Buck Who? Chapter 37

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 37: Natural

May 25th, 2668 The Compound

            “Enough already!” Bradly shoved his body off the table and tore the leads from his arms, chest and legs. He was naked from the waist up and already the med-techs had drawn enough blood from him to cause the already beaten and battered man to feel all that much weaker. “I’m fine, how many other radiation-cursed tests do you have to perform?”

            The med-techs refused to meet his gaze. One tried muttering an apology, but Bradly would not hear any of it. “Give me my shirt and weapons and I’ll be out of your hair.”

            “I ordered the tests,” Martin said, causing Bradly to whirl around so quickly he felt a wave of vertigo. His father was standing at the entrance to the small examination room, making an already confined space feel downright claustrophobic. He waved a hand towards the door. “Everyone out, I need to speak to my son.”

            The med-techs left without hesitation, not one even stopping to look back at the two leaders of the Purist movement.

            When the door was closed, Martin locked it and waited nearly thirty seconds before turning to face his son. “I have to be sure that the Whispering Wraith did not inject the compound into your body.”

            Bradly paused, a look of concern appearing. He frowned and placed his hands on the table, allowing the man to regain his balance. “What?”

            The elder Travis sighed. “You tried hiring them to take out Ahteen and her friends in Scav Haven.”

            “Yes,” Bradly admitted. “And it cost me a pretty fair-sized chunk of money, and the bastards failed.”

            “Indeed,” Martin almost chuckled. “It appears our genetically inferior foe and her friends are a lot more resourceful than we had imagined,” Martin walked over and leaned up against the table with his son. They stood there, staring at one another for several seconds when Martin spoke. “And they came here, demanding more money.”

            “Did you pay?” Bradly asked, aghast.

            “It was pay or they would have injected you with a mutagenic compound, turning you into a mutant.”

            Bradly paled and he felt his knees threaten to give out. “And that’s what all the tests were for.”

            “Yes. And all have come up negative. You have not been injected and you’re still a pure human,” Martin responded and clasped his son on the shoulder. “Human for sure but you’re also a fucking idiot!”

            Heat crept into Bradly’s cheeks and he felt his anger beginning to rise, but he forced it down. He knew his father was right and so much had gone terribly wrong over the past few weeks. He was a fucking idiot to be sure. “Yeah, I am.”

            The older Travis squeezed harder, but not painfully so. “Glad you can admit to it. What has been done is done; it’s time for us to move ahead. The med-techs inform me that the drugs are working and your body had been purged of all traces of radiation, there are no signs of mutation, and you’re almost healed.”

            “I’m stiff and I hurt here and there, but yeah, I’m good to go,” Bradly went over to a rack upon which his shirt and personal weapons were hung. He dressed with an economy of movement and secured his weapons. “Dad, what’s your plan?”

            “Training the recruits and gathering intelligence concerning our enemy,” Martin shrugged and held his hands up in a helpless gesture. “At this time, we’re undermanned in experienced combat fighters, and we don’t want a repeat of the battle against the androids.”

            Bradly winced, since he was the man who led the fateful attack against the installation. His first major offensive and he had been beaten so bad he was certain no matter how long he lived he would never be able to get over it.

            “Put it out of your mind, son…” Martin could read his only child like a book. He could see the anguish on the younger man as if he had worn it like a second skin. “You fought as well as you could have under the circumstances. I allowed too many easy victories against the genetically inferior creatures to cloud my judgement.”

            “Dad,” Bradly began.

            Martin held up a hand. “I was overconfident, and it nearly cost me my only son. This will never happen again. From here on in, it’s going to be boots on the ground, gather all the intel, and use it to plan a proper operation.”

            “How do you plan on gathering this intel?” Bradly found himself asking.

            “Scouts, spies, and the Whispering Wraith.”

            “The assassins? The same assholes who demanded even more money from you?” Bradly was shocked and stunned by the revelation all at once.

            Martin nodded and grinned.

            Bradly recognized the grin and he felt his shock fade like flower in winter. Whenever his father had that look, he had a plan. “Do tell,” Bradly said.

            “The assassins offered to help us, a way I guess to soften the blow of taking so much money from us.”

            “And you’re going to have them keep their word,” Bradly added.

            “Exactly.”

***

May 25th, 2668 The Compound

            The sky was still overcast and the air was hot and moist, so heavy it was nearly like breathing through a water-soaked cloth every time Declan tried to take a breath. He decided to forgo the run, as in the warm, humid air he knew a case of heat-stroke was just waiting to pounce on him. Instead he and all those not involved in work or training went to the large communal pool.

            Sitting naked in the water, he closed his eyes and allowed his thoughts to drift as the cool water gently lapped over his chest and arms. Around him people talked, laughed and frolicked and he used it to help anchor his mind to the now.

            Not to the past, to what he lost and the hell he had been through over the past few months. For the first time in several days he felt rested and the dark circles under his eyes had noticeably decreased. It was all in part to the woman he was going to marry. Tara had spent hours talking to him and they discussed their future together. They spoke about the children they were going to have, even came up with a few names they liked. She had taken the time to cook a meal, trying to emulate the type of food he had been used to before his unexpected nap. It touched him deeply the effort Tara made for him.

            It still made him smile every time he thought of just how much of a bitch she had been when they first met, and now she was as different as night and day, a complete polar opposite. The one aspect of their relationship was nearly the same – the sex. She possessed an amazing appetite for carnal love, but it had become tempered. It was still wonderful, but now there was tenderness and real love, and it made sex with the Exotic all that much more satisfying.

            Not only for him, but her as well.

            It was so nice being able to sleep without suffering from nightmares. For the first time in days he felt rested and almost back to normal. He wished it would stay this way, but sooner or later the anxiety he was suffering from would return, and probably with a vengeance. For now, he was content to enjoy the simple pleasures in life.

            After almost an hour of soaking in the refreshingly cool water, he got out and dried off, dressed and then left the pool. Tara said she had chores to take care of and that he should relax while he could. She never hid behind anything and they both knew she was talking about the war with the Purists.

            It still bothered him that Babs left without even saying goodbye to him. No, he chided himself… it hurt. The AI was his best friend and he really missed her. Looking up into the clouds, he shook his head as he breathed in the air. Despite the heat and humidity, the air never had tasted so clean and good as it did right now. Back in his time, even with the environmental protection laws in place, the air still had a chemical tang to it and back then many parts of the world were heavily polluted. Especially in the Chinese Federation, who regularly flaunted a blatant and what most considered being childish disregard for the laws.

            When he looked back down he continued walking, taking in all the sights the beautiful little community had to offer. Over by the nearest wall, he watched as several men and women worked to construct an obstacle course. It was going to be used in the training regime General Ahteen was putting together.

            Standing still, Declan did a slow turn, allowing his eyes and other senses to take in everything there was to see. Up to the northern part of the community a firing range had already been set up and even though no one was currently using it, the site was a beehive of activity. Construction was taking place there, as a classroom and maintenance shed were needed, while the men and women trained.

            To the East another new project was coming to life. It was an indoor and outdoor arena, designed for those who had an inkling of proficiency when it came to unarmed combat. They did not just train martial arts there, they also worked on many of the mutants and Uplift’s natural weaponry, teaching them how to use what god, nature or the atom had given them with more skill and lethality.

            There was a lot of new construction taking place in the community. Communal housing and barracks were under construction, as there were only so many cabins and empty buildings, and they were rapidly filling up. They would need a place to house the new recruits and those who wanted to join in the fight against the purists.

            With the new people joining there was also going to be an influx of trade and even new skills. New structures were being built for that purpose alone, to ensure that anyone wanting to set up shop would have a place ready for them to move into and either rent or purchase outright.

            In just over two months since his arrival, the town had taken on a new appearance. Declan was certain he would not recognize it once all the work had been completed and the new residences had moved in.

            That thought caused him to stop. What were the odds of any of the new people coming to join them against the hated purists actually purists themselves? He figured that the odds had to be pretty damn good of that happening.

            Had General Ahteen thought of that? If he had, what contingency plans did he have in place in case some purist assholes tried to cause trouble, or worse yet, try to kill him and his daughter?

            For a moment he considered heading straight to the old lodge to voice his concerns with General Ahteen. He shook his head, dismissing the idea. Declan realized there was no way that Max would not have considered such a tactic. It certainly was something that Declan would have been willing to try. It would be something if they could end the war before it started by killing the Travis’s. The idea did make him smile.

            Lost in thought, Declan reached his home without even realizing it. He stood and stared at the door in amazement before turning to look behind. There were few people on the streets, as most were busy with one task or another.

            His eyes roamed over the town until they touched the old Lodge, where General Ahteen lived. It was a beautiful building and had managed to retain its majesty and appeal, even being well over three hundred years old.

            Declan stepped inside the house and went straight to the bed, where he quickly shucked his shirt and boots and lay down. He did feel as if he was not contributing to the community, but he also knew he needed time to recover. Physically he was fine – mentally it was another story altogether.

            Sleep overcame him in minutes and he entered the bliss of the temporary oblivion.

***

May 25th, 2668 The Installation

            Watching the androids work was akin to watching paint dry, Babs realized she was growing more and more bored with each passing minute, and that was not quite right. She, like the androids, was the product of an AI, and as such she should not be bored. The illogic of the situation certainly puzzled her.

            After all, she had been with Declan for over three hundred years, spending most of the time interacting with his unconscious mind. So why was she feeling the tedium now? It was something she would have to assign one or more of her sub-processors to ponder. Maybe it was nothing more than a line of code that was copied incorrectly during the transfer.

            Babs mentally shrugged as she continued to watch the androids work with the samples  she brought back from the island resort. There were six androids at various stations, each working on a separate sample. She had retrieved five samples, and the sixth android was uploading the modified code as each nanotech sample was broken down and analyzed. Maybe that is why Babs felt bored. She knew all about programming and felt she could do a better job of modifying the nanites so they would function as she wanted. She never offered though, as she felt the androids would have considered it to be an insult.

            A few minutes later, she was still intent on watching and checking each line so that it met her satisfaction when the airlock to the sterile-room opened. Awoan entered, naked as they all were, and walked across the short distance to come stand next to Babs. She was definitely the exception, her body perfectly proportioned and any human male would be attracted to it. Being in the state of undress was easier when it came to decontamination, they did not have to worry about clothing and since they were inorganic, they were immune to the effects of the nanites.

            “Your people work fast,” Babs said as she waved a hand at the gathered androids. “Two of the samples have already been modified and sent to the incubator.”

            The leader of the androids stood impassively, with her hands clasped behind her back. “Indeed. It should only be another two hours and sixteen minutes at this rate before they have finished the last of the encoding.”

            “I still don’t like this,” Babs grumbled.

            Awoan looked at the other female android and shook her head ever so slightly. “I gave you my word – the geographical location has been entered into the programming. If the corpses controlled by the nanites leave that specified location, they will shut down, effectively killing the corpse.”

            “And what happens if the corpse is returned to the Purist base, will they reactivate?” Babs had to ask. “What if someone else decides to mess with the programming?”

            “We have built in safeguards against both,” Awoan explained. She walked over to one of the androids who was busy writing code and placed a hand on the android’s shoulder. The encoder did not even look up or acknowledge the presence of its leader. “The shut-down sequence destroys the nanites, turning them into molecular specks of metal. They cannot be reused without breaking them down and rebuilding them from the ground up. As for your second question, if the nanites are subjected to any reprogramming attempt, it will likewise trigger the shut-down sequence.”

            Babs nodded. “How are you going to deliver these to the carriers?” She was referring to the handful of Purist soldiers they had taken captive after the battle. The five men were all in holding cells, where their wounds had been treated and they had been nursed back to full health. She tried to dredge up even a minute amount of sympathy for the fate that awaited the men, but it was impossible.

            If they only knew what waited them.

            “We will infect them through the food and water.”

            At first the prisoners were reluctant to eat or drink, but after a few days of near-starvation and dehydration, each man had relented. The food may have been bland and unappealing compared to what they were used to, but at least it was nutritious.

            “When are they going to be released?”

            Awoan pulled back from the android, removing her hand. She turned her head so she could meet Babs eyes. “Tomorrow in the morning, just after sunrise.”

            Babs nodded and could not help but see a countdown appear in her vision. She knew that once the timer hit zero, the men would die and the real horror they brought with them to the compound would begin.

            Her thoughts went to the young man Joey. He was still shaken by the encounter with the mutant bear known as Old One. They had discussed the creature on the way back to the installation, and for some reason she could not fathom, he did not want to mention it to Awoan. Maybe she should go and track him down and see if she could coax the reasons out of him.

***

May 25th, 2668 The Community

            Ra’naa leaned back in the seat and put her feet up on the table. The meal momma Rathbourne had provided her was finished, only a few dregs left on the plates that sit all but forgotten on the table.

            It was so strange, having her home to herself once again. She had grown so accustomed to Otres being with her that she could almost forget what it was like living alone for all those years.

            She could not blame Otres for wanting to fine somewhere else to live – after all, she knew exactly how the young girl Arleen would feel if Otres continued to share Ra’naa’s bed. There was not a chance in hell Ra’naa would blame her for feeling jealous, she knew she would be - if the roles had been reversed.

            The fact was that Ra’naa did in fact feel jealous, just a little. She was probably going to lose Otres to Arleen, that he would no longer share her home. Ra’naa knew however their friendship would remain strong, a bond that was almost more powerful than blood.

            She sighed and dropped her legs from the table and began to massage the flesh between her horns. Over the past two months life had become so complicated. Declan arrived and was taken by Tara, who in turn changed so much Ra’naa barely recognized her old friend. Otres came to live with them and had been instrumental in getting the weapons they needed ready for the war, and had taken Ra’naa’s heart. Then there was the war – a needless and pointless battle between a group of idiotic humans and the rest of the world. It really was the rest of the world, as the mutants, genetically engineered humans, uplifted animals and such outnumbered humans by such a significant factor.

            Grunting, Ra’naa pushed away from the table and let her hands drop from her head. She had already checked and double checked her weapons after the nightly ritual of cleaning, and had gone through her kata’s before sitting down to enjoy the meal. It was getting late, but at this time of year the sun did not go down until after nine. The summer solstice was less than a month away and the days were growing longer and hotter.

            Pacing the empty house, Ra’naa’s mind mulled over the recent events, particularly the fact the Whispering Wraith had come and offered their services, for a substantial fee. Her father really had no choice to take the offer, or the entire community would have suffered. That stuck in her craw, the sheer audacity and gall of the assassins to demand that we take their services. She did not trust the people and was feeling paranoid now, taking the time to lock her home and windows before allowing sleep to enter.

            Suddenly Ra’naa stopped and left the cabin. In a second she was crossing the short distance to the lodge, the need to speak to her father almost overpowering in its intensity. The guards waved her past and she went to her father’s office, half expecting the elder man to be sitting there and still hard at work.

            To her surprise, the office was empty and she spent the next couple of minutes going from room to room searching for him until at last she came to a small den he used for meditation and relaxation. He was naked from the waste up, wearing a pair of long, loose fitting pants. His tail was curled around his legs and his eyes were shut as he sat in a lotus position.

            Ra’naa was about to close the door and leave her father to his meditation when he opened one eye and smiled at his only child. “Ra’naa, what did I do to deserve a visit from my baby girl?”

            She hated it when he called her that, as she had not been a baby in a very long time. “I just wanted to talk to you about the Whispering Wraiths.”

            He gestured to the floor. “Well come in and sit, we can practice our breathing and stretching while we talk.”

            “Dad I already went through my forms and did my stretching,” she informed him as she sat directly across from him, pulling her legs into the lotus position.

            “You can never get too much stretching,” Max grinned and placed his hands on his knees. “What do you want to know about the Wraiths?”

            “Whatever you know, dad. You mentioned them in passing before, but I never thought we would have to deal with them. It was bad enough they tried to kill us in Scav Haven, but now they are willing to work with us?”

            “I don’t trust them, I never have and I never will,” Max interrupted by holding up a hand. “I know who they are and where they came from and the fact that they are still around selling out to the highest bidder and blackmailing folks into working with them…”

            “Wait dad, you know who they are?”

            The elder Ahteen nodded. “They were around before the end of the final wars,” he waved a hand towards the southwest, where the city of Scav Haven was located.

            Ra’naa controlled the urge to look in that direction, knowing it was a pointless gesture – she could not see the city from here, of course. “They were?”

            “Yes. Have you noticed they are all Asian?” He asked.

            Ra’naa had to pause and consider his words. Now that he brought it up she realizes that the few they had encountered all had the general eyes and appearance of those who had blood of the Asian’s running through their veins. Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese… it was all there, but in this day and age she never thought twice about it. “What does that have to do with it?”

            “Back in the day when I was commanding armies,” Max began with a wistful smile on his lips. “Back then there was a group of damn deadly and unpleasant Chinese special forces unit known as the Eryu Youling, which is a direct translation to Whisper Wraith. They were assassins, saboteurs, spies, you name it. The bastards caused a lot of damage to our units until the final balloon went up.”

            She chewed on her lower lip as she pondered what her father told her. Ra’naa’s tail began to swish behind her ever so slightly, indicating she was contemplating what she had just learned. Running a hand through her hair, she met his gaze with her own. “So they’re descendent from the original special forces unit?”

            Max nodded. “From what you told me, it appears that they have excellent training and access to technology that was thought lost for the past three centuries,” he adjusted his seated position slightly before continuing. “There is also evidence of either genetic engineering or possibly mutation.”

            “That would explain a lot, how that one bitch was able to stand up and fight after we had killed her,” Ra’naa said as she reached behind her and grabbed her tail and forced it to stay still. At times her genetic legacy tended to have a mind of its own. “So what are we going to do about them?”

            “Use them, of course,” Max grinned, although the smile never reached his eyes, which remained as cold as the depths of space. “They have ulterior motives for offering to help us, and those motives are never good. What would you expect from a group that makes a living of killing and causing as much chaos and destruction as possible?”

            “If they’re descendent from Chinese Special Forces, what are they doing in Scav Haven?”

            “They must have arrived there in the past couple of hundred years and set up a permanent colony. Who knows if they have contact with other groups, which I would assume span all of South East Asia. The last I heard of them before the end of the wars was they had a major base in the Philippines. From what I remember, they were training new recruits and holding the locals hostage in order to prevent us from launching a major offensive against them.”

            Ra’naa’s knowledge of the world before the end was pretty extensive. She had plenty of data stored at the community to fall back upon and access whenever she needed it. In fact, her father had insisted she know as much as possible about the pre-fall years, even though it seemed to be a waste of time to her. “What happened?”

            Max shrugged. “No idea. Just after I learned about the facility the ChiFed’s launched nearly every single city-killer in their arsenal. The orbital bases came under attack and there was the largest ground-war ever on the surface of the moon. My ship took severe damage and we were forced to ditch in the Pacific, maybe two hundred kilometers due west.”

            Ra’naa knew the rest. Armageddon, the Apocalypse, the Holocaust, or the Final War as it was most commonly known as. So much death and destruction was unleashed during approximately a single week that almost all life on Earth was wiped out.

            It is amazing just how many creatures came back from the brink of annihilation, as the death toll during the end was estimated to be well past ninety-nine percent. And yet life prevailed. She and her father speculated that despite the massive loss of life, there had to be facilities that managed to survive. No one has ever discovered the facilities that they speculate about, but how else would it explain the fact that so many creatures did survive? Mutated and non-mutated. It’s possible that someday they might discover the answer to that question, or it may be shrouded in the mists of time and mystery forever.

            “So we’re going to using them, as they are trying to use us.” She said it as a statement, not a question.

            “Exactly. They are scum, they are descendent from a deadly foe I faced years ago,” he chuckled and raised his face so he could gaze upon his daughter. “And they think they have the upper hand when it comes to dealing with us. They have no idea what they’re getting into.”

***

May 25th, 2668 The Community

            The handgun bucked like a living creature, and despite his being ready for the kick, the weapon knocked Otres on his furry rump, much to the amusement of the other recruits that were testing out the weapons. He snarled and spat, hissing at the handgun and dropped it onto the ground in disgust.

            Arleen picked up the weapon and dusted it free of dirt and grim as she gave the little Uplift a very disapproving glower. “Otres, really?”

            I’m not strong enough to fire that type of weapon! He squeaked in protest, waving his hand at the handgun she was now holding.

            “Then use something different, and don’t lose your temper over it!” Arleen shot back, her voice raising an octave but still sounding calm. She did not like this side he was showing, it struck the young woman as childish and below him. Arleen knelt before Otres and placed the gun on the ground before she took his hands in hers. “Don’t get frustrated,” she smiled at him. “Use one of those energy weapons. I tried them, and unlike these guns,” she indicated the handgun on the ground, “they don’t have any kick.”

            He sighed and looked from the gun to the woman. You’re right, sorry.

            “What’s been eating you?” She asked. All around them the other recruits had gone back to checking their weapons, firing and reloading. A few still cast furtive glances their way, amused at the outburst. Arleen decided to ignore them.

            Otres did not want to meet her eyes and instead he pulled out of her grip and then picked up the weapon from the ground, ejected the magazine and then slapped it home.  It’s nothing.

            Now it was Arleen’s turn to sigh. She did not have to be a telepath to know he was lying to her. She considered what to do next and made her choice. An argument with the little Uplift in front of the recruits would not be for the best so she left him, went over to the armorer and chose a laser pistol. After feeling the weight of the weapon in her small hand, she checked to see that it held a full charge, and returned to him. “Try this.”

            Otres took the offered laser and he held it in a two-handed grip, as he had tried with the handgun. A moment later he was aiming the weapon down range towards the target which had been set up for him. As he had been taught, he squeezed the trigger and the weapon discharged a brilliant bolt of crimson energy. The bolt travelled down range and struck the lower left edge of the target. If it had been a live target, the shot would have been a miss.

            “How does that feel?” Arleen asked. She was standing just to the side and had her arms crossed under her breasts, which were accentuated quite nicely by the grey T-shirt she was wearing. Due to the training they were all undertaking, she had decided to forgo the typical white dress worn by the women of the community. Instead she was clad in the T-shirt and buck-skin pants, which had been altered to accommodate her tail.

            He growled and scowled down at the smaller weapon. At least it doesn’t kick, Otres thought. I can use this but I’ll need lots of practice.

            Arleen looked pleased as she took the weapon from his hands. He squeaked a protest but she ignored him. From where she stood, she held the weapon in one small fist and aimed down the range to the same target he had been firing at. She took a deep breath, which made her lovely breasts expand and push against the fabric of her shirt, and then fired.

            The ruby beam of energy struck the target, not center but a little high and to the right. It would have been a shot through the shoulder, and a debilitating hit to be sure. Before Otres could request the weapon back, she fired several more times in quick succession. Each beam of deadly red light finding the target and the combined wounds would surely have killed an unprotected victim.

            One of the instructors, an aged mutant with three arms and shockingly-pink hair was standing off to the side watching the young woman wield the weapon. His facial features were slightly askew, marking him as one of the Damaged, but he wore a pleased smile. “Nice shooting, rookie,” he commented in a strangely accented drawl.

            “Thanks Pinky,” she gave the mutant a coy smile as she checked the charge on the laser.

            The mutant walked up and took the pistol from her in his right arm. He lifted the weapon and fired a rapid succession of shots, each so close together it was as if the weapon was being fired in one continuous stream.

            The target suddenly erupted in flames, and Arleen could see that each shot hit the center. “How?” She blurted, impressed.

            Otres let out a low whistle of appreciation at the display of marksmanship.

            Pinky opened the weapon and ejected the spent energy cell, only to replace it a second later with a fresh one. “Years of practice, many years of practice,” he offered the weapon back to Arleen and she stared at it for a second before handing it to Otres, who accepted it gratefully.

            As it turned out, both Otres and Arleen were eager students, and Pinky took the time to teach both little tricks an ways to hold their arms, how to stand, even how to breath. By the end of the hour, Otres was hitting the target seven out of ten times and inflicting what would be considered actual wounds.

            Arleen on the other hand proved that with just a little bit of coaching and some pointers she was a natural markswoman. She was clearly pleased with her progress and wanted to continue, but Otres was getting cranky. He usually got that way when he was hungry so they thanked Pinky and left the range, promising to return the next day for more training.

            It still felt awkward to Otres as he walked beside the woman, who reached out and took his hand in hers, squeezing his fingers gently. It sent a thrill racing through his body and he felt his heart begin to beat just a little faster at the contact, and when he looked at her she was smiling. What?

            “You’re jealous!” She chortled.

            What are you talking about? Chirping, Otres nearly pulled his hand out from hers, feeling indignant, but he refrained from doing so.

            “I can see it, you wanted to be better with the weapons than I was, and it annoyed you that I have more natural skill.”

            He stopped walking and stared up at the slightly taller woman, his mouth agape in surprise. As much as Otres wanted to deny her accusations, every word was the truth. He clamped his jaw shut and wondered how the hell the young woman could know how he was feeling? She was not a telepath like him, nor was she empathic. Those mutations were possessed by her friend Andy. After a few seconds, he let a very human-like sigh escape, knowing it was pointless to deny the fact. It’s true.

            “Don’t be! You have a gift that is amazing, something I have never seen or heard of before. Think of the gold or platinum you could make in a city like Scav Haven, people would pay small fortunes for your services.”

            Otres blew a raspberry and shook his head. I could care less about money; it doesn’t mean a thing to me.

            “I’m just making a point,” Arleen rolled her eyes in exasperation, throwing her hands up in mock surrender. “We all have our gifts, and we all contribute.”

            Who have you been talking to? He asked, curious. The change in the girl was quite profound. When he first met her, she was filled with wonder and fear, and seemed utterly unsure of herself. Now since she joined the community, the change she had undergone was drmatic. In some ways it reminded him of Tara and her change in personality after falling in love with the pilot.

            “Momma Rathbourne,” Arleen answered.

            Ah, that makes sense. He began to walk again, heading towards the community pool, which he had moved into. 

            “Where are you going?” She asked, although she already could figure out the answer.

            Home, I guess I’ll see you later for supper?

            “Okay.”

***

May 26th, 2668 The Installation

            The prisoners were sitting or lying on cots in their small, drab cells. The lighting was muted, not to keep the prisoners comfortable; it was to mute their knowledge of the passage of time. Each of the cells contained a single cot with a thin mattress, a blanket, as well as a toilet built into the floor for their comfort. They were fed three times a day, just after sunrise, at noon and at seven in the evening. Each cell was exactly three meters long by two meters wide and the walls were painted a dull grey. It was a rather dull picture when one looked at it.

            Babs stood with Awoan, Joey and several other technicians, all huddled around a series of holographic displays. Each showed a single man, one of five they had taken prisoner after the battle for the installation. All the prisoners were various stages of finishing their morning meals.

            “How long before the nanites begin to spread?” Babs asked, looking at the condemned men. Each of them had their food laced with the modified nanites, and each would end up spawning a different type of undead terror once they made it back to their base.

            “They are replicating as we speak, within two to three hours they will be saturated by the nanotech,” answered one of the scientist androids.

            Despite the revulsion she felt, Babs nodded. The idea of using a terror weapon like this against a group of humans, even scum like the Purists did not sit well with her. Even now she regretted ever having volunteered for the mission, although she was happy with the extra items she had brought back with her. One of the other androids could have accomplished what she had easily enough.

            “When are you going to release them?”

            Awoan continued to watch the displays for several long seconds before she answered “At noon, after their second meal. We will provide them with clothing and basic provisions, and then it will be up to them to return to their home.”

            “Isn’t that risky?” Babs crossed her arms under her nearly non-existent breasts and then consciously uncrossed them again. She stood with her hands at her side, watching the men who were to die a death so horrible it was nearly inconceivable.

            “How so?” One of the scientists asked, his curiosity piqued.

            “The road back to their base is hundreds of kilometers of rough trail, filled with all manner of mutant animals and other dangers. I’d put money down on the fact that few, if any, will manage to make it back to their base.”

            “Ah,” Awoan smiled and tilted her head in acknowledgement. “Your words ring true.” We have considered this already, and have plans to take one of the numerous corpses and plant the body on the trail. The man will have his personal weapons, ammunition and armor, as well as provisions and communication gear.”

            The last two words really registered.

            “So he will end up calling for his people to come and pick him up,” Babs finished.

            “Exactly.”

            “What’s stopping the nanites from activating and killing them prematurely? What if some of them are killed or lost on the way to their compound? The nanites activate and all of a sudden we have a plague of nanitized undead on our hands,” and conscience, she added silently.

            “Rest assured such an event will never take place,” Awoan replied, her voice a little chillier than Babs had heard. “The promise has been made and the nanites have been programmed, as I already said. They are spreading thought their systems right now, but they will not become active, nor will they become infectious until after the hosts have arrived at the compound. The nanites have an actual geographical grid reference, which defines their activation and spreading.”

            “Sorry,” Babs mumbled, only half meaning it.

            Satisfied, Awoan returned her full attention to the prisoners. Had Babs been human, she would not have been able to supress the shudder of revulsion and disgust, knowing the fate which awaited the prisoners.

***

May 26th, 2668 Near the community

            Shrouded in darkness, hidden from sight through the liberal combination of skill and technology, the pair of assassins studied the walls surrounding the community. Both figures had arrived just after sunset and waited patiently until the magnificent orb that gave life finally slid down past the horizon, plunging the world into the infinitely endless cycle of day and night. 

            All around them the forest was alive with creatures great and small, and as with the cycle of night and day, the circle of life continued unabated. The two figures remained motionless for hours, never moving a muscle, even when one of the hated mutant voles came sniffing around. The little monster scurried up and over the figures, never pausing, never realizing that food was literally beneath its feet.

            Eyes as dark as obsidian barely blinked as they watched the comings and goings of the community’s inhabitants. Once full dark claimed the land, the two would abandon their hiding spot and scout the exterior of the community, following the walls and mapping the entire location. With that accomplished, they would begin the third and final phase of their mission – they would infiltrate the walls and make a detailed map of the interior. The homes, businesses, defenses and other important factors would be clearly detailed and the data returned to the Purists.

            After all, they did pay for it.

            It would also serve the assassins well, knowing their enemy and their employer’s home in greater detail.

            An hour later the stars twinkled in the blackness above and the only sound was that of a hunting owl. The forest around the two figures had grown still, as if in anticipation of something dark and sinister.

            Moving with the silence of the mythical creature they drew their name from, the two figures glided out from cover, appearing like black-clad apparitions. Anyone watching where they were standing might - just might be able to see a spot of deeper blackness against the backdrop of the forest. If the watcher happened to be using technology such as night vision, thermal or even ultraviolet, the duo had cloaking devices that automatically negated the sensing capability of such devices. They would remain ghosts in the darkness.

            Neither figure made a sound as they ran a circuitous route around the perimeter of the community, always staying just inside the treeline, away from the cleared zone. They made notes of the location of guard towers, the frequency and number of patrols, and any possible egress into the community itself.

            All the while they ran special sensors over the wall; the device analyzing the wood for possible weak-points and vulnerable spots that could be exploited in the future. The device stored the data for later examination and it would be given to the Purists.

            The leader of the small two person team was a young woman, barely out of her teens. This was her first mission for the Whispering Wraith, and she was determined not to fail. As missions for the assassin’s guild went, this was a walk in the park, more of a test of her and her companion’s ability to remain unseen. Still, she was determined to succeed, no, to exceed all expectations.  

            It was quite ironic, when she thought about it. The Wraiths were playing both sides, each gathering intel on the other. The pure chaos the simple act of what they were doing was rewarding all on its own. The Wraith’s lived for chaos – and they were growing rich by doing what they did best.

            Eventually they returned to the main gate. It was closed for the night, but there was a smaller man-door to the right and left of the gate itself. There were men and women patrolling the wall to either side of the gate, and this was where the heaviest concentration of the guards were located.

            The trick was to slip up and over the walls, coming as close as they could to the guards, without being seen. In reality it was another test, one which required them to pass or they would have to face the consequences of failure once they returned to the guild hall.

            Both were adept climbers and would have no trouble scaling the wall to reach the ramparts. There were torches lit all along the walkway, and stationed strategically along the wall were large spot-lights, which could be turned on and pointed out into the darkness at a moment’s notice.

            Moving to the right hand wall, the woman waited as her male counterpart positioned himself at the foot of the left wall. As soon as he was positioned, they both clamoured up the wall with the grace and speed of a spider, using unseen hand and toe-holds, climbing on a combination of instinct and touch.

            In seconds, both were at the lip of the rampart, holding on by mere fingertips as the patrollers walked past. They waited in silence, holding on with what looked like inhuman effort until the time was right. When the coast was clear, they pulled their bodies over the lip of the ramparts, moving in perfect synchronicity, a ballet of economy of motion and agility.

            The guards were only a few meters away as the two assassins slipped unseen over the edge, just patches of darkness against the flickering shadows, cast upon the wooden wall by the torchlight. Anyone looking would just assume the movement was the shadows, adjusting to the light, nothing out of the ordinary.

            A moment later, both assassins were on the ground and meeting together on the right side of the gate. The guards were still busy, watching the forest on the other side of the wall or walking the path’s they were to patrol. No one raised an alarm, no one looked their way, and that meant they had passed yet another test.

            Neither would have any explaining to do once they returned to the guild hall in Scav Haven. Now they were inside the walls it was a short trek from the gate to the town proper. They crossed the intervening distance in record time, moving so fast as to be blurring of shade against the black outline of the buildings.

            It was well into the night and nearly every soul inside the community was fast asleep, dreaming of tomorrow and what lay in store. Some were in the thralls of nightmares, others worried about what the war might hold for them and their loved ones, and still others were lost in grief over those taken during the most recent battle.

            This did not matter to the two. They were there for one purpose and that was to map out the community, make note of strategic structures and points, and gather all the intelligence they could. Using their speed, they travelled through the community, stopping in the shadows, hidden from the few lights that were burning and pushing away the darkness. Here they made notes on the technological marvels they had brought with them, ensuring that even the most insignificant tidbit of data was not left out.

            Such data could mean the difference between lives lost or even victory against the inhabitants.

            The woman giggled, realizing that their counterparts would be in the middle of the same act down in the Purists compound. With the data both sides were gathering, those who acted first would help weigh the scales in their favor.

            The delicious chaos these acts are creating, it was so beautiful it nearly made her wet at the thought. She was a creature of chaos and lived for the moment, to cause as much chaos as possible. The desire to begin inflicting damage and sowing the seeds of chaos was all but overpowering, but she resisted the urge.

            Time for such frivolous acts was simply not in the cards right now. She sighed and continued with their mission.

            Nearly an hour later they were standing at the rear of the ancient lodge, the heart of the community and the home to the leader, Max Ahteen. This was going to prove to be the most difficult part of their mission… they had to infiltrate the lodge and steal whatever data or intelligence they could find. It was dangerous and the risk of discovery was magnitudes higher than anything they had already faced.

            It was going to be a delectable challenge, and both were up to the task.