Buck Who? Chapter 33

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 33: Indecent Proposal

May 23rd, 2668 –The Compound

            It was as if a giant hand picked him up and tossed him into air, and then slapped him like he was a ball. The force of the energy grenade threw Bradly forward and when he hit the ground, the lights went out for a fraction of a second.

            Hey lay there, incapable of hearing anything, his entire body awash in pain. It hurt so bad he felt as if someone had dipped each nerve into a vat of red-hot acid. An eternity passed as he tried to push himself up into a kneeling position, but he found it next to impossible. Reaching up with one hand, he felt the back of his head. He felt the flesh under his fingers, and that alone scared him. There should have been hair! Under the pressure of his fingers he could feel the heat radiating from the skin, the blisters and how it hurt. God above, it hurt.

            Several eternities passed before he felt someone grab him under the armpits. He was roughly and quickly pulled to his feet and he was moving. Even though his eyes were wide open, he could see nothing except an overpowering whiteness. There was a slight prick on his arm, one which somehow managed to push past the waves of pain flowing through his body like blood. Within another split micro-second, the time it took a universe to be born, a coolness flooded through his form.

            With the coolness came a relief from the pain and suddenly he could hear once again. There were curses, screams and someone was calling his name over and over. “Commander Travis, are you alright?”

            He still felt weak, and though his arrogance wanted him to push the helping hands away, he supressed the feelings, allowing them to stay and keep him steady. “No.”

            “How badly are you hurt?” The voice demanded a second later.

            Bradly tried to place the voice, but he could not. His mind was still reeling from the attack and his thoughts were mussed. It would have been a lot worse if he was still under the effects of the pain. “Who?”

            The voice ignored him. “You were damn close to the epicenter of the blast,” the voice continued. “You’ve suffered second and third-degree energy burns to your back, and we’re taking you to the infirmary.”

            “Let my dad know,” Bradly said and then mercifully he passed out.

***

May 23rd , 2668 –The Installation

            “Welcome back,” Awoan greeted Babs with a glorious smile which made the whole room light up. “We are so happy you decided to come and stay with us!”

            Babs nodded and tried to return the smile, but she found it was simply impossible. She missed her best friend too much. She missed Declan so much it was almost a physical pain. After a second, she did her best to perk up and she managed a slight smile. “Thank you, Awoan. I just need some time to think. Being here and helping your people will go a long way.”

            Joey stood behind and to the side. He hand his hands clasped behind his back as he listened to the conversation. After picking the android up, they had spoken very little on the way to the installation. He tried to make small talk, but all Babs managed were monosyllable replies and grunts. He was about to leave when Awoan held up her hand, indicating he should wait.

            “Joey will show you to your new quarters and help you get settled in,” Awoan offered, indicating the young man. “Take a few days and relax, get to know your new home and figure out what you would like to do.”

            Babs shook her head and waved her hands at Awoan. “No I don’t want to take a few days to rest or anything. Just tell me what I can do to help.”

            “Are you certain?” Awoan asked, unable to keep the surprise from showing.

            “Yeah, I am,” she forced a laugh and waved a hand down at her body. The damage the androids had not repaired after the battle, the little Uplift Otres took care of without hesitation. “After all, I don’t need sleep or recreation,” she continued. She then thought of the three hundred plus years she had been sharing Declan’s mind while he had been in cryogenic suspension. She did not bother to state she had slept long enough.

            “Do you have any personal belongings you would like to stow away?” Awoan asked.

            Babs shook her head. “What you see is what I have. I haven’t had a physical body long enough to accumulate all that much.”

            “Well,” Awoan smiled again. “In that case after Joey has shown you to your new home. When you are ready, come and see me in the command center. I think I might have the perfect task for you,” she turned her attention to the young human. “Joey, after you take Babs to her new quarters I want you to go to the infirmary for a checkup, and then I order you to take the next two days off for rest and relaxation. If I find you doing any physical labour, helping the androids, I’m going to ground you.”

            “This is my home too,” Joey protested, looking indignant and angry. “I want to do my part!”

            During the brief exchange, not once had Awoan looked angry or upset. Her face was calm and if anything, had a careworn look about it, and she reached out and took Joey’s face in her palms. “You and the remaining humans are too precious to us; you have sacrificed far more than any of my kind. When your bodies are destroyed, you are finished. When our bodies are destroyed, more often than not we are capable of salvaging our minds and memories,” she sighed and looked in straight in the eyes. “I want you to rest.”

            Putting it that way, Joey nodded and reached up to remove her hands from his face. His whole demeanor changed and he visibly wilted. “Awoan, sorry, I will do what you ask. I understand.”

            She leaned in and kissed him on the cheeks. “If I have need of you, I will call, but for now, make sure you don’t have any lingering radiation to deal with. I want you healthy,” Awoan then gave him the room where Babs would now be staying and she sent them off.

***

May 23rd, 2668 –The community

            Otres and Arleen sat together in the small park near the community pool. It was getting late and all the children had returned to their homes for meals and to get ready for bed. In less than a month, even at this late an hour the park would be filled with the children, playing and enjoying their freedom.

            The rain was still coming down, and it had grown so heavy it reduced visibility to only about ten meters or so. Otres did not mind, and he found Arleen seemed to enjoy the water as well.

            That was only natural, especially if she was truly an advanced Uplift and not simply an Exotic. Though Momma Rathbourne had said she was Uplift, Otres still found it difficult to believe. Never in his life had he seen an Uplift that looked so human. Take away the fur, whiskers and tail, and she could pass for any pure human.

            “So what are we going to do?” Arleen asked, totally out of the blue. They had been sitting for nearly an hour, just watching the rain form pools and small, temporary streams in the streets and the park itself. A few times Otres had ran out and jumped into the larger puddles, causing Arleen to laugh at his child-like antics.

            About what? Otres looked at her, his big-brown eyes taking in every detail. He chirped softly and crossed his arms. Our training?

            Arleen chittered a very Otter-like laugh herself. Since she had come to live with the community, and had spent so much time with Otres, she had picked up a lot of his habits. One was she now tended to chitter when she laughed. “No that’s not what I mean. About us, about you and Ra’naa.”

            He reached up and rubbed his whiskers, getting some imagined dirt off. I thought we already covered this.

            “We did, but I thought maybe you had thought about it and had come to a decision,” Arleen’s voice held a note of hope, and she looked eager.

            He really did not want to think about it. Otres loved his life, he loved spending time with Ra’naa and sharing her bed. He also had to admit he was enjoying sharing Arleen’s bed, but in a much different way. Ra’naa was his best friend, and he loved her like a sister.

            The issue was he still did not know Arleen all that much. The girl was kind, gentle and very loving. She always had his best interest at heart and never refused anything he asked – which was very little. Arleen was still a stranger to him, but if he wanted to be truthful, she was starting to grow on him. Otres could not deny he liked her, nor could he refute the fact he found her sexually stimulating. Then it hit him. He looked up at the girl and bobbed his head up and down and squeaked. I am going to find a place of my own for the time being.

            From the look of hurt which crossed her young features, which was not the answer she had been hoping to hear. Before she could speak, Otres continued. That way I will not make either of you jealous, or hurt your feelings. As our relationship grows, maybe in the future I’ll be ready to settle down with you, but for now, this is for the best.

            She tried to look brave, she really did, but he could see it in her eyes she was hurt. Still, the girl nodded and managed to give him a weak smile. “That sounds fair. Where are you planning on staying?” She looked around, as if gauging the homes and structures nearby to try and figure out where he would eventually end up.

            Otres pointed at the community pool, the large structure. That was where I was originally going to stay, until I started to live with Ra’naa. You’ve been inside, it’s really comfortable there.

            She had indeed been inside the building and could not argue with Otres. Everything he said about the place was true, and she loved how natural it looked.. “I think that’s a good idea, but won’t it be hard to live there with all the people coming and going at all hours?”

            He shrugged and squeaked, his ears twitching towards the pool. The pool is not open all the time, and besides, there is so much space, I can easily disappear and rest even if there are people around.

            “It’s starting to get pretty late, do you want to go in and have a dip before they close it down for the night?” She asked, standing and looking at the structure. She had shucked out of the dress and had carefully folded it to keep it from getting dirty. She was clad only in a pair of panties and a wrap to cover her breasts. She already confided in him that if they were alone, she would not have worn anything. When he asked her why, she said it felt natural to her; wearing clothing was un-natural, although she mainly wore skimpy outfits that showed off her womanly curves.

            When she wore anything at all during her time in the brothel.

            It made Otres think more about her being Uplift and not an Exotic. He knew some humans did not mind going naked, and considering how much of Tara’s flesh he had seen, she was one of them. It was a subject he would ponder later. That sounds like a good idea!

            Smiling, she took his hand and they walked towards the community pool.

***

May 23rd, 2668 The compound

            Martin Travis was livid. He paced back and forth before his commanders and barely managed to keep from drawing his sidearm and killing the lot of them. Instead, he forced himself to take several deep, calming breaths.

            It helped, but only marginally.

            “So what you’re telling me is that a brother of one of the men killed during the battle against the androids decided he wanted to get revenge against Bradly for leading the mission?”

            One of the commanders, Bradly’s driver during the battle, nodded and swallowed hard. “Yes sir, that’s exactly what happened.”

            Martin reached up and rubbed the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut against the sudden headache, which threatened to turn him into a weeping wreck, it was so bad. He took a deep, steadying breath and opened his eyes to stare at the men gathered before him. “And what can we do to prevent this from happening again?”

            The speaker shrugged, although he had the sense to look apologetic. “We’re not sure, sir. We have all kinds of ways of detecting mutants and genetic deviants, but we have no way to screen for people who would turn on us. I’m hoping this was an aberration, a freak incident which will not be repeated again.”

            “How did he get hold of one of our Energy grenades?” Martin demanded, his eyes blazing. His son was in the hospital, suffering from serious burns. He would live, that much was certain but how long would it be before another asshole tried a similar stunt?

            “We’re still investigating, sir,” the man replied. “Someone fucked up somewhere and we will figure it out. As you know sir, we keep the weapons under tight lock and key, especially the explosives.”

            “That reminds me,” Martin said as he leaned his rear against the desk. It was stacked with paper and reports, most of which he had yet to look through. The attack on his son had been too distracting. “We lost one micro-nuke launcher in the attack, how many do we still possess, and how many rounds?”

            “Two sir, and thirty rounds. Some we’re skeptical about, as they were found in corroded containers, I certainly would not want to use them except as a last resort.”

            “And drones?”

            “The techs are busy trying to rebuild five more. It was a pity we ended up expending the first three, but they did prove to be almost invaluable. If we can find more, it will be a force multiplier, one we can take serious advantage of,” the man said thoughtfully.

            “Martin, may I interject?” The monotone voice of the AI interjected.

            “Of course, Guardian.”

            “Install one of the micro-nuke launchers on the first drone. Once we have pinpointed the location of the forces that assisted the androids at the installation, we can strike,” Guardian suggested helpfully.

            “That’s an excellent suggestion,” Martin rubbed his stubble-covered chin, the faintest hint of a smile appearing on his haggard face. He returned his full attention to the soldiers before him. “Continue with the investigation, and if it turns out it was someone’s negligence that caused this, I want them brought to me for punishment.”

            The men exchanged fearful glances. In the past that usually meant torture and suffering, those who displeased Martin were in for a short and pain-filled life. With all the changes Martin had implemented in the past few months, it could now mean anything.

            Either way, no one wanted to be in that person’s shoes.

            “Yes sir,” the man said and with a nod to the other men, they left the office.

***

May 23rd, 2668 The Installation

            Babs stared at the wall of her new home for what felt like forever, although her internal chronometer indicated only fifteen minutes had passed. After Joey had shown her the room, she bade the human good-bye and took it all in. Four walls, a small bathroom with a sink, toilet and shower. The main room held a small bed, barely large enough to accommodate a single person, a closet, and a desk with a chair.

            There were no decorations on the walls, which were painted a muted white, unlike the corridors, which were nearly blinding in their sheer luminosity.  She found the lighter shade of white to be comforting, not overpowering.

            The next thing she knew, the android was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring into nothing. The mattress was made of comfortable memory foam, and sprang back to its original shape when she stood. Babs realized the room must have been tiny and cramped to a human, she however found it comfortable. Then again, it was about the size of the stateroom Declan had been using when he had been in the fleet. He probably would have found it homey.

            Her face creased into a mask of sorrow when she thought about Declan. Her artificial heart ached to be with him at that very moment, which was impossible. He had a life with the woman Tara now, and it did not have room for her.

            Standing up, she left the room and called up a map of the installation. In less time than it takes to blink, she found the command center and made her way there. Along the way, she passed numerous androids, all who bowed differentially towards her, and the single human she saw greeted her warmly.

            The door to the command center was wide open and Babs peered in. There were a handful of androids standing at various stations, lost in the tasks assigned to each. Awoan was off to one side, sitting at a larger and more elaborate work-station. A number of holographic displays were open before the woman, and as Babs closed in, she instantly recognized one of the images as the old hotel. The Resort, as it had been referred to, where she and Declan had encountered the nanite undead.

            “Babs,” Awoan greeted and nodded towards the other woman. “How do you find your quarters?”

            She shrugged and waved a dismissive hand. “More than adequate, it’s not like I need a bed.”

            Awoan raised her shoulders in a shrug. “I am glad you have come to speak with me. I know you just arrived, but I was wondering if you would be willing to engage on a mission for us?”

            Babs did not hesitate, not even for a microsecond. “Sure, what do you want me to do?” She figured if she could keep her lines of code occupied with a task, it would keep her from dwelling on Declan.

            “Do you recognize this place?” Awoan indicated the island where Babs and Declan had first arrived.

            “Yes, they call that place the resort,” Babs answered. She stepped closer and looked at the ruins of the ancient hotel and thought of the horrors they had both witnessed inside the moldering, cracked walls.

            “Indeed it is, and you must recall the technology you discovered while in the confines of that island?”

            Babs rolled her eyes in a very human like gesture and waved a dismissive hand. “Doc, do I look like a maroon to you? Of course I remember - the corpses of men and women controlled by nanotechnology.”

            “Indeed,” Awoan raised one perfect eyebrow at the strange manner of speech. If she was offended or had something to say, she kept it to herself. “Since you are not of flesh and bone, the nanites infesting the island will not harm you. You will be able to walk among the various types of nanotechnology that permeates the very soil of the island.”

            “I would not be infested or affected by the little demons,” she began.

            Awoan held up a hand to interrupt her. “And salt-water is the bane of their existence. It destroys them and renders the nanites into their molecular components. What I would like you to do is take a specially constructed sampling case and swim to the island.”

            “Okay, I’ll bite doc, what do you want me to do when I get there?” Babs was pretty sure she already knew the answer; it did not take a scientific android to figure that out.

            “I want you to collect as many samples of the nanotechnology as you can, and then bring the samples back here.”

            Babs blinked. That was not what she had expected. Babs thought the android would ask her to recon the place and see if she could get to the lower levels and salvage whatever was available.  In her memory, she saw the creatures created by the nanites and an involuntary shudder ran through her artificial body. “No way doc, I won’t do that. What if something happens and the nanites get loose?”

            Awoan laughed, she actually laughed. “The chance of that occurring are next to zero. The case has been specially designed to release a powerful EMP burst if there is any sort of breach, or if the case is opened by anyone other than those authorized to do so.”

            “The nanite undead are an abomination ya maroon!” Babs practically exploded. She whirled around, feeling frustration and anger all mixed together like a type of toxic emotional cocktail. “Jesus, Mohammad and Buddha, what do you plan on doing with them?”

            The leader of the androids watched on dispassionately as Babs raged and when the other woman finally calmed down, Awoan gestured to a seat, which happened to be conveniently placed near the screens. “Let me explain this to you, and when I’m finished, you can make your decision.”

            Babs considered leaving the room right then and there, possibly leaving the installation entirely, despite having arrived only a few hours ago. If Declan knew about how she was feeling, what she was thinking, he would be pissed. She decided to wait out and listen to what Awoan had to say.

***

May 24th, 2668 The Community

            Blood, screams, the smell of spent cordite and the tingling sensation of radiation playing over his skin like the tiny feet of unseen insects. The fear was palpable, a living weight that threatened to crush his soul, which seemed to grow with each passing second. He felt the pain in his right leg and when he looked down, instead of flesh and bone, he saw metal struts covered in wires and strange fibers which looked like muscle. The wires began to writhe and as he watched in paralyzed fascination, they pulled away from the metal and began to burrow into the meat of his leg, like artificial worms.

            The pain of the synthetic limb burrowing caused dagger of agony to shoot through his thigh and up into his groin. How he wanted to escape, but he was incapable of moving. Declan tried to open his mouth to scream but his lips refused to obey his mental commands. Only his eyes were unaffected, except he could not close the lids. Nothing worked the way it was supposed to. So he watched with mounting horror and revulsion as the wires continued to dig and worm into his flesh.

            Where there should have been blood, a white, thick fluid with the consistency of oil bubbled from the wound. Where the strange concoction touched, the skin began to bubble and hiss, and suddenly it was gone, replaced by the artificial flesh of a robot. The flesh next to the new substance quickly transformed and spread like a time-lapsed disease put on fast forward. In micro-seconds it covered his thigh and climbed up towards his crotch. When the tendrils of the flesh touched his balls, it was more than he could take.

            His eyes snapped open and he barely supressed a scream which was bubbling inside his throat, pushing with all the strength of fear against his will. He could feel his body drenched in sweat and when he brought his hands up to his face, they were trembling with a palsy that was unlike anything he had ever experienced before.

            Declan lay there, trembling and trying to control his breathing along with his heartbeat. His heart was hammering against his chest, smashing like a small animal trying to break the confines of a hated cage.

            The room was hot, even with the window open and letting the night-breeze to pass through, caressing his and Tara’s naked flesh. There was no light, not even from the stars or the moon, and all he could see were shadows.

            Though he could not see, he looked at the form of the Tiger-Exotic lying next to him, their hips and thighs touching. He could not see her, but her presence was like a soothing balm, cooling the broiling fear which threatened to consume his soul.

            Declan had no idea what time it was, but his internal clock told him it was well past midnight, on the closer side to dawn. This was the second night in a row he had been plagued by nightmares and they were not getting easier to deal with. He felt so tired it was like a physical thing, sitting in his chest and his head. The amount of quality sleep he had managed was laughable, at best.

            Tara shifted and turned on her side. She draped on leg over his and her hand caressed his chest and belly. She nuzzled his neck and her tongue snaked out to taste his sweat. A light purr came from deep inside her throat. Instead of waking, she muttered and hugged him tightly.

            The contact with the woman helped. His heartrate slowed at last as he managed to get his breathing under control. It was a miracle she had not woken during his terrified flight from the dream, and for that he was grateful. She did not need to suffer because of him.

            He was so very afraid to go back to sleep, but the exhaustion draped him like a wet blanket, it was all-consuming. No matter how much he willed his eyes to remain open, they inevitably slid closed. It was a losing battle, so he gave into the inevitable.

***

May 24th, 2668 The Community

            Ra’naa sat in the comfortable chair facing her father’s desk. They had finished a satisfying meal and were sipping at tea. Neither spoke for the longest time, instead the silence filled the room, surrounded them with comfort. Unlike so many others, they were able to sit without speaking for long periods of time, and it never became uncomfortable.

            At last, Max broke the stillness of the room. “After the battle, I do believe we need to begin a serious training regimen for our people.”

            Ra’naa finished the last dregs of her tea and placed the empty cup on his table. She adjusted her seat slightly so it was a little more comfortable for her tail and sat back. Crossing her legs at the knees, she steepled her hands before her and thought about it for nearly a full minute. “I agree, dad.”

            “I figured you would,” he matched her pose, a twinkle of mischief in his old eyes. “Not everyone is cut out for fighting and we’re going to have to see the level of skill each person possesses.”

            “Who are you going to assign the task of teaching basic training?” Ra’naa asked, slightly amused by her father’s imitating her. It was a game they had played since she was barely old enough to walk, and one they had not participated in for a very long time.

            “Us of course, and I can think of a few others who are skilled enough to make excellent instructors,” he leaned back and rubbed one horn. “Who do you think we should talk to?”

            She imitated him and rubbed her own horn. “Jas’nar is quite adept with pistols, and I can certainly help with sniping.” She paused, her eyes going to the window overlooking the town. “You will have to teach hand to hand.”

            “Of course,” he followed her gaze and looked out. The day was in full bloom, and as always the people of the community were hard at work. “A significant part of this war is going to be hit and run tactics.”

            “Guerilla warfare?” Ra’naa suggested.

            “Yes, so we’re going to have to rely on our best hunters and trackers, those with the greatest skill when it comes to navigating the forest without making a sound,” Max nodded. He then listed several of the community’s members, gauging his daughter’s reaction.

            She made several suggestions, and they spoke at length, Max jotting notes down on a sheet of paper. This went on for nearly an hour as they set up a schedule for training and who should be involved.

            “That wasn’t so bad,” Ra’naa breathed at last, looking excited at the prospect.

            “It’s a start, at least,” Max nodded as he stared at the paper. It was filled with nearly three dozen names, with notes on their skills and abilities.

            Ra’naa stood and moved over to the window. She stared down at the streets and watched for over a minute without a word. “Dad, we need to think about our mutant population. Some of them have very useful mutations that could really make a difference in the war.”

            “Agreed,” Max answered, but he did not rise from the chair. He pulled out another piece of paper and began to make a few notes. “Some of our Damaged brethren have truly unique abilities, but their deformities are such a burden to bear.”

            “After we begin to form squads and larger formations, we’ll have to figure out where they will be best suited,” Ra’naa turned away from the window and cupped her chin, still thinking. “Of course we could simply ask them to stay behind and act as a rear guard.”

            Max considered the suggestion. Once the men and women were adequately trained, he planned on sending them out to bring the battle to the Purists. The one aspect of the plan he did not mention to his only daughter was how often he planned to personally lead these incursions. She would not like that prospect and would more than likely attempt to talk him out of it.

            “It’s only about what – ten days or so until you’re supposed to meet with the representatives from those various groups you met in Scav Haven, correct?” Max asked.

            “Yes dad,” She walked away from the window to stand next to her father. She glanced thoughtfully down at the page on his desk. “I’m not entirely sure how many bodies they will end up brining to this party, but with the promises of weapons and armor, it could make quite the difference.”

            “I’m still quite skeptical about handing over any of the energy weapons to these people,” Max admitted and made another note on the page. “I think we should probably keep those for our own.”

            “If we don’t give at least some of the weapons to our potential allies, then they might take that as a sign of disrespect.”

            Max looked up at his daughter and managed to hide the smile. It was a tiny test, to see if she was thinking it through. After all, someday she would be taking over as the leader of the community and she needed to know how to lead. Not only lead, but compromise and think of others, their wants, needs and desires. “That’s a good point,” he conceded.

            They continued to discuss the plans and the potential allies for another hour before Max finally stood up and placed a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “Go and check on Tara and Declan,” he suggested.

            A look of surprise landed on Ra’naa’s face. “Why?”

            “Momma Rathbourne told me yesterday that Declan is having a relapse. The stress of the battle, the loss of his leg, well, it’s turning out to be too much for him to deal with. She saw his night-terrors and when I saw him running yesterday,” Max paused and visualized the pilot in his mind’s eye. He could see the haunted look on the man, the dark circles under his eyes. It was a look Max had seen on his own face time and again over the centuries.

            “What do you want me to do or say?” Ra’naa asked, looking concerned. She genuinely liked Declan and it pained her to see him suffering. She also mentally kicked herself for not noticing what her father had described. She had dealt with people who were suffering from the effects of stress several times. Well, dealt was maybe not the best word – no, she had done what she could to help those people.

            “”Support, sweetheart, give him support. He already has plenty of love from Tara,” Max actually grinned at that. “So much love I’m surprised either can walk in the mornings!”

            “Dad!” Ra’naa cried, her hands flying up to cover her mouth. She was half horrified, half embarrassed, and could not believe her father had actually said what he had.

            Laughing, Max gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze and then kissed her on the cheek. “I hope you can find a good man yourself someday - maybe the mention of intimacy would not be so hard for you to hear.”

            She thought about what he said. There were plenty of young men who she found physically appealing. There were plenty of young men she actually liked in the community. Ra’naa did have a secret, one she never shared with her father. One of the main reasons she never dated or became more than just friends with any of the men was simple.

            Ra’naa knew how long she would live. Only she and her father were blessed – or maybe cursed – in that manner. Barring a violent death or death by accident or disease, she had centuries of life ahead of her.

            The thought of a human and their greatly reduced life-span when compared to hers, it was something she did not want to have to deal with. To live with someone she loved, only to watch them grow old as she remained effectively un-aging for decades, only to eventually lose them to death.

            That was the main reason she never wanted to form a lasting relationship with a man. She never wanted to form a lasting relationship with anyone, but that could not be avoided. Tara, Otres, Kate, so many people in the community. It had torn her heart out when she saw so many of her friends surrendered to the Earth, and it was a terrible pain. The loss was a weight, like a thousand pound boulder pressing on her soul and it was nearly unbearable.

            Max snapped his fingers before her eyes and she recoiled, startled. “Dad?”

            “Hey, I lost you there for a second,” he laughed lightly, but there was a barely detectable undercurrent of concern. “Mind sharing your thoughts?”

            “Sorry dad,” she began and then stopped. What would she say to her father? If anyone would understand the way she felt, it was him. She gave her head a shake. “I was thinking about the upcoming meeting with the various factions,” she smoothly lied. “Something you said got me thinking about one of the groups.”

            If he detected the lie, he gave no indication. “What is that?”

            She told him about the hunters. Many were mutants but there was something about the particular group she had met in the city that had set her nerves on edge. She sighed and shrugged. “Maybe it’s just me, maybe not, but there is something I don’t like about them.”

            Max nodded and began to steer his daughter towards the door. “Put them out of your mind for now, go and see your friends.”

            She paused, considering a question that had been on her mind. “Have you seen the android?”

            Max shook his head but held up a hand. “No, but she’s gone to be with the other androids at the installation. I made contact with Awoan a few hours ago. I know the whole story and although we could use her here, it might be for the best.”

            Ra’naa frowned. “I think Declan is going to take this news pretty hard. He’s in a sorry state to begin with…”

            “I know, I know,” Max sighed. “We’ll tell him soon.”

            At the door, she kissed Max on the cheek. “I love you dad,”

            The words never ceased to make him smile. “I love you too, Ra’naa.”

            She left the room, wondering why the face of a certain young man suddenly appeared in her mind’s eye?

***

May 24th, 2668 The Installation

            Babs simply could not fathom what had made her agree with the insane plan Awoan suggested. When the leader of the androids first proposed it, she nearly walked out of the room in a rage, ready to return to the community.

            The logic centers of her intellect demanded she stay and put aside her emotions as the other android spoke. She listened, the original horror of the suggestion giving way to a cold logic, one which dictated that a weapon could be used without the side-effects the original creators intended.

            She made Awoan promise up and down to the validity of the plan, and what she had proposed would work. If it did not, then the ramifications of the plan could be as devastating as the final wars themselves. The leader went as far as to take Babs to inspect the equipment, showing her the technology they possessed and proving to her what she proposed would work.

            The AI turned android was still skeptical, but what the plan entailed, despite being evil on so many levels, was the only possible way to level the playing field. In the end, she agreed, but it still bothered her greatly.

            Being an android, Babs did not need sleep. She did not need rest and could work for days on end and never suffer ill effects.  Now she sat on the edge of her cot, cleaning her assault rifle and triple checking each part to ensure it was in perfect working order. There were plenty of other dangers on the road and all it took was one moment of inattention and she could turn into a pile of scrap metal and plastics.

            Lost in her thoughts, she was startled when a knock sounded at her door. It was light, barely audible, but the visitor did not need to pound, knowing full well the android inside would hear clearly. “Enter,” she called out.

            The young human who had picked her up was standing at the door, dressed in his combat armor, the helmet tucked under one arm. Babs looked up in surprise, not having expected to see him. “Joey, what are you doing here?”

            “I’m going to escort you and act as your backup.”

            Her artificial eyebrows furrowed. “I’m confused – I thought Awoan ordered you to get some rest.”

            The young human had an infectious grin widened. “That was yesterday, I got plenty of sleep and I feel like a new man,” he stood to the side, giving Babs plenty of room to slip past. “I’d be happy to take you where you need to go.”

            Babs considered the man and thought about talking to Awoan. She was filled with trepidation at having a human with her – not because he was incapable of performing, quite the opposite. Because of where she was going and what she was picking up. Finally she sighed and nodded. “Alright, let’s go.”

            “Where are we going?” He asked as she passed. In three steps he fell in behind her.

            “The resort.”

***

May 24th, 2668 The Compound

            Martin sat behind his desk, going over the various reports of the day when Guardian interrupted his thoughts. “Sir?”

            Without looking up from the paper in his hand, Martin replied. “What is it, Guardian?”

            “You have visitors,” the computer stated, and a split second later, there was a knock on his door. One of his guards opened the door and peered inside. “Sir, you have visitors,” the guard announced. “Do you want us to send them in?”

            Martin felt just the tiniest trickle of annoyance. Only one should have made the announcement, not both. He blinked and resisted rubbing his eyes. Those were his own orders and now he’s getting mad at himself for having made them? It must be how worried he was about his son. “Yes.”

            The guard opened the door to allow two figures entrance to the room. Both wore long travelling cloaks, and he could see body armor as they both moved. The visitors were un-armed, as there was no way his men would have allowed them anywhere near him if they were packing. And of course they both had to be human; otherwise they would never have made it past the entrance to the compound alive.

            “Martin Travis?” The nearer of the two figures asked. Even though the face was hidden behind a mask and helmet, he knew the speaker to be female before she uttered a word.

            “Yes?”

            “We have travelled from Scav Haven to speak to you, and to collect on a debt.”

            That caught Martin by surprise. “A debt you say? I don’t recall owing anyone trade-goods or coin,” he said casually, although he was ready to reach for the hand-gun he kept under his desk in easy reach.

            Reaching up, the woman removed her helmet and mask. She was stunning, with flawless pale skin, deep brown eyes almond-shaped eyes and hair so black it was almost blue, tied back so not to interfere with the helmet. She held the helmet in the crook of her left arm. “Actually, your son owes us,” she went to explain how he had hired the assassins to kill the Uplift who was travelling with Ahteen and her companions. The assassin failed and was killed. The fee they had collected did not cover the loss of the member, nor the amount it would cost to train a replacement. When she was finished, she quoted an amount of gold that made Martin blink.

            “Are you serious?” He blurted, feeling stupid but the shock put the brakes on his coherent thoughts.

            “The Whispering Wraith is always serious,” she said casually. “Such a fee should not be beyond your capability to pay, and if you do so, we’ll even do a little bit of work for you, sort of a way to soften the blow.”

            Martin Travis remained seated and shook his head, not believing the audacity of the two visitors. “Not a chance,” he pulled the large-caliber handgun from beneath his desk, triggering an alarm at the same instant. The doors opened and the guards stepped into the chamber, their assault rifles raised and aimed at the two figures. Martin only had to speak the word and they would open fire. “See, you come into my home and demand money from me,” He stood and held the gun in his hand, the barrel pointed at the floor. “I’m feeling generous though, and I’ll allow you and your companion to leave.”

            She remained calm and did not flinch, despite the weapons aimed in her direction. “May I reach into my armor and remove a communication disk?”

            “So you can call for backup?” Martin snorted a laugh. “I don’t think so. You can wait until after you have left my compound. We do not wish to get on the bad-side of the Whispering Wraith, but what you are demanding is too much.”

            “Oh it’s not to call for backup,” she slowly reached into her armor and with two fingers, removed a flat disk. “I need to show you something, which will ensure you do as we have requested.”

            Martin could not help but be curious. He held the gun steady as she ran her finger over the bottom of the disk. Instantly the device came alive, projecting a large holographic view into the empty air above it. The scene was of a hospital room, one that Martin was intimately familiar with. He could see his son lying on the bed, tubes hooked up to his body, bandages covering the healing flesh. A single figure, dressed almost identically to the two before him, was standing next to his son. He held a injector gun in one hand and it hovered just a scant few centimeters from Bradly’s throat.

            Before he could react, the woman spoke. “If you do not turn over the funds, my compatriot will use the serum on your son.

            Martin felt his blood turn to ice water in his veins. “You can’t kill him,” he said weakly, and that not only enraged him, but humiliated him. He could not believe the sheer balls of the assassins, and deep down he cursed his son for ever having contacted them in the first place. Nothing good was wrought from dealing with the Whispering Wraiths.

            A twinkle of amusement appeared in her eyes and she shook her head. “Oh we wouldn’t kill your son, but you would eventually,” she waved her free hand at the holographic image and then pointed directly at the device in the assassin’s hand. “That is not poison, nothing so crude. It’s a mutagenic compound. It will turn your son into the thing you hate the most, a mutant.”

            Martin felt his blood turn to ice in his veins. If they infected his son with something that altered his DNA, forcing him to become one of the hated genetic freaks, then he would have no choice but to kill the boy. The Whispering Wraith knew his greatest weakness and they were exploiting it right before his eyes. “Fine I’ll do exactly what you demand.”

            She nodded and put away the portable display. “I knew you would,” with a flourish, she turned and walked towards the doors. “Oh and we’ll be taking the payment outside your gate. Once we have received it, my companion will leave your son alone,” she turned and faced him. Her face was as cold as the deepest winter chill Martin had ever known. “Try to cheat us, try to ambush us, try to stop us in any manner and your son will pay the price,” she stared at him, not blinking. “Are we clear on this?”

            “Very.”

            “Oh and while I’m waiting, if your men attempt to storm the hospital room, my companion will inject the serum, so don’t even consider it.”

            “I wasn’t,” Martin lied.

            “Oh, you were – sadly people like you are so predictable.”

            Fuming, Martin nodded. “I’ll have the gold sent to you in the next fifteen minutes.”

            She considered him, her hands on her hips. “Make it ten.”

            Martin growled and spoke. “Guardian, contact the paymaster. Tell him to use his people to cart the amount our guest has demanded to the front gate. There is to be no argument, or I will personally kill him myself.”

            “I have relayed your orders, sir.”

            With that, the assassins left the room.

            Martin Travis waited only three minutes before he could not take it any further and he left. The guards eyed him curiously and he motioned for both to join him as he left the building. He marched across the compound, his men in tow. People stared in open curiosity as he strode past, and he was not even trying to conceal his anger. More than a few of the older soldiers bid a hasty retreat when they saw the darkness clouding their leaders face. Too many horror stories were whispered to the new recruits in the late hours before the dawn. They were told to ensure obedience and loyalty, since many were exaggerated, but all had a kernel of truth.

            The two assassins stood just outside the gate. There they had stowed an old rusted and seemingly barely functional hover-car. The vehicle was floating nearly a meter off the ground and it purred like a fine-tuned beast, ready to pounce. The sound of the engine certainly belayed the physical appearance of the vehicle, adding camouflage so thieves and scavengers would be more likely to bypass it altogether.

            Nine minutes after he had made the order, the paymaster appeared with several of his assistants. They were carrying several large and heavy sacks between them. The female assassin nodded towards the open rear of the rust-bucket hover-car and they dropped the sacks into the back.

            “You’re not going to count the coin?” Martin demanded - his hands on his hips and his face red with suppressed anger.

            “No, why should I?” The assassin said in her maddeningly cool voice. “You know what’s at stake and the consequences of your actions.”

            “I won’t forget this,” he snarled. He had just been raked over the coals in front of his men, and moral would suffer as a result. There would be a lot of work required to fix the damage this encounter caused.

            “I know you won’t, and we will be in touch. After all, a deal is a deal.”

            Suddenly the third assassin was there, and he pushed past Martin and got into the vehicle. The doors closed with barley a click and it took off down the trail.

            As soon as it was out of sight, Martin raced towards the hospital, fearing the worst.