Buck Who? Chapter 34

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 34: Return to the horror

May 24th, 2668 Near the Resort

            The breeze coming from the surface of the ocean was pleasantly cool compared to the heat beating down upon their heads. Joey, dressed in his armor and fully kitted out for battle stood a little to the rear and left of Babs. The android ignored both the heat and the soft breeze she double then triple checked the small sample case she had been given.

            “I can’t come with you,” Joey stated as he unslung his assault rifle and began to walk towards the shore.

            Babs nodded. “That’s okay, Doc. I wouldn’t want you to go over there anyhow. I’m immune to the nanites, you’re not. I don’t want your death on my hands.”

            The bloody skeletons and the zombies that suddenly re-appeared in her vision were as vivid and life-like as the day she had first seen them through Declan’s vision. She began to strip out of the armor and clothing she had worn until she stood there, naked. There was nothing sexual about her body, as she opted to go for a more androgynous figure, instead of the feminine form she tended to wear. She stooped and picked up her rifle and magazine pouch. Just because she was immune to the nanites did not mean they would not pose a threat to her.

            Joey stared at her body, showing no reaction. “I guess I’ll just wait here then?” He asked, already knowing the answer as they had discussed their plans as he had driven along the winding trial.

            Babs nodded. “You got it, Doc.” She looked up into the sky and then seemed to take in her surroundings, carefully gauging everything she could sense. “We still have about six hours of daylight, and the weather is holding, so why don’t you make yourself comfortable?”

            Joey nodded and then turned to face the island. He could see it from where they stood on the shore, the darkly forested pinnacle of rock jutting from the ocean. It really was quite beautiful, which made the scene all that more sinister for those who knew what the island held.

            Babs carefully picked her way along the shore until she reached the edge where land met ocean. The saltwater licked at her artificial toes and ankle as she stood there. Her body automatically generated the data, which was then fed to her eyes. Temperature, saline content, presence of chemical compounds, it was all there.

            “What are you waiting for?” Joey asked as she stood there, unmoving.

            “Just mentally preparing myself,” Babs said as she turned and looked back at the young human, remembering a completely different scene from only a few months ago. That time it had been Declan coming ashore, exhausted and panicked, and so close to death. It had been difficult for her to see the same location, as the memories it brought back were not pleasant.

            Scanning the rocky beach, she looked for signs of bones and other organic detritus, but there were none. The creatures that had attacked them were long gone – nature and other scavengers having dealt with the corpses. She could only imagine the cycle of life in this strange world.

            It was the other reason she brought the assault rifle, and she had been quite specific when she asked for one that could fire under-water. Babs remembered the mutant creatures, and figured there was a better than even chance they probably still inhabit the waters along this particular stretch of shore.

            “How long is this going to take?” Joey asked.

            “I figure about forty-five minutes to swim to the island, and maybe two hours to find enough samples to bring back to the installation, another forty-five minutes to swim back…”

            “So about four hours all told,” Joey filled in.

            “Yup, depending on what I find it could be another hour or more, so we should be finished by dusk.”

            “Good luck, Babs.”

            “Thanks,” she walked deeper into the water until it was up to her chest, then she plunged beneath the surface. The world went from a hazy grey to a darker, deeper blue-grey. Her visual enhancements kicked in automatically and combined seamlessly with the programs to enhance what she could see. The murk became crystal clear, so clear she could almost count the individual motes of matter floating in the current.

            After a minute of steady swimming the ocean floor was lost in the gloomy depths. She had to smile as her arms and legs worked mechanically, propelling her faster than a human could achieve. If she had been organic, right about now was when her imagination would kick in and she would see all manner of monsters coming up from the unseen depths to consume her. Thankfully she was immune to the tricks her imagination played on her mind, knowing the thoughts for what they were – a distraction, nothing more.

            She kept a steady, rhythmic pace about two meters beneath the surface. All around her life thrived, small fish and little islands of plant-matter, as well as larger creatures, all living lives without ever once wondering or caring what was happening on the surface above.

            For the hell of it, she increased her audio sensors and was able to hear far more than she had hoped. Somewhere to the north and east she heard the sounds of a pod of Killer Whales as they lazily swam near the coast, hunting for fish and other prey. Far below she could detect crunching and tearing as something unseen consumed a meal. From the vibrations reaching her audio sensors, she knew whatever it was, the creature was massive. And so was whatever it was feeding upon.

            Off to the south and east she made out familiar chittering and squeaks of a number of Sea Otters, frolicking and playing in the surf, a few dozen meters or so from shore.  With one exception, it was truly peaceful and she thought she could just float there forever, letting her concerns and fears drift away on the tides of time and eternity.

            Babs gave her head a shake. Nah, that would be too boring, and besides, she would never see Declan again. Oh how she wanted to see him. Gritting her artificial teeth, she pushed the thought aside and continued to swim.

            She reached the shore of the Resort in exactly thirty-five minutes and forty-three seconds.  Stepping out of the surf, she found herself on a long, deserted stretch of debris-strewn sandy beach. It was not the same shoreline she and Declan had been on before, no this one was different. There was not a single bone anywhere to be seen, just the usual detritus the ocean frequently deposited onto the shoreline.

            Turning, she used her enhanced vision to scan the opposite shore. There was Joey, sitting on a log. He had a small fire going and was chewing on something, most likely the food he had brought along. She did not bother to wave, as he was not even looking in her direction. “Well time to get this over with,” she said to no one.

            Curiosity got the better of her and she walked up the beach and into the tree-cover. The old hotel was roughly in the center of the island and she wished to take a closer look. All around her the forest was silent, unlike on the mainland. Maybe the birds avoided the island, or maybe it was because of her presence, she could not be sure either way.

            Knowing the nanotech undead on the island were of no serious threat to her, she began to run. The forest floor was littered with foliage, dead branches and thick ferns, but that did not hamper or slow her down in the least. Babs covered the distance from the shore to the hotel in less than five minutes.

            When she broke through the forest, she found she was maybe fifty meters from the rear of the ancient structure. It looked as it had the first time she and Declan had laid eyes upon it, and she chided herself for thinking anything would have changed in such a short period of time.

            The grass was knee high and the windows of the ancient hotel stood dark and empty, like the eye-sockets of some long-dead strange beast from the netherworld. With the casualness of someone without a care in the world, she left the treeline and walked boldly towards the structure. It was her hope to bring some of the undead creatures out into the open so she could gather samples to take back to the installation.

            Babs did not have long to wait.

            As was the case the first time she had arrived, carried inside Declan’s mind, the first nanite undead to greet her was a simple zombie. The nanitized monstrosity sat up from where it had been lying as she approached the old hotel, hidden by the tall grass and weeds. The creature was so old and desiccated that determining its former sex was all but impossible. Skin the texture of leather was pulled over the old bones, while the clothing still remained intact. It was wearing the remains of a leather jacket and she could see the ribs poking through the flesh where the jacket did not cover. It was likewise impossible to determine the original color of the slacks it wore; they were so coated in dirt and grime. Holes showed rail-thin legs which snapped and popped as it stood.

            The nanitized corpse took several unsteady steps in her direction and paused, staring at her in such a curious manner it made her laugh. The creature looked about, somehow seeing through the dried up orbs in the nearly hollow sockets, and it reached out for her, the jaws working. Then it stopped and looked about again, taking several more steps before stopping and dropping its arms.

            Not trusting the creature for a second, Babs held up her rifle and pointed the barrel at the head. She had the weapon loaded with regular ammunition, but the androids at the installation had also given her several magazines filled with EMP rounds. Those would be used once she had obtained enough samples and was ready to leave the resort. If she fired the rounds now, they would end up destroying the nanites she had come to harvest.

            Step by step she closed the distance between herself and the nanite zombie. She held the rifle in both hand and peered down the sight at the unfortunate creature, whose head snapped from side to side each time it detected a sound. It knew she was there, and yet it did not seem capable of seeing her. Babs got so close she was able to put the barrel of the weapon a centimeter away from the zombie’s skull. It turned, sensing the weapon and stared directly down the barrel of the weapon.

            Bab’s squeezed the trigger. The sound of the shot was incredibly loud in the silence surrounding the old hotel, shattering it like crystal hit with the correct frequency.

            The round blew through the eye-socket and the overpressure from the kinetic force of the projectile turned the skull into a cloud of dust and dried flesh and bone. The body slowly knelt and then pitched forward on its chest.

            Moving with the alacrity her body afforded her, she knelt beside the zombie as she slung her rifle. The case opened at her touch and she looked at the sample containers lying in the padded interior. Reaching out, Babs took hold of the zombie’s outstretched hand and snapped off a finger, which she then placed inside one of the numerous containers and carefully sealed it.

            All in all the entire process took only a handful of seconds from start to finish. She snapped the case closed and ensured the seal was secured before standing up. Taking a quick look around, she could see the grass was disturbed in several places, as if there was something moving just below the top of the green cover.

            She knew there was. Her hearing could easily hear the sound of dozens or more pairs of feet approaching. The sound of the gunshot had attracted the attention of the nanitized undead and they were drawn like a moth to a flame.

            Sure enough, from around the corner she spotted four shambling figures, more of the zombies and she knew there were quite a few more hot on their tail, looking for fresh organic meat to infect.

            Babs snorted and walked directly towards the zombies. She did not need any more samples from those creatures, so they were of no interest to her. Babs knew that other types of undead would be following in their wake. From the number she had seen the last time here, she was certain there would be those bloody skeletons. That was her next target.

            As she walked past the four figures, two reached out and tried to grasp her. One snagged her arm and without even looking, Babs reached out with her free hand, grabbing the offending appendage just above the elbow. She used the superior strength in her body and snapped the limb  off, and then dropped it to the ground.

            The zombie stood there and stared at the stump where its arm had once been and then at the still-twitching limb on the ground. It reached out with the remaining hand and picked up the limb.

            The other three stared at Babs back and then at one another. All four turned and shambled after Babs, still uncertain what she was. The only conclusion the tiny hive-like brain of the nanites were able to determine with one hundred percent accuracy was the being was not organic.

            Still, maybe it could lead them to organic beings where they could continue to carry out their programming.

            Babs followed the wall, occasionally stopping to peer inside a shattered window at the wreckage that lay beyond. There was very little of interest in any of the rooms other than the moldering remains of once-elegant furnishings. Some were filled with leaves, others with personal belongings which had lain untouched for at least thirty-three decades.

            She was about halfway down the exterior of the wall when a pair of skeletal arms reached out and grabbed at her. If she had been human, more than likely she would have screamed like a little girl and tried to escape.  Her mind was still taken by surprise and the skeletal figure gripped her by the biceps of both arms. Babs backed away, pulling the skeletal figure from the room. She raised one eyebrow in curious surprise when all that came out was the upper torso.

            “Aren’t you the strange one Doc,” she commented as the figure tried to dig its talon-like finger bones into the flesh of her arms. That was just it; her arms were made of plastic and polymers, metal and wires. There was not a trace of flesh anywhere on her body. The claw-like fingers tore into the plastic but did little damage.

            With the undead creature still gripping her arms, she managed to wriggle one hand so she could grip the rib-cage of the monster. A flick of her wrist and with deceptive ease, she snapped one of the ribs from the body. The undead looked down at where she had broken one of its ribs and suddenly the hands holding here released.

            The fingers probed the spot where the rib used to be, and Babs could have sworn there was a look of utter disbelief and confusion on the fleshless visage of the monster. It looked back up at her in an accusatory manner, as if to say ‘how dare you?’ Babs then realized the torso was floating in midair, about a meter off the ground. She was shocked and impressed at the same time.

            Now it was her turn to act. She casually reached out and took one of the floating torso’s arms and ripped it free from the skeleton. The creature threw back its head and opened its jaw as if it was screaming, while the other hand flailed. Babs barely missed getting clocked by the limb so she did the only thing she could think of – she grabbed it as well and ripped it free.

            The floating torso started to spin, the skull pointed at the cloudy sky, screaming silently. “Oh for the love of Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad, shut the fuck up, doc!” Babs intoned casually and then she began to beat at the floating torso with its own arms.

            Each strike sent chunks of broken bone flying from both the torso and the arms. She continued to beat upon the torso until at last it lost all coherence and what little remained crashed to the ground in a heap of tangled, smashed bone.

            As she had with the zombie, Babs knelt and opened the case and retrieved several chunks of bone. She carefully placed them inside and closed the case. Standing, she could see that her antics had attracted a large audience. There had to be two or three dozen zombies, several more of the floating torsos, a couple of the bloody bones, and even a few ethereal spectres. Those she nearly did not see, as even in the dull light that managed to penetrate through the clouds, they were almost invisible.

            “Hey ya maroons!” She called out mockingly as she unslung the assault rifle from her back. “If I was you, I’d start running, I declare it duck huntin’ season!”She ejected the magazine and chose one of the magazines filled with the EMP rounds. She slapped it home and charged the weapon and then raised it towards the mob of nanitized undead.

            Bringing the weapon to bear on the creatures was just the trigger they had been waiting for. By now the hive-like mind of the nanites determined she was not organic and as such would not be a candidate to infest.

            Which meant she was the enemy and needed to be destroyed.

            The large group of creatures began to shamble towards her. Only the bloody bones, floating torsos and the strange ethereal-like beings posed any significant threat, so Babs took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. The closest of the bloody bones was hit in the rib-cage and the round triggered the EMP pulse. The skeleton flew apart in a most satisfyingly spectacular manner. Bits of bone burst in every direction, as if someone had set off a bomb inside the creature. Where the bone hit other nanitized undead, the effect was not quite as awe-inspiring, but it did cause actual damage.

            She fired at one of the ethereal-like creatures and it winked out of existence, all that remained was a slight, shimmering cloud of dust, which settled to the ground. Dead nanites to be certain, she knew without having to investigate.

            Round after round smashed into the oncoming hoard of undead monsters and they were mowed down. Piles of bones, clouds of dust, shattered limbs and broken torsos soon littered the ground until there were only three of the bloody skeletons and one of the strange ethereal creatures remaining.

            As if waiting for an unknown signal, the heavens burst at that exact moment. The speed in which the storm appeared was staggering and she could barely believe her sensors. One second it was hot and muggy, the next Babs felt as if she was standing beneath a warm shower. The rain came down so hard and fast it almost knocked her to her knees. As she fought to retain her footing, a window popped open in her vision. The rain was not simply rain, it was highly toxic! It contained a low-level count of radiation, only about 50 rems per hour, but on top of that, it was acidic!

            Cursing, Babs turned and fought her way back to the hotel. It was like trying to move through a waterfall, the rain was coming down so hard and fast, but she doggedly pushed on. Once she made it back to the hotel, she grabbed hold of the windowsill and pulled her body up and through. The wood beneath her fingers threatened to crumble at any moment due to age and rot, but thankfully it held long enough. She found herself in a nearly pitch-black room, with very little light coming in from the rain-sodden gloom behind her. The toxic drops hitting the roof and walls of the ancient structure sounded like the staccato of weapons fire, loud and relentless.

            Her low-light vision kicked in and the room was suddenly bathed in an eerie glow, but at least she could see clearly. Slight tendrils of smoke were curling up from her body, where the acid was just beginning to eat through the polymers of her synthetic flesh. She needed to get the liquid off her body before any of the burns became serious.

            The room was in shambles. The once-proud king-sized bed had long since fallen into a moldering ruin. It laid on the floor, somehow one leg still miraculously holding up one corner. There was an equally battered and ravaged ancient chest of drawers, a small table which had long since been tossed onto its side and the remains of a pair of chairs. She also spotted a sliding door next to the entrance to the room. The bathroom was on the opposite side and Babs deduced the sliding door had to be a closet.

            Moving quickly but carefully, she stepped across the moldy and rotted carpet until she reached the bathroom. At some time in the distant past, a small animal had made the chamber its nest. There was no sign of it now, but it had used the towels and cloths to build a nest in one corner of the tub. The fabric was so rotted that when Babs touched it, the fibers broke apart into a fine dust.

            “Fuck!” Babs snarled and then went to open the sliding door. Inside she hit pay-dirt. There were several dress-shirts yellowed with age and spotted with mold, but they would suffice. She grabbed one and even though the fabric ripped under her touch, she was able to use the items to clean the acid-laced rain from her body.

            Dropping the last of the quickly disintegrating shirts, she heard something hit the ground inside the room. When she turned, she was not surprised to see one of the bloody skeletons picking itself up from the remains of the carpet. The rain had turned the once dry and brown blood coating the bones red and liquid. The blood dripped from the skeletal remains and presented quite the horrific sight.

            If Babs had been human and not just artificial flesh, muscle and trillions of lines of code, she might have screamed. Instead she thumbed the magazine release on her rifle, allowing the nearly spent magazine filled with EMP rounds to bounce off the floor. She quickly replaced it with one filled with standard rounds.

            The skeleton crouched, actually crouched and then sprang at her, trailing blood through the air as it sailed unerringly towards her body. She sidestepped, her computer instantly calculating the creature’s trajectory. The skeleton hit the wall, head first with so much force the skull shattered into a thousand blood-soaked shards of bone. Dust billowed out from where the brain had once lay, filling the space with a choking cloud of ancient decay.

            “You maroon,” Babs laughed and then promptly began to stamp on the remaining bones, shattering them with each impact of her heels. She could feel where the sharp shards of the bone sliced through the synthetic flesh, but there was no real damage. A few minutes with the technicians inside the installation and her skin would be as good as new.

            Satisfied she inflicted enough damage to destroy the creature, she went through the procedure to collect a sample to take back with her. Three different species so far and she knew of at least two more she wanted to find. All in all, Babs was pleased with her progress, having destroyed quite a few of the nanitized undead and collected samples in less than half an hour. She was well ahead of schedule and decided that a tour of the interior of the building was in order.

            The radioactive and acidic rain coming down was a concern however. She thought of Joey and hoped the young man was able to get under cover, as she did not want to think of what the rain would do to his flesh. She also hoped that the rain would soon subside – travelling to the ocean would end up causing significant damage to her form, although the salt-water would dilute it. She might have to wait inside the ruins of the hotel until it passed.

            Making a mental note, she decided it would be a good idea to speak to the androids about the strange weather; maybe they could shed light on the phenomena and warn her of other potential hazards like this. Knowledge would keep her in one piece, as well as those she loved.

            After retrieving the dropped magazine, she quickly refilled it to capacity and then tried the door leading to the hall.  It was stuck fast, but the strength her body possessed, combined with three centuries of slow entropy, the door yielded to her insistent prying. It gave away in a most spectacular manner, splintering into a thousand shards of rotted wood, exploding outward in a hail of wooden fibers.

            Which passed harmlessly through the spectre standing at the door. The look of actual surprise on the ghostly woman’s face caused Babs laugh, it was so absurd and unexpected. The look quickly changed from that of surprise to anger and the creature howled like a banshee. Babs had to turn her audio intake down as the screech nearly destroyed her audio receptors.

            “Shut the fuck up, Doc!” Babs shouted back, causing the spectre-like woman to instantly shut her mouth and float back about a meter. She raised her rifle and shot a trio of rounds into the ghostly form, which did absolutely nothing except pass harmlessly through it and burrow deep into the opposite wall.

            The spectre howled again and slashed out at Babs her nearly invisible and glowing fingers passing through Babs arm without effect. It was obvious from the way the creature reacted; it had expected to inflict horrible damage against the artificial being. Things did not work out her way.

            “Well Doc,” Babs said as they stared at one another, seems we’re at a bit of an impasse. I need your nanites and you want to kill me, and it doesn’t look like either of us is going to get our way.”

***

May 24th, 2668 The community

            A light rapping at the thick wooden door broke through Max Ahteen’s musing. He had been sitting at his desk, going over the reports and recommendations on who should be training and the possible recruits. Pressure was building behind his eyes and frequently he had to stop and massage his temples, next to his impressive horns. “Enter!” He bellowed.

            To his surprise, Declan walked in. The man was looking exhausted – dark circles under his eyes, stooped shoulders, and a gaunt, haunted air surrounded him like the halo of a fallen angel. “Declan, are you alright?” Max asked with genuine concern as he got up from his seat and rushed to meet the former pilot.

            “I’ve been better,” Declan admitted. “Do you have a few minutes?”

            Max nodded and waved a hand at the leather chair before his desk. “Sure, do you want a drink?”

            Declan took the offered seat and looked up gratefully. “Got anything strong?”

            “I do,” he went over to a shelf and opened one of the doors. From behind it he pulled out a couple of shot glasses and a filthy, age-scarred bottle with no label. The bottle had been clear at one time, but now was fogged with age, and there were only a few clear patches visible. He brought it over opened it, filling both shot glasses before handing one to Declan. “Rum, no idea how old it is, but damn it tastes great going down.”

            “Thanks,” Declan declared and downed it without flourish. He did not so much as grimace as the alcohol burned down his throat and into his stomach. “Fuck that’s good shit.”

            Max finished his drink before refilling the glasses. He left the bottle sitting on the edge of the table and took his seat behind the desk. “So what do you want to talk about?”

            The former pilot blew out his cheeks in a pent-up breath, filled with stress and worry. He rubbed his eyes and searched the room, looking for but not finding anything specific. Max had seen that sort of look before, on the faces of men and women who had seen too much combat and were in dire need of a rest. After nearly a minute, Declan cleared his throat. “I’m seriously stressed out.”

            Max nodded, having come to that conclusion. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

            “You got a Shrike hidden away anywhere? I need to fly so bad I can taste it!”

            A strange look crossed Max’s face but was gone in the time it took neurons to fire in his brain. “Not that I know of.”

            Declan cursed. “Okay then, do you have any shrinks in this town?”

            “Again, sorry, that’s just one of hundreds of trades that disappeared after the end of the wars,” max said with genuine regret lacing his words. “Although supposedly there are AI’s that can perform that function, do you think Babs could?”

            “No and I haven’t seen her for at least a couple of days. She supposedly left on a hunting expedition but never returned.”

            Max raised one eyebrow and his tail began to swish. “She’s safe, I know that for a fact. She went to spend some time with the androids at the Installation.”

            Declan sighed. It would have been dramatic if he had not been under so much stress. “I’m not surprised, in fact I pretty much expected that.”

            “I can contact Awoan and ask her if Babs would speak to you.”

            “Would you mind?” Declan practically pleaded. “It would help.”

            “Or course I’ll do it.”

            The look of relief on Declan’s face was almost to the point of being pathetic. “Is that all that’s on your mind? Max asked.

            “What can you tell me about this world?” Declan suddenly asked. “Here in the community and the surrounding territory, other than the mutants, the land seems pretty untouched and safe.”

            Max closed his eyes and tried to figure out a way to reply to the question. After nearly half a minute, he looked at the young man sitting across the desk. “You could say that the Pacific Northwest made it through the wars in pretty good shape,” he began. “Sure – Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria were hit by city-killers, but a lot of the populace was able to get out before the balloons went up.”

            Declan pictured the weapons of mass destruction flying through the atmosphere, some launched by land-based facilities, some fired from the ocean, but most would have been given flight from space. He winced and shuddered. “They looked pretty messed up when we were near them.”

            “You think these cities got hit hard? Calgary and Edmonton were all but obliterated. Calgary, despite the fact that we have long since given up our reliance on fossil fuels was the leader in energy production and research.  I’ve heard stories of some of the creatures that inhabit the ruins, which are still glowing even after all these centuries.”

            “The ruins or the creatures?” Declan blurted before he could stop himself.

            That elicited a chuckle from Max. “The ruins, of course. You can’t get within a hundred kilometers of the place, as it is still heavily irradiated.

            “Still, this area seems civilized. If it wasn’t for the mutants and the ruins, I would swear that little has changed.”

            Max leaned back and took another shot of the alcohol. “Some parts of the world were lucky, like we are. Others…” he let the sentence hang as if collecting his thoughts. The troubled look in his eyes spoke far louder than words ever could.

            “Go on,” Declan prodded before taking the bottle and getting another shot for himself.

            “Let’s put it to you this way, there are parts of the planet that probably will never be inhabited again, at least by life as we understand it. There are vast wastelands of nothing – no life, no plants, nothing at all. Somehow there are a few primitive tribals inhabiting these wastes and somehow manage to survive. How is beyond my understanding.”

            “I see,” Declan replied and downed the shot. “So what you’re also telling me there is no central government?”

            Max nodded and raised his shot-glass. “In this territory, you’re looking at him. We control the lands for about fifty kilometers or so around the community. The scavenger cartels hold a lot more territory and they could be considered a centralized government, and who knows,” he paused and thought about it. “In a few decades they will become an official government and begin to spread their influence further and further.”

            “So we’re the exception rather than the rule?”

            “You catch on quickly,” Max stated, not unkindly. He poured another shot for each of them.

            “And the rest of the world, with a few exceptions, is just a bunch of primitives trying to get by day by day?”

            “Yup.”

            “Did you know that only a few dozen kilometers to the East there is an ancient mine? Way back before the final wars, we’re talking around 2100 or so, it used to produce Iron and other ores. Like most mines, it was eventually exhausted and closed. Sometime during the last stages of the war, a fairly large group of survivalists re-opened the mine and built a shelter there.”

            Declan shook his head, he had never heard anyone speak of it before. “What happened, did they eventually join you?”

            “Tragically, no they didn’t. We did not even know of them until only a few decades ago.”

            “What’s so tragic about them?” Declan heard himself ask, although he was quite certain he did not want to hear the answer.

            “We think something went wrong in the first century. They had an extensive redoubt, with solar panels on the mountain to provide them with power, fiber-optic cables to bring light directly from the surface to their gardens, and access to one of the untainted underground rivers that flow through these mountains. The survivalists put a lot of effort into making their shelter livable.”

            “Don’t keep me waiting, Max,” Declan prompted.

            “One of our scouts discovered the entrance to the redoubt, it must have been,” Max looked at the ceiling and tapped his chin with one hand, trying to pin down the date. “Must have been around twenty five years ago. The entrance was sealed and we could detect no sign of inhabitation, so we naturally broke our way in.”

            “What did you find?”

            “The survivalists had devolved into something no longer human. They had lost all ability to communicate and seemed to be no more intelligent than a dog. They were pale-skinned and naked, and completely blind.”

            Declan recoiled at the thought of the sub-human creatures. “Did you kill them?”

            “No, nothing at all like that. They had… I don’t know, evolved? Devolved? So that they could survive in the depths of the mountain. We figure there is maybe thirty of forty of the creatures left. They survived by feeding off the fish and other life they could get from the underground river, and the hydroponic farms their ancestors set up,” he paused and then stared at Declan. “And their own dead.”

            The former pilot felt bile in the back of his throat. “Seriously, what did you do with them?”

            “We resealed the entrance to their redoubt and that was the end of the story. We haven’t been back to check on them since then and have never seen any of their kind in the forests.”

            “Why did you tell me this?” Declan asked, curious.

            “That’s what most of the life is like out in the wastes, humans who have mutated to the point they are no longer even remotely human. Many have returned to a primitive, tribal existence. There are those who believe people like us are gods, due to our health and technology. It is not a pretty picture most of the time.”

            Declan considered everything Max had imparted on him. The room was starting to feel stuffy and humid, although he barely noticed it. Just speaking to the man was putting his mind at ease, at least somewhat.  “Do you think things will ever return to the way it was before the war?” Declan found himself asking, almost against his will.

            “Maybe in another five hundred years or so, maybe much longer than that. Too much was lost during the wars, and there is still too much damage to the planet. We need to come together and put aside our petty differences before true rebuilding can begin.”

            That statement caused Declan to burst out laughing. After a minute he finally got his laughter under control. “In that case, we’re totally fucked. Things never will get better.”

            “We can try, that’s one of the main reasons I’m preparing our people to take the fight to the Purists. They are the greatest threat we face and we sure as shit do not want a world in which they are the ruling body,” Max waved a hand to the south.

            Declan took the shot and winced, feeling it burn its way down. Damn the drink was strong, and good. It was helping, he already felt a slight buzz building and he was beginning to relax. Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe it was how desperate he felt, but suddenly the former pilot just burst out. “Got any good drugs?”

            Max blinked in surprise and instantly he scowled. “That sort of shit is banned here,” he said slowly. “I know you’re suffering from a bad case of PTSD right now, but there have to be ways we can help you get through it. Losing yourself in drugs won’t help.”

            “It certainly couldn’t fucking hurt me more than I already have been,” Declan shot back and stood, his hands waving down at his right leg. “I’m a fucking cyborg!”

            Max was old. He was far older than anyone in the community. Hell, he was probably older than everyone currently inhabiting the former province of British Columbia. With age came experience, and the ability to make the correct judgement calls when required. He knew he should not have been so harsh with the former pilot. He should have known to show more compassion towards the man.

            Especially after everything he had been through.

            With a sigh, Max poured Declan another shot. “I understand it’s difficult for you right now.”

            “Do you? Seriously General Ahteen, do you? I find that pretty fucking hard to believe.”

            “You lost your world. You lost everyone you ever knew and cared about,” Max began. There was not a trace of anger in his voice, and his face had relaxed so he was no longer looking angered. Instead a great sadness clouded his features and he looked at the top of his desk. “You managed to sleep through it all,” When he looked back up, there were tears in his eyes. “I didn’t have that luxury.”

            What anger Declan felt evaporated instantly when Max’s words hit home. He did not speak.

            “I watched our world die; I saw cities wiped from the face of the planet. I watched as entire countries were reduced to radioactive rubble in a matter of hours,” he stopped speaking and swallowed hard, the memories still fresh even after all these centuries. “I watched billions snuffed out.”

            Finally Declan found his voice, although there was a lump the size of a Cadillac inside his throat. “How did you deal with it?”

            “By surviving, by gathering all the survivors I could find and helping them make it through the aftermath. Those decades following the end of the wars, they were worse than you could possibly imagine.”

            The former pilot had a pretty good imagination.

            “Right now you have a woman who loves you and will do anything she can for you. You’ve made friends and we honestly give a shit, and we don’t want to see you suffering. We can and will do whatever possible to help you through this, but you’re going to have to somehow deal with it. I know that it’s going to be hard, but Tara is there for you.”

            He knew Max was right. He could see the look of concern whenever the Tiger-Exotic was staring at him and she thought he could not see it. “What can I do about the nightmares?”

            “Not much,” Max gestured helplessly. “I don’t have any answers. Maybe a beer or two before you go to bed, maybe some hot monkey sex with Tara, try that.”

            Declan blinked, not quite sure if he heard correctly. “Did you just say some hot monkey sex?”

            The general grinned. “Yup.” He threw back the shot and then stood from his seat. The Dragon-Exotic walked over to his window and motioned for Declan to join him. “Look son, I know it’s hard for you to deal with this. Believe me, out of everyone in my town, I am the only one who can truly sympathize with you. Everyone here has had trials and has suffered to some degree or another, but they’ve all managed to get past it and make a life for themselves.”

            Declan stood next to Max and stared out. It was raining quite hard, and the window was streaked with water. The clouds were low and angry-looking, as if the wrath of god was compacted into them, pouring his anger onto the world. Here and there jagged bolts of lightning broke the gloom of the storm, filling the sky with brilliant flashes of white and blue. There was even a single purple bolt, brilliant in its strangeness. “You have managed to build a beautiful community here,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence.

            “It wasn’t just me, but the hard work of everyone you have met.”

            “Yeah, I guess that’s right,” he pointed out the window at the large community center where the pool was located. “Whose idea was that?”

            “Why do you ask?” Max looked at him, no anger, but curiosity clear in his eyes.

            “It was fucking brilliant, that’s why. I have to say it’s my favorite place to hang out in when we’re here.”

            “Most people feel the same as you do, and it was my idea. I figured we needed something like it where our community members could go for rest and relaxation after a hard day’s work.”

            “Gotta give credit where credit is due,” Declan chuckled. “So does everyone return to the old shelter you have in the mines every winter?”

            “Most do. Some decide to stay in the community to brave it out. We’re far enough into the mountains that we get the full brunt of the winter. Some winters are mild enough that we can stay in the community, but it can get god-damned cold. And then there are the storms.”

            That caught Declan’s attention. “Snow storms? Blizzards?”

            “Nothing quite so trite. I’ve seen storms filled with purple lightning and hail the size of basketballs, where we were hit by two meters of snow in less than two hours. At least every couple of years we’re hit with a mega-storm where the snow and hail is radioactive. They’re incredible to behold, and so fucking scary it would freeze your very soul.”

            “And the community survived those?” Declan blurted, incredulous.

            “Take a close look at the structures out there. They may be rustic and a lot look like log cabins, but there is serious reinforcement hidden in the structures. You have to build like that if you want your home to last more than a single storm.”

            “Wow,” was all that Declan could think to say.

            Max chuckled. “There is a summer mega-storm building to the south of us.”

            “How can you tell?”

            “The lightning. When we get colorful pyrotechnics like that, one of the strange chemical, rad and toxin-laced atmospheric disturbances is brewing. It won’t hit us, it won’t even come all that close, but I feel bad for anyone who is caught in it.”

            Declan looked out and luckily he could see to the south, but the sky held no revelations, nothing jumped out at him and screamed I’m a mega-storm and I’m going to get you my little pretty. He watched and sure enough he spotted several bolts of purple, green and even red lightning strikes, but they were far, far off in the distance. “Tara and I want to get married,” he suddenly said.

            For a moment, Max Ahteen was silent as he digested the words. “I guess I have to say that congratulations are in order,” he returned to the desk and stared at the two shot-glasses for a second. With a shrug, he picked up the bottle and returned to stand next to Declan. Max took a swig straight from the bottle before he passed it to the other man. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

            “I know, I know,” Declan waved a dismissive hand. “We’ve only been together for a few months and maybe I should think about what I’m getting into.”

            Mulling over his words, Max took the bottle back and threw back another swig. “It’s not that, Declan,” he returned the bottle to the other man.

            “Then what is it?”

            “She’s got the worst mood swings I’ve ever seen and frankly, she’s bug-fucking crazy more times than not.” Max stated flatly. He turned so he could gauge Declan’s reaction to his rather harsh statement.

            The former fighter-pilot shrugged. “She’s mild compared to some of the women I fucked before the balloons went up. And besides,” he returned the man’s stare with equal measures. “She’s calmed down. She’s changed drastically from what she was like when I first met her.”

            “Why do you think that is?” Max queried.

            Declan took a drink from the bottle. He was really starting to feel a pleasant buzz now, and it was helping him relax. “Well like me, she’s in love. She’s also getting laid on a nightly basis, and she finally found someone she can spend her life with.”

            “Again Declan, are you sure this is what you want?” Max held his gaze with an intensity that was nearly frightening. “Are you certain you’re not just doing this because it’s what she wants?”

            “Yeah I’m sure,” Declan rubbed his face with one free hand. “I’m trapped in this post-apocalyptic paradise. I have nothing to my name, not even any marketable skills that the community could use. She came into my life and made me hers, and you know, I don’t mind. That bat-shit crazy Tiger-Exotic brought stability to my life and I’ll be damned, but I love her,” he laughed slightly, a sad grin creasing his face. “No offense, but way before I found myself in the deep cold sleep, I never even considered dating or fucking an Exotic.”

            “And why’s that?” Max asked him. There was no trace of anger or annoyance, he was genuinely curious. Some could have considered what Declan said to be racist, but in this instance, that was not the case.

            “I found those people just weird. I was born human and that was good enough for me.”

            Max pointedly looked down at Declan’s crotch and raised an eyebrow. “Oh really?”

            The former pilot turned several shades of red, feeling the heat rush to his face. “I was young and horny. C’mon Max, you know what we pilots are like.”

            “I’ll give you that,” Max laughed.

            “As I was saying, I found Exotics to be strange. Most like to look like animal chimeras, but some went to the extreme and tried to emulate the Annunaki and other aliens we encountered.”

            Max nodded in understanding. He had not planned on becoming an Exotic. His mother had been obsessed with the mythological dragon and had chosen that route. When she became pregnant with him, the genetic modification passed onto him as well. And his daughter. And her children, once she found a good man to settle down with.

            “Here I am, three hundred years into the future, and I fell in love with an Exotic, a Tiger-Exotic at that. Hell, if I remember correctly, feline exotics were the most common type, weren’t they?”

            “And Dragons were the least and yet here we have two in this community.”

            Declan sighed. “And she wants kids.”

            “Do you?”

            The former pilot never hesitated. “Yeah, I do. I was hoping they would take after me, but we both know any we have are going to be the same as their mom, Tiger-Exotics. I feel like I’m going to be the father to kittens.”

            “And how does that make you feel?” Max asked. There was still no accusation in his questions or voice, just the same curiosity.

            “Nervous as hell,” he confessed. “Raising kids is a hell of a responsibility, and now that we’re dealing with a war, it’s not exactly the kind of environment I want to raise a son or daughter in.”

            “By the time you and Tara have a baby; the war with the Purists will be over.”

            “I wish I could believe you Max, I really do.”

            The Dragon Exotic decided that it was time to change the subject. “Just set the date then, and I’ll perform the ceremony.” Max placed a firm hand on Declan’s shoulder and squeezed it.

            The gesture caught Declan off-guard. He stared at the hand and felt actual warmth and compassion from the man. He was certain this was something the general would never have done in the past. “I’ll talk to Tara about it and see what she has to say.”

            Max released Declan’s shoulder. “Do that. We don’t know what tomorrow holds for us,” he closed his eyes and shook his head. “Well, Momma Rathbourne does, but the rest of us don’t. If you’re sure this is what you want, then don’t wait.”

            “Thanks, Max.”

            “Go on, go speak to her and fuck your brains out. It will help.”

            Declan smiled and left.