Buck Who? Chapter 40

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 40: You did what?

            May 28th, 2668, south of the Installation.

            Joey was annoyed with himself. He had spent several hours trying to track down the wearabouts of the single prisoner who had managed to slip away. No matter where he looked, he could find no trace of the man.

            It was as if he had disappeared without a trace, and the young man could not explain it. Finally he gave up searching – maybe one of the numerous deadly mutant predators had stumbled upon the former prisoner and made a quick meal out of him. Maybe the nanites had malfunctioned and shut down, killing him in the process.

            He just did not know.

            After another hour of fruitless searching, he finally gave up and decided to return to the installation. He called in and was put in contact with Awoan. After listening to his report, she told him to return. The target was lost and they had no time to continue with the search. She had other plans for him.

            The young man found his bike and complied. 

***
May 28th 2668, The Compound

            There came a light rapping at the entrance to Martin’s office, breaking through his revelry and snapping the man to full alertness. He had been going over the reports covering recruits, training and expenditure of materials, and his mind felt like it was wrapped in cotton. “Enter!” He called and placed the latest sheet of paper on his desk.

            One of the comtechs entered, carrying a single printout in one hand. He looked very excited as he pushed passed the guard and came to stand at attention before Martin. “Sir, our scouts have found the base!”

            This grabbed Martin’s attention like a mutant pit-bull and refused to let go. He grinned for what felt like the first time in years. “And their initial assessment?”

            “The above ground structures were all but gone. Whatever hit the base back during the final wars was pretty damn thorough,” the comtech handed him the printout. “There was a tribe of Hissers living in the area, but our men dispatched the mutant freaks quickly and without suffering any casualties or taking significant wounds.”

            They had known the location of many military bases and stockpiles scattered around the region. The build-up to the final wars had been long and brutal, and despite Canada’s reluctance to spend money on troops and weapons, the government of the day had allowed the NorRuCom governing body to build defensive bases and hidden caches. The redoubts were full of weapons, equipment, vehicles, foodstuffs and other material that would have been important during the wars.

            So far all the bases he had sent scouts to investigate were either utterly destroyed or so contaminated with radiation and toxins that retrieving what they held was all but impossible. There had been others intact but empty, scavengers, survivors and the like having long since stripped the facilities of anything remotely useful. At least they could be turned into staging areas or even inhabited and turned into communities, which is something he was considering after the campaign against the non-humans began to show progress.

            Martin took a minute to scan the report, and his grin widened. The scouts had found a way into the below ground bunkers and from their initial reports, the doors had been sealed and there was power, although they did not have the capability to enter. They needed a computer tech to come down with a slicer in order to rip past the security on the doors, but it did indeed appear to be promising. He placed the paper on the desk and looked up at the comtech. “Thank you, find my son and tell him to come meet me here as soon as possible.”

            The comtech saluted and smiled. “Right away sir!”

            Martin leaned back in his seat and laced his fingers behind his head, the smile still showing on his broad features. Yes indeed, with the return of men he thought lost, and now this, things were indeed starting to look up for once.

***

May 28th 2668, The Installation

            The lights were off, and Babs sat on the edge of her bed staring off into nothing. For all intent and purpose, the AI turned android seemed to be an inanimate object, a soulless construct waiting for the mental spark of intellect and self-awareness to take root.

            The spark, what some argued to be the soul, had indeed settled into the artificial body. She had no need for sleep, no desire for rest at all, but she did like the quite times to go back through her memories in order to analyze events.

            Some might call it torture, others self-reflection, but the AI was also very much a woman in love, and she had to give the object of her desire and affection up, as his heart and soul belonged to another.

            In her hand rested the watch and the platinum cuff-links she had taken from the corpse of the general, unseen. Her internal sensors could easily make out every detail inside the darkened room, but she chose to remain with them set to standby mode. It helped her concentrate and relive the memories she had shared with Declan, over and over, to such vivid detail it was like she was experiencing them once again.

            The tapping came again, this time a little more insistently. Babs realized she had ignored the knocking, even though she had registered it earlier. Knowing it was not polite to ignore her hosts, she stood from the edge of the bed, automatically triggering the lights in the room. They came up, covering the entire area with soft, white light that humans would have found pleasant. “Come in,” she said in a conversational tone.

            It was the young human Joey, who had recently spent so much time with her. “Hi, Babs.”

            “Joey, what’s up, Doc?”

            He looked at her quizzically, unsure why she tended to call everyone Doc. He knew it did not have anything to do with those she spoke to being doctors, as for the most part they did not exist anymore – at least in the sense that he understood it. He shrugged mentally and spoke. “We just received word from General Max Ahteen.”

            She stood and crossed her arms, her head tilted ever so slightly to the side. “Is everything alright?” Babs instantly thought of Declan and her artificial heart began to race, fearing the worst.

            “They were paid a visit by the Whispering Wraith,” he informed her, gauging her reaction for a second before continuing. “Seems that a pair of their assassins infiltrated the compound and were making detailed maps of the community.”

            She did not want to ask, but she had no choice. “Was anyone hurt?” Babs barely managed to control herself from saying killed, as she feared what the answer would be.

            “Just the two infiltrators, they were both killed.”

            Although she wanted to express more emotion, Babs remained cool and kept her continence collected. “Good to hear, so why did you come here to tell me this?”

            “Max wants to send the devices they captured to us, to have our computer specialists break through the security encryption and find out what they managed to get,” when he saw that Babs was about to question further, he held up a hand to silence her. “I’ve already volunteered to return to the community and wanted to know if you wished to accompany me.”

            Her artificial heart felt like it would skip a beat and she was ever so grateful that her face remained completely passive. She nearly blurted out a question to ask why he wanted her to come, but stifled the urge in a micro-instant. Instead Babs reached up and ran a finger across her artificial eyebrows. “Yes,” was all she said.

            “Good, how long will it take you to get ready to leave?”

            She reached out and picked up the nearly empty canvas duffle bag she had brought back from the resort and slung it over her shoulder. “I’m good to go now.”

            “I figured as much, I already have my bike loaded and ready to hit the trail,” he turned and began to walk down the nearly blindingly white corridor, not bothering to see if she was trailing him or not.

            They walked the length of the installation passing only a handful of androids on their way. Each was greeted with a polite nod of recognition as they passed, and Babs found it strange how they had accepted her and considered her to be one of their own – despite the fact she had only been with them for a short period of time.

            The silence was starting to get to her, as she was so excited at the prospect of seeing her Declan once again, even if he was with the Tiger-Exotic Tara. Seeing him was almost like a physical need and that bothered her. She was an AI, and such feelings were supposed to be impossible to take root… and yet they had with her, as they had with other AI’s over the years. Earlier generations were prone to programming corruption and as such would go quite insane. The fact was that as with all technology, AI programming had evolved and improved with each passing generation.

            And yet…

            She knew to the deepest part of her core that she felt real emotion. She knew of other AI’s who would claim to understand true, real emotion, but it was merely their programming. All the years she had spent riding in Declan’s hard-drive and spending so many decades inside his head, she learned what true emotions were.

            “Joey?”

            “What is it?”

            “Did Old One scare you?”

            His steps faltered for a moment before he replied. “Hell yeah, but… why are you asking me this now?”

            She shrugged. “He scared me as well; really strange to see such a creature, fierce and deadly but at the same time willing to protect someone who he would otherwise consider to be a midnight snack.”

            The young man stared at her, clearly trying to analyze what she was saying, trying to make such an odd statement fit the situation. It was clear he came to a decision as they entered the garage. His bike was waiting, already pointed at the large door that led from the facility. “Let’s get going, the sooner we hit the road, the sooner we’ll be at the community.”

***

May 28th 2668, North of the Community

            The four former prisoners stood at the side of the road as the truck approached. The weather had held out and it was hot and humid, the sun beating down upon the earth with a ferocity that was surprising. All around insects buzzed and hummed and at one point a couple of un-mutated squirrels scolded the men for coming to close to their home.

            The truck which pulled up was an old well-worn model, built to hold five passengers inside the cab and several tons of cargo in the rear. Right now there were three figures in the vehicle, a driver, a man riding shotgun, and a third in the bed, holding onto a heavy caliber machine gun. The weapon was bolted to the bed of the truck and the man was standing, his knees acting like shock-absorbers as it traversed the rough-shod trail.

            When the truck, known in the ancient world as a technical due to the improvisation used to get it running pulled up to the men, the driver rolled down the window and grinned. “Hey did someone call a taxi?”

            Hausser grinned and shook the man’s hand. “God-damn you’re a sight for sore eyes!”

            The man’s grip was strong and firm, but not crushing. “Good to see you too, Hausser,” still gripping the former prisoner’s hand, he looked over the small group. “I only see three, I thought you said there were four.”

            He cursed and spat on the ground. “One, a kid named James, rabbited on us, took the only assault rifle we had been able to secure and disappeared.”

            The driver shook his head in dismay. “Fucker probably got himself killed by a predator then,” he returned his attention to Hausser. “Hop in, although one of you will have to ride in the bed.”

            Without hesitation, one of the remaining three men hopped into the bed of the technical and sat on one of the makeshift seats. Hausser and the other two climbed into the cab and found food and water waiting for them, as well as extra weapons and ammunition.

            The driver waited until they were seated and secured, then reversed the truck and began the long trek back to the compound.

            Little did anyone know the infection was spreading even then.

***

May 28th 2668, The community

            As the gates of the community grew ever larger in her vision, Babs felt apprehension building like a cancer in her breast. She could not wait to see Declan again, and that was bitter-sweet. She knew he had a life without her, but she still longed to see him. She held onto Joey’s waist as they drove, and she felt his whole body begin to tense the closer they came to the community, as if he too were in anticipation or possibly dreading something.

            Curious.

            The guards at the gate motioned for them to stop and they disembarked from the bike, standing there with their hands raised and looking as harmless as possible. One of the men whom Babs did not recognize came up. “State your business.”

            “I’m Joey from the Installation, and this is Babs, Declan’s friend. We’re here to see Max Ahteen.

            For a second, it appeared as if the guard was about to deny them entry when a semi-familiar face came over. It took Babs only a second to search her database to realize it was Jas’nar, the young man who was in love with the Fox-Exotic Kate. She held out her hand to the man and he shook it warmly. “It’s nice to see you again, Jas’nar.”

            He grinned slightly, although there was pain deeply rooted in his eyes. “Likewise Babs. How’s your time been with the androids?”

            “Believe it or not Doc, busy as you could not imagine. They’re a bunch of maroons who would fall apart if I wasn’t there.” She told him a mischievous grin that looked so strange on her artificial face.  Babs shifted the canvas duffle bag so it sat more comfortably on her shoulder. The weight of the bag seemed to have doubled and then redoubled since she had entered the community, burdened by the knowledge of where it came from. She consulted one of the numerous sensors and it still weighed exactly the same. It was absurd how the imagination could change the perception of reality.

            “I can believe it,” he replied and stepped aside. “I’ll radio ahead and let them know you’re on the way,” Jas’nar lifted a small communication device, indicating it.

            “Thanks Doc,” Babs graced him with a smile and in a moment they had driven past the gate and were cruising along the neatly-kept streets of the community. The trip from one end of the community to the other could be walked in only a matter of ten minutes or so, but by hover-bike they arrived in less than a minute. Max was at the door, waiting as Joey brought the bike to a halt and killed the engine. It settled to the ground with barely a bump and the two passengers climbed off.

            “Welcome back,” Max smiled warmly. “I’ll assume this visit has something to do with the Purists? Awoan was rather vague in her last call.”

            Joey nodded and then shifted uncomfortably. “Yes sir, but we need to keep this private, can we discuss it inside?”

            Max Ahteen’s smile faltered just a fraction as he nodded. It was clear to the Dragon-Exotic that whatever news the two brought from the installation was not something he would be thrilled to hear. “Alright, follow me,” he turned his back to the two and made his way through the lodge towards the private office.

            “How’s Declan?” Babs asked as they made their way through the huge open living room.

            “It’s been difficult for him,” Max said, looking over his shoulder. He managed to keep his tail perfectly still; as it would normally convey whatever emotions he was feeling. So far he appeared to be calm.

            “How so?” Babs asked, not bothering to try and conceal the concern she was suddenly feeling.

            “The fight, the loss of his leg, you leaving, and still trying to adjust to the new world,” Max said sadly. “He’s been having anxiety attacks and there is little we can do to help him, although he’s been getting better the past few days.”

            “I’m glad to hear the last part, but what triggered that?”

            “I’ll leave that for him to tell you personally,” Max told her cryptically. “It really isn’t my place,” he opened the door to his office and motioned the pair inside. A moment later they were all seated, a cold beer in the hands of Max and Joey. “I’ve already sent word to him as well as my daughter; they will be here shortly, as whatever you have to say to me you can say to them.

            “Of course – we weren’t sent here to keep anything from you, and that is not the way Awoan wants this relationship to go,” Joey quickly interjected before Babs could say anything.

            For the next fifteen minutes they made small talk and enjoyed the beer, and Joey mentioned meeting the old mutant bear, who is pretty sure he is the father of the girl in the care of Momma Rathbourne. That caught Max’s attention as surely as if the young man had dressed in a pink tutu and proposed to him.

            Just then the door opened and Ra’naa entered. Joey looked up at the Dragon-Exotic and could not help but smile when he saw her face. Without really thinking about what he was doing, he stood and held the chair, offering it to the woman.

            She had been about to greet him when she caught his act of old-fashioned chivalry and with a smile, graciously accepted it. “Thank you and it’s good to see you both.” She noticed he was looking at her cheek and unconsciously she touched it where the bone had been broken. All that remained was a slight discoloration, the healing all but complete.

            In less than a minute Declan arrived with Tara by his side, and literally moments later Otres was among them, chittering and squeaking happily.

            It was as if they had not spoken to one another in years, and yet it had only been days. Everyone was pleased to see the two wayward travellers from the Installation and they spoke for nearly twenty minutes before Max finally cleared his throat to take charge. “As you can imagine, they are here to fill in the details of a plan Awoan has launched.”

            Declan was standing, his arm around Tara’s waist, although he did continuously glance between Babs and the woman he loved. “What did she do?” He asked.

            Joey and Babs both exchanged nervous glances, pretty sure how the group would react once the true nature of the plan had been fully revealed. The young man took a deep breath and then shot a strange, pleading look, a silent wish for understanding from Ra’naa, and then he began.

            “Awoan sent Babs to the resort to collect samples from the undead there,” he started and the reaction was both expected and not quite what he had thought it would be. Everyone, including Declan, recoiled in horror from Babs and tried to put as much distance as the room would allow.

            Only Max remained seated, the look on his face would have sent an angry Zeus running for Olympus, cowering and crying for his momma. His voice was as cold as the deepest, blackest arctic night as he spoke. “You are telling me Awoan sent Babs to the Resort and then brought her back with samples of the nanites?  Does she have any idea of the hell she is going to release on the mainland?” With the last sentence he was on his feet, the words practically shot from his lips.

            Ra’naa could not remember seeing her father so angry before and she felt a thrill of fear in the pit of her stomach, glad she was not the recipient of his wrath. “Dad?” She hated how pleading her voice sounded in her own ears.

            “General Ahteen,” Babs suddenly said in a very loud, attention demanding voice. “Here us out!”  And then she continued in a much more reasonable tone, “Please? We’re just here to convey the message and keep you informed of what Awoan is doing.”

            Max Ahteen seemed to deflate and although he remained standing, he placed his hands on the desk before him, his head hung so no one could see his face. When he looked up, he looked tired and old. “Let’s hear it.”

            Between Babs and Joey, they were able to explain how the samples had been obtained and then brought back to the installation, where the computer techs had sliced into the programming and had altered the nanites enough so they would only function in one geographical location. They also explained how the other aspects of the changes and how that the very young would be spared. Of course Max had a billion questions, as did everyone else present. The discussion took well over an hour before they were finally done.

            “So we’re striking a major blow against the Purists, and as such we’re hoping that it will break the back of the Purist movement and end the war.” Joey finished, not looking smug, but happy that he was able to get Awoan’s point across.

            Max paced back and forth before the small gathering, clearly unhappy with the turn of events. The Dragon-Exotic shook his head and actually smiled, although no humor came within a light-year of his eyes. “What Awoan is perpetrating is nothing short of a war-crime.”

            Joey’s own eyes narrowed and he looked angry as he replied. “And what of the Purists themselves? They’re committing mass murder, they’re committing genocide!”

            “Yes,” Max agreed. “They are, but we’re supposed to have the moral higher ground here, we’re supposed to be the good guys in this fight. By using the nanites and turning every last adult in their camp into extras from a B-rated horror movie, then we’re just as bad as they are,” he faced Joey and Babs, reaching out nearly pleadingly. “We’re becoming terrorists!”

            “No you’re not Doc,” Babs told him, smiling. “I was against the mission, but after seeing the resulting tests, Awoan took away that choice from you. She knew you would never resort to such tactics and by taking it upon her shoulders, she had abdicated you from any and all responsibility for what is going to occur.”

            Max crossed the room and went directly for his hidden refrigerator. He opened it and pulled out a bottle of his favorite beer. After staring at it for a moment, he replaced it and then closed the refrigerator. Instead he opened another cabinet and removed a bottle filled with an amber liquid. Uncapping it, he took a long pull before putting it down.  “When you return to Awoan, you can give her my thanks for that.”

            Babs and Joey both acknowledged him. “Sir?” Joey asked.

            “What is it?”

            “How is this going to affect the relationship between the community and the Installation?” The young man looked pained, but he had to ask.

            Max Ahteen stared at the young man, then at Babs, before returning his eyes to Joey. The room remained silent as Max considered his reply and no one was surprised when it came. “I don’t know kid… I really don’t know.”

***

May 28th 2668, The community

            Minutes later the entire group was dismissed, Max wanting to be alone as he contemplated what had been revealed. It was quickly agreed upon that they would return to Ra’naa’s home to discuss things further.

            And to catch up.

            Once they arrived in her cabin, the small group gathered around her table, some opting to sit on the chairs that were available. The silence was so thick you could cut it with a knife, everyone just staring at one another, not sure what to say.

            Oh for the love of the virus, Otres finally thought to the group, throwing up his hands in exasperation, the look of annoyance visible on his little furry face. We should all be happy, not acting like we’re at another funeral

            “The little squeak-toy is right,” Declan grinned evilly at Otres, who blew him a raspberry. “It’s only been a few days but damn it’s good to see you Babs.”

            Tara shot the android a venomous glance, and clung tighter to Declan’s hand, but otherwise remained silent.

            “Damn good to see you too, Doc,” Babs smiled, knowing that it would be like a burr under a saddle blanket for Tara. She did not want to hurt either, but the way the Tiger-Exotic was acting, she could not resist getting a little harmless jab.

            Joey stood next to Ra’naa, almost inside what one would call her personal space, and if she noticed or minded, she did not let it show. “Sorry we had to break the news about the nanites like that,” he lifted his hands in a placating gesture, genuine regret on his young face. “Awoan is a strong-willed android and she did what she thought was best.”

            “No,” Tara growled. “She wants revenge on the Purists for what they did to your home and your people, and decided it was the most evil way they had of getting back.”

            Again the room went silent. Otres scampered across the short distance separating himself and Babs and he placed his palms against her leg. There was a shimmering around her body and she looked up and then down, startled. “What did you just do?”

            Because she could not hear his telepathic reply, he looked over at Ra’naa, who relayed the message. “He repaired your damage, he said that it was mainly on your skin, but there was some decay from exposure to salt-water.”

            He chittered and squeaked, wagging his tail and grinned at her.

            “Thanks Otres!” Babs stroked his head, not really sure what else to do, but also afraid she might insult the little Uplift.

            He raised both eyebrows and then wiggled his whiskers, squeaking. You’re welcome, Babs. Just try not to get your body damaged again. Ra’naa relayed his thoughts.

            After hearing his answer, she smiled. “I won’t make any promises Doc, not with the way things are going, and to make such a promise would make me the biggest maroon around!”

            “You were back at the resort then?” Declan asked. He was more than a little curious, but there was just the slightest bit of trepidation and fear there as well. He still had vivid dreams of the brief time they spent on the island.

            Babs gave him a ‘you really just asked that’ look before she answered. “Ya maroon, of course I was back there. All those monsters, someone had to collect samples and since I was not busy at the time…”

            Feeling a little embarrassed by the rebuke, Declan nodded. “Tell us about what you saw.”

            And she did just that. She replayed the events from the first encounter to when she found the hotel vault and what it held. Babs told them about finding the general and the Tuatha corpse but she did not mention taking the general’s case or anything off the alien’s body. Of course she also filled them in on the sheer amount of treasure that was to be had inside the vault, earning her a sidelong glare from Joey.

            It did not go un-noticed.

            “What is it, Joey?” Ra’naa asked, slightly concerned by the strange look he had bestowed upon Babs.

            He looked as if he had been caught red-handed peeking into the girls locker-room in school. The young human from the Installation looked from one member of the group to another before finally throwing his hands up in surrender. “We were hoping to keep the treasure for ourselves, to help use it to rebuild the installation. Awoan no longer has the budget or resources that we had before, and everything of value we can find we need to use.”

            There was a general murmur of disagreement among those gathered and no one seemed pleased that the androids would be keeping anything they found beneath the hotel. Ra’naa made a patting gesture with both her hands to calm everyone down and once they had settled, she spoke. “It seems fair to me, but we will have to discuss it with dad. The androids, they’re the ones heading into the Resort and risking themselves. They are the ones with the technology to reprogram the nanites and render them useless, so why do we even consider having a claim to whatever is in there?”

            “Good point,” Declan agreed and then he rubbed his chin. He had not shaved in a few days and the stubble was beginning to fill out, making him look several years older than he really was. “What was one of the Tuatha doing there?”

            Babs could only shrug. “I’d be guessing she was on vacation when the nanites were unleashed and never had a chance to contact her people.”

            “You’d be surprised how many aliens were trapped when the final wars came to an end,” Tara said to her. She had one arm wrapped possessively around Declan’s waist as she spoke. “Max could tell you more, but there are scattered enclaves around the world that are home to the Annunaki and Tuatha, as well as several other species. Some have managed to regain contact with their former home-worlds but most lack the technology they need. The way I see it, they’re no long aliens but native Terrans, like the rest of us now.”

            Declan thought about it and wondered if he would ever have a chance to meet the stranded aliens. He shook his head and pulled Tara closer to him, feeling her heat through the softness of her fur. “Guess we’ll never know why the Tuatha was there.”

            Tara leaned into her man and eyed Babs with barely concealed contempt. “So you helped Awoan get the nanites, and they’re going to end up killing a lot of people, most deserving but some innocent. How does that make you feel?”

            Babs knew that Tara was baiting her and as much as she wanted to play along and fight the other woman, she refrained, reigning in her emotions and personal desires. “What do you want me to say, Doc?” She asked in reply. “I could say that it doesn’t bother me, or give you all manner of idiotic excuses, but I won’t,” when Tara began to open her mouth to speak, Babs held up her hand. “The war is going to kill hundreds of people, most who will not be able to fight back due to lack of proper weapons and training. Sure, what the androids are doing is evil, but as much as I hate it, I have to agree. It will greatly reduce the death toll in the long run.”

            “Please Tara,” Declan implored quietly, gripping her hand as he rubbed her shoulder. “Just drop it.”

            Before the Tiger Exotic could answer, there was a knock on the door, which interrupted their discussion. Ra’naa stood and answered it, looking a little shocked to see Arleen, Momma Rathbourne, the young uplift she was now caring for, and Andy. Andy and Arleen were carrying several large boxes, from which wafted the aroma of freshly baked goods and cooked food. The old mutant woman smiled and leaned in for a hug from Ra’naa. “May we join you?”

            “Of course!” Ra’naa stated instantly. “Come in!”

            The four entered the cabin, which was rapidly becoming crowded with so many souls occupying the small building. Andy and Arleen put the food on the table and opened another box, this filled with bottles of beer. The young mutant human began to pass them around while Ra’naa pulled down dishes and cutlery.

            Soon everyone was filling their faces with food provided by Momma Rathbourne. Conversation had slipped from potentially hostile to congenial in mere moments and all thought of the contested resort were pushed from everyone’s mind.

            The strange, very human-like uplifted girl came over to stand directly in front of Joey. He was sipping at the beer and enjoying the freshly-baked bread when he noticed her. “Hi.”

            She just stared up at him with huge brown eyes, never blinking, although she did lean in slightly and sniff at him.

            Joey felt distinctly uncomfortable and he shifted his feet. “So, do you like living here?” He asked, feeling incredibly lame for doing so. He did not know if the child would understand him or not.

            She just stared at him, and then out of the blue, she smiled and patted him on the arm, then the little girl then turned so that she was looking up at Momma Rathbourne, who was watching the strange, silent exchange.

            “I do believe the child likes you,” Momma Rathbourne said, looking on with approval.

            “I can’t see why,” Joey was confused as he spoke, but could not help thinking about Old One, who told him the girl was his offspring. He could not see it. The child looked human, was about the right size for a toddler, and acted human, except when she sniffed him. How could an uplift look so human?

            Otres came over and stood next to Joey and stared at the girl. She was slightly shorter than he was, and for once the Uplift was looking down instead of up when he was meeting the person. He squeaked and she laughed, clapping her hands and then reached out to grab him. The squeak that burst from him this time was one of surprise, which only made the child laugh all that much harder.

            It turned out to be contagious.

            Could someone get this kid off me? He mentally pleaded as the girl continued to squeeze him, eliciting little chirps and grunts, much like a squeak toy that Declan had accused him of being.

            After a minute, Momma Rathbourne carefully untangled the Uplift from the girls hands and she instantly stuck a thumb in her mouth, her wide eyes never leaving Otres, even after Arleen took him by the hand and led him closer to where she was sitting.

            Andy grabbed two more beers and came to stand next to Tara and Declan.  He offered one of the opened bottles to Declan and the former pilot accepted it with a grateful nod. The empathic mutant was studying both, and a sly grin appeared on his face. He offered his hand to Declan. “Congratulations on the baby!”

            Babs head whipped around so fast she could almost feel the servos grind with the unexpected and nearly violent motion. “Baby?” She blurted before she could stop herself.

            Tara, who was holding Declan’s free hand, took it and placed it on her flat belly. “Yes, we’re going to have a son in around seven and a half months,” her smile was wide, but there was a coldness in her eyes as she looked at the android woman. “It will be the first of many babies we will have together.”

            Babs fought her emotions, wanting to scream and cry, to take out her weapon and put a bullet between Tara’s eyes. It was bad enough the organic woman took Declan from her, but now she was rubbing Babs face in it. For once the android was happy to have such supreme control over her body. She nodded and gave the couple a brief but warm smile. “Congratulations indeed! I am happy for the both of you.”

            Which of course was a lie.

            Seeing the tension filling the air like a fog, Andy decided to intervene further. “Declan I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but I think I can help you with your anxiety issues.”

            “You can?” Tara perked up, the android and rival for Declan’s affections suddenly forgotten.

            Even Declan, who had felt an attack impending due to the tension between the three of them, looked interested. “I’m all ears, how can you help? Are you a psychologist?”

            Andy had a blank look on his face, and then he shook his head. “I can guarantee I’m not, since I don’t even know what that is. What I possess is both telepathy and empathy, and I think with a little bit of time and effort; I might be able to help you come to terms with what is bothering you.”

            Declan looked skeptical. “By jumping into my mind and digging through my thoughts?” He laughed harshly. “I really don’t think so.”

            “Baby, why not give it a try?” Tara urged. She was acutely aware of the stress and anxiety her lover and the father to her unborn child was facing, and if there was a chance for him to deal with it, or better yet, be cured, then she fully believed he should give it a go.

            He stood, looking conflicted. Finally he blew out his cheeks and nodded. “Maybe, but why would you be willing to help a complete stranger?”

            “Because I think you’re cute,” Andy said in a perfectly neutral tone, although his eyes twinkled.

            That brought laughter from the people, and Declan felt his cheeks begin to burn with embarrassment. “Ha ha, very funny,” he grumbled but then a slight smile appeared. “I’ll think about it and let you know.”

            Andy nodded.

            The gathering went into the wee hours of the morning before everyone finally bade Ra’naa a good night and left to catch up on sleep. For the Dragon-Exotic, sleep was elusive. She was deeply disturbed by what she had learned but on a more pragmatic level, she had to agree with the action. This would save a lot of lives in the long run. It was not just that, she could not stop thinking about Joey, and wondering what it would be like to touch him, to feel his hands on her body, to taste his lips. She was angry at the way she felt her body and mind were betraying her. She did not want to fall for anyone, and yet she knew she was. When dawn broke through the night, she was still awake, sitting at her window, staring off into the new day.

***

May 29th 2668, The Community

            The sun had just risen only minutes before and the first rays were shining through the windows into the small cabin. The bed was situated in the sweet-spot, where the sun never hit during the morning or evening, always leaving it in shadow, allowing the two occupants to sleep peacefully, undisturbed.

            It turned out only one of the two inhabitants was off in the land of nod. The other, as he had been apt to do over the past few weeks, was wide awake. Declan was sitting in the bed with his legs dangling over the side, his eyes wide and staring. His hand rested on Tara’s belly, feeling the fine muscle tone under the fur and the flesh beneath, wondering how it would feel in a few months once she began to show. He broke his line of sight and looked down to where his hand lay, on the belly of the woman he had come to love and was going to give him his first child.

            Although a few days had passed since the news had been broken about his impending parenthood, it still brought a smile to his tired face for two reasons. The first was he would be a father in less than eight months and this was also the first time in days that anxiety had not woken him sweating and in terror. No, this time when he had returned to the land of the conscious, he had done so with contentment and happiness.

            Tara lay on her back breathing lightly, her breasts moving in time with her inhalations. They were beautiful - soft, well-rounded and large, but as the baby inside grew, they too would get larger, the closer she came to term. He almost laughed when he wondered if they would end up causing the woman back issues? Guided by its own volition, his hand slid up from her belly until it came to rest on her left breast. He caressed it, never tiring of how soft and wonderful it felt beneath his fingers, how the nipple felt like a tiny hard pebble against his palm. Tara shifted slightly, a little smile appearing on her face and she began to purr so quietly Declan nearly missed it.

            Instead of giving into the carnal side of their relationship, Declan removed his hand and slowly stood up, not wanting to wake her further. He quickly dressed in a pair of shorts, his actions illuminated by the early dawn light and strapped a gun-belt to his hip and then pulled on his boots. The temperature had dropped enough during the night-time hours to make it comfortable in the light of the early morning, but he knew it would turn stifling soon enough.

            He began to jog, running with a steady loping gate until he hit the wall and then he pushed it, and pushed it right to the limit, running as hard as he could. The leg still felt perfectly normal, although it did seem more than a little disconcerting to him that the muscles never tired, not like with his organic left leg. It was a fact of his life he knew he might never get used to, no matter how long he ended up living.

            Despite the much cooler morning temperature, he was bathed in sweat in only a few minutes, although his breathing remained steady and even. He decided to push his body a little further and found that once he hit the maximum rate he was able to, only then did his heart-rate begin to increase.

            Eventually the trail led up to the lodge, where he could see people already hard at work, getting ready for the morning training and the work that lay ahead. He was not surprised to see Ra’naa already out in her small yard, going through her kata with the grace and speed of someone who had been practicing for decades. Briefly he wondered how much sleep she had gotten after everyone had left, and then shrugged it off. Slowing, he altered his route so that he passed her home, stopping when he reached her yard. He placed his hands on his knees and breathed in hard, trying to bring his racing heart under control.

            Ra’naa’s concentration never wavered as she went through one of the more complex and graceful forms, hitting each stance perfectly, showing power where it was required, and the slow, steady movements as needed.

            He studied her and could not help but feel more than a little attraction to the Dragon-exotic. She was nearly naked, wearing only a simple wrap around her small breasts and what would have been considered to be bikini briefs. The muscle-tone in her legs was exquisite, and he did wonder how she would feel with them wrapped around his back, he deep inside her. With a shake of his head, he cleared his thoughts and returned to the present. Tara was his and he should not look elsewhere, especially when it came to her best friend. Maybe he should have woken her earlier and made love, then he would not feel the attraction or arousal.

            Ah, who the hell was he trying to kid? Declan almost laughed. He was a horn dog and until meeting Tara, would eventually have tried to bed Ra’naa and half the women in the community.

            “Morning, Declan.”

            He grinned and was glad he had control over his body, as it would have been quite inappropriate for him to show his carnal interest in the Dragon-Exotic. “Morning, Ra’naa,” he nodded in appreciation. “What kind of martial arts is that?”

            She stretched and then did the splits, which left nothing to the imagination. Declan looked away, feeling awkward. “School, the proper word for it is school. It is a mixture of Kung Fu and Karate,” she answered, “although all forms of martial arts originated from Kung Fu.”

            He had unarmed training during his time in the air-force, but it was never that extensive. He knew how to throw a punch, a few basic blocks and defenses and that was about it. “Are you are taking students?” He asked her, his eyes roving over her taut body and feeling his attraction grow. Damn the woman did not bother to hide what her momma had given her. She should have just practiced naked the way she was flaunted her body.

            “Dad does, but I don’t have the time,” she finished stretching and stood fully erect, wiping sweat from her forehead. She was breathing hard, the tiny amount of fabric soaked in perspiration and clung wonderfully to her body.

            It was also then that Declan noticed the dark circles under her eyes, highlighted by the sun. He knew the young woman had not gotten any sleep the previous night. “Bothered by the nanite attack, aren’t you?”

            She nodded. “And so are you. Hell I think everyone except Joey and Babs are bothered by what Awoan has unleashed,” she sat on the ground, cross legged in a lotus position and began to breathe. She wrapped her tail around her legs to hide her near-nudity and closed her eyes. “Why are you up so early?”

            “I got enough rest, and without dreams to keep me awake, I decided for once I’d get an early start,” he tapped one hand on his thigh and then shrugged. “I also wanted to get another opinion on something.”

            Ra’naa opened an eye and peered at him. “On what?”

            “Do you think it’s such a good idea letting that mutant into my mind?”

            This time she opened both her eyes and stared up at him. The air was growing warmer around the two of them as the sun climbed through the sky; now well past the peaks of the mountains. They were still in shadow but the heat pouring down on them promised that it was going to be a scorcher. The grass was still cool beneath her nearly naked rump and legs, and it felt wonderful. “I can’t really answer that,” she drew out each word, as if testing them.

            “I guess I don’t want you to tell me, but what I do need is your personal opinion. I’m sort of used to hearing Otres in my mind when we talk, but wouldn’t allowing Andy in be a lot more intimate?”

            Ra’naa shrugged. “I guess so, I haven’t really had all that much interaction with a telepath before Otres,” she looked up ag him again. “The anxiety attacks are pretty bad when they hit, aren’t they?”

            Declan nodded.

            “So ask yourself this, if he can help alleviate these attacks, don’t you think a little loss of privacy might be worth it?”

            Again the former pilot nodded.

            “And you had Babs riding in your brain for over thirty-three decades, so she would know all your secrets and thoughts, so how come one man entering your mind for a short period of time is so distressing to you?”

            Declan looked down at Ra’naa with surprise. Suddenly he dropped to his knees and grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her firmly on the lips. Before the Dragon-Exotic could respond he let her go and backed away. “That’s why I needed another opinion, someone who could look at it through a different set of eyes and help me see my options.

            She sat there, stunned for several seconds before blinking. “You’re welcome?”

            With that, Declan was off jogging again, waving over his shoulder as he left the young woman sitting by herself.

            Ra’naa remained in the lotus positon, feeling the sweat bead on her flesh and scales. She also felt a strange fluttering sensation in the pit of her stomach and instantly knew she was aroused. It took a supreme effort of will as she closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing, pushing down the desire.

            It would not be so easily dismissed. She liked Declan and had to admit that she did find him attractive, but she knew he would not push things, nor would she. Tara meant too much to her.

            Several more minutes passed and she got her biological functions under control, although her mind began to drift. Declan slowly faded from her inner eye only to be replaced by another young face, this one of a certain man who had been raised by androids. Her lips parted and his name was carried on the soft currents of her voice. “Joey”.

            She did not want to admit that he was one of the reasons she had not slept the night. His face, the memory of his voice and the heat she felt when he stood near, all of these kept intruding into her thoughts.

            The thought that she might be in love with the young man was still deliciously disturbing – tantalizing, frightening and arousing all together.  She thought about it, she was pretty sure that the feelings were mutual. The fluttering sensation in her belly seemed to double and then redouble again as she thought of the man. Why should she not pursue a possible relationship with the human? After all, she had been alone for her entire life; the only male with which she had any real contact with was her father.

            Did she want to possibly start a relationship with a man at the beginning of war? How would it affect either of them if she did? What if he did not have any interest in her, as that was a possibility, but she was quite certain that he was in fact interested in her.

            The fact that they were in a war against a powerful enemy did have to be taken into consideration. Ra’naa knew that if she did not act upon her feelings to the young man, if something happened to him, she would have to live with the regret and the possible ‘what if’. She ran her hands over the smooth scales on her belly and took several deep, calming breaths, her mind locked onto Joey’s face.

            She would seek him out and see if there was really anything there, if he felt the same towards her, of if it was just part of her imagination.