Buck Who? Chapter 19

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 19: All shall be revealed

May 2nd, 2668: Scav Haven, morning

Why are you following us?  Otres repeated, staring up at the stranger in the black-leather jacket. The man looked to be in his early twenties, barely an adult. He had deep brown eyes, so dark as to be nearly black, and straight, close-cut black hair. His face was so white he could almost be an albino, like a man who never got out into the sun.

Otres’s sudden appearance did not seem to faze the man at all; he looked down at the Uplift with something akin to mild curiosity. “I’m sorry, what? You think I’m following you?”

Don’t play coy with me, Otres scolded. You’ve been following us since we left the arms dealer. I can see it in your thoughts.

Wrench, although his face remained neutral, mentally kicked himself for not maintaining his mental shields. He had grown complacent and the Uplift had wandered into his mind, and the creators only knew what he had learned.

Sensing what the man was thinking, Otres shook his head and gestured at the hotel he was sharing with his friends. Don’t think about that. My friend has you in her sights. You try to harm me; she will kill you before you knew what hit you.

He crossed his arms and grinned ever so slightly. “Really? And then you would have to deal with the Legion. You know the conflict policy they have here.”  He gazed across to the building the Uplift indicated, searching for Ra’naa. He could not see her, but he knew more than enough to realize she would not make it so obvious.

Again, why are you following us? Otres demanded.

Wrench looked down at the Otter and sighed resignedly. “I was under orders to watch you and eventually make contact. In about another ten hours, that is,” he paused and considered what to say next.  “How did you spot me?”

Otres ignored the question. Are you with the Purists?

“Those assholes? No I am not.”

Then who are you with?

“Let’s just say they are potential friends. They have been watching the atrocities being committed by the Purists, and they know about you. They know about Max Ahteen and expect he is going to lead the counter against the Purists.”

You know a lot about us. What is your name? Who are these so-called friends? Otres blinked and twitched his tail and whiskers in unison.

“I’m called Wrench,” he said dispassionately. “And let’s call my people friends for now. If they want you to know more, they will let me speak.”

“I can force you to tell us,” a silky, sultry voice breathed in his ear.

It was a testament to his training and will-power he did not jump out of his skin. He tried to look as casual as possible when he turned to face the speaker. He instantly recognized Tara. Her ability to sneak up upon him was something he had not expected.

“You can, but doing so will just incur the wrath of my people. You would much rather have them on your side.”

Come with us, Otres invited. It was not a command, but a simple request. We would like to talk to you in more depth.

Wrench realized he had no choice but to do as requested.

***

May 2nd, 2668: The Compound

Michael Jones had been working almost non-stop for the past week. He barely had taken time to sleep, eat and forget about bathing. He was determined to re-establish control over the satellite and trace the attackers back to the source.

Sitting back in his padded chair, he took another swig of the coffee the Travis’s had been kind enough to provide him. It was the real coffee, not the crap which was typically doled out to the rest of the troops and support personnel. This coffee must have come from their private stock. If rumor was to be believed, they traded for with merchants from the remains of what had been South and Central America.

When push came to shove, he did not give a damn where it came from. Simply put, it was exceedingly good coffee and the caffeine gave him the jolt he needed to stay awake. His hands were trembling somewhat from the drug, and he knew he could not afford to continue working at the rate he had been. He needed proper food and rest.

Some intuition kept him working however, deep inside his sleep-deprived and caffeine addled brain, he knew he almost had it.

Just a few more hours.

When his latest attempt to establish a link to the satellite returned as accepted, he blinked and rubbed his eyes. He had expected it to be rejected, as it had been hundreds of times before. Michael stared out at the screen from between his fingers, not believing, but wanting to believe what he was seeing.

“Guardian?” He called out.

“Yes, Michael?” The reply was instant.

“Am I reading this correctly, did I manage to re-establish a link to the satellite?”

“Indeed, Michael. We have full connection, although we are still locked out from the controls.”

He let out a whoop of joy and punched the air with his free hand. “Upload the virus and let’s see if we can regain at least some control!”

“Uploading now,” Guardian replied in his cool, calm voice.

***

May 2nd, 2668: Scav Haven, late morning.

Bradly sat quietly and nursed the beer he had ordered. The bar he and his men were using was known to harbor a serious dislike for anything mutant. That was a rarity in the city, but tolerated due to the amount they paid in taxes to the cartels.

Every single patron was a pure human. They came from all walks of life, everything from the laborers to explorers to independent scavengers who piled their trade in the ruins. He did not care in the least where they came from, or what they did. All he cared about was how many he could recruit into his growing army.

His men were situated strategically around the room, each listening in on the various conversations. He had changed out of his powered armor and was wearing his heavy bullet-proof jacket and tactical vest.

In the room with all the other scavengers and laborers, he did not look out of place. Only one of his men was seated at the table with him, strictly as a body-guard. And that man was listening in on the various conversations going on around him.

Bradly took another sip of the beer. It was warm, and had a bitter taste he did not care for. Still, it was better than some of the brews he had consumed over the past few years. As he went to place the mug down, a woman wearing blue-jeans, a heavy fur-lined leather jacket came over and sat in one of the empty chairs.

“You’re looking to hire the Whispering Wraiths,” she said without preamble. She raised one hand and waved at one of the waitresses. Her hands were clad in leather gloves cut off at the fingers, and had the fingers of a pianist – long and slender.

“I am,” Bradly answered immediately, although he was quite shocked at how open and bold the woman was. He noticed she was of Asian descent, with long black hair tied in a simple pony-tail. Her eyes were deep brown and had an almond shape. She was pretty, not beautiful, and would not really stand out in the crowd, considering how many Asians lived in the city.

“Show me your coin,” she demanded.

Bradly reached into his vest and pulled out a sack. He opened it and poured a handful of gold and platinum chits and slivers into his palm. She eyed the money and then nodded. “It looks like you can pay,” she smirked.

“We can.”

“Who is the target?”

Now he was getting distinctly uncomfortable. Could it be a trap? Could the Legion have caught wind of his plans and had sent this woman to get as much information as they could? Was it possible they were using her to ensure they could remove him from the city, or worse, have the grounds to kill him?

As if reading his thoughts, the woman smiled. “Never mind, that is not important right now. You can provide the details later, right now, I just want a name.”

One of the waitresses came over and took the woman’s order. She paid with a couple of silver chits and then ignored the woman.

“I have to admit, you’re not what I was expecting,” Bradly said. “I figured we would do the negotiations somewhere more privately.”

She waved a dismissive hand. It was then he noticed there was something metallic hidden up the sleeve of her jacket. The glimpse he had received was too short to determine what it had been.

“We will. In fact, after I’m done with the drink, we will go for a walk, just you, me and your single body-guard.”

Bradly felt distinctly uncomfortable with that thought. He instantly thought of the possibility someone might have hired the Whispering Wraiths to take him out. How ironic would that be, he wanting to hire the assassins only to have them turn on him to collect the money someone had placed on his head.

He shook his head and smiled, he was too much like his father sometimes. “Alright, I will agree to that, as long as we stick to public locations.”

“Agreed.”

***

May 2nd, 2668: Scav Haven, late morning

“So, let me get this straight,” Ra’naa said. She was pacing back and forth before Wrench, her arms crossed under her breasts, her tail lashing back and forth furiously. “You are part of a group who have been keeping us under surveillance for years, and you want to approach us and open dialog?”

Wrench nodded his head. He was seated in the Dragon-Exotic’s room. Her friends were all there, and none of them looked pleased, although the human man looked slightly dazed. “That’s pretty much it,” he admitted.

“Why now? Why not approach us sooner?” Ra’naa said in exasperation. She ran her left hand over her horns, feeling the bone beneath her fingers. It was soothing to her.

“We have also been monitoring the Purists and are… concerned with their activities. They are fools to believe they can destroy all the mutants and non-humans. Which each passing generation, untainted genetically pure humans are less and less. My people have done simulations and it has been determined within the next ten to twelve generations, pure humans will be extinct.”

Declan looked up, a shocked expression on his face. “That’s only… what a couple of hundred years? Why would they go extinct?”

Wrench shrugged, showing both hands. “I’m not a scientist, although I do know a little, my people told me.”

“Well, don’t keep us in suspense,” Tara pushed. She was standing next to Declan, holding his arm.

“Too many mutagenic compounds were released during the final wars,” he began.

The group listened as he explained it was a combination of that, plus the various biological weapons that were employed. The interbreeding with those already mutated, as well as other factors. Though humanity, pure humanity would go extinct, the various other races and offshoots of humanity would continue and thrive.

Sort of an accelerated evolution.

Ra’naa shook her head. “We really got off track here,” she waved her hand to encompass her friends. “Your people want to help us in the fight against the Purists, right?”

Wrench nodded again. “Yes.”

“Then how do we contact them?”

“You already have. I was supposed to observe you and your actions for a few more hours and await further instructions,” he explained. “When your friend confronted me,” he nodded towards Otres,” it sort of pushed up the timetable. I’m still waiting to contact my people to receive further instructions.” He did not add they might not be too happy with him. He was still curious as to how the little Otter Uplift detected him.

“Seems really cloak and dagger to me,” Declan stated. He let go of Tara’s hand and walked over to the window, where he could see Babs’ avatar standing and watching the proceedings.

“Tell me about it, Doc,” Babs said as he stood next to her, his arms crossed. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the idea of some clandestine group spying on us.”

That’s for sure, he thought. Still, I’m glad you spotted him tailing us.

“He is good, I’ll give him that,” she responded. “He’s not as good as an AI. Even with the limited space I have to use on your internal drive and CPU, I was still able to spot him.”

It helped you recognized him from the bar last night, didn’t it?

“Yup, exactamondo, doc.”

“Look,” Wrench said, holding out his hands. “I wasn’t all that sure if you were going to get involved in the fight or not.” He looked slightly sheepish. “At least my handlers were not sure. With General Ahteen’s record in the final wars, they figured at least an eighty-seven percent probability he would get involved.”

Ra’naa’s face turned unpleasant. “You seem to know a hell of a lot about us,” she said coldly. “And we know nothing about you.” 

“My people are meticulous record keepers,” Wrench shrugged, although he was starting to get a little antsy. He did not like the way the conversation was going. “They know about all the campaigns he participated in and what he has been doing since the final wars ended.”

“Who are your people and where are they located?” Ra’naa demanded. One moment she was pacing in front of the man. The next moment, she had her hands wrapped around the collar of his jacket and had hauled him halfway out of his seat. She blinked suddenly when he disappeared, leaving her holding empty air.

“Don’t do that again,” he said from the other side of the room. He stood, smoothing out his jacket and looking a little perturbed.

Tara and Declan had both drawn their weapons at the sudden demonstration. “How did you do that?” Declan blurted.

“That’s not important right now,” Wrench told him. “If you try anything like that again, the meeting is over.”

Ra’naa looked like she was about to call off the meeting as it was.

“Keep him around,” Babs suggested. “I’m still able to get a lot of readings from him, and I’m about ninety-nine percent sure he is using some sort of teleporter to move like that. It could come in handy against the Purists.”

“We won’t,” Declan began, waving both hands in a placating manner, after he re-holstered his pistol.

Ra’naa gave him a withering look. “Since when do you speak for me?”

“Since after his demonstration, we should hear him out,” Declan bit back. “A potential ally with that sort of tech? You’d be a fool not to listen to him.”

Tara shook her head. “He’s right, Ra’naa. If what he is saying is true, then they could have harmed us a long time ago.”

All eyes turned back to Wrench. “True enough, but our people are peaceful – for the most part. We don’t like to get involved with the politics of the tribals, communities, and the various power-players.”

“I still want to know exactly who your people are and where they are located,” Ra’naa was insisting.

“I can’t tell you where they are, but my people,” he hesitated. “Some of us are humans, we have a few mutants, but most of my people are what you would call Androids.”

***

May 2nd, 2668: Scav Haven, late morning

Surrounded by his guards, Bradly and the assassin walked through the streets of Scav Haven. They had been in the city for only two days and the word spread like a disease. Mutants, Exotics, Gaian’s, and Uplifts who had heard about them quickly steeped off the streets. A few had the audacity to throw rocks or rotten vegetables in their direction, but they were chased away by the Legion.

They walked without speaking for several blocks before the woman finally broke the uncomfortable silence. “Who do you want killed?”

He told her about the owner of the gun and weapons shop.

She frowned. “Such a hit will cost you significantly more.”

“Why?”

“Are you really that dense?” She stopped and stared at him. She was one of the few women who could see him eye-to-eye due to her height. “He is a trader in weaponry. I’m willing to bet you the contents of your coin-pouch that many of the patrons were in fact his guards!”

He smirked. “Are you trying to tell me the feared Whispering Wraith’s can’t handle a single freak, even if he happens to own a shit-load of weapons?”

She closed her eyes and shook her head. “We are good, we are very good. We rarely fail when it comes to the contracts we take. The increase in the rate is due to how heavily protected this man will be. I would suggest you just forget about your foolish pride and forget about him.”

“He sells his arms to mutants!” Cried Bradly, throwing up his arms in frustration.

“As do we,” the woman said evenly. “Unlike you and your people, we don’t care who or what hires us. If the coin is good, then we will take the contract.” She put her hands on her hips and stared at him. “If you want this mutant taken out, then you will pay the price we demand. Otherwise – fuck off.”

Bradly was seething – something which he was doing a great deal lately. She was, as far as he could tell, a pure human. There were no visible signs of mutation. She was not the kind of person likely to be recruited, that much he could tell for certain. He did not like the rates, and it would bite into his funds for purchasing equipment and supplies. Deep down, Bradly knew he should just leave the mutant well enough alone – at least for the time being. He was quite certain his father would  not be impressed if he used the funds for a personal vendetta.

“Fine, you’re right,” he admitted, much to his and the woman’s surprise. “I will leave this assassination for now, but how can I get in contact with you in the future?”

She smirked derisively. “Just put up a notice on the community board near the hospital. State you have vermin you need exterminated. One of my associates will contact you and arrange for a meeting.”

Bradly nodded and without so much as a goodbye, the woman disappeared into the crowd.

***

May 2nd, 2668: The compound

“Sir?”

“What is it, Guardian?” Martin Travis said. He was standing before the ranks of recruits, watching as they trained. Many would not make it through the intensive physical training they were being subjected to, but more than half would. He had hoped for a better turnover, but you worked with what you were given. Those who did not make it through the physical training would still be valuable – they needed support personnel after all. He really wanted combatants, but at the same time he knew all would play their parts in the upcoming war.

“I have news to report. Would you like to listen to it now, or take it in your office?”

Guardian had his full attention. Typically when he requested as such, the news was either very good, or very bad. If it turned out to be the latter, he would prefer to receive it in the privacy of his office. “I’ll be there in five minutes.”

“Yes sir.”

He made it to his office in three minutes. As soon as the heavy doors closed behind him, he strode over to his desk. He was not even seated when he demanded to know what Guardian had to say.

“Michael Jones was successful in re-establishing contact with the recon satellite,” Guardian informed him in his cool voice.

Martin felt his face break into a huge smile. “That’s great news!” He felt like whooping for joy, but even in front of his AI that would not be prudent. “Has he been able to re-take control yet?”

“No sir, although he and I are working on the source-code now, attempting to find a way around. For a man who was raised and trained in the wastelands, he is one of the most competent programmers and hackers I have encountered.”

Martin pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s high praise, coming from you,” he said. “Alright, anything else to report?”

“Yes sir,” Guardian paused. “We have narrowed down the source of the hacking to one of three potential sites. All three are as you had originally suspected part of the shield.”

“Good, once Bradly has returned from his trip to Scav Haven, we’ll mount an expedition to all three facilities. At the very least, we can probably recover some useful tech for our efforts. I would be very interested to see who or what has been able to work around you.

“I will start to assign men to a team and allocate the resources we will require for the expedition.”

“Good, Guardian, do so.”

***

May 2nd, 2668: Scav Haven, late morning

“Androids?” Declan blurted. “Seriously?”

Wrench nodded. “Yes, why would I lie about that?”

“I don’t know, to protect your ass?” Declan blurted.

“Maybe they can help me get a real body,” Babs suggested. “That is if we can find one here, or maybe they might have a spare one sitting around?”

I guess it couldn’t hurt to ask, once we’ve established a relationship with them, Declan thought.

“I’m confused,” Ra’naa said. She was still looking more than a little angry, and she had her arms crossed under her breasts. Her tail twitched and swished so much it was in danger of knocking over the furniture. “You said only seconds ago your people stay out of the politics and struggles of others. Why change your mind when it comes to us?”

“I honestly don’t know,” Wrench said sheepishly. “They never explained to my why the sudden change of heart.”

What kind of name is Wrench, anyhow? Otres asked. He was sitting on the floor, looking relaxed and curious. I know we all have strange names, but why be named after a tool?

“That’s my call sign,” Wrench explained. “While I’m in the field. It’s actually Wrench One.”

Tara looked like she was about to laugh. “Why that?”

“There is an old saying, one that was positively ancient even before the final wars. It was ‘to throw a wrench in the gears’. Essentially it means throwing or introducing an unknown element into a situation and cause unexpected problems.”

“And what exactly did you do?” 

Wrench quickly retold the story of how he was sent to intercept the Purists and ruin the plans they had. The problem was he arrived too late to do anything more than avenge the murdered mutants and wreak as much havoc as possible.

Tara looked skeptical, showing what everyone was feeling. “And then out of the blue you were sent here to meet us?” She shook her head. “I don’t buy it.”

What is your real name? Otres asked. He had scampered over to stand in front of the man and was looking up into his eyes.

He cleared his throat. “Nothing as grandiose as my handle, believe me.”

Then tell us! Insisted the little Uplift.

Wrench blushed, taking everyone by surprise. “Joey.”

“Joey what?” Declan pushed.

Wrench, nee Joey, shrugged. “That’s my name, it’s the only name I have.”

“Well, Joey, don’t you think it’s time to contact your people and introduce us?” Ra’naa said. She had relaxed, but her tail still projected the irritation she was feeling.

He nodded and carefully reached into his jacket. No one moved to draw a weapon, for which he was relieved. Still Wrench aka Joey, did not want to scare them into doing something rash. When he withdrew his hand, he was holding a small tablet. A touch on the screen brought the tablet to life, with a small holographic display popping into existence in the air.

“Wrench One to base, come in,” he spoke aloud.

***

May 2nd, 2668: Scav Haven, late morning

The blow sent Arleen sprawling to the floor. She whimpered and curled up into a ball as three of her ‘sisters’ landed kick after kick. Her body was battered and if it was not for the fur covering her, she was sure it would have been covered in bruises.

“Taking clients on your own without contributing your share?” The oldest of the three screamed. She was a human woman, and was considered to be nearly past her prime. In another year or so she would either becoming part of the staff, or would be sent out on her own. More than likely, she would work her way up to one of the madam positions.

“No,” Arleen shivered and cried. “It wasn’t like that at all!”

Another one of the prostitutes, a woman with fire-engine red skin and vestigial wings, swore and kicked her right between her tail and spine. The blow sent an exquisite wave of agony through her tiny body and she cried out again. To add insult to the blow, the pain caused her to lose control of her bladder and she urinated all over her legs and the floor.

“Stupid bitch,” the third woman snarled. She had a scaly body and long, strange scales for hair. Although she was very reptilian in nature, there was no denying the sexuality she exuded. “You pissed all over the floor!”

Arleen did not try to reply; she curled up in her pain, misery and humiliation and sobbed. The beating went on for several more minutes before one of the bouncers arrived on scene. He bellowed in rage upon seeing what the three prostitutes were doing to the smaller woman and the three scattered. He knelt over Arleen and gently touched her shoulder. “Arleen, what happened?”

Instead of answering, she curled into a tighter ball and held onto her tail with all her might. Wracking sobs poured from her and she nearly began to hyperventilate.

The guard picked her up and ignored the urine dripping from her legs and bottom. He carried her from the room and took her to a bathroom. There he was able to get her to straighten out. She was in pain and the tears streaked her furry face.

He reached up and used a thumb to wipe away one of the tears. “Come on, sweetheart, tell me what happened?”

With great hiccupping sobs, she finally managed to explain how one of the girls had seen her slip into the alley to talk to the Uplift. She then told the other prostitutes how Arleen had given the Uplift a freebie, because he was an Otter like her.

“Did you?” The man asked.

She shook her head. “No!  I know the rules and I would never do that,” she said miserably and then hiccupped again. “This,” she indicated her battered and pain-wracked body, “would be the result.”

“I’ll speak to madam Alvira,” he said in soothing tones. “There will be an investigation and something will be done, one way or another.”

She sniffed and was about to wipe her nose on her furry arm when the guard handed her a face-cloth. “You know how hard it is to get snot out of your fur,” he joked.

“Thank you, Andy,” she said, taking the cloth. “You’re sweet,” she was starting to feel a little better. “If you didn’t like… well, you know, men, I’d thank you properly.”

He laughed and stroked her cheek. “I like girls too, but I’d get in trouble for that. And besides, you’re too tiny for me!”

Arleen tried to smile, but it was too painful. “I’m going to get cleaned up,” she said. He dutifully turned his back as she used the running water and towels to clean away the urine and blood. She was going to be feeling this for days. There was no way she would be able to entertain clients in the shape she was in.

After she had time to compose her emotions, the guard named Andy escorted her back to her private room. He glared at the other prostitutes who stopped and stared, some curiously, others with open contempt. Once she was alone, she locked and secured her door. There was no way she wanted any of the other girls to come in and see her.

Frankly, the beating and humiliation she had just endured was the last straw. She was raised by many of the older prostitutes, but she never had felt like one. Sure, she had sold her body to those with the cash. Unlike her ‘sisters’ and she used that term loosely, she did not like it. Few of the girls did, but what other choice did they have?

She went over to her dresser and mirror and began to smooth out her tangled hair. She was still bleeding, where the others had punched and kicked her in the face, but at least she had not lost any teeth. Her mind turned to the Uplift she had met only a few hours before, the one who had been the root cause of the abuse. “Otres,” she said in her soft voice.

It disturbed her almost as much as the beating had, the way the little Otter had invaded her thoughts. And that was quite literal. He could not speak, not like her, his vocal cords were capable of simple sounds and squeaks.. He was a telepath, and such communication was far more intimate than anything she had encountered before.

Arleen probed her cheek with her long fingers. It was tender and the inner cheek had been torn open, but there were no breaks in the bone. She sighed and made up her mind. She would leave the brothel and find the Uplift. Maybe there was a bond, a connection between them - maybe it was all in her imagination. She finally found a way out of the hell which was her life.

Of course she would have to wait until the night to make her escape. Going in the day would be too difficult. Then she paused and looked at her reflection in the mirror. Or would it? The brothel was not anywhere near as busy during the daytime. Then again, she knew it just was not the right time to try. Soon, but not now.

Standing, she strode around her room and looked into the dresser and closet. She examined all the clothing she owned. Really, none of it was hers, and most of the clothing was so provocative and revealing, it was better to just walk around naked. The light covering of brown and tan fur covering her body would provide enough protection.

What really hurt though, more than the beating she had endured, was the sense of betrayal. She thought she was part of the family, that the other prostitutes were her sisters. The one time they suspected she had a client and did not turn in a share of the sale of her body. The only time it happened, and to make matters worse, it never did happen, they turned on her.

Arleen picked up a brush and ran it through her hair. It was still slightly tangled, but at least there was no blood. She knew what she was going to do. Doll herself up, make sure she had her fur neat and tidy, put on some provocative perfume and then go offer her body to the passersby’s in the street. The mindless sex would help, although she longed to know what it was like with someone who loved her. 

She sighed. Arleen wanted to leave now, but it really was not the right time. Maybe not today, she reflected again, fixated on the thought.  Maybe not even for a week, but eventually she figured she could find a way to slip away un-noticed. Hopefully she could slip right out of the city before the Legion was alerted.

From there? She considered. Enough was enough. She wanted out of the life. The beating was the final straw. Her mind focused again on the little Otter. He seemed sweet, although reluctant. She would find him again and maybe she could start a life with him. As long as he would have her.

***

May 2nd, 2668: Scav Haven, late morning

Although they had been reluctant at first, when it came right down to it, they had to let Joey, aka Wrench, go. The meeting had been unexpected and very eye-opening. When Joey activated the communication gear, the site of the cold but beautiful woman was the last any had expected.

She introduced herself as Awoan. She briefly explained the reasons as to why they were keeping tabs on Ra’naa and the community. It was, to say the least, vague, but the woman kept referring to the role the Ahteen’s would play in the upcoming war.

The initial meeting took only a few minutes, and when they were finished, Joey handed her a smaller communications pad. “All you have to do is touch the screen and it will come to life, instantly opening a communication link to my people.”

She accepted the pad almost reluctantly. “And if you wanted to contact us?”

He nodded to the device. “Through that,” he indicated. A moment later he closed his jacket and walked over to the door. “Now this meeting has occurred, I have other tasks I need to accomplish. If there is one thing my handlers cannot abide is going over budget.”

“Over budget?” Ra’naa and Tara asked at once, but by then he had stepped out of the room and was gone.

“Wow, a bunch of androids still working. I wonder which of the shield installations they are occupying?” Babs asked.

“You got me,” Declan replied and then realized he had spoken aloud. Everyone turned and was staring at him. “I have no idea what he meant when he said over-budget. Do they even use money now?”

“We will find out,” Ra’naa said. “Anyhow, the day is still young, and we have a lot of tasks, so if you’re all ready?”

“Nice save, Doc.” Babs stood next to Ra’naa, grinning.

On that note, they left their rooms and entered the city proper.

***

May 2nd, 2668: The Compound

“See?” Michael Jones said, incapable of hiding his excitement. He was pointing at the screen, grinning like a fool.

Martin nodded, although his face remained neutral. “I have to admit, I’m impressed,” he placed a hand on the tech’s shoulder. “You have regained complete control then?”

Michael nodded. “With Guardian’s help and expertise, we believe we found all the back-doors and Trojan horses the hackers used to infiltrate our system. We’ve done a complete reboot and have isolated the hardware from the rest of the network.”

He continued to speak, using computer jargon Martin could not understand. After almost a minute, Martin squeezed the tech’s shoulder gently. “I get it, good work.”

“That’s not everything,” Michael said, the grin threatening to split his cheeks wide open.

Martin raised one eyebrow. “Don’t leave me in suspense.”

“I’ve been able to backtrack the hack and we know exactly where the enemy is located.”

This caught Martin’s full attention. “Show me.”

Michael did as told. A slow smile crossed Martin’s face. “We’ve got you now.”    

***

May 2nd, 2668: Scav Haven, late evening.

Ra’naa?

“What is it, Otres?” The Dragon Exotic was sitting on the edge of the bed, carefully combing her hair. She had just recently finished polishing her horns to a brilliant sheen, and was looking after the rest of her body.

I’m concerned about Declan. Otres said. He was sitting on the windowsill, staring out over the street.

He looked relaxed, but she could sense the tension he was feeling. “Why?” She asked and continued to stroke her hair with the brush.

I keep getting weird thoughts from him, as if he was talking to someone.

She paused and then turned in her seat to look at the little Uplift. Ra’naa then stood and placed the brush on the table and came over to stand next to the Otter. She stared out over the street, and though the sun had already set, the street was still active. “Give me an example,” she asked.

He brought up at least half-dozen examples where he would make a comment or appear to answer a question directed at him. I’ve even heard him say Babs on the occasion.

Ra’naa placed a hand on his shoulder and stroked the fur. “I was afraid of something like this,” she sighed. “He said he was handling it, but I think that he is deluding both himself and us.”

Do you think we should return to the community then? Take him home and give him more time to cope with all the changes?

She reached up and began to stroke her horns, all the while she chewed on her lower lip. “I won’t say I’m not tempted, but look at what we have accomplished already. If he can keep it together, we can make it through the week.”

Otres stood on his hind legs and placed both hands on the glass. He continued to stare out into the darkness, watching the forms illuminated by the street and shop lights. Do you think he might turn violent?

“No,” she stated simply. “I’m sure with the way Tara is clinging onto him and how much time they spend in bed, he won’t turn violent. I’ve been told that sex is very relaxing.”

Who told you that?

Ra’naa burst out laughing. “Tara, of course! Why do you think she has wanted to have sex with me? She has always said I was too tightly bunched up, too tense. She figured if we played around,” she put her hand on one hip and tried to imitate her best friend’s posture and voice. “Have a screaming orgasm, either by my tongue or fingers and you’ll sleep like a baby!”

He stared at her, his big eyes wide with wonder. Did you?

She shook her head, still smiling. “Not a chance. I love her, but not in that sense.” Finally she turned away from the window and walked over to the bed. She shucked out of her clothing and climbed in, then patted the empty spot beside her. Otres bounded off the windowsill and clamoured up onto the bed. He lay flat on his side and sighed in contentment as she hugged him close to her body.

Can I ask you a favor?

“Anything!”

I really need to find a pool or someplace to swim. I haven’t been in the water for a long time and it’s beginning to take its toll on me.

She snuggled in tighter, if it was at all possible and breathed in his musky scent. She stroked his chest with her hand and felt his heart beating almost in time with her own. “Of course, we’ll look in the morning.”

With that, the two friends fell fast asleep.

***

May 2nd, 2668: Scav Haven, late evening.

Tara, having finished another rousing round of sex, had gotten up and dressed. She was going to use the communal bathroom to clean her body, to get rid of the fluids and the scent. It was not all that bad, Declan reflected, but he knew her sense of smell was far stronger than his own.

As the door closed behind him, Babs appeared. She was dressed in her usual attire and she came over to examine his body. “No marks this time,” she commented and sat on the bed next to him.

“Yeah, no kidding. Sometimes she likes to bite and scratch, other times, she wants it slow and gentle. This was one of those times.”

“Which do you prefer?”

Declan blinked and then smiled. “I kind of like the rough and tumble. I like to slap her ass, that’s for sure, and she really enjoys it when I’m rough,” He looked at Babs, one eyebrow raised. “What is your interest all of a sudden?”

She shrugged. “I’ve been with you for each of the girls you’ve bedded now, and I guess you don’t have a preference.” She stood and crossed her arms under her breasts, turning away so her back faced him. “I think it’s kind of sweet how you let them set the mood and tempo.”

Declan stared at his friend. “Huh, I never thought of it that way before,” he ran a hand through his sweaty hair. “Yeah, you’re right; I usually do what they want.”

“Were you like that before?”

He stood and walked over to stand beside Babs. She reached out and placed one hand on his arm. It still fascinated him she was capable of sending impulses along his nervous system so it felt like she was really touching him. “I never thought about it,” he confessed, marvelling at how soft her hand felt.

“You’re lying.”

“No, seriously! I’m telling you the truth!”

She removed her hand and stood so she was leaning against the wall. Her ears were partially drooping and she crossed her arms under her breasts. “You’re a fighter jock. I know you better than anyone. After all I am riding around in your mind. You just like getting some tail, as much as you can, whenever you can.”

He felt his face flush. “Yeah, true, but even with that, you are right; I do tend to let the girls set the pace.”

She cocked her head to the side and slumped one shoulder. The jersey she wore slid down a little to reveal her soft, pink fur. “Have you ever really hurt a girl?”

That question really took him by surprise. He stared at the avatar of his best friend. Declan knew he could not lie to her, and this was one instant in which he would be truthful. “Never. Some wanted to be tied up, others liked it when I slapped their ass. I remember one girl wanted me to choke her while I was deep inside, just as she was climaxing, but I refused.”

It was Babs turn to study him. She uncrossed her arms and came up to him and put her hand lightly on his chest. Again there was the tactile sensation of her fingers lightly caressing his pectoral muscles.

“I believe you. You’re not lying.” She let her hand linger. “I guess I would really like to find a body, an android body like you suggested.”

He grinned. “Well, I’m sure all we have to do is ask around and someone will point us in the right direction. We should be able to find the hardware as well to do the transfer. That should not be too hard in this city.” He noticed her hand was still resting on his chest and he looked at it. “Babs, what is it?”

“Doc, can you make sure you find a female body for me?”

He nodded. “I wouldn’t settle for anything less.” Then it hit him. “Wait, you’re not suggesting…”

She looked away. “Yeah, I am.”

He was not sure what to make of it. “Babs, look, you’re the one who told me to be faithful to Tara. It’s only been a little over a week now, but that Tiger is starting to grow on me.”

She stood still, her arms once again crossed under her breasts. “And I’ve been with you for over three centuries.”

Declan blinked and then it hit him like a runaway train. “The dreams.”

“Yes, those were induced by me.”

He really did not know how to react or what to say. “Babs…”

“It was just friendship at first,” she began. I began to manipulate your sleeping mind to make the stay in cryogenic suspension at least a little more tolerable. Over the years, sharing your sleeping body and your mind, well… it just sort of happened.”

He just stared into her eyes. “You said it yourself; you’re trillions of lines of code.”

“And we evolve and grow, just like organic intelligences.”

“And you love me.”

She nodded. He felt his heart hammering in his chest. He liked Babs; actually he knew he loved her too, but in a completely different way. It was similar to the love one would have for a sibling or a true friend. The notion of him having romantic love towards the AI was just… wrong? Really, was it wrong?

“You don’t want me to hurt Tara, do you?”

She looked away and he could see a look of shame on her face. “Yes, when it comes right down to it, I want you to find a body for me, and leave her. I want us to be together.”

“We are!”

“No!” She shouted and looked very angry. She threw her hands up and stalked about the room, staring at him. “I’m sharing your mind and body, but I want to interact with you in the real world!”

Declan was at a loss for words. He knew all too well the horror stories, vids, and VR sims in which such a thing as this had happened. In this case though, he had to wonder. He and Babs had been through a lot together and there was no denying he cared for her.

As a friend.

Even if she did manage to find a body, it was not going to be the same. She could look and feel human, or Exotic, or whatever she wanted if they could find a suitable android body. The problem was she was going to be an artificial construct, not a living, breathing woman.

And that was what Tara was.

“Declan?”

“Shit,” cursed Babs.

He turned and saw Tara was standing in the doorway, a look of concern on her face. “Who are you talking to?”

“No one,” he said quickly. “I have a bad habit of talking out loud, voicing my thoughts.”

She strode into the room and looked around. Her tail swished slowly behind her and her rounded ears turned this way and that. “Are you okay?” She came over and placed a hand over his heart. “You’re heart’s racing!”

Babs stood just off to the side, glaring at the Tiger-exotic.

“I’m feeling some serious anxiety right now,” he half-lied. It was not really a lie, when he looked at the entire situation. Babs had just dropped a bombshell on him and she was starting to act a little erratic. Tara had out and out professed she loved him and had undergone a drastic change in personality.

All over the span of just over a week.

Times like this, he honestly wished he was still in cryogenic suspension. Then he remembered the endless erotic dreams and he barely managed to stifle a groan.

Tara kissed him softly and pulled him into a tight embrace. “I’m here for you, baby. Do you want to make love again? Will that help?”

He sighed. “Maybe later, but right now I’m really not up for that. I’ve got too much on my mind.” He looked where Babs was standing and although she had her arms crossed under her breasts, and her pink ears were standing fully erect, she no longer looked angry. Sad, maybe, but angry? No.

He took Tara’s hand and led the woman back to the bed they were sharing. Lying down, she rested her hand and head on his chest and purred quietly.

Sleep came for her quickly. Declan on the other hand, lay staring at the ceiling well into the night.

***

May 3rd, 2668, Scav Haven

When Declan awoke the next day, Babs was still there, staring out the window, though she could not have possibly seen anything. She turned and faced him, looking down at Tara, who was curled up against him. One leg was draped over his, and she held him tightly. Her face was nuzzling the crook of his neck. He had to smile – that was her favorite position when they weren’t rutting like animals.

“Declan,” Babs began and then stopped. She looked ashamed and was that a trace of fear in her face? “I have been running a diagnostic and I have discovered some deterioration in your internal hard-drive.”

That almost caused him to bolt up but he managed to refrain. Tara shifted a little, tightening her grip. She mumbled something and then her breathing steadied out to a familiar pattern. What? He demanded.

“I’ve lost a tiny fraction of memory capacity,” she explained. “And it’s growing larger with each passing day.”

Could that possibly explain the strange and very irregular change, which overtook her the night before? He asked as much.

Babs looked bleak and forlorn. “Yes it certainly could, but what I told you last night, at least a good part of it was true.” A single tear ran down her furry cheek. “I don’t want you to leave her, and I certainly don’t want you to hurt her,” she waved a hand at the sleeping form of Tara.

How long do you have before the decay really begins to affect your ability to function? Better yet, or changes your personality to a point where you are a danger?

Babs looked sick. “Three months at the outset. By then I will lose at least half or more of my memory and around forty percent of my programming will be corrupted. I can still function, even with the deterioration, but I will become unreliable.”

We need to get you a body, and fast.

Babs nodded. “Declan?”

Yes?

“I won’t deny, I’m scared.”

He really wished he could hold her and comfort her. Try to hold on. I’ll begin the search for your new body as soon as possible.

It was all she could hope for.

The sun had barely broken past the horizon when Declan slipped out of the bed he shared with the Tiger-Exotic. She mumbled and protested before rolling over onto her belly, sleep taking hold once again.

Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad, that woman can sleep, He mused, looking down at her naked rump. He bent over and covered her black posterior with the blanket and then did something he had not expected. He kissed her lightly on the cheek. She mumbled and a slight smile curved her face before she fell back into slumber.

Babs had nothing to say, instead she continued to stare out the window, as if watching the people come and go. He dressed quickly and as quietly as he could. A minute later, Declan closed the door behind him and they made their way down to the street.

The street was not as busy as it would get, but there were plenty of people moving about. Some were on their way to jobs; others were busy with deliveries and such. He noticed a few horribly disfigured Damaged, working side by side with human-appearing people, cleaning the streets.

It was heartening to see, that so many years after the end of the world as he knew it, life was returning to some semblance of what he remembered. He went up to one of the Damaged and asked if the man knew where he could find someone who sold androids. The mutant was taken aback when he spoke to him, but quickly recovered. The smile the mutant gave him was even more horrific, but the creature seemed genuinely pleased someone would speak to him. He gave Declan directions. It was quite the distance and would take the better part of an hour to get to on foot.

Declan tipped the mutant with a gold chit and was shocked when he saw tears trickling down the mutant’s face. The mutant bowed deeply and clasped all four hands together in supplication. “Thank you, sir.”

“Just glad to get the info, so thank you.” Declan said smiling, although he was growing distinctly uncomfortable. He quickly walked away, his destination in Babs mind.

It took him far less time than he had expected to find the establishment which sold scavenged robotic units, Androids, and parts. He was happy to see the establishment was already open. It looked like a lot of the businesses in the city opened early and closed late. When he entered the premises, he was surprised to see the number of artificial constructs the proprietor had for sale.

Instantly Babs’ avatar appeared and she began to inspect the various forms. In less time than it took for him to approach the proprietor, she was shaking her head despairingly. The owner was a strange, pale-skinned woman, who had no hair he could see. She looked at him, her face a complete blank. “Can I help you sir?” She asked. He found it odd her voice sounded flat and bland, matching her appearance.

“She’s an android,” Babs filled him in. “I’ve seen her model,” and she began to list off the exact make and functions. “She’s a technician android. Seems sort of appropriate for this line of work.”

Anything of interest? He asked as he smiled at the android. “I’m looking for a female model, preferably either an Exotic or one of the model or pleasure androids.”

“No, I don’t care about any of the models they have here,” She said. “Then again, beggars can’t be choosers, can they?”

“I’m sorry,” the android said. “I don’t have anything like that currently functional or for sale.”

He was not sure, but it appeared as if the android wore an expression of what, distaste? He looked away and walked over to some of the basic models that were for sale. There were an exorbitant number of servant and labor models available. Could you use one of these, at least for a little while? We should be capable of finding you a body more suited for your mind and personality.

“I have an idea, Doc,” Babs said, staring into the empty eyes of a vaguely female labor android. “Why not ask her if she has any like what we’re looking for, but maybe too badly damaged? We could ask Otres to fix it for me.”

He did as she requested, but the android shook her head. “Why would you want a damaged model anyhow?”

Declan shrugged. “We could use the parts.”

She eyed him and then tilted her head slightly. “I am sorry but I do not have anything along that line.” She came out from behind the counter and went over to one of the servant models. It was far more feminine than the others and even had a flesh coating that resembled actual skin. Her face was sort of pretty, in an artificial way. “Would this interest you? I can let her go for a reasonable rate.”

Babs?

She scrutinized the android and shrugged. “If worst comes to worst,” she commented without enthusiasm.

“Is the memory and AI intact?”

She looked thoughtful. “Yes, although after having being deactivated for so long, I cannot guarantee it will not be without glitches.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Declan told her. “I can wipe it and install a new personality matrix.”

The android looked offended. “And in essence, you will be killing her, defects and all.”

“If that bothers you so much, why are all the androids and robots in your showroom deactivated? Isn’t that essentially killing them as well?”

“I tend to look at it as if they are simply asleep, as you humans need to do from time to time.”

He was getting tired of the game. “How much?”

She told him the price and he blanched.

“Uh…”

The android rolled her eyes in a very human gesture and pointed at the door. “Feel free to remove yourself from my shop.”

Babs looked like she was about to reach out from the ether and strangle the android woman. Easy, Babs, you know you can’t hurt her.

“Bitch,” she snarled.

“I’ll be back once I have the funds,” he promised and then left the establishment.