Buck Who? Chapter 47

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 47: Butchers Bill

June 1st, 2668; The Community

            There were less than thirty Purists left in the fight. Many had been killed when Declan, Babs and Max had arrived on-scene and absolutely demolished the majority of the vehicles and armor. Now the advantage they had in armor and mobility, with the exception of the APC commanded by Martin Travis, had been destroyed. The defenders had suffered as well, with most of the community ablaze. Many of the structures having suffered at least some damage – a few were totally destroyed, while others would be a hazard for anyone attempting to enter.  

            The most terrifying and heart-rending aspect to the fight were the bodies that lay everywhere.

            Martin knew the battle was lost. There simply were not enough of his force left to make any difference. There were still many defenders, hiding in the ruined buildings or taking pot shots from hidden locations, and then there was that god-damned sniper! Martin was staying in the protective shield provided by the APC and waiting for the opportune time to drop it, fire and then raise it again.

            So far it had kept him alive, and for the most part the APC was intact. He nearly cheered when he saw the one Sparrow Hawk interceptors struck by the defensive missile, and the other two had broken off the attack to try and evade the incoming warheads. He did not know if they had been successful or not, but at least they were no longer harassing his people.

            For all the good that would do.

            Five more defenders dropped from the combined fire of his remaining men, and another structure, this one looking like it had once housed a bar or eatery, went up in flame, one of his men having tossed a thermite grenade through the shattered window. Screams reached his ears from the interior and he smiled savagely, knowing that there were far fewer mutants in the world.

            His rational mind was all gone. He had lost everything – his home, his people, and worst of all, his only son. Martin was alone in the world, and his mind had lost what control it had over his sanity.

            The war was over.

            Completely over.

            He hand lost, despite having managed so many victories early on during the campaign. The problem was he overestimated the enemy and had grown arrogant and overconfident. Well I might as well go out in a blaze of glory, he thought to himself. All is lost and there is no way to change it.

            He happened to be looking in the right direction or maybe the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on one’s point of view, when the shield directly in front of his face flared. A heavy round had struck the protective shield, and he realized that without its protection, he would have suffered the same fate as his son.

            Would that have been such a bad thing?

            His HUD automatically calculated the trajectory and he had the hated sniper’s location. It was a long shot, but the turret on the APC could easily make it. He transferred the coordinates to the gunner and the man complied, dropping the shield for a fraction of a second as he fired the APC’s main armament.

            There was a brief explosion of light from the location of the sniper’s nest and he smiled a wolfish smile of satisfaction. At least that asshole would not be killing any more of his people today.  

***

            Arleen and Joey watched in satisfaction as the Sparrow Hawk interceptors pounded the hell out of the enemy armor and managed to kill quite a few of the soldiers. To them, the fight was far from over, despite the terror the fighters inspired as they took out vehicle after vehicle. Then the tables changed and suddenly the interceptors found they were on the receiving end of the enemy fire – missiles launched, leapt into the night-sky and tore after the birds, forcing them to retreat.

            By then over half the town was ablaze, adding light to the darkness, as well as liberal mixtures of smoke, screams and the sharp tang of blood and spent cordite. It was a nightmarish realm, and both had to constantly watch where they were going, knowing that just one wrong move would mean the end to them both.

            Joey kept his promise, he watched over the little Uplifted Otter like a guardian angel. One second he was there, the next he was gone, and when he returned, his sword was bloody and he had a grim look in his eyes. At first, the look scared the former prostitute, as his eyes were empty, fathomless and as black as the night sky itself. She quickly grew used to it.

            They had been fighting and killing the Purists as they advanced towards the pool. Oddly enough, it was one of the few structures that had managed to remain relatively unscathed during the battle. A few of the community residents were likewise making their way towards the facility, moving backwards, never allowing the enemy to get a clear shot at their most vulnerable spots. The Purist forces had been reduced significantly and it was as if they could feel it in the air – the fight had gone out of a number of the enemy and some were even now throwing down their weapons and making a break for the walls and the forest beyond.

            There were still more than enough to inflict serious damage – these being the hard core members of the faction, those whose hatred for the non-humans ran so deep that it overrode even the basic instinct for self-preservation.

            Gunfire splashed into the ground around them, some coming so close that they could feel the passage of the rounds, and then Joey grunted and stumbled. Instantly Arleen grabbed hold of his arm and helped steady him and they continued to run, weaving and never going in the same direction for more than a couple of steps.

            “How bad is it?” She had to shout to be heard over the cacophony of sound.

            “I’ve had worse,” he lied.

            Arleen squeaked as something smashed into her back, driving her off her feet, which had the unfortunate side-effect of pulling Joey down on top of her. There was a deep nova-hot spear of pain running through her lower right side, and she could feel the wetness of blood spilling out, as well as something far worse. Looking down, she saw where the round had exited, blowing a fist-sized chunk of flesh out, and her intestines were slipping free from the hole.

            Terror gripped her heart and she began to sob, squeaking in terror and pain as she placed both her hands against the hole, trying to prevent her organs from slipping free. It was too much and the little female Uplift slid into darkness.

***

            Joey watched in mounting horror as Arleen went limp, her hands falling from the wound on her side. “N.. no!” he cried and tried to roll her over so that she was no longer lying on her stomach, her intestines pouring out of the gaping wound, but just moving sent waves of perfect agony through his body. He felt his vision starting to tunnel and his legs had suddenly gone completely numb, except for a feeling as if they were encased in ice.

            A figure appeared from out of the smoke and darkness, and for a moment Joey thought it was one of the defenders. Except the man was holding an unfamiliar assault rifle and he was aiming it directly at Joey.

            The young man from the installation valiantly raised his monofilament sword and swung at the intruder, causing the man to back away a step, laughing. Joey knew he was as weak as a newborn puppy and it sickened him to think that not only had he failed Arleen, but he would not get a chance to be with Ra’naa again.

            Just after they had found one another.

            The soldier continued to laugh as he squeezed the trigger.

***

            Flying low over the ruined remains of his community, Max gritted his teeth at the destruction laid out beneath him. There were so many fires it lit the town up as much as if they were enjoying a celebration. Despite the smoke produced from the wrecked vehicles and the fires, his computer was able to give him a clear view of the town and the combatants.

            The enemy forces had been all but wiped out. There were only about thirty Purists left, but the attack had been broken. Only a single APC remained in the battle, near the center of the town, its turret firing every few seconds.

            Without speaking, Max raced past, his nose-mounted cannons ripping into the few soldiers who had clustered near the APC, blowing them into consistent chunks of smoldering flesh. He felt little satisfaction at the act, his mind having shut down most of his emotions and had gone into pure fight mode. Maybe later he would regret it, but he seriously doubted it.

            In a second, the Sparrow Hawk was past the town and he pushed it further before coming around in a wide bank. He had already achieved a positive lock-on with his Air to Surface missiles and fired four in a single volley.

            The missiles streaked faster than the eye could follow, homing in on the APC. The men who had survived the first round of cannon fire did not even have a chance to see death racing towards them. One second they were hunkered down, taking pot-shots at the defenders, the next second they were simply gone, obliterated by the destructive forces of the missiles.

            It took three to bring the shields down, and then the forth smashed into the APC, punching through the armor before the shaped warhead ignited, filling the vehicle with white-hot shards of molten metal. The effect was spectacular. The crew was killed instantly, their bodies cooked by the intense heat, which likewise caused the ammunition to begin cooking off. The APC literally blew apart a moment later.

            One figure survived, a man in a suit of powered armor. He was thrown clear of the blast, and landed hard on his face about ten meters away. A moment later, the man crawled to his feet. Max instantly knew who it was – One of the Travis’s. Only they possessed Powered Armor, and since he was wearing it…

            His thumb caressed the firing trigger, the urge to blow the man into pieces almost overwhelming. Travis certainly deserved it, of that there was no doubt. The man was a criminal of the highest order, a murderer and a would-be dictator and perpetuator of genocide. All it would require was a few more grams of pressure and the cannons would erupt, destroying the evil man once and for all.

            Instead, he banked the Interceptor and brought it up, hovering. He kept the nose of the ship aimed directly at the man who was clearly disoriented from the explosion. He was shaking his head, with his gauntleted hands on his knees, trying to orient himself and had not noticed the ship only a few hundred meters away.

            “Fuck it,” Max bit off sharply and he lowered the landing gear.

***

            Ra’naa was so intent on taking out Travis that she failed to pay closer attention to the APC he was standing next to. She saw the shield flare as her round smashed into it, right in front of Travis’s faceplate. She cursed and chambered another round and was just about to line up for a second shot when everything went white.

            When her senses returned, she found she was falling, the ground rushing up to meet her. Instinctively she threw her arms out in front of her and just as she hit the spongy foliage, she tucked and rolled. There was a loud crack and she felt fingers of pain shoot up and down her right arm, and could smell the scent of blood in the air. It hurt unlike anything she had encountered before, but she steeled her mind against it and finished the roll.

            She found herself in a sitting position and was cradling her right arm against her chest. Her armor was smoking from the near-miss and she felt the occasional pinprick of pain over her entire body. Ra’naa also realized her helmet was gone and she could feel blood trickling down her face and over her lips. When she reached up with her right arm to touch the wound, she cried out in pain and blackness overcame her.

***

            It was over.

            The few remaining Purists knew that in their hearts. Nearly half of the survivors dropped their weapons and held their hands up in the air, the others ran for the walls and the possible safety of the forest beyond.

            No one sounded a retreat signal; no commands came over the communication link they all shared except for white-noise. And those who managed to survive the next few days could not say what happened but everyone gave up at almost the exact same moment.

            Angered by the loss of so many of their friends, family and neighbours and combined with the massive destruction of the community, many of those who tried to surrender were cut down without mercy or hesitation.

            All told only six men were taken prisoner.

            The remaining were shot down where they stood, while those who ran for the forest thought that they had managed to escape, and suddenly wished they had stayed put. For the forest was filled with Uplifted animals, all who had been called to the defense of the town by an old uplifted grizzly bear known as Old One. There were dozens of Uplifts – some bear, some wolves, a few felines and other breeds of dogs, but there were also badgers and even a pair of eagles.

            The men who managed to get past the defenders and into the woods were stalked. The Uplifts knew all about the men and their evil intentions and so they wanted them to feel real fear, real terror, like they had inflicted upon so many others over the past several months.

            Besides, the fear pheromone made the flesh taste all that much better in the opinions of several of the man-eater Uplifts that had agreed to come and join the fight.

            One by one, the survivors were chased down and killed. The lucky ones were those who died under tooth or claw during the initial take-down. They did not have to suffer. The unlucky ones lived for dozens of seconds, or in a few cases, minutes as the Uplifts took their time, devouring them piece by piece.

            All told, only three managed to escape to the trail. Out of nearly one hundred and fifty attackers, nine survived.

***

            All told only about fifty minutes had passed since the initial attack had opened the dance. Declan had not been in the fight for all that long, but the damage he, Max and Babs had inflicted upon the Purists had more than made up for how long it had taken them to get out of the hanger. He could tell that the fight was over, and watched as his Interceptor flew in a wide arc around the remains of the community. He watched as Max brought his ship to a halt and hovered in mid-air, only a few hundred meters from the ground.

            Just as Declan was about to contact the general, he saw the landing gear deployed and the ship began to descend towards the ground. “General Ahteen, what the hell are you up to?” He wondered aloud and then began to scan the HUD. Soon enough he realized that there was only one figure left standing, a man in a suit of powered armor. Declan figured it had to be Bradly Travis and that the man was defeated, there was no doubt about that, but Max wanted to finish it personally.

            He could not blame his old commander. Even if the asshole in the armor managed to best general Ahteen, he would not survive long – too many would want his head on a pike for what they had done to their home. Declan quickly brought up the emergency beacon for Babs Sparrow Hawk and then with a slow and lazy turn, he flew off in her direction.

***

            The mental shriek of pain and fear ended up saving Andy’s life. The young mutant man was busy ushering several wounded fighters into the only structure that was still relatively untouched, the community pool when it hit him like a mental sledge hammer. He grabbed his head and staggered forward several steps, which put him out of the line of sight of one of the Purists. The man had a target on his head and had just pulled the trigger when Andy shambled forward.

            Instead of pulping the mutant’s head, the rounds ate into the wooden wall of the pool building, showering the wounded and Andy with wood splinters.

            One of the wounded was still packing, and the snake-exotic lifted her handgun and fired, emptying the magazine in a series of rapid trigger-pulls. The attacker caught most of the rounds, which travelled from his navel up his torso. Most of the impacts were absorbed by the ballistic cloth he wore, but one punched through the gap between his neck and chin, destroying his throat.

            Andy looked up at the Snake-Exotic and nodded his thanks. “Get in there!”

            “What about you?” She hissed, offering her hand as her other held her side, where she had sustained a nasty wound.

            He waved her off and without a word turned towards the street. It was strange, not hearing the sound of gunfire. Oh there was plenty of noise to be sure, the sounds of the fire consuming so many structures, cries for help, or mercy, as well as those of pain and the pleading screams of the dying.

            Andy did not want to admit it, but he knew exactly who he had sensed. It was Arleen, the woman he had grown to love like a sister and had sacrificed his entire life to get her away from the life she lived in Scav Haven.

            He followed the trail of mental anguish, feeling her pain almost as if it was his own and finally he came across her and another figure. She kept slipping in and out of consciousness, and for the moment, she was awake – and in agony and terror. He could not help it, he gasped in horror when he saw the wound she had sustained. She was lying on her back, trying in vain to hold her stomach, blood flowing sluggishly through her fingers. Her eyes were closed but tears still streaked the soft fur on her face.

            “Oh shit, Arleen…” he dropped to his knees beside her and gently pulled her hands away from the exit wound. He felt bile rise when he saw the grey and pink loops of intestine poking and hanging through the injury. It could be a lot worse, that was for certain but the damage she had taken was life threatening.

            “I’ll get you help,” he slid his hands under her body as gently as he could, causing her to cry out in pain and chatter her teeth. It tore him apart to see her suffer the way she was, but if he did not do something, and soon, she would die on him.

            “No…no, he… hel… help Joey,” Her head lolled as she tried to spot the young man from the Installation. “He…” and thankfully, she succumbed to the pain, slipping out of consciousness.

            There on the ground only a few meters away lay the body of the young man from the Installation. Another body, that of a Purist soldier, lay on the ground next to him, both hands wrapped around the stumps of his knees. The appendages were nearby, lying in a pool of blood. A discarded assault rifle was half-buried in the blood-soaked muck, brass shell-casing scattered around. The Purist was dead, his life-blood having flowed out of the remains of his legs.

            There were at least an easy dozen or so bullet holes covering the front of the young man’s chest, and his face was coated with drying blood. Even now flies were being to converge on the blood, stopping in for a feast and to lay eggs and continue the cycle of insect life.

            Andy shook his head in sadness. He barely knew the young man, but had liked him. “I’m sorry Arleen, he’s gone.” She was still out of it, and blood continued to pump slowly from the wound. In a moment, he left the bodies in the street and went for the pool.

***

            The first of the reinforcements arrived at the remains of the ruined gate and wall. The androids had travelled hard and moved with amazing alacrity to reach the community, but they quickly discovered that the fight was over.

            Over thirty of the artificial beings led by Awoan arrived, armed to the teeth and carrying all manner of medical equipment and anything else they could think of brining, which turned out to be a lot.

            They had been stopped by the Uplifts before getting to the compound, and after a brief but intense moment, the mutant animals allowed them to pass, knowing that they were not in fact there to harm but to lend aid to the people. Things might have gone a lot differently if it was not for Old One, who vouched for the androids. Had he not met Joey and the android Babs, it could have been a different story altogether.

            The devastation that greeted the group of androids was stunning, even to them. They paused near the dual craters and stared in open horror at the burning buildings, the destroyed walls, the ravaged vehicles and the bodies.

            There were so many bodies.

            At first their arrival was not noticed by anyone, the defenders were too busy helping the wounded and finishing off the few surviving Purist soldiers, those which were themselves wounded but still drawing breath.

            From where they stood, something was going down near the center of the community, although a combination of lack of light, smoke from the fire and the group of armed defenders coming towards them meant they had no idea what it was.

            One of the defenders held an energy rifle at the ready, the strangely-shaped muzzle pointed directly at Awoan’s head, the finger on the trigger. The defender stopped suddenly and lowered the weapon, looking on in amazement. “Hey you’re an android.”

            Awoan supressed the urge to be sarcastic, and just nodded, then lowered her head in greeting. “Indeed. I recognize you – one of those who helped us defend against these very same assailants.”

            “Well you missed the party, where the hell were you?” The woman demanded hotly.

            “We would have arrived sooner if we had known there was an attack underway. We are sorry.” Awoan told the woman. She was feeling a little more than annoyed and angry at the defender’s tone, but she had to realize she was right and could not blame her. For the most part her home had been destroyed and many more of her people were gone. “We can at least offer medical assistance, so show us to your wounded.”

            Nodding, the woman waved them forward and they entered the smoldering ruins.

***

            The Sparrow Hawk hovered over the blazing remains of Babs interceptor. It had come down hard and exploded upon impact, spreading flaming debris everywhere. The unfortunate effect was it began numerous small brush-fires which there was not a damn thing he could do to prevent. Hopefully it would be contained on this side of the river, and would not jump the banks. If it was windy, that might have been a certainty.

            Knowing there was nothing to be done; he pulled the interceptor up and flew off towards Babs emergency beacon. The fighter was not a two-seater, but since she was an android now, she could ride on the underside of the wings, or even in the small bomb-bay compartment. It would be uncomfortable, but they would make it back to the community.

            It only took a few minutes for him to locate her parachute and the woman was standing on the ground, waving her arms. Declan studied the terrain using the Interceptors sensor package and found a place he could safely set the ship down. It was tight and even a pilot of his skill level had difficultly, but he managed it with only a few scratches to the paint.

            Popping open the canopy, the removed his flight helmet and wiped the sweat from his brow. “Babs are you okay?”

            She was visibly limping when she approached the ship. Her flight-suit had sustained numerous rips and tears and the right leg looked as if it had been on fire at one point. “I’ve been better Doc, and if I was organic, I would not have made it. Still, I’m going to need Otres’ help, that’s for damned sure. Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad I feel like such a maroon!”

            “Don’t be, you did the best you could,” He manipulated the HUD and opened up the hatch beneath the Interceptor. “Climb in and we’ll get back to the community. I don’t know how much more there is to do, but I can say with certainty that we’ve won, the fight is over.”

            Babs looked down at the ground, and her whole body shuddered. “What was the cost thought?”

            “Too fucking high,” he growled. “Way too fucking high.

***

            Max climbed out of the cockpit and let his flight-helmet fall to the soot and ash covered ground. He began to walk a slow, methodical walk towards the figure in the powered armor. The man was still struggling to maintain his footing, falling over with each step, only to have to fight his way to stand. At last he managed to gain his balance and he stood there, staring at the Exotic coming towards him.

            General Max Ahteen stripped off his gloves and dropped them to the ground and he opened his flight-suit, revealing his sweat-stained shirt beneath. “I’m assuming that’s you, Martin Travis? The asshole that started this whole mess?”

            The man in the armor shook his head, as if in denial. He took two unsteady steps forward, almost like a baby learning to walk for the first time. He waved his hands towards Max, as if trying to get the man to stop.

            As Max got closer, he could see that the armor had indeed suffered significant damage. If the man inside had not been wearing it, the toll extracted by the explosion surely would have killed him. Max Ahteen knew from experience that the armor had special padding and compensators built in. These would help absorb kinetic energy from falls or blows, protecting the pilot from serious or possibly life-threatening damage.

            Martin Travis reached up with still-shaking hands and pulled the helmet from his head. Even from a distance it was clear the man was dazed and confused, and blood ran freely from both nostrils and ears. When he opened his mouth to speak, a gout of dark-red blood poured from him.

            Stopping only a few meters away, Max took his flight jacket off and let it drop to the ground. Growling ferociously, he cracked his knuckles, the joints under the scaley flesh popping like miniature gunshots. “You’re dead, you know that, right?” He asked. Considering the countenance of his face, his voice was strangely calm and free of the hate and anger that raged within.

            Martin Travis blinked and then tried to rub the blood and mucous from his face. He opened his mouth and gulped in air as if he had been suffocating. At long last he blinked, his eyes filled with tears and he slowly, ever so slowly, nodded in agreement. “You won,” he managed to croak. His voice was thick with phlegm and he sounded as defeated as he looked. “Get it over with.”

            This was not what Max had been expecting, not at all. He figured the man would be defiant, or at the very least belligerent towards him. After all, he had caused so much death and destruction over the past half-year and had aspirations of becoming the king of the Northwest region.

            “Fuck that, you’re not going to get off that easy,” Max said quietly. “I will give you a chance to live,” he found himself saying. His mind was screaming for him to shut up and just kill the man, but something deeper, something primal and animal wanted to feel the other man’s life-force as it left his body. He wanted to kill the man with his bare hands and feast upon Martin’s black heart. “Get out of your armor. You can fight me for the right to live.”

            Martin Travis blinked back the tears and sniffed loudly, then coughed up a wad of blood and more phlegm. He spat it on the ground and stared at it, fascinated before returning his gaze to the man standing before him. “Are you fucking serious? That sort of shit only happens in bad books and old shows.”

            The same question echoed in Max’s mind. Was he in fact serious? He had no idea of the man’s capability when it came to fighting, and what was there stopping him from cheating and using a weapon? There was nothing in fact that was preventing him from doing so. Still – Martin was still a baby compared to Max. He had only seen what, maybe four decades or so of life, whereas Max had been around for nearly forty decades.

            Weapons or not, cheating or not, Max knew he could take the man and would do so easily. “Yeah, I’m fucking serious. Beat me, and you walk. Stand there and attempt to negotiate, you die. Your choice.”

            Martin Travis knew he had no choice, so he opened the front of the powered armor and climbed out, clad in his sweat and blood stained T-shirt and jeans. He was still wearing his boots and had a holster strapped to his hip, but it was empty. He stood on the ground, shakily and took several deep breaths. “I can’t believe I am going to die at the hands of a fucking mutant aberration.”

            That brought a murmur of anger from the slowly gathering crowd. Many of the defenders had come from their hiding spots to witness the end of the war against the Purists, and most of them were mutants, or Exotics. A few of the actual pure humans in the crowd were just as angered by the statement as the others.

            “You just don’t get it,” Max shook his head, almost sadly. “I’m just as human as you. I’m not a mutant, a Damaged, or an Uplift. I don’t know what poisoned you so badly when it comes to us, but you have to realize that humans are on the decline. In a few dozen generations there probably won’t be any humans left on this planet. The only humans that will be around are those out in the far reaches of space, on the colony worlds and elsewhere.”

            “Are we going to stand here and bullshit all day or are we going to end this?” Martin Travis found the energy and yelled, and then came at Max, both fists raised in a classic boxer’s defensive pose.

            Max stood his ground and allowed the leader of the now defunct Purist movement to close. The man came in shuffling his feet and jabbed several times. Max casually moved out of each strike with contemptuous ease, not even bothering to raise his hands in defense. All he did was take a step backwards with each strike, forcing the other man to follow.

            This went on for about ninety seconds, with Martin getting more and more frustrated with each failed strike, and the look of pure disgust on Max Ahteen’s face. He realized that Max was merely toying with him, and making him look like a fool, all the while he was getting more and more tired with each strike that failed to connect.

            Finally Max went on the offensive. He lashed out with a powerful side-kick, catching the other man in the stomach and doubling him over. It was clear that Martin was expecting a fair fight, or at least Max to use his hands, but Max had trained for nearly his entire long life, and every part of his body was a weapon.

            When Martin doubled over, Max grabbed his head and brought his knee up, smashing the other man’s nose to bloody pulp. Blood gushed from the pulped flesh, flowing hard and fast, coating the leg of Max’s pants. He stepped back, allowing Martin to fall to his knees. “Come on, asshole, fight.”

            Martin coughed and spit out more blood as he fought to regain his footing. The man was beyond finished – first the explosion, which thankfully for his armor, it spared his life, but the strike the Dragon-Exotic delivered had rendered the man almost completely senseless. Martin’s features were slack and his eyes almost lifeless as he brought up his hands to defend himself. He took several unsteady steps forward and threw weak jabs, which were easily – almost childishly easy to deflect.

            This continued for nearly two minutes before Max threw his hands up in disgust and turned his back on the badly wounded and disoriented man. “Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad, this is a waste of time,” he walked around the perimeter of defenders, who were watching the systematic humiliation of the former leader of the Purists.  He finally stopped and faced Martin, who was barely standing; his hands held pathetically low, his fists barely closed.

            “Kill the bastard,” someone in the crowd shouted and soon it was picked up by everyone, the chant rising in volume until it was nearly deafening. This seemed to bolster Martin Travis, and a little life returned to his dead eyes. He straightened his back and wiped at the blood still dripping from his broken nose. Already both eyes had blackened and he was wheezing with each breath.

            Max turned and regarded the man, although there was no hint of respect or admiration for the man’s sudden change. He had far too much blood on his hands – figuratively and literally speaking, for Max to ever consider giving him the slightest amount of respect. He closed the distance casually, his hands at his sides, leaving himself wide open for Martin.

            “Fucking abomination,” Martin cursed and then lunged forward, his hands outstretched and ready to embrace the leader of the community.

            With ease which only decades of practice could afford, Max stepped to the side and lightly brushed the back of Martin’s sweat-stained shirt. The man fell forward in a heavy heap, his arms trapped beneath him. He grunted and raised his head, spitting out blood and dirt, and then rose back to his feet.

            “Come on asshole,” Max said conversationally. “That’s the spirit, show me how a real human fights,” he taunted.

            It seemed to take the other man a day to turn to face him, but when he did, he had his fists held up in front of him, and he advanced, slowly, stepping carefully and always changing his stance. Max grinned and still held his hands at his side, only lifting the left to wave him forward.

            Then Martin surprised him and all those watching, with an unexpected burst of speed, he launched forward, and from seemingly nowhere a small handgun appeared in his hand. He pulled the trigger twice and the little weapon coughed, both rounds catching Max in the stomach. It staggered the Dragon-Exotic and his hands instantly went to the wounds in his belly. Martin decided to take advantage of this and he dropped the now-empty weapon and struck with his right fist.

            If it was the decades of training, or simply self-preservation, Max could not tell anyone in the years to follow, but even through the pain of the gut-shot, he brought both hands up, back to back, right over left to his left shoulder, blocking the first strike. Un-perturbed, Martin struck with his left hand, and Max blocked the strike by lifting his right and striking palm up with the left, knocking the punch askew. Max followed through by circling his right hand under and then up, striking Martin’s already busted nose with the heel of his hand.

            The strikes happened in less than two seconds, and as Martin was knocked back nearly a meter, Max followed through with a knuckle-punch to the solar plexus. He then reached up with both hands, gripped the back of Martin’s head with the left and twisted the chin with the right, snapping Martin’s neck. As the former leader of the Purists fell, Max kicked him as hard as he could in the balls, adding one final insult to injury.

            Martin was dead before he hit the ground, and never felt his testicles being crushed against his pelvis.

            Max stood there, panting as everyone watching cheered, and the promptly collapsed to his knees and fell face first, blood pooling out around him from the wounds inflicted by the hidden weapon.

***

            For just a moment, Ra’naa had no idea where she was, or what had happened. Her mouth felt as if it had been stuffed with copper-coated cotton and she swore that she could hear a buzzing sound in her ears. Her entire body ached, even her horns, which normally had no sensation at all. Ra’naa realized she could not see - and for just a fraction of eternity, she thought she had gone blind, as she could not open her eyes. Tentatively she reached up and realized they were glued shut by dried blood. She grabbed her canteen and doused her head with water, allowing her to clean the caked blood from her eyes so she could see once again.

            It was still the middle of the night and darkness was king, but she could see light coming from the numerous fires down below, and what she originally mistook for buzzing was cheering. One of her sniper rifles was lying within reach so she picked it up and peered through the scope. She saw her father deliver the killing blow to Martin Travis and a smile crept over her blood-covered face.

            The war was over.

            The back of the Purist movement had been shattered.

            They won.

            And then she saw her father collapse and lay still.

            “No, oh god no, not you dad…” She was up and running down from her hidden spot, ignoring the shooting pain each step sent through her skull. She was wounded, but how bad she did not know. It did not matter; she needed to get to her father.

***

            His heart racing, Declan set the Sparrow Hawk Interceptor down next to Max’s. The ship settled with barely a bump and he did not bother with the landing checklist for shutting the Interceptor down, instead he popped the canopy and released the latch for the bomb compartment. Leaping from the cockpit, he landed hard and raced towards the crowd, who were already huddled around their fallen leader. Try as he might, he could not get past the mass of bodies.

            So he did not bother trying. Instead he scanned the crowd for Tara, knowing she would be there somewhere. At least he had won the argument and knew she was safe. Then a cold wave of realization hit him – what if she had been in the lodge or near the gate when the assholes had fired the BHP? He began to scream her name, hoping that if she was in the milling bodies, she would hear and reply, but no such luck.

            By this time the androids had arrived and were tending to the wounded. He saw the now familiar face and body of their leader, Awoan, and she nodded in his direction as she fought her way through the throng to get at Max.

            Desperation was starting to consume him, mind and body, as he tried in vain to locate Tara. One of the defenders, the Snake-Exotic who had shown interest in him a few months ago, came over and placed a hand on his shoulder and pulled him close enough so she could speak over the noise. “Last time I saw her, she was fighting near those buildings,” she pointed in the direction of the pool and the core of the community. “Sorry but in the fight, I lost sight of her.”

            Dread swallowed his heart as he thanked the woman and ran in the direction she indicated. The street was filled with a stinking combination of cordite and smoke, the air a miasma of shit, burnt wood and fabric, and the sickly sweet stench of burned flesh.  There were bodies scattered about, some of them the defenders, but the majority of those he saw belonged to the Purist attackers.

            He reached the structures, which were now nothing more than glowing embers, with the occasional jump of flame when the wind hit it just right. Inside he could see the blackened and charred remains of several corpses, so badly burned he could not tell what they had been in life, let alone their sex. It hurt to see the dead, people he had come to know, but he thanked the trinity that deep down he knew that Tara was not among them.

            He searched for what felt like hours, but in reality only a few minutes passed. Already around him the surviving defenders, with the help of the androids who had just arrived, were going through the bodies, searching for those who still clung to life.

            Then he saw her.

            There was no mistaking the coloration of her fur, or the shape of the body he had worshipped so many times over the past few months. All thought fled from his mind as he raced over and came to a sliding stop on his knees. The dirt and gravel bit into his legs, but he ignored the discomfort and pain it caused. Tara was lying on her back. Her green eyes were closed and her hands rested protectively over her belly.

            “Tara?” He whispered as he reached out to caress her face. The fur was sticky with blood and that is when he noticed the wound. It was a small entry wound on the left, just above the temple. Tears streaked his face as he gently tilted her head to the side, seeing a larger exit wound, higher up on the right side of the skull. There was blood, copious amounts of it, but no brain matter.

            Grief overtook him. He gathered her body into his arms and wept like he had not since he was a child. “Oh Tara,” he choked. “Why… stay hidden… why?”

            Was it just his imagination? He thought he could feel the slight exhalation on his neck as he cradled her. He paused, fighting back the sobs and tears, and placed his hand to her throat. No it was not his imagination, he felt a pulse. It was weak, but it was there.

            “Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad, I need help here!” He screamed.

***

            Off to the side and out of the way, Babs watched the surviving defenders work hand in hand with the androids from the installation. They were triaging those who were wounded, taking the most critical to the pool while leaving the others where they were, in the hands of their neighbors.

            Just after landing, she had lost sight of Declan, figuring that the man had left in search of his woman. She did not blame him, but really had wished it was her he had left to find. Then again, he had done just that when he tracked down her emergency beacon and rescued her from the crash site.

            The AI-turned-android was so pre-occupied that she did not even register Ra’naa pushing past her and shoving her way into the crowd gathered around the two men who had fought to the death. It was only after Awoan joined the Dragon-Exotic that she realized she had missed something far more important.

            Then she heard Declan’s panic-filled voice calling for help.

 

***

 

            “Daddy!” Ra’naa cried out as she shoved her way through the defenders. She was strong for her size, and made it through with minimal fuss and muss. The people gathered around the man backed away, giving her and the android Awoan plenty of room to work. The leader of the Installation managed to beat her there by several seconds and had her father lying flat on his back. His eyes were closed but from the grimace on his face, it was easy to see that he was alive and in pain.

            Upon hearing her voice, he opened his eyes and smiled weakly at his only child. “Hey kiddo,” he managed to say. “Damn you look like shit!” He coughed and then growled as Awoan injected him with a syringe filled with a clear liquid.

            “How bad is it?” She knelt beside her father and took his hand in both of hers. Neither cared that both had blood on their hands, their own blood for that matter, and clung tightly to each other.

            Awoan continued to examine the entry wounds. “Your father is a tough man, but he’s going to require surgery to remove the rounds. Thankfully they did not damage anything too badly, and we can have him fixed up in a few hours. No perforations to the intestinal tract, the stomach is fine, although he did suffer damage to his liver.”

            “Certainly sounds a lot worse than it is,” Max gritted his teeth as the woman probed with her fingers, and then he yelped as she dug in and withdrew one of the spent slugs in a single fluid motion. “Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad, you could have warned me!”

            The android actually smiled, her artificial eyes winkling in the torchlight all around them. “Trust me, it was better that way, but I can’t do anything about the other bullet, you need surgery for that. This one was lodged in your abdominal muscles, making it easy,” She gave him a sad smile, and continued. “I wouldn’t have sex or try to do any sit-ups or crunches for the next few weeks.”

            Ra’naa laughed, almost hysterically and hugged her father tightly. She could feel him clinging to her with just as much fierceness and protectiveness, and a sob of sadness and relief hiccupped from her. No matter how she fought it, the tears came and they would not stop. “Thank god you didn’t die,” she managed to say.

            “Likewise kiddo, likewise.”

***

            The little girl-cub looked up through tear-filled eyes as the scarred Uplifted bear approached her. She crouched over the body of the old mutant woman who had taken her in and had given her so much love and devotion. Her hands had transformed into claws and fur covered her face and body, making her look more like the animal she was instead of the human she was disguised as.

            Pride filled Old One’s chest as he looked down at the tiny little creature, ready to defend its fallen protector with such fierce devotion. He reached out with his mind and caressed hers, feeling it for what felt like the first time ever. My cub, His thoughts slid gently into hers, soothing her.

            She sniffed and wiped her eyes with the back of one furry paw, and then studied the scarred bear before her. She was still far too young to produce words, or images for that matter, but instinct was deep within her, and even if her mind did not recognize Old One, her senses did, and they told her primitive mind that he was part of her. She knew enough to trigger the change in her body and her paws became hands and the fur slowly slipped back into her epidermal layer, leaving her looking like a lost little girl. Finally the girl managed to look away from Old One and she stared at the life-less eyes if Momma Rathbourne and lay on the old mutant’s chest, wailing pitifully.

            Around them more and more of the Uplifted animals gathered, sensing and hearing the agony in the girl’s plaintive cries, and despite being animals, it touched them on a level that few humans could have hoped to find.

            Old One looked at the gathered Uplifts and he shook his massive, scarred head in sadness. He wanted to take the girl with him and raise her as his daughter, in the wild and away from the human world, but she had spent more time there, and he knew the connection she had with them people of the community. His mind was made in a fraction of a second and he dropped to the forest floor and lowered his head so he was looking straight into the girl’s tear-streaked face. On back, he shook his shaggy head to indicate his shoulders.

            She took one last look at the old mutant woman. Momma Rathbourne looked as if she was only asleep, and dreaming a happy dream. There was a smile on the woman’s face, which made her look so much younger. She was gone, but the little girl knew deep down that she was now happy, happier than she had been during the few months they had together.

            The girl-cub stood and grabbed two fists-full of fur and clambered onto Old One’s shoulders. Two cougar-like mutants, very human in physical appearance came out from the gathered Uplifts and with great care and tenderness, picked up Momma Rathbourne’s cooling body and together, the small group of intelligent animals turned towards the burning community in the distance.

***

            Declan was crying so hard, calling Tara’s name and screaming for help that he did not even register when Babs was suddenly there beside him, taking his hands in hers and pulling him to his feet.

            “Doc!” She finally shouted in his face and then slapped him hard.

            The blow rocked his head back and just as suddenly, the former fighter jockey could think clearly. He blinked tears from his eyes and embraced the android in a fierce hug. “Oh thank Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad,” he said and then pushed her to arm’s length. “She’s not dead, she’s still got a pulse, we need to get her help!”

            “The androids are here, and they’re helping where they can,” she waved towards the crowd gathered around Ra’naa and her father. Awoan stood up and when she saw them, at Babs urging, she rushed over.

            Normally the former pleasure-model android’s face was beautifully cold and impassive, but when she saw the woman lying on the ground, a look of profound sadness appeared, marring the porcelain perfection of her artificial features. “This does not look good,” she said quietly.

            “Don’t fucking say that!” Declan screamed at her, from only a meter away. “She’s breathing, and you can save her,” he said in a lower voice, but the fear for the woman’s life was still there, stronger than ever. “Save her and save our son!”

            Awoan went to work.

            Minutes later, she wiped her blood-soaked hands on a rag and tossed it into a plastic bag for later disposal. She then drew in a deep breath and looked Declan straight in the eyes. “I’ve done all I could for her, but we need to get her and quite a few of the other wounded back to the installation. It’s the only place where we could possibly save their lives.”

            “Wouldn’t taking them overland like that kill them?” Declan managed to say through a lump the size of a hover-truck that was stuck in his throat. The entire time that Awoan had worked on Tara, he had held the Tiger-Exotic’s hand in his. Not once did he feel any sort of reaction from her.

            “They are going to die no matter what, but if we can make it back to the installation, then we can increase the chances of their survival.

            Declan looked over at the two parked interceptors. “Can we use them?” He pointed at the ships.

            Awoan nodded. “Indeed.”

***

            While Babs and Declan went through their pre-flight checklists, the wounded who needed to be medivaced to the Installation were brought over. Thankfully there were only four who needed to be flown over to the installation – Tara, Joey, Arleen and one other, who had suffered severe trauma to her upper body. All four were in critical condition but fortunately the androids had brought a stash of drugs and specialized stabilizer units, which would slow the body functions down to that just slightly above an actual death, and would keep them there for up to forty-eight hours, allowing the bodies to be safely moved without further risk.

            Thankfully two could be carried in each of the two interceptors, with the androids working hand in hand with the able-bodied defenders to jury-rig the stretchers into the bays. Bottles of oxygen were attached to the faces of each individual, and they were carefully cocooned in thick blankets to ensure they were not only kept warm, but cushioned against possible turbulence.

            Ra’naa came over as Tara was being loaded into Declan’s ship and she hugged him fiercely, her own tears soaking into his flight-suit jacket. “I’m so sorry, Declan,” she gasped as she pulled away and held his arms in hers. “Do they think they can save her?”

            The former pilot tried to speak, but all that happened is he burst into fresh tears of his own as he shook his head. Ra’naa reached up and gently caressed his cheek and then he grabbed her hand and pulled it away. Finally he managed to speak, but his words were choked and broken. “They… they… are… they… do.. just… no. They don’t… know.”

            “Your baby…” she turned, unable to bear the pain in his face. Then she noticed the body on the other stretcher. “Joey?”

            After the end of the fight, and her rushing to meet her father, she had all but forgotten about the young man from the Installation, the man who had suddenly become so important to her.

            Joey was lying, his body encased in blankets and a breathing mask over his face. The androids had taken the time to wash the worst of the blood from his face and he looked as pale as a ghost, almost as white as a true albino. His face was relaxed and there was no trace of pain in his features, although she could not detect any sign of life.

            Awoan and another android came over and the former pleasure-model placed a hand on Ra’naa’s shoulder. “He’s alive, but we will have to operate.”

            The same question burst from her lips, but this time for the young man. “Can you save him?”

            Awoan did not move, she kept her head perfectly still as she spoke. “We do not know. Our people will do their best. At least his head was not damaged, and if worse comes to worse…” she trailed off.

            “What?” Ra’naa asked her eyes bright and tears streaked her cheeks, cutting clean tracks through the grime covering her face.

            “We might be able to download his mind into one of the android bodies. He will no longer be organic, but he will be alive.”

            Ra’naa had forgotten all about that. She had seen it happen with Babs, her memories and personality downloaded from Declan’s failing hard-drive to the body the AI currently possessed. She also knew that there were UI’s, or uploaded intelligences out in the wastelands, people who had done exactly what Awoan was proposing – uploading their minds into the bodies of androids or robots. She swallowed hard and nodded. “Whatever it takes, I don’t want to lose him.”

            “Neither do I,” Awoan said with a firm nod of her head.

            Her father Max Ahteen finally came over to the small group and he shook his head, seeing the horribly wounded people. People he had known - and one he cared for deeply, almost as much as he loved his own daughter. He was holding his stomach, and when Awoan went to scold him for being on his feet, he waved her down harshly. “Ra’naa, you need to go to the hanger, if you’re up for it. I need you to bring Otres and the Brutes back. Especially Otres. He won’t know about Arleen, but a familiar and loved face will help.”

            She took his arm and forced the older man to sit down. He winced and then gasped as his butt hit the ground, earning a disapproving look from Awoan. “I will dad.”

            Once the pre-flight checks were complete, Babs and Declan waited until the wounded were secured in place and then they triple-checked the bays before finally lifting off and flying to the Northeast.