Buck Who? Chapter 31

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 31: Final Goodbyes

            May 19th, 2668 - The community

            The surviving members returned home to great fanfare and congratulations. The members of the community went all out, preparing a massive feast and celebration. There was a festive mood in the air, but it was tempered by the knowledge so many would never be returning. They had lost too many men and women to the guns of the Purists, all in an attempt to save a group of androids who they barely knew.

            At least the androids had repaired their weapons and gear and took the time to clean their clothing and armor. Max had to admit he was impressed with the work the artificial people presented, it was nothing short of miraculous. So when they had arrived at the main gates, everyone looked their best. Even the wounded were treated with drugs and medicines that were nothing short of miraculous. He wondered just how much of a cache the androids had squirreled away.

            Max stared out at the gathered crowd as he led his people up the narrow and winding trail. A bead of sweat trickled down along the base of his spine, curving and dancing around the scales of his flesh. He was nervous and more than a little scared. His decision to help the androids weighed heavily upon his shoulders, and the ghosts of those who were not with them haunted his dreams and his waking hours. It was surprising how he felt – back before the end of the world as they knew it, he had sent far more to their deaths and was rarely bothered by the prospect of what had happened. The men and women of the community, they were his family, and many he considered to be his children.

             The sun was shining brightly, chasing the few puffy white clouds that hung in the air like sentinels. There had been a heavy rain during the night and as the sun burned away the moisture, a thick fog-like mist filled the forest, rising to nearly a meter off the ground. Insects and birds sang the eternal song of life as the group passed the gates and entered the town.

            Otres, Arleen, Andy and even Momma Rathbourne were waiting just inside the gates, eager to see the safe return of their loved ones. Max had spoken to the people of the community in advance, letting them know how the battle had fared – although he discovered Momma Rathbourne had witnessed it through her strange psionic ability.

            The survivors quickly split from the column and met with their friends and family. Those who had not suffered losses were still teary-eyed and choking up on emotion, and who could blame them?

            The little Uplift squeaked excitedly and scampered up to Ra’naa. He nearly bowled her over when the collided, wrapping his arms around her, hugging the much larger Exotic tightly. All around similar reunions continued unabated as Max watched.

            The scene helped ease his troubled mind, but only just.

            An itch tickled the back of his neck and he looked around to see what could be causing it. The sensation was akin to the times he had been under the sights of an enemy weapon, well before the end of the final wars. It was maddening as he looked around, fighting the urge to find cover and protect himself from the incoming rounds he was expecting at any second.

            No matter where he looked, he could not locate the cause of the sensation.

            Maybe it was a matter of nerves. He was stressed out and he knew it. Maybe it was something else entirely, Max did not know.

            By groups, the assembled people went towards the center of the community. The food was prepared and the tables were set. The typical Friday night party came early this week and everyone was excited, including the tired and battered warriors.

            Throughout the day people came and went. Many of the duties could not be easily ignored, and faces changed constantly, as people left or came to enjoy the festivities. About halfway through the celebration, Max excused himself and began the short trek to his home and office.

            He had a lot of letters to write and reports to go over before he could try and get some sleep. That was not a necessary task – it was a holdout from the days before the world ended, but he felt it had to be done none the less. Entering the silence of his office, he sank into the waiting chair and closed his eyes. The familiar leather of the old seat was a soothing balm and he nearly nodded off before snapping forward, shaking off the sudden lethargy.

            A stack of papers and notes were waiting for him, the usual business which would crop up on a daily basis. It was a lot more work, running and maintaining a community than many believed, as the pile of paper attested. With a groan, Max pushed away from his desk and got up. He crossed the chamber and went to a refrigerator he used to keep food and drink. It was covered in wood to appear as part of the wall, nearly invisible to the naked eye. Only if one knew where to look, or had exceptional sight, would they spot it.

            His knees cracked and popped when he bent down and pushed on the panel, causing the fake wood veneer to open, revealing the small refrigerator. “Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad I’m getting too old for this shit,” Max groaned and winced at the pain in his knees. Only after intense physical activity did he feel the many decades of aches and pains his body accumulated. He figured in a few days he’d be back to normal, as long as he did not over-extend the use of his muscles.

            His usual stash of beer waited and he pulled out a bottle. Moving over to the large window, he popped off the top and enjoyed a long slug of the dark liquid. The heady, smoky taste of this particular brew was his favorite. Try as he might, he simply could not recall how some of his favorite brands had tasted before the breweries were destroyed in the last years of the conflict.

            The sun beamed through the window and he stood there, looking over his town and his people. Off to the north, on the opposite side of the community, was the graveyard. A lot of new holes were being dug right now and would be filled with the bodies of the sons and daughters of the community.

            Max was glad he could not see the small graveyard, and he felt a lump form in his throat as he went through the names of all those who had died fighting against the Purists. His tail swished side to side, slowly and methodically as he recounted each name and face. Max reached up with one hand and ran the tips of his fingers over the horns, feeling the rough texture of the bone as he second-guessed his choices.

            Had allying with the androids been worth the blood-price they paid? How much would the community suffer as a result of the deaths they endured? Would the community be able to recover from the losses, or had his choices caused too much harm?

            The former general turned leader closed his eyes and took another long drink. Try as he might, Max could only think of two positive actions which came from the battle for the installation. They did gain the androids as allies, and the amount of damage they inflicted on the Purists was incredible. One single vehicle had escaped, but as fate would decree, it had to be the most important vehicle. It held Bradly Travis, son of the leader and heir apparent to the Purist movement.

            “We beat you this time,” he said to the glass before him and took another drink. “You had it too easy for far too long and we gave you a black eye. Now what are you going to do? Are you going to retaliate or sit back and recover long enough to strengthen your forces?”

            The silence said nothing, had no words of encouragement, advice or criticism. He would have begun to question his sanity if the room had replied.

            Condensation began to drip from the cold bottle in his hand and he took another long pull from it, draining the last of the contents in a single swig. The liquid was cold and felt amazing as it slid down his throat and into his stomach. He walked away from the window and placed the empty bottle on his desk. His mind was lost in thought, thinking about the letters he had to write, even though everyone already knew the death tally.

            Letter writing was a habit he had kept alive over the past three hundred odd years, always taking the time to put to paper his condolences to those who lost loved-ones while under his command. Max doubted anyone else in the world still kept the archaic practice, but it was one of his quirks, one he refused to let go. He was afraid if he stopped the practice, it would die with him. The sooner he got through his work and the letters, the sooner he could begin planning the second phase of this war.

            Another cold beer in hand, he returned to his desk and began to write the first letter. Once that task was complete, it would be time to pay his respects to the fallen. The funeral was slated for dusk, and it was another task he was not looking forward to.

***

May 19th, 2668 – The Compound

            The debriefing had been long and exhausting, and Bradly felt as if his soul had been stripped bare and flayed alive. He was seated in an uncomfortable chair, facing his father and three advisors or inquisitors. There were in fact five chairs, of which Bradly had always occupied the empty seat on the right hand side of Martin Travis. How strange it felt to be sitting on the other side of the table, under the hot glare of the light’s they used to intimidate and interrogate.

            Thank the gods of war his father had waved the interrogation. It should not have come as a surprise to Bradly – he was to inherit the compound and command the men once his father shook off his mortal coil. Bradly was also thankful his father had given the young man enough time to seek medical attention, clean up, grab a meal and get some badly needed sleep.

            Every muscle in his body ached, and the nerve endings felt frayed and jagged. He even lost quite a bit of hair, and he wore a baseball cap to hide the radiation damage. The dosage of rads he had taken from the close proximity of the micro nuclear device would have killed them all, if not for the C&C force fields. 

            Now his body was filled with the RadBgone drug, which was barely keeping him alive. Two of the surviving men had already succumbed to the radiation poisoning. There was fear that one or two of the others might end up developing mutations, as they were not Pure Human strain – not like Bradly and his family. They were human, but did not benefit from the genetic tinkering the Travis’s had enjoyed before the final wars came to a closure.

            They would have to be watched. If they developed mutations, as hard as it was, they would have to die.

            Shaking his head, Bradly forced the thoughts from his mind and concentrated on his father and the inquisitors. That was not what they were really known as, but he could not shake the thought this was a witch hunt, and the men were looking for someone to hang for the loss. His father would never allow it to happen, that much Bradly was certain.

            Martin Travis and the inquisitors – Bradly almost laughed and fought to keep a smile off his face. That sounded like a pre-final wars music band.

            “After going through the sensor records and the satellite images, we have come to the conclusion you are not to fault for losing your men. We were not expecting that nearly the entire force that was sent to take out the installation would be killed. The mission was poorly planned and as such we will be investigating what could have been done to change the outcome.”

            Bradly stared at his father, taking in the words the older man spoke. He was in essence taking full blame for the loss of men and material, removing it from his son’s shoulders. There was no doubt Bradly loved his father and for the sacrifice the older man was making for him? There was no way Bradly could pay it back.

            “Do you have anything to add?” Martin asked, standing up. He leaned against the table and stared intently at the younger man. His face was a mask, no emotion showing as he waited for Bradly to respond. The older Travis did not have long to wait.

            “Yes sir,” Bradly began. “We have seen the face of our greatest foe, and we need to do something about them. Any campaigns we wage against the Exotic and her companions and soldiers will have to be researched. We will need to gather as much reconnaissance as possible and it might be a good idea to employ some outside sources to help. As long as they remain, we will always have to be looking over our shoulders.”

            Martin nodded his agreement and looked from the left to the right, taking in the faces of his advisors. “Duly noted,” he said. “Dismissed.”

            Nodding, Bradly turned and left as quickly as he dared. He did not want to make it look like he was attempting to escape, nor did he want to linger. Doing so might send the wrong message – maybe he would come across as arrogant and above anything the men might wish to do.

            The fact remained the same. He was above anything they might wish to do, but it would cause dissent in the ranks, and bring no end of grief to his father. He had no wish to do that. Martin was upset at the loss of men and equipment – hell, everyone was angered, it could not be avoided. War cost resources and lives.

            Closing the door quietly, Bradly leaned against the wall of the narrow corridor. He felt nausea rising in the pit of his stomach and the nearly desperate urge to take a shit. Bradly figured it had to something to do with the radiation being purged from his system. There was a strange gurgling sound coming from his stomach, unlike anything he ever heard the organ emit. He was not ashamed to admit it frightened him, so he made a beeline to the nearest head.

            As he sat and let nature do what natured intended, his thoughts were of the few soldiers who had survived the fight. How could he face the families of those who had lost their loved-ones under his command? How would he be able to look any of them in the eyes and tell them he did everything he could?

            The dark thoughts occupied his mind fully as he contemplated his next moves.

***

May 19th, 2668 – The Community

            “Mama, take this badge off of me, I can’t use it anymore. It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see, I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door,” Ra’naa’s voice rang out clear against the darkening skies. There were thirty-six graves, all freshly dug and the bodies wrapped in cloth. A few had caskets, but there simply had not been enough time to fashion all that had been needed. That would be resolved, but the dead needed to be put to rest now, not later.

            “Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door, Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door…” she wanted to stop and break down. Tears streamed from her eyes as she sang, and many of the mourners joined in with her song. It was an ancient song, one who’s origin  could be traced back to the middle of the 20th century. The words, the music, was powerful and moving. Her throat felt like it was going to constrict to the point she could not speak, but she kept singing none the less.

            As the first of the bodies were lowered into the warm ground among weeping and anger, she continued. “Mama, put my guns in the ground, I can’t shoot them anymore. That long black cloud is comin’ down, I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”

            The mourners joined in on the chorus. She nearly faltered when she felt a hand grip her shoulder and squeeze gently but firmly. Her father had joined her, after giving up the podium to her. His speech had been long and heart-felt, and he had shed more than a few tears and had to halt his speech more than once. She knew how much he loved the community and the people who called it home. Every loss had weighed in on him and he looked almost as old as he was.

            She knew her father would recover, he always had in the past, but at the same time the community had never suffered such a blow as they had defending the androids. It did bring the question – was the blood of the community worth the alliance with the androids? She hoped so.

            One by one each member of the gathered community passed the graves. They scooped up handfuls of dirt and tossed it into the open grave, followed by flowers and sometimes letters or other small, personal objects. So many had lost mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.

            The community would never be the same again.

            The very last two to pay their respects were Declan and Tara. Ra’naa was pleased to see he was walking as if nothing had happened, and Tara was looking radiant in her white dress, flowers woven into her long hair. She was mourning as well, despite the tough facade she typically wore among the members of the community. She did not hide the tears as they flowed from her green eyes.

            Once the last of the mourners left, Ra’naa joined her father and the other workers as they began the soul-wrenching task of filling the graves.

***

May 20th, 2668 – The Community

            Attending the funeral had been far worse than Otres had imagined. He barely knew any of the people who had laid down their lives for the androids, and yet he was deeply moved by their sacrifice. He had never attended a funeral before, although he understood the concept of such.

            It was a sad time for everyone and he felt more melancholy than he had ever experienced. Arleen had openly cried during the procession, and he did not understand why. She did not know any of the lost. Otres had to chock it up to the overwhelming sadness and grief that hung over the ceremony.

            After they had paid their last respects, he returned to Ra’naa’s cabin and got straight to work. The little Uplift fully believed if he exhausted his reserves and put all his thoughts and energy into the work, it would help.

            It had.

            Otres put down the fully repaired sniper rifle and sighed. His stomach was growling and he felt light-headed, and to make matters even worse, his vision was starting to blur on the edges. He had been going non-stop for the past several days, with the exception of the funeral, taking time to eat and recharge, and then sleep. Now that Ra’naa and the others had returned home, he felt relaxed and content. Having those he loved in such mortal danger had nearly destroyed his nerves and it had hampered his ability to use his psionics.

            The funeral only reinforced those feelings and he was still unsure what to do about it.

            Thankfully, Arleen had been with him the entire time, making sure he had enough food to eat and water to quench his thirst. She doted on him constantly, fulfilling his every need, many times before he knew he needed it.  He swayed slightly and she took his arm in her hands to help steady him. “You’re too tired, Otres,” she gently tugged on his arm and pulled him over to one of the chairs Ra’naa had set up.

            He climbed into it and Arleen held out a mug of cold water. Otres accepted it gratefully and drained it in a moment. He handed her back the mug and nodded his head up and down, his whiskers twitching and he squeaked a thank you.

            She knelt before him and rested her arms on the edge of the seat. “You’re hungry, do you want me to go and get some food from Momma Rathbourne?”

            The little Uplift stared at the young woman for a moment, still having difficulty accepting how much she was doing for him. He wanted to refuse, but that was not in the books – He needed his energy to continue the work. I don’t know if she is even awake, after all, it is nearly midnight. I am okay right now.

            She nodded and stroked his thigh. There was nothing sexual in her touch; instead she was merely to help him relax. Her eyes held his, never leaving them, barely blinking. As she stroked his leg, her whiskers twitched and her tail swished from side to side.

            Is there something on your mind? Otres asked.

            She nodded her head ever so slightly as her eyes closed. “Life is so different for me here, compared to what I left behind.”

            Are you happy or do you miss it?

            “Oh I’m happy, believe me!” She exclaimed. “I was nothing more than a source of money for the madam in Scav Haven, unlike here. I have a job, and it doesn’t involve me spreading my legs and moaning for the pleasure of someone,” she looked away, ashamed. “After the funeral, I saw what it was like to have people you love, and worse, to lose them.”

            Otres mulled over her words and he broke the gaze. Instead he allowed his eyes to wander around Ra’naa’s cabin. It had become his home since he had decided to give up his solitary life.  He wondered where she was, why she had not returned from the funeral.

            It seemed so long ago, and yet… it had been barely two months. And what a couple of months it had been. A man from the ancient past had come to join them. He had been carrying an artificial intelligence. The war between the Purists and pretty much everyone else had begun in earnest. New allies, new friends, and even new enemies.

            More had occurred to him in the past eight weeks than his entire life.  And here he was, sharing a cabin with an Exotic, a woman who he loved like a sister and would do anything for her. That’s why he felt so guilty when he allowed his eyes to rest upon her bed. Arleen and he had mated several times on that very bed and he could not look at it the same way any longer.

            At night, they had left Ra’naa’s cabin and he would then spend the night sharing her bed. It was so strange and wonderful all at once, having a woman to mate with, one who felt and smelled the way an girl Otter should. And they were certain she was not in fact an Exotic but one of the most advanced Uplifts anyone had ever encountered, probably the result of numerous generations of mutation induced by the virus that re-wrote their genetic code.

            When momma Rathbourne had revealed that to them, both he and Arleen had been skeptical at first. She never could figure out exactly what she was, other than a plaything for the men who hired her. He and Arleen had discussed her former life many times and he had come to a startling realization. Although he was not well versed when it came to sex, he understood it enough. If she had been an exotic, any Pure human or human could have mated with her and produced a baby. Human mutants would not impregnate her, why he did not understand. The fact was she never had gotten pregnant, unlike many of the other girls, who then had to have an abortion. Unless they used contraceptives, which would have protected them. Many were forced to mate without it, as the buyers paid a ransom to enjoy sex without protection.

            Sadly, Arleen was one of those forced to have sex without protection.  The medic who regularly inspected the girls to ensure they were healthy and capable of working had stated she was infertile.

            As it turned out, that was not the case.

            Lost in thought, Otres did not hear the door to the cabin open, and both nearly jumped out of their skins when Ra’naa set a plate piled with food, on the table next to them. “Wow, you’ve been busy,” Ra’naa smiled and looked at all the weapons.

            I had to get my mind off the funeral, Otres shrugged and then climbed off the chair in order to look at the food. From your father?

            “No, momma Rathbourne figured you were going to need it. She finished cooking and asked me to bring it to you,” Ra’naa began to peel out of her dirty and stained clothing. She had worn her dress, as had most of the women in the community, and had not bothered to change when she helped her father finish the burial. The dress hit the floor, covered in mud and dust and she stretched languidly. Arleen stared at her nakedness in wonderment. Catching the younger woman looking at her, Ra’naa frowned ever so slightly. “Something wrong?”

            Arleen turned away, embarrassed. “Sorry – I didn’t think you’d be so open with your body. I thought only my former sisters undressed before strangers.”

            Otres looked horrified but Ra’naa only chuckled as she strode over to a stand that contained a bucket, soap and washcloths. “Otres is my little brother,” she stated as she began to soap up the cloth to get the grime off her body.

            “I don’t know you,” Arleen said. “So it’s strange.”

            “Doesn’t matter,” Ra’naa began to meticulously clean her flesh and scales. “We’re both women.”

            It was obvious Arleen had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Still, she turned away from watching Ra’naa. Feeling more than a little awkward, Arleen turned her full attention to the meal. Otres did not bother waiting; instead he dug into the food with something akin to near savagery. By the time they had finished eating; Ra’naa was cleaned and fully clothed. She was wearing pants and a white t-shirt and a leather jacket. She had gathered up some of her clothing and personal belongings and had packed them in a small back-pack.

            When Otres noticed her, she was standing at the entrance to her cabin, lacing up her boots. Where are you going?

            “I’m taking my old room in the lodge,” she smiled and gave the laces one last tug. “You and Arleen are free to use my cabin as long as you need.”

            The former prostitute looked at her in shock. “You know?”

            Ra’naa laughed and nodded. “Of course! And I approve,” she waved at them. “Don’t stay up too late; you both need to get sleep!” With that, she opened the door and entered the warm, humid night beyond.

            Otres stared at the door, suddenly feeling guilty. He replayed her words in his mind and he was certain he could detect the barest undertone of sadness. Maybe it was because of the funeral, maybe it was just his imagination.

            And maybe it was because she felt she had lost something precious to another woman, even if their relationship had been purely platonic.

***

May 21st , 2668 – The Community

            The pathway around the interior of the protective wall was perfect for what Declan needed. Ever since waking up in the new world, he had let his physical training slip. He had used the excuse it was due to his need to recover from the extended period of cryonic suspension, but that was just a lie.

            The fact was, he was lazy, although if he wanted an excuse, he had been busy.

            Sweat trickled down his naked chest as he ran, pushing his new limb as far as he could. It worked perfectly and it even felt like a real, flesh and blood leg. He could not tell the difference, except for the scarring tissue around where the limb had been grafted to his meat and bone. The former pilot had been running for nearly an hour, and at last he stopped and placed his hands on his knees, panting as the sweat poured from his face.

            Unlike the past several days, today the sun had hidden behind heavy clouds, pregnant with moisture and waiting for the perfect time to release their deluge. It was still quite warm and with the threat of rain, it was muggy as hell. Small insects and strange butterflies were attracted to the sweat pouring from his limbs. Maybe it was the salt, maybe something else. He figured once night had fallen some of the bugs would have left – that was not the case.

            Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad this world was fucked up, he thought as he swatted at several of the insects and tried to shoo the others away. They had grown so numerous he had no choice but to go back to running. Grunting with exertion, he took off, setting a distance-eating lope but one which would not cost too much energy.

            After they had paid their respects to the fallen, Tara returned to their home. She needed some time alone, to deal with her grief at the loss of so many of her fellow townsfolk. Declan had offered to go with her, but she refused, and for once was not harsh about it. She even smiled at him through her tears and kissed him.

            Not sure what to do, he decided to go running. Get back into old routines.

            Even though it was full dark, he passed several people, most of whom waved or called out a greeting. Everyone knew him by face and name and had accepted him into their lives, and it filled Declan with a sense of pride, a sense of community and belonging.

            A sense he had not felt for a very long time.

            He eventually left the trail and ran towards the town proper. The temperature had fallen several degrees and even with his easily managed pace, he was beginning to feel overheated. A nice cool soak with Tara would certainly help; he thought and grinned at the memory of the Tiger-Exotic, her large breasts, her perfect curves and her sweet, sweet lips. The thought of the woman helped chase the blues away. He was not affected as she had been, but it was still hard to see so many people mourning over their lost.

            No, he had been affected other ways and it was piling up. He felt stressed and it was only getting worse.

            He hit the main street, he pushed the thoughts of stress aside and plastered a grin on his face. Yup, he was in love, he would not deny it. The amount of time the woman occupied his thoughts proved that. Amazingly enough, when he thought of her, it was not always about sex. More often than not he thought of conversations they had, or what he wanted to do with her that did not involve him sticking his manhood in her body.

            The rain was slick and the unpaved road was a mire of water and muck. Thankfully, no one tolerated litter in the community and as such it was incredibly clean.  He had seen modern towns and cities before his unwelcome sleep which could have learned a thing or two from the community.

            Only a handful of minutes passed before he reached his destination, the small log-cabin that belonged to Tara. He paused and stared at the rustic structure, realizing how much it had become his home. The yard was filled with grass and there were numerous flowers growing along the edge of the building. The scent of pollen and moisture filled his lungs as he took the short couple of steps to the entrance.

            When he entered, Tara was sitting in her favorite chair, staring out the window into the rain-heavy night. The glass partitions were open, allowing a pleasant, albeit muggy breeze to pass through. As was the habit, she was naked and relaxed. Her legs were tucked under her and she was gently stroking her flat belly.

            Declan felt his heart skip a beat when he looked at her sitting there, so content and not a care in the world. He could not detect a single trace of grief on her beautiful face. Declan walked over to her and Tara smiled up at him, reaching with both hands. She placed one on the back of his neck and the other on her shoulder as she pulled him in close to kiss him.

            Her lips were puffy and moist and her tongue darted out to play with his, the eternal tango of love and lust. They stayed like that for nearly fifteen minutes, just kissing and caressing one another before she finally let him go so she could fumble with his shorts.

            After they made love, he lay next to her, bathed in sweat. If there was one luxury he would love to bring into this world, it was air-conditioning. They had not spoken a word since he had arrived home, and they lay, her leg and arm draped over him, her still hot sex pressed against his thigh.

            “How is your new leg?” She asked in a dreamy, spent voice.

            “I can’t tell the difference,” he said, stroking the soft fur of her back with one hand. “If it wasn’t for the scar tissue, I’d never have known I’d lost it.”

            Minutes passed and Declan was sure Tara had fallen asleep when she nuzzled his neck and ran her hand up and down his chest, pinching and feeling the flesh beneath her fingers. “Have I told you that I love you?”

            He thought about it, and those simple words were rarely spoken aloud between them. He had no idea why, other than he was still getting used to the idea he loved the hot-headed woman. “A few times,” he smiled as he spoke.

            “Do you love me?” She asked, her hand still caressing his chest and stomach.

            He never hesitated. In the past, with the girls he had bedded, he never loved any of them. They were conquests and sex toys to him. A few had tried that line on him, and he rejected them out of hand. Tara was different and he fully grasped it. “Yeah, I do. I love you.”

            “So what do we do next then?” She asked.

            “What do you mean?” Declan tilted his head so he could see her more clearly.

            “Well, we live together, but what’s the next step in our relationship?”

            Declan was not all that certain about what Tara was asking him. He searched her tiger-striped face, looking for the elusive hint as to what she wanted. “I guess our kids,” he said, thinking quickly.

            That drew a smile from her. “We’re certainly getting a lot of practice when it comes to that, aren’t we?” She laughed lightly and cupped his manhood, stroking it gently. “What about the next level after that?”

            He stiffened, and then relaxed. “I don’t know,” he told her, feeling his body react to her touch. She always could bring him to full attention with very little effort on her part. He was finding it very difficult to concentrate as she worked on him, but then as if a light went off in his mind’s eye, he had it.

            Declan knew exactly what Tara was looking for. At least, he was quite certain he knew… “You want to get married?”

            Her hand’s grip tightened and her motion increased dramatically. “Yes I do,” she purred and rewarded him.

***

May 21st , 2668 – The Community

            The funeral had been hard to watch.

            This was one of the times Babs wished she could erase the coding which allowed her to feel genuine human emotion. Although she had fought hard and did her share to save the androids, something warned her to stay away from the somber ceremony. She had no idea what it was, but she followed what her best friend called a gut feeling. There was no way she was going to miss it, there was not a chance in hell she was not going to pay her respect to the dead. So during the ceremony, she had stayed off to the side, well away from the gathered crowd and watched.

            A few curious eyes had turned her way, but thanks to her new-found body and the encroaching darkness, no one really paid her any mind. When Declan and Tara had been the last to drop flowers and dirt onto the graves, she came to her decision. The way they looked at one another, the way the Tiger-Exotic fawned over him, it broke Babs’s artificial heart, and she knew what had to be done.

            After leaving the funeral, she had wandered the streets, mulling over the decision she made, the pros and cons, the final ramifications. Her meanderings brought her to the small cabin she had been using and it took her only a minute to gather up her few belongings. She was just about ready to head out when her enhanced audio picked up the steady rhythm of someone running. Babs knew in that instant it was Declan. She knew his body as well as he did.

            Or Tara did for that matter.

            Staying put, she peered from the window of her home.

            She watched Declan as he jogged down the street and entered the house he shared with Tara. The movements were perfectly natural and from her observation, he had adapted perfectly to his new prosthetic limb. This pleased the android greatly, as she knew without a shadow of a doubt he would not be a cripple. It had torn her heart apart when she had learned of his wound and it was even worse that she could not be there for him, not the way Tara had been.

            It was one of the reasons she had made her final choice, which led her to be standing at the edge of the street, hidden from casual view. Well – not from others, but from Declan and his woman.  

            Carefully she adjusted the heavy sack over her shoulder and gave the cabin one last longing stare before turning and heading directly towards the main gate. If she could cry, she would, but her new body would not allow for that. At this very moment, Babs wished with all her electronic soul she could erase the emotions the programmers had instilled upon her code. It was too painful for her to endure. Well, that was not quite true, it was painful, but she would endure.

            Babs had to wonder how Tara would react when she found out about the android leaving to join the installation. She’d be happy – how could the Tiger-Exotic be otherwise?  Tara was getting exactly what she had demanded from Babs.

            Her feet kicked up small droplets of water which had not yet evaporated. She looked around as she walked, taking in every sight and committing what she saw to memory. Maybe she would return, maybe not, it all depended on what happened with the war against the Purists. Babs knew she would fight alongside Declan and the rest of the defenders, and she would lay down her artificial life to ensure they survived. When it was all over, the androids might be able to do something about her emotions. There was always a chance they had a good programmer who could erase the offending code and in doing so, give her freedom.

            A few minutes later she was at the gate. She recognized one of the guards. His name was Jason – no, that’s not right, Jas’nar. He was the man who loved Kate, and that woman had practically raped Declan. The man nodded politely and one asked where she was going. She indicated the rifle and told him she was going to do a little hunting. Of course it was a lie, but how would the guard know? He wished her luck and she was off.

            The installation, and her future, waited for her.

***

May 22nd , 2668 – The Community

            The pain and grief was still present the next day. Some get over the loss quickly, others never do. The old adage that time heals all wounds is appropriate in many case, but only the most heartless would have gotten past the previous night’s ceremony and act as if nothing happened.

            It was not the case in the armory of the lodge. Max Ahteen gathered up all the weapons Otres had repaired and added them to massive vault-like room, hidden in a reinforced concrete bunker.

            The members of the community had been busy. The walls were covered with racks and pegs, from which weapons hung. Drawers had been created to hold ammunition, magazines, energy cells and spare parts, and everything had been clearly labelled. The sight of so many weapons of destruction was a sobering one indeed, and did not help raise the spirits of those gathered.

            Max, Ra’naa, Declan, Tara, Otres and several others stood around the repaired weapons. There were hundreds of firearms of all types, from slug-throwers to energy and magnetic weapons. All gleamed and were in perfect working order. The little uplift seemed particularly content as the men and women examined the bounty of death-dealing devices.

            One of the men, a humanoid named Gerrold, blew out his cheeks in an impressed whistle. He was wearing a black t-shirt, which was tucked into dark tanned hide pants. A pair of sturdy hide-boots covered his feet. It was obvious to anyone looking at the man he was a mutant, with his strange, insect-like antenna and the green chitin which covered most of his exposed skin. It would be possible to mistake the man for an uplifted insect, if it were not for his very human eyes. “No doubt about it Max, we can field an army with these.”

            “That’s the plan,” Max nodded. “In fact, in just over two weeks my daughter will be leading some of you to a meeting with several groups.”

            Ra’naa nodded and stepped up next to her father. Gone was her dress, she was wearing her black combat armor. She was not carrying any weapons, but could easily remedy that in a matter of seconds. “Right, I made contact with several groups while we were in Scav Haven,” she proceeded to explain the meeting and the groups. When she was finished the mutant looked impressed.

            Gerrold reached for one of the high-tech weapons and began to inspect it. “Where the hell did you manage to find such high-quality weaponry?” He asked, clearly impressed.

            Max had considered telling them about Otres and his ability. Most people knew about the little Uplifted Otter, but few really knew what he was capable of. In the end, Max decided that the fewer people who knew, the better. It was not a matter of security or keeping secrets, it was to keep Otres safe. If word got out about him, then Otres would become a target, probably right up there with himself and his daughter.

            “State secret,” Max grinned and waved a dismissive hand. “When it comes right down to it, where the weapons came from does not matter. What matters is we have them and we’re willing to give them to anyone who is going to join the war.”

            “Fair enough,” Gerrold said, although it was obvious to anyone looking he was not all that happy with it.

            The meeting went on for nearly an hour as they discussed their next moves against the Purists. When Max revealed the androids had captured several of the soldiers alive, the room erupted in accusations and anger. Max waited for the others to calm down before he spoke. “The Androids captured them, and they will deal with them. They have far better and more reliable methods of interrogation than we do.”

            “And you trust them to share whatever they learn from the prisoners?” Gerrold demanded, getting up into Max’s face. The older Dragon-Exotic did not even flinch – he stood his ground and waited until Gerrold realized how dangerous a situation he was in.

            “We spilled blood; we lost men and women defending the androids. I trust them to do what is right, and I have the word of their leader,” Max said calmly. He had his arms crossed and his tail was moving ever so slightly.

            “They’re not even organic! How can you be so trusting?” Gerrold demanded, his temper starting to peak.

            “Over the years I have found that the androids are far more reliable and more likely to keep their word than anyone else. There is something about their cold logic and programming which pretty much forces them to keep their word,” Max’s posture remained calm and collected, but just the barest edge slipped into his tone.

            Gerrold must have realized what he was about to step in and he backed off. He blew out his cheeks and shook his head. The antenna twitched from side to side, as if tasting the air. “Alright, sorry – you’re right. Your choices have always been for the betterment of our home and I need to trust you.”

            “Damn straight,” Tara stated boldly.

            The mutant glared at her and then nodded. “When are you going to find out what they were able to extract from their prisoners?”

            “I’ll be contacting them after this meeting is over,” Max told him. “And then we will reconvene tonight for dinner and I’ll fill you in on what we have learned.”

            Mollified, Gerrold nodded his agreement. “Steak then?”

            Max actually laughed. “Nope, Salmon – not that walker shit, but real Salmon from the ocean and fresh greens. Bring your appetite and your wife.”

***

May 22nd , 2668 – The Installation

            Awoan stood before the first of several prisoners they had taken captive. The man was naked, strapped down to a table. Tubes and wires snaked from his body, crossing the flesh and pulsing like living creatures. The man’s eyes were wide open and he stared with unconcealed terror at the android.

            “We have healed your wounds,” she began, running her fingers across the light scars that were the only sign he had nearly died. The man’s belly was a mass of the fine lines, and his intestines were more machine than organic, but he had survived.

            “Th.. than.. thank you?” The Purist soldier stammered. He was sweating profusely even though the temperature in the room was a pleasant twenty degrees Celsius. Straining against his cuffs, he tried to take in his surroundings. Even his head had been strapped down so he could only turn it a few centimeters to either side. The room was purposefully kept dark so he could not make out any details. “Why?”

            “We have questions,” Awoan said simply.

            The prisoner stared at her, waiting for the other shoe to fall. “And if I don’t answer you?”

            Awoan shrugged and then reached out with her small and delicate hand. She took hold of his member and began to stroke it up and down. “Then we have no need of you and we will kill you. Your body will be cut up and the organs and useful material stored for our friends to use.”

            He stifled a moan. Her touch was electrifying and he began to respond to it. Just as suddenly as it had begun, she let go and wiped her hand on a cloth before dropping it out of sight. “And… what… okay, what if I co-operate?”

            She smiled at him, although it was as cold as the deepest winter night. “Then you may be allowed to live, I will have to think about it.”

            “What’s there to think about?” He blurted, even more terrified than he had been moments before. “Just ask!”

            She leaned over and stared into his eyes, hers never blinking. The questions began.