Buck Who? Chapter 41

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 41: Nanotech Wrath

            May 30th 2668 Near the Washington and Utah border

            Martin and Bradly Travis exited the recently repaired and refurbished Mercedes hover-car and stood in the heavily forested region. All around them stood the one hundred and fifty most loyal and best-trained soldiers they could spare for the operation. The rest of his men were back at the compound, working hard with the recruits.

            The two Travis men were clad in powered armor, looking splendid among the rank and file of their warriors. Martin was wielding a powerful Gauss rifle, while Bradly had a heavy machine gun, which he carried with the ease one would carry a bag of groceries. All around the two leaders of the Purist movement their men fanned out and secured the parameter, which was not as difficult as one might have expected from the terrain.

            When they had sent the scouts in, the men had come under attack by the Hissers that had claimed this territory for their own. The creatures had fought bravely, considering they were nothing more than mutant animals, but had been wiped out to the last. The amount of weaponry the mutant aberrations had been wielding was quite shocking – a mixture of pistols and rifles, mixed in with more than a few high-tech melee weapons. It was fortunate for the Purist scouts that the creatures had no sense of tactics or had the capability to fight as a cohesive unit.

            It was a slaughter, with only a few minor wounds suffered as a result. Not a single Purist soldier had lost his life during the engagement, and those who had suffered wounds were still capable of fighting.

            Martin stood next to Bradly as he surveyed the landscape. The armor’s heads up display or HUD had a detailed map of the region, including the locations of where the former buildings once stood. These were outlined in red, and each could be highlighted and expanded, showing even greater detail.

            “Doesn’t look like much,” Bradly grunted.

            “I’m hoping that the sub-surface facilities fared better,” Martin walked over to a particularly large mound and he studied the ground, referring to the map and information displayed there. Perry Rodrigues’s men had already begun excavating the site and had cleared away all the debris and dirt, exposing the door. “This was part of a vehicle maintenance facility, and according to the records, it housed an extensive underground garage,” he said as stood before the door.

            After inspecting the weathered and dirt-encrusted door, he waved to several men who were gathered nearby. They placed their weapons on the ground and grabbed folding shovels from their packs, pry-bars and a single plasma torch.  In less than half a minute, they were hard at work, chipping away dirt and looking for a way to pry the heavy door open. It was difficult and slow going, not only due to age and the deterioration of the door, but the fact it had been constructed to withstand a nuclear blast.  

            Bradly and his father watched for several minutes as the men worked. Activity buzzed all around them as men patrolled, others worked on setting up shelters and others went about various tasks with a single-minded purpose. The younger Travis cleared his throat and then a flashing symbol appeared on Martin’s HUD, indicating he wanted a private channel. Martin complied. “What is it?”

            “You were pretty vague about what we might find here, I just wanted to know what we’re looking for.”

            He sighed. “This used to be a military base before the end of the final wars. It was a staging point for the Rocky Mountain shield and supplied all the facilities that made up the defenses. I’m hoping to find supplies of weapons and armor, and maybe some nanites and other tech we could use against the mutants and inferiors.”

            “A military base, huh?” Bradly mused. “Maybe we can find more suits of PA in there, think of what we could accomplish if we had a couple platoons worth of soldiers in this,” he indicated the armor he and his father were encased in.

            Martin could not disagree with the assessment, but he was hoping for more than that. A few hover-tanks and armored personnel carriers certainly would not be a disappointment, as well as a few more high-tech weapons, especially the long ranged Gauss rifles. He would love to acquire more drones and the weapons to arm them. “We will just have to wait and see,” Martin finally said to his son.

            Growing bored, Bradly began to walk around the perimeter of the former military base, which was now being patrolled by his own people. The foliage was thick, and there were plenty of trees, but they were all stunted and twisted, the legacy of taking root and growing in a radiation zone, although the radiation count was now only slightly higher than what was considered to be normal. He nodded and returned a few salutes as he made his way, occasionally flicking his eyes back to where his father waited as the men dug into the ground, demanding the earth to reveal its hidden secrets.

            Continuing his walk and silent thoughts, he came across the pile of reptilian corpses, the mutant snakes known as Hissers. There had to be nearly two dozen of the genetically inferior creatures, all bearing the horrible wounds inflicted by the weapons he and his men carried. It still struck him as odd that so many of the creatures were armed as they had been. Curiosity drove him to his knees, as something on the breast of one of the mutants demanded his full attention. Using one of the functions built into his visor, he zoomed in on the mark. It took his mind a second to recognize what he was staring it.

            The Hisser had the mark of a Sergeant on its right breast! He stood and then took a closer look at the other corpses. Sure enough, each of the creatures had a mark – maybe a tattoo, maybe some sort of ritual scarring, but each had a military insignia on their right breast. Most of the bodies had the marks of privates, but he did spot two corporals. Why had they not seen this before?

            Bradly opened the link to his father and spoke “Dad, they found the lock.” It was as if they waiting for that very signal because right then and there over thirty combat robots appeared inside the perimeter as if by magic, weapons up and poised to fire.

***

May 30th 2668 The Compound

            After a good night’s rest and a belly full of excellent food, Hausser was eager to get back to duty. He had been disappointed when he learned that neither Travis would be present to welcome him back home, but he was just a small fish in a big pond. He realized he should have been satisfied with simply being allowed back in the compound.

            Stepping outside the quarters he had called home since enlisting, the man stretched and enjoyed the feel of the sun beating down on his skin. There was a simple backpack slung over his shoulder and he had his recently issued assault rifle in his other hand. He had been a captive only for a handful of days, and yet it felt like he had not been in the open air or sunlight for an eternity, and it was something the man found he missed greatly.

            With a spring in his step, he bounded down the stairs and hit the sidewalk, moving at a brisk pace. Hausser wanted to get some exercise before hitting the firing range, and then he had to wait for the folks in administration to find a new platoon to be assigned. The memory of the battle for the Installation was still fresh in his mind, and it caused a dull ache in his stomach every time he dwelled upon it. It was the first defeat the Purists had ever suffered, and he did have what was called ‘survivors guilt’, having lived through the battle when so many of his fellow soldiers had not.

            Hausser was about half-way to the gymnasium when he paused. His skin felt tingly and his clothing was beginning to itch. It was minor but rather annoying and he scratched where he could reach within the realm of modesty and decency. After a few seconds, the sensation disappeared and he continued on his way.

            Before he reached the facility, he could already hear the sounds of men grunting with exertion, the clang of metal and shouts of encouragement or insults, depending on the individual. The familiar noises brought a smile to his rugged and homely face and he could barely wait to begin lifting. The thought hit him once again that he was only away from the compound for a few days, not months, and it caused him to chuckle.

            As soon as he stepped through the threshold, that odd itching sensation hit him again, anywhere his clothing touched, and he paused to scratch furiously. It finally abated, but it took a lot longer than the first time had. He stepped into the change room and found an empty locker. He had to wonder if he had developed some sort of allergy while he was gone, as why else would he be itching so much?

            Several other men were inside the changing room in various stages of undress as he dropped the backpack on the floor and sat down. He stripped off his boots and then his shirt, feeling the strange itching sensation begin once again. As soon as he removed his garments, the sensation disappeared. It was really starting to get bad so he pulled off his pants and instantly the freed flesh felt normal, but his underwear itched so badly it was as if a million ants were crawling over his flesh. He grunted and scratched his balls, starting to worry. Maybe he should consider going to see one of the medical officers about this, have some tests run. Finally he pulled his shorts off and stood there as naked as the day he entered the world. The itching sensation vanished and he sighed with relief.

            The men paid him no heed as they changed and went about their business. Hausser reached into his backpack and as soon as his fingers touched the cloth of his shorts and t-shirt, the itching returned with such a vengeance it caused him to cry out in pain. Everyone turned to look at him, some amused, others annoyed at the burst expletives spewing from his mouth.

            He waited, but the sensation did not lessen, in fact if it was at all possible, it was growing worse. He reached up with his hand and began to chew on the finger, trying to ease the itch, but much to his horror, and to those around him, he bit deep into the flesh, right to the bone! He wrenched his hand free, leaving the flesh inside his mouth. A blood-slick bone was all that remained.

            One of the men, only a meter from him, shied back in horror. “What the hell are you doing?” He cried as blood spurted from the now-fleshless finger, hitting him in the chest and face.

            The pain was a white-hot lance that raced through the finger, up his arm and into his back and skull. It was so bad that his bladder voided in that instant, spraying pungent urine for nearly two meters from where he stood.

            Cursing and shouting in disgust and fear, the men inside the changing area were beginning to back away from Hausser. When Hausser lifted his hand to inspect the damage he inflicted, the appendage moved at its on volition. Even as he screamed in raw agony and terror, he spit the flesh out and bit down on the second finger.

            The men inside the chamber saw that something horrible was indeed taking place and they wanted nothing to do with it. Each man ran for the nearest exit, be it to the gym or to the outside. No one wanted to be anywhere near the man who was stripping off his own flesh. Two of them as naked as Hausser, and did not even attempt to grab anything to cover their nakedness in their flight from the horror show.

            Through the pain and terror which was consuming him, Hausser began to hear the sounds of screaming and pain coming from outside the building. Even as he tried to fight his own body, the second, then the third and fourth finger were cleaned of flesh. Blood now coated his face, neck, and chest, and was spurting freely from his fleshless hand. Even through the pain he was starting to feel slightly woozy from blood loss. He spit the flesh out as his mind began to shut down from the agony he was inflicting on his own body.

            Free of constricting and confining flesh, his skeletal fingers reached over to his other arm, which stretched out despite his willing it to stay still and dug into the flesh on his palm. In seconds the skeletal fingers ripped the meat free from the bones and then the real horror started.

            As his hands stripped the flesh from his arms, then his legs, Haussers mind could no longer stand the agony. His consciousness, his very life-force was mercifully snuffed out as more of his flesh was removed from his body, the blood flowing away in rivulets, mingling with the discarded chunks of meat. The last coherent thought he had before death finally took his mind was that he had somehow been infected with the disease that killed the inhabitants of the resort. He was a bloody skeleton!

            The mind gone, the body now no longer in the land of the living due to the damage it had sustained upon itself, the nanite creature walked with casual ease towards the exit from the gym. With each step more flesh was pulled from the body and dropped to the floor a grizzly trail marking the passage of a cruel an unloved man. By the time the corpse stepped out into the yard, it had stripped the flesh from both arms and its torso. The guts began to tangle up in its legs and with the contempt that one would have in disposing of a used tissue, it reached into the wide open cavity. There it stopped long enough to pull the rest of the looping entrails free, dropping the glistening purple and blue entrails to the ground.

            All around the creature the nanites which had travelled with the former prisoners had spread like wildfire. Anyone who was over puberty was infected by the microscopic machines and with the four prisoners as the triggering mechanism, the nanites initiated the change.

            With the entrails and other internal organs finally disposed of, the creature that had once been Hausser sat down on the steps and peeled the flesh from its legs and rear. It paused when it looked down at Hausser’s flaccid penis as if it could remember what it had been used for. Contemptuously, it ripped the member from the body and tossed it like so much useless offal into the street.

            As it looked up through Hausser’s dead eyes, it could see at least a dozen or more men and women working at peeling their flesh from their bones. At least thirty or more of the Purists were scrambling on their hands and knees around the bloody skeletons, grabbing the discarded flesh and stuffing it greedily into their mouths.

            It proved to be more difficult, but the nanite monster reached behind its back and began to rip away long strips of flesh and muscle from its back, dropping the formerly living material to the ground.

            Somehow one of the other creatures managed to finish removing the flesh from its bones and then went to work on breaking the bones free from the hips. The creature formerly known as Hausser lifted the blood-slicked bones of its hands to its face and popped both eyes out at once, then began to peel the flesh off the skull like one would the skin of an orange.

            Gunfire erupted all around as those who had not been fully infected by the nanites began to open up on the zombies and bloody skeletons. The newly risen nanite creatures instantly went on the attack, the zombies leaving the feast of discarded flesh and going for the still-living flesh. Only a handful of the soldiers present had any inkling of what was occurring, and they were too rattled and terrified by the events to properly retaliate.

            Scores of survivors went down under the hands and teeth of the nanotech undead, some being pulled apart and consumed, others having their flesh peeled from their skeletons in an attempt to hurry the process.

            By now several of the bloody skeletons had severed their legs and hips, and were now floating at tremendous speeds, chasing down and brutally attacking those who had not yet begun to turn.

            A woman ran past the former Hausser, screaming as with each passing second her flesh was rapidly converted into nanites, turning her into one of the Banshee-like incorporeal creatures. She ran for maybe another ten or twenty meters before stopping in her tracks. She looked down at her translucent form and then around the compound, looking for living flesh to attack.

            A pair of children, white with fright and covered in the blood from one of the victims, raced passed. The skeleton watched them go and raised a single claw as if waving at them, but in fact the nanites wanted to attack and infest.

            Their programming would not allow it. The children did not possess the correct hormones that would trigger the infection routine. They were too young and as such were spared the horror of what was happening to their parents, elder sibling and relatives. Physically, the young were spared dying, but in some ways that was even crueler than becoming one of the multitudes of nanite undead… the mental scars ripped into their minds would forever haunt their dreams as long as they lived. 

            More than a hundred men and women managed to leave the compound, running for the literal hills, trying to hide in the forest that surrounded their home. Many of the nanitized undead gave chase, some catching their prey before they reached the elusive boundary that marked the limit of their territory. They were attacked, bitten or clawed, infecting the victims with more nanites and in many cases, causing the nanites already flowing in their bodies to hit critical mass. This triggered the changes and dozens of new nanite undead were added to the swollen ranks. Other nanite undead were stopped as if they hit an invisible fence, allowing those who made it past that point to escape with their lives.

            The death and destruction continued on throughout the morning and lasted well into the afternoon. Those trapped inside the compound fought valiantly against the nanites, but with each passing hour the number of survivors dwindled, dying at the hands of their former comrades and in turn becoming nanite undead themselves until only the young remained.

            All told, only fifty-one men and women managed to escape the compound. Some had the sense to bring children and the young with them, bringing the total number of survivors up to eighty-nine, but that was it. Out of approximately 1,900 men, women and children, fifty-one adults survived while two-hundred and sixty-three children, although most of the children were trapped in the confines of the over-run compound. This total did not include Martin Travis and his son and the men they brought with them to secure the recently uncovered military facility.

            Far above, using the cameras mounted on the ancient reconnaissance satellite, cold and unemotional eyes watched the death of a community, and a dream.

***

May 30th 2668 The Compound

            The images projected through the holograms were horrific to behold, even for the artificial intellects viewing what was transpiring. More than a couple of the androids stood up and silently left the command room as Awoan watched the death she had orchestrated being unleashed in the midst of their enemy, the Purists.

            Her face remained impassive as she sat in her command chair, watching hour after hour, as the compound died. The sheer amount of death was staggering, unlike anything that has been seen since the end of the war. The death she had ordered was something that sickened her, despite her being artificial. More than once she second-guessed her decision to use the nanites against the Purists, wondering if there had not been another way she could have ended their threat.

            And every time she came back to the same conclusion. She caused the death of over fifteen hundred souls, but in the long run the lives she saved would be at least ten times that. The purists had been responsible for hundreds upon hundreds of lives over the past six months or more, and with the way their army was growing, that number was sure to skyrocket.

            It hurt her deeply to see the death she had unleashed, and if she had a soul, she realized she would have condemned it to everlasting torment for her actions. Surely no human god would ever forgive such an atrocity as the one she perpetuated upon the Purists. Even if the children survived, they would have scars to carry with them for the rest of their lives.

            Awoan wanted to moan and scream to the creators that had allowed the programming she possessed to come up with such a plan. She realized that Babs was right, and that the other android had known it was not the correct action to take.

            What was done was done, and there was not a thing she could do to take it back. Thankfully the nanites appeared to be acting as they had been programmed to. None of the children under puberty had been affected by the plague, and not a single child had been harmed by the undead monsters created when the nanites activated.

            The major test was to see if their geographical lock would hold. She was confident it would not be an issue, as those who had reached the limit of the geographical programming had ceased chasing their prey and returned to the main compound.

            After witnessing the horror and the death, she realized that it would be literal child’s-play to reprogram the nanites to infest the creatures haunting the Resort. Maybe after all these centuries they could wipe out the threat the island posed and reclaim in. That was something she planned on doing now that the assault against the purists seems to have gone without a hitch.

            As time passed the resistance became less and less obvious, until shortly after two in the afternoon, the final gunshot rang out in the compound and all that remained were the nanitized undead, roaming the grounds, looking for fresh meat to infect.

            Finally the android reached out and hit a single button on the holographic display and the pixilated light faded from sight, leaving a blank void above the projector. Awoan stared at the space which until only recently had displayed a scene of horror not witnessed since the final wars.

            The room around her was as silent as a tomb, and when she finally looked about, she discovered she was alone. Whether it was due to the others not wanting to witness the savage brutality of the nanites, or out of respect for her, she did not know, and Awoan realized she would never ask.

            She knew that she was grateful to her people. After another minute passed, she activated the internal comlink. “You may begin cultivating and reprogramming the nanites. I want to know the millisecond we have enough to infect and wipe out the nanites on both the Resort and the compound.”

            “As you wish, Awoan.”

            She broke the link and then stood, leaving the command center to meditate upon what she had wrought.

***

May 30th 2668 Three kilometers from the Compound

            The assassin lowered the binoculars and raised a hand to her face, covering her mouth in horror at what she had witnessed. Death reigned supreme in the compound, as the infected men and women changed and then turned upon one another in a frenzy of machine-controlled death and destruction. Even to her hardened emotions, watching the creatures attack, turn or feast upon the people was too much.

            The woman looked at the binoculars in her hand and then placed them gently on the ground. She blinked back tears as she removed the silk mask from her face. It was thin enough to allow her to breathe easily, but she needed her mouth clear as the simple fabric was suffocating. She had lain in the blind for several days, eating, sleeping and occasionally voiding waste into bags she carefully buried to keep from attracting animals and scavengers. Her body was covered in sweat and she figured she had to reek, but her job would not permit her to leave.

            After what she had just witnessed, the assassin knew she needed to make contact with her people and report what had happened. Her long, black hair clung to her sweat-streaked face and head, looking like a raggedy, misshapen hat. She ran her fingers through the greasy mass to pull it from her head, allowing the heated flesh to breathe in the cooler air.

            There was a loud explosion and she returned her attention to the compound, lifting the binoculars from the ground and placing them against her eyes. A group of survivors managed to secure one of the many trucks the Purists used and had set demolition charges against the main gate. It blew spectacularly, bits and pieces of the gate shooting outwards from the compound, scything through trees and plants, ripping them to shreds. If anyone had been in the blast radius, they surely would have been cut to ribbons.

            The truck sped through the remains of the gate, several zombies and at least two of the bloody skeletons hanging on and reaching for the men and women on and inside. Shots rang out from the bed and cab of the truck, blasting several of the clinging nanite undead off the vehicle. She used the magnifying function of the glasses and zoomed in to see the cab. The driver was fighting the wheel, which was bucking in his hands like a living creature, demanding freedom.

            She had to admire the driver’s skill and tenacity as he fought the rough-shod road. He also had to contend with the erratic movements of the vehicle as the weight from the undead and the fighting threatened to cause him to lose control.

            Two of the people inside the bed of the truck were latched on and viscously yanked from the back by three zombies and two bloody skeletons. They hit the ground with a bone-shattering crunch and at once the zombies began to feast upon the flesh, while the bloody skeletons ripped strips of flesh from the still living and screaming man.

            Looking away, she focused in on the truck and without warning it veered off the road and slammed into a tree. The vehicle’s rear end shot up from the ground, spilling the last few men holding on for dear life, scattering them around like so much worthless debris. The hood of the truck flew up, and a jet of scalding water erupted from the smashed radiator, boiling a zombie that had somehow been thrown into the tree upon impact.

            It was clear that something had managed to get inside the cab of the truck, and she saw it was one of the incorporeal nanite undead, one of the ghost-like creatures. It had placed both hands on the face of the driver and was sucking the life out of the man until he had smashed into the tree. His body had been flung out the shattered windshield and flew through the air like a rag-doll, landing nearly twenty meters away in the underbrush. The incorporeal nanite monster had flown with him and at around ten meters, the creature had simply ceased to exist, the body exploding outwards and then disappearing into a fine mist made up of the component nanites.

            This had caught the watchers curiosity. She finally managed to pull her eyes away from the destruction of the truck to watch as others attempted to flee. One small group of women, who had about a dozen children in tow, were running for all they were worth. They were being pursued by the floating torso bloody skeletons and maybe ten zombies, all eager and determined to get hold of their prey. A girl, no more than seven or eight, stumbled and fell. One of the older women stopped and turned to help her to her feet when the floating torsos fell upon her and slammed her to the ground, where the bloody skeletons attacked like a pack of rabid dogs. Even from so far away the assassin could make out her scream of terror as the floating torsos began to first strip her naked, and then strip the flesh from her bones.

            For some reason the creatures ignored the girl, who was huddled on the ground, screaming and crying as the older woman was systematically killed and turned into a bloody skeleton. The binoculars had a recording function as well as a time and date display, and the assassin kept watch. From the time the nanites had grabbed the woman to her resurrection as a bloody skeleton, the process had taken maybe forty-five seconds.

            The former woman turned bloody skeleton faced the screaming girl and stared down at her for several seconds as her brethren took up the chase once again. It then began to run past the child, who stared after it in unbelieving horror.

            Then something even stranger happened. Once the nanite undead reached the same general location where the ghost-like creature had disappeared, they stopped as if they had hit a physical wall. The creatures remained there, their bloody arms outstretched as if they could physically reach the fleeing humans, but they would not take another step.

            This had the assassin’s curiosity. For some reason they would not go past a certain point, and she had no idea as to the reason why. After several minutes, the nanitized undead did an abrupt about-face and headed back towards the compound. As they passed the weeping and wailing child, not one turned a dead eye or empty eye-socket to look in her direction. It was as if the child had ceased to exist.

            She waited in the sweltering heat for several more hours, recording the death of the Purist compound with the binoculars. Finally after nearly an hour of not hearing a single shot or seeing anything alive in the compound, she gathered her gear up and carefully packed it away, including the high-tech Ghilli suit she had been forced to wear. Stripping it off was akin to taking off all her clothing and standing naked, as the air felt so good, despite how hot it was. The assassin was looking forward to a nice shower and maybe a soak in one of the pools.

            What her dreams would hold, that was something she was not looking forward to finding out.

***

May 30th 2668 The community

            About an hour after receiving the call from the former pleasure model android Awoan, Max Ahteen summoned his daughter to his office. He was seated before his desk, several empty bottles already scattered across the top of the ancient piece of furniture. When he reached out to take a drink from the bottle in his hand, it shook as if palsied.

            When Ra’naa entered, she gasped in shock. Her father looked as if he had aged fifty years since she had seen him and that scared the hell out of the young woman. “Dad?” She was at his side in an instant, kneeling beside him. The man smelled of sweat and beer, and she could see a haunted look in his eyes. “Dad you’re scaring me, what’s wrong?”

            “We’ve won,” he said and then laughed bitterly. “The Purists are no longer a threat to us or any non-human in the region.”

            Ra’naa knew that should have been a cause for celebration, but her father was far from being in a celebratory mood. He had the look of someone who had lost a major war, not won. She placed a hand over his and guided the bottle back to the table. He did not resist and when the glass hit the top of the desk, it wobbled and then toppled over, spilling the last of the beer.

            “Dad if we won, why are you like this?”

            “Because of what it cost to win this war,” he said quietly and waved an unsteady hand at the desktop. “Awoan contacted me and sent a live-feed from the recon Satellite they used to monitor the Purists.”

            Of course Ra’naa knew what the androids had planned on doing and from the look on her father’s face, the attack worked far better than anyone had anticipated it would. “Do I want to know?”

            He shook his head. “Remember some of the amateur video we managed to find, shot when the resort was destroyed by the nanitized undead?”

            She nodded as an involuntary shudder ran through her.

            “This was a lot worse to watch, since it was real time and not an ancient recording.”

            Kneeling next to her father, Ra’naa did not know what to say. They remained that way for almost twenty minutes before she straightened and stood. The room seemed to have grown darker, despite the light pouring in from the window. He had it replaced within hours of the assassin’s attempt to escape. The window was ordinary glass now, not the armored glass it had been, and she knew he would eventually want to have it replaced.

            “Dad you said it yourself, we won. They are no longer a threat, so can’t you take some solstice in that?”

            He shook his head and sighed, looking at the spilt beer as he reached out and righted the nearly empty bottle. “It is cold comfort, believe me.”

            It struck her as odd how they had been planning on a long and drawn out fight with the Purists. The sick and twisted minds that controlled the group were always on the lookout for potential recruits, and it was shocking how many people felt compelled to join their insane crusade against non-humans.

            With the head of the snake cut off, the body would surely die. The idea was still alive, as there had to have been at least a few who had managed to escape, especially with the self-destruct parameters that had been programmed into the nanites. She sighed and leaned against the desk, crossing her arms under her breasts. “What should we do about the recruits and the training?”

            “We’ll keep it up, and we’ll make sure they’re armed. There is always a chance that another group might pick up where they left off, so we can’t just rest on our laurels.”

            She knew he had the right idea. “Do we tell the recruits that the Purists are gone?”

            He shook his head. “Not until we know for sure. I want confirmation that the Travis family has been eradicated. Once we know that for sure, then we’ll inform our people. Until then, we keep this on the down low. You can tell Declan, Tara, Otres, and Momma Rathbourne, but no one else until we have final confirmation.”

            “You got it, dad,” She tried to smile but it failed.

            He wiped his face with the back of his hand, as if trying to banish tears that were not there. “We need to do something about the kids in the compound.”

            “Like what? We can’t go in there; the nanites would infest us and kill us as surely as they would if we went to the resort.”

            Max shook his head and smiled ruefully. “Awoan’s programmers and techs have been working on a counter-measure for the nanites. She is willing to send a batch to us if we want to go there and rescue the surviving kids.”

            “I don’t like this dad,” Ra’naa chewed her lower lip and thought. “She has enough people, why can’t she send in some of them to help round up the survivors? They’re androids and that makes them immune to the nanites they unleashed.”

            He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, shaking his head. “You’re right of course, if she is willing to send her people to us for this task. After all, they should be the ones to clean up the mess.”

            “I’m going to see the others and let them know what happened.”

            Max nodded to his daughter.

***

May 30th 2668 The community

            A wind swirled through the grass, causing it to dance and wave with each eddy, moving in a nearly hypnotic pattern. It certainly helped, as the temperature had to be in the mid to high thirties, and with the humidity coming from the ocean, the temperature was nearly unbearable.

            Overhead the sky was almost completely void of clouds, only a few wisps here and there, almost invisible against the pure blue canvas. A lone Eagle, the size of a Brute, rode the thermals, the wings barely twitching as it lazily glided through the heavens, not a care in the world.

            Unlike the man who sat on the bench, watching the raptor so far overhead. He was sweating profusely and was distinctly uncomfortable, the heat pounding on his flesh, turning his normally pale skin a painful red. Joey did not really care about the burn, or at least he did not notice it. Awoan had contacted him shortly before she opened the communication link with Max Ahteen and had sent him a feed showing the carnage in the compound.

            The sun was fading fast, the last rays of light caressing the mountain peaks to the East. Soon the sun would disappear and hopefully the heat would begin to fade, but from his time living in this section of the world, he knew it would not fade by much.

            Rarely did he ever feel as sick to his soul as he did at that very moment. The death they had unleashed upon the Purists was unlike anything he could have imagined. He knew his history quite well, and knew about the terrorist attacks propagated by various rogue governments and organizations. After all, it was one such government that had infected the Resort, where they had taken the samples.

            So did their act of aggression against the Purists make them the terrorists? He pondered the question, his mind filled with the images he had witnessed, and he knew they would haunt his dreams. It was like the empty socket left when a tooth was extracted. No matter how you tried, the tongue always returned to where the tooth had been probing and prodding. The images kept returning, even when he tried to concentrate on something else.

            “Joey?”

            He blinked and looked around, trying to pinpoint where the voice had come from. A moment later he saw Ra’naa, splendid in her white, form-hugging dress, standing on the path a few meters away. She had reverted to the typical dress of the women who lived in the community, and had even taken the time to weave flowers into her hair and around her horns. His breath caught in his throat for a fraction of a second as he stared at her.

            “Joey, are you alright?” She asked again, looking concerned as she came over to him. She knelt before him and placed her hand on his, squeezing gently. For a woman who trained in the art of death with her hands and weapons, her fingers were soft and her touch gentle.

            He shook his head and lifted his free hand to rub at his eyes. “Yeah, sorry, sort of lost in thought right now.”

            “Do you want to talk about it?” She remained where she was kneeling, her hand closed over his. “Or would you rather go somewhere? You’re getting one hell of a nasty sunburn.”

            It was then he realized that his skin felt exceedingly dry and hot, and when he reached out to touch the flesh on the back of his neck he winced in pain. “I had no idea,” he said, his voice thick. He was thirsty!

            Reaching out, she brushed some of the hair from his face, revealing his eyes. “Let’s go,” she stood and continued to hold his hand. “One of the recruits brought his family and they set up a bar, the place just opened yesterday and they’re serving right now.”

            He nodded and allowed the Dragon Exotic to pull him to his feet. Where the fabric of his shirt rubbed the burned flesh, he could feel the pain, but he did not let it show. Much to his surprise, Ra’naa did not let go of his hand, instead, she entwined her fingers with his. He felt his heart-beat increase in tempo. “Sorry about being such a pain,” he began.

            She looked at him as they walked, her hair tied in a neat pony tail, which swayed back and forth with each step. The flowers only highlighted her natural beauty and the sun beating down on her naked shoulders and arms made the skin hot, sending off a pleasantly warm smell. “You’re not, but I am pretty sure I know what’s bothering you.”

            He looked surprised and then chuckled. “Yeah, Awoan contacted me and showed me the results of the nanite attack against the Purists. I assume you and your father already know then,” he stated, not asked.

            She said nothing for a moment before answering. “Yeah, she sent us the footage. Dad says that the war is now over.”

            He did not speak until they finally reached the bar. It was one of the older buildings that had been boarded up but maintained, and was now alive with customers. There were tables set up not only inside, but out in front and to the side. All of the tables were covered by umbrellas in various states of repair, and they found one that was empty. It was positioned perfectly so that the slight breeze blowing through the town washed over it and the occupants, dropping the temperature by nearly ten degrees, making it comfortably warm instead of hot. They sat across from one another and waited in silence until a woman approached. “What will you be having?”

            “Whatever is cold and wet,” Ra’naa answered. The waitress, a woman she did not recognize, nodded and entered the building. Ra’naa assumed she was a member of the new recruit’s family. She glanced around and made sure that no one was paying attention or could easily overhear what they were discussing. She leaned closer to him and said in a quiet voice; “be vague when we talk about what happened. Dad doesn’t want word to get out, just yet.”

            “Understood,” Joey nodded. “Yes it bothers me, a great deal. I never wanted it, but I went along with it anyhow.”

            “Why? You’ve got free will, you could have said something,” Ra’naa offered.

            “True, but the choice had already been made, and for the record I did say I thought it wasn’t a good idea.”

            She leaned back and studied him, her lips pursed as she considered his words. “They would have followed through no matter what you said then?” She asked.

            “Exactly,” Joey had the strongest urge to take her hand in his and lean in to get a sample of how they tasted. He nearly burst out laughing, but somehow managed to keep his thoughts and expression off. This certainly was not the time to be thinking things like that. He was grateful to the creators her little friend Otres was not around… he would die from embarrassment if she found out.

            She chewed on her lower lip, her hand unconsciously rubbing the flesh around her right horn. “Well for the record I don’t hold it against you or them for that matter. As wrong as the act was, it will have saved thousands of lives, maybe a lot more, and no kids died.”

            He felt a cold wave of relief wash through his body, starting from the tip of his toes and climbing until he felt it in the crown of his head. Even the pain, which was just starting to tingle on his reddened skin, felt alleviated. “Thanks, Ra’naa, it really means a lot to me.”

            Her hand paused in the act of caressing her horn and her eyes twinkled in a very unusual manner and it caused the young man to swallow hard. “After we have a drink, we should go to the communal pool to cool off. I can get some balm to rub on those burns, it will help relieve the pain you’re going to feel soon enough.”

            At that moment the young woman arrived with their drinks and she placed them on the table. Ra’naa nodded her thanks and tossed a sliver of gold on the table. When the woman argued that she did not have to pay, Ra’naa insisted, telling her that her father would force them to move if she did not take the payment. Of course it was an utter lie, but she did not want to be given special treatment because of her position in the community.

            Joey felt it difficult to speak after the woman left, his mind already having undressed Ra’naa to gaze at her body. He was imagining how the scales looked on her naked flesh and it was very arousing. Again he thanked the creators there were no telepaths nearby. He covered his embarrassment by taking a long drink of the cool beer.

            “So what do you think?” She asked after several minutes passed.

            “About what?” He said innocently.

            “What we witnessed.”

            The heat of his attraction died as suddenly as a flame doused with water. “Right… it’s bad, and I hope that we never have to resort to such tactics again. It was something wrong on so many levels, and I wish to the creators that they would never have arranged for it to happen. Sure, lives were saved, but nothing good will come from this. We know there are survivors and who caused this might eventually be discovered.”

            “I agree and share your feelings about it,” she reached out and took his hand in hers, surprising him. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” she held his hand and struggled not to look away.

            “What is it?”

            “Do you have anyone at the Installation?” She blurted it out so quickly it sounded like a single, long drawn out word.

            “What?” He blinked rapidly and then ran his free hand over his face, feeling the heat radiating from it, not sure if it was from confusion mixed with embarrassment or from the burn. “I don’t get what you’re asking.”

            She fought an internal struggle, wanting to let go of his hand and to just drop the whole subject, but she refused to give in. She finally realized why the young man had been on her mind or would pop into her thoughts at the most unexpected times. She liked him and more than just that, she wanted him. Maybe it had something to do with Tara and Declan; maybe it was because her little brother Otres might have found someone to love. She never had a boyfriend before, and had no interest in women, other than as simple friends. Taking a deep breath, she controlled her racing heart and spoke slower and clearly. “Do you have a lover in the Installation?”

            He looked away, feeling his face turn a deep crimson. The pain from the sunburn felt white-hot, and he felt humiliated and embarrassed by the question. Still the woman had captivated him from the moment they had met and she was finally starting to show interest, so he knew he better not blow it. “No I don’t. There has never been anyone there for me,” he forced himself to meet her look and match it with one of his own. “How about you? I’m sure someone as beautiful as you have tons of men knocking at your door, looking to date you,” he then broke the eye contact and looked away. By the creators, did I really say that?

            She did not reply, not for a long time, until finally he looked back at her and found her studying his face. When they were staring at one another, she opened her mouth and spoke softly. “No I don’t have anyone special. I’ve never found the time, and most of the people here are afraid to ask me.”

            Her hand was still holding his, and he felt her thumb caressing the back of his. It sent a wonderful tingling sensation through his hand, arm and then down his back and around into his belly. “Why the hell would they be afraid?”

            She took her drink and drained half of it before speaking. “My father. He’s the leader and the original founder of this community. He holds a special position and as a proxy, so do I, since I’m his daughter. There have been a few men who have tried to catch my interest, but they were after what power they could potentially wrest from dad. They no longer live here.”

            He finished his drink and put the empty mug on the table. Despite the excellent brew, his mouth was dry and he felt butterflies in his stomach. “Your dad killed them?”

            This caused Ra’naa to laugh. Joey knew he liked the way she laughed, how her eyes crinkled at the corners and the way her breasts bounced up and down. Down boy! He mentally scolded.

            “No he exiled them. They’re living down in Scav Haven, and have not tried to cause any problems.”

            Joey looked at the empty beer and then back up at Ra’naa. “So you said something about the communal pool?”

            “Yes we need to go and have a swim, and then you’re going to come back to my place and I’ll see about applying some ointment to your sunburn.”

            His heart skipped a beat, but he tried to not let it show. “Alright, but don’t worry about the ointment, I’ll be fine,” he knew it was a lie, but going back to her home, despite having been there before, scared the ever-living shit out of him.

            “No you will come back home with me,” she insisted. “Believe me, I’ve seen burns like that before and they are bad enough I’m almost tempted to take you to the infirmary. The water will help cool you down, but if we don’t treat the burns, you’re going to be in a great deal of pain and it’s going to make you sick!”

            Reluctantly, he agreed. During the entire conversation, she had not once let go of his hand and she pulled him to his feet when she stood. “So no more arguing!”

            “Alright, alright, I give, I promise!”

            “Good,” she smiled at him and caused his heart to skip a beat. With that, she led him to the communal pool.