Buck Who? Chapter 26

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 26: Preparation

May 12th, 2668, The community

            The meal had been sumptuous. Everyone had eaten their fill and were now sitting back and enjoying some of the fine hand-crafted beer the compound regularly imported. The lighting was dimmed and there was a general aura of relaxed anticipation among those gathered.

            Max Ahteen sat at the head of the table and eyed everyone. It was unusual to see so many new faces in what he considered to be his private dining room. Long ago he had learned some of the best times to make policies or plans were over a satisfying meal. Of course having a good drink certainly contributed.

            To his immediate right sat his daughter and Otres. To his left Tara, Declan and the android Babs. He was still a little shocked to see the AI had managed to find a body. When he discovered how they came across one in such excellent condition, he was not surprised.  His respect for the little Uplift grew more nearly exponentially the longer he knew Otres. Directly across from them sat Joey. He was not on a mission so he did not bother using the young man’s field handle.

            “So Joey, I’ve been in contact with Awoan, the leader of the androids and humans in your home.”

            The young man remained impassive. He had eaten very little during the meal, but had drunk copious amounts of water and was now nursing a beer. “As I understand, she has requested your help.”

            Max nodded. He had his hands steepled before his face and was staring intently at the young man. “I have long suspected there was a fully-manned installation, and frankly I was a little disappointed that your people never bothered to try and initiate contact before.”

            Joey shrugged. “What can I say? My people have always been wary of outsiders and we have mainly kept to ourselves.”

            Max waved a hand dismissively. “It really doesn’t matter. All I know is the Purists found your home and for all intent and purposes nuked it. This means the Purists considered your people to be a serious threat that had to be eliminated.”

            “Makes sense, but other than monitoring their activities over the past months, we never had any sort of contact,” Joey mused.

            “I was wondering the same,” Max said. He pushed his chair back and stood up. He began to pace, his hands clasped behind his back. “It is just too much of a coincidence – we meet you and all of a sudden the Purists nuke you. I’m not exactly filled with confidence they won’t end up doing the same to us.”

            “All the more reason we should offer our help,” Ra’naa interjected. “If we help the androids, then they will need to return the favor. And that is what we should demand before we go.”

            Max’s tail swished and he willed it to be still. Looking at his daughter, he managed to hide the smile which threatened to expose his true feelings. “Why should we bother?  They remained silent for so many decades and now they want our help. I don’t like this.”

            “They may not have contacted us, but they certainly never showed any hostility. We’ve been in what they consider to be their territory many times, and you know how some groups act,” Ra’naa countered. “They consider trespassing into their lands an act of war.”

            “Your people never came close to the main installation, and you never tried to ransack any of our above-ground structures,” Joey said.

            “That’s because we probably never found any of them,” Tara added. She was sitting close to Declan, holding his hand and leaning her head on his shoulder. A barely audible purr could be heard if anyone bothered to listen.

            Joey shook his head in the negative. “No, your people have discovered some of our cabins and outposts. Each time they did your people entered and looked around, but not once did anyone take the valuables we had stored there.”

            “That’s because we assumed the structures belonged to hunters. They all looked as if they were used and had not been sitting abandoned for decades or longer. We are not thieves,” he stated truthfully. “Sure, we scavenge, but we will not steal. Life can be hard enough in these forests and mountains without someone coming along and taking what does not belong to them.”

            “Do we even know if the Purists are going to launch an attack?” Declan asked.

            “After speaking with Awoan, she predicts a high probability they will do so,” Max answered. “Mother Rathbourne has not had any visions, so it won’t be happening in the next day - that much we can say for certain.”

            Joey chewed on his lower lip. He found his gaze moving almost constantly to Ra’naa, and it made him distinctly uncomfortable. It was mainly because her father was in the same room, watching and judging his every word and action.

            “When Awoan and the other androids predict an event, it almost always occurs. That is why they want your help. I know despite the damage the nuclear weapon inflicted, the installation suffered little serious damage. As such they have sent androids out and caused numerous landslides and other obstacles. They made the trail along the coastline difficult to travel, and this should buy us a few days.”

            Max snorted. “If they know where you are, they can just drop more nukes, or they might bypass the trail entirely and go in by boat. That would greatly reduce the length of time it requires to reach your home.”

            “Dad, that’s what we should do. Take some of the fishing boats up the coast and walk our way to the installation,” Ra’naa offered.

            He nodded, a smile creeping across his face. “Good idea. When will you be ready to go?”

            She looked shocked. They had just returned home from a long and eventful journey. She had wanted to stay and get some rest before getting to work with Otres on the weapons. Ra’naa was her father’s daughter and she never hesitated. “First thing in the morning.”

            Max studied his daughter. “Most of you have suffered wounds; don’t you want some time to recover?”

            Declan shook his head. “That drug, paste, or salve,” he indicated the bandage on his arm. “Works wonders, better than anything I ever remember having before I went into cryogenic suspension,” he flexed his arm, wincing slightly but he managed to grin. “I’ll be fine by the morning.”

            The others who had suffered wounds nodded in agreement. They were mending quickly and should be good to go.

            Max Ahteen nodded. “Otres, I want you to stay behind and work on the weapons. Declan, I want you and Babs on this mission. With her being an android now, it would not hurt to have her along. After all, she is a combat model.”

            Tara opened her mouth to protest, but Max waved a hand in her direction. “You will be going as well, I need someone to watch Ra’naa’s back, and there are few I trust. You’re one of them.”

            “We should bring more than just the few of us,” Ra’naa said.

            “You will be. I’ve already put out word and there will be a contingent of our guard heading out with you,” Confirmed Max.

            “I’m more worried about the lingering radiation from the nuke,” Tara said, her hand going to her belly protectively.

            Declan noticed the move and he felt a thrill go through his body. Was she pregnant? Was he going to be a father in about nine months? He was not sure if the thrill he felt was eager anticipation or fear.

            “I can help. I know we have numerous backdoors into the installation. I can lead us through one of those and we can meet up with Awoan and the others,” Joey offered. When everyone turned their attention on him, he shrugged and grinned. “Once we have had a chance to meet face to face, then I can lead us back out,” he looked directly at Ra’naa. “I’ve seen that rifle you like to carry – I’m sure we can do a bit of damage with it.”

            Ra’naa curtly nodded. She had been trained on the rifle since she was old enough to fire it without it knocking her back a dozen meters. She was good, very good, although she rarely had the opportunity to use the weapons.

            Max was pleased at how the meeting had turned. He paced back and forth as the plan was presented. Only occasionally did he interject a comment or make a suggestion to clarify a point. It took less than half an hour and they had a plan. “Alright, we will meet back here at 0800 hours tomorrow morning. Go and get some rest.”

            With that, the meeting was adjourned.

***

May 12th, 2668, The Installation

            The android watched the link from the recon satellite impassively. They were not attempting to wrest control back from the Purists, which would lead to more complications. Instead they were piggybacking on the signal from the satellite and watching the feed.

            Currently, the satellite was locked on a group of vehicles and soldiers. It had stopped outside Scav Haven and picked up Bradly Travis and the men who had been in the city. The android observed in silence, only occasionally taking a screen image from the holo-projection and jotting down notes on a tablet.

            He had been busy observing the convoy for the past few hours. The Purists had their technicians keep the many cameras of the artificial satellite aimed in the direction of the convoy. It was the perfect time for them to gather intelligence on the enemy force.

            All around the android the repairs continued. So much equipment had been damaged in the aftermath of the nuclear detonation. The architects who had designed the installation had been some of the best of their generation. Even though the external facility had been obliterated, the multiple levels beneath the mountain had survived. There had not even been seismic damage to contend with.

            As he made an entry in his tablet, a human woman came over and offered him a cup. The cup did not contain water or drink - instead it was a mixture of lubricants and other fluids the android needed. He accepted the cup and drained it. The machine which served as a stomach would separate the fluids and shunt them where they were needed. “Thank you.”

            She bowed her head slightly. “Do you need more?”

            He ran a quick diagnostic. “No, my systems are nominal.”

            “Is that the force Awoan was expecting?” The woman nodded to the holographic display.

            “Indeed,” he answered. “In fact, I was about to send my report to Awoan regarding their progress.”

            “How many are there?”

            “One hundred and forty-two combatants,” the android replied neutrally.

            “And their combat vehicles,” she observed.

            “Indeed. I know we have been able to delay their progress by blocking the trail, but I fear we will not have enough time to finish all the required repairs to our defenses.”

            “So that’s where Max Ahteen and his people come in,” she stated, not asked.

            “Indeed,” he replied and then looked away from his tablet to meet the human woman’s gaze. “Awoan hopes they will send enough troops to be able to bolster our defenses, as well as apply a series of devastating hit and run missions against the Purists. Technically, this is the first opening volley in the war. This will be the first time anyone has really struck back against the Purist movement.”

            “Will it be enough?” She asked.

            “We will discover that shortly.”

***
May 12th, 2668, The Community

            I really want to come with you, Otres complained as they left Max Ahteen’s home. He walked beside Ra’naa, his tail swishing in disappointment. Even his whiskers were drooping.

            “Sorry Otres,” Ra’naa said sympathetically. She ran a hand through her hair and stared up into the sky. “You’re better off here, helping to get all those weapons in working condition.”

            I can help fight, he protested and looked at her with pleading in his eyes.

            It was a look she had never seen him use before, and it was so pathetic she nearly broke out laughing. That was something she did not want to do.

            “If something happened to you, I’d never forgive myself,” she said truthfully as she stopped so she could look down at her friend. “Besides, in such a fight, you could not do all that much. For you to be effective, you would have to get close enough to touch the weapons, armor or the vehicles.”

            I really need to learn how to use the weapons we are repairing, he said at last. Then I could come and fight.

            She was tempted to remind him of how he reacted in the last fight, but decided against it. A moment later, they were at her cabin. The door was unlocked and when she and Otres entered, it was obvious someone had spent the time to clean up for them. It was something her father had a habit of doing when she was not around and she appreciated the gesture.

            At least it’s not cold, Observed the little Uplift. He scampered across the cabin and hopped into one of the chairs at the work table. A number of the weapons they had purchased had been dropped off earlier in the evening at Otres’ request. He wanted to get the most powerful items functional as soon as possible.

            “Don’t over-exert yourself,” Ra’naa called out. She was putting away her light-weight jacket and was now standing in the middle of the room. Closing her eyes, Ra’naa began to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth. She then began to perform a kata, one of the many forms she had been taught.

            Otres had picked up a badly corroded rifle and was in the act of examining it when he glanced over to see what she was doing. He had seen her go through her katas several times, but she had not done so during their stay in Scav Haven. 

            She began with the most basic form she knew and then slowly progressed through all. The movements were smooth and graceful, but showed power where it was required. Only about ten minutes passed before she was finished, but she was drenched in sweat and her breathing was coming fast and hard. If done properly, a Kata could be an excellent work out on its own.

            Ra’naa grabbed a towel and came up to stand next to the little Uplift. He had forgotten about the weapon he had been examining and she laughed. “I should teach you some moves,” she said, wiping the flesh between her horns.

            He squeaked and then placed both hands on the rifle and closed his eyes. That would be fun, although I’m sure your martial arts would not do me all that much good. His breath came slow and he used the same technique Ra’naa employed – breathe in through the nose and exhale through the mouth.

            Ra’naa watched the rifle appeared to repair itself, although she now knew it had more to do with time and its manipulation than anything else. In a matter of a minute, the weapon looked as good as knew and Otres opened his eyes to examine it. He was not even breathing hard, so it looked as if he could handle all the weapons that were displayed before them.

            “How many weapons do you think you’ll be able to repair?” She asked, knowing that using his psionic ability was always taxing.

            All of them, Otres grinned and wiggled his tail. If I take my time and recover, that is. I can easily take care of all the weapons here, but I’ll need a good night’s rest and plenty of food.

            She grabbed a long, beautifully carved walking staff from the wall. It came up to her shoulders and she tested the weight. It was made from a tree-branch, the sanded and polished to mirror sheen. Although it did not look it, the staff could be used as a weapon, and a very effective weapon at that. She began to go through a new kata. “Okay, I’ll make sure that there is plenty of food for you. I’m sure Momma Rathbourne will be happy to bake you some treats.”

            He watched as she went through her weapon form, admiring the sharpness of each strike, the perfect form of each and every stance. She was concentrating on getting each move just right, and the sweat was pouring off her slim body in rivulets. He picked up another weapon, this one a laser pistol, which was missing nearly the entire butt and trigger mechanism. He barely had to concentrate on the weapon before it was whole and fully functional.

            Promise me something, He asked.

            Ra’naa made two more quick strikes before ending the form and bowing. “Anything.”

            Just don’t die on me!

            She laughed to hide the tears she felt beginning to well. “I have no plans on doing that,” she put the staff against the wall, came over to where he was holding the weapon, and knelt. She hugged him fiercely to her breast. “Besides, I want to see your pups someday, and if I die, how can I do that?”

            Otres chirped curiously but returned the embrace. I need to find a mate before I can have pups.

            “You’ll find the right girl. Something my father always said to me was there is a person for every one of us out there. Sometimes you find them right away, other times it can take a life-time or longer, like in dad’s case.”

            I’ll take your word for it.

            After letting him go, she went back to working on her kata’s. While she trained, Otres concentrated on repairing the weapons. It took her nearly two hours to finish her training, and by the time she was done, she was bathed in sweat and breathing hard. It had gotten quite warm in the cabin and she had stripped down until she was clad only in her briefs and the wraps that covered her breasts.

            Otres rarely took his eyes off her, studying her movements and admiring the grace and strength she displayed. Her father had taught her everything he had known. One of his many duties in the community was to train its members in the art of unarmed combat.

            No one, not a single man or woman in the community, could match his skill. In all the communities across the ruined province there probably was not a single being who could compete against him.

            Eventually he grew exhausted from repairing the weapons. Using the ability was physically draining and he had to stop. Ra’naa had the foresight to have food delivered and the two shared a late-night snack.

            When they turned in for the night, for a change Otres clung to her with a fierceness bordering on desperation. She did what she could to sooth him, and eventually sleep overtook both.

 

***
May 13th, 2668 South of the community

            The night had been uneventful and everyone in the convoy had gotten sufficient sleep. Bradly was feeling quite good, despite the setbacks they had already encountered. So far, there had been no issues with vehicles breaking down or ambushes from the genetic inferiors. What had cost them nearly half a day was finding a way across a large stream. It had not been there when they had travelled to investigate the crashed fighter, and something about the appearance did not seem natural. It was flowing down from the mountains and had cut a six meter swath across the old highway and the trail.  And it was deep, almost four meters.

            The convoy had no choice but to take the time to cut down enough trees to construct a makeshift bridge. It was the only way they could bypass the obstacle. The task had required the majority of the day, but with everyone working, they were able to construct the bridge they needed.

            Shortly after passing the new stream, they bivouacked for the night.

            “How does the trail look?” Bradly asked from his position in the C&C vehicle.

            One of the technicians quickly updated the map and sent it to his holographic display. He studied the updated map and frowned. “They have to know we’re coming,” he said aloud, rubbing the stubble on his chin and frowning. “There are more landslides than there had been yesterday.”

            “Should we try and bypass by using the beach?” The technician suggested.

            Bradly nodded. “Some of our vehicles could make it, but most of the older trucks and wheeled carriers would more than likely break an axle trying to cross.” The beaches were mainly rocks and debris, a lot of fallen trees and other obstacles. “Otherwise, not a bad suggestion,” he cupped his chin and studied the display. There was something, a path, he just needed the time to find it.

            The convoy managed to travel for an hour before they ran into their next obstacle to overcome.  This time there had been a heavy slide and the road was covered by mud, rocks, trees and other plants. It was just over two meters in height and stretched down to the beach.

            Bradly dismounted the C&C vehicle and walked up to the slide. He frowned as he studied the debris field. They were not close enough to an actual mountainside to explain the amount of rock and mud he saw before them. It stretched from the beach, all the way into the temperate rain-forest. What made the obstacle even odder was there was no sign of damage to the surrounding terrain.

            Someone had built the obstacle.

            He did not want to admit it, but it was perfectly clear someone had created the obstacle. There were none of the tell-tale signs of heavy equipment having been used in the construction, which meant only one possibility.

            Mutation. Fucking mutants had created the barricade.

            “Send out scouts. I want them to travel from end to end. Search for any possible weak-spots or places we might be able to exploit,” Bradly ordered. Since he was in his armor and buttoned up against possible attack, he climbed out of the C&C and stood.

            His hands on his hips, he walked up to the mess of dirt, stone, plants and various bits of detritus and stared at it. Bradly’s personal guard caught up to him only a few scant seconds after he arrived and they too stared in awe at the improvised wall.

            “Do you think we can use explosives to create a way through?” One of his guards asked.

            Bradly nodded slowly. That just might work. He opened up the command channel so all his men could hear him and instructed the scouts to look for any possible weakness in the obstacle.

            For the next hour he walked along the improvised wall with his men, looking for anything which might be a possible weakness. Frustration was beginning to settle in when the call he had been waiting for finally arrived.

            “Sir, we might have a place to get through.”

            With his guard in tow, Bradly jogged up the obstacle until he met up with his scouts. There were three men together, all of them wearing the standard issue body armor and carrying assault rifles. Sure enough, there was a section of the wall about seven or eight meters in length. The section was comprised almost entirely of fallen trees and undergrowth, with very little in the way of rocks or other debris. It was thickly coated with mud and dirt but did not look too stable.

            “Bring up the explosives,” Bradly ordered.

            Several minutes later a handful of men arrived bearing heavy loads of explosives. Bradly stood back and watched as the men clamoured over the obstacle like ants attacking a gigantic worm. They dug into the dirt and placed the charges in strategic locations, hoping for the maximum possible effect.

            The task was almost complete when one of the men cried out in pain and slapped his arm. He was only a few meters from Bradly, so he moved over to see what had happened. “What is it?” He demanded.

            “Something bit me!” The man cried and then he scowled at his hand. There was a large insect, about twenty centimeters in length. A sudden chill went through both men’s stomachs as they realized what they were looking at. It was a Melter Hornet, a horrible insect mutant said to have originated in what used to be China.

            “Oh fuck me,” the man said and he looked at the area the creature had bitten. The flesh was red and there was a little bit of blood, but thankfully the wasp did not have enough time to inject the horrific toxin it contained.

            “You got damn lucky,” Bradly breathed. “Go check out the wound with one of the medics and get it treated,” he ordered. He then turned his attention to the rest of the men working on the barricade. “Move as fast as you can, there are Melter Hornets in the area.”

            Where there was one of the horrible mutated insects, there were more.

            A lot more.

            The shiver of horror at the words was almost a palatable sensation; he could almost see the men react. They redoubled their effort to get the charges placed before more of the hideous mutant insects appeared.

            Their effort was nearly too little, too late. His audio sensors picked up the high-pitched whine of rapid-fire wings. Using the computer onboard his armor, he had an estimate in less than a second - thirty-four of the deadly insects were inbound. Sure enough, the one his man killed was merely a scout.

            Normally he would not be concerned when it came to the insects. After all, he was inside his powered armor and that should have kept him safe. The fact was it would not. The venom the mutant Hornets used was extremely effective.

            And deadly.

            “We’ve got incoming people,” he shouted over the convoy-wide channel. “Get to cover, now!” Even as he gave the order he and his two guards were double-timing it back to the C&C. If the men under his command could make it to the vehicles, it would provide safety, at least for a little while.

            He had taken only four running steps when the scream ripped through the convoy channel. It was high-pitched and filled with equal measures of terror and agony. Despite himself, he turned and saw the man who had killed the first scout suddenly besieged by a small swarm. The man swatted and killed as many of the mutant hornets as he could, but they were all over him. Something - some sort of pheromone or chemical inside the insects attracted others like flies to shit.

            If someone was unlucky enough to have the chemical signature on them, the hornets went into berserker frenzy, attacking and biting, heedless of their own safety. They would also sting repeatedly, injecting copious amounts of the extremely deadly venom into the hapless victim.

            Which is exactly what was happening to the man who killed the first scout only a few minutes before. Bradly watched in mixed revulsion and horror as he quickly succumbed to the bites and venom. As he watched, wherever the venom came into contact with the man’s flesh, it began to bubble and melt. Centimeters of flesh sloughed off the muscle, but it did not stop there. The venom ate into the muscle – and appeared to feed off the tissue, growing in volume.

            Seeing his man in horrible agony, Bradly lifted his assault rifle and fired a burst into the man’s screaming face. The head exploded in a shower of flesh, bone and brains. The body instantly slumped to the ground, where the venom and hornets continued to work at destroying it.

            The Melter Hornets continued attacking the corpse, while more and more flew in and began to buzz around the area, looking for more targets.

            “Keep running!” He screamed and took off. He ended up leaving his personal guard behind, as the powered armor he wore increased his speed dramatically. Once he had reached a safe distance, he stopped. Flamer’s, that’s what they needed to combat the creatures. “Flame units, deploy and burn these mutant motherfuckers!” He ordered.

            His guards caught up to him in less than a minute. When they stopped, he motioned angrily at the C&C vehicle. “Get in and button up, I’ll be there in a minute,” Bradly yelled.

            “Sir, we have to stay behind to protect you,” one of his men protested.

            Bradly had to admire the man’s loyalty and bravery, but he did not want to lose more good men to these mutant beasts. “You’ll follow my orders as you would any other time,” he snarled. “Believe me, I have no intention of dying today, but I will not lose any more of you!”

            The man stared at him for only a single heartbeat and then nodded. “Yes sir,” he saluted and then ran towards the C&C.

            As he watched the men depart, a sudden realization hit him like a run-away train. The C&C had anti-boarding defenses – which included a powerfully electrified hull. If he could…

            More of his men ran past, heading to the shelter the vehicles provided. As long as they were buttoned up, they would be relatively safe. When the last of his soldiers was safe, he stood his ground, waiting.

            Eight seconds passed with infinite slowness before the first of the Melter Hornets appeared. It spotted him and came in like an organic missile, homing on the fresh meat hidden beneath layers of metal composite and wires.

            Bradly lashed out with his hand and snatched the hornet out of the air. He crushed the little mutant and then turned, running as hard as he could towards the C&C. He could pick up the sound of the enraged swarm behind him, but thankfully due to his armor, he managed to outpace them.

            When he arrived at the C&C, he smeared the crushed insect over two meters of the exterior of the vehicle. It was sure to attract the creature’s brethren, and he hoped his plan would succeed.

            In seconds, each vehicle was buttoned down and the crew safe – for the moment. “Pull ahead,” he ordered - closing and securing the commander’s copula. “Drive towards the main body of the swarm!”

            “Sir?” Came back the scared, confused voice of the driver.

            “Just do it!”

            The C&C vehicle lurched forward, as if the driver had never been behind the wheel before. It shuddered and jerked before the driver finally regained his senses. Still inside his command station, Bradly brought up an external view. Already hundreds of the horrible hornets were converging on his C&C. A second later it sounded as if the vehicle was caught in the middle of a powerful hail-storm. The mutant hornets slammed into the vehicle, determined to kill the creature which in their minds, had killed one of their own.

            “Sir?” Came the driver’s nearly panicked voice.

            “Keep driving!” Bradly roared.

            With each passing second more of the creatures landed upon the metal skin of the vehicle and began to tear at it with their claws and bites, while trying to sting and inject the horrible venom.

            Bradly swore he could feel the vehicle begin to slow with the weight of the creatures. Less than half a minute later they were within the center of the swarm. He waited another ten seconds, cringing at the sound of the monsters trying to beat their way into the vehicle. Figuring enough time had lapsed; he brought up the correct panel on his display and hit the anti-personnel defenses.

            The interior of the vehicle dimmed and he felt the hair on the back of his neck, arms, legs and hands stand on end. A powerful jolt of electricity shot through the exterior skin of the vehicle, sending over 100,000 volts into anything in contact with the surface. The holographic display flickered and then returned to normal. He could see hundreds; possibly thousands of insect bodies fall from the exterior of the C&C. Many still clung to the hull, but not of their own free will. Some were caught as they fell free; others were almost welded to the metal exterior due to the electrical attack.

            It was enough.

            The defensive move against the swarm had paid off. There were quite a few stragglers, but they were flying off in all directions confused and lost, without the main swarm to guide them. “Flame units, deploy and burn any you can find. Don’t get any of their guts or toxins on you,” he ordered over the command channel.

            He opened the hatch and stood straight to take in the scene. At least the Melter Hornets had been dealt with. Now they just had to get past the barricade.

 

***
May 13th, 2668 The Installation

            Awoan stared at the open holographic displays. On the right she could see the image of General Max Ahteen, and on the left there was the familiar visage of Wrench One. She stared impassively at both, but inside she was practically shouting for joy. “Are you sure you can spare the people?” She asked calmly.

            Max nodded. “We will be leaving in the morning,” he assured her. “We will be coming in from the ocean, so that we can avoid the worst of the obstacles and barricades your people erected.”

            “About that,” she brought up a hand. “We brought down landslides and blocked the road nearing our home, but that is the extent of it. We have seen other obstacles and barricades set up all along the remains of the highway. The Purists have been delayed several times already.”

            “Who created these barricades?” Max wondered aloud. It was something she had been pondering as well, ever since they had gotten news of the barricade and the Melter Hornets. “It obviously is someone who happens to have a bone to pick with those racist assholes.”

            “Any idea?” Awoan asked, her face still impassive, but she had to keep her hands out of the holographic display, as her fingers were constantly fidgeting.”

            “Not a clue,” Max admitted with a shrug. He reached up and rubbed the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. “Maybe we can contact whoever was responsible for this and ask them directly for assistance.”

            Awoan nodded. “Please keep me informed,” she turned her gaze away from Max and let it rest on Joey. “Make sure to bring them through Gamma Tunnel,” she ordered. “And we have plenty of anti-radiation purgers and even a descent supply of RadBGones. I am happy to give it to them if any of his people are exposed to the lingering effects of the nuclear detonation.”

            “They will need them. From speaking with General Ahteen, I have learned only a few will be entering the installation to help defend it. The rest will be setting up ambushes and performing hit and run attacks against the Purists, once they arrive.” Joey said. His face remained neutral, but he was feeling the butterflies inside his stomach. In the next few days they would be facing a large force of Purists, hell-bent on invading and destroying the facility. There were technological wonders inside the base which could not be allowed to fall into their hands.

            She nodded, pleased. “How well do you believe his forces will perform?”

            “I’ve seen Ra’naa and the others fight. If that is any indication of the skill and ability the men and women possess…” he trailed off.  He met her gaze and cleared his throat. “I think they will be able to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy.”

            “That is some of the best news I have heard over the past few days,” Awoan said flatly. It really was good news. She turned back to Max Ahteen. “General, at this juncture, I do not have anything left in our budget to offer you in return for your aid.”

            The flesh between Max’s horns furrowed as he did not quite understand what she was talking about. Budget, what the hell? He had not heard of such since before the last government and military offices had shut down. He thought about it for a few heartbeats and then nodded. The repairs were burning through resources and whatever stockpiles they had in their possession. “That’s understandable. Instead of paying us, I would like to have your people join and fight alongside us as we bring the battle to the Purists.”

            Awoan never hesitated. “Done.”

            Max nodded, pleased. He had expected at least a little negotiation with the android. Deep down, he was a little alarmed – maybe they would renege on the agreement after his people helped? He certainly did not hope it would be the case.

            “I look forward to our meeting in person,” Awoan said, the flicker of a smile crossing her otherwise impassive face.

            “So do I, Awoan. We will see one another soon enough,” with that, he broke the connection.

            Alone, Awoan finally let her guard down. She allowed a look of concern to crease her beautiful face. “Joey, I know you were hurt, how are your wounds healing?”

            He shrugged and tried not to show the shock he felt when she addressed him by his given name. When he was in the field, it was always by his call-sign. She called him Joey. A strange sense of pride suffused his soul and it took a supreme effort of will not to show it on his face. “The medicine they use is quite remarkable. The wounds are almost completely healed and I will be as good as new in the morning.”

            “I am pleased. You have done remarkably well,” she smiled. When Awoan smiled, the whole room lit up. It was not a gesture she made very often. Androids, even those created to serve humans as she had been, were not emotional, especially when not performing the duties they were created for.

            Joey shrugged noncommittally. “I was well trained and the technology you allowed me to take along on the mission made all the difference in the world. I don’t think I would have been even half as successful without the personal teleporter.”

            She nodded, conceding the point. “How do you feel about Ra’naa Ahteen?”

            The question caused him to do a classic double-take. “What do you mean?”

            She smiled coyly. “I may be nothing more than a pleasure model, but I can read between the lines. You are fascinated by the woman.”

            “She is a strong and skilled woman,” he admitted. Her observation into his feelings towards the Exotic woman were buried deep – at least he thought they were. If Awoan could see them so easily, did it mean the others could as well? “Awoan, you’re no mere pleasure android, you are the first of our people, our leader. No mere pleasure android could have accomplished what you have.”

            “I would suggest you pursue her,” Awoan suggested, still smiling. “Love is something to be shared and treasured, not to be ignored.”

            “It’s not like that!” He practically yelled. “She’s pretty, and she’s a good leader, but she would never be interested in a man like me.”

            “Why not?”

            Indeed, why not?

            “I have a hard time showing emotions, for starters,” he stated.

            Awoan raised an eyebrow, smirking. “Like now?”

            “I certainly am not good looking either,” he countered.

            “A woman can see past the exterior. There are plenty of attractive, if not beautiful people, who are ugly on the inside.”

            “And I don’t know how to act around a woman.”

            She held up a finger and nodded. “There is that, but I have one suggestion when it comes to the way you act around women.”

            He sat, staring at her holographic image.

            When he did not speak or argue, she nodded sagely. “Just be yourself.”

            Could it really be that simple? And did he really want to try and pursue the woman? She was nice enough, but he found she came across as somewhat aloof. Could it be his imagination? “Maybe after we have defeated the Purists and have secured the Installation from further attack,” he said, rubbing his chin.

            “Don’t wait too long,” she warned. “Life is fickle and with the upcoming war, either of you could fall in battle. Do not pass up the opportunity to get to know her.”

            He stared at her, not quite believing what he was hearing. He replayed her words in his mind and was it his imagination, or was there a trace of regret hidden there?

            “I’ll think about it,” he said at last.

            Awoan nodded. “Good. Fight well and take care, and I hope to see you soon,” she gave him one last smile and then broke the connection.

            Joey sat in the darkness of the room he had been given and thought about what she had said. Finally sleep took him into its warm embrace and he fell into a dreamless, restful state, with Ra’naa’s face firmly etched into his mind’s eye.

***
May 14th, 2668 The community

            Declan was still amazed at how well the medicine worked. When he awoke, the pain was gone, and all that remained of the wound was a red scar, which was already fading away. It would be gone in another twenty-four hours.

            For once, Tara did not remain sleeping when he woke. Instead, she smiled, purring slightly and climbed on top of him for a round of slow, gentle love-making. It was certainly a wonderful way to begin the day.

            After they were finished, cleaned up and dressed, they met up with Ra’naa, Joey, Babs, and the contingent of fighters. He recognized several of the fighters, including Kate and her betrothed Jas’nar, and the Rattle-snake exotic who had flirted with him. They exchanged polite nods as people adjusted gear and checked weaponry.  

            “Hey Doc,” Babs greeted him. She was garbed in heavy combat armor and carrying a large assortment of weaponry. The tactical webbing crisscrossing her body was festooned with spare magazines, power-cells and even grenades. She had a black, unadorned baseball cap resting on top of her head. “You look better.”

            Declan smiled and ran his hand over the spot he had sustained the wound. “Almost as good as new.”

            “Babs,” Tara greeted coolly. “I’m pleased to see you’re ready for war.”

            The AI turned android grinned and nodded. “Damn right, I want to teach some in-bred rednecks a thing or two about huntin’ good, decent folk.”

            The Tiger-Exotic had a strange look on her face. “Can I talk to you in private for a few minutes?”

            The smile on Babs face disappeared instantly. She looked at Declan, who shrugged. Babs realized her friend had no idea what was going on either. “Alright, follow me.”

            Moving to the side, Tara faced Babs and crossed her arms under her breasts. She gave the android the once-over and flipped her hair back so it was out of her eyes. The black dye from the ambusher had nearly faded away, but it still gave her a slightly sinister look. “After we have finished helping the androids, I want you to consider staying with them,” she said bluntly.

            Babs blinked and her mouth dropped open. “Excuse me?” She snapped a fraction of a second later.

            “I said I want you t…” Tara tried to repeat but was instantly silenced when Babs held up her hand.

            “Not a fucking chance,” Babs said hotly. “Now I get it, you want me out of the picture so I’m not a temptation for Declan.”

            “Exactly,” said Tara, her tail was swishing madly from side to side, and her mouth had turned up slightly, revealing her fangs. “He is going to be the father to my babies and you can’t be around.”

            “Listen Tara,” Babs said in as calm a voice as she could. “I’ve been with Declan for centuries. He is my best friend and I love him like a brother,” she stated bluntly. The last was not true; she had made love to him thousands upon thousands of times in his mind while in cryonic suspension. She was so jealous of Tara, knowing the woman was capable of giving him exactly what she could not. Babs was not petty – she saw how he was growing to care for the volatile Exotic, and she saw the effect they had on one another. As much as it hurt her, she was not going to stand in their way.

            She refused to leave.  

            “I don’t give a shit,” Tara half-snarled. “If you don’t stay with the Androids after we have helped them, then I will destroy you.”

            Babs reacted as if she had been physically slapped, stepping back. She was not afraid of the Tiger-Exotic, not in the least. She had seen what the woman was capable of doing in combat, and Babs knew she could take her. Still, to be threatened like that, it was almost too much for her to stand. “You know, go ahead and try,” Babs calmly stated. “I won’t hurt you, but I will not allow you to damage me,” she turned and walked back to the main group. Her body language made it perfectly clear the argument was at an end.

            For a fraction of a second, it appeared as if Tara was about to leap on the android’s back. She stood, her breasts heaving as she glared hatefully at Babs. Her long tail swished madly, and as she flexed her fingers, the claws slid in and out of the tips of her fingers. Taking several deep breaths, Tara forced the rage to subside. In a few seconds, her tail slowed to a stop and she blinked, blowing a stray bit of hair from her eyes.

             Declan stared at her when she walked up to him. The Tiger-Exotic gave him a smile and took his hand in hers, acting as if nothing had happened. “Are you alright?” He asked, staring into her cat-like eyes.

            “I am. I just needed to speak to Babs. I had to get something off my chest.”

            “It looked as if you two were going to fight,” he said, continuing to stare, watching her intently.

            “We…” she began and then looked up as Max Ahteen joined the waiting group.

            The leader of the community was dressed in black, heavy combat armor, tailored to suit his slightly inhuman physiology. The armor looked brand-new, and it gleamed in the early morning light. He carried a helmet under one arm and there was an assault rifle strapped to his back. A large handgun hung in holsters on both hips and his torso was crossed by spare magazine pouches. The man looked like he was ready to go to war.

            “Dad?” Ra’naa asked. She had a perplexed look on her face and began to rub at her left horn.

            “Good morning,” he addressed the men and women. He waited as the responses were given and then put his hands on his hips. “I will be going with you to the Android’s installation.”

            There were a few protests, but mainly the crowd was silent. The gathered fighters exchanged glances and a few shifted nervously on their feet, unsure how to respond or react to the unexpected change of plans.

            Ra’naa shook her head, frowning. “Dad, that’s not a good idea.”

            Max Ahteen shook his head and stared at the ground for only a fraction of a second. “And why is that?”

            “What happens if you’re hurt or injured?” She responded immediately.

            “Then someone else will take over in my stead.”

            She looked furious. “It isn’t that simple, dad. I…”

            He held up a single hand to silence her. “Ra’naa, I have made my choice. I am coming with you, for better or for worse. This is going to be a very difficult battle and I plan on being by your side the entire time,” he softened his tone and gave her a gentle smile. “What I to do if I lose you? I lost your mother. I have given you as much freedom as possible – despite the dangers involved. This is one time I need to be there with you.”

            Ra’naa felt a lump form in her throat and her vision began to blur with unshed tears. She was just as afraid of losing him as he was of losing her. “Maybe,” she felt her voice crack and she waited a moment until she could speak without losing it. “Maybe if we cover each other’s back we’ll both make it home, safe and sound.”

            “We will,” he promised her.

            He turned and faced the gathered fighters. “We will not be using the Brutes or horses. We will walk to the beach and take the fishing boats up the coast. It will be far quicker than trying to take the trail,” he told them. It took him a few minutes to explain how the androids had created barricades and other hazards along the old highway to impede the progress of the Purists. It proved to be highly beneficial as this would delay the advancing enemy force by a couple of days. The end result would be giving Max and the androids more time to prepare defenses and dig in for the assault.

            “Any questions?” Max asked at long last.

            There were a few, and he did his best to answer them. After a few minutes the gathered men and women quieted down.

            Ra’naa looked around, searching for Otres. She was more than a little saddened when she had discovered he had left before she woke. Ra’naa had hoped he would be there to see her off, as she knew it would be a few days before they were reunited.

            “Alright then, let’s move out!”

            Otres came bounding out from the gathered crowd, squeaking loudly, clearly agitated.

            “What’s wrong?” Ra’naa demanded, dropping to her knees.

            I can’t believe you were going to leave without saying goodbye! He complained, looking forlorn.

            Everyone heard his complaint. Declan and Tara came over and knelt with Ra’naa. They gave the little Uplift Otter a group hug and remained that way for several long seconds.

            “Don’t worry about Ra’naa, Otres. We’ll take good care of her while we’re gone,” Tara promised.

            I don’t want any of you to get hurt, Otres squeaked and searched their faces. Not even you, Shard.

            Declan had to laugh. It had been a long time since anyone had used his former handle. It sounded strange coming from Otres, but he could accept it readily enough. “I will be careful,” he promised.

            At Max’s signal, the group began their trek to the gates and out of the small community. Otres followed along with them until they were past the gate, where he stood and watched until they were out of sight.