Buck Who? Chapter 28

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 28: And so it begins

May 15th, 2668 the Installation.

            Despite the danger from radiation, Ra’naa stood at the precipice of the hilltop, overlooking the devastation below. The nuke had been a tactical, only a single kiloton, but it had been more than sufficient to destroy every structure on the surface.

            The air seemed thick and as she stared across the blast zone, she could have sworn she saw a shimmering. It could be residual heat from the fires, which had burned uncontrolled for days. It could be her mind trying to visualize the radiation, as if she could see the deadly energy, waiting to destroy cells and alter DNA.

            She could not escape the smell, no matter what she tried. It was a thick, burnt odor, a combination of fried flesh, wood and other compounds her nose did not want to identify. The ash was thick around her, almost like a grey, gritty snow. It clung to everything – her hair, clothing and skin, and felt supremely unpleasant to touch. It would take a good hour or longer to get her body cleaned once the battle was over. 

            Far below, the Androids were hard at work, shoring up the entrance to the facility and building as many make-shift traps as they could. She knew they were also trying to bring some of the defenses back online, but doubted they could get even a single turret ready.

            After all, the Purists would be there soon, Very soon. Far sooner than they had anticipated. She glanced at the instrument attached to her wrist. It was hot where she was positioned - not as in hot from heat, but from radiation. She was being exposed to about fifty rems per hour. Thankfully she had taken the medication the androids had provided and was safe to work in hot-zones up to two hundred rems per hour.

            Shifting she hefted her binoculars and scanned the terrain leading into the nuke-ravaged valley. There was only a single entrance to the valley, and she knew the Purists had no choice but to enter through that pass. They were going to take advantage of the bottleneck to inflict as much damage as possible.

            Ra’naa would rather be anywhere but where she was at that moment. She was still waiting for Joey to arrive, and was becoming more annoyed with each passing minute. When it came right down to it, Ra’naa would much rather be out on her own, but she had to concede the point she did not know the terrain. Joey would be her guide.

            “It stinks, doesn’t it?” Joey asked as he appeared out of nowhere.

            Ra’naa nearly jumped out of her skin and leveled the rifle at him. Her finger had pulled the trigger almost enough to discharge the weapon. At the last millisecond, she realized he was not a threat and she removed her hand from the weapon. “Shit Joey, anyone ever tell you not to sneak up on a person like that?”

            At least the young man had the good graces to look embarrassed and he mumbled an apology. “We should get moving,” he said a second later. “It’s quite the hike to where our guests are camped, and it’ll be full dark by the time we get there.”

            Ra’naa nodded and accepted the young man’s apology. “Sorry,” she said, slinging the heavy weapon. “I’m just relieved I didn’t fire!” She looked at the bag and the strange looking rifle he was carrying along with his other gear. “What’s all that?”

            “Oh, just a few little surprises,” he grinned maliciously. “The rifle is a high-powered dart thrower, kind of like your sniper rifle,” Joey patted the weapon affectionately. “I’ve got several types of dart,” he indicated a box-like pouch attached to his web-gear. “Poisons mainly, but a few tailored bugs.”

            Her blood ran cold in her veins. “Tailored bugs, as in disease?”  Her voice was low and held just enough venom to cause Joey to look distinctly uncomfortable.

            “Yeah, some bio-weapon material. We have the cure for it and can make everyone in your group immune. It’s a fast acting bug, easily transmitted through touch or close proximity. It has all the symptoms of the flu, and it’ll make them sick, and should greatly reduce their capability to fight.”

            “Will it kill them?”

            Joey studied her for a moment before responding. He was a little concerned about her reaction to the biological agent they were introducing into the battlefield. “Only if they have compromised immune systems or are very weak.”

            Ra’naa shook her head. “No, leave that behind.”

            “Now hold on,” he began but she got right up into his face and jabbed a finger into his chest. Even though the armor he could feel and if he had not been wearing his protection, there would be a bruise in the morning.

            “No you hold on,” she snarled, more anger and heat in her voice than she could remember using in a long time. “We don’t need to use biological weapons out here, even if they just cause a cold! What happens when the infected get back to civilization and pass it on?”

            Joey shrugged. “As long as it’s the Purists compound, who gives a shit?”

            “And what if it’s not the compound?” Ra’naa demanded. Her tail was swishing back and forth furiously and her eyes were practically blazing in anger. “What if they stop at Scav Haven? What if the bug mutates and becomes something entirely new?”

            “That won’t happen,” Joey began and then gulped as Ra’naa stepped closer, forcing him to back up a step.

            “And how do you know? Even though it’s been over three hundred years since the end of the final wars, we still have to deal with the results of stupid assholes using biological weapons!” She stepped back and crossed her arms under her heaving breasts.

            “Alright, Ra’naa – alright,” he held up his hands in a placating manner. “I’ll leave the bugs. It would have helped, but since you’re so insistent…”

            As suddenly as the anger appeared, it dissipated. She looked at the ground and shook her head. Her tail was still swishing, but not to the extent it had been. “Thanks, and look,” she returned her gaze to his. “Sorry about biting your head off. You were doing what you thought needed to be done.”

            Joey shrugged and waved a hand dismissively. “It could help, but if you’re so insistent, I won’t use them,” he then sighed. “I’ll leave them with the bike, I promise.”

            She raised one eyebrow and almost smiled. “A bike? Like the one you had when we found you?”

            “Yeah, same one. It’ll be faster that way, and it can easily seat two.”

            Ra’naa would not admit it to the young man, but the idea of being able to ride on the hover-bike thrilled her. She was used to the regular bikes back at the community, but nothing as high-tech as the vehicle he drove. “Good to know.”

            “Have you ever ridden a hover-bike?”

            Ra’naa shook her head. “No, but I’ve driven regular ground cycles.”

            “It’ll be a breeze, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience,” he said and rubbed his hands together.

            Shifting gears, she looked at him and then asked a question which had been bothering her for several minutes. “Wouldn’t the virus or bacteria or whatever you have in there be killed by the radiation?”

            He nodded. “Yup, that’s why I have the darts in a lead-lined container.”

            “I’ve seen enough, so do you want to get on the trail?” Ra’naa asked, turning away from him and looking for the safest path back down the hill. The climb had been tiring, but she was in excellent shape. Going down should be a breeze.

            Joey grinned slightly and nodded. “Yeah, we might as well. Sooner we catch up to the convoy, the sooner we can cause a little bit of trouble. Who knows, we might even get lucky and kill some of the leaders.”

            Ra’naa nodded and then ran a hand over her horns. “I certainly hope so,” she breathed almost dreamily. Her job would be to take shots of opportunity with her sniper rifle. She was especially looking forward to placing the sights of her weapon on the face-plate of their leader, Bradly. He would be the one leading this expedition, which she knew for sure. The instant she had seen his face on the screen, she had felt her blood run cold.

            On that note, they began to descend the hill.

***

May 15th, 2668 the Community

            Otres sat down heavily on the floor of Ra’naa’s cabin. He had just finished repairing nearly twenty weapons over the past three hours and the expenditure of energy had finally taken its toll. His eyes were drooping and all he wanted to do was lay down and sleep, but the loud rumbling in his belly vetoed that idea.

            Originally Max wanted him to stay in the main lodge and work on the weapons there, but Otres had argued he felt more relaxed and safer working in Ra’naa’s cabin. If he would have stayed in the Lodge, then the food would have been provided at his leisure, but Otres did not want to stay there. If he was relaxed and felt safe, he could accomplish a lot more. In the end, Max agreed with his request and had the majority of the weapons transferred to Ra’naa’s cabin. His belly grumbled in protest a second time, forcing Otres to stand up. He was going to go and find some food, and he needed to do so quickly.

            There was a tentative knock at the door and his head jerked up in surprise. He was not expecting any visitors, and he knew the other techs would not arrive to pick up the weapons until the morning. Reaching out with his mind, he touched the presences waiting at the door. A little chirping groan slipped from his lips as he recognized Arleen’s thoughts.

            When he opened the door, the young woman, barely more than a girl, was standing there. It was the first time he had ever seen her fully dressed and not wearing clothing considered to be provocative. She had adapted the typical manner of dress used by nearly all the women of the community. A white dress covered her body, and she had woven flowers in her thick hair. The scent coming from her was that of soap and clean laundry.

            Then his nose caught the whiff of freshly baked bread and roasted fish. He nearly swooned from hunger, but he managed to hide it. Hello Arleen, what can I do for you?

            She gave him a shy smile and held out the basket of goods. “Momma Rathbourne said you were going to need this, that you were about to pass out. She asked me to bring it to you,” Arleen told him, holding out the basket.

            Otres hesitated for only a fraction of a second before taking the offered food. He was too hungry to refuse. Tell her I said thank you.

            Arleen looked crestfallen, and Otres suddenly realized she wanted to come in. The little Uplift barley managed to supress a sigh and he stood to the side, waving with one free paw. Would you like to join me?

            The smile that appeared was so bright it could have lit up a cathedral at midnight. “Thank you, Otres!”

            He took the basket over to the small table he had shared numerous meals with Ra’naa. With practiced ease, he jumped onto his seat and then opened the basket, peering inside through half-closed eyes. The smell was so wonderful he was practically drooling over the food. This smells so good!

            “Momma Rathbourne was sure to make you your favorites,” Arleen said, looking around. She quickly found a couple of plates and cutlery and brought them over. After eyeing him for a fraction of a second, she took a seat next to him and placed the eating utensils on the table.

            Otres was never the type to sit on ceremony, so as soon as the food was out, he dug in. Where Arleen used utensils, he used his hands to eat. Throughout the meal, Arleen attempted to make small-talk, but Otres used the excuse he was enjoying his meal to avoid the conversation.

            Until Arleen forced the issue.

            “You don’t need to use your mouth to speak, you and I both know that,” she said. Arleen had placed her fork and knife on the table and was staring at him, a mixture of hurt and annoyance on her young face.

            Sorry and you’re right, Otres thought and he had the courtesy to look sheepish. How is your friend Andy doing?

            “He’s still sick, and from what the medics said he will be under the weather for about a week. He had a bad reaction to the venom, or maybe it was he had been exposed to so much of it. They said he will be fine, just to be patient.”

            That’s good to hear. He chewed thoughtfully and stared at the woman. Are you two mating?

            The look of surprise and shock on her face caused him to start squeaking in laughter.

            Arleen showed genuine anger for the first time that night. “Isn’t that a little personal?” She demanded.

            Otres bobbed his head up and down in agreement. Yes it is, sorry. I guess I have spent too much time around Tara. She’s pretty blunt that way and I kind of picked up on it. Otres looked at her curiously. It’s obvious how much you to love each other, so have you?

            She relented and shook her head, somewhat sadly. “He likes both men and women, and even though I offered he says he looks at me like I’m his little sister and it would not be right.”

            I see, Otres thought, And he did understand. It was similar to the love between he and Ra’naa. They were like siblings, and mating was simply out of the question.

            Otres finished his meal and patted his belly, feeling rejuvenated and content. He felt like he could tackle repairing more weapons. Hopping off his chair, he scampered on all fours to the bench and stood staring at the display.

            “What are you doing with all these guns?” Arleen asked as she came to stand beside him.

            Otres was very much aware of her presence. He could feel her heat and smell her fresh, clean scent as she stood next to him. It was heady and not at all unpleasant. It was nearly intoxicating, if he wanted to be truthful. The little Uplift did his best to ignore it. I’m fixing all these weapons so our people can use them in the fight against the Purists.

            She picked up a heavily corroded laser pistol and turned it over in her hands. “I don’t think you’ll ever be able to fix this,” she said doubtfully.

            He reached out and gently took the weapon from her hands and began to examine it. The damage was extensive, but it would be trivial for him to repair it. When he returned it to her, the weapon was whole and looked like it had just come off the assembly line. You’d be surprised, He chittered his laugh.

            Arleen stared at the mint-condition weapon, her mouth agape in amazement. “How did…”

            He grabbed another weapon and began to examine it in turn. One of the gifts I received thanks to the uplift virus and the mutagenic compounds still around us.

            “Otres,” she began and then trailed off, still examining the weapon.

            I’m sure you can have that; we have plenty more where it came from, Otres thought when she did not continue.

            “It’s not that, I want to know why you’ve been avoiding me ever since Andy and I joined your group.”

            Otres sighed in a very human-like manner and placed the weapon on the table. He had only just begun to repair it, but would need to continue the process if it was to be used.

            You frighten me. He stated simply.

            She looked at him and brushed the hair out of her eyes. “You’re kidding.”

            Otres shook his head. No. I’m not.

            “Why? I am not going to hurt you! I want to be friends, I want to get to know you,” she threw her arms out wide and looked exasperated.

            You’re the closest person I have ever encountered to my own species, and I find you very… He trailed off, either uncertain or unwilling to finish the sentence.

            “Find me what?” Arleen grabbed a nearby stool and sat on it, so she and Otres could see eye to eye.

            Otres tried to look away and he reached for the weapon he had just been fixing. Nothing, just forget I said anything.

            She reached out and took him by the shoulders, forcing the little Uplift to turn and face her. Their eyes locked and held for nearly a minute. As if she was trying to calm a skittish horse, she let go of one shoulder and stroked his cheek, letting her hand travel down the side of his face, across his neck and over his chest. “Tell me.”

            I find you attractive and appealing in so many ways, and as my friend would say, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad you smell so good!  He mentally blurted. I’m Uplift and you’re an Exotic, and as such we can’t be together. It is that simple.

            She continued to stroke his face and chest, her eyes never leaving his. “I could be an exotic, I could also be Uplift like you. So what?”

            He was at a loss for words. Exactly, so what? Still, he had only met the young woman a few days before and that bothered him. Otres said as much.

            This time she laughed. “I don’t know any of the men I have had sex with over the years. They’re all just faces and money to me. Other than Andy, you’re the first man I’ve ever gotten to know outside of a trick.”  She allowed her hands to stroke his chest and then down to his furry belly.

            He squeaked and looked down. A shiver ran through his whole body and he found it difficult to breathe. Stop that. He half insisted.

            She did exactly as he asked. She pulled her hands away from him and stood. “When was the last time you had sex?”

            That’s a little personal, isn’t it?

            She did not answer. Instead she pulled her white dress up over her head and let it fall to the floor. She was not wearing anything underneath it. Before he could protest, she took his arms in her hands and pulled him into a tight embrace. Despite her size, she was quite strong and she picked him up and carried him over to Ra’naa’s bed.

            “I want this,” she breathed huskily as she lay down on her back, keeping him on top. “And you need this, so don’t fight it and just do what comes naturally.”

            Otres gave up the fight and he did as she demanded, several times over the night.

***

May 15th, 2668 Outside the Purists convoy

            Joey and Ra’naa had spent the better part of an hour creeping up on the perimeter of the convoy. The night was warm and steamy, the air filled with the scents of summer. The forest itself was far from silent, as the many inhabitants hunted, lived, died, ate and mated in the shadows.

            Ra’naa had no trouble seeing, thanks to her genetic heritage. Joey was not quite so lucky in that regard, but he was able to make up for it by using technology. Ra’naa had to admit she was impressed at how quietly the young human could move. He barely made a sound, matching her pace step for step without trouble. He had either trained extensively, or he was a natural.

            She figured it was more likely a combination of the two.

            They were lying on the ground, their eyes going over the Purist convoy. Most of the men were inside their vehicles, safe and secure against the danger the night presented. There were a few guards scattered here and there, alert and watching the darkness for any sign of movement.

            “How much do you want to bet they have motion detectors and other sensors up and running right now?” Joey asked. He held his dart-rifle in both hands and was looking through the scope at a pair of guards near their location. Near being a relative term, since they were nearly half a kilometer away.

            “That’s a bet I’m not willing to take,” she said quietly. Neither tried to whisper, as they both knew that a whisper tended to carry further than talking in low tones. “You want to stick with the plan or have you come up with something else?” Ra’naa turned and met his gaze. They had discussed exactly what they would be doing once they encountered the convoy. It was time to implement that plan.

            Joey gave her a slight grin and he shrugged. “Might as well stick with it. If they have motion detection, it’ll more than likely be pointed out and away from the convoy,” he waved a hand at the grouped vehicles.

            Ra’naa placed her sniper rifle on the ground and reached for his dart gun. “You’re sure about the range?”

            He gave her a cold look, his head tilted slightly to the side. “Please, give me a little credit. I have a pretty good idea what I’m doing and I’ve fired this weapon many times.”

            She felt her face heat in shame. The statement was more than a little callous and uncalled for. Joey deserved better. “Sorry, I’ll be waiting for the signal then,” she said, doing her best to cover up her mistake.

            “I’ll signal you soon,” and with that, Joey disappeared. He was using the personal teleporter to jump his way to the convoy. They both figured using the device would allow him to approach more quickly, and the chance of detection was greatly reduced.

            Try as she might, Ra’naa could not spot him. She continued to scan the convoy, having long since mentally marked the location of the guards they could see. A clock in her mind kept count of the seconds as they passed - the anticipation of his signal nearly unbearable.

***

May 15th, 2668 Outside the Purists convoy

            It took him nearly ten jumps to cover the distance from where Ra’naa and he had been observing the convoy. Each time he jumped, he took less than a second to orient his body and then make the next jump. Each time he arrived, he was all that much closer to his final destination.

            He wanted to get into the main encampment, away from the edge. As he had discussed with Ra’naa, the odds of the Purists having sensor arrays set up on the perimeter was far greater than amongst the vehicles.

            A few moments later, he was right on the edge of the convoy, standing next to a large tree. Joey crouched and blended into the thick undergrowth, blending in, totally unseen. He made sure he kept his movements to the absolute minimum, just to be on the safe-side.

            Seconds ticked by and no alarms or cries came from the convoy. He was scanning the vehicles trying to decide where he would teleport to, when several voices broke through his reverie.

            “What do you think we’ll find there?” One voice asked.

            There was a pause, and Joey had to assume the other was shrugging. “Donno. Rumor has it we’re dealing with a lost military base, manned by super-soldiers.”

            The first voice laughed lightly. “If that were the case, the fuckers would probably be out here, ready to attack.”

            “Nah, not after Travis dropped that nuke on them, mebbe we’ll get lucky and they’ll be all dead and we can loot whatever shit they had,” the second speaker mused.

            “That bugs the ever-living shit outta me,” the first speaker said, anger clear in his tone. “I mean, come on, heading into a death-zone like this?”

            “Have faith in Martin Travis,” retorted the second man. “He sent a fuck-ton of anti-rad meds and RadBgone as well. We’ll be fine!”

            Joey listened and then keyed the communication link he was sharing with Ra’naa. “Can you see the two guards?”

            There was a moment hesitation before she spoke. “Which two? I see several groups of two walking the perimeter.”

            He gently brushed aside some of the leaves so he could get a better look. He quickly described the closest vehicle, an old fashioned four-wheeled sedan. It was painted woodland camouflage and had metal plates welded over the windows.

            “Right, got it. I see them.”

            “Get ready to take them down on my signal,” he said and just as the two approached, he gently rustled the brush.

            “What the fuck?” The second man said, startled.

            The first speaker laughed lightly. “It’s nothing, probably just a rabbit or squirrel.”

            Joey felt his heart sink. Maybe the two guards were not as stupid as they looked and sounded. He decided to take a chance and rustled the brush.

            “Okay, that was no fuckin’ rabbit,” the second man said, raising his assault rifle.

            “Whoa, hold on a second Jeremy,” the first speaker told his companion. “Don’t start spraying until we’ve checked it out!”

            Glowering, the speaker known as Jeremy nodded. “Fine Brewer, but mebbe we should call it in?”

            These two were far from as stupid as he originally thought they were. Joey watched as the man he now knew as Brewer approached the brush. The man held his weapon at the ready, the finger resting on the outside of the trigger guard.

            Slowly Joey drew the blade, keeping the movement smooth and slow to reduce the noise. He would have to move quickly if he did not want to alert the other guards. He crouched, ready to attack.

            The guard named Jeremy suddenly stiffened and then slumped like a marionette with its strings cut. He did not utter a word. Sensing something was amiss, Brewer began to turn to see what had happened when he too, slumped to the ground.

            “Move Joey,” Ra’naa called. “You’ve got about twenty seconds before more guards show up. Grab the bodies.”

            Grumbling about not bothering to wait for his signal, Joey slid out of his hiding spot and grabbed Brewer. He yanked the man into the brush and ran back out in a crouch. He had hold of Jeremy’s armour and had managed to get him into the brush when the next patrol came within sight.

            They passed, talking quietly without giving the brush a second glance. Joey blew out a breath he did not realize he had been holding.  He saw the marks left on the ground from where he had dragged the two men.

            Fate had been kind.

            Returning his attention to the two guards, he looked at them, his face impassive. “I’ll deal with these two before moving further into the convoy,” he spoke quietly into the communication link.

            There was only a second hesitation before Ra’naa replied. “Affirmative, just be careful. I’m going to start taking the guards out where and when I can.”

            For only a second Joey felt a pang of guilt at killing the two men. He felt it was just wrong for him to end their lives without giving them a chance to fight back. Then he remembered the stories of the atrocities they had been inflicting on the inhabitants of the various villages. Blood swelled from the deep cuts in their throats and they were both dead in seconds.

            Steeling his emotions, Joey stripped the men of their weapons and other useful gear and stowed it in his backpack. He waited, crouched and watching the convoy. No alarms were raised, no voices were shouting orders. It was almost time for him to make his move. “Status on the guards?” He called out quietly.

            “Taking the last two that I can see… now.”

            Joey waited for a handful of breaths before Ra’naa finally came back online. “You’re in the clear, go!”

            Joey activated the teleporter and instantly was standing next to one of the vehicles. He slapped a package onto the outside of the truck and then used the teleporter. He continued this process three more times before he was spotted.

            “Intruder,” screamed the man, who had been on the outside of the truck relieving himself. Joey had his blade in his other hand and he slashed out at the man’s neck. The molecular thin edge slid through skin, muscle, tendon and bone with deceptive ease. The head rolled from the body, the eyes open in shocked disbelief at what had transpired.

            “We’re compromised,” Joey said in a deceptively calm voice and then triggered the device. He was out of the mass of vehicles and on the treeline a fraction of a second later. As he watched, lights awoke on many of the vehicles and the night was turned to day.

            Armored men began to pour from many of the vehicles, shouting and looking for targets. Joey wore grim-reaper face when he lifted the small transmitter attached to his belt and depressed a glowing red icon.

            The light in among the convoy suddenly grew far brighter as the three packages he had been able to plant detonated as one. Chunks of metal, bits of flesh and body parts flew in all directions. The sound of men and machine screaming was drowned out by the explosions. The plastic-explosives he planted did what they had hoped to do. Three of the Purists vehicles, plus untold men were destroyed in less than a second.

            Joey continued to watch impassively as one of the three vehicles exploded a second time, lifting off the ground by at least two meters before it flipped in the air and came down on its roof. There were even more explosions, smaller and rapid-fire coming from all three wrecks. More screams could be heard as the cooked-off rounds flew in every direction, some finding flesh to penetrate.

            “Time to go,” Ra’naa said.

            Joey could not agree more.

***

May 15th, 2668 Outside the Purists convoy

            Bradly knew he should not have been surprised. He had predicted this, he had feared it would happen, but he ignored his instincts and decided to allow his men to rest. He should have pushed through onto the installation and attacked.

            Casualties would have been the price, but he figured it would have been a lot fewer than what the enemy had just inflicted. Three vehicles in his convoy had been reduced to debris. Seventeen men, including the perimeter guards, had been killed, with another six wounded.

            In one fell swoop he had lost over a quarter of his combative force, and they had not engaged the enemy. Bradly shook his head and slammed his fist into the side of the C&C vehicle. He knew there was no way they could wait a minute longer, they would have to take the fight to the installation now, before the enemy had a chance to launch a second sneak attack.

            It really bothered him. How had the enemy infiltrated the perimeter of the convoy? They had sensors up and running, covering every square inch. Yet in the matter of a few dozen seconds, the enemy combatant had managed to plant explosives on three of his vehicles.

            What scared the coward away? Had he been spotted?  If fate had not intervened on their behalf, how many more vehicles would have been destroyed, how many more men would have been killed? Bradly felt a shudder run through his body and he pushed the dark thoughts aside. This was bad, this was far worse than he could have imagined. For only the briefest of moments he considered calling his father and returning to the compound.

            He did not.

            Instead, he ran his hand over the visor of his powered armor and came to the final decision. “Get everyone loaded. Make sure to secure the dead and put all the wounded into a single vehicle. I want that on the road immediately. Get them home, so their wounds can be treated properly.

            His orders were carried out with amazing alacrity. It was only a matter of about twenty-five minutes passing before he was given the ready signal, all the surviving commanders reporting in.

            The mood of the convoy had gone from excited anticipation to sullen brooding in a single fell swoop. Bradly felt it quite keenly, as he believed he was responsible for the debacle. Bradly was not sure if he wanted to face his father once they returned.

            A thought crossed his mind in a fleeting instant. Maybe he could lie about what happened; maybe he could chalk up the casualties to battle. Then common sense hit him like a ten ton brick. He already sent one vehicle home and they would report what happened to his father.

            Nope, he decided. It was best to face his dad and take whatever Martin wanted to dish out.

            The convoy negotiated the trail in silence. The only sound was that from the vehicles and the occasional report or request from the drivers. Several times there was also the sound of a gunshot, as one of the riders fired upon night-creatures or perceived threats in the forest. It irked Bradly, but he kept his thoughts inside. Moral was horribly low and to berate anyone for firing would only drive it lower.

            A warning began to blare in his helmet and he jumped. Bradly cursed colorfully and checked his heads-up display. It indicated they were approaching a radioactive zone. He shut the alarm off and relayed the message to his commanders.

            They were nearly through the narrow pass that led into the valley. He was both dreading and eager for the impending fight, as he wanted revenge for the losses suffered without even engaging the enemy.

            It began with two explosions. The first rocked his C&C vehicle, and thankfully the shields held. It had to have been powerful, as the lights dimmed, then flickered several times before returning to full brightness. The second explosion was to the rear of the column of vehicles. This detonation was far more effective against the ancient rebuilt truck. The rear of the truck blossomed in a hellish fire-flower and lifted about a meter and a half off the ground. The sound of screams and shock could easily be heard over the command channel as the driver attempted to bring the vehicle under control.

            “Everyone out, now!” Bradly ordered. He did not bother to open the hatch above him; instead he took control of the main cannon. The weapon was fully charged and ready to fire and he used the display to hunt for targets.

            All around him, the air seemed to open up with gunfire. Old-fashioned bullets mingled with blasts from energy weapons and magnetically propelled depleted uranium rounds. From the amount of fire directed at the convoy, Bradly was certain there had to be two or three hundred defenders.

            The sensor package and the computer quickly read the battlefield and set up a map. It appeared before his vision, small enough so it would not interfere with his command and control, but large enough for him to use. His forces were marked in blue. Wounded were tagged yellow and the dead would be overlaid by a black X. The enemy forces, as they were located and identified were indicated by red symbols. Each symbol had additional information, such as the type of weapon being used.

            With each passing second, the battlefield became more and more clear. There were far fewer defenders than he had originally anticipated, with the computer displaying around fifty five targets.

            They still outnumbered the defenders by a factor of nearly two to one, but when it came to taking a heavily defended and fortified position, they needed more. A sick, cold lump of dread settled into the pit of his stomach as Bradly placed the cross-hairs over one target on the nearby ridge. This one was armed with a missile launcher and he knew the enemy combatant was getting ready to fire.

            Bradly beat the warrior to the punch.

            The symbol went from red to black, indicating a kill.

            One down, fifty-four to go.

***

May 15th, 2668 The battlefield leading to the installation.

            The air was filled with the sound of non-stop weapons fire and screams. The android defenders made nary a sound as they fought valiantly against the invading force. Explosions from the missiles demanded everyone’s attention, yet got none as combatants on both sides fought for their very lives.

            Declan cursed as he ducked behind the remains of one of the structures. It had been constructed of heavy reinforced concrete, but when the nuke detonated, all but part of one wall collapsed. Bullets smashed into the badly burned and scorched wall, but none penetrated to reach his vulnerable body.

            He cursed loudly and for what seemed like the millionth time, he checked the readout display in his helmet. It was still hot as hell and despite the anti-radiation medication he imbued; he was worried about his little swimmers. The absurdity of the thought made him laugh aloud. He leaned around the meager covered provided by the still-standing wall and ripped off several bursts.

            One of the enemy targets went down in a welter of blood and fragments of bone. Declan had no time to acquire another target before he was forced to return to cover. The last volley of shots had pretty much emptied his magazine, so he popped it and slapped home a fresh one.

            “Doc, move!” Babs screamed over the communication link. He had no idea where his friend was, but she had to be close enough to see him. The former fighter jockey did not need to be told twice. He was up and running in a zig-zag pattern, hoping to confuse any incoming rounds.

            He had moved just in the nick of time. A huge hole appeared in the wall, where he had been only two seconds previous. The wall around the hole began to give, cracks radiating out from the center until they reached the jagged ends. Another second passed and with an audible sigh, the wall slid to the ground, nothing more than debris.

            “Thanks Babs,” he shouted as he jumped feet first into one of the numerous fox-holes dug around the entrance. There was a single warrior android there, carefully aiming and firing off shot after shot. The android nodded curtly as Declan took up position next to him.

***

May 15th, 2668 The battlefield leading to the installation.

            The entire scene brought back a flood of memories, none of which were welcome. Max was lying flat on his stomach, a sniper rifle mounted on a bipod in front of him. It was an ancient .50 caliber weapon; the very one he taught Ra’naa everything he knew.

            Far below, the surviving vehicles fanned out once they made it through the ambush. He had hoped the sneak attack would have been more effective, but had miscalculated when it came to the shield possessed by the C&C.

            That was the vehicle he wanted most. There was little doubt it held Bradly Travis, and if he could kill that man…

            Instead he concentrated on the swarming mass of Purist soldiers. He had managed to kill two or three, possibly four of the soldiers before they found cover. This was now the second location he had used as a snipers nest. The first one had come under heavy fire from the C&C vehicle. He knew Bradly had to be using the sensors and software packages to pinpoint where he was firing from.

            Max took a deep breath and exhaled half of it as he spotted another target. The man was barely visible behind one of the trucks, and he was using a LMG or light machine gun, a squad level weapon. The enemy combatant already mowed down a pair of androids and one of his men, so he had to go.  Max placed the red dot on the top of the man’s head, knowing that gravity and distance would cause the round to fall. He held the remaining oxygen in his lungs and gently squeezed the trigger.

            The sniper rifle had a powerful retort and if he had not been braced properly, the kick from the weapon would have shattered his collarbone. He was not a rookie, and had used the weapon many times over his exceptionally long life. Max knew what he was doing.

            A second later, the fifty-caliber round smashed into the back of the man’s head, just where the spine meets the skull. The kinetic energy from the round took the man’s head off, spraying the surrounding area with blood and gore. The soldier did not have a clue what hit hm. One second he was waiting to fire upon the enemy, the next he was reaping the rewards or punishment in the afterlife.

            Max knew he had to change positions yet again and a handful of seconds after confirming the kill; he was up and running to a new spot.

***

May 15th, 2668 The battlefield leading to the installation.

            Babs and a pair of warrior androids where cutting across the battlefield at a full run. They were weaving in and out of cover, ensuring they were never moving in the same direction for more than two or three steps. All three were attacking when they were presented the opportunity, firing the automatic weapons they had borrowed from the installation.

            So far all Babs had been able to accomplish was keeping several of the enemy soldiers at bay, forcing the combatants to duck behind cover. Her two companions were a little better off. They managed to make a couple of kills each before they were near their destination. One was carrying a limpet mine, a device specifically designed to leech the energy from a shield generator.

            They wanted the C&C vehicle.

            So far it had withstood everything they were throwing at it. The shields used by the vehicle were just too strong! If they were able to concentrate all their firepower on the vehicle, it would quickly overload the shields capacity and cause it to shut down. The problem with that was they did not have the capability to do so. Their forces were concentrated on taking out the enemy soldiers.

            They were a little more than halfway to the C&C when she felt the hammer-blows from several high-energy rounds smash into her chest. Her body did not record pain, but numerous red warning indicators appeared in front of her vision, indicating structural damage. As she moved, Babs ran a quick diagnostic and was pleased to discover nothing vital had been damaged, and she was still at one hundred percent combat effectiveness.

            “How bad is the damage,” the warrior android to her left asked. He lifted his weapon and burned through half a magazine as he fired upon the soldier who had hit her.

            “I’m fully functional, cosmetic - more than anything serious,” she said through gritted teeth. There was the wreckage of one of the vehicles only a few meters to her right, so she turned and sprinted towards it, looking for cover.

            The other android kept running and weaving erratically.  He had the limpet mine and was vital to their current mission. The mine needed to be placed, no matter the cost. All around him the ground exploded as rounds fired by the enemy soldiers missed, often by millimetres. Babs and her warrior companion could even see the lines of tracer fire trying to concentrate on the single android.

            Tracers were a great way to walk an attack towards a target, but the disadvantage was it could easily be traced back to the source. She raised her rifle and in a millisecond located the target with the automatic machinegun. The servos in her arm locked in place and she pulled the trigger. The recoil was nothing the servos in her arm could not easily handle. Babs was satisfied when she saw the head of gunner snap back in a spray of blood and organic matter. The body then slipped from sight, leaving the machinegun free.

            “Efftoonty!” The other android called out in sudden concern. “Close the distance, the C&C cannon has targeted you!”

            The android carrying the limpet mine sped up, his legs turning up the radioactive ash beneath his boots in a meter-eating run. It looked as if the android would succeed when the C&C’s main weapon fired.

            It was like watching a teleporter at work. One second the android was there, the next second all that remained were his lower legs.

            “Shit,” Babs cursed.

***

May 15th, 2668 The battlefield leading to the installation.

            Tara waited near the barricaded entrance to the installation. She and ten men and women were the only reinforcements available to the androids. They were all armed with the best weapons the androids had in their arsenal, as when it came right down to it, they were the last defense against the attackers.

            If the forces still engaged failed to defeat or turn the Purists, it would fall into their laps. She was also worried sick. Her stomach felt as if someone had mixed nitrogen and insects and forced it down her throat. Every time she moved she wanted to throw up.

            The fight between her and Declan had been the stuff of legends. She wanted him to stay with her and fight at the entrance. He flat out refused and was insisting to be on the front line with the other warriors, though he was just a pilot. His training had been in flying against other pilots, not pounding the ground like he was.

            Tara knew part of what she felt was the fear of the radiation, the larger fear of losing him to an enemy’s bullet, or worse, and the fight. She felt bile at the back of her throat and nearly retched right there but a small group of the enemy broke from the main force. They were coming in low and fast, the entrance to the installation quite obvious. One was armed with what appeared to be some sort of rocket launcher – except it was quite long and fat.

            “Take him down!” One of the androids - a technician model, screamed in real emotion. “He’s got a micro-nuke launcher!

            Tara turned her weapon, the trusty assault rifle she had been carrying through her adult life, and flicked the selector from burst to full-auto. The risk was great, but she stood and fired at the incoming group, ripping through the magazine in a handful of seconds. To her satisfaction, the Purist carrying the launcher went down in a heap, screaming at the top of his lungs. Tara knew better than to try and go for a torso shot. The odds against getting a round to penetrate the heavy armor the Purists used were remote.

            So instead, she sprayed his legs, where the armor did not protect quite as well. It had worked; at least a couple of rounds punched through his thighs and bypassed the armor. He was down and he had lost the weapon.

            The androids opened up as well, some of them using magnetic accelerators and lasers. The lasers proved to be more effective by magnitudes against the armored figures. They came with armor to protect against ballistic attacks, not energy.

            One, then two of the men which had accompanied them from the community went down, either wounded or killed. Tara swallowed hard, swallowing the bile that kept trying to creep up her throat. She was terrified, far more than she had ever been in the past, but she managed to control the fear as she ejected the spent magazine and slapped a fresh one home.

            Then there came a loud electrical hum, which was immediately followed by what sounded like a high-pitched whine. Powerful beams of coherent energy began to spew from the largest of the vehicles. The energy smashed into the barricades and defenders alike, causing androids to burst into flame and bodies to literally explode. In a handful of seconds the defenders were reduced to her and three others, all of them from the community.

            The scent of cooked flesh was more than she could stomach. With a cry of dismay, she vomited violently.

***

May 15th, 2668 The battlefield leading to the installation.

            “Holy shit!” Bradly yelled when he witnessed the power of the Gatling laser on the barricade. “That worked far better than I could have hoped!”

            He was secured in his turret, and one of the gunners had decided to ask permission to use the weapon on the barricade. The number of defenders was impressive, and they had been using the Gatling’s on the defending force in order to prevent them from closing and possibly damaging the C&C vehicle.

            Reluctantly, Bradly agreed and the gunner opened up with the powerful energy weapon. When the defenders fell in droves, like chaff before the harvesting scythe, Bradly was ecstatic. They had suffered heavily casualties as well, losing another twenty six men and another truck, but it appeared for every man they lost, they killed two or more of the defenders. Bradly allowed an ember of hope to burn in his heart. Maybe they could still pull this off. He was concerned however, as to how many might still be inside their destination. They had cut down over fifty targets, and there should have been only a couple left.

            That was not the case.

            Using the controls in the turret, he brought the aiming reticule so it was centered on the heavy blast-door which marked the entrance to the installation. He held his index finger on the trigger, lightly caressing it, waiting for the system to indicate he had a good lock.

            He was about to pull the trigger when he spotted one of the defenders. It was a woman, and one he recognized. The Tiger-Exotic. What the fuck was her name? Right, Tara Baku. Where she was, the odds were very high her friend Ahteen would also be present. How sweet, he reflected - being able to take out two enemies for the price of one.

             He switched the reticule from the door and placed it over the woman’s hunched figure and began to squeeze the trigger.