Buck Who? Chapter 42

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 42: Disturbing the Peace

May 30th 2668 Near the Washington and Idaho border

            “Son of a bitch!” Bradly screamed as he saw the sudden and unexpected appearance of so many Hissers and combat robots. Where the hell had they all come from? He had to wonder, seeing the mass of metal and mutant flesh with weapons raised. The young Travis did not hesitate – to do so would end up costing them dearly. They had already lost enough men to the mutants, and if he had his way, they would not lose more.

            As if on cue, his people, Martin included, opened fire. As suddenly as the robots and the Hissers appeared, whenever they were struck by the incoming rounds and bursts of energy, they disappeared. The remainder opened up, returning prodigious amounts of fire in return.

            No one dropped.

            Not a single man screamed in pain from being hit by the incoming fire.

            Martin quickly came to a realization as to what was happening. “It’s some sort of hologram!” He said, and then turned to a private channel. “Bradly, activate your radar and tell me what you see.”

            Doing as his father instructed, Bradly activated his suit’s advanced radar unit. Where there should have been dozens upon dozens of targets, only one appeared. “I see it,” he raised his weapon and prepared to fire.

            Martin placed a gauntleted hand on Bradly’s arm and forced the weapon down. “This one’s mine.” He took careful aim, guided by the radar, and took a single shot. Almost as soon as he squeezed the trigger, the remaining figures disappeared, leaving the area void of life. “Bastard mutant,” he hissed in disgust.

            Bradly nodded, understanding. “Some sort of mental mutant, projected holograms then?”

            “Yeah,” Martin confirmed. “I’m just fucking glad that we didn’t have to face that many Hissers and robots. It would have gotten real ugly, real fast.

            With the unexpected danger passed, the excavation went smoothly, despite all the debris and rubble choking the entrance. They were inside the underground level but their progress was hampered by numerous cave-ins and other obstacles.  Numerous closed blast-doors barred their progress, but finally they came to a large metal-reinforced door.

            Bradly and Martin before the rust-streaked door and studied it. There was a puddle of slimy water on the floor, dripping from a wide crack in the ceiling.  It looked as if the door had not been unsealed since the end of the final wars, when the nuclear devices had been deployed to obliterate the surface structures.

            Two of their most trusted technicians were working on removing the rusted and mold-caked access panel and rigging up portable energy sources. One had a hand-comp strapped to his hip and once they had access to the internal workings would use the device to hack through any security that might be in place.

            “What do you think we’ll find inside?” Bradly had to ask. He already brought up the topic several times, but like a child waiting for a birthday present, he was losing his patience.

            Martin glanced sideways at his son, wondering why the boy kept asking the same thing. He really could not blame him, but it was starting to become irritating. “Hopefully some serious armor, and plenty of heavy weapons. As long as the information we have is correct that is. I’m surprised we’ve been going through a maze instead of entering one of the garages. The fact that those mutant freaks had so many pre-ruin weapons indicates they might have found another way into the facility, so we can only hope they didn’t find everything, or ruin what was left behind.”

            “I hope we can get at least another one or more command vehicles,” mused the younger Travis. “It still pisses me off we had to leave it back at the compound. We could have used it when the robots attacked.”

            “Might as well wish for all the mutants and aberrations to drop dead on the spot,” Martin half laughed. “Ancient tech like that, even though we try to keep it maintained, is prone to break down. I am willing to bet we’ll find parts at the very least to get it back up and running.”

            More minutes passed in silence as the two men stood in the light of the portable lamps that were brought down for just this purpose. It was hot down in the tunnel, but not quite as bad as it was on the surface. Still, both men were comfortable inside their powered armor, the environmental controls keeping both free from sweat.

            Finally one of the techs hooked the portable power source to the panel and it lit up, the corroded panel coming to life. The damage had been severe and there was no way it could possibly read biometric data, but that was of little import. After all, there was no way that they could have provided the required information to allow access, so they had to slice their way in. The technician with the portable computer hooked it into the scanner and then went to work. The device had numerous programs and a limited AI to help with the task.

            More minutes ticked by as the technician ran his fingers over the holographic keyboard and display, watching the data as it flowed like electronic water, dolling out more information than Martin thought possible for a human mind to process. Finally the ruined panel went from a dull shade of red to green and there was an audible click and a groan. Trapped air, confined for centuries, flowed out from the edge of the door. The technicians jumped back, not wanting to inhale in ancient air, lest they be subjected to toxins or biological contaminants.

            Martin was the first to step up to the door, where he dug his metal-sheathed fingers into the crack and pulled with all his armor-enhanced might. Slowly, like an old man climbing out of bed first thing in the morning, the door began to open. When the space had become wide enough, Bradly slipped past his father and added his own considerable strength to the task at hand, and in about twenty seconds of heavy exertion, the door was fully open, revealing what lay beyond for the first time in over three hundred years.

            The corridor was as black as his heart, half-filled with debris from where the ceiling had collapsed. He grumbled, having hoped that maybe it was in better shape than the corridor they had just come through, but no luck. It was almost as bad! Here and there a wall had given way, allowing the dirt behind to flow like water into the long tunnel. A thick layer of dust had been disturbed by the opening of the ancient door, floating up from where it covered everything, obscuring their vision.

            Martin consulted the environmental sensors built into his suit and read them with growing interest. “Radiation is still fairly high, but nothing our suits can’t handle,” he said, broadcasting to the entire group. “No known toxins or contaminants present, and no sign of nanotechnology.”

            “Sir,” one of the techs at the door said, backing away. “How bad is the radiation contamination?” He looked nervous, as this had not been brought up before.

            Martin waved a dismissive hand in the man’s direction. “A single dose of RadBeGone should take care of it. If it was serious we wouldn’t have let you come down here to begin with.”

            The tech looked relieved and stood his ground. The other men who had been with him all returned to their posts, having left for fear of radiation poisoning. Everyone stood with their weapons at the ready, expecting the spectres of long dead soldiers to suddenly appear and attack, angered at having their eternal slumber disturbed.

            Bradly pushed his way into the partially blocked corridor and turned on his suit’s external lights. He had his weapon held at the ready, knowing that anything could be lurking in the murk… more Hissers, other mutated life that somehow managed to scurry inside, even robotic units. Military bases such as the one they were about to explore were notorious for having not only human guards, but were supplemented with robotic soldiers and security. Many had AI units that controlled the bases security and more than a few scavengers had met an inglorious end at the security measures still in place after so many centuries

            With his son on point, Martin waited as over a dozen armed men filed past him, entering the tunnel. Each man had a flashlight attached to the barrel of the assault weapon they carried, and their beams added to that of Bradly’s, bringing light to the stygian darkness. At last Martin brought up the rear. He left the majority of his men on the outside, ready to act as guards and lookouts in case the Hissers or anything else decided to make a play for the ruins.

            It proved to be slow going and more than a little tedious, as More often than not Bradly was forced to use his enhanced strength to remove large chunks of rubble that was impeding their progress. Each time he moved a piece of metal or stone, the surrounding walls and ceiling let out an unsettling groan, as if the structure was angered at having been disturbed.

            A few of the men exchanged nervous glances, some having come from more primitive communities where the belief in ghosts and the souls of the dead still held sway. No one dared voice their thoughts, for doing so would incur the wrath of the Travis’s, who would not allow such heresy to be spoken in the compound.

            Ten minutes of travel and gruelling work gained the group only about thirty meters, but it was where they encountered their first sign of former life. A doorway was discovered off to the left of Bradly, from which a skeleton dressed in the heavy combat armor of soldier lay. The body was about halfway through the door and the cause of death was obvious to anyone looking. A large chunk of debris had rained down from the ceiling and struck the man on the head. Despite the helmet the soldier wore, the debris caved in part of his skull, probably killing the man instantly.

            Bradly knelt to turn the corpse on his side. He was looking for weapons or better yet, identification and he was not disappointed. The man’s electronic dog-tags hung around the neck, the metal links of the necklace still gleaming brightly despite the years and dust. Bradly gripped the necklace and gave a little tug. The motion pulled the tags free, separating the skull from the body. It rolled for about half a meter before coming to rest, the empty eyes staring off into infinity.

            “Lieutenant Gregory Saxon,” Bradly read aloud, looking at the information laser-etched into the metal. The rest of the etching described his age, blood type, and more data the man could not readily comprehend. “This should allow for at least some access.”

            “Good find, Bradly,” Martin said over the communication link.

            Bradly slipped the dog-tags into an external pouch, hoping that sometime in the very near future they would come in handy. He then stood and shone his light into the room, which turned out to be significantly larger than he would have imagined. It was so large the gloom pervading the room swallowed the light from his suit, plunging the furthest distances into inky darkness.

            Like the rest of the complex, the room was partially collapsed. Piles of debris made strangely shaped mounds everywhere he looked, covering god only knew what. He took several steps into the room and played the light over some of the closet piles. He nearly yelped when he saw a metallic limb, fingers of alloy curled into a claw, the tips still several centimeters into the concrete floor. It was obvious the robotic unit had attempted to claw its way out of the pile of debris, and had either sustained too much damage to continue, or had lost power.

            He continued to scan the room, the light revealing what the darkness was willing to give up to him. Here and there he could see tables still standing, with banks of holographic displays surrounding them like dutiful sentries. The wall behind him held shelves filled with all manner of parts and replacements, all for the use of the bases robotic security and sentry units. “Dad, we found what looks like a robotic maintenance facility,” he called out over the communication link. Bradly did not bother to use a secure or private channel, instead using the command channel so that everyone could hear.

            “I’ll be right there,” came the reply a second later.

            As he waited, Bradly continued to wander around the first thirty meters or so of the room. It only took a few seconds to confirm his suspicions as to the actual purpose of the room. The thought of an android or robotic unit taking a single peek into the darkened corners and fleeing in terror made him chuckle. Thankfully he had his radio off so it did not transmit to the rest of the gathered men. One table held a humanoid figure with a slick shield in place of a face. The arms were arranged to either side and he could see a blaster pistol built into the forearm of the left arm. Reaching out, he brushed his hand across the body and dusted off nearly a centimeter of dust and fine particulates, revealing a forest camouflage pattern.

            Another light played over the dead robot’s form as his father joined him. Together they stared down at the figure, which was transfixed in time, having lain in the same position for no less than thirty-three decades. At last Martin broke the silence. “Bring the techs in, we’ll see if we can’t activate and reprogram these robots for our use. They’ll make excellent foot-soldiers in our war.”

            “I couldn’t agree more,” Bradly grinned through his faceplate. “Totally loyal, obedient, and will follow our orders without question. Without any compulsion towards mercy or compassion, these will increase the number of mutant’s we kill dramatically.”

            “There is that,” Martin leaned in and was brushing away more of the accumulated dust and debris, looking for what caused the robot to be sent in for maintenance so many years ago. “Or we can use them as guards at the compound. The bastard androids know where we are, and I’m assuming the same goes for those meddlesome Exotics you encountered. While we’re in the field, they could launch a sneak attack. It would be nice to ensure we have something of a surprise waiting for them if they dared try such a tactic.”

            “I thought we were in the vehicle maintenance building,” Bradly commented offhand.

            “We are, but it makes sense that they would set up facilities to take care of the robots as well, since the same machine-shops and tools would be used on both.”

            As more of the men gathered, Martin gave the order for them to spread out and search the room, but to be careful. There was always a chance that any other units in the room might have powered down to conserve their batteries until rescue came, so they did not want the security or soldier robots to awaken and go on the offensive.

            Flesh and blood mutants were one thing, and with a few exceptions were relatively easy to kill using the weapons and technology at their disposal. Robots, especially military grade combat robots would have armor and god knew what sort of offensive measures to use against the intruders.

            Five minutes passed as father and son joined in the exploration. The room turned out to be massive, measuring three hundred meters per side. There were several exits from the facility, all of them unpowered and sealed. It would be little work for the soldiers and their techs to run bypasses as they had with the outer door, but they wanted to explore the easily accessible locations first.

            All in all they discovered nearly fifty soldier robots and sentry units, all in various states of repair. Some looked as if they had seen serious combat, the damage inflicted by energy and EMP weapons still visible on their scarred exoskeletons, while others looked as if they had suffered not so much as a scratch. The worst part was how much the robotic infantry looked like the ones they had encountered and defeated above ground. It made everyone more than a little nervous and fingers were never far from the triggers.

            Martin and Bradly carefully logged all the information they could in their suits, taking notes and making a brief inventory. Just this room alone would provide the equivalent of five-hundred flesh and blood soldiers, if they could get all the units activated and reprogrammed.

            Despite his fear and reservation when it came to the robots, they left a warm and fuzzy feeling in Martin’s stomach. They had barely scratched the surface of the facility and already their cause was all that much more powerful for their effort. Together he and Bradly left the room and continued down the rubble-choked corridor. It was nearly another three hundred meters before they came to another door, this on the left wall. Directly opposite was a double door. It looked as if someone or something had tried to break out of the room, as there were fist-sized dents pushing outwards from the metal skin of the door itself. “Wow, I wonder what could have done that?” Bradly said in wonderment, reaching out with a gauntleted hand to touch the nearest of the dents. He tried to pull the door and when that did not work, he pushed it, but the heavy gauged metal door refused to budge a millimetre.

            Without power to bypass the security measures, they would have to use brute force or explosives to get passed each obstacle. Maybe once they secured and mapped what they could access they would put the extra effort into the exploration, but for now Martin knew they did not have the time.

            Two more massive rooms were passed – one holding exactly what Martin was expecting to find. It was a garage, partially collapsed and filled with rubble, but it held numerous pre-fall military vehicles in various states of repair. There were armored personnel carriers, hover-APC’s, trucks, all purpose vehicles and at least a pair of massive tanks. The armored vehicles weathered the collapse of the ceiling far better than the other vehicles, but it was the windfall he had been hoping to find.

            The second room they came to was a largely empty space, filled with more debris and rubble but nothing else of interest. It had to be nearly two hundred meters lengthwise and almost half a kilometer breadth, but there seemed to be nothing in the room.

            Bradly took the lead, a dozen men following as they began to explore the room. Martin stayed back and was using the communication link to co-ordinate with their people to further explore the garage. He wanted to find the exit as soon as possible and see how many of the armored vehicles, the tanks in particular, they could get running.

            “Dad,” Bradly called out over the link.

            “What is it?”

            “Something is off about this place, and I just can’t put my finger on it.”

            “How so?”

            Bradly walked around a particularly large pile of debris and scanned the ground. Something was tickling the back of his mind, an itch that demanded to be scratched and yet he could not figure out what was causing it. “I’m not sure dad, but you’re the one who told me to never ignore my instincts, right?”

            “Right,” Martin confirmed. He broke in on the command channel. “Heads up people, keep your weapons primed and ready, I think we’re about to be ambushed.”

            That got the soldiers attention, and everyone began to scan their surroundings, looking for any possible sign of trouble. For the next five minutes Bradly and his squad continued to search the ruined complex, but other than piles of debris, they found nothing of import. He flashed his light over the ground nearest the wall and back again. Then he stopped and hefted his blaster. Something caught his attention, but he was not sure as to what it was. He played his light over the ground near the wall and then realized what had been bothering him.

            There were tracks in the thick dust. He realized that there was a strange shimmering in the air where the footprints ended and what that meant. Cold flooded his bloodstream, fear threatening to overwhelm him.

            “We’re not alone people!” He screamed out and then opened fire. There was a loud metallic shriek as the blaster energy pounded into the camouflaged soldier robot. Its epidermal layer had blended perfectly into the background, and Bradly would not have realized it was even there if it had not been for the footprints in the dust.

            Suddenly the chamber came alive with hidden soldier robots and the Purists found themselves battling the robotic soldiers of the base once again.  This time they were not mere illusions, but metal, plastics and composites, determined to rid the facility of the unwanted intruders.

***

May 30th 2668  Scav Haven

            She sat perfectly still, not so much as a miniscule muscle twitch to reveal exactly how she felt as she watched the incoming transmission. She was a bringer of death and had taken countless lives over her very long life, but to see such an act unfold was sickening even to her.

            The room was dark with the only light coming from the holographic display. She could see just fine, which was a gift from her genetic heritage, and could make out the twelve men and women standing around her in a perfect circle. Like her, they were watching the transmission, and like her, they did not move at all. Unlike her, their faces were hidden by the masks which marked their status in the Whispering Wraith organization. They were all what one would call elders, veterans of many contracts and campaigns.

            After twenty minutes of viewing, the transmission finally came to an end. She nodded briefly and the lights in the room came up, revealing the twelve members standing garbed in their assassin’s regalia. No one spoke for several seconds and then one of the men, standing about halfway across the room, cleared his throat.

            “You have something to share with the elders, Chi Ling?” The woman asked.

            “Yes,” the man bowed deferentially towards the woman. “We know that our two scouts were discovered and neutralized by the two Ahteen’s.”

            When he did not continue, she waved a hand indicating he should do so.

            “This cannot go unpunished,” he said as bluntly and boldly as possible.

            Qui Bon Sing nodded in his direction. “What do you propose we do about it; send in more of our brothers and sisters to eliminate the Ahteen’s?”

            “No – they have proven to be stronger than we could have imagined,” Chi Ling waved a hand in the air. “We know it was caused by the androids, they managed to get their inhuman hands on the nanites from the resort.  I would suggest we contact Travis and give him the location of the community. Once he learns of what has happened to his home, he’s going to want to get revenge.”

            “And what makes you think he will take his remaining forces to the community?” She asked.

            The other men and women gathered around the table nodded in agreement to her question, although not one spoke a single word during the exchange.

            “We plant the seed that it was Ahteen working with the androids that led to the destruction of his home and the loss of so many lives.”

            She shook her head the first sign of emotion showing on in the form of a slight downward curve of her lips. “I am not quite following the logic of your suggestion.”

            If the man was growing impatient, he was doing an admirable job of hiding it. “We can sick the Purists on them as revenge for the loss of our brother and sister.”

            When push came to shove, the guild had obtained a kingly sum from both parties, which would more than make up for the loss of two of their members. Deep down she wanted to see the Purists destroyed, and was pleased to see that her heart’s desire had nearly been fulfilled. After all, she and many of the members of the guild were in fact mutants. Some were not even humanoid, having been blessed by the uplift virus. If the purists managed to get a toehold in the city, or anywhere for that matter, their lives would be at risk. Then again the Purists were brute thugs who did not see the error of their ways.

            “Keep our scout in place, and make sure she does not get too close to the compound. I am going to assume that Travis and his men will be back sooner than later and we should be there to give them the information they require to seek out revenge upon Ahteen and his people.”

            Was that a flicker of a smile tugging at the corners of Chi Lang’s lips? Qui Bon Sing did not know for sure, but she felt, sensed he was pleased with her decision.

***

May 30th 2668 Near the Washington and Idaho border

            Like corpses rising from shallow graves, robotic soldiers appeared out of no-where, some shaking off debris and garbage, while others shut down their camouflage and raised weapons. The robotic life did not pause; instead they opened fire upon Bradly and Martin’s men without hesitation or mercy.

            In the first handful of seconds nearly half the men with Martin and Bradly were cut down, some instantly killed by the incoming fire, others wounded to one degree or another. The robots guarding the underground facility certainly had the imitative and gained the advantage of surprise, but they did not have the most important multiplier – they did not have the powered armor.

            The remaining men all ran for cover, while Bradly and Martin stayed out in the open. It was risky, depending on the weapons the robotic soldiers were armed with. Unlike their men who were protected by military-grade combat armor, the powered armor they wore could withstand a great deal of punishment.

            Inside Bradly’s helmet, the HUD came to life, displaying friend and foe, designating each in green or red. Several of the wounded were flashing yellow, indicating their distress, and more were white. He did not wish to see any more white icons appear, as each indicated a life had been terminated and that was one less soldier to use in the war. The AI which controlled his suit indicated the optimum firing solutions and took over several of the suit’s defensive measures. On its own accord, the suit jumped and dodged, while weapons spat energy and projectiles at the robotic foes.

            Martin was likewise engaged, but instead of fighting next to his son, the elder Travis went deeper into the maze of rubble and destruction. He moved with the speed of a pre-fall Cheetah, weaving and dodging as he ran, making it difficult for the robots to track him or manage a solid lock on his form. Coherent energy burst from his weapons, and unlike the robots, the shots rarely failed to find their targets. The problem that Martin faced was these were military combat robots, not soft and un-armored mutants. Many of the shots failed to do more than burn the metal or cause minor damage to his foes.

            The combat robots were fast as well, at least half a dozen or more splitting off to engage the two power-armored men. The remaining combat robots, maybe ten in total, concentrated their co-ordinated attack on the Purist soldiers, who were currently trapped in the room with them.

            The strobe-effect of the muzzle flashes caused strange and often frightening images to flicker on the walls, the shadows manipulated and changed with each shot, be it projectile or energy.

            Two more men went down under the hail of laser energy from one of the robots. It appeared out of nowhere, a heavy laser mini-gun held in its hands. The weapon spat bolts of laser energy so fast it looked as if it was a single stream of energy being projected by the weapon. Neither man had a chance as the red-light laser energy burned through their armor, igniting it and the clothing beneath. The flesh was charbroiled in a heartbeat, the organs cooking as the blood boiled in a microsecond. The only saving grace was it happened so fast that neither man had the time to register pain from their mortal wounds.

            They died that quickly.

            “That one,” Martin screamed and adjusted his aim. He fired a series of micro-missiles from his shoulders and the weapons streaked through the intervening space, moving faster than the eye could see. At the last moment the robot simply disappeared from sight, and the missiles lost target lock and detonated harmlessly a second later.

            Bradly opened fire, still using his heavy energy rifle on the nearest of the enemy robots. The energy blew through the robot’s armor and wreaked havoc with the internal structure. It could have been a lot worse, but these were combat-grade robotic soldiers and they were built to last.

            It did not matter, when the energy to power a small town was thrown into the hardened internal mechanisms, something bad was bound to occur. The energy ran through the metallic skeletal structure of the robot, shorting out even the hardened circuitry and causing a catastrophic melt-down of the robot’s CPU. The combat robot stopped dead in its tracks, the limbs locked in place as smoke poured from every joint and orifice.

            That was one down, and around twenty to go.

            The fighting was intense, with Bradly and Martin taking the brunt of it. Their armor protected them far better than the combat armor worn by their remaining soldiers, which was not as sturdy when it came to dissipating the energy fired from the combat robots. With the efficiency of the machines they were, the combat robots mowed down man after man, some with instant killing shots, others taken out of the fight by wounds inflicted by their weapons.

            For every soldier lost to the robotic defenders, Martin and Bradly took down two or more. It was a very steep price to pay, but in the end they won the day. When the last of the defenders fell to the energy combined energy blasts, no one could see more than meter or so. Dust filled the air, making it nearly impossible to see. If it was not for the sensors built into the armor, Martin and his son would have been blinded. Later as they reflected upon the fight, both men came to the realization that it was part of the defender’s tactics, to weigh the odds in their favor. In the end, it did not help them, as the combat robots still lost the fight.

            Out of the soldiers they led into the darkness, into the partially collapsed underground facility, they were the only ones left standing. Seventeen men paid the price for their entrance to the military base with their lives. The others would survive, but needed medical attention.

            Martin stayed with the wounded as Bradly retrieved the medical techs to tend to their wounds. It was a simple act of triage, taking care of the worst first, and those who had a chance to survive through the next few hours.

            Surveying the destroyed combat robots, Bradly shook his head and allowed his weapons to cool down. “I sure as shit hope it is going to be worth the price we paid,” he growled.

            For a second Martin considered backhanding his son for the comment, but he came to the realization that the young man did not mean anything untoward. He could not stand there and deny that the same thought crossed his own mind almost as Bradly stated it. “The vehicles alone are worth the price we paid, but let’s see what else the base holds. There has to be a stash of weapons here, maybe more armor as well.”

            Bradly nodded. “Are we going to bring more soldiers with us?”

            “No,” Martin hesitated and considered the words. “We know our armor can withstand whatever the combat robots were throwing at us, and I’m not all that inclined to spend the lives of any more of our men.”

            “Agreed.”

            They left the room, which was rapidly clearing out as the med-techs removed the wounded to the corridor, where they could be treated without fear of dust or contamination further aggravating the wounds they suffered.

            Moving with caution, Bradly and his father continued to explore the ruined base. They did not bother waiting for techs to come and bypass the doors that were locked or sealed; instead they used brute strength and sometimes their weapons to blast down barricades and obstacles in their way.

            They searched for several hours, uncovering offices, quarters, mess halls, repair shops and facilities, and even a relatively intact infirmary. When all hope seemed lost, they finally came to a corridor sealed by very heavy Duralloy blast doors. They did not need try and guess what was hidden, as it was stated clearly on a sign just above the blast doors.  “Armory,” Bradly breathed, scarcely believing their luck. He looked down at the biometric scanner and keypad at chest level. He then studied the door itself, seeing how heavily reinforced it was and his suit’s AI identified the material it was constructed from. Energy and brute force would not gain them entrance. “We’re going to need to run a bypass.”

            “Stay here, I’m going to get one of the techs.”

            For the briefest of moments, Bradly considered arguing with his father, and was considering asking him to stay instead. He was thinking what would happen if his father ran into more of the combat robots. Maybe they avoided the two men because they were together, but what happened if they separated?

            “Dad,” he began and then voiced his concern. Although he could not see his father’s face through the faceplate of the helmet, he could tell from the other man’s body language that his reasoning was sound and he should follow his son’s suggestion. “The way I see it, this area has remained undisturbed for over three hundred years. What’s another fifteen minutes?”

            “Your mom would have been proud of you,” Martin clasped the younger man on the shoulder. “Well, I like your idea and agree with your argument. Let’s go.”

            The return trip took only a fraction of the time, since they had already mapped out the explored areas and did not have to contend with locked doors, blockages or hostile defenders. They stopped in the garage, where several technicians were already hard at work trying to restore several of the APC’s to life. Centuries of sitting in the dark had ruined many of the vehicles internal components, and they would have to be switched out. Gaskets failed, oil and lubricants had dried to a thin coating, and numerous other problems including where rodents had chewed at wires.

            The one bright spot when it came to the required repairs is that the garage held a wealth of tools and equipment, as well as a supply of hermetically sealed lubricants and more. The lead tech informed them both that they could have one APC up and running in a matter of a few hours. The rest would require more time, but he figured in about a week, they would have every salvageable vehicle in the garage running. Those they could not repair would be cannibalized for whatever components they could use.

            It took only seconds for Bradly to find the technician he was looking for. The man had proven to be invaluable when it came to wresting control of the recon satellite from the Android. Bradly knew the man’s unique skill-set would be exactly what they needed to crack the security to the armory.

            He slapped a hand on the man’s shoulder, startling the computer tech. “What is it, sir?”

            “We have a job for you, we need to get into the armory,” Bradly held the man’s shoulder in a companionable grip. “You up to the task?”

            The tech grinned, making him look younger by nearly a decade. “Damn straight, sir. Lead on!”

            Martin wrangled two additional techs and several un-wounded soldiers to accompany them back to the armory. Although neither man expected trouble, they wanted additional men to help protect the techs. They had lost a lot of men already, and despite not wanting to risk more, they could not stand guard indefinitely over the techs. They needed the help. Besides, once they broke through the security and had access to the armory, they would probably want a few extra hands to help them haul out the artifacts they were sure to find.

            The gods of war and Pure Humans were smiling upon them, Martin was certain.

***

May 30th 2668 The community

            There was a light rapping on the door and after only a second’s hesitation, Declan stood up from the table. Tara had just finished eating and was in the act of clearing the plates when the visitor arrived.

            The windows were wide open and so was the door, although the visitor had been polite and courteous enough to announce their presence without walking in. The cabin was still hot, and Declan was clad in a pair of black shorts and a grey T-shirt, while Tara was naked.

            “Who is it?” Declan asked, although he could already see the man standing at the door. It was the mutant Andy.

            “Hello Declan, Tara.” The mutant announced, although he remained at the door. “May I enter?”

            A sudden wash of fear hit Declan like a cold wave. He stood, transfixed and for only a fraction of a second he could not reply. It took a supreme effort of will before he was able to speak, and even then his voice held more of a squeak than he would have liked. “Sure, come in.”

            Andy entered the room and took a look around, already familiar with the layout. His eyes lingered on Tara’s naked body for just a moment before he held Declan with his full attention. “Are you ready?”

            The irrational side of Declan nearly asked the mutant for what, but he refrained. Instead he nodded and then looked around. “How are we going to do this?”

            “You can lie down if you wish, or we can sit in the chairs or at the table,” Andy waved at the kitchen table, now clear of the evening meal. “Tara?”

            The Tiger-Exotic looked at the young mutant, her hands in the act of washing the dishes. “Yes?”

            “If you’re willing, I would like you to help me. I can link your two minds together and it will make the healing process quicker, and it will bring you both closer together, Andy waved a hand at the couple, smiling.

            “You sound pretty sure of yourself,” Tara stated a little waspishly. Her whiskers twitched and her tail moved slowly, lazily back and forth, a clear sign of agitation. “How do we know this is going to work?”

            Andy shoved his hands into his pockets and stared at the woman, who amazingly looked away first. “I had to deal with a lot of trauma with the girls,” he sighed, remembering the faces of the young prostitutes he had guarded and acted like a big brother towards. “See, sometimes the johns would get rough, or they might have a mutant that was physically deformed and left them with night-terrors. I learned how to help them cope with their problems.”

            “Sounds like you loved them,” Declan said quietly, and then sat down at the table. He motioned to the seat beside him, patting it and indicating the woman he had grown to love should take it.

            “I did – I do. I miss them, but someone had to take care of Arleen, and I knew that I was needed elsewhere.”

            Tara took the seat next to Declan and slid her hand into his, squeezing it. She leaned over and nuzzled his neck, purring softly and whispering words of encouragement and endearment. At last she looked up at Andy and nodded. “I’m ready to do whatever is needed.”

            “Good – trust me you’ll both be closer as a result,” he sat down opposite from them and then took several deep calming breaths.

            “What do we do?” Declan asked, feeling butterflies in his belly and his shoulders and neck felt stiff.

            “Nothing,” Andy grinned. “I’ll do the work; you just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

            “Don’t you have to touch us or maybe have us hold hands?” Tara looked at Declan’s hand, clasped in hers. Their fingers were entwined and she could feel a slight trembling, indicating how nervous Declan was.

            “No, but feel free to touch if you want, hell - feel free to fuck like a couple of minks if you think it’ll help!”

            Tara looked thoughtful but Declan looked both mortified and horrified at once. “Not a chance!”

            Andy laughed at his expression, slapping one knee in merriment. “I was just pulling your chain!”

            Declan looked relieved, Tara slightly disappointed. Andy’s gaze switched from one to the other and then he breathed deeply and closed his eyes, held the breath for a few seconds and slowly let it out. “I’ll get this show started then.”

            At that moment Declan wanted to stand up and flee. He had such an un-nerving fear of the man entering his thoughts it was nearly physical. Declan had to chide himself – after all, he allowed Otres to enter his thoughts all the time, and Babs had been there with him for over three hundred years… There was the lightest sensation of touch, but he could not tell where it came from. He reached up with one hand and ran his fingers through his hair, which had grown far longer than he had ever allowed it to grow in the past.

            There it was again, but it was inside his mind, not actually touching any part of his body. He felt a presence; there was another consciousness in his mind, sharing it with his own. If he had not spent so much time with Babs riding along, it would have been disconcerting at the best, terrifying at the worst. Andy?

            No it’s me baby; Tara’s thoughts rebounded through his memory.

            At once he felt the tension ebb from his shoulders and he squeezed her hand in his. Unlike when he felt Otres touch his mind with thoughts, this was subtly different and far from unpleasant. Her presence in his thoughts was a soothing balm, and he realized why it made him feel so relaxed. Declan knew that Tara had fallen in love with him, and he with her, but now he felt how strong her love was for him, and it surprised him. Tara how? We’ve only been together for a few months now.

            In the real world, she shrugged and smiled. I know, it seems too soon to me as well, but I can feel it too. We needed one another and somehow we found each other. I don’t bother trying to figure it out or question it.

            I thought you only wanted me for my massive cock! He laughed a little, feeling the heat of embarrassment reddening his cheeks.

            At first yeah, when Ra’naa and I rescued you and I saw how well-endowed you were, I just had to have you. The thing is, you touched me in ways no one else has, ever and you brought out the best in me.

            Declan considered her words and then took her into a powerful embrace. He rubbed her still smooth belly, feeling the taught muscle beneath the thin layer of fur and the flesh beneath. In only a few months she would begin to show signs of their son.

            In his mind’s eye Andy appeared, although he could see the young man sitting across from them, his arms neatly folded across his chest. The image in his mind smiled and suddenly the perspective changed. Declan found himself standing next to Tara. They were on board the carrier Defiant. He was dressed in his flight suit and when he saw his woman, he did a classic double take. Like him, she was dressed in a form-hugging flight suit and was carrying a helmet beneath one arm.

            When she saw his surprise, she looked down at her body and gasped. “I’ve never worn anything like this before,” she declared in wonderment.

            “It looks good,” admired Declan.

            Andy approached them, dressed in a flight technician’s uniform. He was carrying a data pad in one fist and was consulting it. “Alright Lt. Starrett, call-sign Shard, and Lt. Baku, call-sign Tiger, you’re on CAP today. The ChiFeds have been quiet as late, but with the impending Jupiter offensive, we are expecting at least a handful of intel gathering missions against us. Your Shrikes have been prepped and are ready to go.”

            “Andy, how is this supposed to be helping?” Declan asked. He had been in numerous simulations over his career but nothing like this. It reminded him of an old role-playing game sim he used to participate in when he was still a teen.

            The young mutant grinned. “The best way for you to deal with your anxiety and fears is to take them head on, and I’ve used your memories to set up a mental game which you could easily understand and have a greater than even chance of taking your fears head on, and with Tara at your side, I do believe you will succeed.”

            “I’ve never flown before,” Tara said, holding up the helmet and staring at it. “What am I supposed to do?”

            “It’s all in his mind,” Andy waved at Declan and then consulted the pad he was holding. “I’m taking his memories and knowledge and you’ll be able to benefit from both.”

            She continued to look skeptical, but then donned the helmet. “Which is mine?”

            There were two Shrike fighters waiting for them. One had a snarling tiger painted on the nose, while the other had a playboy bunny. An actual anthromorphic female rabbit with big ears and bigger breasts.

            “Doesn’t take a genius to figure out who’s is whose,” Declan laughed and he jogged over to the fighter with the rabbit. The cockpit was open and he climbed the ladder and sat down in the familiar surroundings. Routine took over and he was strapped in before he realized it and was running a pre-flight check as he looked out the closing canopy and saw technicians removing various hoses and going over last second inspections before his fighter was declared ready for takeoff.

            “Declan, this is so strange,” Tara’s voice came over the ship to ship communications channel.

            That was even stranger when he realized she was speaking directly into his mind. Whatever Andy had done, the mental simulation was so incredibly real, he could not tell it was all in his head.  Declan knew he could easily be lost in it if he was not careful. “Andy?” he called out.

            “What is it Declan?”

            “I thought you said you were a low level empath and telepath.”

            “I am.”

            “Then how the hell is this so damn real?”

            The mutant laughed. “If you think this is impressive, you should see what some truly power telepaths can accomplish!”

            Declan shuddered as he thought about it. He wondered if Otres could do anything like this, and then realized he did not want to know. “This is Shard, ready for takeoff.”

            “This is C&C you are cleared for launch, good hunting, Shard.”

            The familiar feel of the ship beneath his rump and the joystick in his hand was soothing, far more than he could have hoped. He felt the weight of the world lift away as he brought the fighter off the deck and deftly maneuvered it so that it was facing the launch tube. A second later he had the ship positioned and locked down. Even the harsh slap of the G-forces as he was accelerated out of the carried by magnetic rings was welcome, and it was one aspect of flying he had hated!

            A second later he was in the depths of space, the stars twinkling against the velvety black back-drop of the universe. The feeling of weightlessness caused his stomach to lurch, and he nearly threw up, but training and memory took over and he was able to calm his nerves. Typically Babs would have injected his system with drugs just before they left the carrier, and he distinctly felt her absence. That was part of the simulation that was missing.

            “Shard, this is Tiger, I’m on your six and riding hard, ready to follow your lead.” Tara called out over the ship to ship link. “Declan, this is incredible! Is this really what it was like for you?”

            “Roger that, Tiger. Try to keep up,” Declan replied in strict military protocol, and then dropped all pretenses. “You got it baby, I loved flying! I love the adrenaline rush I got whenever I engaged the ChiFeds. I miss this something terrible.”

            “I can understand why,” Tara answered and then kicked in the Shrike’s afterburners, accelerating her past Declan’s fighter in the blink of an eye. She performed a text-book perfect barrel roll and fired the ship’s cannons, getting a feel of how the craft would handle in combat.

            Declan hit his own afterburners and felt the ship jump like a startled deer, eating the distance in seconds until he was right on Tara’s tail. She waggled her wings and then went into a dive, before coming back up and positioning herself on his six. “Shard, will maintain position on your six, returning to mission parameters.”

            “Roger and understood, Tiger. Enjoy the flight.”

            They spoke very little as they hit all the waypoints listed on their Shrikes navigation board, passing through each invisible marker and then adjusting course to taken them on the correct path once again.

            A full hour passed before their Ladar picked up incoming targets. The sudden appearance of the enemy was so unexpected that Declan yelped as the computer blared into the silence of his cockpit. “Warning, incoming bogies, four in total, classification Mengqin Mark three ChiFed air-superiority fighters.”

            “Mark threes?” Declan said almost as if he had not heard correctly. They were the top of the line enemy fighters he had only ever encountered them once, about a month before his accident which left him trapped in the post-apocalyptic future. “Four in total?”

            “Affirmative,” the computer answered.

            The HUD quickly adjusted to show the four enemy fighters, tracing a red-line of prediction where they would end up intercepting Tiger and himself. He shook his head, knowing how tough the fighters were. He barely managed to escape unscathed the last time he encountered the Mark three’s. They had superior speed, maneuverability and heavier Gauss cannons and were able to fire long range EMP missiles, something the next generation of Mengqin’s were hardened against.

            “Tiger, on my mark you will split off on vector 315, swoop down and try to draw off as many as you can. I will continue on this course for the next twenty seconds. Be warned, they are armed with EMP missiles and will fry your systems faster than you can blink. Keep your Electronic counter-measures on full spectrum burn.”

            “Roger, Shard, on your mark,” Tara’s voice came back over the channel.

            They travelled in a perfect line for another ten seconds when a warning alarm began to blare in his ears. The two lead fighters had a lock on him and were about to fire a pair of missiles each. “Mark!” He screamed and continued flying in a straight line. Four seconds after his command, the two lead Mark three’s launched a pair of missiles in staggered succession. The first from each ship were identified as EMP killers, the second were low-yield nuclear tipped devices – seemingly overkill but space was a unbelievably huge and dogfights like this were in the engagement envelope for only a second or two at best. A fighter could, if luck was on the pilot’s side, scream out of the blast radius without even peeling the paint on the hull.

            Three more seconds passed before he punched the decoy launcher icon on his control panel. The ship shuddered slightly as the launcher dropped a quartet of dummy missiles. Each missile was programmed with the exact same sensor data as the Shrike, and had a powerful ECM package installed to confuse or thwart the incoming enemy fire.

            Two seconds after launching the decoys, Declan banked to the right and hit his afterburner, he hoped that he had given the decoys enough time to begin their electronic assault on the incoming missiles, and he would find out soon enough.

            His eyes flicked to the icon indicating Tara’s fighter and saw that she had likewise launched a quartet of decoys, as two of the Mark three’s had split off from the diamond formation to intercept her craft.

            With the flick of his eye, he caught the icon for his weapons system and by a quick blink; he opened the drop down menu and brought up the Mark 55 AFM or Anti-fighter missile. This was one of the workhorses of the fleet, a simple device that when detonated, filled a radius of nearly five hundred meters in width with tens of thousands of small ball-bearings. It was also known as the shotgun missile, because at the speed a space borne dog-fight occurred, even a small chunk of debris could have devastating effects. They were the bane of the ChiFed military, since each ball-bearing was imbued with an electrical charge that fluctuated on the same frequency as the smaller ship’s shields, allowing the ball-bearings to pass without any resistance.

            All ships in space required the shields to protect them from debris and dust, which could easily destroy an unprotected craft. It was a hard-won lesson for all space-faring nations, and the natural effect was for each side to develop protective shielding.

            He waited scant seconds for his computer to lock onto both enemy fighters before he thumbed the firing stud on his joystick. “This is Shard, Fox one, Fox one!”  He called out and triggered the missile launch twice in rapid succession. This time his ship jolted hard as the missiles left their rails and the little engines powering the devices kicked in. The missiles streaked out into space, moving so fast it was impossible for his eyes to follow.

            The screaming of his alarms startled him as he discovered one of the four incoming enemy missiles had somehow defeated the ECM attacks of the decoys, and was only seconds from impact.

            He adjusted his shields, taking the risk but needing the extra power, so that it covered his fighter’s aft side, where the computer had predicted the missile would detonate, sending out a shockwave of intense magnetic electricity. He hoped his fighter’s internal systems were more resilient than those on his previous craft.

            The incoming missile detonated only a few hundred meters aft, in a flash that even in the darkness of space he could make it out. Declan braced for impact.