Buck Who? Chapter 23

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 23: Intruder alert! Intruder alert!

May 9th, 2668, Scav Haven

            “How do you feel?”

            Babs, newly installed in her body, activated the servos and brought a hand up to her face. She peered through the optics, which had taken her a few seconds to get used to. In machine language terms, that was almost an eternity. The body felt… strange, if she was going to be honest with herself. She said as much.

            Declan grinned and placed a hand on her artificial shoulder. “You’ll get used to it in time,” he said confidently and squeezed.

            She turned her head and examined the appendage, taking in all the minute details, every hair, every crease. This body certainly had advantages Declan’s meat body did not have. It was utterly different as night and day when it came to the ship she had once been.

            Otres, Ra’naa and Tara stared, as if in anticipation for something to happen. Babs looked back and forth through the group and then without warning, she grabbed Declan and hugged him tightly.

            He squeaked in shock but quickly recovered. He wrapped his own arms around his former internal guest and hugged her back. The flesh beneath his skin felt odd. It was warm and soft to the touch, but there was the underlying plastic, artificial feel to it. “Welcome to the real world,” he whispered.

            Babs happened to notice the angry look coming from Tara, so she reluctantly let him go. “Thanks, Doc,” She smiled.  What an odd sensation, using the artificial musculature beneath the surface of the plastic skin to move. She took a hesitant step back from her best friend and looked down at her naked, unadorned body. It was too masculine, even in its androgynous state for her liking.

            Tara crossed the few meters to where they were standing and took Declan’s arm in a very possessive manner. “Remember what I said, Babs,” she intoned dangerously.

            The android looked up from the examination of her body and a slight frown creased her smooth face. “I haven’t forgotten, nor am I likely to forget.”

            Satisfied, Tara nodded. “You feel strange, in what way?”

            Babs ran her hands up and down the side of her new body. “I used to be a Starfighter. Then I rode in Declan’s mind for hundreds of years. I got used to his organic body, even if it had been in cryogenic suspension. This…” she reached up and touched her face, feeling the unlined smoothness of the plastic-like skin. “This is totally different.”

            Otres scampered over and stood on his hind legs so he was essentially at her crotch. He placed his hands on her belly and ran them over the smoothness. Looking up, he chittered and waggled his whiskers.

            Babs looked down at him and then knelt before the little Uplift. “Sorry, I can’t hear your thoughts,” she confessed. Babs knew he had been speaking to her, or at least trying to speak to her via telepathy.

            She then did something she was not expecting to. She grabbed Otres and picked him up, kissed him on the forehead and hugged him. He protested with a series of squeaks and growls but calmed down and accepted her affections with as much dignity as he could muster.

            Great, now she thinks I’m a toy as well, He grumbled to the rest, who laughed at his discomfort.

            “We know this model can change its outer appearance, so why don’t you give it a shot,” Declan suggested.

            “Give me a minute,” Babs replied and she placed Otres back on the floor. She sped through the menus and sub-routines installed in the body and found what she had been looking for. Her eyes shone in pleasure as she looked at her friend. “Found it,” she announced.

            “Don’t keep us waiting,” Tara demanded.

            Bab’s felt the strangest sensation as the plastic-like flesh of her new body moved and reformed. It took a matter of a few seconds for the transformation to complete, and when she was finished, Babs looked feminine. Looking down at her body, she had curves in the right places, small breasts and she even had short, pink hair on her head. Anyone looking at her would instantly see she was inhuman, a construct, but at least it was a start.

            “Not too shabby,” Ra’naa mused. A moment later she returned with some clothing and handed the small bundle to Babs. The AI turned android took the offered garments and slipped them on over her naked frame. After she was dressed, she did a little pirouette. She was clad in a simple t-shirt; an old beat-up black jean-jacket, brown khaki’s which had seen better days, and work-boots.

            “Can’t have you walking around naked,” Tara laughed, admiring the Android. Secretly she was pleased the android did not look even remotely human, nor was she sexually appealing. It meant her chances of stealing Declan back would be significantly lessened.

            “No,” Babs said in her now feminine voice, “that’s your job, isn’t it?”

            The room went silent, and a few seconds seemed to stretch into eternity. At long last Tara grinned, although it was feral and never reached her eyes. “Nice comeback.”

            Otres yawned widely and stretched, and then he chittered and motioned towards the bed. I’m still pretty tired, so can we call it a night?

            Ra’naa nodded. “Yeah, let’s get some sleep. I guess we’re all but finished here, so why don’t we begin the trek home first thing in the morning?”

            No one argued, but at the last minute, Tara turned and stared curiously at Babs. “Where are you going to sleep?”

            The question took the Android by surprise. She reached up to scratch at her ears, only to realize at the last second she no longer had big, floppy rabbit ears. Frowning, she tugged on her left lobe. “I don’t need sleep; I don’t need rest or even food.”

            “Well, you are not staying in our room,” Tara said flatly, with a finality which brokered no argument. “I’m done with threesomes with you, so for once you can stay away while I share my body with Declan.” She stared at the Android, her hands on her hips as if daring Babs to say something.

            Feeling the tension in the air, Ra’naa shook her head and moved to stand between the Tiger-Exotic and the Android. “No need to be like that, Tara,” she stared her friend directly in the eyes, challenging the woman as Tara had with Babs. “She can stay here in our room.”

            “Thanks, Ra’naa,” Babs said sincerely.

            “Night, everyone,” Declan said, already walking to the door joining the two rooms together. In an instant, he and Tara were gone, the door closed with a finality behind them.

            Babs stared at the door for a few moments. She really wanted to go into the room and join them. She had not been apart from Declan for so long, it felt alien. Sighing, she knew it was something she would just have to get used to.

            Ra’naa was already undressed, blew out the light, and then slid into the bed. Babs watched, feeling something akin to jealousy as the Dragon-Exotic snuggled up with the little Uplift and closed her eyes.

            The darkness did not concern Babs. She had a full sensor array, and switched to infra-red. After watching the rain-soaked night, she switched to low-light and then Ultraviolet. The range of vision she now possessed was far greater than anything Declan had.

            And yet, she found she missed looking through his eyes. She really missed it. Without realizing she had, Babs backed away from the window and moved silently across the room until she was standing next to the door. She lifted one hand and placed it on the door, a longing filling her artificial breast.

            Babs leaned her head forward until it rested upon the door. She increased her audio sensors to the maximum and listened as Declan and Tara made love. The Tiger-Exotic’s soft moans of pleasure and his equally soft grunts filled her with desire and more than a little jealousy. She had made the promise to Tara, and she was not about to break it. Babs pulled her head away from the door and gave it a little shake, smiling sadly in the darkness. Technically, Declan was all hers. He should be hers; after all, they had been together for centuries.

            Declan, however, was only human. He was organs, blood, bone and flesh. Babs started out as countless lines of code, and had been a Starfighter. She was now an Android, and was one step closer to humanity, but still far removed. As far removed from humans as humans were from apes.

            She would never be able to provide the one thing that Tara could. Although she loved Declan, and he loved her in return, it was different. And she could never bare children for him. It made her jealous to think the Tiger-Exotic would eventually give birth to his babies.

            A slight sound penetrated her deep brooding. Like a hiss of compressed air. It came from across the room, where the entrance was located. Moving as silent as a ghost, she turned and stared at the door. She realized with a start there was no light leaking from beneath the doorway.

            Instantly she brought up all her sensors and shifted her position. The beauty of her new visual sensor suite was she could employ one or more of the different modes at once. Her vision separated into different screens, and the room came into stark relief in each one. The infrared spectrum showed the warm bodies curled up on the bed, with the lighter, bluish tones indicating colder temperatures.

            The low-light function took the little light pouring in from the rain-slicked window. She was looking at the interior of the room as if it was high noon or someone had turned on all the oil-lamps. Babs was about to look at the ultraviolet sensor display when she realized the area around the door was engulfed in complete blackness. As if someone had transplanted a section of the deepest space and placed it at the doorway. No light could penetrate this strange, black-hole phenomena.

            Her audio sensors still on maximum sensitivity made out the creaks and groans as someone picked the lock. A second later, the lock sprung and the door was opened slowly, cautiously.

            A black-shrouded figure slipped in and paused, slowly scanning the interior of the room. Babs was confused, not understanding why she could see a basic outline of the intruder but not the intruder itself. Then in a micro-second she realized the intruder was wearing some sort of stealth gear.

            And the intruder had a small handgun in its hand. Babs knew she had to act. With the alacrity afforded by her new body, she launched at the intruder, as the invader raised the weapon.

            At the very last second, the intruder sensed Babs sudden attack and turned to face her. The handgun was now aimed directly at Babs’ midsection and it coughed quietly.

            To Babs’s heightened senses, the cough sounded like thunder and she felt something small and sharp hit her stomach. Or at least where her stomach would be if she had been organic. Milliseconds later, she was gripping the hands of the invader and squeezing with all her might.

            If the intruder was surprised by the sudden appearance of the Android, it did not show it. As Babs took hold of the invader’s wrists, it fell backwards.  As it allowed gravity to take hold, it lifted its feet and sent Babs hurtling overhead.

            Babs was not expecting the maneuver, but she compensated. She allowed the intruder to launch her, but instead of letting go, she redoubled the pressure of her hand on the wrist. There was a crunching sound and sensation beneath her fingers. Just before she hit the wall, she heard a loud audible pop as the arm was pulled out of its socket.

            The intruder was overwhelmed by the double agony of a splintered wrist and a dislocated shoulder screamed. It was high and shrill, not at all masculine.

            Babs clamped on with both hands and wrenched the arm further, and there was a sickening sound of flesh and muscle tearing. “Drop the weapon or I will tear your arm from its socket!” She roared so loudly, it caused the glass in the window-panes to rattle.

            The intruder went limp in her grip. It came so suddenly and unexpectedly, Babs nearly dropped the woman’s arm. In the same instant, Ra’naa and Otres were awake and out of the bed. Ra’naa rushed over to where Babs stood over the prone form of the intruder. She casually kicked the discarded gun. It slid across the bare floor of the room and came to rest just beneath the window.

            “We have an uninvited guest,” Babs informed her unnecessarily.

            “How did she get in?” Ra’naa asked as she knelt beside the prone figure. She was hesitant to touch the assassin.

            A second later both Tara and Declan appeared in the adjoining door. Of course, both were naked, and Declan stood behind Tara, keeping his arousal hidden. “What the hell is going on?” Tara growled.

            “We were attacked,” Ra’naa began when the prone figure suddenly shifted and rolled away. The movement was so fast and unexpected; it took the Dragon-Exotic completely by surprise. In the time it took for the movement to register in her mind, the intruder was lunging towards the discarded pistol.

            Squeaking in anger, Otres sprang for the weapon, determined to keep the invader from regaining it. His little hands came around the barrel of the weapon and he tried to reverse the grip, so the barrel was pointing at the intruder.

            As the intruder moved, so did Ra’naa, Tara and Declan. Everyone was reaching out to try and stop her from either getting the weapon, or escaping. The window was too close for comfort, and if it did not provide a quick escape, there were two doors leading out.

            Tara moved with the grace and speed of a Tiger. She cleared the distance between her and the intruder in a single bound. Sensing the impending danger, the intruder ducked and rolled to one side, pulling her away from the discarded weapon. She landed in a crouch, facing her five opponents.

            Otres managed to twist the weapon in his grip and without hesitation, he fired at the intruder. The weapon made a barely audible chuffing sound and the woman grunted as a dart smashed into her rib-cage.

            Only the dart failed to penetrate the stealth-suit she was wearing.

            Not willing to give the intruder a chance to react, Tara lunged, hissing like a scalded cat and raking with her claws. The woman deftly dodged, even from a crouch, and scuttled further to the side. It was pretty obvious she was attempting to get to the doorway, as the window was covered.

            Tara pushed harder, coming in low. She knew better than to try and charge her opponent, but at the same time she was determined to sink her claws into warm flesh. When she finally managed to close the distance, she threw a flurry of slashes, followed by upper cuts and downward strikes.

            The intruder managed to block each blow, moving far faster than Tara thought was humanly possible. She managed to gain another meter towards her escape. Ra’naa came racing towards her, and at the last second possible, she leapt into the air, executing a graceful flying spinning back-kick. The blow should have landed, but the intruder moved impossibly fast, and managed to twist her body to the side. From a hidden sheath, the intruder pulled out short blade. A second later it flicked to light, a blue nimbus surrounding it as it hummed.

            Ra’naa moved so she was flanking the armed intruder, keeping Tara directly across from her. Otres stood off to the side, still aiming the dart-gun and Declan was nowhere to be seen. Babs strode forward, full of confidence. “Drop the weapon and surrender,” she said.

            The invader ignored here as she sized up the predicament she was in. The window and both exits from the room were now blocked. Without speaking, she lashed out with a back-kick.

            Ra’naa had been waiting for such a move; it still caught her by surprise. The air in her lungs blew out in an explosive whoosh and she doubled over. She had barely enough time to tighten her stomach muscles before the booted foot connected. The power behind the strike was impressive.

            Otres and Tara made their moves. The little Uplift firing the pistol at the intruder’s masked face, while Tara came in low, sweeping with her leg.  It was an attempt to knock the invader off her feet, leaving her vulnerable.

            The invader twisted her torso as the dart left the weapon and it hit the wall, sinking all the way until it disappeared. Tara was a little more successful, although the intruder had tried to leap out of the way. Tara still managed to catch her and the strike shifted the invader’s center of balance and when she landed, she was staggered.

            Babs knew this was her opportunity and waded in. She used the android’s incredible strength and speed, lashing out and catching the intruder’s arm. The woman fought like a caged bear, twisting and slashing out with the blade. It came within less than a centimeter of Babs arm. The AI turned android snaked out with her empty hand and caught the woman’s wrist. She squeezed and bones cracked and ground under her grip. The blade slipped from numb fingers to clatter on the floor, the blue nimbus flickered and disappeared.

            Deja’vu, she thought. This already happened!

            A second later, as Tara and Ra’naa were closing in, there was a thunderous boom and the intruder’s head snapped back. Her entire body went absolutely limp and she slid to the floor, held up only by Babs grip on her shattered wrist.

            Everyone turned and saw a naked Declan standing in the door, the handgun he had been carrying since his rescue in one hand. A tendril of spent powder danced from the barrel, moving with a slow, snake-like rhythm.

            “Well, that’s not good,” Ra’naa stated, looking at the corpse. Blood was beginning to pool under the head, spreading out like a deep crimson flower.

            “Yeah, it took all of us to take down one woman,” Tara spat on the corpse.

            Otres knelt by the woman and pulled the hood off her face. It came away with a sickeningly squelching sound. The round had punched through the cloth and penetrated just above the left eye. There was a neat black hole where it had entered, and the eye had been reduced to jelly from the transfer of kinetic energy. Very little blood came from the entry wound, but the back of the skull was a different matter entirely.

            “Nice shot,” Ra’naa said, nodding in appreciation.

            The hood she had been wearing stopped the round as it passed through the skull. The back of the head was leaking copious amounts of blood and brain matter. Ra’naa peered down at the corpse and shook her head. The woman looked human, except she had a series of strange, plant-like tendrils crossing her cheeks and down her neck. The tendrils were a light green and as she watched, looked as if they were dying.

            Then came a pounding at the door, as one, they all turned and stared at the entrance. “Open up right now!”

            Tara was the closest to the door. She reached out and opened the door to reveal the hotel manager and a pair of armed men. All three were human and the two guards were wearing ballistic body-armor and carrying large, deadly looking handguns. The manager looked at Tara’s naked body and began to blush. He was about to speak, then his eyes took in the sight of the corpse leaking fluids on the floor. “What the hell is going on here?”

            Ra’naa waved her hands in a calming gesture and then came over to stand before the manager. She quickly filled in how the now-dead intruder had snuck into the room and attacked them.

            When she completed her tale, the manager shook his head. “I’m going to have to call the Legion; they are going to want to begin an investigation.”

            Babs, who was standing over by the window, shook her head. “No need,” she waved one hand towards the street. “They’re here.”

 

***     

May 9th, 2668, The Installation

 

            Over a hundred years had passed since the last time the sirens were used in the installation. They underwent routine maintenance at least twice annually to ensure they were in perfect working order. So when the sirens began to blare across the complex, heads turned and stared at the speakers in something akin to shock.

            The sirens continued to blare, sending every member of the installation running towards battle-stations.  The vast majority of the inhabitants were not human, or even organic, and as such, felt little to no emotion. Those who could feel were experiencing a mixture of anxiety, fear and dread.

            Every station was manned in less than thirty seconds. Most of the various stations were always manned at any rate, so they were prepared. Still, bimonthly drills kept everyone on their toes and prepared for the worst.

            Which was exactly the case.

            Awoan stood with her hands clasped behind her back, watching as the drones glided over the terrain. She was reminded how like the Eagles and other raptors they were, at least when it came to flight. The sleek devices were graceful and smooth, changing course with ease. Even with the payload attached to the exterior of each weapon, the flight was a thing of beauty to behold. 

            Emtwoan had discarded most of the holographic displays, keeping only the ones which showed the progress of the drones open. She continued to deftly manipulate the incoming data and sent it off to those who would require it the most. “Defensive systems are manned and online,” she announced.

            “Good,” Awoan intoned. She cleared her throat and spoke in her calm yet commanding voice. “You are free to engage the intruders, be warned, the drones appear to be armed with nuclear weapons. As soon as you have a firing solution, do not hesitate,” she paused as if for dramatic effect. “Take them out!”

            A series of replies came over her internal communication relay. There were numerous batteries scattered around the mountains, protecting the installation from such occurrences. It was ironic, she mused… the installation had originally been constructed as part of a massive defensive shield. In fact, the installation still had a ship-killing Rail Gun, combined with lasers and a series of missile batteries.

            The weapons were powerful enough to take out incoming ballistic missiles. The weapons worked perfectly against fighters, bombers and even star craft – but they were too big for something as small as a drone!  The weapons were useless in this fight. Awoan had them retracted into the deep, protective bunkers. It was to minimize the damage they could potentially sustain if one of the nukes managed to get through the other defenses.

            As she watched the monitors, several of the perimeter batteries began firing. Lasers and seeker missiles flew out of the hidden batteries. One drone was caught entirely unawares and was blown out of the sky. The debris rained down upon the forest, scattered over nearly half a kilometer. Fortunately it was still very damp and none of the wreckage started any fires.

            Awoan felt like shouting for joy and congratulating her gunners, but it was beneath her. She stated ‘good job’ over the internal communications and then continued to observe.

            The remaining drones went into dives, jinking and dodging. One even began to drop both flares and chaff, and finally released a floating disk. The missiles which had been homed in on it suddenly veered off course. Several shut down entirely and fell from the sky, to impact on the surface of the forested mountain below. Three more suddenly began a deadly game of cat and mouse, homing in on one another while trying to evade each other. This lasted for nearly fifteen seconds, a deadly aerial ballet, before they finally managed to get within a kill range and detonated. The missiles disappeared in a cloud of fire and shrapnel.

            “Keep firing, use as many resources as are required,” Awoan said calmly.

            Emtwoan knew the Android leader far too well. She could detect the underlying fear in the other woman’s voice. She had given her cart blanch permission to use as many resources as they required to stop the drones was unprecedented.

            The remaining Drones continued to travel NOE or nape of Earth, staying low, just skimming the tree-tops, or in some cases, dodging and weaving between the trees. The surviving drones had pushed through the outer perimeter defenses and were rapidly eating up the meters separating it from the inner defense. Several of the Androids popped up from hidden tunnels and bunkers. They were armed with shoulder-launched anti-aircraft weapons. They added their guided war-heads to the missiles and other weapons.

            Most of the shoulder-launched weapons proved to be ineffective, or were defeated through decoys and electronic warfare carried by the drones.  Several, launched in synchronicity, homed in on the first drone, the one in the lead. Awoan and Emtwoan both had to admire the tenacity of the weapon as it went through a complex series of maneuvers. It fought back by launching decoys and hitting the homing weapons with wave after wave of jamming.

            In the end, the efforts of the machine intelligence guiding the drone were for naught. The warheads converged, the first exploding while the rest were still behind. The fragments and shockwave from the explosion peppered and raked the drone. This destroyed most of the payload the weapon was carrying. It also caused catastrophic damage to the propulsion and maneuvering systems.

            Having slowed down to a fraction of its original speed, the remaining warheads converged and detonated. The drone was obliterated in a heartbeat, turning into a fiery rain of shrapnel and bits of alloy and composite plastics.

            At the very last second, the drone managed to launch two self-guided missiles. They were both out of the blast-radius and were climbing into the sky. “This is not good,” Awoan groaned.

            The final drone pushed the envelope and made it into the inner ring of defenses. It was now within two kilometres of the main body of the installation. Sirens continued to blare throughout the installation and the weapons fire doubled, then doubled again.  The defenders had one last kick at the can before all was lost. If the missiles or bombs the drone was carrying detonated, she feared for the effects on not only the installation, but her people. She and majority of the installations inhabitants were Androids. They were not made of flesh and bone, but were instead constructed of and relied on electronics to function.

            The nuclear warhead was bad enough. The real issue was the EMP the weapon generated upon detonation. This could conceivably kill every last Android in the installation.

            She crossed her arms under her breasts and one foot began to tap, conveying more than words ever could, on just how agitated she was. Now the inner defenses began to fire on the drone. Energy bolts, powerful enough to take down a light cruiser, burned through the air. The passing energy turned the oxygen and other molecules into super-heated plasma, allowing a viewer to see. The bolts would be unseen to the naked eye, as they would be in space.

            Wave after wave of super-accelerated metal balls and slivers were fired by the installations defensive rail-guns. Even more missiles flew, locating and then homing in on the drone. The programming possessed by the weapon was incredible. It met every danger, every challenge and accepted with a human-like glee.

            After what felt like an eternity, the drone reached, unscathed, the pinnacle of the installation. The drone detonated the nuclear weapon it was carrying. Instead of dropping or firing each individual device, it had come on a suicide mission.

            Awoan had time to utter a single, disbelieving word.

“No.”

             

***     

May 10th, 2668, Northeast of the Seattle ruins

 

            Arleen opened her eyes and she sat up, fear filling her heart and soul. She had no idea where she was, and it was so cold! She was wrapped in a blanket and as her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she realized she was lying in a lean-to. At least, that’s what Andy had called it. All at once the memories came back of her and the guard leaving the brothel and then making it out of the city.

            She took a deep breath and tasted the cool, damp air filling her lungs. Closing her eyes, she relished the newness and strangeness of the sensation. It was unlike anything she had ever experienced before and Arleen realized she could grow used to it.

            When she opened her eyes again, she looked around and was gratified to see Andy was in his own bed-roll, sleeping only a few dozen centimeters from her. His chest rose with each breath and he looked so peaceful.

            How strange it felt to sleep anywhere but her bed, and to sleep in her clothing. She was not used to such sensations, and was quite amazed she had managed to get any sleep at all. The fear had been a constant companion as they made their way from the brothel to the gates. When they made it past the guards without so much as a second look, she thought she would pass out.

            You cannot stay filled with fear for so long without it taking a toll.  Her breath misted in the air as she sat up and lowered the blankets. It was cold, but invigorating at the same time. She stood up as quietly as she could manage and stepped out into the surrounding forest. The light was just starting to reveal the landscape around her and she was shocked at how green it was.

            The vast ocean of trees and plants was occasionally broken by splashes of color from flowers and other plants. She turned her face and looked up, drinking in the majestic trees, captivated by the height. There was so much life!

            The ground was covered by a thin layer of mist, and it was still quite damp. Droplets fell from the trees in a steady patter, and it was almost as if they were experiencing a rainfall. It had been raining when they made their camp, but now it looked as if the skies were clearing.  Arleen held hope it would be a beautiful day.

            Her belly grumbled and she realized how hungry she felt. They had consumed some baked goods he had been kind enough to bring along, but he never let on if he had any more food with him. The pack he was carrying suggested they were well equipped, but she did not want to go digging through it. That would be a violation of his privacy.

            Reaching over, she gently shook his shoulder. He came awake in an instant, sitting straight and his hand reaching for the weapon he had under his pillow. “What?”

            She lowered her eyes shyly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you; I was just going to ask if we had food?”

            He yawned and stretched. “Yeah, in the pack, eat whatever you want,” he stood and then shook like a dog getting out of the rain. He glanced at her. “How did you sleep?”

            “Poorly, she confessed, feeling guilty. “I’m not used to being outdoors like this.”

            “It’ll grow on you in time, but expect to be tired for the next few days.”

            “Where are we going?”

            He pondered the question and rubbed his chin. For the first time she could recall, she saw stubble growing there. As he worked at the brothel, he always kept his face meticulously clear of facial hair.

            After a few seconds he waved to the North and East. “There is a war coming against the Purists. I caught word from a few of my contacts that there is a group up there, putting together an army to fight back. I think we should go and talk to them.”

            “Seriously?”

            He nodded. “Yup. You’re an exotic, and that puts you on their list. Even if you weren’t and instead you were an Uplift, they would still want to see you dead.”

            She knew all about the Purists. It was hard not to know what they were and what they were doing. News had been arriving for months. She assumed none of her clients were Purists or had any sympathies towards them. After all, if they were, they would never have taken her. Although a few tended to be rather rough, she remembered. Never rough enough to cause concern, or to be tossed out into the street, but still.

            He knelt by the bag and opened it. From inside he withdrew several wrapped sandwiches and a couple of bottles of water. He handed her one and a bottle, keeping the other. “If you don’t want to go, I guess we could find somewhere else,” he offered, seeing the concern on her furry face.

            Arleen unwrapped the sandwich and sniffed daintily. It was meat, cheese, and mustard. The smell made her mouth water and she dug in. As she ate, Andy began to roll up the bedding and put it away. He worked quickly and efficiently, economical in his motions. In a matter of minutes he broke the camp and had placed everything in the packs. He paused long enough to grab some food for himself and motioned for her to follow.

            In the pre-dawn gloom, the forest was just settling in for the day. The night-creatures were returning to their nests and dens, some successful in the hunt, others with empty bellies. Those which lived and frolicked during the day were just now stirring, ready to take the place of the night-dwellers.

            As they navigated the trail, the ground-fog swirled and moved as if they were wading through a stream. Eddies of air caused the fog to move in strange and often frightening patterns, as if disturbed from below. Arleen pushed away the fear, looking at the strong man ahead of her, reassured by his presence.

            Each minute passed, the light grew stronger and the fog began to fade, slinking back to hide in the gullies and thickets where the sun rarely penetrated. The sky was a deep blue, turning to lighter shades further east. Nowhere was there a cloud to be seen. Now she was certain it was going to be a beautiful day.

            They travelled in companionable silence for over an hour, following the rarely-used trail that paralleled the coast. Even this far out from the ruins of Seattle, there were plenty of ruins to be found. Before the end of the final wars, this area of the coastline had been heavily populated. The further one ventured from the hearts of the great cities of Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria, the less one saw of industry. Most of the ruins they passed were former homes and small businesses. Occasionally they would come across the remains of a warehouse or other similar structure, but those were the exception, not the rule.

            Every ruin they encountered, they gave wide berths. Most would be empty, long since given up any inhabitants. Still, there were those which showed signs of being used. Animal scat and markings could be seen on some, if you knew what you were looking for. Others had shown signs of repair or refurbishment. These were the structures they wanted to avoid at all costs.

            There were plenty of people of all races and creeds living in the forests and hills, and not all were friendly. Fact was, most were cautiously neutral at best, openly hostile at worst. Considering the war the Purists waged, Andy might have already encountered trouble, if it were not for Arleen. He could easily pass as a pure human, as he showed no signs of mutation. She was an Exotic, and as such would be targeted for extermination by the Purists.

            They were rapidly closing in on the shoreline. The air was laden with a salty tang and she could almost taste the moisture. The sound of the waves crashing along the rocky coast was so strong she would almost have to shout to be heard. Through the trees, she could see the angry sea, the surf high, and the waves. Some were at least two meters, sometimes higher, thrusting relentlessly against the shore. It was odd, as the wind was strong, but not strong enough to produce such a reaction from the Pacific.

            At last they broke through the trees and stood at the edge of the beach, staring out over the Pacific ocean. The sky was blue and free of cloud for as far as they could see. Gulls and other birds flew out over the waves, dipping and diving, riding the currents or taking risks by gliding over the violent waves.

            The rocky shore was soaked with sea-water, almost up to the treeline. Debris, both natural and man-made was on display up and down the coast. The entire beach was alive with movement – crabs and other scavengers, gulls and even small, rodent-like creatures. They were hunting for breakfast or simply picking through the detritus left from the night.

            Something thin and silky gently settled across her face. It touched her on the nose and tickled slightly. Arleen sneezed and then went to wipe the offending strand away. It stuck to her hand and when she tugged at it, there was a slight resistance, as if it was attached to an anchor point. She held up her hand and followed the strand.

            What she saw on the other end of the silky thread made her scream.

 

***     

May 10th, 2668, Scav Haven

 

            Ra’naa was exhausted. They had spent the entire night and the first few hours after dawn explaining to the Legion representatives what had occured. Gunfire inside the city limits was strictly forbidden, and though it was entirely in self-defence, the Legion representative wanted to press charges.

            After many hours of argument and some veiled threats, it was agreed upon they would pay a fine and leave as soon as the transaction had taken place. The fine was stiff, and it consumed the remaining currency they had brought with them, but in the end they were given permission to retrieve their mounts and depart.

            No one had gotten any rest during the long hours of interrogation and examination. What rankled her even more was they were not allowed to keep the weapons or equipment the mutant assassin had brought with her.

            Even more perplexing however, was how the assassin had healed from the devastating attacks Babs had inflicted. It was obvious from what she had said, using her Android’s enhanced strength, Babs had nearly ripped the assassin’s arm from her body.

            The evidence was right there, the assassin had shrugged off the attack and used her arm as if she had sustained no damage. Ra’naa figured she might possess a regenerative mutation or possibly use some sort of psionic ability to reverse the damage inflicted.

            In the end, Ra’naa and her friends insisted the body be destroyed, least it return from the dead. The Legionnaire in charge scoffed and laughed, saying such was impossible. They carted the corpse away just after dawn.

            At least Zeus and the other Brutes were happy to see them. The big Brute was pawing impatiently at the ground and she could easily see he was eager to be on the road and to return home. The stable-hands had taken excellent care of him and the others, but being cooped up as he had was starting to wear thin. When he spotted Babs, he looked back at Ra’naa and his big, beautiful eyes went wide. Ra’naa burst out laughing as the Brute did a classic double take.

            “Easy, Zeus,” she said in her most soothing tone. She reached up and stroked his soft nose, feeling the heat of his breath against her palm. “Her name is Babs, and she was with Declan the entire time.”

            Zeus turned his gaze upon the human and his eyes narrowed as if to accuse him of keeping secrets.

            Babs came over and held out her artificial hand for the Brute to sniff. He turned his head and stared down at her with one dinner-plate sized eye. They stood there, staring for several seconds before he turned his head. He sniffed her fingers, and then pulled his head back, the nostrils flared. It was as if the Brute was tasting her scent, trying to decide if she was acceptable or not.

            “Hi, Zeus,” Babs said, causing the plastic-like flesh of her face to crease in a passable imitation of a smile. “I’m Babs.”

            The Brute shook his head and then lowered it so he could peer directly into the lenses of her eyes. Tentatively, she reached up and rubbed the spot directly between both eyes. When the Brute neither protested nor pulled away, it became clear to everyone she had been accepted.

            Otres came over and chittered at Zeus. The Brute lowered his head even further and gave the little Uplift a gentle nudge, which still had enough power to send Otres sprawling. He got up and chittered and squeaked loudly, but anyone listening could hear the laughter in his vocalizations. It took only fifteen minutes to get their gear stowed and secured and then they were off, heading towards the front gate of the city.

            As they were exiting the stable, a familiar woman with the lower body of a serpent slithered before them. She was accompanied by her mutant husband and two children. “Ra’naa?” She said, stopping before them to peer up at the riders.

            She looked down at the small group. “Cassidy, right?” Ra’naa gasped in fright when the boy slithered up and held up his arms to Zeus. She was going to warn the child away when the Brute lowered his head and allowed the child to hug him. His tongue flicked out and licked the young boy, eliciting laughter from the child. “I see you two have met,” she commented.

            “Yes, several days ago. We recognized the horses. I wanted to have a chance to meet you and say thank you for what you did for us.”

            Ra’naa waved a dismissive hand, although Otres was leaning forward, watching the interaction between the child and the Brute. Maybe we should invite them to come home with us, He suggested.

            Tara and Declan watched, their faces impassive, as did Babs. She was completely covered from head to toe and wore a hoody, pulled down so it concealed her face.

            “How are you settling in?” Ra’naa asked. 

            By now Cassidy’s husband and daughter joined them and were staring up impassively. The husband nodded and waved the now-healed stump in recognition of what she had done for him.

            “This city is a lot larger than we could have imagined, and there is work, plenty of it, if you want to go into the ruins.”

            “And you don’t want your husband risking his life as a scavenger,” Ra’naa finished.

            Cassidy looked down at the ground and then back up at her. “That’s true. We were farmers and hunters before,” she grimaced and then spat on the ground. “Before the Purists changed it all.”

            Tara brought her Brute up so that it stood next to Zeus. She looked down at the family. “We have plenty of room at the community,” she said, deciding to put to words what Otres suggested.

            Both the man and woman looked skeptical. “You might have plenty of room, but would you accept someone like us?” She waved a hand to her lower body, indicating the snake-like form, and then looked pointedly at her husband and children.

            “Lady,” Declan half-laughed. “They accept everyone there. I’ve seen Damaged, other mutants, and a few plain old humans like me. I’d say they have a disproportionate number of Exotics, but other than that… they are pretty open minded.

            Otres peered down at her and squeaked.

            Ra’naa laughed. “And we have at least one Uplift,” she gently stroked his back. “This is Otres, he can speak to you using telepathy, but does not want to do so without your permission.”

            The little girl looked up at the Uplift and her big eyes grew to the size of saucers. “A toy!”

            Declan had to bite his lower lip to keep from bursting out laughing. Still, his humor was so powerfully projected that Otres glared at him for a heartbeat. “Sorry honey, he’s not a toy. He’s a fully grown adult.”

            Otres stood up and crossed his arms under his chest and chittered at the child.

            With a sigh, Cassidy shook her head. “Okay, I give you permission to use Telepathy on us.”

            Thank you, Cassidy. Otres projected. He turned his bemused gaze upon the girl. And I am not a toy, though I might sound like one. What is your name?

            Two of her arms were crossed. One arm was playing with a curl in her hair, and the other she held to her mouth and lightly chewed on the flesh of one finger. “Eliza,” she replied shyly.

            “Are we going to have enough mounts for everyone?” Babs asked from the back.

            As if offended by the question, all the Brutes turned and stared at the Android. She lifted both hands in defense. “Sorry, I had to ask!”

            Ra’naa affectionately patted Zeus’s massive neck, letting her fingers slide through the thick hairs of his mane. “They can easily carry the weight of an ancient car; carrying four additional passengers will not be a problem.”

            In a moment of selflessness, Declan lifted a hand and cleared his throat. “I can walk.”

            Not to be undermined, Babs likewise piqued up. “Same here. After all, I need to get used to this body.”

            “We don’t want to be a burden,” Cassidy began.”

            “You won’t be. I am going to ask you one very important question, though.”

            The snake-like woman looked up, her eyes unreadable. “What?”

            “Are you willing to fight?”

            Cassidy answered without hesitation. “Hell yeah,” she waved a hand at her husband Martin. “We’re both ready and willing to fight.”

            Ra’naa decided to play the devil’s advocate. “I thought you did not want Aaron to go into the ruins as a scavenger, but you’re willing to let him fight?”

            The snake-like woman crossed her arms and glowered. “Of course I don’t want anything to happen to my man, but after what those pri… people did, I want some payback.”

            Aaron nodded as he stared at the stump. “And I have three good arms left, I can fight. It will be a lot more satisfying than delving in the ruins, that’s for damn sure.”

            “In that case,” Ra’naa grinned, “welcome to our little army.”

            It took them only a few minutes to gather the few belongings the family owned and they split up. The two children went with Ra’naa and Otres, while the husband rode with Tara and Declan. Cassidy ended up on the mount with Babs.

            The sun was shining brightly as the group passed through the gates. Declan twisted in his saddle so he could watch the city grow smaller and smaller with each passing minute. He knew he liked the city, and hoped once the mess with the hated Purists had come to a conclusion, he could return.

            Shifting his position, he relaxed. The man, Aaron, had not spoken a word to him or Tara. It was clear the pain from his encounter with the Purists was still burning deep, so Declan decided not to push it.

            They travelled in silence for several hours, stopping occasionally to relieve pressure on bladders or to stretch sore muscles. The Brutes moved at a quick pace, but they could be tiresome to ride.

            At one of the stops Tara was busy with Ra’naa and Otres. They were unpacking the food they were going to share with the family. Babs came over and stood next to Declan.

            “Doc?”

            “What is it Babs?”

            “Do you like how the sun feels?”

            He nodded, hiding a grin. “Very much so.”

            She threw her hood and stared straight into the sun. She closed her artificial eyes and let the heat from the ultraviolet rays sweep over her plastic flesh. “I guess I prefer feeling it on real skin, like yours.”

            He glanced around and saw Tara watching. Her face remained neutral, but he could see the tension in her shoulders and her tail twitched, displaying her agitation. He was about to speak when there was the sounds of gunshots. Birds leapt from the trees, taking to flight in a terror-fueled desire to escape.

            “Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad, what now?” Declan cursed.