Buck Who? Chapter 21

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 21: A new beginning

May 8th, 2668, Scav Haven

The day broke to a sky filled with heavy clouds. Little sunlight managed to penetrate the moisture-laden heavens, so even when the sun had fully risen, the streets were bathed in twilight.

This did not concern the inhabitants of the city. They were used to rain and the chill it brought. The rare days were those where the sun shone with all its glory.

Gone were the folks on their way to various jobs. Now the streets were filled with all manner of folk, some on tasks, others were heading to the walls separating the ruins. Scav Haven had energy about it, a frenetic pace which has rarely been seen since before the final wars began.

There are people who believe that it is cities like this one which will be the hubs of a reborn civilization. Those who live in the cities and work can easily see what the scholars are referring to.

Cassidy and her family stopped just inside the gates to the city. If it had not been for the kindness of the Dragon-Exotic and her companions, more than likely she would have lost her mate. The platinum and gold she gave them also allowed her family to enter the city without question. They had enough left to find shelter and food, and more than enough to live on for nearly a year.

Aaron placed his hands on his hips and looked around. His daughter, Eliza, held onto the back of his dirty and ragged shirt, her eyes open and staring in wonderment. “Why didn’t we come here sooner?” He asked no one in particular.

“We had a good life, jobs, and plenty of food,” Cassidy responded bitterly.

He reached out and took her hand. Lifting it to his face, he gently kissed her knuckles and smiled. The wounds he had suffered were completely healed and there was no sign of infection. In fact, he looked better than he had in years. “Maybe we will rebuild here. The Purists would never try attack this city,” he motioned with his head at a group of Legion soldiers. They were clad in powered armor, and as they passed one nodded politely.

She sighed and looked at the ground. Her son, Martin, was standing next to her, his eyes downcast. He had hardly spoken a word since they escaped the attack and she knew he was suffering. It ripped her soul apart to see him the way he was. No matter what she tried, he remained quiet and nearly unresponsive. She hoped she would be able to alleviate his fears and trauma now that they had made it to safety.

“We need to find some clothing, food and a place to stay,” she said at last, looking around at all the shops just within their immediate vicinity.

Aaron nodded his head vigorously. “Right,” he looked at the filthy rags he was wearing and grimaced. “The sooner, the better.”

They began to walk down the almost over-crowded street. Many travellers and passersby’s gave the family a wide berth, as the smell coming off them was truly offensive. New clothing, food, a bath, and finally a place to stay, Cassidy thought. She figured their physical state would preclude any possible place of habitation unless they cleaned up first. 

As they passed a series of stables, Martin stopped and turned to face the structure. As Cassidy was about to ask him what was wrong, the young boy let go of her hand and slithered into the darkened building.

“Martin!” She called out after him, her voice filled with surprise and dismay. “Get back here!”

The boy ignored her and in seconds he was lost from sight. She looked at her husband and without a word, she glided after her son. The building had a strong but not unpleasant smell of hay and horse droppings. She wrinkled her nose, but at least it was not the stenches she had been subjected to over the past few days.

Maybe twenty or thirty meters ahead of her, the young boy had stopped and he was staring up at the head of a Brute. The mutant horse was staring at the boy with mild curiosity.

“Martin, get back here!” She called out, but the young boy ignored her.

He lifted his body as far as he could on his tail and reached out with his hand towards the Brute. Cassidy’s blood ran with ice-water as the Brute lowered his head even further. The nostrils, larger than Martin’s head, flared as the mutant horse took in his scent.

For the first time in over a week, a smile appeared on the boy’s grime-encrusted face. He ran his fingers over the soft muzzle and when the Brute licked the boy’s hand, she relaxed and stopped shouting his name. Cassidy approached slowly and carefully, keeping her movements soft and flowing. She was still fearful the Brute would get scared or startled and as such it would lead to her boy getting injured or worse.

A second later, Cassidy recognized the Brute. It was the same animal the Dragon Exotic had been riding when they had met days previous. A smile, as rare as her son’s, appeared on her face as she remembered the woman’s words. The invitation to track her down if and when they reached the city.

At least she knew they were still in the city, the Brute sniffing and licking her son’s hand was proof enough of that. Things were starting to look up.

***

May 8th, 2668, Scav Haven

“Are you sure?” Bradly snarled dangerously.

“Yes sir, I identified the corpse only about half an hour ago. It was David, no doubt about it.”

Bradly Travis cursed loudly and as he turned, he smashed his gauntleted hands together with a loud clang. He stormed over to the window, overlooking the street and cursed vehemently once again. “And what was carved into his back??”

The soldier swallowed in fear and tried to get some moisture back into his mouth. He tried to speak several times before his vocal cords finally obeyed him. “Purists will die.”

“Is that so?” Bradly growled dangerously.

The soldier visibly paled and took several steps back from him. “Yes sir,” he squeaked in terror.

Bradly ignored him. One of his men, although not one of his personal guards, but a valued member none the less, was now dead. He assumed at the hands of the genetic deviant Exotic. It had to be her or one of her friends. After all, David had been given the task of following them so they could discover where they were staying.  Deep down he knew it could not have been anyone else. After all, who would want to kill his people? He winced. That was an asinine question. There were plenty of mutants and sub-humans who would love to see them dead. Somehow they must have realized David had been tailing them and decided to take matters into their hands.

“What else did the legion have to say?”

“N... n… nothing, sir. They only said he was murdered around eleven or so last night and they discovered the body this morning, just after sunrise.”

“Alright, make sure to tell your squad-mates that no one is to ever travel anywhere alone. I want you to travel in groups of two or more. If I find out anyone decides to go lone-wolf or ignore my orders, they will die at my hands!”

The soldier took several steps back from Bradly and if it was at all possible, paled even further. “Ye… Y… Ye… Yes sir!”

“Dismissed!” Bradly roared.

He turned and moved so quickly the soldier nearly tripped over his own feet in his rush to escape. In seconds, Bradly found he was all but alone. The only man left in the room was one of his personal guards.

“What are we going to do about this,” the man asked. Unlike the hapless soldier, he had been with Bradly for many years and knew all too well the man’s temper. Bradly was his commander, but he did not fear him.

“An eye for an eye,” Bradly grunted, his temper still in full rage, but he had managed to regain some semblance of control. “Send out three men and be careful, but I want you to see if you can find that Exotic bitch or better yet, her companions. See if you can locate any of them. I know David failed, but I want their location.”

The soldier nodded. “And once we do?”

Bradly paused, his gauntleted hand on his chin. “We will either deal with them on our own, or maybe we can finally hire the Whispering Wraith.”

The guard smiled. It was not pleasant.

***

May 8th, 2668, Scav Haven

“Babs, for the love of Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammad would you please stop pacing around like that? You’re driving me nuts!” Declan complained aloud as the small group made it through the late-morning crowds.

“Can you blame me, Doc?” She said as she pranced through and around the various pedestrians. “You and our friends are going to find a body for me!”

Tara and Ra’naa both eyed the pilot with apprehension. Tara in particular was obviously not all that happy with the fact he had another woman riding along inside his head, even if she was an AI construct.

And it had shown. The Tiger-Exotic had her moods and often her love-making reflected those moods. When she was playful, Declan had bruises or even scratches. When she was angry or moody, sex was a lot rougher. When she was content, it was always slow and gentle, exquisitely tender.

The previous night, it had been not at all - that was not what he had expected.

Or, for that matter, what Babs had expected either.

“Look, Babs, there is no guarantee we will find a suitable body for you. Remember when we were here several days ago? She had the one model, and then got really offended when we said we were planning on erasing the mind.”

Bab’s looked crestfallen, but it lasted only a few seconds. “Almost a week has passed; maybe she has acquired some new models.”

Declan decided he would pass along the conversation. He really wanted to ensure his friend was able to get out of his body into one of her own. The only way that could happen is if a body was available. He said as much. “And let’s face it, after her reaction to us the last time, I don’t know if we’re even going to get through the front door.”

“Babs, I know you can hear me even if you can’t reply,” Ra’naa said quietly. “There is a good chance she will not have the model you are looking for, and on top of that, there are many factors going against us.”

“Like what?” Babs demanded and Declan repeated.

She stopped in the street and held up her hand to Declan. With her other hand, she counted out on the visible fingers. “First, the model we are thinking of purchasing could already be gone.” She bent over the index finger. “She might decide to kick us out without making a sale.” She bent the middle finger. “Three, maybe she never got any new units from the ruins.” That is just the tip of the iceburg!”

It’s true, and that is something she’s going to have to face, Otres said to the group. He was scampering around, dodging the other walkers and keeping ahead of the group. He paused and looked over his shoulder, squeaked loudly and pointed at the shop they had been looking for. We’re here!

“I still want a bunny body, just like you described,” Babs said. The AI’s optimism had returned and all traces of her dour mood had disappeared. That worried Declan, as it was a symptom of his deteriorating internal Hard Drive. Then she did something he had not expected. As she was standing just outside the entrance, Babs began jumping up and down like a woman who needed to pee really badly. The sight made Declan burst out laughing, earning strange looks from the passerby’s and other pedestrians.

“What is it?” Ra’naa asked, a slight smile on her lips. She could only imagine what was going through the mind of the AI.

He shook his head and waved a dismissive hand. “Nothing, if we can find a suitable body, I’ll let her demonstrate for you.”

“If you find a suitable body, I’ll fuck Otres!” Babs said. From the look on her face and the tone of her words, Declan could almost believe it.  He wondered how much internal capacity he had lost to cause her to make such a statement. Maybe the decay was accelerating quicker than she originally had predicted?

It was a terrifying thought.

Otres was in the lead, but it was Ra’naa who entered the shop first. She paused in the doorway only for a fraction of a second before stepping into the shop. She held the doors for the rest to follow.

The interior of the shop was exactly as Declan had remembered it. The fact the shop had started out as a residential home, and an expensive one. It was easy to tell from the overall style and architecture. He knew this was something he might always have trouble accepting.

As before the smallish, pale-skinned android approached. “Can I h…” she stopped in the middle of the greeting and a frown appeared on her artificial face. “You, I thought I asked you to leave.”

Declan stood his ground and despite the temptation to cross his arms, he kept them at his side. Back before his unexpected nap, he would have sent such a unit to be examined. It was clear the Android’s programming was faulty, especially for a technician model like the one he was facing.  He sighed deeply and faced the woman.

After all, it was for Babs sake.

“Yes you did but you never said anything about not coming back. We are still looking to purchase the model you showed us the last time we were here, unless you’ve acquired new merchandise in the meantime?”

Babs was standing and staring down at the small Android, scrutinizing her very carefully.

The Android stared at him, and then allowed her gaze to travel over the group. The frown she had been wearing disappeared, replaced by a bland, blank face. She folded her hands in front of her and gave a very slight bow. “That is true, and yes I have acquired several new units.”

“Ohh, what kind?” Babs asked excitedly.

Declan relayed the question and the woman nodded. “I have come into possession of two warrior models, both male. One has suffered extensive damage however and will require a great deal of work. The last time you were here, you mentioned you would be willing to take one that was in less than optimal operational condition?”

“I don’t want to be a male!” Babs whined.

Look, would you be willing to take a model like that, even temporarily? At least it’s a start, and it all depends on how much this Android would want for it. Declan thought. He could have said it aloud, but the Android serving them did not need to know.

“How much?” Ra’naa suddenly asked.

The Android proprietor named the price. It was only a quarter of what she asked for the one working female unit.

The next thing Declan knew, Ra’naa entered what could only be described as a haggling frenzy. Numbers and actual insults flew back and forth between her and the Android, hard and fast. Declan was quite surprised at some of the colorful language coming from both women. He was even more surprised at some of the very imaginative insults they traded.

In the end, Ra’naa managed to cut an additional third off the rate the Android asked. She pulled out the rest of the gold and platinum chits she was carrying and handed them to the Android.

Babs stood and looked at Ra’naa with something akin to worshipful awe. “Holy shit!”

Declan barely managed to refrain from laughing. You can say that again, Babs!

“Stay here, I will return in a few minutes,” the Android instructed. She turned without waiting for the group to acknowledge her orders and stalked out of the front of the shop. The door she went through was constructed of a heavy alloy and looked as if it was secured by a biometrics reader.

“Seems pretty stupid, doesn’t it?” Tara said, staring at the door.

“What do you mean?” Ra’naa asked, obviously curious.

Tara pointed at the door and then the wall in which it was situated. “Sure, she has a heavy door, secured and locked, but if I wanted into that room, I’d just smash through the wall on either side.”

Chirping and squeaking, Otres slinked over to the wall and placed his hands next to the door. He closed his eyes and concentrated for a moment. His teeth chattered and his hands slid up and down the wall, feeling each part of the structure. A few seconds later, he re-opened his eyes and looked back at the group. The walls have been reinforced with plates of the same alloy. She may be unpleasant, but she knows what she’s doing.

Ra’naa nodded her approval. “You’re right.”

Otres was about to return to the group when the door opened and the Android woman walked through. There were two more Androids with her, carrying a badly scarred and damaged unit between them. From the dust covering the unit, it had to have been buried for centuries.

“I don’t want that,” Babs whined. “Look at him, he’s all busted up and hideous!”

Declan had to agree with her assessment. The android was missing one entire arm. There were huge holes on the torso, each looking as if someone had taken a bite from the unit and then spit it out. The head was intact, but barely so. Whoever, or whatever had destroyed the unit, had emptied an entire magazine of ammunition into the metallic skull. The lower half was melted and the metal bones and synthetic muscle were visible here and there.

“We purchased that?” Declan said incredulously.

Even Ra’naa looked skeptical. She turned and looked at Otres, who had returned from the door and was now studying the unit with a critical eye.

He sensed her gaze and looked back. I can do it.

The two androids stood the unit up and then without a word, retreated back through the door. It closed with a soft click behind them. The proprietor stood with her hands clasped before her, a blank look on her face. “Enjoy your new acquisition.”

“And how exactly are we supposed to get this back to our home?” Declan demanded.

The Android turned her blank gaze upon him and tilted her head slightly to one side. “That is not my concern. You made your purchase but never mentioned anything about delivery.”

Ra’naa placed a soft hand on his shoulder. “That’s true, sorry; I never thought to include that.”

The Android took several steps closer and stared up at Declan. “You look strong and healthy, human. With your Exotic friends help, I am quite confident you can manage to carry this unit to your home.”

Few times during his life Declan had the urge to punch a woman in the face. This was one of them. He was certain no one would object, since the Android was not in fact, an actual woman - well with the exception of Babs.

He grumbled, but with the help of Ra’naa and Tara, they managed to get the damaged Android body out of the shop.

It took a great deal of effort and sweat, but eventually they returned to the hotel they were calling home. They stood the damaged unit in the center of the room and sat down to catch their breath. Babs walked around the Android and inspected it with a critical eye. She cupped her furry chin with one hand and supported the arm with her other hand. As she inspected the Android, a smile slowly crossed her face.

“What is it, Babs?” Declan asked.

“There is a lot more than meets the eye with this particular model,” she answered. She bent her head low enough so she could see inside the chest cavity. “Yeah, as I suspected, this is a SOP’s model.”

Declan blinked and looked at the nearly destroyed machine. “Special ops? Are you certain?”

That drew everyone’s attention. Ra’naa came over and looked at the Android body. “I thought most of these were destroyed in the final wars,” she stated and then looked sheepish at the statement. “Right.”

Tara leaned back on the bed and stared at the Android. “What’s so special about this hunk of junk?”

“This hunk of junk is going to be my new body,” Babs glared.

Declan was tempted to relay her words but refrained. “SOP’s were used in all kinds of black ops and other missions before the war. They possess malleable flesh, which allows them to change their outward appearance. They can change hair, skin, eyes, and so forth. The only aspect of their physiology they can’t change is the height. They are able to withstand extremes in temperatures, making them useful in all climates.”

“And don’t forget they can free-dive down to nearly a thousand feet,” Babs added and he repeated.

Otres reached out and touched the remaining hand on the Android. I’ll get to work right away, He announced.

Declan stood and reached out to place a hand on Otres’s shoulder. “No, hold on. We need to do something about the personality matrix. If you repair this unit completely, the AI matrix will be intact. We need to ensure the memory and personality matrix is removed or at least purged, so Babs can take it over.

Otres squeaked his laugh and patted Declan’s hand. I can reverse the time-stream to the day this model came off the assembly line. I’m going to guess the AI is not added until later, right?

After a moment, Declan repeated the query so Babs could hear it. She nodded thoughtfully and then smiled. “Yup, that should work, but if it doesn’t, we better get ready for a fight.”

“Do your magic,” Declan said to the little Uplift.

Otres slapped his hands together and rubbed them vigorously. He closed his eyes and chittered softly before placing his palms on the leg of the Android. The room went so quiet you could hear a mouse fart, and as everyone watched, a glow appeared around the android.

Watching, Declan was fascinated. He was amazed as the glow pulsed around the body of the mechanical construct and with each pulse, more and more of the damage was carried away. The newest damage went first, such as the torn synthetic flesh. Holes filled in as the dirt and grime faded. Next, the bullet holes and exit points on the damaged head filled in and both eyes reappeared.

Babs stood, her attention fixated on the process. She did not even look back at Declan. “This is one hell of an incredible ability,” she said, her voice filled with awe and wonder.

Not wanting to distract the little Otter, Declan decided to reply in his mind. Damn straight. It’s supposed to be some sort of psionic ability. I wonder if the Annunaki or Tuatha are responsible or if it was random mutation?

Otres began to grimace and his tail quivered from exertion. His eyes were squeezed shut, but he held on and the glow increased in luminosity with every passing second. The head and most of the body looked fully intact. Then, as if out of nowhere, the arm reappeared. The holes in the torso were next, as well as the melted flesh on the legs.

They continued to watch in rapt wonder as the process continued. It appeared to take hours, but when Declan checked his internal chronometer, he discovered only about five minutes had passed.

Then, as if someone had thrown a switch, the light faded and Otres collapsed to his knees. Ra’naa reacted faster than anyone, and she knelt next to him. The Dragon-Exotic took him by the shoulders and steadied the Uplift. “Are you alright?”

Everyone could hear the fear intermingled with concern in Ra’naa’s question.

I am, I’m just really tired and hungry.  Otres squeaked pathetically and then his head slumped forward. Ra’naa scooped him up like she would a child and took him over to the bed. She gently placed him and then curled him up in his favorite sleeping position.

Stepping up to the android’s body, Declan examined it from head to toe. It gleamed as if it had just stepped off the assembly line and every part of the construct looked new. He reached out and touched the flesh. It was soft and malleable beneath his fingertips.

“Holy shit, Doc!” Babs whispered as she inspected the body which would house her intellect.

“You can say that again,” chuckled Declan.

“Holy shit, Doc!”

“Smartass.”

Ra’naa looked up from where Otres was sleeping. “Tara, would you and Declan go out and find a bakery? Otres is going to need some food once he awakens, and after what he did, he deserves some of his favorites.”

Tara nodded and then slipped her hand into Declan’s. “We’re on it.”

***

May 8th, 2668, Scav Haven

“Wrench one to control, do you copy?”

The day had started out nice, but it had quickly turned. It was now bleak and chilly, and there was a heavy scent of rain on the air. Joey sat at an old picnic table under an overhanging wooden slat and drank his tea, enjoying the rich flavor. There was little chance he would be overheard, and even if he was, it would not matter much in the long run.

The line remained quiet for several minutes before he tried again. “Wrench one to control, come in please.”

Still nothing.

He was beginning to grow concerned when at last the familiar voice sang out over the link. “Go ahead Wrench One.”

“Mission accomplished, but I am certain it is only a matter of hours, possibly a day or so before the Purists locate our friends.”

The pause was more acute but finally the voice replied. “Anything to report on that front?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. They have come into possession of a SOP mark 3 model. It was recently uncovered and sold to an android, who specializes in the repair and sale of other Androids. The proprietor in turn sold it at a much reduced cost to our friends. It was non-functional and appeared to have sustained a great deal of damage during the last engagements here in Seattle.”

“Interesting…” the voice replied thoughtfully. “Re-establish contact and see what else you can learn. I take it your bug has been discovered?”

Joey shook his head. “That’s the strangest thing. When I run diagnostics, it appears to be running fine, but I cannot establish any audio or visual links. I’m at a loss as to why this is occurring.”

“Report back once you have more information.” The line went dead.

Joey took another sip of his tea and stared out into the rain-slick streets, wondering when would be a good time to speak to Ra’naa and her friends. He realized he was smiling ever so slightly. The smile turned into a frown as he contemplated what could possibly cause him to smile. He had very little reason to do so. His life was not what one would call unpleasant, and he was treated very well by the Androids at the Installation.

Still, showing emotion was always frowned upon by the Androids. It was something he had considered many times over his young life, but never had spoken to any of the inhabitants.

He mentally recalled what he had been thinking and the memory of the Dragon-Exotic Ra’naa came into his mind. She was attractive, and there was a sweet innocence about her, mixed with a liberal dose of haughtiness. He found he was imagining how the scales on her face would feel to the touch.

Silently, he cursed himself and pushed the thought of the woman out from his mind’s eye. She was a potential ally, and that was all. Likewise, all her friends had the potential, and they would be needed. He was sure they would also need help from the Installation.

When he lifted the cup to his lips, he discovered he had finished the tea. The liquid was excellent and it helped warm him, so he waved his hand at the stall owner, who nodded and brought over a refill. The steaming liquid filled the cup and the heat radiated out from the ceramic, warming his hand.

He continued to stare out over the wet street, lost in thought, watching the low-hanging clouds as they passed overhead.

***

May 8th, 2668, Scav Haven

“So, do you think we’re going to be staying any longer?” Declan mused as he and Tara left the hotel. The streets were wet and it was cool enough he could occasionally see his breath misting out before him.

She was clutching his hand tightly. Her palm was soft and the heat radiating from the skin was deliciously warm in the morning chill. “I really am not sure. Everything Ra’naa’s father wanted us to accomplish is finished.”

“I think I’m going to miss this place,” he commented and waved at the nearly-empty street with his free hand. “I’m still getting used to the fact this is on the outskirts of what used to be Seattle, but it really is growing on me.”

“Wouldn’t you much rather be back at the community with me?” She asked.

When he looked at her, he could see her cat-like eyes staring intently at him. There was a hint of a smile on her face and her whiskers twitched ever so slightly. “I guess,” he said at length. It’s really quite there, and I’m not sure what I could do to fit in.”

They crossed the street and began to follow the sidewalk, which would lead them to the nearest bakery. Several strange-looking mutants passed by them and despite himself, Declan turned to stare in wonder. The creatures were humanoid in shape and size, but the flesh was a pale, blue-grey. They were completely naked and one was clearly a female. She had small, pert breasts, shapely hips, and a very nice ass, Declan had to admit. The only adornment she wore was a small pouch, tied to her waist.

Tara’s hand squeezed his to the point it became painful and he glared at her in annoyance. “What the hell was that for?”

A low, nearly inaudible growl was felt, more than heard, coming from her. “Quit checking out other women. You are mine, and you will be the father to our babies.”

He felt like he had been punched, but he rolled with it. He knew what she wanted and he figured it would be a good idea to explain his actions. “Tara, I’ve never seen mutants like those before. I wasn’t checking out her ass.”

“Oh you were, Doc, you were. Remember, I’m using your eyes too!” Babs informed him with a light laugh.

The grip lessened enough to the point it was no longer painful. The growl disappeared as well as she turned her gaze upon the strange couple. “Those are Iruka. They’re a race of shape-shifting Dolphins. They take a humanoid form whenever they need to travel on land.”

Declan stopped and stared at her, nearly pulling the Tiger-Exotic off her feet. “Say again? Shapeshifting Dolphins?” He shook his head incredulously as he closed his eyes. “Shapeshifters? How the hell can that be possible?”

Tara tugged on his hand and they began to move again. “There is a surprisingly large number of Shapeshifters among the various species of animals, humanoids and plants. We don’t get to see them very often, as there are only a few that live in this region, but they exist.”

“Supposedly there were some Annunaki who could alter their appearance,” Babs told him.

He looked at her avatar with skepticism in his eyes. “I know those aliens brought a whole new game to our system,” be blew out his cheeks and ran a hand over his face. “I guess if I can accept a little squeak-toy who can fix items with his mind, I should have no problems with Shapeshifters.”

“He’s not…” began Tara.

“A squeak toy, I know, I know,” Declan laughed. “Bad habit.”

“Doc?”

“What is it, Babs.”

“We need to get the right hardware and equipment to initiate the transfer from your hard-drive to my new body.”

Declan stopped and slapped his forehead. “Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad, how could I have forgotten that? Without the hardware, we just wasted our money, and Otres’s time.”

“What is that?” Tara asked, curiously.

Declan quickly filled her in about the items they would require in order to transfer Babs. She nodded. “After we get some food for Otres, we will find the equipment. I’m pretty sure it won’t be all that difficult to find someone who is selling it,” she shrugged. “And if it’s damaged, Otres can fix it for us.”

Tara glared at him and placed her hands on her hips. “Seriously? After everything the little guy’s done for us you want him to do more? We’re out getting food for him now because of how much it taxed him to fix that body!”

His face turned a deep crimson and he looked at the ground, deep shame almost overwhelming him. “You’re right, Tara – I wasn’t thinking. He has done more than enough for us.”

Babs watched the interaction without comment.

They continued to walk in silence, and after a minute Tara took his hand in hers once again. They eventually found the shop they were looking for. Through the rain they could detect the delectable odor of baked goods, and it set his mouth watering in anticipation.

Inside the shop they were greeted by a human woman in her late forties. She was plump and had a matronly air about her. It took several minutes but by the time they left, they were carrying several freshly baked loaves of bread as well as other pastries and treats. Declan chewed contentedly on a sweet-bun with some sort of crystallized sugar on top as they walked back to the hotel.

Upon entering the room, they found Otres was still asleep, with Ra’naa sitting on the bed next to him, stroking his fur. She smiled and bade them to put the treats down. As soon as Otres was awake, they would share in the bounty.

***

May 8th, 2668, Scav Haven

“So are you going to pay for our services, or are you just wasting our time yet again?”

Bradly almost jumped out of his skin at the sound of the voice. He was inside his private room, sitting at the small desk, enjoying his lunch. Much to his credit he kept from reacting in any manner and as he slowly turned around, his eyes scanned the room.

The windows were still closed and locked, although the door was slightly ajar. He frowned and looked at the intruder. “What did you do to my guards?”

“Why, nothing!” the man smiled. The stranger was a human male, standing nearly two meters in height. He was slim of build and could not weigh more than seventy kilograms. His eyes were ice-blue and he had a shock of close-cropped blond hair.

It was cold, reptilian smile which sent a shiver through Bradly’s spine. The smile reminded him of the furred snakes that were such a nuisance around the compound. He considered calling for his guards until he saw the weapon in the stranger’s hand. It was a slim pistol, and he had seen it before. The weapon fired darts which could be used to tranquilize a target. He had to assume the weapon was also loaded with darts containing a powerful toxin.

Bradly did not want to find out.

“Well, I’m waiting,” the man stated in a friendly voice. The smile was still in place, but it never reached those ice-blue glacial eyes. He took several steps into the room, causing Bradly to backpedal, unless he wanted to bump into the man.

For some reason the very thought of touching the stranger filled Bradly with revulsion. He kept the distance. “There is a couple of Exotics in the city. They are travelling with an Uplifted vermin, an Otter. I know they are responsible for the death of one of my men and I want to repay them in kind.”

“Show me the color of your coin.”

Bradly was not expecting that. He figured since he had shown the other assassin the money, it would not be required. Still, he pulled it out and held it open for the assassin to examine. After only a brief hesitation, the man nodded and holstered the weapon. Bradly felt relief wash over him.

“This is our price, and the terms of our contract,” the assassin then outlined the contract that was required. He stated smoothly and without any emotion. He still wore the disconcerting smile and it was really beginning to creep Bradly out.

“Are these terms acceptable?” He asked when the speech was complete.

“They are,” Bradly responded and pulled the coins out. “Half now?”

The assassin nodded. “And half once the job is complete. Expenses are extra, do not forget.”

“I won’t,” Bradly handed over the gold and platinum chits to the waiting assassin.

“This is enough for one target,” the man stated as the coins disappeared into the light-weight pre-fall jacket he wore. It was a pale tan and he wore a black shirt beneath. He was also wearing pair of worn but serviceable tan cargo pants. A pair of sturdy hiking boots adorned his feet.  He adjusted his jacket and stood casually, with one hand still hovering near the butt of the pistol. “Who do you want us to kill?”

Bradly considered the question. He wanted all of them dead. It was part of his creed to see all non-humans dead and gone. His first inclination was to ask for the life of Ra’naa Ahteen, but he dismissed it. He personally wanted to kill her. What about the other Exotic, the Tiger? He shook his head. She could easily fight back and might prove to be a challenge. She too was one he wanted to deal with one on one.

Then it hit him. 

“The Uplift. I want you to kill the Otter.”

“It will be done.”

Bradly’s vision went blank for less than a second. When it returned, he found he was alone in the room. He glanced all around, looking for any sign of the assassin, but there was not a trace to be found. He reached the door in three quick steps and glanced out to see his two guards were standing there, weapons held at the ready.

“Sir?” The guard on the left asked.

Bradly shook his head. “Nothing, I just thought I heard something, that’s all.”

The man nodded and he and his companion went back to their conversation.

He closed the door quietly and tuned to face the room. He wondered if the assassin might not be a mutant of some sort, but he dismissed the thought. They would not be so crass as to send an assassin to him who was not a pure human. The man had to have been using some sort of tech.

The thought nagged him. Or would they?

***

May 8th, 2668, Scav Haven

A predator can sense the presence of another predator in their territory. In the animal kingdom, this typically meant a confrontation. Such a meeting would inevitably lead to one of two possible outcomes. One would be the death of either combatant, or the exile of the intruder.

He had grown tired of waiting outside the hotel where Ra’naa and her companions had been staying. He figured it would be more profitable to see if he could gather more on the Purists and so had changed locations. As it turned out, maybe it had been the right choice after all.

It was getting very late in the day and the faint light which had fought valiantly to break through the cloud-cover was beginning to wane.

Joey watched as the pale-haired man with the startling blue eyes stepped out of the entrance to the hotel the Purists were using. The stranger paused and glanced to the left and right, then straight up into the sky. The action had a ritualistic feel, as if it was something the man had to perform each time he left a structure.  He moved with the surety and casualness of a professional and even at the distance, Joey could almost feel the air of supreme confidence the man conveyed.

Intrigued, Joey waited until the man was approximately a half-block away. The streets were still light on pedestrians, as few were out in the cold rain. Those he saw and passed wore improvised rain-gear or carried umbrellas that came in all makes. One group of Legionnaires he passed were marching along, unaffected by the conditions. 

Joey had his hood up and pulled his jacket a little tighter around his body. The weather was unpleasant to say the least. He was beginning to feel the chill all the way to his bones. What he really wanted was to go back to his room and change into something dry and warm.

The stranger did not bother with a hood or attempt in any way to protect his body from the rain and weather. If anything, the stranger seemed to enjoy the moderate downpour. His hair was slicked back and his breath came out in short, even puffs of heated air. If he was in any discomfort, it was not obvious.

He followed the stranger for over a dozen blocks. The man’s destination was chaotic at best. He would often change directions for no apparent reason and more than once he did a complete one-eighty and returned the way he had come. Those had been particularly harrowing times for Joey as the odds of the stranger noticing him increased exponentially. 

When the stranger paused at a street vendor, who was selling hot beverages, Joey ducked into a small structure. The building had a musty odor, overlying the scent of mold and mildew.  Joey glanced about, and he was intrigued to see he had found a shop filled from floor to ceiling with old books. There had to be thousands upon thousands of books and manuscripts of all manner. He was about to step out into the rain, seeing the man purchase a drink and turn to leave, when a hand landed on his shoulder.

“Can I help you?”

The speaker was an old man, well into the eighth or ninth decade of his life. He was stooped and frail-looking but there was powerful intelligence, clearly visible through the rheumy eyes.

“Sorry, I just stopped in for a second to get out of the rain,” he replied truthfully.

The old shop-keeper smiled a toothless grin. “Please, sit down and have a tea with me. You have the look of someone who appreciates knowledge, are you literate?”

Joey wanted to push his way out and continue pursuing the stranger. He glanced out and nearly cursed aloud when he saw his quarry had disappeared. If he left now, there was a very good chance he might be able to locate his target. He looked down at the old man and could see the loneliness in his face, the need for companionship almost a physical desire.

“Yes, I know how to read,” he sighed inwardly, giving up hope of re-acquiring the target. “Sure, that would be good, it is cold out and I could use a hot drink,” he glanced back out into the streets. He could not see any sign of the stranger. It occurred to him at that moment. Why was he following the man? A complete stranger, someone he had no reason to tail, and yet…

“Come, sit down, I will bring you a tea,” The old man repeated and waved to a pair of ancient but comfortable looking chairs. There was a small table set between the chairs and upon it was chess board.

Joey took off his jacket and found the interior of the shop was pleasantly warm and the seat was exceedingly comfortable. He looked at the chess set and admired the incredible craftsmanship of the playing pieces. They were constructed of some sort of ivory or similar substance and looked as if they would come to life given the right opportunity.

When the old man disappeared into the back of the store, Joey considered standing and leaving, but he found he could not. It was not an actual force which was keeping him in place, more like a desire to get out of the cold and enjoy some comfort.

A few minutes later, the old man returned with a tray. There was an old but serviceable tea-pot and a pair of ancient mugs. The steam wafting from the spout was rich, and he felt his stomach rumble at the odor. The man had also brought a pile of home-made cookies.

The ancient relic of a man placed the tray on the table next to the chess-board. With great care, he poured out two cups of tea. After replacing the pot, he picked up one and handed it to Joey.

He took the proffered cup and sipped at the tea. It was hot, nearly scalding, but the warmth felt good. The tea was a strange blend he could not readily identify, but it had a pleasant taste. He lifted the cup in a salute to the old man. “It’s good!”

The old man smiled. “I find there is nothing better for old bones on a wet, dreary day like this.” The old man looked out the window at the street, watching as the rain came down in torrents. Already small rivers of cold water were filling the gutters, carrying away dirt and the few bits of detritus not in trash-bins.

Joey felt his own gaze travel out into the streets as he reached for one of the offered cookies. He picked it up and bit into the treat, enjoying the flavor of oatmeal and sugar. It was heavenly, compared to the food he was used to consuming in the Installation. As he watched, a massive rat, the size of a German shepherd, shoved aside a manhole cover and crawled out of the sewer. In an instant his hand went to his hip and he had drawn the pistol he kept secured there.

The rat stood on its hind legs and looked about, seemingly confused. It had two tails, which ended in spikes like he had seen on pictures of ancient dinosaurs. The fur was patchy and where the skin was exposed, it gleamed with something other rainwater. The monster was thickly muscled, which writhed with every movement it made. As if sensing it was being watched, the Rat-monster turned its gaze towards Joey and the old man.

In an instant, Joey was out of his seat and he was pushing his way towards the door. The handgun was gripped in his now-sweating palm and he felt a pang of fear. The creature was clearly a mutant, and from the confused look on its face, it was not familiar with the area.

“Wait, don’t go out there son!” The old man cried and he too was on his feet, but age and decrepit old bones and muscle betrayed the man. Joey was already out in the rain before the man had managed to stand fully erect.

Joey was not entirely sure how to react to the creature. It stood on its hind legs, staring in both confusion and open hostility as he carefully moved towards it. The lips of the rats face curled back to reveal small, dagger-like teeth. Despite the distance, Joey could see the teeth were barbed and pointed backwards towards the throat. He knew he did not want to be bitten by the creature.

“Get back in the sewers if you want to live,” Joey called out. He was scared and at the same time he was very pleased at how calm he sounded to his own ears.

A low, snarling growl came from the throat of the rat-monster. It lifted one very human-like paw, except the paw had eight digits and two opposable thumbs, and waved at the handgun.

Joey had only a microsecond to register the force tugging on the handgun before the rat-monster pulled it from his hand. The weapon flew across the meters separating both of them and the monster caught it with casual ease. It looked down at the weapon, obviously inspecting it and it nodded in approval. A heartbeat later, the monster aimed the weapon at Joey and squeezed the trigger.

Joey had only one defense. He activated his personal teleporter just as the monster squeezed the trigger. The handgun roared and a tongue of flame, nearly a half-meter in length, licked out from the barrel.

He was certain he felt the round punch through the first layer of his jacket just as he disappeared from view. In the blink of an eye, he was behind the creature. As he travelled through the strange dimension opened by the device, he had drawn the sword he had purchased in his hand. The molecular-thin edge of the blade shone majestically in the weak light coming through the thick layer of clouds.

Sensing the danger, the rat-monster did not bother to turn; instead it swept out with both of the tails, each flaying the air with the spikes. Joey moved, but not fast enough. The second tail’s spikes caught his shin. The strike was not quite full on, which was good, and he felt the white-hot pain as the bony spikes tore through the fabric of his pants. Needles of agony crawled up his leg and caused his knee to buckle as the flesh was torn and the spikes dug shallow furrows along his tibia.

He slashed out with the sword, but the pain and the sudden cramps along the muscled of his knee and thigh were enough to turn the blow away. It swished over the monster’s head, missing by a good twenty centimeters or more.

This time the rat-monster turned and regarded the blade in Joey’s hand. It was still holding the pistol and as it had before, the creature lifted its empty hand and made a ‘come-hither’ gesture towards Joey.

He was ready for it this time, and he felt the blade shake in his grip. The pain was causing him to feel light-headed and slightly nauseous, but he refused to relinquish his grip. A look of consternation came over the rat-monster’s face and he growled low and deep. The tugging sensation grew and the blade quivered like a living thing in Joey’s hand.

The blade flew from Joey’s palm and landed with a meaty smack in the rat-monster’s grip. With a shout which was half growl, have cackle, the creature examined the blade, utterly unconcerned at the now-unarmed human standing a few meters from it. A second later, the creature turned its red-tinged gaze towards Joey, the lips pealing back from the deadly teeth.

Joey knew he was in trouble.