Buck Who? Chapter 24

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 24: Aftermath

May 10th, 2668, The Installation

            The silence was unlike anything Awoan had ever experienced before. Sitting at her command station, deep within the Installation, she tried to come to grips with what had just happened.

            Fighting valiantly, the inner defenses were unable to destroy the final drone. The weapon detonated its payload. In less time than it took to blink, a miniature sun had bloomed above the installation.  

            The weapon which had been deployed was not as powerful as many which had been used during the final wars. It was more than adequate enough to erase all traces of inhabitation on the surface, above the sheltered installation. Thankfully the shocks built into the lower levels of the facility reduced the seismic effect of the nuclear blast so it caused no damage. What nearly destroyed the facility was something else entirely.

            Thank the makers and their foresight to harden most of the Androids, who called the installation home. Every single artificial construct in the facility had been taken off-line when the nuclear device detonated, her included.

            All thanks to the powerful EMP generated by the nuclear blast.

            It took time, in some cases hours, for most of the androids to come back online. She was lucky; it took her exactly 173 seconds to reboot. Awoan’s joints felt stiff and her thoughts were muzzy. She knew it was the side-effect of the electrical overload.

            For the past hour she had been working in complete darkness. It did not hamper her in the least, as she had infrared and other sensors she could employ to help her see. Awoan may have begun as a pleasure android, but she had seen to upgrades over the centuries.

            The very first upgrade was to have her internal electronic components shielded and hardened against such attacks as which had occurred. In fact, all the androids that had come to the installation over the centuries had undergone the same treatment and upgrades. She knew there would be losses, no matter how diligently they sought to protect her people.

            The acrid stench of burnt plastic and over-heated electrical components tickled her sense of smell as she ripped out the guts of the communication hub. Another precaution they had taken was to store spare parts, even hardened as they were, in lead-lined containers, shielded against radiation and EMP.

            Why they had not done this with the equipment was something she never quite understood. The tech androids made noises about the lead and shielding interfering with the function of the equipment.

            “How long before you restore lighting?” She called out into the heart of darkness. She was removing a burned out board and installing the replacement. Her task of getting internal communications online was almost complete.

            “Another 61 minutes, at this rate,” a voice in the darkness answered. “Thankfully the majority of the components were shielded and it is a matter of manual labor. I will be leaving here to replace the components at critical junctions.”

            “What can we do to help?” A male voice called out from somewhere near the entrance to the command center.

            Awoan had to smile. The humans, although there were not many of them in the installation, had proved to be a creator-sent. They were unaffected by the EMP burst, and as such could begin repairs and help with the damage. They were able to reboot many of the critical personnel as well. Taking in humans had been her idea, all those years ago. She knew it was partially her programming. Despite being nothing more than a sex toy before the final wars, she had a soft spot for humans.

            She turned towards the sound of the voice and realized with a start the human was carrying an old-fashioned torch. The flames danced in the darkness, illuminating everything within a five meter radius. She felt a slight surge of annoyance for not having thought of that particular solution. “Help Emtwoan,” she indicated the other android. “What she will need more than anything else is physical labor.”

            He nodded and went over to stand next to the other android.

            Still working, Awoan was pleased to see how much progress she had accomplished. The installation had lost a lot of resources, and that meant there would be no budget in the future for many experiments.

            If the nanofactories had been damaged or destroyed.

            The likelihood of such an occurrence was remote, however. The factories were heavily shielded in the lowest portion of the Installation. They were priceless artifacts of a bygone era and provided all the parts the Installation required. All the machines needed were the raw materials.

            If they still functioned.

            All the damaged parts could be taken down and recycled into new components. It would still require the acquisition of raw materials and that would take time. Of course they could always go out and with the help of the humans. Again she was thankful for them – they could help find stockpiles of raw materials and bring them back.

            She wanted to get the sensors back online as soon as possible. She needed to get readings of how many rads per hour they were facing, and how large an area it covered. This deep in the installation, she knew they were shielded against the radiation. It was not an issue for her and the other androids – it was her humans she was worried about. Hopefully the numerous hidden entrances and exits were contamination free.

            Maybe it was time they went to the Resort. After all, the nanotech undead inhabiting the island would not be interested in them. The vault beneath the old hotel was supposed to contain a great deal of wealth.

            That was another curiosity for her to ponder. Why had they not hit the old resort? They were not in danger of succumbing to the nanites there. A dip in salt water would ensure they would remain uncontaminated.

            Right, she remembered the reason why. They were concerned that the wealth brought back would be contaminated and they would unleash the nanites on the mainland. It was something they would need to reconsider.

            When the light carried by the human disappeared, her eyes automatically adjusted so she could see in the stygian blackness. The control center was now completely empty, the immediate repairs having been completed, with the exception of communications. She still had a little more work to finish before the system was back online.

            Awoan could have consulted her internal chronometer at any point, but she refrained. It was better to keep her mind on her task rather than become distracted by the expenditure of time. Finally she was finished. Taking her time, she replaced the panel and used the mutli-tool to secure it in place. Her knee actuators groaned in what was akin to pain when she stood and wiped her hands on her thighs. The damaged and burnt-out components were stored in a plastic bin, ready to be recycled.

            Without hesitation, Awoan reached out and hit the switch, which would bring the holographic display to life. The power was the issue, although had ensured with the exception of the lights, the control room’s power had been restored. The lights could wait for now. There were more critical systems that needed to be brought back online.

            The communication panel came to life, and the holographic projector emitted a display with all the windows and visual feeds blank. Reaching out, Awoan touched the center window and brought up a pull-down menu. She set in motion a self-diagnostic and waited.

            A minute later, as the diagnostic program was running, the symbol for an incoming signal began to flash. She reached out and tapped the icon.

            “Wrench one to base, do you copy?”

            “I copy you loud and clear, Wrench one. Status?”

            “The Purists attacked Ahteen and her friends last night. They sent in an assassin, and from what I have been able to gather, it was the Whispering Wraiths.”

            She paused to digest the news. A strange feeling, one she was not used to, fluttered like a terrified bird in her stomach. “Status of Ahteen?”

            “The assassin is dead; none of her party have been injured or killed. The Legion is currently investigating, although they have been cleared of any wrong-doing. They have left the city and I am going to assume they are on their way home.”

            “Can you make contact?”

            “Affirmative,” Wrench replied. “Once I get my bike I can catch up to them quickly.

            “Good,” she said. “We have suffered an attack, and I do believe it is but the first.”

            The line was quite for so long she thought the link must have disconnected. “Say again, I don’t think I caught that,” Wrench asked.                                

            She repeated the sentence and then gave him a quick briefing on the events which had occurred. Awoan explained the drone attack and the nuclear weapon, which nearly destroyed the installation.

            Wrench felt his insides turn to ice as he listened. Awoan did not need to explain to him the odds of the Purists following up the nuclear device with a physical attack. It was all but certain. He also realized they made one critical error. They should have followed up immediately, instead of giving the androids a chance to recover.

            Or maybe they did not expect any of the Androids to survive the attack.

            Could they really be that arrogant?

            Yes, he decided.

            He cleared his throat and spoke carefully. “I will follow Ahteen back to their home and then see if I can get their assistance. Will I offer anything?”

            Awoan paused and gave it some serious consideration. They had lost a great deal of resources and putting aside a budget to pay for services rendered might be nigh impossible. They were human, and humans were typically willing to barter for future favors. Maybe they would be willing to come to such a settlement? She told him to make the offer.

            “Copy that, anything else?” Wrench asked.

            “Return to the Installation as soon as possible,” she replied.

            “Roger, and out,” He broke the connection.

            She leaned against the panel and stared at the holographic displays. Most were blank and would remain so until repairs could be performed on the various sensors. That would consume a great deal of time. Man and Android hours of time. The androids would do the bulk of the work, since they did not require sleep and rest, unlike the humans.

            Awoan wondered how much time they had until the Purists made their move.

***

May 10th, 2668, Scav Haven

            “Your assassin failed?” Bradly said, his face and voice filled with incredulousness. “I thought you never failed.”

            The woman stood against the doorframe, her face nonplussed, her arms crossed under her breasts. “It happens. We are out an assassin - and your target still breaths,” she pushed away from the doorframe and entered the room. Bradly’s guards allowed their hands to drop to their weapons, expecting the worst.

            “And despite this you still expect us to pay you?” Bradly asked, disbelieving.

            The woman nodded. “The agreed upon price.”

            Bradly shook his head. “Not a fucking chance. I paid half down and expected results, and you come to me to tell me your assassin failed, and you still want to get paid?”

            “That’s about the gist of things, yes,” she retorted. “We have expenses to recoup, and the money will go to training a replacement,” her eyes met his. “And training is not cheap.”

            “If I pay you the remainder, I expect you to send another after that little rodent, and this time I expect results.” He met her stare, glare for glare. She was outgunned and he had no tolerance for failure.

            “If you pay me what you owe me, then I will consider it. That will cover half of the total. You want that rodent killed; you will pay me the same amount.”

            “Fuck you, and get the fuck out of my room,” he roared.

            She smiled at his outburst, and before anyone could even blink, she was standing in front of him, her fingers in an eagle’s claw, clutching his throat. Tiny pin-pricks of blood showed where her fingers touched. “I’m not giving you a choice, Travis,” she growled, although the smile remained in place. “All I have to do is trigger the command and the toxins in my fingers will kill you before your body touches the floor,” she squeezed a little harder. “Pay up and then either pay for another attempt, or never, ever contact the Whispering Wraith again.”

            Every one of his guards had their weapons out and was aiming them at the woman’s head. She never broke eye contact with Bradly, her pale gaze bore through his skull, stripping away all mental defenses and laying his soul bare.

            “Try it and my men will kill you,” he said with as much bravado as he could muster. Sweat was trickling down his face and slid smoothly over the flesh of her hand.

            “Let them try,” she laughed. “Go ahead, let them shoot. I won’t kill you, I promise that.”

            “Fire!” He screamed.

            The guards fired on the woman and each round smashed home. At least, it appeared they hit their target. A shimmering red veil sprung into existence around the woman, and she appeared to be unscathed.

            Bradly’s bladder nearly let go, but to his credit he managed to keep the fear from showing on his face. “Very impressive, a personal shield.”

            “Possibly,” she answered.

            “I’ll pay you want you demanded, but that is it.”

            She nodded and let go of his throat. “So be it.”

            He resisted the urge to reach up and grab his throat. He Bradly could feel the trickle of blood from where her fingertips had dug into the soft flesh. Moving quickly, he dug into a pocket and pulled out a small bag. Without opening it, he tossed it to the assassin. “That is the remaining fee.”

            She turned her back on him and his men and left without muttering a word.

            No one spoke or even looked at Bradly for several minutes while he cleaned up the small puncture wounds on his neck. At last he was finished and he took in the sight of his men. They were all busy staring at the walls, floors and the sparse decorations in the room. “We are done here,” Bradly announced. “It’s time to go back to the compound.”

            It was at that precise moment his personal communicator began to vibrate.

***

May 10th, 2668, North of Seattle / Scav Haven

            The thought of someone managing to launch a successful attack against the Installation was almost beyond comprehension. Joey had been travelling for most of the morning, cursing himself for not having hidden the bike closer to the ruins. The sun was beating down on him and the air was pleasantly warm, not cold as he had been dealing with the previous days.

            Still, he was annoyed at his lack of foresight. The odds of anyone finding the bike were remote at best, but knowing how the fates liked to play with him, he did not want to risk it.

            At last he came across the ruins where he had stashed the bike. It looked undisturbed and he was pleased to see the camouflage was still in place. There were a few animal droppings and marks in the ground around the vehicle, that was the extent of it.

            He felt the weight of the sword on his hip and the backpack strapped to his torso. Already he was missing the city of Scav Haven. It was so unlike the Installation. There was wildness, a vibrancy and life that was distinctly missing from his home. He had plenty of fond memories of his life in the Installation, but after experiencing the life in the city… he knew he wanted change. It was something he would have to meditate on for a long, long time.

            It took him only a few minutes to pull the camouflage off the bike and stow it away. He checked to ensure the battery still held a charge and then shrugged out of his pack. Joey took the time required to secure the site, and then he changed into his combat armor. It was a good idea to guarantee he was prepared for anything that might occur on the way back home.

            Unsure as to what alerted him, Joey paused and stood straight. He had just finished securing the last bit of armor to his body when he sensed something was amiss. His assault rifle hung at his side and he lifted it, letting the strap rest against his arms.

            Slowly, Joey turned around in a circle, scanning the trees and undergrowth that surrounded him. Something had alerted him, and if there was one aspect of his life he did not ignore, it was his instincts. He could not see anything, and figured maybe the best idea would be to jump on the bike and hit the trail.

            The next moment, Joey was lying flat on his back, staring up at the endless azure sky. He felt as if he had been kicked in the chest, and everything hurt. Lifting his chin, he saw where a heavy projectile had slammed into his breastplate. The round had failed to penetrate the armor, but all that kinetic energy had to go somewhere.

            “Oww,” he grumbled and rolled over onto his belly. He needed to pinpoint where the sneak attack had originated. Joey was glad the attacker had not used a head shot, as he knew the armor protecting his face was not as tough as that on his body. That shot would have killed him for certain.

            He was on the ground, the bike covering him from where the shot had come. He could deduce that much. Joey counted off the seconds in his mind as he waited to see what the unseen assailant would do next. When nearly two full minutes had passed without any sign of the attacker, he decided to make a break for it.

            Standing as quickly as he could with the pain in his chest, he lifted one leg to mount the bike. It was right at that exact instant he saw two men standing about ten meters from where he was. Both were armed with large bore hunting rifles and they were pointed at his head.

            “That’s a mighty pretty bike you have there,” one of the men scoffed. They could have been brothers; the overall appearance of each was so similar. They were dressed in the rags and furs of trappers and hunters, men who braved the temperate rainforests for a living. Both had long, brown hair, and thick beards, which reached down below their necks. From the filth covering the clothing and furs, Joey could imagine how ripe they both must have smelled. “How about you drop the auto-rifle and sticker and back away, real nice like?”

            Joey had no intention of doing as the bandit asked. He may be garbed as a hunter or ranger, but by demanding his weapons and ride, it made him a bandit.

            And as such, Joey had no compulsion against killing the man.

            “Nope, not going to happen,” Joey called back. “In fact, I’ll give you to the count of three to turn and run back the way you came,” he offered. Joey thought he was being quite generous, when it came right down to it.

            That brought gales of rough laughter from the two men, and Joey realized without much surprise, others – who were gathered around him.

            “Tell ya what, boy…” the speaker laughed. “Drop the weapons and armor, and you can leave with your life, unless you’re a mutie.”

            Joey rolled his eyes. Great, he thought, a bunch of Purists wannabes.

            “No, I don’t think so,” he yelled out to the bandits. A second later, he was standing behind the speaker; the blade he acquired swung through a vicious arc and bit deep into the man’s neck. The head rolled off, the eyes and mouth opened in stunned shock. He was already dead, but the brain had yet to comprehend that fact. The other man standing next to him had only enough time to gape in stunned amazement as Joey lifted the assault rifle and fired one handed. It was not something he would normally try and do, as the weapon did have a pretty good kick.

            At this range there was little chance he would miss. The bullets struck the hunter in the belly and chest, bursting through the thin layers of fur and cloth. Blood sprayed from the exit wounds and the man’s eyes rolled up into his skull as he collapsed to his knees.

            “He killed Pete!” A voice cried out in horror about twenty meters away.

            Joey knew better than to stay put, so he activated his teleporter and crossed the clearing. He appeared directly in front of the man who had just spoken. This hunter was similar to two he had killed, but was wearing the bodies of spider-monks as a necklace. Joey frowned; he liked the little critters and had been allowed to keep them as pets at the Installation. The little spider-chipmunk hybrids were exceptionally effective against insects and could be very affectionate when raised from pups.

            “And now I kill you,” he growled and stabbed the man in the stomach with the blade. It slid in without any resistance and Joey yanked it up hard. The molecular thin edge ripped through the torso, cleaving the man nearly in half. Guts, blood, and the remains of the man’s last meal spilled out from the ghastly wound to pool on the ground before him. Somehow, in his dying throes, the man managed to scream, loud and long.

            Shots began to pepper the trees all around him and he could feel several displace air as they came dangerously close to hitting his head. He activated the teleporter and travelled the distance between him and where the majority of the gunfire came from. When he appeared, he was horrified to see he had miscalculated and had ended up in front of the hunters and rangers, not behind.

            “Oops,” he half-laughed to cover his embarrassment. The assault rifle in one hand, the blade in the other, he faced down five rangers and hunters. They were sporting a variety of poor-quality handguns and one held a triple barrelled shotgun. It had to have been something the hunter had cobbled together, as he was not familiar with it.

            Cobbled together or not, the weapon could kill him as easily as one manufactured before the final wars. The weapon boomed, all three barrels discharging at once. Joey felt as if he had been kicked by a Brute and was knocked back at least three meters. He smashed into a tree, and thanked the creators the armor took the worst of the blow. The transfer of kinetic energy still hurt like hell. That was nothing compared to the pain from the buckshot impacting his armor. It was nearly intolerable, and he knew his armor had been breached in several places.

            Worst yet, he dropped his sword. The assault rifle was still dangling from the strap, but he was having trouble bringing the weapon up. His mind was fuzzy and he could not quite concentrate. Joey knew he was in serious trouble. So he did what anyone in his position, possessing the same technology would do… he teleported.

            It was not a moment too soon. When he reappeared in the real-world, several rounds had been caught in the field and smashed into his chest and stomach. They were not quite as powerful as the first shot had been, but the damage was adding up. He was certain that at least one or more of his ribs were cracked by the energy transfer. It was a lot better than being dead, he reminded himself.

            From the ambush site, he could hear cursing. “Spread out and find that mutie motherfucker!” Someone screamed. “I want his fucking head!”

            Joey almost giggled and shouted that he was not a mutant, although they clearly thought he was due to using the personal teleporter. He did not know how long he had to rest, but with each passing second, his head cleared just a fraction more. He considered teleporting again, knowing the device had a very limited range. Would it be enough to keep him out of the purist wannabe’s range?

            The tree he was hiding behind shuddered and splinters of bark and wood flew in all directions as nearly a dozen rounds punched into it. He ducked, having regained enough of his senses to do so and leaned around the tree. In the split second he had, he could see about five of the hunters and rangers running towards him, firing as they moved. Joey lifted the assault rifle and squeezed off several bursts.

            Each shot missed!

            Cursing, he ducked and rolled as more rounds blew against the tree. A shower of dead leaves and branches rained down from the foliage above, peppering him as he tried to get out of the way.

            The fact he missed indicated how badly he was hurt. Any other time at such a range he would not have missed, especially since the group was clustered so tightly together. It was time to activate the teleporter. He hoped it would confuse the enemy and give him precious seconds to recover his wits.

            When he appeared, he was near the trail. Only a few dozen meters from him he saw a sight that at first confused him, and then he nearly laughed out loud with relief. A gaggle of Brutes had just halted and the riders, most of them familiar to him, had weapons drawn and aimed at him.

            “Ahteen, I really could use your help!”

May 10th, 2668, North of Seattle / Scav Haven

***

            Looking up into the surrounding trees, Andy could see the branches were thick with webbing. There had to be hundreds or more Flyders. He cursed and grabbed Arleen by the arm and dragged her away from the silken strands. There had to be at least ten or more of the flying arachnids shooting webs at her.

            How in the hell had they not spotted the creatures? Maybe they were too distracted by the beach and the ocean. Andy had his handgun out and he was tracking the descending Flyders. They were not yet using their wings, and that made them easy targets.

            His handgun barked and with each shot, one of the horrible mutants exploded in a gout of gore, spraying guts, blood and webbing in every direction. Andy managed to shoot about seven of the creatures before they finally gave up and took to the air.

            “Run!” He screamed, shoving Arleen with all his might back the way they had come. “Don’t look back!”

            Arleen stumbled a few meters and then turned. What she saw caused her to urinate and she was paralyzed with a terror unlike she had never encountered before. A virtual wave of the Flyders were pouring out of the web-encrusted trees.

            It was pretty obvious who the target was.

            He fired his handgun dry and then reloaded so fast his hands were a blur. More of the creatures perished under his defensive actions but soon he had to drop his weapon and draw a short knife. His eyes were filled with terror, not for himself, but for her. “Run you stupid bitch, I need you to live!”

            His words finally broke through her terror and with a gulping sob; she turned and ran for all she was worth back the way they had come.

            Seeing his charge was now out of danger, Andy turned to the nigh-impossible task at hand – to survive. He did not have the time to reload his weapon and he had but one recourse - which was to go hand to hand with the monsters.

            He could feel their anger washing over him like a physical wave, pounding his empathic senses with a rage and hatred he rarely encountered. They were angry at his killing of their siblings. He realized with a start this was a conglomerate of nests, all the Flyders were related. And he had killed dozens already.

            One landed on his shoulder and tried to bury its fangs into the soft flesh of his neck. He grabbed the creature with one hand and pulled it off, slashing with the blade. The head and fangs fell free of the body and he tossed it aside.

            Andy took off running, heading towards the beach. Maybe if he could get onto the rocks, the multitude of scavengers and other life would distract the Flyders from their single-minded pursuit. He hit the rocky shore running, which was incredibly dangerous, due to the treacherous terrain. A slip or mis-step could twist or break an ankle or worse. He did not believe it would be worse, not when the fate of becoming a meal to the Flyders was at hand.

            Two more of the flying arachnids landed on him. He slashed one, killing it but the other drove its fangs into his jacket. Thankfully they fangs failed to penetrate to the flesh, and he squashed the creature with the flat of his hand. Blood and sticky fluids burst from the body and covered his torso.

            He kept running, covering two then three hundred meters, but the swarm was relentless in their pursuit. Four, then seven, then fourteen of the creatures landed on him. He killed as many as he could, but the numbers were so overwhelming they were going to get a successful bite in eventually.

            When it happened, he felt the venom in the fangs react to his blood-chemistry instantly. He could feel the muscles around the bite begin to stiffen painfully and it spread like wildfire, consuming every muscle in his body. Andy silently screamed - a desperate telepathic cry for help.

            Soon, the Flyders were covering him, encasing his body in a thick cocoon of silken strands. He found it all but impossible to breath, and the darkness closed in on his vision, pulling him into the stygian blackness.

***

May 10th, 2668, North of Seattle / Scav Haven

            “Who the fuck is that?” Tara burst out, seeing the armored figure stumbling towards the group.

            Ra’naa jumped down from Zeus and ran over to the stumbling figure, her arms outstretched to catch him. “Joey?”

            Before he could answer, there was the sound of numerous voices coming towards them. They were a mixture of anger and strangely enough, hoots and cries of pleasure. Joey lifted the faceplate on his armor and looked at Ra’naa, staring into her eyes. “Purist wannabe’s,” he said and then tried to take another step, but his knees gave out.

            Everyone, except the children, scrambled to get off the Brutes. Weapons were drawn and they were aimed in the direction of the oncoming hunters and rangers. When the lead hunter burst through the underbrush and saw all the weapons aimed in his direction, he chose the worst possible action he could have… he brought his rifle up to his shoulder.

            A dozen or more rounds smashed into the hunter, some blowing through in great gouts of flesh and blood. One tore his jaw off, and a second round destroyed the shoulder, leaving the arm to dangle by sinew and meat. It happened so quickly he did not even have the time to register he was dead before his body was knocked off its feet.

            Ra’naa grabbed Joey and threw his arm over her shoulder. She was counting on her friends to provide her with covering fire as she half supported; half carried him back to the mounts.

            More of the hunters and rangers arrive on the scene and as soon as they saw what was waiting for them, they scrambled for cover. It did not stop Tara, Babs, Declan or Aaron and his wife from firing.

            Two more of the men dropped from the onslaught, but they quickly regained their composure and fired back. This forced Ra’naa’s friends to likewise seek shelter or fall under the hail of fire coming from the attackers.

            “How many?” Ra’naa demanded as she tried to help him to safety.

            “Five,” he hissed through his pain.

            “Hell of a lot more than five!” She growled.

            “Must have gotten reinforcements,” he told her weakly. “Only explanation.”

            The Brute carrying the two children took off at a fast gallop to find cover. He did not want the children to be potentially caught in the line of fire. Zeus and the other Brute turned to face the attackers. The alpha lowered his head and snorted a challenge as he pawed at the ground.

            Babs lifted her assault rifle and used her new body’s enhanced vision to locate and mark the targets. There were fourteen in total, and were in various degrees of cover. Some were all but exposed, just using the underbrush to hide in. Others, they would prove to be more difficult to hit.

            Declan crouched on the ground, taking shots of opportunity when they were presented. He was not used to this sort of fight, and it showed. All the shots he took ended up missing their mark.

            The hunters returned fire, and several rounds smashed into the heavy hides of the Brutes. It hurt, but none of the impacts caused any serious or lasting damage. All this achieved was to make the mutant horses very, very angry.

            “You have to help me,” Ra’naa snarled in anger. Joey was nearly unconscious and she was doing most of the work. She hefted him a little higher and used her tail to balance as she continued to stagger and run to the tree cover. Then she felt something smash into her right rear cheek and her leg instantly went numb. Ra’naa toppled forward, Joey pitching ahead of her, as her leg gave out. A split second later she felt the pain and it caused her to cry out.

            Zeus, upon hearing her scream, bellowed a nearly deafening roar of rage. He charged the group of hunters nearest, his head low and his huge hooves smashing into the ground, promising pain and carnage.

            “Doc, on me!” Babs shouted to her best friend. Tara was busy spraying and praying, something she had been taught not to do, but due to the cover the enemy was using, had little choice.

            Crab-running, Declan came and crouched next to Babs. She nodded and pointed, even as she fired her own weapon. Declan knew exactly what she wanted him to do. He fired a burst in the direction she indicated.

            Aaron and his wife likewise continued to pour round after round into the trees and undergrowth. They were doing their best to keep the hunters behind cover until the more experienced warriors could make a difference.

            Zeus was the first to reach the enemy line, and he had endured dozens of hits. Some had even smashed into his head, but the thick bone prevented anything serious. All the gunfire accomplished was to make him even angrier, if that was even possible. He reached the first hunter and reared up. The man screamed and threw his hands up in a vain attempt to protect his head. The Brute smashed down, the hooves bigger than plates and stronger than steel, clove through his flesh, bone and tissue. There was nothing recognizable of the man’s head when the Brute landed.

            Another man, seeing what had happened to his companion at the hooves of the mutant horse, screamed and tried to run. He had taken maybe four steps when Zeus bent his head forward and bit down on the man’s shoulder. The scream was high-pitched and filled with the purest of terror. Zeus lifted the man as if he weighed no more than a few pounds and hurled the man into a knot of his companions.

            By this time the other Brute had joined the fracas and was inflicting as much pain and chaos as he could. Several of the hunters lost their nerve. They broke ranks and ran. Babs had been waiting for such an opportunity and she carefully took aim and put a round into the back of every one.

            This was all the wannabe purists needed to realize they either had to win the fight or die trying. There would be no quarter given. The firing from their hidden positions doubled and redoubled as they attempted to kill their attackers.

            Declan cried out as several rounds found him. Three punched him in the chest, one tore the meat on his triceps, and the last blew through his leg, just beneath the knee armor.

            “Doc!” Babs cried out in horror.

            “Keep firing, bitch!” Tara screamed at her as she knelt beside the man who was now her mate. She kept firing into the attackers, screaming in outrage. When her weapon clicked dry, she tossed it to the ground and ran, dodging side to side. She was careful to never stay in the same direction for more than a couple of seconds.

            Between Zeus and the other Brute, they tore through the remaining hunters like cyclones of teeth, sharp hooves and pure fury. It was all the hunters could stand and the few still breathing broke and ran.

            Tara had just caught up to the hunters when she saw this happen. To her it did not matter in the slightest who had fired on her mate, only that someone in the group had. Snarling like the tiger, whose genes she possessed, she pounced. Her claws had extended from her fingers and toes as she landed upon one hapless hunter.

            The man valiantly tried to bring a hunting knife up in defense, but she swatted it away with casual ease, despite the blade cutting deep into her forearm. Her claws raked and sank deep into the face, neck and shoulders of the hunter. She snarled and spat, hissing and growling as she tore literal strips of flesh from him. He screamed, and screamed and screamed some more, until she finally ripped the man’s throat out in a shower of blood.

            And that was it. The battle was over. The hunters had paid for their impunity with blood. All told, there were nine dead and dying hunters and rangers scattered across the killing ground. Blood, bits of flesh and gore coated every tree within fifteen meters of the epicenter of the fight. Tara stood there, staring down at the man she had eviscerated with her claws. Her chest was heaving like a bellow on overdrive.

            Zeus, having finished his gruesome task, turned and trotted back to where Ra’naa was lying. He bent his head and nuzzled her gently. She was kneeling, but clearly she was in a lot of pain. Zeus lowered his head even more and sniffed at the wound in her rear.

            “I’m alright, get your nose away from there!” She yelled, embarrassed.

            Otres, who had been stuck on top of Zeus the entire time, finally popped up. He was covered in blood, but thankfully none of it was his. He had a wide-eyed, hysterical look to his face and he chittered, squeaked and snarled almost non-stop.

            AreyouallrightwhathappenedthereissomuchbloodIfeellikeIamgoingtothrowup…

            Tara, still near the bodies of the fallen, began to walk among them. When she found one who was still on this side of the dark river, she knelt and tore his carotid artery, causing the man to bleed out.

            “Tara, keep one alive, we need to interrogate them!” Ra’naa yelled.

            The Tiger-Exotic whirled and glowered, her lips curled back, showing her sharp teeth. “They hurt my mate!” She snarled.

            Declan coughed and spat out blood-flecked phlegm. He felt his ribs and shook his head, instantly regretting the action. “Fuck, I got some cracked or busted ribs here.”

            When she heard his voice, Tara’s entire demeanor changed. She forgot all about the still-breathing hunters and dashed across to where he was lying. She skidded to a halt on her knees and took his face in her blood and gore flecked hands. “Are you hurt bad?” She cried and then began to kiss his face all over. They were not the usual long, drawn out affairs but short and gentle, tinged with fear. When he tried to push her away she let go and took his arm as carefully as she could. She raised it up and examined the wound.

            “We need to get you back to the community as soon as possible,” she announced.

            Ra’naa, despite the pain she was in, managed to get to her feet. She leaned heavily upon Zeus as she turned to face her friend. “Understatement of the month,” she managed with a sarcastic smile. “Bastards shot me in the ass!”

            Aaron and Cassidy came over as soon as their children Martin and Eliza were safe. She assessed the situation and without being told to, went over to the fallen Joey. Between her and Aaron, they managed to flip him over so he could breathe easily.

            Otres, who was still in near hysterics, bounded around between them, Ra’naa, Declan and Babs. He was squeaking so fast it sounded as if someone had sounded a horn and forgot to turn it off.

            “Otres!” Ra’naa bellowed and when he was about to race past her, she lashed out and caught him. She lifted the terrified little Uplift so they could look eye to eye and she stared. “Calm down, it’s over.”

            With that, he rolled his eyes and fainted.

            It took the group nearly two hours to properly dress the wounds they had suffered and inspect the hunters and rangers for survivors. There were none, but they gathered up all the weapons and ammunition the men had been carrying. When Otres finally woke from his stress-induced slumber, he was very quiet and withdrawn. It was from pure embarrassment.

            Ra’naa opted to walk, as riding with her now-bandaged butt-cheek would have been torture for anyone to have to endure.

            They had been travelling for about three hours when Otres perked up and stood in the saddle. He studied the surrounding forest and chittered distractedly.

            “What is it?” Declan asked, his curiosity aroused. He was still in a lot of pain, but the medicine Ra

            I don’t know, he admitted.  I could have sworn I heard someone calling for help.

            Babs stared back at Declan, her eyes searching. “What did he say?”

            Declan shrugged. “He said he could have sworn someone was calling for help,” he rubbed his chin, grimacing at the stubble that was growing. “Can you detect anything?”

            “I can try,” she offered and then mentally adjusted her audio sensors.

            Everyone sat in the mounts, straining to catch the slightest sound. After a few minutes, Babs shrugged. “I’m not getting anything.”

            Maybe I was just imagining it, Otres said. Residual effects of the stress?

            They continued on their way and had travelled maybe another half kilometer when he stood up and squeaked excitedly. Now I know I heard something, but you won’t.

            “Why’s that?” Asked Ra’naa.

            Because it’s a telepathic cry!  It’s so weak I can barely hear it.

            “Can you tell where it’s coming from?” Tara asked before anyone else.

            Give me a moment… He closed his eyes and concentrated. Slowly he turned around on the back of the Brute, his nose high in the air, almost as if he tasted the wind. He paused and then slowly opened his eyes and lifted a hand. He pointed towards the beach. Over there.

            Ra’naa helped him off the back of Zeus and they began to head in the direction he had indicated. The rest of the group made it maybe a dozen steps when there was a loud crashing sound.

            Weapons were drawn and aimed in the direction it originated. They were not expecting to see a small, Otter-like woman burst through the undergrowth. She was clearly terrified and stopped dead in her tracks upon seeing the group.

            “Please,” she cried out, dropping to her knees. “The Flyders have him, you have to help!”

            Ra’naa stopped in front of the young woman and motioned for her to get up. “What has who?” She asked.

            The young woman was about to reply when her eyes fell upon Otres. “You! I knew I would find you again!”

            Ra’naa glanced at her friend and he shrugged helplessly.

            Instead of speaking with the Dragon-Exotic, the young Otter-like woman stood and grabbed Otres’s hands. “I’m begging you, help Andy!”

            Otres pulled his hands out of hers and took several steps back. Please don’t touch me, and of course we’ll help. Where is he?

            She looked stricken. “Otres, right? Don’t you remember me? I’m Arleen, we met a fe…”

            Where is your friend? Otres repeated, a little more forcefully.

            Arleen blinked, looking both perplexed and hurt. She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. “Back that way.”

            Ra’naa unslung her assault rifle and checked to ensure the safety was off. She popped the magazine and double checked to see if it was loaded or not. “Lead the way,” she said and began to jog in the direction the young Otter-like woman indicated. If her gunshot was impeding her in any way, she did not show it.

            What kind of spiders? Otres demanded.

            When Declan made to join them, Tara snarled and hissed, gripping his arm and letting the claws dig in ever so slightly.

            “What the fuck?” He demanded hotly.

            “You’re hurt, let them deal with this!”

            Declan stared at her for a long moment and then nodded. “Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed, you could have just said so without all the dramatics!”

            “You stay put!” Tara demanded. It was strange; she almost seemed to regress towards a more primitive, animalistic nature when she got protective.

            “I’ll go with you,” Babs offered.

            “So will I,” Cassidy seconded.

            “Flyders,” Arleen finally managed to tell Otres. “You must have seen them, the big spiders with wings? There is a large colony and we wandered right into the center of the nest.”

            Ra’naa shivered. The creatures were toxic, but the venom in the bite was more apt to cause paralysis than to kill. The webbing they used to cocoon the victims was likewise toxic and kept those encased paralyzed and incapable of action. She really wished they had some fire-based weapons right then and there.

            With the Otter-like woman in the lead, they made it through the underbrush. She was shivering with terror and it only got worse the closer they got to the nest. Looking up, Ra’naa could see the first tell-tale signs of the spiders. There were webs spread out along the upper branches of the trees and the number and thickness only increased with each meter they passed.

            Babs looked up and switched her visual senses. She quickly spotted several of the dangerous, flying spiders. The android lifted her weapon and took careful aim. A single shot boomed out and the first of the arachnids exploded in a flurry of blood and gore. She fired four more times, killing a Flyder with each shot before she ran out of targets.

            “You could have warned us,” Ra’naa said, her voice low. The frown on her face and the way her tail swished indicated how annoyed she was.

            “I did not want to waste the time, or possibly spook the flying spiders,” she shrugged.

            The group continued for several hundred meters, and the number of Flyders increased. Soon, it was not just Babs firing into the trees, but Ra’naa and Cassidy as well. Otres stuck close to Ra’naa and used his superior sight and sense of smell to locate the creatures. Arleen who was unarmed, tried to stay in the center of the group.

            Before long they could hear and smell the Pacific Ocean. The upper portions of the trees were thick with webbing and spiders. The group changed magazines several times as they shot and killed dozens of the creatures. When they began to swarm, Otres joined in, lashing out with his hands and snatching the monsters out of the air. He bit down on those he caught, killing them and then spitting the still-twitching carcasses out with a look of supreme disgust on his face.

            Soon the Flyders had enough and those still capable of escape did so, flying high into the sky and trees, leaving the nests behind. The small group looked around and Arleen was beside herself with grief. “Where is he?” She half-sobbed. “I can’t see him anywhere!”

            He had been harsh earlier, but his mannerism and tone softened when he stood next to the Otter-like woman. I think I heard him calling for help earlier, Otres said. He’s a telepath, isn’t he?

            Arleen nodded. “He said a low-level telepath, whatever that means.”

            Otres looked about, scanning the treetops. There had to be some indication of where he was, as long as he was still breathing.

            “Check the cocoons,” Tara suggested.

            “What coc… oh,” Declan said, turning several shades of green when he finally noticed the numerous cocoons, scattered throughout the trees. Some were small, the size of a fist, others were larger, quite a bit larger.

            After several minutes, Otres squeaked and jumped up and down. He indicated a large cocoon, hidden beneath web-draped foliage. There!

            Arleen ran over and knelt beside the cocoon and began to tear at it with her fingers. When she stiffened and fell backwards, everyone realized what had happened. The webbing was coated with the same toxin which kept the victims pliant and unresponsive.

            It took careful cutting and the use of gloves before they had the man uncovered. He was a greenish-pale and his breathing was shallow and ragged. It was clear if he had been in the cocoon much longer, he probably would have succumbed to respiratory failure.

            Tara, with Declan’s help, took Arleen away from the webs and watched over her as Babs and the others removed the last of the webbing from Arleen’s companion. They cleaned him up as best they could and at last he opened his eyes. He looked at his rescuers and promptly vomited all over the ground.

            Everyone stepped back, looks of co-mingled sympathy and disgust on their faces. When he finally regained control of his body, he took several deep breaths and had his hands on his knees. “Thanks,” he said, his voice ragged from the nausea.

            “You have your friend to thank, she came and got us,” Ra’naa said, waving one hand at Arleen. Even with the fur covering her small body, it was clear she too was having issues with nausea, induced from the webbing.

            “This time you rescued me, doll,” he gave her a half smile, half grimace.

            They made their way out of the Flyder infested woods and back to the Brutes. Ra’naa watched as they continued to clean up. When it was clear they were well enough to travel she confronted the three newcomers. “So, just exactly what are we supposed to do with you now?”