friend.

“And I was originally programmed with the emotions and reactions of a woman. I’m nothing more than a few hundred trillion lines of code, I still am very much a woman.”

He sighed audibly, and then Tara kissed his neck, mumbled something and then hugged him even tighter.

Okay, I give up, and I’m sorry. Have you ever considered how we’re going to get you out of my head? We need to find you an android body or maybe a robotic body.

Babs looked up into the night sky, watching the slight drizzle coming down. There was a thin layer of fog covering the ground. Off to the far side Ra’naa stood watch, staring out into the darkness. “It would be nice to have some personal freedom,” she admitted. “How would I keep you from jumping every piece of ass you came across though?”

He chuckled in his mind and Then turned to face the Tiger-Exotic. She moved with him, molding her body so they were comfortably intertwined. He then began to stroke Tara’s hair and face. She smiled in her sleep. From what I understand, there are plenty of scavengers, selling all manner of goods they found in the ruins. Maybe we can find you a nice, sexy pleasure android’s body. Even if it’s badly damaged, maybe we could get Otres to repair it for you.

She turned back to stare at him, and there was something unreadable in her expression. What the hell was it? He wondered without putting the thoughts into words. Was it desire? Was it longing? It was all but impossible to tell.

“Why a pleasure android?” She asked evenly, the expression still inscrutable. “Why not a combat model, or how about a pilot or driver’s body?”

He felt his face turn hot, knowing he was blushing. Why had he suggested that? Then it hit him. Babs, your avatar is sexy as hell, and you’ve always had a bubbly personality. It’s one of the reasons I liked you almost from the minute we were introduced. You having a body to match your mind and personality make perfect sense to me.

She had her arms crossed under her breasts and she lifted one hand to run it through the pink hair. A smile played across her lips. “So, if you find something like that, what would you say to Otres and the others? They don’t know I exist, well, except for General Ahteen that is.”

I’ve been trying to decide why I don’t want to tell them about you. Declan continued to stroke Tara’s hair. In all truth, I think I’m more afraid of how Tara would react if she discovered you’ve been riding in my head all this time. Every time we’ve had sex, it’s essentially been a threesome.

Babs scowled and let her hand drop. ”I haven’t participated, not once!”

He paused in his stroking and Tara mumbled “That’s nice, don’t stop”.

Why are you getting angry?

“I’m not!” She said almost a little too defensively.

Tara’s hand slid down his stomach and her fingers dug into his belly, not painfully, but enough for him to notice. “Would you stop fidgeting and go to sleep?” She mumbled.

“Sorry, Tara,” he replied quietly. Declan could not shake the feeling there was something far more to Babs reaction, how defensive she had become. It disturbed him and he wondered why.

***

Ra’naa was still on watch when the sun began to lighten the horizon. She was not tired in the least, although she had gotten little sleep. When it had come time to change the guard, she allowed Tara and Otres to rest.

As the sun began to add a shade of lighter grey to the clouds, she walked around and woke everyone. They rubbed sleep-filled eyes and looked about, slightly confused and even more worried they might be under attack. She reassured them all with a gentle smile and a shake of her head.

It did not take long for them to break camp. They ate a cold breakfast consisting of dried nuts and berries, as well as the remainder of the walkers they had consumed the night before. Even cold, the fish was still tasty. Water helped wash the meal down and soon they were back on the trail, continuing south towards the ruined city of Seattle.

She allowed Tara and Declan to take the lead. When it came down to it, the Brutes knew the way to the ruins and they did not have to be told or guided. She was content to sit in the rear of the small column, with Otres riding along with her.

The change which had overcome her friend was nothing short of miraculous. She was having a hard time believing the Tiger-woman, who clung possessively to Declan, was the same girl from a week ago.

“Otres?”

He yawned and looked over and up at her. He was curled up on Zeus’s back, enjoying the ride. It was still drizzling, although the clouds looked far less pregnant than they had a day ago. What is it?

“What do you make of Tara’s change in personality?”

He squeaked softly and shrugged in a very human-like manner. She has found her mate, whether he knows it or not. She will have his baby, and she’s content.

The revelation did not surprise her. She knew Tara had been saying she wanted a baby, and the way she acted. It was quite possible Tara was in fact, pregnant, but it was still too soon to tell. “I wonder how he feels about it?”

He’s young, and like all young men, he wants to bed as many women as possible. He did have sex with Kate, after all.

Ra’naa looked down at him sharply. “How do you know?”

He squeaked and chittered, giving her a sharp-toothed grin. I could see it in her mind. She screwed him hard, and it was all to get back at Tara for her trying to take Jas’nar.

She considered the ramifications of the other woman’s actions. What if it turned out Declan had impregnated her as well? If that happened, maybe Jas’nar would just assume it was his. Ra’naa blew out her cheeks and ran her fingers through her damp hair. “This is stupid.”

I agree.

The day passed quickly and by mid-afternoon, they had turned away from the interior of the coastline. The group was now within visual range of the outskirts of the ruins of Seattle. They stopped at an old campground, one which was still being used by travellers going to and from the ancient ruins. No one was there when they finally came to a halt. As one, Ra’naa, Tara and Otres turned to face Declan.

“Are you ready for this?” Ra’naa asked. Her tone was soft, and her face was filled with concern and compassion.

Declan took a deep breath and held it for a count of ten. He let it out slowly and closed his eyes, trying to center his emotions. “Yeah, I think I am.”

“It’s not too late to turn back,” Tara said. She reached out and took his hand in hers. Her big eyes open and staring.

“No, I’m good. It won’t be easy, but I think the initial shock of seeing the ruins has finally worn off. There is only one way to be sure though.”

With that, they turned and began to travel towards the coast and the ruins of the once-magnificent city of Seattle.

***

May 1st, 2668: Scav Haven

The road leading up to the gated walls surrounding Scav Haven were lined with stalls, makeshift shops and all manner of people. Humans, Damaged, Humanoids, Exotics and others, including the rarely seen Gaian’s were in abundance. Most were milling about, hawking their wears or bartering for this or that. The entire stretch of ancient highway leading up to the city was filled with life, laughter, and more than a few curses and shouts.

Wrench had left his Hover-Glider carefully hidden away and was making his way on foot into the city. His last contact with the Installation had confirmed he had passed Ahteen and her friends. He made it to the city about three hours ahead of them.

Few of the people he passed paid him any attention, other than to offer some exotic food. Some tried to call him over to inspect the latest discoveries, pulled from the ruins of Seattle Megaplex only hours before. He ignored them all, not wanting to draw attention.

Several times he passed men and women, standing at attention, looking like the robotic units, which could still be found in the ruins. They were members of the Legion, hired by the Scav Cartels to provide muscle and security for the people who lived both in and outside the walls. They were impressive, standing in their various suits of powered armor, some bristling with all manner of weapons, others appearing unarmed.

Wrench knew better.

Even unarmed, those in the powered armor could do incredible damage, typically killing even armored foes with their hands and feet. He knew it was in his best interest to keep out of contact with the guards and not to draw attention to himself.

That would not be a problem. It was a typical early spring day and as such the sky was overcast and the rain was coming down. He really could not call it a rain as per such – it was more of a heavy drizzle. He had changed out of his armor and was now wearing a multi-pocketed, black leather jacket with a hood, which he kept covering his head. A pair of old sunglasses hid his eyes and there was several days’ growth of beard on his face. The beard was strange – at the installation, he had always kept his face clean shaven and his hair short. It itched incessantly, but he knew he could get used to it.

Wrench walked up to the gate and ignored the sign, which hung over the entrance. It listed all the rules and regulations the inhabitants had to follow. Several men and women stood at the entrance, including two armored guards. A pair of heavy-weapon mounts was pointed at the narrow choke-point to the city.

“Halt,” demanded a woman. She was clearly a mutant, with four eyes and a pair of pointed ears. Her hair was a shocking emerald-green and appeared to move on its own accord. The hand she held up had only three thick fingers, each ending in black-tipped claws. “State your business.”

“I’m here to do some trading,” he said cryptically. It was the most common answer anyone coming to the city would provide. What they traded for was their business, no one else. He was careful to keep his tone neutral but respectful.

“Show me your coin,” the woman insisted. She stepped forward and stared at his hooded face. “Remove your hood.”

That surprised him. Most of the time they were only interested in ensuring those who entered the city had the coin or goods to trade. If you had neither, you did not get entrance. Why though, would she want to see his face? With a mental shrug, he reached up and pulled back his hood.

The Emerald-haired woman stared at his face and then looked at the others with her. After a second she nodded. “Your coin?”

He left the hood down and reached into pocket, sewn into the lining of his leather jacket. He pulled out a small bag and opened it to reveal dozens of diamonds and other precious gemstones. “Does this meet your entrance requirement?”

The woman nodded and held out her hand.

He replaced the bag into the pocket and withdrew several long and thin strips of gold. He placed them in the woman’s waiting palm and they disappeared like dew before the morning sun.

“Enjoy your stay and luck to you finding what you are hunting for,” she gave him a genuine smile. “Keep your weapons holstered at all times, and remember the rules,” she jabbed a finger at the sign overhead. “Our guards will not hesitate to kill you on the spot.”

He nodded and then reached up and reseated his hood. “I understand.”

A second later, the guards stepped aside and allowed him into the city proper.

***

May 1st, 2668: Scav Haven

It was hard, very hard for Declan to look upon the ruins of the Seattle megaplex. He saw the skeletal structures and horrifically damaged archologies. This was well before they came close to the ruined city. He visibly stiffened and he felt his heart begin to race.

Ra’naa stopped and eyed him closely, although there was no sign of judgement on her face. She waited until he finally nodded he could continue.

They rode and soon either side of the roadway became cluttered with ruins of all manner. Most were mere hints of what they had been before the final wars. This far away from the ruins of Seattle, it was obvious they were travelling through the bedroom communities. A few of the buildings had been reconstructed or built using scavenged materials. A few of the inhabitants looked out at their passing, more curious than hostile. The people, Uplifts, Damaged and other humanoids living here were used to nearly non-stop traffic.

He watched as a family group, obvious mutants, huddle under a make-shift shelter. The oldest, a man he guessed to be in his mid to late thirties. He had a bloody bandage wrapped around his head and on the end of one of his two left arms. The clothing they wore bore the marks of fire and it was obvious they had seen combat. The woman seemed untouched, and although she only had two arms, unlike the male, it was her lower torso that caught his attention. It looked as if her legs had fused and her bottom half reminded her of a snake. They had two children, and the fates of genetic mutation had not been kind. Both, a boy and a girl, had four arms and the same snake-like lower torso. What really broke his heart however, was the look on their faces. Both children were beautiful, almost angelic with big blue eyes and golden curly hair.

It was the look of pure hatred directed towards him that struck him such a blow.

They barely looked at Ra’naa, Otres or Tara. The four stared directly at him. He could see the man and woman whispering, and she had put her hand under a blanket covering the children.

Ra’naa caught their looks and returned the stares. Finally she brought Zeus to a halt and dismounted. “Go on ahead,” she ordered Declan and the others and they complied.

***

May 1st, 2668: Approaching Scav Haven

Ra’naa approached the small family of humanoids and kept her hands out to the side, away from the weapon she had holstered at her hip. She could feel the heat of the family’s stare as she approached. The woman with the snake-like body pulled her hand out from beneath the blanket, to reveal an old, but well maintained energy pistol.

“What do you want?” The woman demanded.

“Just to talk,” Ra’naa answered. “May I come closer?”

She exchanged a glance with the man and slowly nodded, but the weapon did not waver. It was aimed at Ra’naa’s midsection, the largest part of her body. At this range, it would be difficult to miss.

“What happened to you?”

“The Purists attacked and razed our village,” the man said. He held up the bandaged stump of his upper left arm. “They attacked in the middle of the night, when most of the villagers were asleep. I was on patrol and saw them approaching, and tried to warn the villagers.” He explained. “I managed to get my family up and out, and a few of my neighbours, but that was it.”

Ra’naa knelt and studied the man’s wounded arm. Otres? She mentally called.

What is it? He replied an instant later.

Bring the medi-kit from Zeus, please.

The little Uplift had the pack and was at her side in less than a minute. She opened it and pulled out some clean and sterile bandages and the can of synthetic skin gel she had used on her wounds the previous week. She placed the items on the ground and waved at the bandaged stump. “May I?”

The man stared at her, and then looked at Declan. She could see the rage in his good eye, but he was in no position to refuse or argue. He nodded curtly and she went to work. As carefully as she could, Ra’naa removed the bandage from the stump and examined it. The flesh and muscle was torn, and the ragged stump of the bone was visible. Blood oozed slowly from the ruined appendage, but the torque was tight. She grimaced at the smell already coming from the wound. It had become infected, even if it was less than a day old. “I’m going to give you a shot for the infection, and something for the pain.” She told him.

The snake-like woman eyed her, but with a sigh, she relented. “Thank you.”

Ra’naa nodded and pulled out a hypospray and two vials. She attached one to the spray and injected it. As she removed the empty vial, the man’s posture relaxed as the pain-killers kicked in. She injected him with the second vial and put the spray away.

Is there anything I can do to help? Otres asked.

“Grab the plastic bag from the kit and hold it open,” she instructed. Ra’naa then turned her attention to the man. “I need to properly clean that wound, and get it dressed. Even with the painkiller, it’s going to hurt.”

He nodded.

She removed a bottle of rubbing alcohol and several instruments. “Take his arm and hold it steady,” she pointed at the woman. After only a moment’s hesitation, she did as requested.

The man screamed in pain as she began to clean away the dead and corrupted flesh. The two mutant children began to cry, but the woman watched without comment. Ra’naa worked quickly and soon bright red blood began to flow freely from the stump. She quickly applied the healing gel and then wrapped the stump with fresh bandages. When she was finished, she sat back on her heels and inspected the work.

“How does that feel?” She asked, gently holding the arm in her hands.

He gulped in great gasps of air and swallowed hard. After a few long moments, he found his voice. “Better than it has for a long time,” he admitted.

“The antibiotics and the chemicals in the gel will help. You should not have any issues with infection now, and the skin will grow back and cover the stump in a few days at most. Now let me take a look at that eye.”

This time there was no sign of reluctance as she removed the dirty and stained bandage from the man’s head. She felt bile as she looked at the ruined and empty eye-socket and the torn, infected flesh around his eye and forehead. “There is nothing I can do for your eye,” she said sadly.

“We figured as much, unless you happen to have some ancient regen tech with you,” The woman asked, hope in her voice.

Ra’naa shook her head. “Sorry, no chance of that,” and she set to work, cleaning the damage.

The man winced and whimpered, but he bore the pain from her ministrations with as much resolve as he could muster. She applied the soothing healing gel to the face and the empty socket and the re-wrapped his wounds.

The snake-like woman nodded her thanks. “Is there anything we can do to repay your kindness?”

“Tell me who attacked you. Tell me every last detail you can think of,” she said. By this time Tara and Declan had dismounted. The tiger-exotic was busy helping Otres clean up the discarded bandages and Declan stood to one side.

“Here, let me help,” Declan said.

When he approached to offer his assistance, the woman raised her energy-pistol. “Get back, pure-blood, stay the hell away from me and my family.”

“Whoa, easy there,” he practically yelled and stepped back, his hands help up in front of him. “I’m not going to hurt you!”

Tears filled the woman’s eyes, but the weapon never wavered. “Haven’t you and your kind done enough? Damn you and all your pure-blood kind to hell!”

Tara took the medical pack and backed away. She grabbed Declan’s hand and pulled him along with her, leaving Otres and Ra’naa with the mutant family.

“He’s with me and he’s one of the good guys,” Ra’naa tried to explain, but the mutant woman would not listen.

She shook her head violently and wiped at the tears streaming down her face. “Pure bloods are all the same,” she cried. “They showed no one in the village any mercy. They killed babies for the love of god!”

Ra’naa knew the woman was inconsolable and realized there would be no reasoning with her, at least not now. “Alright, here,” she handed the woman several strips of platinum. “Take this; go find some shelter and food for you and your family in Scav Haven. We will be there for a week or so and just ask around for Ra’naa Ahteen.”

The woman looked at the offered money. It was probably more money than she had ever seen in her life. Her gaze went from the treasure to Ra’naa’s face. “Why are you doing this?”

She sighed. “Because I would hope someone would do this for me if I was in your shoes,” she said evenly. “And the war has already begun, so we’re going to need able-bodied fighters.”  Ra’naa looked at the two mutant children and their father, who was now sleeping, thanks to her ministrations and the drugs she had used. “What is your name anyhow?”

“Cassidy,” she answered. “That is my mate Aaron, and our son Martin, and our daughter Eliza.”

“Look for me in the city, and we will talk further,” Ra’naa said. Without another word, she stood and made her way over to the others.

They mounted and were just moving when the snake-like woman called out after her. “I will, Ra’naa Ahteen. I won’t forget your kindness or what you’ve done for us.”

It was all Ra’naa could hope for.

***

Once the family was out of sight, Declan shook his head. “That was… awful.”

“It started last fall and now the winter snows have passed, it’s going to get worse.” Ra’naa told him.

“And she blames me – well, humans for what happened, though I had nothing to do with it?”

She has a great deal of anger and fear, and you were the only available target for her to take it out on. Otres said.

“What the hell have I gotten myself into?” He said to no one in particular.

The closer they got to the ruins, the better Declan felt. The anxiety lessened to a degree he could cope with it, and seeing the life about him also contributed. Soon they began to pass stalls and other make-shift shops, hawking all manner of scavenged goods, as well as food and clothing. People called out as they passed, screaming what they had to offer, demanding that they stop and come to look.

Ra’naa was clearly in the lead of the group, and never did she hesitate. She ignored them and led the Brutes closer and closer to a wall. It had to be at least thirty meters in height and stretched as far as the eye could see.

Declan noticed the smell. He could detect the scent of the ocean on the breeze, as well as many other odors. The scent of cooking meat sent his mouth watering. Then he nearly gagged when they passed an open cesspit. He could imagine what the place would be like in the height of summer, with the insects and heat to help speed along the process of decomposition.

It was still raining and the road was barely passable, due in part to the amount of mud, as well as the huge pot-holes filled with water. The Brutes had little trouble though, stoically moving along.

When they were within a quarter of a kilometer from the massive main gates to the city, Declan was shocked to see bodies in cages. Others were impaled on spikes or old poles, or just heads mounted for everyone to see.

Seeing where he was gazing, Ra’naa nodded towards the nearest corpse. It was a horribly mutated man, one of the mutants known as the Damaged. He was naked and clearly dead, as several three-eyed crows were pulling at strips of flesh on the man’s face. Above the corpse was a sign which read ‘murderer’.

“The Scav Cartels hire out a group of mercenaries known as the Legion. They enforce the laws and keep the inhabitants of the city and its surroundings safe,” Ra’naa explained.

As they approached the gate, Declan studied the corpses. Most were up for pretty heinous crimes, such as rape, murder, child molestation, slavery, and so on. He did not see anyone on display for assault or theft.

“Pretty brutal way of dealing with criminals,” Babs commented. She was walking beside the Brutes, and occasionally she would walk over to study a corpse or one of the stalls set up along the road.

Yeah, that’s for sure, agreed Declan. Still, I can see it and it makes perfect sense. No real law or court system, so they have to be dealt with and pretty harshly at that.

“Let’s see –“ Babs said, stopping and staring up at the massive gates. “Punishable by death, murder, rape, child molestation, slavery, weapon smuggling, assault with the intent to kill, bringing in weapons of mass destruction, possession of nanotechnology or viral agents.”

Wait, what? Nanotech is outlawed here? Declan said with a start. I sure as shit hope that does not include banites! He paused and called out ahead. “Ra’naa!”

She looked over her shoulder. Otres stood on his hind legs and used her arm as a support as he looked back at him. “What is it?”

Declan concentrated hard and tried to project his thoughts towards Otres. When they say nanotech, are they also including biological nanotech, banites?”

Otres nodded. He understood why Declan did not want to speak aloud. The little uplift broadcast his thoughts to the small group. As far as we understand, it’s only the machine nanites, which are outlawed. Biological nanites are not quite as dangerous.

“Great,” Declan muttered under his breath and cursed. “Just fucking great.”

Before they could discuss it further, they were stopping at the gate. Several men and women were standing there, including a pair in powered armor. Declan looked at the state of the armored figures and shook his head. “They would never pass inspection,” he said to no one in particular.

“No kidding doc!” Babs agreed. “I see leaks everywhere, the power couplings are frayed. I would guess at least twenty-five percent of the suits systems are either non-functional or are working at far less than optimal peak condition.”

Declan continued to stare at the suited figures. One was wearing a suit of antiquated, even when he was still part of the military, suit of command armor. The other was wearing what looked like a cobbled together miss-mash of ChiFed suits. He shook his head in wonder, amazed how such a mess would work.

“Hey, Doc, look to the left and right,” Babs said with an audible gulp. “See what I see?”

He looked and felt his blood run cold. His heart began to beat faster and he felt a sheen of sweat suddenly coat his forehead. To either side of the entrance there were two heavy weapon emplacements. One looked like an energy projector of some type he did not recognize; the other was a multi-barreled Gatling gun.

“We better not do anything to make the gunners nervous,” Babs suggested. “I think I just peed a little.”

You and me both. Wait, talk about Deja’vu!

Ra’naa spoke with a mutant woman and then handed her a strip of what appeared to be platinum. The woman nodded and the guards stepped to the side. The two in the powered armor kept their eyes on the Brutes and their riders, but the barrels remained pointed at the ground. The woman who took the payment as well as the other guards ignored them.

Declan felt faint. His heart was still racing faster than it should and he felt another panic attack coming up. Babs, talk to me, he half-pleaded.

She looked at him, helplessly, and when she opened her mouth to speak, Ra’naa interrupted them. “Let’s dismount; they have a good stable here, so I’m going to pay to put up Zeus and the others.”

Feeling light-headed, Declan slid off the mount and landed surprisingly lightly on his feet. The Brute he had been riding for the past few days nickered softly and bumped him lightly with her head. The animal’s big, brown eyes were intelligent and she bumped his chest again.

It helped. He reached up and rubbed her soft nose and even managed a smile as the Brute licked his fingers. “Thanks for putting up with me,” he said softly.

“Good thinking, Doc!” Babs lauded.

The Brute bobbed her head up and down and gently bumped him again. “I’ll see you in a few days then,” he said.

When he looked over, Ra’naa and Otres had dismounted and were in deep conversation with the stable owner. The owner was a strange looking man and Declan could not rightly place his finger on what he saw. It was obviously male, but had a distinctly reptilian appearance. He was a little shorter than most of the humanoids around, standing at about one hundred and sixty centimeters. His hair was made up of large, leaf-like colorful scales, and his skin was likewise coated in tiny, interlocking scales. As he watched, Ra’naa handed the man several slivers of gold and the man bowed. He actually bowed to Ra’naa.

She returned the gesture and then came over to stand with him. Tara was right on her heels. “There, Zeus and his brood will be well cared for over the next week or so, depending on how long we’re going to be here.”

Tara nodded and then patted the Brute Declan had been riding. “Are we going to find some lodging for the night?” She asked.

“Yes, it’s been a long day and my ass is killing me!” Ra’naa laughed. She ran her hand over the curve of her hip and rump. Her tail was just a few centimeters off the muddy ground, enough so it would not get coated in mud or worse as they walked.

“How about some food?” Declan asked. He was really starting to feel hungry, and as he looked around, he noticed quite a variety of food vendors, as well as a few open-air eateries. It reminded him of the vendors he had seen, hawking their goods on the streets of Singapore all those years ago. The difference would be in the quality. He was quite certain there was no such thing as a health inspector in this city.

“Sounds good,” Tara grinned. “The Walker meat was good, but I want something hot and filling.”

Can we find someplace with a pool or a bath? Otres growled. I need a swim and after walking in these streets, someplace to clean up.

“We’ll find something,” Ra’naa promised. She looked around at the various stalls and buildings. There were at least four hotels within the first three blocks she could see, but they were already booked full for the night. They would have to travel deeper into Scav Haven if they were to find suitable lodgings.

Tara’s arm slid into Declan’s and she leaned into him. “You want anything specific?” She asked.

Declan pondered the question for a heartbeat before answering. “A steak. Something so bloody it moo’s when you cut into it.”

Otres looked at him in sudden shock, his eyes growing wide and his whiskers twitching. Are you for real?

“Damn right!” He managed to laugh. “Years…” he caught himself, not wanting anything to slip. “Back when I was younger, it was discovered the rarer the meat, the better it was for you.” He held up a hand and shrugged. “Don’t ask me, I just like the taste of the blood in my meat.”

I’m an uplift and I prefer my meat to be cooked. Otres squeaked and shook his head. Except for fish, I love raw fish.

“Steak it is then,” Ra’naa smiled. “I could go for some of that, and maybe some fresh greens.”

Together, they walked down the rather crowded street. The roads inside were paved, although they were still slick with moisture. Declan noticed there were trash receptacles about every fifty meters or so and there was not a single piece of refuse on the ground.

“This place is cleaner than some of the cities and stations I visited,” Declan observed.

Ra’naa nodded. “The Scav Cartels run a tight ship. Just because the ruins outside the walls are filthy and filled with all manner of danger, doesn’t mean the reclaimed section has to be.”

Declan was quiet impressed with the condition of the buildings they passed. Most were reclaimed from the ruins, and he could easily see they had begun life as single family homes. Most were now dedicated to various services and goods. He saw clothing stores by the score, electronic repairers, reclaimers and sellers, odds and ends, and numerous eateries. He nearly bumped into Ra’naa’s back when she came to a sudden halt in front of a single story structure. If Declan had to guess, it was probably a convenience store before the end of the final wars.

“Dad told me about this place,” she waved her hand at the building. It had a large sign above the front entrance showing recognizable cattle, elk and deer. There were no words or anything else on it to indicate what it was. “Best beef and meat eatery in the wastelands.”

“I wonder if they’re approved by the health board?” Babs wondered. She was standing to the side of Ra’naa and was staring up at the rain-slicked structure. She looked around and then shrugged.

Without waiting, Ra’naa walked over to the entrance and led the group into the structure. As soon as the door was opened, Declan could smell the tantalizing fragrance of cooking meet and his stomach began to rumble audibly. Tara gave him a crooked smile when she heard it. His mouth began to water because it smelled so good!

The interior of the building was filled with tables, and nearly all were filled. There was a single empty table near the back of the building, and they claimed it. All the tables were scavenged from the ruins, but were in top condition, even if they did not exactly match. Strategically placed over the entrance, the back wall and either side wall was a board. The board listed several different types of meat, including hamburgers and skewers, as well as a selection of drinks.

Nearly ten minutes passed before a human woman approached them. She was carrying a pad of paper and a pen. “Ready?” She asked without preamble.

Declan decided to go for an Elk steak, singed on the outside, with three bottles of local beer to wash it down. Otres ordered a Bison burger and water, while Tara went for something called a ‘Chance Deer Steak’ and beer as well. Finally when it was Ra’naa’s turn, she ordered four skewers and beer.

The waitress then waited as Ra’naa carefully counted out the gold chits and handed them to her. She then left with the order, telling them it would be about half an hour or so before it would be ready.

“Glad to see some things never change,” Declan grinned. “How good is the food here?”

Tara, who was sitting next to him, wrapped her tail possessively around his waist and took his hand. She looked to Ra’naa for an answer, since it was her idea to stop in this place.

“Dad has been here many times during the years. He said he was here when it first opened up and they have a great reputation for the best steak in or anywhere near Seattle. It’s expensive as hell, but worth every dime.”

Especially Chance Deer steak. Otres chimed in. He standing on the edge of his chair and leaning against the table.

Looking around, Declan noted the cliental. He saw all manner of humanoids and some obvious mutants, but the only Uplift in the place was Otres. If the other patrons had an issue with his presence, they did not voice it. He looked at the little Uplift. “Why’s that?”

The chance deer look like other white-tail deer, but when they are hunted, fate tends to favor them over the hunter.

“Uh, what?”

If a hunter does not kill one outright, then really bad things happen. These animals possess a strange mutation, one which alters reality. You would essentially call it ‘bad luck’ or ‘cursed’. Otres explained patiently.

They continued to talk quietly until their meals arrived. Declan noticed the meals were prepared exactly as ordered, but there were no side-dishes as he was used to. He considered asking about it, but decided it was not worth his time.

The food, as it turned out, was excellent. Even better than what he had enjoyed back at the community. The beer was of top quality as well. He found the food and drink were one aspect of this era he could grow used to.

Declan kept his eyes on the entrance, more out of curiosity than any sense of danger. They continued to enjoy their meals, and he watched the patrons come and go. Most were human, but there were the occasional exotic.

Those who were human came mainly from the Asian stock, and he could see many who were of Chinese ancestry. He did not know what to think about them. Back before his accident, he was a pilot who just happened to be at war with the ChiFed.

Did the enemy state still exist after all these years? He decided probably not. They clearly had suffered as much as the NorRuCom forces had.  After all, if General Ahteen was still here and had not mentioned anything about the former government…

He pushed his now-empty plate away and settled back in his chair. He was feeling full and satisfied. A grin played across his lips. He was not feeling the anxiety he had experienced earlier, although it was still lurking at the back of his mind.

The door to the eatery opened and two men, dressed in black combat armor, strode in. They had their weapons slung and their faces were visible. The gear they wore looked well-maintained and they had an obvious air about them. It was obvious they knew how to use the weapons. The men took up position on either side of the door and waited. A second later another man entered, this one wearing a suit of powered armor. He was carrying his helmet under his arms and he stared coldly at the inhabitants.

There was something about the man Declan instantly disliked. He had an arrogant vibe to him, much like many of the officers he had served with during the war. Those men and women had come from exceedingly wealthy families and they were under the belief that wealth made right.  

“Oh shit…” Ra’naa breathed suddenly. Declan looked at her and saw the Dragon-Exotic had gone a deathly shade of pale.

“What?” He asked, suddenly feeling more than a little nervous.

Tara let a string of very colorful explicative pour from her mouth and her hand dropped to the handgun she had strapped at her hip. “We need to get the fuck out of here, and right now!” She said, moving to stand up.

Otres scampered out of the room so fast it was it was as if he had teleported. One second he was there, the next second there was no sign of him. Declan and Tara both stood and did what they could to cover Ra’naa.  They made it through the room to the kitchen entrance without being spotted.

Tara pushed open the door and held it for Ra’naa and a second later, they were in the back. The cook and waitress stared at them and when the cook opened his mouth to protest, Ra’naa tossed him a gold chit.

He caught it in mid-flight and after a glance, nodded and then pointed at the rear door. They made their escape from the eatery into the streets.