Buck Who? Chapter 38

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 38: Infiltration and Release

May 26th, 2668, The community

            The room was stuffy and his naked body was soaked in sweat. Try as he might, Declan could not sleep and he lay there, staring at the backs of his eyelids. Tara and he had gone to bed nearly two hours before and after a particularly heated session of love; she had fallen asleep on her belly, her tail draped over his chest. The Tiger-Exotic was snoring softy as her whiskers and tail twitched slightly reminding him how much he wanted to visit the temporary oblivion that was sleep.

            With the way his heart was pounding and the cold shivers running through his body despite the heat and sweat, he knew that would not happen. What made it even worse was the phantom pain he felt in his prosthetic limb, an insistent itch that seemed to burn along non-existent calf muscle tissue. Declan tried, hoping beyond hope, that scratching the artificial flesh of his leg would alleviate the problem.

            Of course not.

            Feeling anger growing, his heart-rate skyrocketed and he found it was nearly impossible to breathe. Looking down at the sleeping Tiger-Exotic, he reached out with one hand and gently nudged her tail off his chest. Tara groaned slightly and shifted, curling up into a ball, muttering under her breath before she settled back into deep sleep.

            Declan slid off the bed, careful as to not make too much noise or awaken his lover with the jostling. A few minutes later he was fully dressed and was lacing up his boots. The weapons he had been given were resting next to the door and with practiced ease, he strapped the gun-belt to his hips and secured it around his leg.

            Opening the door, he stole his way into the darkness beyond, disappearing into the shadows as if he had been born to it.  The air outside was still hot and muggy, but compared to the interior of the cabin, it was pleasantly refreshing. Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad, he wanted to get some air-conditioning. Maybe he could send someone to Scav Haven to pick up a unit for him. It would be a simple task to hook it into the community’s power-grid and then he could sleep comfortably.

            Declan walked, breathing deep of the slightly cooler night air and concentrating on his racing heart. He loathed the way the anxiety attacks were affecting him and this was one of the worst he had felt in several days. A walk would help, and at least he was moderately safe inside the walls of the community. There were few night predators which could make it inside the walls, and that was one of the reasons they had an active patrol.

            The former pilot shut his mind down as best he could as he walked. He concentrated on the darkness engulfing him, which amazingly enough helped him cope. It was due to the fact he had to pay close attention to where he was walking and it took a significant amount of mental energy.

            Within an hour, his heart-rate had returned to normal and he did not feel the panic threatening to overwhelm him. Even the phantom pain in his artificial calf muscle had fled like the little creature it was. He knew it was defeated and had slunk away to the dark recesses of his mind to sulk and wait. When the time was right, it would return and sink its claws into his emotions.

            His walk took him towards the lodge where Max lived and ran the day to day operations of the community. It was a beacon of light in the sea of darkness, although if he turned and scanned the community he could make out the occasional light, and that of one of the patrols.

            Just for the hell of it he approached the nearby lodge. The building was awash in light, cast from fixtures set strategically along the exterior of the ancient structure. Considering how old the building was, Max Ahteen had kept it in pristine condition. Other than the foundation, Declan was certain that very little of the original structure remained. It was strange and comforting at the same time for him to gaze upon the old hunting lodge, as if it too was a castaway in time, lost from everything and everyone that had meant something.

            There were a pair of sentries at the main entrance to the building and although he was still hidden by the darkness, he knew the men saw him approaching. They were equipped with night-vision gear, allowing them to see the surrounding land as if it was high noon. He decided to wave, but neither man responded.

            Odd, Declan thought as he grew steadily closer to the building. Why had the two men not responded? Was it they were not allowed to do, or something else? “Hey,” he called out.

            Again, nothing.

            His anxiety was starting to return in full force and his heart increased its tempo in his chest, skyrocketing to over one hundred and sixty beats a minute. A cold fist of dread filled his stomach and he felt queasy, with oily sweat breaking out on his skin.

            Fear drove his feet as he ran up to the guards, neither reacted in any way, neither raised a weapon, nor did they call out a greeting or challenge. Declan stopped only a few scant meters from the men and visually inspected each. There was no sign of blood, no sign of trauma, nothing to suggest anything was amiss.

            He closed the few meters and reached out to lift the goggles off the one on the left. The man’s eyes were closed, but he could see the eyeballs moving beneath the lids. That was a good sign, Declan thought as he reached under the man’s collar and checked for a pulse. The man’s flesh was hot to his touch and the pulse was there, strong and regular.

            Then he noticed the small white dart sticking out from the opposite side of the man’s neck. The guards had been paralyzed. “Max, we’re under attack!” He shouted as he burst through the front doors of the lodge.

***

May 26th, 2668, The community

            Momma Rathbourne sat bolt straight in her bed, gasping out in shock. She placed a withered and age-spotted hand against her chest and willed her heart to slow down, fearing it was about to burst. The room was dark and it was both stuffy and humid inside her cabin. A little bit of torchlight poured through the windows facing the street as she reached towards the nightstand next to her bed. A glass of water, heady with condensation, waited for her.

            She drained the tepid liquid quickly and held the glass to her forehead as she waited for her nerves to calm down, for her heart to stop fluttering like a bird trapped in her chest. The dream had been vivid and she knew instantly it was more than just a simple dream – no it was another vision.

            There were a pair of dark-clad figures inside the community and they were gathering something, she had to assume it was intelligence, and they were going to leave via the south wall in the next hour or less, if she could judge the positions of the stars she had witnessed in her vision.

            There was a slight scuffing, a rustle and then the little Uplift girl was at her side, staring into her eyes with those strangely luminescent orbs of hers. They glowed like miniature lanterns in the darkness of the cabin. She could feel the girls concern and she gently stroked the child’s head. “Go back to sleep, dearest,” Momma Rathbourne told the Uplift girl-child she had adopted nearly two months ago. “I just need to go for a walk.”

            The girl stared at her for a moment, and looked confused, as if she did not quite understand. Then the child nodded and returned to her bed.

            Momma Rathbourne stole a glance in the direction of where the girl was lying. She could just make out the form of the little creature lying on top of her cot, the bed-clothes bunched up at her feet as she curled up and tried to get comfortable.

            She turned her body until her ancient and wrinkled feet touched the wooden slats of the floor and in seconds she found her old shoes and put them on. She threw a shawl around her night-gown and then giving the girl one last look, left the building and ventured into the street.

            It was only a few minutes later that she found what she had been looking for, Ra’naa’s cabin. There was no sign of light and as much as she hated to do it, Momma Rathbourne knocked lightly on the door.

            At first there was no response, but she continued to knock until at last a sleep-filled voice wormed through the wood of the entry. “Who is it?”  A second later the yellow flickering light of a candle came pouring through the windows.

            “It’s Momma Rathbourne, sorry to wake you but it is urgent.”

            The door opened to reveal the sleep tossed form of the Dragon-Exotic. Her hair was flat against one side of her face and her eyes were three-quarters shut. “What’s wrong?” She sleepily asked, unsuccessfully trying to stifle a yawn.

            The old mutant woman pushed her way into Ra’naa’s home and then faced the much younger woman. “We’re under attack,” she said without fanfare.

            Ra’naa stood there, blinking and trying to rub the sleep from her eyes. She had been asleep for only an hour and she was very groggy. However, the words brought her instantly and fully awake. “What?”

            “I had a vision,” Momma Rathbourne explained and then went into detail about what she had seen. As the old woman spoke, Ra’naa shucked the robe she had thrown on and was dressing in her armor. By the time the old mutant was finished, Ra’naa was adjusting the last strap and checking the loadout of her handgun.

            “Go wake my father,” she ordered as she removed the sniper rifle from the rack next to the door. “Tell him I’ve got this, but to alert the guards, we don’t want either of the intruders escaping.”

            “Be careful, dear.” Momma Rathbourne said with genuine affection.

            “I will.”

***

May 26th, 2668, The community

            The interior of the lodge was dimly lit, as it was late in the night. The room was deserted as Declan called out, his voice echoing oddly through the cavernous chamber. He drew in a deep breath and was about to call out a second time when he felt a sudden, sharp impact against his neck. He was in the act of reaching up to feel what had hit him when his body locked in place, his muscles and nerves refusing to obey his mental commands.

            A slight figure appeared as if magic in front of him and stood there, staring up at him through a mask. Declan tried to speak, but like the rest of his body, his vocal cords refused to work the way they were intended. Whatever toxin the attackers possessed worked nearly instantaneously and was the most effective paralytic he had ever encountered.

            The figure continued to stare up at him, and he realized with a start that whoever it was, she was female. The curves of her body and the slight bulge of her breasts were apparent at such a close proximity.

            Already stressed, his heart went into overtime and the cold, greasy sweat began to pour like rivulets down his body. He felt light-headed and could not get his breathing under control. He wanted to run, to do anything, but he was stuck there, like a fly caught in amber. The panic attack was threatening to kill him.

            Mercifully, he passed out, although his eyes remained open.

***

May 26th, 2668, The community

            “There is something wrong with this one,” the woman assassin said, staring up at Declan’s frozen figure. “I think he might be having some sort of attack.”

            Her companion emerged from the shadows and came to stand next to her. It was amazing how they could blend into the few shadows available in the dimly lit room, but they were able to take full advantage of what there was. The male cupped his chin and studied Declan. “Well, whatever it is, he’s out for the count now.”

            She nodded and closed the door and then strode into the main room. “Do you think he alerted Max Ahteen?”

            “No, if he had, we’d know it. I’m sure we managed to paralyze all of them, so I doubt that anyone heard, or if they did, they are in no position to raise the alarm.”

            “You better hope we did,” the woman practically growled. “Let’s finish this.”

            Moving like the spirits of the dead they were named after, the two figures lit through the old lodge, double checking the guards they came across to ensure that the men and women were still under the influence of the toxin. They mapped out the main level and then flitted to the second floor, where the leader of the community had his main office. This is where it was going to get tricky.

            The door to his office was locked, which came as no surprise to either. There was a high-tech biometric reader built into the wall and it required both vocal recognition as well as a fingerprint scanner. There was no way either could possibly pass muster, so the male pulled out a small rolled up package from one pocket. He unravelled the package to reveal a set of specialized tools and a micro-computer. Moving with speed that was almost too fast to follow, he removed the panel and went to work. In less than twenty seconds, the panel went from red to green and an audible click sounded from the door.

            The tools disappeared back into a pocket and with a nod and a flourished wave of his hand, he gestured at the door. The woman curtsied and then took the handle and pushed the door inward. It opened without resistance and she peered into the darkened chamber beyond. The only light was coming in from the large window and it was barely enough to allow her to make out the location of the furniture.

            Both slipped into the chamber and she crossed to the desk. He took readings and mapped out the room while she hooked up another device to the computer. The holographic display came to life, icons comprised of motes of light dancing in the air. A few deft touches and swipes and the device went to work.

            “How long?” He asked once he was finished.

            “Six seconds.”

            The seconds ticked away and she removed the device from the computer, powering it down. They were about to leave back through the entrance when it was thrown wide open. Max Ahteen stood there, a heavy assault rifle held in both hands. He did not even bother to tell them to freeze or warn the pair of assassins.

            They both reacted with lighting reflexes, but it was still too slow. The assault rifle barked, spitting flame and armor penetrating rounds. The woman was caught in the first volley, the heavy caliber ammunition punching through the nearly non-existent armor she wore under her black clothing. Her heart was stopped by the kinetic energy transfer and her spine snapped. There were further injuries, as the rounds pulped her internal organs into jelly, and she collapsed without a sound, blood pouring from her mouth and the gaping entry wounds in her torso.

            Cursing loudly, the second figure was already on the move before the body hit the floor. He was racing towards the window and out of seemingly nowhere, he pulled a handgun and fired. The rounds smashed into the glass, weakening it enough so that when he finally reached it, he sailed through with little resistance.

            A hail of bullets, sounding like an angry Melter Swarm passed within millimetres of his falling form. The ground rushed up to meet him and he hit, rolling to reduce the impact, and was on his feet, racing away from the lodge for all he was worth.

***

May 26th, 2668, The community

            Knowing better than to ignore Momma Rathbourne’s warnings, Ra’naa ran towards the lodge. She was thankful that she had taken the cabin so close to her father’s headquarters, and not having settled on the other side of the community. She was just about to head to the back door when there was the sound of glass shattering followed an instant later by the heavy chuffing of a large caliber assault rifle.

            She stopped and watched as a figure hit the ground, rolled, and then came up running. It had to be one of the two assassins Momma Rathbourne had seen in her vision. Where was the other one? She wondered.

            The sound of the assault rifle spitting out controlled bursts broke her brief reverie and she looked up to see her father standing at the window. The heavy assault rifle snugged against his shoulder as he sighted in the fleeing target and threw volley after volley at him. From the colorful cursing she heard drifting down from the heights, she knew her father was incapable of hitting his target.

            Risking getting hit, Ra’naa took off after the figure, putting all her energy into chasing him down. Her legs pumped like a well-oiled machine as she charged through the night, trying to close the distance between her and her quarry. The man was fast, and despite her best effort, she was losing ground on him.

            The figure was running away from the town, choosing to head towards the nearest wall. If he had gone into the community, then the noise certainly would have attracted the attention of at least a few people, and evading capture would not be as easily achieved as it was here.  Ra’naa really hoped her father grabbed his sniper rifle.

            Anger bubbled up inside her as she continued to follow the quickly fading figure. The man had entered her home, literally violated the sanctity of her community and threatened those she loved. What the two assassins were doing in the community was not clear to her. After this was over she would sit down and talk to Momma Rathbourne about what she had seen in her vision.

            He was clad in black and with it being night; it was growing more difficult by the moment to make him out from the shadows and puddles of darkness. He must have stopped running in order to face his pursuer. It was so strange though, he was all but gone. She blinked her eyes rapidly to activate her night-vision and she scanned the area where he had been only moments before.

            Nothing.

            Ra’naa was only a hundred meters or so from the wall when the assassin struck. Something warned her at the very last second and she ducked. The act, borne of instinct or possibly something her subconscious picked up on had most likely saved her life. The air felt displaced next to her left temple, and she knew that the assassin had fired upon her.

            There! Only about five meters to her left she could make out a black humanoid shadow against the outline of the wall. She briefly wondered if he had some sort of cloaking device or tech that interfered with her natural vision, as he was almost impossible for her to see! The figure was holding a hand-held weapon in one hand and was doing his best to adjust the aim to fire again.

            She never hesitated, instead coiled her legs under her and used her tail to help propel her body. Ra’naa soared across the intervening distance gliding with effortless ease. At the last possible moment, her target sidestepped and she missed crashing into him, but that did not matter, she was right where she wanted to be.

            “Let’s dance!”

***

May 26th, 2668, The community

            Max knelt by the corpse of the female assassin and reached out to remove her mask. He held his handgun at the ready, the assault rifle slung over his shoulder, since it was too close quarters to use the heavier weapon at any rate.

            The fabric of her mask was soft and supple to the touch, and he instantly knew it was made from silk. He grabbed the edge of the mask and pulled it away to reveal a very pretty face. She had a small, slightly flat nose and big, almond shaped eyes, which were open and staring off into infinity. Her skin was milky white, and her lips, full and pert, were slightly parted in death.

            Max shook his head sadly as his suspicions were confirmed. She was one of the Whispering Wraith. What was she doing here in his community? That was something he wanted to get to the bottom of as soon as humanly possible.

            Standing, Max faced the entrance to his office as several men burst in, their weapons rose as they fanned out, covering each section of the large chamber.

            “Sir, are you alright?” The first man to have entered asked. He was tall, just over two meters in height and was built like the proverbial brick shit-house. The assault rifle cradled in the man’s thick mitts almost looked like a toy. He held it with the confidence of a man who had been trained many years to handle such a weapon.

            “I’m fine, but you need to conduct a room to room search, and check on the other guards, and I want you to send a contingent out into the community. My daughter is chasing a second intruder, and the last time I had a chance to look, she was heading due south, chasing him towards the wall.”

            “You heard the boss,” he bellowed and waved at the others who had entered with him. “Tandy, I want you to go and take Franklin and Ossler with you. Get moving!” After the guards left, he returned his full attention to Max. “We’ve found several already, and other than being paralyzed, they seem to be fine.”

            For only a second Max felt a stab of guilt for having killed the woman. They had infiltrated his home but had not actually harmed anyone. Deep in his mind a small voice wondered how the Whispering Wraith would react to him having killed one of their own? Max knew he would have to deal with that if, no, let’s be honest he chided himself - when it came up.

            He snapped his attention back to the guard. “Good, glad to hear that. I still want you to get them to the infirmary though, wake up Kate if you have to, and get her to check them out.”

            “On it,” the man said and left.

            The question continued to nag at him. Why had they entered the community? Max knelt beside the corpse for a second time and began to rummage through her clothing. She was armed, and that did not come as a surprise. He pulled out several vibro-blades as well as a medium caliber handgun and several magazines. Those he placed on the ground as he continued the search. In only a few more seconds he stumbled upon a strange device, about the size of an old-fashioned cell-phone. He picked it up and studied the device. There were no visible buttons so he assumed it was touch activated. Max ran a finger over the flat screen and sure enough a holographic display appeared in the air only centimeters from the device. Instantly he recognized the symbols as Mandarin and read ‘enter password’.

            Knowing the odds of him guessing the password was impossible, he placed the device in one pocket, knowing it would automatically shut down after a minute or so. His knees cracked as he stood and grimaced. Max was not used to being on his knees for so long and he was really feeling his age. A dull pain shot through both as he straightened and he resisted the urge to rub them.

            There was a slight commotion at the door as several more guards arrived, bearing a stretcher between two of them. He motioned towards the body, “take her to the infirmary, we will do an autopsy on her in the morning.”

            “Yes sir,” chorused and they went to work.

            Max walked over to the window and scowled. It was difficult, if not impossible, to find that grade of glass in this world, and replacing it would be both time consuming and expensive. He shook off the selfish thought and let his eyes wander in the direction where he had seen Ra’naa chasing the intruder. He hoped his daughter would be okay, and that the back-up he sent would arrive before the situation got any worse.

***

May 26th, 2668, The community

            The assassin never uttered a word as he closed to engage Ra’naa. The challenge had been issued and he was more than willing to accommodate the Dragon-Exotic. The man moved with a dancer’s grace and held his hands up in a defensive posture, and that made Ra’naa smile. He was trained in the arts, so this fight would prove to be interesting.

            She dropped into a bow-stance and brought her hands up as well, waiting for her opponent to make the first move. Ra’naa did not have long to wait. Her opponent twisted his hips ever so slightly, as if he was about to throw a round-house kick her way, but instead he took a half-step forward, getting close and launched a flurry of snap-punches.

            Ra’naa did her best to block the attack as she stepped away, forcing the assassin to follow her. She kept her hands moving in a blur, blocking and countering each strike as best she could until finally the man struck out with a side-kick.

            The kick was wickedly fast, but she was even faster. One of the basic tenants when it came to a side kick was its speed, and the ability to pull it back almost instantly. This prevented the opponent from doing exactly what she did – her left hand performed a hooking block as her right grabbed his ankle.

            To his credit, the man tried to do a reverse temple-punch, but she pulled back, not only pulling him off balance, but at the same time she twisted savagely. The intent was to break bone at the very least or even damage the knee and the tendons located there.

            Instead of suffering injury from her attack, the assassin allowed his whole body to be twisted. Still he fell to the ground and rolled with her twist, forcing her to let go before she too lost her balance.

            For the moment, Ra’naa had the advantage and initiative. There were three things that if you lost any of them, you lost the fight. First was balance. If you fell, you were leaving yourself vulnerable to attack – very vulnerable­. It did not mean you were helpless, as there were plenty of techniques one could do to defend while grounded, not to mention being able to regain ones footing. Still, it was a bad place to be.

            The second was sight. She and her father trained blind-folded and often in the pitch black of an enclosed room, which made them the exception. Typically however if one lost their sight, the battle was over.

            Finally was breath. Having your wind knocked out was unpleasant, but it could also rob you of your ability to fight and defend yourself. It’s hard to block incoming attacks when you’re gasping for breath, and even harder to launch successful strikes for the exact same reason.

            She raised her foot to stomp down on the prone figure, but at the very last moment he rolled out of the way and performed a scissor-kick from the ground, knocking Ra’naa’s legs out from beneath her. The Dragon-Exotic hit the ground with a grunt, but managed to keep from losing her air.

            The assassin pulled a blade from his tunic and the weapon sprung to life. Thanks to her inherit night-vision; she could see it and a cold knot of dread filled the pit of her stomach. It was a vibro blade, razor thin and vibrating at thousands of RPM per second. The weapon was deadly on its own, but the vibrating could cut through durasteel given enough time. The assassin brought it down, just missing her knee by scant centimeters. It hit the ground and made a loud buzzing as he pulled it out and readied to strike once again.

            Ra’naa would not have any of that. She was still tangled up in his legs, and the man was shockingly strong for his size, as he applied pressure to her left leg, twisting and grinding the bones together.

            She could feel the muscles and tendons stretch and scream in protest at the punishment the assassin was inflicting, but she willed herself to ignore the pain. The assassin was trying to distract her, to break her chi, so to speak, so he could bring the blade down and finish her. Ra’naa had one advantage though, and she hoped that in the heat of the battle the assassin would not think about it.

            Her tail.

            She lashed out with the heavy, scaled appendage and it slammed down on his face. Even though the mask he wore she could hear the muffled impact and the grunt of pain. The assassin moved with shocking speed and slashed at the tail, cutting a deep gash down the length of the appendage, despite Ra’naa’s best attempt to pull it from harm. She gasped and barely suppressed a cry as pain, hot and exquisite, raced through her tail and up her spine.

            The assassin untangled his legs and they both jumped up from the ground, each performing the same back-flip stance to land on their feet, although Ra’naa’s was more graceful. It helped because she had a tail, and it still functioned as it should despite the wound the assassin had inflicted.

            Since the assassin brought out a knife, she pulled her handgun from its holster and clicked off the safety in one smooth motion. “Want to play that game?” She half chuckled and raised the weapon, aiming for the center of mass. She could see the assassin’s eyes narrow as she applied pressure to the trigger. The weapon thundered and bucked in her hand, just as the assassin dodged to the side and down.

            At such close range she should not have missed, but she did! The bullet smashed into the turf only a few meters behind her target and he practically flew at her, launching his body into the air and performing a wickedly effective flying axe-kick.

            Ra’naa twisted to the side, allowing the foot to graze down her right arm. Instead of shattering her collarbone as the assassin had intended, his booted foot hit with enough force to send waves of shock through the muscles in her arm and she dropped the handgun. He then followed through with a reversed-grip slash with the vibro-blade, intending on slashing at her neck or face.

            Ra’naa could feel the displaced air from the weapon’s strike as it passed her exposed neck. She was not sure if the assassin had connected or not, and would not know for several seconds. The cuts from such a weapon were so clean as to be literally pain-free for several seconds, until the blood began to flow through the parted flesh.

            No pain.

            No feeling of blood running down her flesh.

            She had been lucky and now they were so close they could embrace. She struck rapidly, one hand smashing down on the assassin’s, forcing the man to drop the blade. At that exact same moment, he brought a fist in from his side, aiming for her exposed stomach. Following through, she smashed down with her other hand while the first struck at his throat. He parried it deftly and they began to throw strikes and parries at one another. Their fists moved with blinding speed, and she realized that he too had to have practiced Wing Chun, an ancient art that her father had spent years teaching her.

            They were getting nowhere, neither able to land a critical strike against the other, so Ra’naa changed the rules. She struck with her knee, intending to hit the man in the groin. He had to have sensed her intention, as he turned his body at the very last second and avoided having his testacle’s crushed. Instead he took the blow to his thigh muscle, but it was enough to cause him to stagger back a single step, allowing her to get one solid strike in against him. The blow smashed through his defenses and she felt his nose pulp beneath her fist.

            He grunted in pain and slid back another couple of steps, and Ra’naa followed him, launching blow after blow at his face and throat. The problem was that not a single strike landed. She knew if he had struck her with such a hit, she would have been hard-pressed to remain standing, let alone be able to block.

            But block he did, and efficiently.

            Then there was a sharp pain in her stomach and all her breath left her in a single explosive exhale. The assassin had managed to get a single devastating snap-kick in while she had been trying to pummel him into oblivion. Ra’naa doubled over, one hand clutched at her stomach, which felt as if it was on fire. The strength the kick possessed was unbelievable.

            A hand shot out of the darkness and smashed into her cheek. She felt the bone crack beneath the impact as a white-hot nova of pain burst in her skull. Tears began to stream from her eyes instantly and she could feel blood filling her mouth with a coppery tang. In a matter of a couple of seconds she had lost all three of her most important assets. Breath, balance and sight.

            Another blow smashed into the back of her skull and for only a second darkness engulfed her and she fell flat on her face, her nose and mouth filling with the soft scent of green, growing things.

            Then consciousness returned and she felt her head being pulled off the ground by the hair. It was painful but nothing compared to the pain ripping through her shattered cheek. Her eyes were still blurred by tears and there was a loud ringing in her ears. Still, through the buzzing, she could hear a voice, low and penetrating, the breath hot on her ear. “Your people killed her, and I am going to return the favor. Make peace with your gods.”

            Through the blurriness, she could see he was holding the vibro-blade and she could hear its whine as he brought it ever closer to her throat. She could feel the air as the blade displaced it with each passing millimeter, nearer and nearer to her body.

            Is this how I’m going to die? She thought, the images of her father, Otres, Tara and even Declan appearing like phantoms in her vision. No! Ra’naa mentally screamed, determined not to go out, not until she has had a long life and left behind a legacy of children with a man she had yet to meet. Her right hand snaked out and wrapped around his wrist and she pushed it away with all her fear and desperation-fueled strength.

            The man was strong, incredibly so, but her sudden and unexpected resistance took him by surprise and she managed push his hand away, even twisting the wrist while she fought against him. “Fuck you!” She screamed and suddenly let go of his arm, throwing him off balance. She rolled and was out from his grasp in a second and as she moved, her tail lashed out, despite the pain it caused her, and she wrapped it around his leg.

            The assassin suddenly found the tables turned and he was lying flat on his back, the impact causing him to lose the blade. It hit the ground about a meter away and instantly shut off. He grabbed hold of her tail and dug his fingers into the deep, bloody wound, causing Ra’naa to screech in raw pain.

            No matter how she tried, there was no way she could maintain a grip on his leg with her tail. The pain was sending tendrils of agony to race up her spine, nearly causing her to collapse. Ra’naa let his leg go, but the man still clung to it, digging his fingers in harder with each passing second.

            She cursed him, his parentage and all his ancestors with every ounce of her strength. The pain was so bad she wet herself and fell to her knees, tears raining down from her eyes. She was going to lose and the bastard was going to kill her.

            In desperation, she drew upon the one weapon she had left, something she hoped the assassin would not be expecting. She called upon her dragon-breath and spewed the contents of her stomach, which consisted of her last meal and copious amounts of acid.

            The assassin, having thought he had won, believed she was about to vomit from the pain he was inflicting. When the acid hit him full in the face and upper body, he let go with a shriek of his own and tried to wipe it away. It only made things worse, as the acid began to burn his hands.

            In reality the attack was not as effective as some of the acid that could be found in the wilds, natural toxins used by many mutant creatures as a means of both attack and defense. This time it was far, far more effective than she could have hoped for, as it had gotten into his eyes and blinded him.

            Ra’naa came at him, trying to ignore the pain radiating from her tail and cheek. It made walking difficult, and kicking nearly impossible, as each time she lifted her leg and adjusted her stance, it felt as if her hips were locked in place. Still, she needed to fight the man and finish him off before he pulled any further stunts. She came in with a roundhouse, which caught the assassin in the side of his head, snapping it back. He began to stumble and fall, but she followed it with a devastating spinning back-kick, which caught him in the solar plexus, causing him to double over. She landed in a perfect crane stance and used the most basic of kicks, a snap-kick, and caught him under the chin, snapping his head back.

            He flew several meters through the air to land on his back, his chest heaving as he struggled to breathe, his hands still wiping at the acid burning his eyes.

            A second later, Ra’naa picked up the discarded vibro-blade and flicked it on. She wanted to move as quickly as her pain-wracked body would allow, but it was still just slightly better than a jog. She slid to a stop next to the assassin and brought the blade to his throat.

            His hand shot out and despite the painful blisters and the flesh that had been eaten away to the muscle and tendons below, he gripped her hand in both of his. Ra’naa began to punch his face, but with an amazing feat of agility, he lashed out with one leg and managed to wrap it under her throat and he pushed her back and off.

            She landed on her back, but executed an acrobatic jump, regaining her feet just as he performed the same maneuver. Despite the pain, despite the desperation of the fight, she almost laughed. They could not have performed it with such perfect synchronicity even if they had planned it.

            He launched himself at her, leaping into the air and performing a flying spinning back-kick of his own. She barely managed to sidestep as he came down, missing by a few centimeters. She did not hesitate, as it would mean her life, as she snap-punched him in the back, hitting the spine and the kidney in rapid succession. The blows were lacking in strength, but the impact was painful and it caused hit stumble. Even as he staggered, he threw a spinning backhand of his own, which clipped her on the side of the head. It was a poorly aimed attack, and most of the strike hit her horn.

            The already tortured and battered flesh of his hand ripped open and several bones snapped at the impact, causing him to howl at the beating his appendage was enduring.

            The blow jarred her, but her horns saved her from having her temple caved in, or from being knocked unconscious. Still, she saw stars and the strike staggered her slightly. She managed to get her hands up, fists ready and her arms and elbows acting as shields for her ribs and torso.

            The assassin growled deep and low in his throat and came at her, his fists moving with cobra-strike speed, despite the injuries he had sustained. She managed to block or parry the attacks, and even brought her elbow down hard on his leg the few times he tried to kick.

            This dance of parries and strikes lasted for what felt like an eternity, neither combatant able to get the upper hand on the other, and much to her shock and dismay, it looked as if the damage she had managed to inflict was healing! Maybe it was due to the lack of light, since she possessed the ability to see in the dark, but fine detail was often lost, or maybe he was healing as they fought. After all, the assassin back in Scav Haven came back from the dead, if she had actually been dead.

            A second later the assassin performed an amazing feat of agility as he summersaulted back and away from her, using his hands as springs, the man managed to put nearly ten meters between them before he landed on his feet. He stood there, arms raised and one hand motioned for her to continue.

            “Oh for the love of…” she growled out, her vocal cords feeling as if they had been flayed after using her dragons breath. Then something she had not expected, would not have expected to happen in a million years occurred. The side of the assassin’s head erupted in a fountain of blood and gore, his brains literally punched through the skull as a heavy caliber round smashed through his head.

            “Dad!” She cried, instantly regretting it as her throat protested by sending pain crawling up into her already throbbing skull. She looked back towards the lodge and even though the distance was great, she could see her father standing in the upper window, a long barreled rifle in his hands. Part of her was grateful for the intervention, another part was angry as she had taken the fight with the assassin personally. She would have rather have finished the man with her bare hands, but considering he had the advantage of being able to regenerate…

            The sounds of running feet met her a moment later and she watched as a contingent of her father’s guards arrived on scene. There were six men, all heavily armed and armored and they spread out around Ra’naa, scanning the darkness for more potential threats.

            Once the men were in place, Ra’naa strode over to the corpse, stooped next to the fallen assassin, and began to go through his clothing. She quickly disarmed the man, although regeneration or not, she was certain he would not be coming back from the wound her father had inflicted. Still, she dared not take any chances. She found a strange device and instantly pocketed it, figuring it had to be something that her father would want to take a closer look at.

            Finished, she instructed the guards to pick the corpse up and with their help, they returned to the lodge.

***

May 27th, 2668 Near the Installation

            The five prisoners stood in a neat row, their hands bound behind their backs and canvas bags over their heads. Each was sullen, while the youngest, a man barely into his twenties, quietly wept.

            Each expected they were going to die in a matter of seconds. The androids had taken them out of their cells, bound and blind-folded each man, before leading the few survivors from the installation into the warm and humid air. Due to sensory deprival, they had no idea where they were, only a vague sense of the passage of time.

            “On your knees,” a distinctly male voice ordered.

            All complied, including the one who was quietly sobbing. Once they were on the ground, the speaker went to each in turn, pulling the canvas bags from their heads. Each and every prisoner blinked against the light, as their eyes had grown accustomed to the dimness inside their cells. Even thought it was overcast, the light was still difficult to take.

            Joey looked at the line of men, varying in age from a young early twenties to a man in his late forties or early fifties. Each was sullen and none would meet his eyes. Joey rubbed his chin, feeling the stubble growing there and realizing he had not shaved in several days.

            The one who was weeping looked up at him, fear and dread mixed liberally on his young face. The man would have been handsome, if it had not been for what he had done and what he represented. “Make it quick, please?” The man begged.

            Holding a handgun in his left hand, and a wickedly sharp blade in his right, Joey presented the perfect image of a man who was to be their executioner. Upon seeing the weapons held in both fists, the men visibly quailed.

            All but one.

            The defiant man stared hatefully, boldly, into Joey’s face. He spat on the ground. “Cut my bonds and let me fight for my life,” he challenged.

            Joey shook his head. “What, do you think I’m fucking stupid?” He demanded, but there was a smile and humor in his words.

            “Gutless coward,” the man spat again, then continued to glare daggers at Joey.

            That caused him to laugh and laugh hard. “I’m the gutless coward?” He chortled. “I’m not the one who butchers women and children because of their genetic heritage. That’s a coward in my books. You deserve to die.”

            “Ain’t such a thing as women and children with the genetically inferior, just abominations that need to be purged from the world.”

            Joey shook his head sadly. “You’re a fool, and that’s why you had your asses handed to you when you attacked my home,” he moved behind the weeping man and knelt. The man began to blubber loudly and there was a distinct pungent odor of urine. Instead of cutting the man’s throat, he slashed the bonds holding the man’s wrists and quickly backed away.

            Slowly, not believing what had just occurred, the man brought his freed wrists around and stared at the parted rope in mute amazement. Scarcely able to believe his fortune, he slowly looked up at Joey through red-rimmed eyes. “You’re freeing us?”

            Joey nodded curtly and dropped the knife at the man’s knees. “You and your slime-sucking friends are free to go. Once I leave you are to cut the rest of the bonds and make your way home. Do not linger, as we have snipers ready to kill you without hesitation if you don’t do as I say.”

            The loud-mouthed, defiant soldier shook his head in disbelief. “What’s stopping you from killing us right now?”

            “By the creators you are fucking stupid?” Joey shook his head in amazement. “Why the fuck would we bring you out here, free you and then kill you?”

            Hate filled the man’s glare as he stared up at Joey. “Amusement?”

            “Shut up, Hausser,” another of the prisoners hissed. “Just shut the fuck up and we’ll get out of this alive.”

            That’s what you think, Joey thought. “I’ll be leaving now. Go home, and don’t ever come back. Joey turned and began walking towards the installation when a voice cried out, stopping him.

            “What about weapons and food? How are we supposed to travel hundreds of kilometers through the wastes? We’ll be killed for sure!” There was genuine fear in the speaker’s voice.

            Joey gazed dispassionately over his shoulder at the speaker. “And I’m supposed to give a shit, why?”

            That shut the man up and Joey nodded. “I thought so.” He continued into the forest until he could no longer see or hear the prisoners.

            The first one to stand was the young man who had been crying. He looked at the four other men and offered his hand to the nearest, who just so happened to be the one called Hausser. The older man slapped the offered hand away and stood, his knees creaking with the effort. “Quit your god-damned blubbering,” he growled. “How the hell did you ever get assigned to this assault is beyond me.”

            The young man backed away, his hands up before him. “Look I was just trying to help,” he said in a quavering voice.

            Another one of the men likewise stood and glared at the young man. “Fuckin’ pussy,” he spat on the ground. “I was with you and when we attacked, you barely lifted your weapon to fire on the enemy!”

            The younger man could not deny that. His heart was never in the fight, he never wanted to be part of the Purists, but due to his family he had no choice. Instead of replying, he turned away from the four men and began to walk south, following the trail that ran parallel to the ruins of the highway.

            “Where the fuck do you think you’re going, James?” The man named Hausser yelled.

            “Home,” James said, not bothering to look back. “We better do as the man said or his people are gonna kill us,” he looked over his shoulder.

            As if to emphasize his words, there was a loud report and the ground erupted between Hausser’s legs. The man screamed like a child and jumped nearly a meter in the air, his hands coming up to hide his face.

            No one laughed; instead they all began to follow James, heading south back towards the compound.

            Only James had a different plan. He was not going back to the compound; he was done with the Purists. It had been a mistake and he knew it, right from the moment he was indoctrinated into the group. As soon as he hand a chance, he was going to break away from the others and take his chances in the wilderness. Maybe he would make it, maybe he would not, and that was for the fates to decide.