Buck Who? Chapter 32

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 32: Loss and Relapse

May 23rd , 2668 – The Community

            “No!” Declan cried in terror and sat upright in the bed he shared with Tara. His heart was beating a million kilometers an hour and his body was bathed in sweat. He could still feel the primal fear, eating at his soul like a swarm of the mutant voles.

            A split second later, Tara was wide awake and growling, her eyes going over their room, searching for possible intruders or whatever had disturbed her love. After a few seconds she relaxed and leaned over, her face mere centimeters from his. “What’s wrong, baby?”

            Declan swallowed hard and got out of the bed. He looked down at his naked body and the prosthetic leg, which was nearly indistinguishable from a real flesh and blood limb. He tried to speak, but his mouth was fear-dry and he could not form the words. Reaching out, he grabbed the half-finished bottle of beer from the nightstand and finished the remaining liquid in one long gulp.

            “Come on baby, speak to me,” Tara encouraged. She had come over to the edge of the bed and was sitting there, sleepy and mussed, but still beautiful.

            “I had a bad dream, that’s all,” Declan placed the empty bottle on the stand with a clunk. “I’m okay now.”

            She continued to eye him and then reached out and took his hand. “Come and lay down.”

            He allowed the Tiger-Exotic to pull him back into the bed. She held him tightly, purring quietly as she stroked his hair and back with her hands. “Do you want to talk about it?” She asked, never breaking her motions.

            “Not much to talk about,” he blew out his cheeks and sat there, letting her gentle ministrations calm him. “Just a mess of chaotic images, fire, blood and pain.”

            Tara pulled away from him then, staring at him in the near total darkness. He marvelled at how her eyes appeared to glow, and he knew perfectly well she could see him as if it was daylight. “I shouldn’t be surprised,” he half-laughed. “Losing a leg is a pretty traumatic experience.”

            “I worry about you,” Tara took his hands in hers, squeezing his fingers. “You had a pretty hard time coming to grips with what you saw when we were travelling to Scav Haven. Now this,” she let go and ran one hand over his prosthetic leg.”

            Declan knew she was right. He was feeling stressed. He had felt edgy and tense ever since he had woken up after the surgery. Even though he had his leg again – well, at least a functional replacement, he did not feel right. “I wish we had a head-shrink,” he told her.

            “What?”

            “Sorry, psychiatrists, someone who worked with people and helped them get through tough times like this,” Declan answered.

            She chewed on her lower lip and nodded. “We don’t have anyone like that, maybe down in Scav Haven, but certainly not here,” she lay back on the bed, and stared at the ceiling. Her hair flowed around her head like a white halo, almost glowing in the darkness. “Do you think you can sleep?”

            Declan shook his head. “I don’t know, maybe.”

            “Love me then, and see what happens,” Tara took his arm and pulled him down until he was straddling between her legs.

            As it turned out, she was right.

***

May 23rd , 2668 – Northwest of the community.

            Through the night, Babs had travelled non-stop. She knew she had to be at least thirty or more kilometers from the community. She resisted the temptation to check her internal programs to confirm her suspicions.

            Once she had been far enough from the community to safely open a channel to the installation, Babs had contacted the androids. She was soon routed to Awoan, and Babs expressed her desire to come and work with the androids.

            The leader of the androids had readily accepted her request and told her she would be sending someone to pick her up.  Babs figured she already knew who would be arriving, and decided to keep moving.  It was not because she was afraid of being attacked; it was because she wanted to put as much distance as she could between herself and the community.  

            She had to laugh – why was it called the community? It has been around for hundreds of years, so why had General Max Ahteen never given the community an actual name? Maybe in the future she would ask him why.

            If she ever returned, that is.  

            All around her the forest was bursting with activity and life. She could see the animals moving in the underbrush, safe and secure in their knowledge she could not see them. If they only knew the truth she mused and chuckled to herself.  Had she been out on an actual hunting trip as she mentioned to the guards, bagging a veritable feast would have not been simplicity itself.

            Babs looked up into the cloud-choked sky and from her sensors; she knew the rain would be coming in about five minutes or less. If she had been organic, she would have found the night distinctly uncomfortable. It was still too warm and the humidity was sitting around ninety percent. Muggy, that was the word people would use to describe the night. Pausing on the road, she stretched her arms out to the side and allowed her sensors to take in all the data. She wanted to know what it felt like.

            And her thoughts instantly latched onto Declan. She had used his body; she had been able to feel what he had felt as she had ridden in his mind for all those years. And now that she was out and on her own, she felt she wanted to experience it once again.

            There was a loud shuffling and the sound of branches breaking and cracking under tremendous weight. Instantly she dropped her arms and readied the assault rifle she had taken from the community. A split second later, she pinpointed the sound and had the image of something large and ponderous about ten meters off to her left. Around her, the forest went silent. Each creature, even the insects ceased moving and motion, for fear of the predator sensing their presence.

            Her programming dove into the recognition database and in a millisecond, came back with a partial identification. It was an Ursus Arctos, or a Grizzly Bear, except this particular specimen was much larger than the members of the species. And if her sensors were not malfunctioning, it was grotesquely misshapen. Huge growths covered its muscular body and she could differentiate between the patchy fur and the scabrous flesh.

            The mutant bear was standing on two legs and had clearly spotted her. It waved two paws, nearly the size of her torso in the air and raised its deformed muzzle, testing the air and drinking in her scent. It growled and then let out a curious grunt, not liking what it smelled. The mutant bear then sneezed loudly, an explosive sound that sent some of the nearby animals scurrying in terror.

            She looked at the assault rifle in her hands and back at the mutated beast. How insignificant the weapon seemed, and how deadly the deformed predator appeared. She brought up detailed files on the species, which allowed her to pinpoint potential weaknesses. The issue was the creature had been altered by radiation and toxins. She had no idea if the weaknesses on its ancestors would have transferred to the beast itself.

            The bear dropped to all fours and took several lumbering steps in her direction. It then paused, lifted its muzzle into the air and sniffed again. This time the monster had its mouth open and she could see the jagged, ten-centimeter long teeth and the snake-like tongue. It sneezed again and then without any warning, it turned and wandered off into the forest.

            Babs blew out a breath she had not known she was holding. What made it even odder was the fact she did not need to breathe! Still, she kept her weapon at the ready and watched as the bear retreated. “Guess you figured out I would not taste all that good, didn’t you?” She called out in a conversational tone. “Glad we did not have a chance to meet face to face.”

            If the bear heard her, or even cared for that matter, it made no indication. In a minute it was gone, probably seeking easier and tastier prey.

            She waited another three minutes before she finally decided to continue walking. By then the creatures of the night sensed the great beast had moved on and that it was safe for them to resume their nocturnal activities. The morning was still a long way off so she figured it would be best spent with her continuing to move.

            Step after step, the distance between her and the community grew.

 

***

May 23rd , 2668 – The Community

            The weather did not want to co-operate. It was still overcast and with the moisture saturating the air, making it distinctly uncomfortable. Looking up into the sky, Declan could see the clouds were no more than fifty meters above his head. Fat and deep grey, the sky looked as if was going to unleash the torrential downpour not seen since biblical times.

            He had woken up early, and left Tara sleeping. After they had made love yet again and he finally felt capable of sleep, they dosed off, arms entangled in hers. At least this time there had been no dreams, but he did not feel rested. When he woke, he looked down at  the woman he had grown to love.  She always looked so peaceful, lying in the bed they shared, her hair covering her face and spread out around her head. She snored very lightly, but what always took him by surprise was how often she purred while they slept.

            Especially after sex, which was a nightly occurrence. The heat and humidity made it rather uncomfortable, but it was a small sacrifice to pay, especially if she was really happy about something.

            Wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts and moccasins he had been given, he began running as soon as he left the front door. He had already made three laps of the compound and his heart was hammering against his rib-cage, like a small animal trying to escape captivity. Sweat poured off his body, but it barley helped due to the high level of humidity. He felt as if the heat would overwhelm him at any second. The last thing he wanted to have to deal with was heat-stroke or worse. When he approached the gate, he saw it was open and the usual complement of guards were there, including a man he had learned to count as a friend. “Jas’nar!” He waved as he came to a stop.

            The younger man grinned and waved back. He had several new scars on his face and one arm was still wrapped in a sling, but he carried himself proudly. The assault rifle he had used with such skill during the battle for the Installation was cleaned and hanging off his back. “Declan! Good to see you!”

            They came together and embraced. “What’s with the running?” Jas’nar asked, looking at his sweat-soaked friend.

            Pulling away from the embrace, Declan wiped the sweat from his brow and flicked his hand. The salty liquid mixed into the mud at their feet. “Trying to get back into shape,” he grinned. “How’s Kate?”

            Jas’nar’s grin faded slightly and he looked down. “She’ll be fine, but our baby didn’t make it.”

            Declan staggered back a step, his face openly displaying the shock he felt. Then he went cold, remembering the night he and the Fox-Exotic had engaged in wild sex. It was about right, could the baby have been his? He would never know. “Jas, look man, I’m really sorry to hear that.”

            The man tried to smile and wave it away, but he could not quite pull it off. “Hey, that’s life, right? She should have stayed here when we went to the Installation. She knew she was pregnant, and yet she insisted on fighting beside me. I was kind of wondering why at first she didn’t want me to go, and when I refused to stay, she demanded she come with me.”

            “Sorry man, I really am,” Declan reached out and took the younger man by the shoulder. “Are you two planning on getting married?”

            Jas’nar blinked and stared at Declan. “We never really talked about it,” he said thoughtfully. Reaching up, he scratched at his chin, feeling the stubble growing there. “That might be a good idea,” he suddenly grinned. “If I ask, maybe that’ll help cheer her up.”

            “Glad to have helped,” Declan stated and then looked past the man, to the winding trail that led to the old highway and the ocean beyond. He was still sweating and his legs were burning with lactic acid, but it was a good burn. Declan relished the feel of his muscles working and his heart pumping. Maybe it had something to do with how long he had been in cryonic suspension.

            “That reminds me,” Jas’nar said. “Did you know your friend Babs left last night?”

            Declan looked up so suddenly he felt a moment’s vertigo. “What?”

            “You didn’t know?” he blurted, looking confused. “She said she was going hunting, but she never came back. I didn’t think anything of it until I saw you.”

            “What the hell?” Declan asked, throwing his hands up and looking confused. “Why would an android want to go hunting?”

            Jas’nar shrugged, helpless as to explain the woman’s strange action. “I have no idea, maybe she’s on her way home now, after all, she left after the funeral last night. Could she possibly have wanted some alone time?”

            “No that’s not like her. She’s not a real woman, although she can act like one. I don’t see how she could have just… wait a minute.”

            “What is it?” Jas’nar asked, curious. He tilted his head to one side and studied the former fighter pilot.

            “Just before we left to help the androids, Babs and Tara had a fight. Tara demanded that Babs stay with the androids once we won the battle.”

            “But she came home with the rest of us,” Jas’nar stated. “Did she have a change of heart?”

            “I don’t know – maybe.”

            “What are you going to do?” The young guard asked.

            “Again, I don’t know…”

***

May 23rd , 2668 – The Compound

            Bradly was still smarting from the encounter with his father and the inquisitors. His nerves felt frayed and he was constantly on the verge of vomiting. Maybe it had something to do with the RadBGone he had been popping like candy; maybe it was the stress he was under.

            Looking up into the mirror, the reflection looked like another person. He barely recognized the face staring back at him. The cheeks were sunken, and there were dark bags under the eyes. The eyes staring back were the worst, looking haunted by all that had happened. The eyes did not seem to be his own and that scared him. Worse than that, it looked like he had aged a decade in the past week; and then it hit him. The eyes staring back were also filled with accusation and blame.

            He did not blame his men, nor did he blame his father. He was responsible for what had occurred, no one else. Well, that was not entirely true, the bitch Ahteen and her friends were to blame. They had helped the androids and handed him the worst defeat of the war.

            Hell, it was the worst defeat the compound had ever suffered, even during its founding, over three hundred years previous. There had to be something he could do to make up for what had transpired.

            Sighing, he splashed cold water on his face and rubbed his eyes. Through the mirror he could see into his bedroom, where his bed lay unmade and empty. The previous evening he had been tempted to bring his aid, that lovely young woman, into his chamber and fuck her until neither could walk properly.

            As he had thought of her, the usual lust he felt in his loins were strangely and unsettlingly absent. Even when he took time to go through his small collection of erotica, he found it would not bring so much as a mild stirring.

            It had to be the stress of the loss that was affecting him. He began to lather his cheeks and neck. Too much stubble was present and it did not fit his stature. Bradly was no mere soldier, he was the heir to the compound and the second in command of all its forces.

            Bradly almost laughed at the thought, knowing how wrong he was. Still, he set out to shave and was meticulous in his personal grooming. Once that task was complete, he dressed in his best casual uniform and strode out of the building, into the rain-soaked daylight. The guards at the entrance snapped quick salutes before standing at rigid attention as soon as Bradly had returned it.

            The day was humid and Bradly had taken only a dozen or so steps when he felt the sweat beginning to form on his flesh. He grimaced and strode purposefully through the compound towards the section set aside for basic training. Several hundred men had joined since he had been away in Scav Haven, swelling the ranks and more than making up for the recent losses.

            Stopping at the edge of the training grounds, Bradly watched the drill sergeants went through their paces, working the recruits harder than many had ever been in the past. His relaxed features slid deeper and deeper into a frown though, as he took in the fact that fully half the recruits were female.

            In fact, he recognized quite a few of the women and girls from the compound.  Watching, he noticed they were working even harder than the male recruits, trying to impress the sergeants as they went through physical training and drills.

            He shook his head, feeling even angrier than he had minutes before. “Dad, why the fuck did you have to go and screw with tradition?” He muttered aloud. He wiped his face, feeling the sweat mixing with the drizzle coming down and all he wanted to do was go back to his quarters and sleep. A few thousand years of sleep might be all he needed to come to grips with everything.

            No, he could not do what he wanted. He needed to see his father and discuss the battle and then help him with the next phase. There were no doubt the androids and the installation must fall, and they really need to take care of that pain in the ass Ahteen. When they discovered where the bitch lived, they would attack.

            And this time the tables would be turned.

            No way were they going to assault the woman’s home without first scouting and gathering as much intelligence as possible. That was one fact upon which even his father Martin had agreed. The assault had been poorly executed and everyone knew the end result.

            After a few minutes of watching the recruits, he turned away from the training grounds. He was startled to see an older man standing only about a meter and a half from him. The man was haggard looking and his eyes were hollow and red-rimmed. Bradly was certain the older man must have been getting as little rest as he was. “Yes?”

            “Travis,” the older man said. His voice was low, barely a whisper, and it shook with supressed emotion. The man’s hands trembled as he reached into his pocket.

            The motion was not noticed, instead Bradly frowned and his eyes narrowed dangerously. “That’s commander Travis to you,” he said in a tone that matched the other mans.

            “Right,” the older man sneered. He must have been in his late fifties or early sixties, but that did not mean anything. The world was harsh and as such it tended to age a person beyond their years. “Commander Travis,” he said, his voice filled with contempt. “The same commander who got both my boys killed.”

            Alarms went off in Bradly’s mind. He knew the man was about to do something Bradly certainly was going to regret. His eyes went to the man’s hand which was fumbling in his pocket. “Take your hand out of your pocket, nice and slow,” Bradly ordered, keeping his voice calm but putting all the authority he could muster into the command.

            “Sure, Travis, sure…” the man pulled out his hand to reveal a small, egg-shaped object. There was a light on the top of the metallic sphere, which was blinking rapidly.

            Bradly instantly recognized the device. It was an energy grenade, a powerful explosive which had a ten-meter explosive radius. Even as his mind revealed the information, he was running for the nearest cover.

            “I’ll see you in hell,” the man roared, holding the device before Bradly.

***

May 23rd , 2668 – The Installation

            “You wished to see me?” Joey said differentially as he stood before the leader of the ravaged installation. The room was subdued and cool, the carpeted floor beneath his soft shoes spongy and giving. This was one of the few times Joey had ever been inside Awoan’s private quarters and as with the previous times, it never ceased to amaze him.

            “Indeed, young Joey,” Awoan was out of her typically dress, instead wearing a pair of tan slacks and a form-hugging white t-shirt. For once her hair was down and flowing loose around her face, lighting it up like a golden halo. She gestured to the single couch, centered in the middle of the room, facing a holographic projector. “Please, sit.”

            Unsure what was happening, Joey took a tentative step and then sat on the yielding cushion. It sagged beneath him, conforming to the shape of his body. “Have I done something wrong?” He asked. Although he was certain he had not, it did not help alleviate the butterflies in his stomach.

            Awoan sat demurely beside him and placed her hands on her knees. She gazed into his eyes, studying his face for several moments before replying. “No, on the contrary, you have done a service to your home we can never repay.”

            Joey shook his head. “It’s my duty,” he began and then closed his mouth when Awoan lifted one delicate hand, motioning him to silence.

            “Have you healed sufficiently and have you had enough rest?” She asked. Her hand entwined the other on her knee and she watched, waiting for his answer.

            Joey looked away, pretending to study the artwork on the walls. They were crude by anyone’s standards and he quickly spotted one he had drawn. The art was from the human children, generations of them. Each rendered imprecisely, crude, and often downright awful, but that mattered not. The artwork had been created with love and freely given to Awoan. She might have been cold, but she was always kind and somehow children found it in their hearts to love the android. Even Joey, having long since grown out of the simple life of a child, still loved her. He finally tore his eyes from the wall and looked at the android. “Yes to both your questions.”

            “Are you ready to take another mission?”

            “Of course!” He answered without hesitation. It still bothered him greatly the feelings of anxiety he was experiencing now, sitting with the leader of his home. What the hell was wrong with him?

            She smiled and seemed to relax. “I have been in contact with the android Babs,” she began. Awoan explained how the former AI decided to come and stay at the installation, at least for a few months, to help with repairs and rebuilding the defenses. When she was finished, she nodded to him. “I was hoping you would be willing to go and meet her along the old highway and bring her in. Android she may be, but it is still dangerous for her to be out on her own.”

            “I will do as you ask,” Joey volunteered without a moment’s hesitation. “When do you want me to leave?”

            “As soon as possible. She will have made fairly good progress over the evening, but it will still take her several days to get her on foot.”

            Joey stood and bowed to the android.

            “Enough with the formality,” Awoan said as she stood. A moment later she held him in a tight embrace. Rarely did she ever have physical contact with the humans in the installation. It was simply because of her past, and it brought back powerful memories and emotions.

            He hesitated for a fraction of a second before he returned the embrace. “Sorry,” he said. Joey was also one who had a hard time showing emotion, real genuine emotion. That had to do with his upbringing among the androids.

            “Things are going to change,” Awoan released him and took a step back. “We are no longer going to be isolationists. The encounter and battle with the Purists proved to do so would eventually mean our extinction.”

            “I understand,” Joey said and felt his heart skip a beat. If they were going to be working with the community, it meant he would be able to see her.  That was scary as hell to him. She had fought bravely and had suffered for her defense of the installation. Everyone had to some extent.

            It was if Ra’naa did not even know he existed, for the most part. After the battle was over, she ignored him with the exception of checking to see how he was doing. The slight had not been intentional, but he still felt the sting from it. There were times he wish he did not have a heart or emotions.

            “Safe journey,” Awoan nodded. “And there is no budget for this. It will be a very long time before we will have a budget again. We need to repair and rebuild.”

            “Yes Awoan, and thank you,” Joey said and left the room.

            Joey walked to his quarters and changed into his armor and checked his weapons. He thought about Babs, the android who had started out as an AI, riding in Declan Starrett’s mind. Now she was leaving him and the community to come and help with the rebuilding of the installation. Joey may not have had the experience with women that many men did, but he was not stupid. He realized it had to be from Declan taking Tara as a mate.

            Babs would be a temptation and had to be out of the picture, if Declan and Tara were to have a happy life together. Much to his surprise, Joey felt his throat constrict as a wave of grief overcame him. He stopped dead in his tracks and looked at the situation from many different angles, analyzing it.

            It was sympathy, mixed in with just a dash of jealousy.

            He made his way through the maze-like levels of the installation until he found the garage. It had suffered little damage during the fight, mainly a few burst lights and blown circuits. It was darker than he remembered, and repairing the lights was low priority. He walked towards his bike, well really it belonged to everyone, but he used it the most. As such he had a feeling of possession when it came to it.

            The shadows flickered and danced with the un-even light. More than once Joey paused to study the play of light and dark, feeling uncomfortable, almost as if he was being watched. Could he? The camera feeds had been re-established to the garage, but why would they be monitoring him?

            With a shrug, he placed his gear under the seat of the bike and climbed on. He went through a quick mental checklist before he hit the ignition and the bike purred to life. He double-checked, ensuring he had several doses of RadBgone, as he was going to be travelling through an irradiated zone.

            Gracefully Joey pulled out from the stall and slowly approached the large blast-proof doors. There were sensors built into the walls near the doors and the heavy slabs of metal ponderously slid into the walls. Beyond the barrier there was a long, concrete tunnel. It was bone dry but pitch black, as the lights inside the tunnel had yet to be replaced.

            Joey flicked on the head-lamp for the bike and guided it along the tunnel, until he came to the second set of doors. This one appeared to be much like the first, but anyone looking at it from the outside would see nothing more than a solid block of stone. The sensors had yet to be replaced, and that forced the young man to dismount. He left his bike idling as he found the manual switch and with a quick flick of his wrist, he toggled the switch. There was a loud bang, followed by torturous moaning and grinding as the damaged gears worked with herculean effort to open the doors.

            They only managed to get about a quarter of the way when with a final sigh and stutter, the doors came to a halt. Joey shook his head and frowned. There was just enough room for him to pass between the doors, but none of the other vehicles in the installation would be trapped until the damage had been repaired.

            On the outside, he could see the crack in the stone façade, an inky blackness in the otherwise grey granite of the rocky face. Anyone looking at it would instantly see the opening, but he was sure the danger of that occurring was next to impossible. Few people, outside the surviving members of the Purist force and the community, knew of their existence.

            Sealing his helmet, he re-mounted the bike and took off. The original road had been obliterated by the explosion, scoured away by the demon of nuclear power, leaving the ground barren, as if it never existed. That mattered little to Joey, as he knew the terrain as well as he knew his own body. He could have found his way out of the small valley in his sleep.

            Minutes passed in a blur as he concentrated on the ground before him. Once he was out of the valley and the blast-zone, the trail re-appeared. Here it was nothing more than a trail, maintained to appear as if it was a natural wild-life run.

            Overhead the sky had begun to clear. The temperature had risen to the point it was ungodly hot, with the temperatures hovering in the mid to high thirties. Sweat poured from his face and body as his protective gear did little to release the heat. It was a minor discomfort, one he was perfectly fine in accepting.

            At last he came to the old highway and was able to open up the hover-bike to its full extent. The wind generated from his speed helped cool his body off and he set out, his next stop would be meeting with the android Babs.

***

May 23rd , 2668 – The community
 

            Finally the last of the weapons had been repaired. The little Uplift blew out his cheeks and handed the assault rifle to Ra’naa, who in turn then placed it on the rack with dozens of similar models.

            The armory was warm and stuffy, but Otres never once complained. He just grabbed weapon after weapon and repaired the damage they had sustained. The only time he stopped was to get food and rest, and even then he usually only took in nourishment, forgoing the sleep until he could not put it off any longer.  Repairing the firearms to use in the war against the purists had been the most important task he had, and Otres was determined to succeed.

            “Well done,” Ra’naa complimented her friend and handed him a bottle of cold beer. She also held a plate of fresh fish in the other, but knew her friend would want to drink before he delved into the meal.

            Thanks, Otres projected and gratefully accepted the drink. He downed half of it before finally coming up for air and placing the bottle on the bench. A second later he belched, eliciting a giggle from Ra’naa. The little Uplift grinned and chittered his own laugh.

            When are you going to teach me how to fight? He suddenly asked her, his face going serious.

            She looked away, refusing to meet his eyes. “I don’t know…”

            He crossed his arms under his chest and stared up at her, a slight scowl on his whiskered face. Really? You don’t want to teach me how to fight or defend myself? I can bite and I can run, but against the Purists, that means next to nothing!

            Ra’naa turned several deep shades of red before she knelt before her friend. “I’m sorry, Otres. Of course we will teach you whatever you want to know. You’ve done a great service to our community by repairing these weapons. To do anything less than what you ask wold be a great disservice.”

            Slightly mollified, Otres nodded and then looked at the plate of fish. Is that for me? He asked. Of course it was, he already knew that, but it was a little game he liked to play with Ra’naa and more recently Arleen.

            “You know it is, so eat up,” Ra’naa passed the plate to him and he began to eat.

            “Are you going to continue living with me, or are you considering getting a place of your own with Arleen?” Ra’naa asked, out of the blue.

            Otres nearly choked on the fish and after he sputtered for several seconds, he stared into Ra’naa’s eyes. He felt a mingling of emotions – fear, anger, embarrassment, all threatened to overwhelm him. The little Uplift showed a great deal of self-control as he wrangled the emotions to where they belonged. We have never talked about that, Otres thought.

            “Would you like to share a home with her?” Ra’naa asked. Her face was serene and there was no hint of anger or any other negative emotion. Not even her tail twitched as she spoke, which was always a tell, a way to gauge her feelings.

            He sighed and returned his attention to the fish. One advantage to being a telepath was the ability to speak while eating and not sounding like a pig while doing so. I don’t really know what to think. It is all so sudden. I don’t really like to deal with change.

            “If the two of you are going to have any sort of relationship, you will have to leave and get a home of your own,” Ra’naa said gently.

            He paused in eating and stared at her, his big eyes even wider than before. You’re forcing me to leave?

            “No, not at all, but you have to understand – Arleen is a woman, and the thought of you sharing your bed with another woman, even if there is no sex involved, it’s going to eat at her. Your relationship with the girl will be harmed, possibly irreparably. Not even your amazing ability to repair items will be able to fix this.”

            Otres considered her words as he finished the last of his fish. He then pushed the empty plate aside and stood, walked over to one of the racks of weapons and examined them. That was the real crux – did he want a relationship with the younger woman? She was an Uplift like him, which meant they were compatible in so many ways. They were even the same species, although she was far more human than he was. What if I don’t want a relationship with her? He posed the question. What if we are not meant to be?

            Ra’naa came over and stood beside her friend. She crossed her arms under breasts and allowed her eyes to follow him as he inspected the weaponry. “That is a decision you are going to have to make for yourself Otres,” she placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “This is also an opportunity for you, a possibility to start a family of your own, raise pups and learn what it is to have the love of a woman.”

            Otres did not speak; instead he just stared at the weapons, his mind a mass of tangled thoughts and conflicting emotions.

***

May 23rd , 2668 –The installation

            Awoan sat at the bank of holographic monitors and stared, unseeing, at the images displayed. Ever since Joey had left to retrieve the android, she had been lost in thought, thinking about her next move in this deadly game of chess. Technically one could argue she had been responsible for bringing the wrath of the Purists down upon them. After all, she had been the one who ordered they take back the satellite from the human’s control.

            She pushed the thought aside. The Purists were a danger to everyone who was not human, and they had to be stopped. From the projections her scientists had provided her, all pure humans would eventually become extinct on the planet. There were still too many mutagenic compounds free in the biosphere, and these compounds continued to mutate all life.

            That was only part of the equation, the eventual extinction of Homo Sapien. The humans bred with mutants and Exotics, and with each passing generation the number of mutants and non-humans continued to grow.

            While pure humans declined.

            Her thoughts went to the outer colonies in system, and the outposts and larger colonies in the far-flung solar systems, which had been settled before the outbreak of the final wars. She was more interested in the ones that survived the final wars. In a few hundred years, maybe it was the humans who lived in those colonies who would be the last remnants of true humanity.

            Finally after long minutes of contemplation, she forced her eyes to watch the screens. Most of the views were of the land surrounding the Purist compound. Travis had his men constantly on the look-out for retaliatory action for what they had done to the installation.

            Awoan smirked and brushed a stray strand of hair from her vision. Travis and his cronies did not have anything to worry about; her people were in no shape to launch any sort of attack against them.

            Even if they had help from Ahteen and his people.

            No, if they wanted to get revenge, it would have to be through another means. She leaned forward and tapped one perfectly manicured nail on a brilliantly white tooth. Awoan was staring intently at the center screen, which was located on the main compound itself. She could see hundreds of men and women training hard.

            The image filled her with dread. There were more potential soldiers in the training ground than all of her and Ahteen’s people combined. She knew that the General’s daughter, Ra’naa, had been in contact with several representatives of various groups. They were supposed to meet with these groups in early June to discuss them joining the war.

            How many people would that bring to the crusade? She would have to ensure that at least one of her androids attended this meeting, if nothing more to show support, but she needed gather more intelligence.

            “Awoan?” A voice broke through her thoughts. She glanced over her shoulder at one of the technician androids. He was a bland model, who still bore scars from the battle only days before.

            “What is it?”

            “The nanofactory is running at full capacity, and we’ve stripped all the salvageable material from the surface. I have a request, if you please?”

            She nodded. “Speak.”

            “Several of our people are currently without tasks, until the factory produces the needed parts and materials. I would ask they be allowed to go into the wilds and scavenge from the ruins, bring back the raw resources our factories need. The more parts that are produced, the quicker the repairs will be completed.”

            It made sense, and she closed her eyes as she nodded. “By all means.”

            The tech bowed and then quickly left the room. As the door closed behind him, leaving her in silence, the correct circuits in her positronic brain aligned and a thought occurred to her. Nanotechnology, that was the potential key to brining a swift and decisive end to the conflict with the Purists. She quickly brought up records of the Resort, the island which had suffered a nanotech attack during the very last conflict. Hundreds of humans had become infected by the machines and still haunted the island.

            All she needed were some samples and with a little bit of reprogramming, they would have a weapon to use against the Purists, something that would end their threat once and for all. The smile on her face was anything but beautiful.

***

May 23rd , 2668 –The Community

            Walking through the streets of the community, Ra’naa could not help but notice a change. Before the battle at the Installation, there was an intangible feeling of contentment among the men and women. Now however, those she passed were somber, and the feeling had changed to one of grief and loss.

            Days before the park near the community pool had been filled with children of all genetic groups, playing and enjoying the weather. Today the park was empty – the hand-made monkey-bars, swings and other contraptions were barren. It might have had something to do with the heat and the rain, but when she thought back that never deterred the kids before.

            The young Dragon-Exotic walked into the park and sat down on one of the empty swings. She let her feet dangle so that they were barley touching the ground and sat there, staring off into space.

            Ra’naa had no idea how long she had been there, but when she finally looked about, she could see a figure sitting on the jungle-gym. She instantly knew who it was, having grown familiar with his shape and form over the past couple of months. Declan had his back towards her, and he was as still as a statue, not moving, not so much as a twitch.

            She considered calling out to him, but at the last second she clamped her mouth closed, knowing the man probably needed his privacy, and she did not want to disturb him. As she began to swing back and forth, letting the rain soak her through to the skin, Ra’naa began to worry. He sat so still it was as if he had been paralyzed. That was a very real danger, as there were plenty of mutant creatures in the forests and waters which could paralyze a man with a touch or a bite.

            With her momentum arrested, she slid off the swing and walked over to where the man was sitting. It took only a handful of steps to get so she could see him clearly. He was un-moving, his eyes staring out into space, seeing but not seeing. His right hand rested on his leg, at the juncture of where flesh met prosthetic.

            Declan never spoke, never even acknowledged her existence. He simply sat and stared, barely even breathing.

            Now Ra’naa was starting to feel concern. There was something wrong with the ancient man who had become a friend, despite all odds. Acting as one might do towards a skittish dog, she slide up and knelt before him. His eyes never moved from the point in space he was staring at – he barely even blinked.

            “Declan?” She asked in a quiet, tentative voice.

            The former fighter-pilot did not respond. He blinked once and that was the extent of it.

            Ra’naa reached out and touched his hand. It was slick with rain but warm to the touch. She gave his hand a gentle squeeze and called his voice again. As before, there was no response. The Dragon-Exotic was now beginning to really worry. She stood and took him by the shoulders and shook him. “Declan, speak to me!”

            At last he woke from the stupor he had been in. He blinked several times and shook his head, and then he looked up at her. “Ra’naa?” He asked in a quiet, hollow voice. “What are you doing here?”

            “I was about to ask you the same thing,” Ra’naa replied, feeling relief flooding into her. She was going to have to have a long talk with Tara and probably her father about what had happened. “You’re soaked to the skin, you need to get home and change into something warm and dry.”

            He looked down at his rain-sodden clothing and then back up at Ra’naa. “I’m not home?”

            She shook her head and pointed over her shoulder. Her tail swished in the rain, causing it to splash behind her. “No Declan, you’re in the playground. You’ve been sitting here for a while, I don’t know how long,” she told him in low, gentle tones. She was speaking to him as if he was a skittish animal, about to bolt at any second. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?”

            He blinked again and raised his hands. Using the balls of his hands, he rubbed his eyes and then wiped the accumulated rain-water from his face. Looking around, he seemed confused and more than a little disoriented. “What… how did I get here?” He spoke in his normal tone, but the underlying confusion was evident.

            “What do you remember last?” She probed as she removed her hands from his shoulders. Ra’naa knew she needed to get Tara or at the very least, she needed to get him home.

            “I was going to take a nap,” he started to say and then stopped. He stood up from the swing and looked around. “I had a hard time sleeping and after jogging, I got really tired.”

            She reached out and took him by the hand, pulling him with gentle urgency. “Come on, let’s get you home.”

            He did not resist as she led him out of the park and down the street towards the home he shared with Tara. They travelled only for a couple of minutes before he stopped and pulled his hand away. “Babs is missing,” he said, out of the blue with no warning.

            “She is?” Ra’naa asked as she turned to see why he had let go. “How do you know?”

            “According to Jas’nar, she left the community last night, said she was going hunting. That’s not my Babs, she has no interest in hunting.

            Pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. Declan was still trying to cope with the world he found himself in. Then there was the serious trauma of losing his leg, coupled with even more trauma inflicted by getting the prosthesis, and now his friend and century long companion was gone.

            No wonder he had lost it.

            Ra’naa knew all about the fight he had with Tara, and how it had started. The Tiger-Exotic had demanded Babs leave, so she would not be a temptation to Declan. She did not want the android around; despite of or because of the history she had with Declan.

            And now the android was gone.

            “Let’s get you home, get you into some dry clothing, and then we’ll see dad. He can contact the androids and find out if they know anything,” she reached out and took his hand in her, tugging him towards his home.

            He looked so miserable and forlorn she felt the nearly irresistible desire to take him in her arms and hold him tight, to whisper everything would be alright and that he would get through this. Ra’naa refrained. It was not her place. She cared for Declan, and over the past few months had come to respect him and value his friendship.

            Declan was Tara’s, however. Even with the bond she had with the Tiger-Exotic, the volatile woman might not understand and could very well take it out on both of them. That was not what Declan needed at this moment, so she pushed the urge down and led him home.

***

May 23rd , 2668 –The Community

            Tara had been busy preparing lunch when Ra’naa brought Declan through the door to their home. She looked up, a smile on her face, which quickly evaporated into concern when she saw the expression Ra’naa wore. “What’s wrong?” She came over, instantly inspecting her lover and her best friend.

            “Declan’s not dealing well with what’s happened,” Ra’naa stated in as simple words as she could. It was not that Tara was stupid, far from it; Ra’naa just wanted to voice what she was thinking.

            Tara grabbed her lover and pulled him into the room, her hands already pulling at his wet clothing.

            He squeaked a protest and tried to pull away. “Hey, cut it out! Ra’naa’s right here, can’t you wait?”

            She glared at him as she pulled his wet shirt off and then began to unbuckle his pants. “We need to get you dry and comfortable,” she hissed.

            “I’ll be outside, let me know when you’re finished,” Ra’naa told them, and with that she left the house and closed the door behind her.

            In seconds, Declan was naked and dripping on the floor. He looked down at Tara as she pulled his feet out of his boots. The view from above left little to the imagination and he felt himself stiffening.

            It was difficult for her not to notice the change and she growled lightly in her throat. “Later!”

            Declan immediately put his mind to thinking about the carnage and destruction he had witnessed at the Installation and that drenched his desire in an instant. “Sorry,” he mumbled, only half meaning the apology.

            She led him over to the chest of drawers and rummaged through it, tossing him clean and dry underwear as well as pants and a shirt. With fumbling fingers, Declan managed to get dressed and as soon as he was finished, Tara called for Ra’naa.

            The Dragon-Exotic entered and took a seat at the table. Without waiting for an invitation, Declan and Tara sat down across from her. They stared at one another for nearly a minute in silence before Ra’naa cleared her throat and began to speak. She told Tara how she found Declan and the state he was in.

            Tara listened intently, her face hard, but as Ra’naa spoke, her face softened and she began to stare at Declan, honest compassion and worry etched on her furry but beautiful features. Ra’naa was not finished, however. She continued to explain what she thought, about how Declan was most likely suffering from an ancient condition called PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. He had been through too much in a very short period of time, and it was taking a hell of a toll on his psyche.

            While Ra’naa spoke, Tara reached out and took his hand in hers as tears spilled from her bright green eyes. She felt a sob threaten to force its way past her self-control but she managed to supress it. “Is there anything we can do?” She finally asked.

            Ra’naa shrugged. “I don’t know, maybe just be there for him? It’s not like we have any doctors who can help.”

            “True enough, the practice of psychiatry probably ended when the final wars began,” Declan shrugged and tried to make light of it. “And I’m willing to bet we won’t be able to find any good drugs to help.”

            “I don’t want you to take drugs,” Tara shook her head, almost violently. “I’m here and I will be beside you, no matter what,” she leaned over and kissed him lightly, her hand entwined in his. “We will get through this together.”

            Declan wanted to believe her, but he just could not be sure.