Buck Who? Chapter 27

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 27: Meet at last

May 14th, 2668 The beach, due west of the Community

            The boats were waiting for the community’s contingent of fighters and soldiers. Several of the men left the community at first light and had taken the time to prepare the transportation for the rest.

            The early morning sky was slightly overcast and it was already quite warm, a harbinger of the heat they would be facing during the peak hours later in the day. Streaks of azure broke through the cloud-cover, giving the sky a strange, marbled appearance. The heat was a pleasant change from the cold conditions they had been experiencing over the past week or so, with the air finally beginning to feel like spring was arriving. The woods they traveled through were strangely silent. It was as if the life residing there knew of the impending battle and was paying tribute to those who were going to sacrifice everything to prevent a great evil from changing the world around them.

            The fates were kind as well, as the Pacific was very calm. Gentle waves lapped against the stony shoreline, caressing the stones with eternal fingers. The first rays of light danced off the tips of the waves, making the ocean look as if it was alive with flashes of silver. Any other day, this would have been a perfect time for the fishermen to head out into the far reaches to fish. Such a day would provide a bounty of fresh food for the community.

            This was not any other day. For the first time ever, the community was going to war.  To top it off they were going to the aid of a group they only recently had come in contact with. Max brooded over this as he watched his men and women wade out into the cold Pacific waters and climb into the waiting boats.

            His daughter and her closest friends were taking the lead boat, just as he had assumed they would. Max decided to take the last ship in line. All the fighters going on the expedition were expecting him to lead the resistance.

            They were in for a bit of a surprise, Max smiled as he mulled over his decision. He had every intention of allowing Ra’naa to lead, and he would be there strictly as an advisor. It had been over two centuries since he had led a force of any size into combat, and he was feeling a little rusty.

            His daughter, on the other hand, needed the experience more than he needed to polish his skills. Max realized that for him, it was like riding a bicycle. He may not have commanded a military force in a long time, but it would come back to him soon enough.

            It took about half an hour for the fighters to board their water-craft and then the small convoy of fishing boats was ready to move. He was the very last man to climb aboard, helped by the captain of one of the several ancient fishing vessels the community possessed. The captain, a human man in his late fifties, nodded gravely. He was dressed in water-resistant pants and a jacket, and had leather boots covering his feet. “Max,” he said with a tone close to reverence.

            “Thomas,” Max nodded in return. “You understand the orders I issued?”

            “Yes sir,” Thomas grinned wolfishly. “Come to the pilot’s house and we’ll talk.”

            The two men entered the small but comfortable pilot’s house. There was enough room for four people – the pilot, navigator, communications tech and an observer. Thomas took his seat behind the controls to the vessel and motioned with one hand to the empty seat.

            Max took the seat and was pleased there was an opening in the back-rest, so he could comfortably arrange his tail. He glanced around the cabin, looking for a place to stash his weapon.

            Seeing this, Thomas indicated a rack just behind the pilot’s seat. A number of rifles and two old-fashioned spear-guns were already stowed away. Max handed Thomas his assault rifle, which was added to the stash.

            The captain then turned and crossed his arms. “So, after we drop you and the rest of the fighters on shore, you want us to head out to sea and wait until the attack has commenced.”

            “Exactly,” Max confirmed. “And don’t expect us to call in a few hours – we don’t expect the Purists for two more days. If they get lucky and can find a way to bypass the obstacles the androids have placed in their way, it might be less.”

            Thomas nodded and scratched behind his ear. “How long should we wait before coming to pick you up?”

            “We will be in constant communication the whole time. If we need you, we will let you know,” he rubbed his eyes, annoyed at the glare coming off the water. Reaching into one of the pouches on his armor, he pulled out a pair of sunglasses and donned them.

            “Got it, sir.”

            “One last thing, Thomas,” Max said, staring at the captain.

            “What’s that?”

            Max sighed and then ran his hand over his horns. “If we tell you to run for home, you will do so without hesitation. I want you to take as many people as this ship can hold and head back out to sea. No heroics, period. If we are lost, you have to save as many of our people as you can. We can’t afford to lose anyone to the Purists if our main force is lost.”

            Thomas did not look happy. “Do you think that’s going to happen?”

            “No, but there is always a chance something could go wrong. I’ve seen the size of the force coming up the ancient highway and it is pretty damn strong,” he suddenly grinned maliciously. “I’ve got some ideas and I’m confident in the ability of our people to fight.  We can either destroy them or send the racist motherfuckers running home to momma with their tails between their legs.”

            “Glad to see you’re sure of this,” Thomas quipped and looked at Max’s tail. “Interestin’ pun.”

            “Wasn’t intentional,” Max replied, not sure if the man was being sincere or sarcastic.

***

May 14th, 2668 South of the community

            It took work, but at long last they were able to create an opening large enough to get the convoy through. The men were on edge and few wanted to leave the safety of their vehicles.  Bradly really could not blame them, and decided to call it a night. Everyone was exhausted and on edge, waiting for more of the horrible mutants to show, or for their hated enemy to attack. 

            Much to everyone’s surprise and delight, the night had been uneventful, and for that Bradly was grateful. He was equally grateful they had only lost a single man to the Melter Hornets. Still, one loss was another soldier who would never live to see the Earth purged of mutants.

            Deep inside Bradly fumed, although to anyone looking at him, his outward appearance was that of calm. He intended to keep it that way as he sipped at his coffee – the brew was dark and bitter, but had enough caffeine to wake a sleepy Brute. Everyone needed the stimulant, no matter what form it came in, as it had been an uncomfortable night. Bradly insisted no one sleep out of doors, and no one argued. The mutants and the enemy located at the former military facility could be lying in wait for just such an opportunity to strike. Thankfully no one had perished or had gone missing over the evening.

            Finishing the bitter coffee, he put the empty mug inside the cup-holder of his command seat. Light flashed over his face as he watched the display as one by one each of his vehicle commanders called in, announcing their readiness.

            It took less than twenty minutes for the last of the vehicles to come online and as soon as the last commander checked in, Bradly gave the order for the convoy to move.  The C&C vehicle lurched and soon they were leading the formation through the green temperate rain-forest.  The remaining vehicles were spaced far enough apart to ensure no more than one or two could be disabled or destroyed, should they be ambushed.

            He continued to watch the lush terrain ahead of the convoy over the next few hours, looking for more potential traps or possible ambushes. The latter caused him to smile ruefully and shake his head. As if the mutants would be willing to… His train of thought was run off the road when a powerful explosion detonated to either side of his C&C vehicle.

            “You’ve got to be kidding!” Acting on pure instinct, he ducked back into the vehicle and dogged the hatch behind him, and not a moment too soon. The concussive force had rattled his cage when the explosives had gone off, but that was the worst of it. Two seconds slipped by with infinite slowness before the first of the debris began to pelt the exterior. The clanging and banging sounded eerily like an angry child beating on a can with a hammer.

            “Raise the shields!” Bradly cried out, suddenly aware they had not been using them.

            “On it,” the driver shouted back.

            Abruptly the clanging of debris came to a blessed halt. “Damage report!” He demanded.

            “We’ve lost some of our external sensor arrays, and two of our Gatling lasers have been knocked offline,” One of the gunners yelled. “Damn good thing you brought the shield online.”

            Bradly nearly hit himself for not having kept the shields up the entire time. It was one of the worst tactical mistakes he could possibly have made, and yet he made it.  He wondered what his father would have to say about once they returned from the raid. Bradly dismissed the thought and brought up an external view of the vehicle and the surrounding terrain so he could have a better look at what happened.

            To either side of the trail, there were massive smoking craters. The enemy had used one of the oldest tactics known in modern warfare – they had planted IED’s, or improvised explosive devices along the trail. Bradly swiped the aside and brought up the status report on the rest of the vehicles in the convoy. Two had been totally knocked out, while seven more had suffered damage to one degree or another. He brought the command channel online. “Report any casualties,” he demanded.

            After about five minutes, he had a total. It could have been a lot worse. Six dead and eighteen wounded. Most of those wounded could still fight, only three were so bad off they had to be taken out of the order of battle.

            Bradly was feeling the stress of the campaign and they had not even reached their goal. His neck and shoulders felt stiff and it hurt for him to turn his head to look around. He really wished his bed-warmer was available right then and there, as stress relief she could provide would make a world of difference. Instead he dry-washed his face and considered the situation at hand.

            “Are the vehicles still drivable?” He asked.

            The reply was instant. “No sir, one is a total write-off. We can only use it for spare parts, the other, it can be fixed but it will require significant shop time. The rest, they can still be used.”

            Delegation, that was one of the keys to proper command. “Contact the compound and have them send up a pair of wreckers. Make sure to tell Martin Travis to send a large enough force to provide security. We don’t want to lose any more men to these mutant bastards.”

            “Will comply,” the speaker responded.

            They waited for nearly an hour as the wounded were cared for and the men were re-distributed among the vehicles. Losing the two was a significant blow, and it angered him to no end, and they were barely half-way to their objective.

            What else is going to go wrong before we finally reach the enemy? He had to wonder.

***

May 14th, 2668 Along the coastline of British Columbia      

            For most of the day the small flotilla of ships had hugged the coastline. The sea and weather remained calm and it would have been the perfect day for rest and relaxation, if they were not heading out to war.

            Declan stood on the side of the boat, staring at the shoreline as it passed by. Kilometer after kilometer of unbroken treeline, rocky shores and blue sky slid away with gentle grace. The former pilot could easily forget he was far into his own future and everyone he had once known and cared for was long dead.

            When a hand touched his shoulder, he was jolted back to reality and he looked at the woman who had demanded everything he had to offer. Tara stared at him, her eyes bright and clear, a slight smile on her face. “What are you thinking about?”

            He blew out a breath, puffing his cheeks. “Just how fucked up my life has become,” he laughed and showed her his best smile, hoping to defuse any possible offense she might take at his words. “That - and how good it is.”

            She took his arm in hers and hugged him. “You’ve had quite the influence on me as well,” she purred.

            He kissed her furry cheek and turned his gaze back towards the majestic shoreline. It really did not look all that different from what it had before he had his nap. “What are you thinking about?” He asked, deciding to see what was on the Tiger-Exotic’s mind.

            “How many babies we’re going to have, and if I want to stay in the community or maybe go south to Scav Haven.”

            He glanced at her sharply. “You want to go back to Scav Haven too?”

            She nodded and stroked his cheek with one hand. “Sure, I saw how much you seemed to like the place, so why not?”

            “So just how many kids do you want anyhow?” He asked, almost dreading to hear the answer. It struck him as odd that any children he sired would end up being Tiger-Exotics, just like their mother. He kind of wanted to have regular kids, not exotics. Then again, he was damned lucky to be in the position to have children.

            “Three,” she stated earnestly. “I’m hoping for a couple of daughters and one son.”

            “And if we have more?” He grinned, warming up to the idea. Deep down his old personality was appalled, shocked beyond comprehension at the thought. It was one of the reasons he paid for the enhancement, after all… have as many women as he could. Yet here he was, planning a life with a woman he had known for less than a month.

            “Then we raise however many you give me,” she said.

            They stood on the deck, leaning on the railing, watching in comfortable silence.

***

May 14th, 2668 Along the coastline of British Columbia      

            The android lowered the image intensification goggles he had been using and turned to face the others. “There they are, ahead of schedule,” he waved a hand towards the small flotilla of boats and fishing vessels approaching.

            “Inform Awoan our guests have arrived,” he announced. He placed the goggles back in a protective case and then began to make his way along the shoreline to the makeshift docks. The structure was really nothing more than duraplas pontoons and heavy duty-pads. The dock was hastily erected the previous night in anticipation of the fighter’s arrival, and they had finished the construction less than an hour ago.

            He walked out onto the shifting, roiling dock and stood with his hands behind his back. His internal gyroscope kept him upright and he rode the motion with deceptive ease as the first ship approached. Crewmen aboard the vessel eyed him warily but threw him the lines so he could tie the ship to the dock.

            A few minutes later, Ra’naa and Joey disembarked from the vessel and came over to stand before the android. “I’m Ra’naa Ahteen,” she said, offering her hand.

            The android studied her face and body, committing it to memory before he took the proffered hand and returned the grip. It took only a millisecond to register her profile, which the young woman would not have noticed. “Welcome, Ra’naa Ahteen,” he bowed slightly at the waste. When he stood he looked at the young man, Joey. “And welcome home, Joey. Your mission was a resounding success.”

            Joey looked very pleased at the praise. “Thanks, Seeten,” he bowed in return. “I’m a little confused,” he admitted, looking at the small party of androids waiting for them. “I thought I was to bring the people from the community in via one of the emergency tunnels.”

            “It was the original plan,” Seeten replied. “Awoan was concerned about the radioactive contamination and wanted to ensure Ra’naa and her people were to avoid as much as possible.”

            “And the docks?” Joey waved a hand down at the duraplas planks beneath his feet.

            “Temporary, but once we have defeated the purists, we will be constructing stronger, more permanent structures,” he smiled. “Awoan is quite certain this is just the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between our two people.”

            The facial expression worn by the android was something Joey had never seen before. It was strangely disconcerting but somehow charming at the same time. “This is a lot of changes to take in all at once,” he ran a hand through his hair as his other hand rested on the hilt of the new sword he purchased in Scav Haven.

            Seeten nodded. “Awoan has implemented a great deal of change since the attack,” he said.” Quite a few of us disagree on many points; we are going along with it. Change is often difficult to embrace but most of the time it is for the better.”

            “Has she come out meet us?” Joey asked.

            “I’m sorry she hasn’t,” Seeten confirmed. “There are still too many tasks which need her attention. She will meet with you and your friends once we return to the installation.”

            Ra’naa cleared her throat as she looked to the East. There was a pall of smoke hanging in the sky, hugging the hills and the air had a strong odor of burnt vegetation and wood. She was surprised she had not noticed this before – it probably had something to do with the prevailing winds. Instantly she began to worry about fallout, knowing how close they were to where the nuke had detonated. If she could smell the smoke, there was a good chance they were already taking a dosage of radiation.

            “What’s the rad count here?” She finally asked.

            Seeten looked at her blankly and then shook his head. “Just slightly above normal background radiation,” he pulled out a small device and held it in his palm. It was the size of a mini-tablet and the android offered it to her.

            Ra’naa scanned the display and then handed it back, satisfied. She realized there was a chance she just insulted her hosts – not trusting to keep them out of the hot-zones. If that was the worst mistake she was about to make, then the day was off to a good start. “How far is it to your installation?”

            “We will have to take a circuitous route in order to avoid the worst of the fallout,” he said. Seeten put the device away and then watched as more ships docked to unload their passengers. “Approximately seven hours, give or take.”

            She nodded and thanked the android. A moment later, she was standing on the stone-covered shoreline with Joey and the other fighters who had just disembarked. It took nearly a full hour for all the ships to pull up to the make-shift dock and unload their passengers and weapons. More than a few ended up in the water, but there were no injuries or loss of equipment. A few laughs and wounded pride was the worst.

            When her father finally came to join her, she was starting to feel butterflies in her stomach. “Dad, Seeten said it would be about seven hours travel to reach the installation.”

            He nodded and then gestured towards the grouped androids. “Lead the way, Ra’naa.”

            She was still flustered he had put her in charge of the upcoming campaign. He had hundreds of years of experience leading people, and she had next to none. Why did he choose this time to help her gain the experience? She did realize he was with her, and he would support her and offer advice, and that was a big help. No matter what, it was still a daunting task.

            “Alright people,” she had to shout to be heard over the murmur of the crowd. “Keep your weapons at the ready – we’re entering dark territory. The androids are going to take us to their installation, and they have assured our security. We all know the dangers these forests hold, and all the mutants and animals are probably still agitated by the detonation,” she paused to let it sink in. “So stay on your guard!”

            There was a chorus of agreements and everyone was prepared to move out. Ra’naa walked over to the android representatives and she nodded. “Lead the way,” she asked.

            Seeten and his fellow androids disappeared into the forest, the long column of fighters snaking their way along behind.

***

May 14th, 2668 North of the Community

            By the time the convoy stopped for the night, everyone was exhausted and on edge. There had been plenty of detours, and more than a few false-alarms, but thankfully there had been no more casualties.

            As they had the previous night, everyone remained inside their vehicles, buttoned up for their protection against the hostile night. His men grumbled and complained rather loudly, and he accepted it. In the past, Bradly would have had the men who put up such a ruckus beaten, or maybe even shot, but no longer. He still had supreme power of the men under his command, as it should be. The major difference is what his father had discovered – kindness mixed in with proper discipline was far better a motivator than pure fear.

            The trail ahead was still nigh impassable, but he decided to use his head instead of brute force. For several long hours he studied the terrain, examining the real-time images the satellite provided. Soon, he managed to find alternate routes around many of the blocks. It would still be slow-going. Instead of two or three more days, with the route he outlined, they should hit the desired destination by nightfall the next day.  

            Bradly sent the information along to his commanders and then settled in, trying to get as comfortable as possible. Sleep came easier than usual, as it was brought on by a sense of accomplishment and pride.

***

May 14th, 2668 The Installation

            “Welcome to the Rocky Mountain Shield, Installation 23,” the tall, beautiful and voluptuous woman greeted. She was standing in the large conference room to which Ra’naa, her father, and the commanders of the fighting force had been escorted to.

            Ra’naa nodded and bowed slightly, as she had seen the androids do to her people. “Thank you. I take it you’re Awoan?”

            The android waved her hands down at her body and nodded. “In the flesh, so to speak.”

            Over the next couple of minutes introductions were made and then the group was invited to sit at a long table. The chairs were utilitarian but oddly comfortable. Awoan took the seat at the head of the table. Ra’naa sat directly across from her, with her father to her right. Tara, Babs and Declan were to her left. Joey, the representative of the installation, was seated about midway down the table on her left.

            “I wish to extend my eternal gratitude to all of you for coming to our aid,” Awoan stood and waved her arms around the table. “You do not know us, but you are willing to extend your assistance and even your lives in our defense.”

            Ra’naa stood and bowed at the waste. “We share a powerful enemy who is bent on genocide on a scale not seen since the end of the final wars,” she said. Her tail was twitching slightly and she ran her hand over her horns. Anyone who knew her would realize just how nervous the woman was. “The fact they attacked you with a nuclear weapon does not bode well for the rest of us. If they have one, they probably have more. If they’re willing to use it on you, there is no telling how soon they will use it on other places.”

            Declan cleared his throat. “I can see them nuking Scav Haven.”

            The very thought of the Purists nuking what was becoming the heart of the Northwest was the stuff of nightmares. Ra’naa grimaced and looked to her father. He was seated, his arms crossed and looking relaxed and confident. “That’s a scary though,” she looked away from her father and at Declan. “So the more allies we can gain with our actions, the better.”

            Declan, seeing he had the floor, decided to push ahead. “I knew these facilities before the final wars. Is there any chance you might have a Shrike or other fighter available? I’m a damn good pilot and I could intercept anything launched by the Purists.”

            Awoan studied the man for a few heartbeats. “If only, Lieutenant Starrett. Having access to such technology would turn the tide. We could strike at the heart of the enemy and wipe them out before they continued with the offensive.”

            Declan felt as if he had been punched in the stomach. They knew his rank and his last name – how was it possible? Then he gave his head a shake. Facial recognition and the database they possessed, that’s how. “No harm in asking,” he shrugged.

            Awoan nodded in her agreement. “We have plenty of anti-radiation medication available and a supply of RadBgone, and we are more than willing to share it with you. The aboveground has been utterly destroyed by the detonation. The entrance to our installation has been scoured clean and it is visible. The Purists know exactly where we are and they’re going to come in and try to breach the entrance.”

            Tara cleared her throat. “Now hold on a second,” she stood her posture relaxed, even her tail was still for a change. “Your entrance withstood a blast from a nuclear weapon, and you suspect they are going to try and breach it? What are they going to use, another nuke?”

            “That remains to be seen,” Awoan admitted. “We suspect they will be coming in with breaching charges, mini or micro-nukes. Such concentrated energy might be enough to penetrate the doors, where the larger blasts failed. Though the entrance was designed to withstand low-yield nuclear blasts.”

            Ra’naa nodded, although she did not quite understand the concept. “And that is what you want us to prevent from happening,” she stated.

            Awoan nodded. “Exactly. We don’t have many warrior-class androids here; most of those were destroyed during the final wars. The few that remain will fight alongside your people. The rest of us are scientist, technician and…” she paused, a smile curving her full lips. “Other.”

            The next several hours were lost in planning and assigning tasks to Ra’naa’s fighters. Max stood off to the side, watching and listening, his face impassive. This was his daughter’s show and he would only step in if the circumstances warranted.

            When the planning was complete, a group of androids arrived. They were pushing trollies filled with all manner of food and drink for their organic guests. “A little gift, we have prepared. We were lucky to have several chef and catering models join us after the end of the last conflict,” Awoan explained. “They rarely have a chance to cook for such a large group of people, and found pleasure in being able to do so.”

            Everyone enjoyed a extravagant meal. 

***

May 14th, 2668 The Installation

            That night the newly arrived defenders were afforded comfortable quarters. The leaders of the group were all given private chambers to use. This included Ra’naa, Max, Declan, and Tara. Babs turned down the offered quarters and decided instead to explore the installation.

            Declan and Tara stood in the room they had been given. It was Spartan, at best, having a small bed, barely big enough for the two of them, a desk with an uncomfortable chair, and a single closet. There was a small bathroom to the rear of the chamber, complete with a shower, toilet and sink.

            The room was meticulously clean, not even a speck of dust under the bed. There were no decorations on the walls, but at least the door could be locked from the inside and the lighting was cool and dim. The temperature inside the room was a comfortable twenty degrees Celsius, which meant sleeping that night would be easy.

            “Haven’t seen a shower in ages,” Declan sighed in pleasure, looking into the closet-sized bathroom. “This is going to be great!”

            Tara stood next to him, a slight buzzing purr coming from her throat. “We have communal showers in the caverns,” she said, stepping back. “And a few of the bigger homes with plumbing have them, but I always preferred to use a tub.”

            He stepped into the room and turned the water on. It rained down from the overhead ceiling instantly, steaming hot. He yelped and pulled back, not expecting it to respond so quickly. Tara laughed and he looked around the small room for a towel to dry his wet hair.

            “Just take your clothes off and get in,” Tara suggested.

            Looking into the mirror inside the small room, he could already see she had peeled off her travel clothes and was standing there, naked. “Right,” he did as she asked.

            They spent several long minutes enjoying the spray of the heated water and soaping each other down. After a quick rinse, he finally felt it was ready to talk to her about something which had been eating away at him for hours.  

            “Why did you demand Babs stay here with the androids?”

            Tara’s eyes flew wide open and she stared at him in shock. “You’re going to ask this now?” Her voice was filled with dismay.

            “Yes,” he said. “I need to know why!”

            She began to turn away, biting her lower lip as the water cascaded over her. “How did you know?” She demanded, anger creeping into her words

            “I know you pretty good now,” he shrugged and then crossed his arms. “and I know Babs. She is hurt and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what you said to her.”

            Tara refused to meet his gaze, but her body language conveyed how annoyed or outright angry she felt. “She is going to take you from me!”

            Declan placed a hand on her shoulder and used the other to raise her face so she could look him directly in the eyes. “Not a chance.”

            “I don’t…” she held his gaze and looked conflicted. The hot water was causing the room to fill with steam. “I don’t trust her,” she told him honestly.

            “Then trust me,” Declan gave her a reassuring smile, although he was feeling more than a little betrayed. “She is my best friend, but I made a promise to you, and I never break my promises! How would you feel if I demanded Ra’naa leave and stay somewhere else?”

            “You would never ask me something like that,” she answered him in such a smug tone he felt his anger begin to rise.

            “And what makes you so sure of that?”

            “Because you wouldn’t. It would harm our relationship.”

            He burst out laughing. “And you asking Babs to stay here, to get out of my life entirely is not going to cause harm to our relationship?” His face was a mask of incredulity. “First, Babs is an android – hell she’s not even a pleasure model like Awoan. Secondly, she’s an AI and as such her emotions are not real. They’re nothing more than code, programing language made to imitate human emotions,” he defended his friend. The last part was not true, not by a long shot. Babs was one of the latest models of AI who had full emotions, and that was what made them so effective.

            “It doesn’t matter,” Tara retorted, her hands on her hips and her tail swishing back and forth angrily, causing the hot water to splash all over the small bathroom. She was really mad, and even her whiskers twitched. “She’s a woman, even if she’s an android and incapable of sex! She will still want to take you away from me!” Tara threw her hands up in rage, her claws extended and her teeth showing.

            This was the first real relationship fight Declan could ever recall having. It surprised him how angry he was getting – proving to him once and for all he really did love the Tiger-Exotic. Which was hard to deal with because he also knew he loved Babs, but in a different way. What was the love he had for the AI? More akin to that of a sibling? How could that be? The sex they had shared so many times during his cryonic suspension, well if siblings would have engaged in such activities… he almost shuddered to think about that.

            He stepped up close to her and did not flinch when she snarled in his face. Instead, he reached out with both hands and gently cupped her cheeks. “Listen to me, Tara...” he said in as calm a voice as he could manage. “I made my promise to you. If you want, after the fighting against the Purists is over, I’ll marry you. I’ll be a good father to our three or more kids, and I’ll never, ever turn my back on you or them. I will be as loyal as the day is long.”

            At first, Tara was surprised, her face a mask of snarling, angry Tigress. As he spoke, however, her face began to relax and soften. Her beautiful eyes searched his for any sign of deception, and when she could not find any, tears began to stream down her furry cheeks, mingling with the water from the shower. “Why, Declan? I know I can be such a bitch sometimes. I’m temperamental, hot-headed, opinionated, and just all around unpleasant to be with.”

            “And you were searching for something your whole life,” he countered. “That is why you acted the way you did. And then suddenly I came along, and you found what you had been looking for,” he pulled her face towards him and kissed her softly. She mewled and wrapped her arms around his body, hugging him tightly and returning the kiss with heated passion. They remained like that for several minutes, tasting one another and letting the passion build.

            At long last she broke the contact, her eyes bright with desire. “I believe you, and I’m sorry I demanded her to stay here. I’ll just have to get used to knowing you love another woman, but not the same way you love me.” She searched his face and then smiled. “And yes, let’s get married after this is finished.”  Reaching down, she found him ready and she smiled.

            The shower turned out to be far longer than either had planned.  

***

May 15th, 2668 The Installation

            The following day flew past in a blur of activity and sensations. Ra’naa had woken early in the morning, far earlier than she usual. Typically she was awake around dawn, sometimes sleeping in a little later, but not this day. She chalked it up to missing Otres, and nerves.

            Ra’naa had grown accustomed to hugging his little furry body next to hers, and the sound of his breathing and occasional chitter was soothing. She half regretted not bringing him with her on the mission – and at the same time, she was relived he was safe at home, far from the danger the next several hours or days would spring upon them all.

            Pushing aside how tired she felt and rubbing the grittiness from her eyes, she showered and then met with her father, Awoan and those who would be in charge of the defenses. They spent the morning going over the terrain and what little remained above-ground. Although the surface had been all but scoured clear, they still carefully plotted the potential routes the enemy would use to reach them.

            She made most of the plans, deciding where to set up choke points and overlapping fields of fire. They were defending and had better terrain, but the enemy had the numbers and the vehicles.

            The one thing they did have going for them was the number of worker androids present at the installation. They were not affected by the radiation, at least not in the same manner her people were, and they could work non-stop for days if need be. Awoan set them to work, digging trenches and pitfalls, and setting up whatever traps they could around the only route in to the entrance.

            By mid-afternoon, the androids and their new allies had a working bulwark of defenses. Most were shoddy and haphazard, but considering the time restraints they had imposed upon them, it was the best they could hope for. The work would continue through the night, improving where they could, strengthening and reinforcing elsewhere.

            The entire time they monitored the Purists advance as best they could. Thankfully the Purists technicians kept the satellite locked on the expeditionary force the entire time.  As such they were alerted when the convoy went off the route they had been using and took the lesser travelled paths.

            Max, Ra’naa, Awoan and the rest of the command staff watched in dismay. Awoan was apologetic and berated her staff for not having covered the possibility such an action would have occurred. Max put an end to that, stating there was no way, even with their positronic brains and superior AI intellects they could have covered all grounds.

            “We have a pretty good idea now how they’re going to approach the entrance,” Max said, pointing out the route and tracing it along the holographic display with his finger. “I don’t expect they will attack tonight, as the commander will want to have his troops well rested. They’ll come at us at dawn or shortly after.”

            “Are you certain of this?” Awoan asked. She reached up and brushed a strand of hair which had come loose from its bun.

            “Nothing in life is certain,” Max said cryptically. “It is what I would do. After several long days of hard travel, I would want my troops to be well rested and ready for the impending battle.”

            “Where do you think they’ll stop for the night?” Ra’naa asked, staring at the display.

            “That’s an excellent question,” Max smiled. He touched a couple of potential spots on the map. “I would choose one of these locations. I have taken into consideration the size of the convoy. Those vehicles take up a lot of space, and they will not want them spread out. Doing so would make it very easy for us to sneak in and cause more than a little mischief.”

            Ra’naa realized her father was staring pointedly at her and she looked back. “What?”

            “You have already decided you’re going to go out and take a few pot-shots, haven’t you?” Max asked. He placed his hands on his hips and he was grinning lopsided at her.

            “I have?” She asked and then closed her eyes and shook her head. She had in fact been thinking of doing exactly what he had said. “I guess Otres is not the only one who is telepathic,” she grumbled, although there was no real heat or anger in her tone.

            “If you go, take Tara and Declan with you. I want both of them covering your back.”

            “Tara, yeah, but Declan? He has no idea how to travel without making more noise than a drunken Brute.”

            “If you take Tara, she’ll probably insist on bringing Declan with her,” Max said.

            Ra’naa chewed on her lower lip. “I need to move quickly, so how about I just do this on my own?”

            Max shook his head. “You need backup. I know how good you are, but I have to take into consideration they might have scouts out.”

            A voice broke into their conversation. “I’ll go with you.”

            Max, Ra’naa and Awoan turned to see Joey standing off to the side. He was wearing simple civilian clothing, a pair of jeans, a black t-shirt, hiking boots and a leather jacket. He had an old-style baseball cap perched on his head and a pair of sunglasses hung from the neck of his shirt. On one hip rested the sword he had purchased in Scav Haven, the other large handgun.

            She was skeptical about having the young man with her. Ra’naa knew Tara and her capabilities – he was almost an unknown factor. It must have shown on her face, because his features suddenly turned cold and he narrowed his eyes. “Ahteen, I can fight and I’m a hell of a lot more quite than you could possibly imagine.”

            Feeling challenged, Ra’naa crossed her arms under her breasts and one finger tapped on the outside of her forearm. “That remains to be seen.”

            Suddenly, he was standing behind her and had placed a hand on her shoulder. Instinct took over and she grabbed the hand, yanked him forward and was about to snap his elbow when she realized what she was doing. Instantly she let him go and stepped back, her hands held out before her in a defensive gesture. “Don’t do that again,” she bit out, angry.

            “I was trying to make a point,” he snarled back, just as angry. He was rubbing his arm where she had gripped him. Her fingers left white-marks on his flesh. “Damn woman, you’re strong!”

            “Consider it part of her genetic heritage,” Max stepped in-between them. He looked at his daughter, who relaxed and stood straight. The only indication she was still agitated was the slight swishing motion to her tail. “Ra’naa, I think it is a good idea that he go with you. I’ve spoken at length with Awoan and he is more than a capable fighter, and the tech he uses will come in very handy.”

            It was pretty much the first time her father had directly intervened in the day’s events. Ra’naa was not certain how to take it, her emotions struggling in two separate directions. Part of her wanted to tell him Joey could stay the hell out of her way and she’d do the mission alone. That was the stubborn, slightly rebellious side which had surfaced during her teenage years. It was still there, buried deep beneath the rational part of being an adult. The other side welcomed the young man’s presence, and she knew he would be an asset.

            As it turned out, her rationality won in the end. “Fine then, we’ll work together.”

            Joey nodded and the barest hint of a smile appeared on his face. “You know, we could get you a better suit of armor.”

            She looked skeptical. “Not with this tail,” she jabbed a thumb at the now still appendage.

            “You’d be surprised,” Joey grinned.

***

May 15th, 2668 South and West of the Installation.

            The alternate route Bradly had devised worked out far better than he could have hoped for. If they would have stayed on the main trail, following the ruined highway, it would take another two or more days for them to arrive at their destination.

            Instead, they were nearly three-quarters of the way there. The side-trails had proven to be more difficult than he had anticipated, and yet despite detours and a few mechanical issues, they had not been slowed down by their unseen enemy.

            The mood of his troops had been greatly bolstered by this fact and they were praising his insight and thoughtfulness in coming up with the plan. That made him feel even better, more self-assured than he ever had been.

            Bradly spent a few minutes contacting his father back at the Compound and explained the situation. He had been afraid of how Martin would react when Bradly contacted him again, but to his surprise, his father was not angry. Quite the contrary, he was very pleased. Martin also informed him that he had sent a couple of wreckers and escorts to recover the damaged vehicles, and would let him know when they had been recovered.

            After signing off, he returned his attention to the terrain ahead of the convoy. Here and there he could make out the shapes of long-since collapsed buildings and other structures. Before the end of the final wars, this section of the coastline had been heavily populated by those who wanted to get away from the major cities and live a more care-free lifestyle.  He shook his head in wonder. Why someone would want to live so deep in the wilderness was beyond him. Even all those years ago the forest had to be dangerous.

            Right?

            He shook the thought out of his head and rubbed his eyes and grimaced when his stomach growled. He glanced at the time-displayed on the holographic panel and realized it might be a good time to stop for some food.  If they stopped now, they could get rest and be ready to assault the installation at first light.

            He figured it was the best course of action they had available. Rested troops would make a world of difference. There would be far fewer mistakes and his men would be on high alert. He passed on the order, and told his men to take their anti-radiation medicine. They were close to the blast-zone and as such were probably already taking a slight dosage of radiation. It was better to be safe than sorry.

            After all the commanders checked in, he was pleased to learn sentries were posted and automated defenses were brought online. This close to the installation, the danger increased exponentially. He was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt; the enemy had survived the nuclear blast. It hurt them, he was equally certain, but they were still a serious threat which needed to be taken out.

            Anyone with the capability to take control of the satellite the way they had was a threat to be taken seriously. He was not a tech, nor would he ever be, but Bradly understood all too well the chances of the enemy doing worse than taking the satellite could happen. What if they managed to compromise Guardian, or even turn him? He shuddered at the thought.

            “I want everyone to double and triple check your weapons and armor,” he ordered over the command channel. “After which check your squad-mates and then have a good meal and get some sleep.”

            Bradly decided to take his own orders to heart. He ran diagnostics on his suit several times and then field-stripped his weapons, meticulously cleaning each one and test-firing to ensure they were in perfect working order.

            By the time he was finished, the sun had set and the sky was mottled with twinkling stars. He sat on the top of his C&C and stared up into the heavens, searching for the familiar objects he had been watching for his entire life. There – the bright, circular debris field which marked the destruction of the old ICTS, or Interstellar commerce and trade station. It had been the gateway to the stars before the final wars, a massive ringed structure, fifty kilometers in diameter. It had been the hub where in system ships and those outbound to the stars would dock and ply their trade.

            What he had learned over the years was it had been home to over two million humans, and that did not include the aliens who had frequently visited the system. During the war, it had been one of the first casualties, taken out by a devastating sneak-attack from an unknown alien species. The aggressors had arrived, seemingly out of nowhere, launched nuclear, anti-matter and kinetic weaponry at the station.

            In mere seconds, the millions of lives had been snuffed out, erased as if they had never existed at all. It had been just the first of numerous multi-million causalities that marked the horrors of the final wars.

            Rumor had it there were still many stations and facilities, even ships scattered across the heavens above, locked into orbit around Earth and her satellite, the moon. Maybe once the war against the non-humans came to an end and the planet was cleansed, he would find a way to reach orbit and find out first-hand.       

            “Sir?” A familiar voice called. The man had climbed out of the vehicle and was staring up at him as Bradly stared into the heavens.

            “What is it, Captain Tennison?”

            He cleared his throat. “Is that a wise decision?” He waved a hand at the top of the C&C. “The radiation is pretty high here, even with the medicine, and aren’t you worried about snipers or sneak attacks?”

            Bradly blinked. He was so engrossed in his musings he had all but forgotten the danger presented by both. He was not too worried about sneak attacks, but without knowing more about their enemies, he should have stayed inside the C&C. “Right, thanks for the reminder.”

            “No problem, Commander,” Tennison shrugged. “Someone has to watch out for you.”

            Bradly had to chuckle and he was beginning to lower himself into the vehicle when there was a shout of surprised mingled with pain from the edge of the camp. It lasted for only a second or two and then abruptly cut off.”

            Captain Tennison jumped and he took the time to look at Bradly. “See what I mean?”