Buck Who? Chapter 46

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 46: End Game

June 1st, 2668; The Community

            The sound of battle all around was utterly overwhelming, forcing the former prostitute to drop to the floor and cover her ears. She knew she was screaming, but she could not hear the sound of her own cries over the explosions and the horrible hurricane-like wind that followed.

            At that moment, Arleen was wishing she had gone with the rest of the non-combatants to the mines to ride out the battle, even after Andy had begged her to go. Now she was in hiding under a table inside the cabin she had been given, begging for the fighting to come to an end.

            The handgun she had been issued was lying on the ground only a few dozen centimeters from where she crouched, within easy reach but seemingly a thousand kilometers away. Arleen felt tears of shame and terror trickle down her furry cheeks and her vision was blurred, so she did not know if she could use the weapon effectively or not. Where was Andy? Where was Otres? Why had she not done as Andy had begged of her?

            There was another loud explosion and the entire cabin shook under the shock-wave. She heard the sound of objects striking the exterior of the building and then there was a sudden explosion of glass as all windows were blown out. Even in her hiding spot several of the sharp, stiletto-like shards found her soft flesh and sliced deep, drawing blood and a cry of pain from her.

            The combat terrified her, and she knew if she did not stand up and get her weapon and the assault rifle next to the door, one of the Purists soldiers would find her and put an end to her existence.

            Try as she might, Arleen could not force her body to obey her mental commands. If anything she curled tighter into a ball, the tears of shame and fear coming like a flood. She willed her arm to reach out and pick up the handgun but it just clutched even tighter against her trembling body.

            Outside the cabin, she could hear what sounded like some sort of heavy vehicle. She had seen plenty of vehicles during her time as a prostitute in Scav Haven, but this sounded different. It was heavier and she could feel the floor vibrate beneath her trembling body. Then the sound changed pitch and the vibrations came to an abrupt end. She knew that the vehicle had stopped.

            Sure enough, a few seconds later she heard voice shouting commands and someone was standing at the door.  It opened with a crash, sending the assault rifle flying further into the room and she screamed in terror.

            “Fucking mutie,” a male voice laughed malevolently, and she could see heavy booted feet approaching. “Time to die, freak.”

            There was a sound like a pop, and a familiar voice replied to the threat. “I don’t think so, asshole,” and then there was the loud crack of a single shot. When she opened her eyes, she could see another set of boots standing just to the side of the first set and then the body collapsed.

            The second figure crouched, revealing the black battle-armor clad figure of Joey. He held out a hand to the Uplift. “Are you alright?” He asked, concern filling his words.

            Finally her body responded to her commands and she took his hand. He pulled her out from her hiding spot and she saw the body of the man who had threatened to kill her. The side of his head was missing, where the round fired at point-blank range had exited. Blood and gore was splattered for meters all around. “Yes,” she squeaked, almost a perfect imitation of Otres.

            Joey retrieved her handgun and assault rifle. He checked to make sure neither had sustained damage and then her handed both. “Stick with me, Arleen,” he instructed. “I’ll be using my personal teleporter constantly but I will always return to you. Follow my orders and you’ll live long enough to see your little squeak toy again.”

            The former prostitute nodded, not trusting her voice, wondering where said squeak toy was at that moment.

***

            Otres squealed in pain as currents of blue electricity arced through his arms and covered his body in a halo of elemental energy. He continued to squeal as he tried to force his hands to release the internal mechanism of the machine, but his body refused to respond.

            “Shit!” Max cried and he did the only thing he could think of. If he grabbed Otres, he would be as helpless as the little Uplift – the electrical current would paralyze him as it killed him. He only had a fraction of a second to act so he struck Otres with a side-kick, knocking the little Uplift away from the terminal.

            Even the brief contact with Otres sent bolts of electrical energy racing up through his leg and into his groin, but it worked. Otres flew away from the open terminal to land about three meters away. He slid across the floor, his fur smoking and his paws raw and bleeding, blisters already forming from the electrical burns.

            “Otres!” Max was by the little Uplift’s side a moment later. He placed his hand under Otres’ head and lifted it up. “Speak to me!”

            Otres’ eyes fluttered and then opened about half-way. Max could see the white of the left eye had turned deep red, the veins having ruptured, and blood trickled from the corner of Otres’s mouth. The little Uplift raised a badly burned hand and waved it weakly. Don’t shout!

            A strange guttural cackling came through the speakers and it caused the hair on the back of Max’s neck to stand on end. “Nice try, organic,” it taunted. “You will leave my internal workings alone, or not… it’s up to you. I will not allow you to leave this sacred place. This hanger is to be your tomb.”

            Declan and Babs came running across the natural cavern and came to a halt just inside the door. “General?” Declan asked, incapable of hiding his worry.

            “Get the first aid kit,” Max ordered, waving towards a cabinet next to the entrance. “We need to tend to Otres.”

            Babs pulled open the indicated cabinet and came over to kneel beside the little Otter Uplift. She winced to see the shape of his small hands and could detect the acrid scent of burned fur mingling with the smell of cooked meat. She opened the case and removed several rolls of bandages and a tube of burn-gel and with economic movements; she applied the gel and wrapped his hands up.

            As soon as the gel touched the burned flesh, Otres let out a sigh of relief. He was clearly in a great deal of pain from his ordeal, but he was handling it the best he could. Thank you, He projected and chirped quietly.

            No one had to relay the message; she understood it well enough from the look on his face. “You’re welcome, Otres.”

            “Any ideas?” Declan asked, running a hand through his hair and looking worried. “By the time we get out of here the fight will already be over!”

            Max stood and made his way around Babs and Otres and walked over to the entrance. There was an old-fashioned fire-axe mounted behind glass next to a chemical fire-extinguisher. He shattered the glass with his elbow and took the plastic-compound shaft of the axe in both hands. “Oh yeah.”

            “What do you think you’re doing, organic?” The distorted voice of the AI demanded as he walked over to the consol. The general did not bother to reply; instead he lifted the axe over his head and brought it down with all his might onto the top of the device. The blade shattered the plastic compound and sent shards and debris flying in every direction for meters. A lightning bolt of blue-white electrical energy shot out to caress the head of the axe, but could go no further thanks to the handle.

            He continued to smash the axe into the hardware until the voice screaming through the speakers finally ceased and all that remained was a pile of shattered electronics and compounds. It came to him that he was himself screaming in rage and just as abruptly he closed his mouth.

            Damn! Otres spoke the word everyone was thinking. Are you alright?

            Max stopped suddenly in mid swing, overbalanced and if it were not for his superb training and agility, would have sprawled face-first into the mess that had once been the AI for the small facility. He shook his head with his eyes closed and started to laugh. After a moment he managed to compose himself and he looked at the little Uplifted Otter. “So typical of you, Otres, you’re the one who got hurt and you’re worried about others.”

            Otres squeaked and waved his bandaged hands. You were scaring me!

            “I scared myself,” Max confessed. He returned his attention to the mess. “Shit.”

            Otres carefully walked over and stood next to the ancient general, staring down at the remains of the AI. I should have no trouble fixing that, he thought. No trouble at all, and once it’s back online, the AI should be normal.

            “You don’t have to,” Max began to say.

            If I don’t, how are you three going to fight the Purists? For all we know they have already attacked, the longer we delay, the more people will die.

            Max waved his hand at the bandages covering Otres’ paws. “Look, how can you even use your hands?”

            Watch and learn, Max. Otres sat down before the wreckage and touched it with his feet. He closed his big eyes and began to breathe in through his nose and out through his mouth, almost as if in meditation. Then the familiar glow appeared over the wrecked machinery and the next thing he knew the pieces were coming back together, re-arranging themselves as if part of a bizarre puzzle.

            Before he knew it, the work was done, the power was restored and nothing seemed amiss. “AI, this is General Ahteen,” he began and spoke his serial number and authorization codes.

            “Welcome, General Ahteen,” the cool computer voice replied. “Authorization codes accepted. How may I be of service?”

            Max laughed and he turned as Babs and Declan gave one another a high-five, whooping in delight. “Otres, remind me to have a nice little pool house built for you once this fight is over.”

            The little Otter chirped and squeaked, then painfully climbed to his feet. He grinned up at Max, showing small, sharp teeth. No need. I’d be happy to know the threat from the purists is ended, that’s all.

            “Lieutenant Declan, Babs, get to your ships, we need to provide air-support as of yesterday!”

            “Yes sir!” Declan saluted and ran back into the natural cavern with Babs tight on his tail.

            “AI, open the hanger doors,” Max instructed.

            “Opening,” the reply came a second later. Sure enough, at the opposite end of the natural cavern a slit of darkness appeared in the wall. It grew wider and wider with each passing second, but nothing could be seen. The night was dark and overcast, and if he could have made out the details, the clouds were heavy and looking as if they were ready to burst at any second.

            “As soon as I have left the hanger, I want you to reseal the doors. If you detect that our ships have been shot down and that the community has been lost, I want you to initiate the self-destruct sequence.”

            “Understood. Good hunting, General Ahteen.”

***

            One moment, Bradly and his small contingent of men were there, preparing to fire at the community. The next, there was a blinding flash, followed by the hurricane sound of air being sucked from the surroundings into the blackness of the micro-black hole. Then all that remained was a one hundred and fifty meter crater, joining the one that had been created when they began the attack.

            Martin Travis stood atop the APC as still as a statue, the facts of the moment not having fully kicked in. He knew intellectually he had just witness the death of his only son, as well as the death of at least ten men and the loss of a powerful weapon, but emotionally he was a rock. It was as if he was living in a nightmare and that what he had just witnessed was nothing more than an illusion, similar to the one the mutant had projected at the old military base.

            In his stone heart, he knew differently. It just had not registered yet.

            “Keep pressing the attack,” he screamed into the communication link. “Stay with your groups and watch your backs. Do not get bunched up, they have the mini-nuke launcher and that will make short work of you if you do!”

            He climbed back into the APC and took up his position in the turret. He held the full-auto Gauss assault rifle in both fists, using his armors HUD to scan the battlefield and pinpoint targets of opportunity. The gods of war made it to be a target rich environment, and Martin quickly targeted the first enemy combatant and fired. A super-burst consisting of 18 rounds of depleted uranium core pellets hit the barely seen target and literally blew it into its consistent molecules. The kinetic energy transfer from the weapon was so powerful the target did not even have time to register it was dead.

            And so it continued as the APC circumvented the two overlapping craters and entered the community. Inside there were small skirmishes taking place almost everywhere between the inhuman defenders and the surviving Purists. Both sides were giving as good as they took, killing with a ferocity not seen in many years.

            With each shot Martin felt his rage and grief grow. Each shot killed another of the enemy combatants, sometimes two or three if they were close enough to the original target, but it was not enough. It was starting to register with him that his son was dead, and he wanted nothing more than to kill each of the mutants and sub-humans with his bare hands.

            “Sir!” The navigator called from the interior.

            “What?” Max growled.

            “Sir, we’ve got incoming! Three targets approaching fast from the East. Sir, they’re Sparrow Hawk interceptors!”

            “What the fuck is a Sparrow Hawk?”

***

            It was stifling hot inside the body armor Tara wore, but she dared not go without it. Already a group of the Purists managed to break through the wall near the infirmary and had raised a number of homes, killing the inhabitants without mercy or remorse.

            She felt a stark terror as she crouched next to one of the cabins, her assault rifle held at the ready. A steady stream of smoke wafted from the barrel, attesting to the amount of fire she had directed at the enemy forces. Still crouching, she used the barrel of the rifle to appear around the corner. Thankfully it had a small camera imbedded in the sight, allowing her to see without exposing her head to harm.

            Two purist soldiers were just leaving one of the cabins, their weapons smoking and the armor they were clad in spotted with the blood of the victim’s they had so ruthlessly executed. Tara felt a burning rage begin to overtake her and she felt more than heard, a growl begin deep in her throat.

            So far the Purists had not seen her and one was in the act of ejecting a spent magazine, while the other covered him, but from the wrong direction. Tara popped out from behind her cover and opened fire, using controlled bursts. She really wanted to just hold the trigger and spray the two enemy soldiers, but that would be a waste of ammunition and she feared if she allowed herself to do so, she would not be able to stop.

            The rounds smashed into the enemy soldiers, mainly impacting on the body armor they wore, but the one who was covering the other as he changed magazines took two in the thigh and rear, causing him to scream in pain and fall to the ground as his legs gave out.

            The other tried to bring his weapon up, but the magazine was not seated properly and it fell from the weapon, hitting the ground. He cursed colorfully and instead of trying to retrieve the magazine, he ducked back into the cabin he had just left.

            “Fucking coward!” She screamed and then ducked back behind the cabin as unseen assailants opened up. Most of the rounds zipped past her body and a few burrowed into the turf at her feet, then two slammed into her chest. It felt as if she had just been kicked by a Brute and she grunted in agony, instantly fearing for her unborn son. If the shots had connected with her stomach, there was a great chance the baby would have been harmed.

            Still, her boobs hurt something fierce and she bet she would end up having bruising that could easily be seen through her fur. Knowing that she was in grave danger, she moved away from the corner of the cabin, creeping low and trying to ignore the shooting pain that threatened her with each step.

            For once she regretted not having listened to Declan and she knew she should have gone with the others to the mines. She was pregnant and really – she should have put their son first over her desire to make the purists pay for their insolence.

            Hindsight is twenty-twenty, as the old saying went.

            Tara’s eyes positively glowed in the darkness, her genetic legacy, that of a Tiger, kicking in and allowing her to see as if it was clear daylight. She had hoped that the enemy forces would be hampered by the darkness, but of course that was not to be. Why else would they attack if they could not see? That would be a stupid move, tantamount to mass suicide.

            She carefully scanned the surroundings, checking the cabins and the yards between. There was fighting taking place everywhere around her, the sounds of gunshots, energy blasts, mixed in with screams of pain, defiance, rage and fear. Just across from her, less than ten meters, she could see the strobing effect of rapid-fire weapons through the windows. The cacophony of sound and the screams of the dying were unmistakable. Of course she did not know whether it was the home owners or the Purists, but she had to pray it was the latter.

            As she watched a figure was silhouetted in the window, flashing in and out with the rhythm of the gunfire. It wore a helmet and she instantly knew it was not one of the members of the community.

            Reacting with the speed of her genetic namesake, she lifted the rifle to her shoulder, targeted the helmeted head and waited for only a fraction of a second before she fired. It was a perfect killing shot, the round punching through the side of the jaw where the faceplate was partially open. The head snapped to the side and the body dropped, dead.

            She then heard a loud roaring noise, something she had never heard before, but knew it well. The sound of incoming fighters, piloted by her husband to be, also the rival for his love, and finally the leader of the community.

            Tara smiled.

***

            From her hidden sniper’s nest, Ra’naa continued to locate and execute targets. So far with the help of the AI spotter, she had twenty-one confirmed kills and sixteen unconfirmed. She was quite certain that the others were either wounded or their armor had saved them from the worst of the impact.

            Still, the kills were hollow victories. She felt nothing, and that scared her more than death itself. With each shot, she ended a life. A man who was someone’s son, brother, father – someone who had allowed hatred and bigotry take control of their lives.

            Killing Bradly Travis had been satisfying, she could not deny that, and she was hoping that his father would soon make an appearance. He certainly could not allow the death of his son go unanswered, and that was when she would send him to be with his twisted offspring in whatever reward awaited them in the next life.

            Breathing shallowly, she continued to scan the battlefield, her AI guiding her to the next target. “I should be down there,” she said aloud, as she sighted in the next target in her range and put a heavy caliber bullet through the back of his helmet. The body dropped and she was about to sight in on the next target when she spotted a familiar figure and her heart nearly stopped in her chest.

            Joey was standing in front of the former prostitute Arleen, peering around a corner. Ahead of his position about twenty meters sat one of the enemy vehicles. She recognized it as an old hover-pickup that had been turned into what insurgents in the many previous wars designated as a technical. It had a heavy machine-gun mounted on the back and the man at the controls was firing into a building nearby.

            Ra’naa realized that the building was filled with her fellow citizens and they were being torn apart by the incoming rounds. She adjusted her sight, ignoring the protest of the AI and placed the crosshairs over the helmeted head of the target. With long practice, she held her breath and fired.

            There was a shimmering light around the figure as the round smashed into a shield. She blinked and looked up from the weapon, confused. Bradly Travis had not been protected by a personal shield, and yet this man, someone nowhere near the top of the food-chain, was protected.

            The Gauss sniper rifle held far more punch, so she shifted weapons, setting the large caliber rifle to the side and hefting the other. She triggered the weapon to the exact same effect. The round fired by the Gauss rifle failed to penetrate the shield. This time the soldier manning the machine gun ceased firing and glanced over his shoulder. There was no way he could not have failed to notice the incoming attacks, but it was obvious he was confident the shield would protect him.

            Bastard.

            Cursing, she scanned the truck, trying to decide what to do.

***

            “We have to do something!” Cried Arleen as she watched the heavy machine gun tear through the walls of the cabin as if they were made of silk. Even from the distance, she could hear the screams of pain and death as the bullets chewed up living flesh.

            “I know,” Joey snarled through clenched teeth. He was about to use the teleporter when he noticed the air around the man shimmer and flare. The man was protected by a personal shield! How the hell was he going to get past that? Then the shield flashed again, this time brighter as it absorbed a great deal more kinetic energy and he smiled. There was a gap of about a meter between the gunner and the shield. It was small, and he realized that there was no shield covering the forward part of the weapon. If there was the gunner would not be able to fire his weapon without the rounds smashing through the shield itself.

            Even then, it would be a difficult shot for him to make, as there was a composite alloy guard protecting the gunner from incoming fire. Then an idea struck him. “Stay put, and stay low,” he ordered Arleen. Before she could answer, he disappeared and reappeared in the bed of the truck, crouched low so that he was just beneath the jutting barrel of the machine gun.

            In one smooth motion, he drew the monofilament blade and slashed up and neatly sheared off the barrel of the machine gun in mid-shot. The result was spectacular as the weapon malfunctioned in an instant. Joey triggered his personal teleporter and disappeared just when the rounds in the barrel began to fly in random directions, but this only lasted for a second. The weapon jammed and then exploded, tearing the gunner into a red mist. Most of the remains coated the inside of the shield, but a little sprayed out from the front, where the shield failed to provide any protection.

            The rear window to the truck opened and one of the Purists stuck a sub-machine gun out and opened fire. By then it was far too late for him to even consider hitting, and it was a pyrrhic gesture at best.

            The vehicle came to a halt, the driver and two passengers exiting it as quickly as they were capable. One of the passengers took a single look at the remains of the gunner and promptly lost his supper, which then lost him his life. Joey appeared and took the man’s head off as he bent over. The young man from the installation then disappeared once again, only to arrive, standing next to Arleen.

            The Uplifted Otter raised her pistol and was pumping round after round into the fleeing Purists, scoring more than a few hits, but had little effect due to the heavy armor they wore. At this time the survivors who had been trapped in the cabin were now filing out, heading off in different directions, doing whatever was possible to engage the enemy. Several showed wounds from the assault, but they did their best to ignore the injuries and pain. If they won, they would be treated. If they lost, it would not matter.

            “We need to get you to cover and fast,” Joey pulled Arleen down towards the ground as more rounds flew past them, some hitting the wall only scant centimeters from Arleen’s head. She was terrified, Joey could see it in her eyes and feel it under his fingers, but she was putting on a brave face.

            Nodding, she holstered the pistol and brought her assault rifle up, checking to ensure the safety was off and that the magazine held a full load. “I’ll be fine, but we need to help those trapped in the cabins and buildings.”

            Several loud explosions rocked the small community and there was a loud roaring noise, similar to that of the hurricane-like force generated by the black-hole projector. The entire community was lit up as if it was bright daytime and they could now see clearly. Six of the invading enemy vehicles were ablaze, the men scattered around like discarded children’s toys, battered and many on fire.

            The young man and the young Uplift exchanged glances, unsure as to what had just happened.

***

            Declan whooped as six enemy vehicles were destroyed by the volley of air to surface ordinance fired by the three Sparrow Hawk interceptors. All had gained solid lock-on and fired in nearly perfect unison, the missiles leaping from their launch rails and gliding through the darkness with computer-assisted accuracy.

            The Purist soldiers did not have a hope in hell as the small-but-powerful anti-armor missiles exploded, destroying the vehicles and wreaking devastation for many meters around the impact point.

            One APC even leapt about two meters straight up as the missile found its power source and caused a cascading overload. It flipped onto its side and came down on top of another smaller truck, which had the misfortune of being far too close for comfort.

            He pulled up and away from the community, allowing his ship to continue to update the HUD with information. “Display a total count of enemy forces,” he ordered.

            A fraction of a second later, the information was displayed. There were still seven vehicles - two of them military grade APC’s as well as seventy six known hostiles. Declan grinned a hunter’s predatory grin. They had inflicted serious damage on the Purists, probably destroying nearly half the enemy force. Still, the price they had paid was huge. The gate and the buildings surrounding it were gone, so was the lodge. He had no idea how many had perished in the attack, and it sickened him to think about it.

            After all, this was his home and he was going to make a life for his family here. And he genuinely liked the people, and had made many friends among them. He was not just fighting to destroy a threat to all mutants and non-humans, but to defend his home.

            He placed the interceptor into a steep bank, and came around, triggering his wing-mounted cannons. Another of the Purists vehicles disappeared under the unrelenting pounding of the cannons, the ancient truck shedding parts like an animal shedding a winter coat. Several small fires were ignited and he knew the enemy vehicle was no longer a threat.

            At least Tara was safe, hidden away with the other non-combatants and children inside the mines. He did not have to worry about her or his unborn son. He circled the battlefield, watching and staying out of the way of Babs and General Ahteen. Both were engaging the enemy ground forces, using their cannons to kill a score or more of the Purists.

            Suddenly there came the loud blaring of a missile lock, breaking Declan’s reverie, and for a fraction of a second, he whipped his head from the left to the right, looking for an enemy fighter. Then he realized one of the vehicles below was armed with a SAM launcher. The warning tone became solid and he knew that the launcher had a solid lock and had fired.

***

            After returning to the vehicle, Martin stood in the turret of his command APC and seethed with rage. In the past twenty four hours everything had gone from bad to worse, and it came to a head with the loss of his son. He was beside himself with hatred directed towards the sub-human creatures who had dared defy him. How could they not see they were inferior and needed to be exterminated? How could they not understand that they were mistakes, mutants, freaks that had no right to contaminate the land with their presence?

            As he raged, one of the Sparrow Hawk fighters flew overhead, the wings so close to the ground he could see the missiles and slight burn marks from where the air to surface missiles had been launched. In a flash it was past, but it did not stop him from trying to track the fighter with his Gauss rifle and fire.

            Around him the battle continued to be waged, even with the depletion of his forces. He had no idea how many men had been killed in the unexpected attack from the air, and was too angry to try to bring up the data.

            “Sir, we might have a solution!” The navigator and alternate gunner cried out.

            “Speak!”

            “The APC does have a SAM launcher.”

            “English, asshole!”

            The navigator gulped and then activated a holographic panel. It brought up a targeting system complete with a surrounding view of the skies around the community. Three red targets moved at incredible speeds, with little windows popping up alongside each, relaying data. “Do I have permission to fire?”

            For only a second Martin considered killing the man on the spot, but he somehow managed to supress it. “Yes, destroy those motherfuckers now!”

            “Yes sir!” He waited for a moment to gain a solid lock and then activated the system. A hatch on the rear of the APC, formerly unnoticed by Martin, sprang open and a small turret slid out from the interior. It held four one meter long missiles and the turret tracked the closest of the fighters and then launched. The missile seemed to hang in the air for a moment before its engine kicked in propelling it so fast that Martin instantly lost track of the weapon. A moment later the second, then third and finally the fourth missile launched, two tracking in on the closest fighter while the others pursued the remaining two.

***

            They were closing in on the mines, the same mines that had provided shelter from the radiation and toxins during the first few decades after the final wars. Over the years after leaving them, they had not lain dormant; instead they were used to house the community during the harshest winter months.

            Once again the mines would prove to be shelter for those who were incapable of fighting, or too young to risk. In the lead was the massive mutant wolf known as Tracks Best. He was a magnificent beast, his coat glossy and full, his eyes bright and filled with intelligence and strangely enough, compassion. The wolf was an Uplift and like many of those she had encountered, the wolf could not speak, nor did he possess telepathy, but he was able to get across his wishes and desires clearly enough.

            Momma Rathbourne walked beside the huge predator, her left hand resting on the wolf’s side, while her right held the young girl’s. They had not been walking long and finally after cresting a single rise, they saw how close they were.

            She turned to call out to the others when there was a loud crashing noise, followed by the flashing of approaching lights. Tracks Best turned and bared his fangs in a savage growl, staring balefully towards the sound. A vehicle, more specifically a hover-truck by the way it moved over the terrain, was rapidly approaching.

            Momma Rathbourne frowned as she picked up the young Uplift child. Tracks Best looked directly at her, the snarl vanishing as to not scare her or the child. He shook his head towards the woods, as if to say they needed to reach them. Momma Rathbourne understood, but something else was troubling her. Why had her visions not warned her of the impending danger? This had to be the first time in her long life she had not seen her future.

            What could that mean?

            “Run!” She screamed out in as loud a voice as she could produce. “Get into the trees!”

            Tracks Best cuffed his approval and then raised his head to the sky and let out a long, low howl. It was answered nearly instantly by more howls, some coming from wolves, other from animals Momma Rathbourne did not recognize.

            The remaining old folks and the youngsters broke away from the trail and scattered everywhere. Some continued to run up the trail towards the shelter of the mines, with several large figures loping behind. She did not fear for their safety, knowing that it was both Old One and Tracks Best sending their brethren to protect the helpless.  

            Following her own advice, she ran towards the nearest trees just as the hover-truck came to a stop about fifty meters away, spilling out a large group of armed men, all dressed in the black armor favored by the Purists. They spread out along the trail, several dropping to their knees so they did not impair the field of fire for those behind them.

            Tracks Best snarled, flashing his sharp, tearing teeth before he loped off into the trees, but only after making sure that Momma Rathbourne was away.

            Without any warning or demands, they opened fire.

            Several of the older men and women were cut down by the barrage of incoming rounds, dropping to the ground, their blood and fluids mixing into the plants and dirt crushed beneath their bodies. Screams of dismay liberally mingled with fear could be heard coming from around the dark forest, but these were quickly drowned out by more howls and snarls from the animals sent to protect the group.

            At least two of the older children were likewise cut down by the enemy fire, their short lives extinguished before they had a chance to truly experience what life had in store, dreams and bright futures snuffed out by unreasoning hatred and malice.

            The little Uplift began to keen loudly as she witnessed the inhumanity directed towards the group trying to flee for safety. Tears streaked down her cheeks as her hands morphed into small-but-sharp talons. She was careful not to dig her claws into Momma Rathbourne’s flesh, not wanting to harm the older woman.

            “Easy child,” she whispered and then placed the protesting child on the ground at her feet. “When I start firing, I want you to run as hard as you can. Keep going until you find the door leading into the mountain. The people will care for you.” She tried to pull away from the child, but the little girl would not let go. Momma Rathbourne felt a wet nose touch her shoulder and she could feel Tracks Best standing there, watching. An idea hit her and she suddenly picked the girl up and placed her on the back of the massive mutated wolf.

            She whimpered and clutched at the old mutant’s arm, her big eyes brimming to the point of overflow with tears. She whined like a puppy, which caused Tracks Best to look at her and chuff quietly, licking her face with a tongue the size of a towel.

            “Get her to safety, please!” Momma Rathbourne begged. The wolf nodded and turned despite the child’s loud protests, and began loping towards the forest. Suddenly he shrieked in agony and was smashed to the left, a massive hole appearing in his right flank. There was a mist of blood and organic matter, mainly consisting of bone and muscle tissue. The huge wolf went down; baying pitifully at the searing pain it was suffering. The child likewise cried out as she was thrown free of the wolf.

            “No!” Momma Rathbourne screamed and raced up to the horribly wounded animal. He lay on his side, panting as blood poured from the wound. Although she did not really understand weapons all that well, she could tell that he had been struck with an explosive-tipped round. Nothing else she knew of would explain the damage he had sustained.

            All around them howls of rage rose so suddenly it seemed to shake every tree, every blade of grass and fern. The attackers suddenly stopped cold in their tracks, their weapons raised but not firing.

            Momma Rathbourne dove with speed and agility that belied her age and she grabbed the young girl-cub, covering her protectively. Then the battle really began. From the darkened woods and foliage, dozens of shapes appeared, charging towards the vehicle and the enemy combatants.

            Curses, screams of pain and terror rose up from both sides as the Purists fired into the mass of oncoming bone, muscle, claws and teeth. Bullets and bolts of energy ripped through the ranks of mutant animals and uplifts, exacting a terrible cost.

            Old One knew what he was doing. The humans and humanoids of the community had shown mercy and compassion to his girl-cub, and he was fully intent on protecting them to the best he and his kind could offer. The massive bear led the charge; running on all fours and allowing his thick hide and muscle to absorb the incoming fire.

            Two of the Purists managed to break away from the mass of charging fur and fury, and were coming up from the side towards the remaining children and elders. Momma Rathbourne’s psionic sight finally kicked in and she knew what was coming, and there was not a damn thing she could do to change it. It hurt, knowing what she did but at the same time she had lived a lot longer than most, and had a great life.

            It was now time to be with her long dead husband.

            As the purists came across the group, she stood there, with her hands outstretched, a handgun in both. The two men looked surprised as she opened fire. She did not have the training most of the other warriors had, but you did not live in the post-apocalyptic world without knowing how to use a weapon. And you do not get to be as old as she was without knowing how to defend oneself.

            The bullets smashed into the figure on the left, pounding his armor and forcing him back several steps. He ended up dropping his weapon and fell backwards. Momma Rathbourne did not know if she had managed to get some of the rounds through his armor or if it was just the kinetic energy transfer that dropped him, but he was out for the count.

            That is when no less than nine rounds smashed through her torso, pulping her heart, shattering ribs and bursting her lungs. She did not cry, she did not wince, she only slowly dropped to her knees, a smile making her aged face look decades younger. Blood trickled from her nose and out of the corner of her mouth as her knees hit the ground, and then slowly she fell forward onto her face.

            The little girl-cub screamed out a heart-broken wail of loss and despair.

***

            Otres sat on his rump in the natural cavern, staring at the open hanger door. He could not see a damn thing and he was very worried about his friends and the rest of the members of the community. It was one hell of a battle, which much he understood, and he was ashamed.

            He was very glad that he did not have to participate in the fighting. He was not a warrior, he knew that, and could barely use the firearms with any proficiency. Unlike the girl Arleen. She had proven to be far more efficient with the weapons then he figured he would ever be. His heart skipped a beat, knowing the woman was down in the town, fighting alongside the defenders. He missed her and hoped that he would be able to see her once again.

            Standing, Otres made his way to the hanger door and peered out into the night. They were kilometers away from the community, with hills and thick forest between, but he was still certain he could make out the occasional sound of an explosion, and he definitely could see light reflecting off the low-lying clouds over the town. It was strangely beautiful, he had to admit.

            All the little Uplifted Otter could do was be patient and wait.

***

            She ran for all she was worth, dodging and weaving to present as small a target as possible. It was difficult for a woman who was nearly two meters in height to achieve, but she somehow managed it.

            Blood poured from several wounds on her legs, arms and even from a nasty gash on her torso, just below her left breast. If it had not been for the body armor she wore, the wounds would have been far worse, possibly fatal. She grimaced, feeling the sting of each wound, amplified by the salt from her sweat that seemed to purposefully seek out each tear to aggravate and torment her.

            Two armored figures came from around the side of a burning cabin and were converging on the infirmary. It was turning out to be a hotly-contested location, with many of the members of the community fighting to keep it from falling. Even more of the invaders appeared, including another one of the powerful APC’s. This particular vehicle was buttoned up, and she could see blue sparks as rounds and energy hit the vehicle’s shield. Nothing seemed to be getting through.

            “What I wouldn’t do for that micro-nuke launcher right now,” she hissed and raised her assault rifle. The armor on the backs of the two figures was not as strong as it was in front, and she was going to take full advantage of it. She triggered the weapon, letting several triple-round bursts rip through the figure on the left. He grunted and staggered as the rounds pulverized his spine and ribs, the heavy caliber ammunition barely slowed by the thinner ballistic cloth. The front armor was a different story and the rounds, having spent a good portion of their kinetic energy, failed to penetrate further.

            His companion reacted far quicker than she realized and as he turned, he dropped into a crouch, bringing his own weapon up. He fired a single shot. Tara felt as if she had been hit in the head by a sledgehammer and the next thing she knew, she was lying on her back, staring up at the black clouds. Then the abyss engulfed her.

***

            Kate crouched at the smashed window and lifted her assault rifle over the shards of glass and fired, emptying the remaining rounds in her magazine. There was too much noise for her to hear if any of the rounds managed to find targets, but in what Max Ahteen would call a target-rich environment, she was just as likely to hit than as to miss.

            The Fox-Exotic had watched as the gate and the surrounding walls had been destroyed, and she felt her heart follow in its wake. She knew Jas’nar had been there, and the odds of him having survived were none and zero.

            Her face was dirty from smoke and spent cordite, except where her tears had cut clean tracks. Even now she gritted her teeth and slapped a fresh magazine home, her hate and rage for the Purists knowing no boundaries.

            Kate knew she was going to die, but she wanted to take as many as she could with her. Screaming in rage, she stood up and opened fire, spraying the attackers with as many rounds as she could. Her heart went cold when she saw the APC, and the barrel of the weapon swinging towards her position.

            Rounds and energy blasts pelted the walls around her, and several even came close enough to ruffle her shirt. She was satisfied to see at least one of the attackers go down before her withering fire, but it was not enough.

            It would never be enough.

            As the turret finished elevating, her rifle ran dry and she tossed it down at the attackers, drawing her handgun. She was out of magazines for the weapon at any rate and hoped it would at least knock one of the bastards senseless. She saw the turret lock in on her and she realized this was it.

            Firing her handgun, she watched as the shield flared and then she flipped the bird as the weapon fired.

            There would be very little of her to find once the battle was over, but she was reunited with the man she loved.

***

            Declan blinked in disbelief as his ship blared a warning. He took a fraction of a second to glance at the HUD and nearly shit his flight-suit when he saw to SAM’s locked on and homing in. Their speed was incredible, as they were built to be, and he instantly activated all countermeasures, everything from chaff to ECM and flares in hopes that they would capture the attention of the primitive guidance on board the ship-killers. In the microsecond it took him to activate the defenses, he noticed that Babs had a pair on her, and General Ahteen only had one.

            Declan instantly pointed the nose of his Sparrow Hawk towards the ground and pulled up with only a dozen meters to spare. He was skimming the treetops, looking for a way to evade the incoming death. One of the missiles was spoofed by the countermeasures and flew into a cloud of chaff, exploding harmlessly. The other ignored the electronic and physical attempts to force it to deviate from its target.

            “Fuck this,” Declan growled and kicked in the small interceptor’s after-burners. He felt the ship jump beneath him and the G-forces pushed him into his seat. The Sparrow Hawk leapt forward, gaining several hundred meters on the missile, and by then he was well into the foothills.

            Part of his training involved flying NOE or nape-of-earth, using terrain to confuse enemy sensors and to keep his fighter from being spotted. It was already too late for the latter, but he was hoping that if he flew low enough his ship’s signature might get lost or cause the targeting routine to become confused by the ground clutter.

            He was flying through a narrow valley, with only about ten meters of open space on either side of his wings. It followed a small river, one that he was not familiar with, and if he survived this night, he would be sure to ask about it, maybe see what the fishing is like there. The river changed course every fifty or so meters, and it forced him to keep on the ball, his eyes never wavering from the HUD. If he did and missed a correction, what remained of his body would not fill a shoe-box.

            He nearly lost control of his ship when Babs’ panicked voice shouted out from the internal speakers. “I’m hit, I’m hit! Ejecting, eje…” there was nothing but static for a second as the connection was lost.

            Declan felt fear nibbling at the edge of his mind, threatening to weaken his resolve and cost him, but he stamped it down with a terrific effort of will. All things considered, if he had not allowed Andy to help him with the anxiety issues, he might already be dead, having not been able to evade the incoming enemy fire.

            He had to be at least thirty or forty kilometers from the community by now, and could see the mountains coming up fast. There was one of the old Shield defense installations, one that had been damaged during the final wars and never repaired. He scanned the digital display, seeing that none of the weapons were online, nor could he activate them.

            There was a gap, three meters wider than the wingspan of his interceptor, and just barely wide enough for him to squeeze through. Maybe… just maybe… Declan suddenly changed his direction, pulling up and out of the valley and heading straight for the ancient facility. The missile was hard on his tail and gaining meters with each passing second. He did not know how much longer he had before it was within a killing radius and detonated.

            Ancient and decrepit, the old defense installation had long since given itself over to Mother Nature. Few of the support structures remained standing; most were nothing more than piles of rubble or a few walls still leaning against the rocky walls of the mountains. Half of the sensory platform was gone, resting in the thick foliage below and slowly being reclaimed by the Earth. The gap was coming up faster than Declan realized and he felt a trickle of sweat run down his neck to be absorbed by the flight-suit.

            And then he was through, and he nearly whopped with glee. Where was the missile?

            The detonation from the missile’s explosion peppered the rear of his interceptor with a few shards of metal, but no warning lights appeared. The weapon had detonated just after he passed through the gap in the ancient structure, the old installation absorbing the king’s share of the explosion that had been meant for him.

            He would live to fight another day, and to see his baby borne.

***

            Babs had not been as lucky as Declan.

            Both missiles had ignored her attempts to throw them off with ECM and other countermeasures, and had stuck close on her tail. One detonated just as she was passing above the crater that had been the gate to the community, and the blow had taken out one of her engines and perforated her canopy. Several chunks of metal tore through her android body, causing damage, but nothing too serious. That was when she hit the communication channel and screamed out; “I’m hit! I’m hit! Ejecting! Ejecting!”

            The explosive bolts blew the canopy free and the seat, riding on a blast of fire, jetted from the doomed interceptor. It corkscrewed several hundred meters before the second missile caught up and detonated on its tail, shearing the magnificent interceptor in two before the front half careened into the forest, while the rear exploded spectacularly.

            She ran a quick diagnostic and found that she would be able to move, although her motor functions had been severely damaged by some of the shrapnel. Still, her seat held an emergency beacon, as well as supplies and an assault rifle and pistol. She could make it back to the community and add her support to the battle.

            Above, the canopy blossomed like a colorful flower, the silk of the parachute catching the wind and arresting her descent. Soon she would be on the ground.