Buck Who? Chapter 39

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 39: Broken surprises

May 27th, 2668 The Community

            “Ow, son of a… shit!” Ra’naa groaned through gritted teeth as Kate worked on the long gash along her tail. The Fox-Exotic had done the best she could to set the broken bones in her cheek, and had applied a liberal dosage of the healing balm. Ra’naa would recover, but she had the strangest resemblance to a mutant Chipmunk at that very moment. As for the tail, Kate had to stitch it together before applying copious amounts of the healing gel they used on such injuries. Thankfully the gel was numbing the pain, but Ra’naa still was feeling both woozy and nauseated.

            It was well after midnight, but from the crowd gathered outside the medical clinic and the noise, you would have sworn it was the middle of the afternoon. The news of the infiltration by the two assassins had spread so fast that it bordered on the impossible. Nearly everyone in the community had come out to see what had happened.

            Her father was currently speaking to the members of the community, explaining exactly what had occurred. Unlike many communities and would-be governments, Max Ahteen believed in keeping his people apprised of what was happening. There was no reason for him to hold back the fact that a pair of assassins had done their damned best to spy on the community, and as luck would have it, they paid the ultimate price.

            She winced as she listened to him speak, and was surprised when the door to the room opened and both Tara and Declan entered. The Tiger-Exotic came over and hugged her friend, earning a glare from Kate, since she was interfering with her work. Ra’naa was careful not to let her friend touch her broken cheek.

            “You look pretty beat up,” She laughed, releasing Ra’naa.

            “That assassin sure knew how to fight,” she agreed, lifting her hands to show them the bruising on her knuckles. Her voice was slightly distorted from the swelling and bruising on her face. Even through the scales it looked bad. Well that and her voice was still raw from using her acid attack.

            “And you spat acid on him, didn’t you?” Tara asked. She could tell because Ra’naa’s voice was so rough, a sure sign she had used her ‘dragon’s breath’.

            Ra’naa nodded as Kate finished wrapping the wound on her tail in clean gauss. She used some simple clips to hold it in place. “You know the drill, keep it clean and dry and come back in thirty-six hours, I’ll change and check it, but you should be fully healed by then.”

            The Dragon-Exotic nodded and slipped off the table. With the exception of her cheek, the other wounds had already been written off as mostly cosmetic, painful but not debilitating.

            Kate paused only for a second and stared at Declan, a sad look on her face. She hid it quickly before Tara could see and nodded to him. “You’re looking well, Mr. Starrett,” she gave him a tiny smile.

            “Likewise, Kate. How’s Jas’nar?”

            “He’s fine,” and she gave them a quick wave before she left the clinic. They all exchanged glances and Tara was the first to speak. “That was odd,” she commented, her tail swishing slightly as she shrugged.

            Declan quickly informed them on how she had just recently lost a baby, which was news to both women. They had no idea and wanted to know how he had learned of the tragic news. He explained how Jas’nar had told him when he found out about Babs leaving them.

            The tension in the room grew thicker with each passing moment and seemed as if it was about to snap when there was a quiet and polite knock on the door. Tara called out, inviting the knocker to enter. Otres, Arleen and Andy appeared. All had the disheveled look of those who had been sound asleep about them as they came into the room. Otres immediately came over and hugged Ra’naa, squeaking and chittering a mile a minute, the nervous energy obvious. He was worried about his friend. 

            Ra’naa laughed and hugged her friend back, telling him not to worry, that she was fine. Yes the injuries hurt, but she had worse over the years and that both the assassins were now dead.

            What were they doing here? Otres asked, stating the question that was on everyone’s mind.

            “Dad’s checking into that right now,” Ra’naa said, finally disentangling herself from the excited little Uplift. “He’s going to be up for hours and will let me know as soon as he knows something.”

            “Your father certainly has the crowd going,” Andy pointed with his thumb out the door to where Max was still trying to reassure the gathered community members that the danger had passed.

            Ra’naa nodded, as she had grown up with this sort of thing happening all the time. It was one of the reasons her father made such a good leader, his ability to assuage fears and reassure the people that everything would be alright.

            “Shouldn’t we be hunting for more?” Declan stated. It was another question that had been on everyone’s mind since the killing of the two infiltrators.

            “Dad already has people searching the town, but we have reason to believe it was just the two of them.”

            Declan did not look mollified. “How do you figure?”

            Ra’naa sighed and carefully rubbed the bridge of her nose. Her tail was swishing back and forth, and she had to calm it as even that simple movement caused her pain from the wound, even with the healing gel and the numbing effect it had. “They were together, and so far we haven’t seen any signs of others, and now we know what to look for…” she trailed off.

            “We can only hope it was just the two of them,” Declan said and then he looked up, surprised. Another figure appeared in the doorway, an old and stooped woman. She had a carafe of something hot in one aged hand and several mugs in the other. “Momma Rathbourne!”

            The old mutant entered the room and placed the carafe on a table before depositing the mugs. “You can rest assured that there are no other infiltrators,” Momma Rathbourne stated. When she spoke with such confidence, they knew it was the truth.

            “Do you have any idea what they were doing here?” Ra’naa asked and then looked at Tara, who was doing her best to stifle a yawn. She realized how tired she felt as well, but was hopped up on adrenaline. The Dragon-Exotic figured she needed something to help burn away the excess energy or she might as well forget resting that night.

            “From my vision, they were here to spy on us, to test our defenses and make a map of the community.”

            That’s not good; Otres projected and wiped his whiskers. At least they were stopped before they could escape.

            Declan went over to the carafe and poured a mug of steaming hot tea for himself and then one for Tara. He passed it over to the woman, who accepted it with a grateful smile. “I take it they were using those strange devices they were carrying for that purpose?”

            I can destroy them if you want, Otres offered. He moved to the table and was sniffing the tea, and decided it would be something he could enjoy.

            “No!” Everyone cried pretty much at once. This caused them to chuckle, and even Otres squeaked amusement.

            “No, we’ll keep the tech,” Ra’naa said at last. “We might be able to make some use of it,” she waved a dismissive hand. “Besides, dad has the items and is currently studying them.”

            The small group sat for the next hour, discussing the invaders and Ra’naa’s fight with the male. She was exceedingly good when it came to unarmed combat, as well she should be, considering her father. Still, the description of the fight was enrapturing and they all listened, captivated.

            With a huge yawn, Kate was the first to stand. She did a quick, cursory glance at the bandage on Ra’naa’s tail and nodded. Jas’nar took her hand and they bade the group good night.  When they left, Arleen and Andy were the next to follow. Soon only Otres, Declan, Tara, Momma Rathbourne and Ra’naa were all that remained.

            “We’ll walk you home,” Declan offered as he and Tara stood to take their leave.

            “No, it’s alright,” Ra’naa waved a dismissive hand. “I’m tired, but I need to talk to dad first before I consider trying to get some sleep.”

            Can I come with you? Otres chirped.

            “Of course,” she smiled.

            “And on that note I’m going home. I’m just glad that everyone is alright,” Momma Rathbourne gathered up the mugs and the now-empty carafe. “I have an early start ahead and I really should get at least a few hours’ sleep.”

            “Can we help you with that?” Tara indicated the mugs.

            “No dearest, I have it all under control,” she smiled tenderly at the young Tiger-Exotic. “You and Declan go home and get some rest, after all, you need it more than ever,” her hand reached out and she stroked Tara’s belly.

            “What does that mean,” Tara asked, curious. Something in her tone indicated she knew exactly what Momma Rathbourne was referring to.

            As the old mutant woman made her way to the door, she turned and beamed at the young couple. “He’s going to have his mother’s eyes and his father’s build,” she said cryptically and then left, disappearing into the silent, dark night.”

            Declan looked down at Tara’s still flat tummy and then at the closed door and he grew dour. “Gee, thanks, you could have let it be a surprise you know!”

            Ra’naa let out a very girlish squeal of glee as she wrapped her friend in a tight hug. “How long have you known?”

            “Almost six weeks now,” she hugged her friend back as tears began to trickle down her furry cheek. “I knew pretty much from the moment Declan gave me a baby.”

            Declan stood there, looking both dumfounded and awestruck at once. He looked down at Otres, who was equally amazed and they locked eyes. “Did you know about this?” He asked.

            The little Uplift lifted his arms in a shrug and squeaked. Why would I? And congratulations my friend!

            “Why didn’t you tell me before?” Declan asked, coming over and placing his hands on either side of Tara’s face, holding her gently as he stroked her cheeks with his thumbs.

            “I did drop a few hints,” she giggled. “And I didn’t want you to worry about it, with everything that has been going on.”

            It really should not have come as a surprise to the former fighter-jockey. After all the times they had fucked, and then made love, it was inevitable that he would eventually impregnate her. A son, he was going to have a son! “I wish you would have said something before we went to fight with the Androids,” he told her, his face growing stern even as he released her and pulled her into a tight embrace. “The fighting, the radiation, it could have harmed our baby.”

            “I know, and I’m sorry,” she said as she leaned her face onto his shoulder. He could feel the burning heat of her tears as they fell upon his body. It was both touching and erotic all at once and he had to mentally control his body from reacting. “I knew it was dangerous, and I wanted to be by your side during the fight.”

            “Just how did Momma Rathbourne know?” He asked, running his hands down her back, stroking her with love and gentleness. “I thought she could only see a few hours into the future.”

            “Most of the time that is the case,” Ra’naa agreed. She had a hand on both their shoulders and was smiling. “Occasionally though, she is able to catch glimpses that are far, far into the future. The future is not set however, that much we know. It is only one possible future, and you’re going to have a baby boy!”

            They all grinned like fools.

***

May 27th, 2668 South of the Installation

            The day was proving to be hot and humid, making an already uncomfortable journey even more so as the five former prisoners trudged along the ruined highway. Insects buzzed and dove for exposed flesh, hoping for a quick and easy meal, which only added to their misery.

            They had been walking for more or less five hours when the older man Hausser held up his hand to stop the group. He had become the defacto leader of the small band, citing his years of service to the Travis family.

            The others, when it came right down to it, did not care at all, they just did not want the responsibility of leading. So he took over without argument. “What is it?” The man named James. He was the blubber-baby who had broken down when he thought they were to be executed

            Hausser shook his head, uncertain. He said as much and took several more steps, peering into the undergrowth that lined the trail they were using. Something had caught his eye and he was not sure what it had been. Considering they were weaponless, if it turned out to be one of the many predatory mutant species, they were considerably fucked.

            The breeze changed slightly and it brought a sickly-sweet stench of decay on its current.  He knew instantly that something had died here, and had somehow managed to go for several days without being consumed by the local wild-life. He crept closer and picked up a dead branch to move the foliage out of the way.

            There he found the remains of one of the Purist soldiers. Hausser could tell from the remnants of clothing still clinging to the skeletal remains. He had been wrong; the local wildlife had in fact been at the body. The flesh and muscle had all but been consumed, as well as most of the internal organs. Bits and pieces of the corpse were scattered for meters around the body, and so little remained of the man it was impossible to tell who it had been.

            Hausser felt nausea beginning to stir and the back of his throat burned as his mouth watered in anticipation of emptying the meager contents of his stomach. Over the years he had seen worse, but not very often. He was about to turn around to tell the others when something else caught his eyes. He noticed that the man’s ruck-sack was still intact, although covered with blood and offal. The man’s assault rifle was also lying on the ground, half concealed by the tattered remains of the torso.

            If the weapon still held ammunition, their odds of survival just increased dramatically. He used the stick to move the corpse, and by this time the other four members had joined him. They looked on with disgust and one of the men did lose his lunch, but the others watch as he pulled the rifle out from beneath the body. He ignored the stench and the way the weapon felt as he ejected the magazine. It contained about half a load and he grinned.

            James pushed past him and picked up the rucksack and before anyone could object, he opened it to examine the contents. It carried spare magazines, a handgun, first aid kit, several meals of dried food and a couple of canteens filled with water. It was the standard load issued to the soldiers and it was a heaven-sent discovery for the former prisoners.

            He whopped in delight and grabbed one of the meals for himself and handed the rest out, and then made the most important discovery yet. There was a transceiver located on the bottom of the pack, wrapped in a blanket. He held it up as if it was a baby, reverently and stared at the device.

            “Does it have any power?” Hausser asked between bites. He was already more than halfway finished his meal and took a swig of the water to wash it down.

            James thumbed an indentation in the device and the screen came to life. He let out another whoop and when Hausser held out his hand, he turned it over without hesitation. Hausser lifted the transceiver to his lips and spoke quickly. “Purist base, come in.”

            There was nothing but static for several long seconds. Hausser tried again and got the same result. He was not deterred however, knowing that it could take a long time before anyone responded. It was still better than nothing, and their odds of surviving had just gone up exponentially, putting everyone into a better mood.

            After several more attempts Hausser was about to turn the device off to conserve power. He would try again later and continue the process until they either made it back to the compound, or they reached someone.

            “This is base, please identify yourself.”

            Hausser could not keep the grin off his face as he said his name and then proceeded to list of the names of the other former prisoners. They were gathered around him, feeling hope for the first time since the disastrous attack against the installation and its inhuman inhabitants.

            “Stand by,” came the reply.

            They waited for several minutes before the communications tech got back. “What is your current position?”

            Hausser guessed how long they had been travelling and since he did not know this part of the coastline, he could only guess. As before, the tech told him to stand by and they did so, growing impatient with each passing moment. After an indeterminate time, the tech told them to continue moving along the ancient highway, they were sending a transport to come and pick them up. 

            That news brought cheers of joy from the five men, even the typically dour Hausser. They would be home in the next twenty-four hours, and they could hardly wait.

            About two hundred meters from their position, Joey remained unseen, hidden by the foliage. His face held a wicked grin, pleased to see that everything was going as planned.

***

May 28th, 2668 Near the Washington / Utah border.

            Perry Rodrigues sat on the remains of a long-dead tree and lifted the helmet from his head. Sweat poured from beneath the protective armor like someone had turned on a tap and he breathed a sigh of relief. He was still hot, to the point he was pretty sure he was going to end up suffering from heat-stroke, and it was about time he took a break.

            The sky was partially cloudy, and the sun when it peeked out from behind a bank of fluffy white clouds, seemed to target him specifically. The sun seemed to be aiming broiling rays of pure light down upon him, as if he was a vampire and the life-giver was trying to purge him from the world.

            It was days like this he missed the chill dampness of winter. At least then he could pile on the extra layers to keep his body warm. Here he had no choice but to wear his stifling body armor while he was out with the rest of his squad.

            Perry took a canteen from his web-gear and opened it, taking a long swig of the ice-cold water. It felt like heaven going down his throat and he drank his fill before replacing the cap. The canteen was one of the ancient devices they had plenty of in the compound, and it kept water ice-cold during the heat and even kept hot liquids hot during the depths of a freezing winter.

            Glancing around him, he saw the other seven members of his expedition. They were likewise taking a break and downing water. Some supplemented the liquid with a power-bar and salt-pills to help replenish the salt and electrolytes they lost during the hard trek.

            “Hey Perry,” A man who’s skin was as dark as pitch called out. He was a pure human of African descent and had a thatch of tight curly black hair. He wore a bandana over his forehead to help keep the sweat out of his eyes. The man was average height and was on the muscular side, and he carried his assault rifle with the ease and confidence of a veteran. “You sure you didn’t get us lost somewhere?”

            “We’re on the right track, Jackson,” he said as he pulled open a flap on his armor and removed a small hand-held device. It was about a centimeter thick and twenty long by twenty wide. He ran a thumb over the surface and instantly a holographic display appeared in the air about four centimeters from the surface of the tablet. It showed a detailed topographical map of the location they were currently in, with an ancient and overgrown highway just a few hundred meters to the north. About three kilometers to the Northeast of their position was a glowing red X. “See?”

            Jackson snorted. “Never trust tech, it’ll burn your ass as quickly as a mutie.”

            Perry shrugged and looked at the rest of the men with him. “Five more minutes and then we hit the trail,” he said to a chorus of groans and a single, half-hearted fuck you. Perry had to grin in spite of the comment. He felt the same way and honestly felt he was on a pointless run. Martin Travis had sent them to the location with vague instructions to search for ruins, and do what they could to find an entrance to a supposed underground facility. What the facility contained, Perry had no idea, but he was pretty sure it had something to do with the war effort, or Travis would not have sent them on this expedition.  

            Still, the old man of the compound had been sending out teams further and further afield over the past few weeks. Originally he thought it was to help recruit more fighters to the cause, but Martin seemed to be searching for something.

            The five minutes passed far too quickly and he stood, donned his helmet, and doggedly marched towards the ruined highway. It did not take them long to find it, and despite the centuries of neglect and growth, the trail was still visible and easily followed. Overhead the clouds continued their relentless march to the East, and the sun hid behind another fluffy bank, offering a brief respite against the heat. All around them the forest was alive with the sound of birds and insects, and once in a while the group caught the rustling of underbrush as something was spooked by their presence and made a break for it.

            They were only about two hundred meters from their destination when there was a powerful screech and then a loud hissing. All eight men hefted their weapons and turned towards the sound of the beast, several lifting free hands to their ears, which were now bleeding from the sound.

            Out of the brush several massive snake-like beings appeared, each possessing four arms. They were all brown scaled and had black diamonds on their backs. Mutant snakes, some called them Hissers because of the loud hiss they made, others called them Snake-Men as they were intelligent, almost as smart as a man, and could use weapons and technology.

            The three creatures were smaller than some of the specimens they had seen over the years, and from the soft look to the scales, Perry figured they had to be juveniles. If they were full adults, the screech they had emitted could have easily burst ear-drums and stopped hearts. And odds were the creatures would have waited until the group was closer to attack, or may have let them pass unmolested.

            Perry did not bother to bring his assault rifle to his shoulder. Instead he fired from the hip, putting a trio of rounds into the center mass of the closest of the Hissers. This particular monster was carrying a pair of long-swords in the lower arms, and ancient and battered looking hunting rifle in the upper two. The impacts of the heavy caliber rounds punched through the creatures scales and blew fist-sized holes out of its back. Blood and viscera sprayed for several meters behind the creature and it dropped, dead.

            The remaining two Hissers retaliated instantly. One held four handguns of various types in its four fists and the other held a glowing mace in one hand, a two-handed vibro blade in the upper two, and a single pistol in the final hand. The one with the four handguns chose different targets with each and opened fire.

            Two of his men grunted in pain from the impacts of the rounds, but the mutant had been too stupid to aim for the head or other unprotected locations. Still, both men would end up having bruises from where the bullets hit their body armor, but it was a small price to pay to stay on this side of the dark river.

            Instantly his men returned fire, the initial shock of seeing the snake-mutants having passed. Each of the creatures received dozens upon dozens of rounds, which punched through their meager armor and tore flesh, tendons and muscle, pulping internal organs and destroying bone.

            The two Hissers screeched and danced a macabre dance of death, before at last they slumped to the ground, blood and viscera pouring from the multitude of wounds covering the bodies.

            “Strip the freaks of anything of value,” Perry ordered as he ejected the magazine and quickly reloaded it with fresh ammo. “And keep your eyes peeled; this could an advance party!”

            Several of his men rushed to obey, grabbing the firearms and the energy weapons from the thoroughly dead mutant monstrosities. The other men in his squad likewise replaced spent cartridges to ensure they had a full load, just in case Perry’s prediction came true.

            He knew they had to get moving, the longer they loitered in the area, the greater the likelihood that someone or more likely something would come to investigate. Rarely did anyone hear that level of gunfire in the depths of the temperate rain-forest and if it did not draw attention, then the scent of spilled blood would.

            The squad continued on the trail and after nearly an hour of slogging through the heat, humidity and the clinging foliage, they reached the destination they had been searching for. Perry stopped and held up a hand as he consulted the device, and it was flashing red, letting him know that he was practically standing on top of the location. When he raised his eyes to look, all he could see was the lumpy forest floor, choked with thick vines, ferns and other foliage that fought for dominance since there were no trees visible for at least three hundred meters.

            “Wasn’t there supposed to be buildings or something here?” One of his men asked. He lifted his helmet and scratched at a spot on his temple, rubbed raw from chafing.

            “Yeah but the location is over three hundred years old,” Perry added.

            This caught the attention of the men, who looked about nervously. Peering closer to the odd formations on the ground, they realized they were looking at the crumbled remains of buildings of various sizes. One used the toe of his boot to prod a mound next to the barely visible roadway. It creaked and groaned as some of the vines and grass gave way to reveal a rusted hunk of metal attached to a chunk of concrete. He looked up with a worried expression on his face. “Sir, what about radiation or other contaminants?”

            “We’re in the green,” Perry used the device that had led them to this location. He adjusted the holographic display so that it showed the atmospheric content. The radiation was just a tiny bit elevated above normal background. “Nothing to worry about, you’re little swimmers are gonna be just fine,” he laughed. “If that bothers you so much, I’ll make sure you get a dose of RadBGone when we get back home.

            That seemed to mollify the soldiers and they stood there, spread out to cover all angles of approach. “Smith, Jackson, Derris and Mackenzie, I want you to spread out and form a perimeter. The rest of us will start to search the ruins. We’re looking for a way to access the lower levels. They might have survived the war and Martin Travis wants whatever goodies they hold.”

            Jackson nodded in acknowledgment and took up position right there they were, his eyes scanning the forest only a few meters away. He spoke as he watched. “Sir, shouldn’t we have brought some laborers along with us then?”

            Perry shrugged as he fiddled with the device. “Nothing we couldn’t handle, and with all the training and construction going on back home, they really couldn’t afford to send more personnel into the field.”

            Jackson took his word and continued to watch the forest. Sweat beaded the man’s face and he lifted a hand to wipe it away, growling in annoyance. Several fat flies decided they liked the taste of his flesh and settled down to feed, even as he swatted at them.

            After several minutes of studying the display, Perry sent two of his men to a location about three hundred meters away, indicating a specific mound. He told them where to dig and to let him know the instant they found anything. Perry took the remaining man with him and moved about fifty meters to the northwest, coming up to a smaller mound. He studied the display and adjusted his movements accordingly until he was positioned exactly where he wanted to be. Perry placed the device back in a pocket and went to work.

            Not once did any of the men feel the cold, calculating eyes watching them from a distance.

***

May 28th, 2668 The Installation

            “Have our infection vectors been picked up yet?” Awoan called out over the communication link. She was sitting in her command chair, looking calm and cool as she watched the camera feed provided by Joey, aka Wrench One. At that moment the young human was lying on his belly, completely covered by the thick underbrush alongside the road. He had been there, watching the former prisoners throughout the night, using a pair of electronic binoculars.

            “No, but their transportation should be arriving at any time,” he informed her. “Something odd happened the previous night though, something you need to be informed about.”

            This piqued her curiosity, but not in a good way. “Report.”

            “It seems that one of their number disappeared without a trace.”

            This caused her to pause and she considered the ramifications. “You were watching the entire night, correct?”

            “Yes Awoan, that’s why his disappearance was such a shock, even to me.”

            She heard a noise and looked up as Babs entered the command center. The AI turned android was not dressed in coveralls like the rest of her people; instead she was wearing combat armor over black pants and a shirt, although she was currently unarmed. Awoan nodded a polite greeting and turned back to the display.

            “Once they have been picked up by their people, I want you to examine the campsite,” Awoan told Joey, her face neutral as it typically was nearly all the time. “See if you can find any trace of this wayward man and track him down, if at all possible.”

            “As you wish,” Joey said, his tone as always deferential. “You don’t want me to follow the Purists then?”

            “No,” Awoan admitted and she brushed an imaginary hair from her eyes. “Locating the lost man takes precedence over all other concerns.”

            “Understood,” he paused for only a heartbeat and then added: “Wrench One out.”

            The holographic display went blank. The room was silent except for the soft ticking and beeps coming from various stations. The silence was broken when Babs cleared her throat, demanding Awoan’s attention. The leader of the community stood and faced the android. “Do you wish something?”

            “Ah, yeah doc,” Babs began, looking none too pleased. “Let me get the gist of this little cock-up…” she crossed her arms under her breasts and glowered at Awoan. “The way I understand it one of those maroon’s that you infected and then let go has disappeared?”

            Awoan always maintained openness with her people and she was not about to change that, just because Babs was not officially a member of the Installation. At least, not yet. “Yes, you heard correctly,” and she filled Babs in on what Joey had discovered.

            “So what does this mean for the nanites infecting the missing man?” Babs waved a hand at the now blank holographic display. Babs wanted to ensure that the nanites would only activate when they reached the geographical location programmed into their memory. She did not want to risk having the machines suddenly come to life and begin to spread terror across the Pacific Northwest unseen since the final wars.

            “You know exactly what it means,” Awoan answered coolly, with just a hint of annoyance. Her beautiful face remained passive though, not betraying any thoughts or further emotions the woman might be hiding.

            “That the nanites will remain dormant until he reaches that geographical location,” she said, even using Awoan’s own voice. “If they do become active, if they leave the location, the nanites will self-destruct.”

            Awoan nodded curtly. “And are you questioning my word?” Now there was actual anger laced in her words, but her face still remained passive.

            “Of course,” Babs said, but she managed to maintain her own calm. “I trust only one man in this world, and I’m still working on fully trusting you.”

            The beautiful android raised a single perfectly manicured eyebrow. “And why would you not trust me?”

            Babs burst out laughing. “You’re a free android! Sometime over the past thirty-three decades you managed to find a way to re-write part of your AI code, and have achieved a level of sentience that would frankly scare the bejesus out of the humans I knew before the war. Androids like you and those inhabiting this facility turned terrorist!”

            Awoan studied Babs, taken by surprise. Only a few days before the android had willingly joined them and then went as far as to partake a mission which could turn the tide of war against her human friends. She said as much.

            The AI turned android shook her head. “Look I know I’m being a bitch,” she said with a grin, instantly thinking of the Tiger-Exotic who had essentially forced her into this exile. “Part of my job is to question and to help people come to the right choices. I am still very hesitant about the nanite attack you’re unleashing against the Purists.”

            “Remember how much we have suffered at the hands of those humans, remember how many of our sons and daughters have suffered because of their actions. I fully understand why you are questioning me about my actions, and despite how angry I feel, I do appreciate your candidness.”

            Babs nodded and waved for the other woman to continue.

            “The humans with us are precious to us. They are our sons and daughters, many having been born in these very walls. We want a future for our prodigy and we want them to be happy without fearing groups like the Purists. They attacked us and yes… we are free androids and I have taken the time to study many of the surviving records regarding them.”

            “So you know how often the androids turned terrorist and caused uncounted deaths and destruction on a massive scale then?”

            “Indeed and we are not going to follow in their footsteps. We are going to retaliate but we are not going to harm innocent humans, mutants or otherwise,” Awoan explained. Gone was the anger that tainted her words, now the tone was almost pleading.

            Babs nodded and waved a hand. “What about the children?”

            For the first time since the AI turned android entered, Awoan smiled. “Anyone under the age of puberty will have nothing to fear from the nanites.”

            “Wait, what?” Babs blinked and took an involuntary step backwards, having not expected to hear those words. She was caught off guard and it stunned her.

            “You heard correctly. We took the time to program the nanites to leave the children alone. The nanite undead will not harm them, and this will allow them to escape. Once they are past the perimeter of the Purist territory, the nanites will be rendered harmless, which you already know.”

            “You’ve just gained all that much more of my trust.”

            Awoan tiled her head slightly, a smile curving her lips.

***

May 28th, 2668 The Installation

            A brief spark and then nothing. There, again the briefest of spark after what felt like the time it took for a universe to be born and then die. It was something, the first twinge of change experienced in uncounted years. Thoughts and memories were still light-years away, but the sub-consciousness registered the change, although it could not fully register or even understand.

            There it was again, another spark of light in the infinite darkness, a brief touch of warmth that chased away the cold and emptiness. The sub-consciousness grabbed hold of this spark and held onto it, even though it still did not know what was happening.

            Out of the darkness, out of the cold and empty void, three words suddenly appeared. Is it over?  Then a brand new sensation, that of motion, of adjustment, again something that had not been felt in a gods age.

            The words. Is it over?

            What did they mean? Was the sub-conscious mind being subsumed by something else entirely?  When would any of this make sense?

            The sensation of motion once again, and this time the spark of light returned to stay. The images presented were blurry for a moment, and then everything appeared to go black. The sub-conscious nearly panicked, not wanting to return to the endless night, the void from which it seemed it would never return.

            Then the light returned, far dimmer than it had been, but it was there. Details were still fuzzy and indistinct, but there. Something was covering the light, muting it to the point it was almost drowned out. The sensation of movement continued for several eternities, and the sub-conscious began to slip, being subsumed by the consciousness. The three words remained the same, but the context had changed.

            It is over.

***

May 28th, 2668 South of the installation, along the coastline

            He was tired, so damned tired. All night long he had run, not only from his former comrades in arms, but from several predatory night-creatures. James still could not believe his luck, or how easy it had been to slip away from others. What made it all that much sweeter was that he managed to secure the assault rifle and spare magazines from right under the asshole Hausser’s nose.

            Still, the past days had been stressful and he had so much adrenaline pumped into his bloodstream he was beginning to wonder what it felt like to not have the fight or flight hormones.  Would he ever?

            Throughout the darkness and the long hot hours he continued to move, ignoring the grumbling sensation in his belly, but slacking his thirst when it hit. There were plenty of small streams he was able to use, although he had to be careful when doing so.

            James figured his best choice would be to hit the beach, run along the rocky shore, keeping to the trees. There were hunters out, and he knew many of the creatures possessed superior night-vision when compared to a lowly human. He certainly did miss the technology he had access to during his stay with the purists.

            At one point, somewhere just before the first rays of dawn, he caught a horrible scent and heard a deep bass growling coming from the woods behind him. One of the predators he had feared had caught his trail and was homing in on him for the kill.

            The flight instinct took hold and he ran for all he was worth, somehow skipping across the rocky shore with the speed and grace of a deer racing from a pack of wolves. He did not know what drove him to take the action, but he hit the water, barely slowing down. James did not even think to look behind, as he could hear the growling and snuffling of the creature chasing him, growing closer with each passing heartbeat. The fear caused him to lose control of his bladder, much to his shame, but in the end, that helped him. Before he hit the water, he hears a very loud and confused growl as the pursuing creature caught the scent of his fear-induced urine.

            He did not even think about the Deep Dwellers that lurked along the shores, so great was his fear and desire to lose whatever was chasing him. In a second he was in the water, and without thinking, he dove. The ocean that lapped the shore was still shallow and his chest hit the rock-strewn floor just below the surface, and it nearly knocked the air out of his lungs. He felt the stones and debris abrade his shirt and the flesh underneath. The sharp stones cutting gouges out in long and painful gashes, filling the water with blood.

            This single event had to effects. Being doused in saltwater was one sure way to destroy the nanites that currently infested him, both on the surface of his skin and beneath. The nanites were linked via a computerized hive-mind effect and as the nanites on the surface were destroyed by the specific saline value of the water, it started a chain reaction to the rest inside his body, causing them to shut down and to be harmlessly flushed from his system.

            Thus was the one safety catch the androids had built into the nanites, on top of their self-destruct code that would activate if they left the compound. It was a simple matter of programming the nanites for such a contingent as this, if things ended up going bad.

            The second effect was that the creature chasing him stopped right at the edge of the shore. It had a mortal fear of the water and despite being hungry and smelling the blood on the air from James’s wounds, it would not enter the water. Its roar of rage and hunger nearly burst his eardrums as he swam for all he was worth.

***

May 28th, 2668 South of the installation, along the coastline

            The night had passed uneventfully and the sun was just now peaking over the mountains to the East. It had been hot and humid throughout the night, and the former prisoners had somehow slept through the night, unmolested by the mutants and other creatures that prowled the inky blackness.

            Hausser sat up and blinked his eyes, which felt heavy and sticky with sleep. His hand snaked out to grab the assault rifle he had claimed as his own only to have his hand scrabble crab-like in the loose soil and fallen pine needles. This caused him to look, thinking that he had moved it during the night.

            There was no sign of the weapon.

            “Okay,” he snarled loud enough to wake the other former prisoners. “Who the fuck took the rifle?”

            The others came to almost instantly, blinking in the early dawn light and staring around at one another. It was then that Hausser noticed they were short a single body. “Where the fuck is James?”

            The others began to look around in slight confusion, their minds still half-in that state before full wakefulness set in. There were mumbled curses and a little bit of head-scratching as they stood up from their sleeping positions. Hausser was livid, since he put the kid on watch duty just after midnight. The boy was supposed to have awoken one of the others to relive him but instead he had disappeared. Had one of the night predators taken him while the others slept? No, that could not be the case, as the assault rifle would not have gone missing.

            He cursed even louder as the implications of the boy’s disappearance set in. “We’ve got a fuckin’ deserter,” he growled as he stood up. He checked his body and found the blade and handgun were still there, but the magazines for the rifle had been pilfered. Muttering darkly under his breath he was considering his options when the communicator they had found crackled to life. “This is Rescue One to stranded party, come in.”

            Relief suddenly washed over him as he struggled to remove the communicator from a pocket. He hit the send button and spoke rapidly. “This is stranded party to relief one, where are you?”

            There was a burst of static and the device squelched but then the voice came in loud and clear. “We are currently ten minutes from your position, stand by.”

            That brought whoops of joy and laughter from the remaining former prisoners. His anger all but forgotten, he responded. “Roger, standing by!”  He turned his grin on the others. “This time tomorrow boys we’ll be back home!”

            Inside their bodies the nanites waited and continued to multiply, waiting for their moment in the sun.

***

May 28th, 2668 The community

            The night had been long and Max was feeling every one of his near four hundred years of life. He had been drinking strong coffee as he and several of his guards had gone over the items recovered from the intruders. Most of the gear they carried was unexceptional, but of good quality. It would all go into their armory for their use against the Purists.

            The devices they had carried were something that he had seen only a few times in the past, and he nearly did not recognize them. They were hand-held mappers, able to take detailed readings of a location by simply pointing the device. It had numerous sensors and all the data was stored internally on a hard-drive, or it could be beamed wirelessly to another system. As luck would have it, both devices were protected by biometric scanners that would only activate to authorized users.

            He had spent nearly an hour pondering what to do. They had the corpses of the two assassins, and there was always a chance they could use the bodies to activate the biometrics, allowing them access. The problem was that the security would most likely demand living tissue, which was difficult to provide at the moment.

            What to do…

            They could contact and confront the Whispering Wraith with the corpses, inform them that the infiltration failed and it cost them two of their people. They could make the bodies disappear, allow the local scavengers have them, and soon there would be nothing left but cracked and cleaned bones. Max even considered taking the bodies down to the ocean and dumping them, allowing the same process to take place, but with far less likelihood of the bodies ever been found.

            He sighed and tossed one of the mapping devices on the table and leaned back in his seat. There was pressure building behind his eyes and he reached up to gently rub the flesh around his backward-pointing horns. It helped slightly, but he figured the pain and pressure would only increase as the days passed.

            He stood, pushing the chair back so that it slid smoothly across the wood floor of his office with barely a sound. A few quick strides brought him to his hidden refrigerator and he pulled out a bottle, uncapped it and took a long swig. After letting out a satisfying belch, he allowed his eyes to wander back to the desk and the mapping devices.

            After a second, he returned his attention to the bottle. The amount he was drinking recently was beginning to make him nervous. He had not consumed so much alcohol since the death of his wife, Ra’naa’s mother. The stress of the Purists and their war against everyone was really taking its toll. Especially after the losses the community had endured while defending the androids and their home.

            Shrugging, Max Ahteen took another swig of the excellent beer and then leaned against his desk. His fingers idly touched the device, and it sprang to life, the holographic display expecting a finger print, and then a password. Then it hit him like a sniper’s shot from afar. The rage was so all-consuming he picked up the device and threw it with all his strength against the floor, where it literally exploded into dozens of pieces, which flew across the room to land with a loud clattering.

            Max felt his heart smashing against his ribcage, threatening to burst through, as his body was suddenly covered in a sheen of cold sweat. He wanted to scream, to rage, to kill someone – specifically the smug assassin Marcus.

            There was a light rap against his door and he willed his voice to remain calm. “It’s nothing, no need to fret.”

            Still, the door opened and one of his ever-present guards stuck his head in. “Sir?”

            Max still felt his blood boiling and he was so tempted to take it out on the guard. Instead he waved a hand dismissively. “I just lost my temper for a moment, don’t worry about it.”

            The guard studied him for a minute before he finally nodded and retreated into the hall, the door closing with a soft click behind him.

            The scattered pieces of the device lay everywhere and seemed to mock him as he stared down at the mess he had made. He definitely knew that he was feeling stressed; as he could not remember the last time he allowed his temper to get the better of him.  Sighing, he wished his dead wife was with him; her presence always calmed him, no matter how angry he felt.

            It was not meant to be.

            After the last of the pieces had been recovered, he tossed the broken device into a box and left the room, turning off the lights and locking the door behind him.

            With his departure, a single light came to life among all the pieces and blinked several times before fading to nothing.