Buck Who? Chapter 5

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 5: Unexpected Visitor

April, 23rd  2668, The mainland shoreline, near Bowyer Island. 

“We have to hurry!” Ra’naa shouted. They had just reached the remains of the ancient highway and had turned north. With the ship having crashed, and the smoke visible for god only knew how many kilometers, she wanted to get to it as soon as possible. She hoped the pilot had survived, as she really wanted to meet him or her. The wilderness was a dangerous place to be, especially along the coastline. All manner of predator, including Damaged and other mutants, called the various stretches of coastline their territory.

She did not want to think what could happen if the pilot was injured. Considering the wreck was so close to Bowyer Island and the resort meant that the pilot was in extreme danger. If the pilot somehow made it over to the island, he or she was probably already dead at the hands of the creatures that called it home. She shuddered at the thought of what haunted that cursed island.

Ra’naa and Otres had travelled only about a quarter of a kilometer when the little Uplifted Otter stopped in his tracks. A second later, he dropped to all fours and ran for the sheltering brush alongside the ancient highway. I smell several horses approaching.

Ra’naa was skeptical. She knew her little friend was skittish and easily startled. It was a survival trait that kept him alive. “We need to keep moving,” she hissed. “We need to get there as fast as we can. The pilot could be hurt.”

And if we run into a predator or maybe a Purist raiding party? We won’t be able to help the pilot then.

She really hated when he used logic. Still, Ra’naa knew he was right and it was better to err on the side of caution and she slipped off the trail and knelt in the tall undergrowth. A moment later she felt rather than saw Otres sidle up next to her.

They did not have long to wait. A single minute passed before Ra’naa could hear the sound of multiple hooves and the occasional wicker from the approaching animals. Her scaled brow furrowed. Ra’naa swore she recognized the sound of the horse. She decided to take a chance and she stood up as bold as you please, abandoning her cover, much to Otres’s protests. She stepped out onto the trail, which ran parallel to the ancient highway.

“Relax, Otres, it’s just Tara,” she said aloud. Ra’naa lifted her hand and waved at her friend, who was only a few hundred meters away. The Tiger-woman raised her own hand and waved back. She was astride Zeus, one of the mutant horses they had stabled at the community, and was leading two more horses behind her. She had discarded her dress and was now clad in woodland camouflaged pants and a tunic. Leather boots covered her feet and she was clearly armed. She had a pair of pistols strapped on either side of her shapely hips, and there was an assault rifle slung over her shoulder.

Once she was close enough to be heard, Tara called out. “Hey, Ra’naa. Did you find Otres?”

At the sound of his name, the little Otter scampered out of the brush and stood on his hind-legs. He lifted a fore-paw in greeting.

“What are you doing here?” Ra’naa asked in way of reply. “And did you see the crash? We don’t have time to stand around talking, we need to see if the pilot made it or not!”

The Tiger-striped woman frowned slightly. “Is that any way to say hello to your sister?”

Ra’naa rolled her eyes. “We’re not sisters, and sorry. Hello, Tara. It’s nice to see you again. Thanks for bringing the horses, but we really need to get going!”

Tara shook her head as she moved hair out from her eyes. “That was mean,” she pouted.

Ra’naa rolled her eyes as her tail swished lazily behind her. “Time is wasting!”

By that point she had walked the horses up until they were nearly nose to nose with Ra’naa and Otres. The animals were massive beasts, easily half-again as large as the ancient Clydesdale horses, from which they were descended. The animals stood nearly ten feet at the shoulder and were powerfully muscled. They were far, far stronger than their ancestors, and more intelligent as well. The best part was they were impossible to spook or scare. The beasts were fearless. Whatever fight or flight instinct they possessed was just pure fight now.

“Your father sent me,” Tara said simply and she patted the saddlebags. “Momma Rathbourne had a vision. She said you were going to head towards the resort and you were going to meet a man there. He was in danger, but that was all she could see.”

Ra’naa relaxed. “I guess then the pilot survived the crash. Then her brows flurrowe3d as she frowned. “Why didn’t dad send any of the militia with you then?” She bit her lower lip. “And is the man anywhere near the resort?”

Tara shrugged and slid off Zeus’s back. She landed lithely and straightened. Her nose twitched slightly and she tugged at the whiskers. “Momma Rathbourne didn’t see you being in serious danger, so she recommended to your father that he only need to send me and a few extra horses. And to answer your question, momma Rathbourne didn’t say a word about the resort.”

“Maybe you should take Otres back to the community then, and I’ll go and try to find this man, the pilot.” Ra’naa reached up and gently stroked the nose of the horse Tara had been riding. Zeus was a brown and white stallion. She had named the horse when he had been born, nearly twenty years previous. She could not have known it at the time, the name was apt. He had grown up to be the leader of the stable of horses the community owned, and had sired many strong foals. “Hello my handsome boy,” she said.

Zeus lowered his head and gently bumped her chest with his nose. His tongue flicked out and licked her cheek. He gazed into her eyes, and she could see the love the animal felt for her. Zeus was hers, although he did allow her father and other select members of the community, most notably Tara, to ride him.

Ra’naa continued to stroke his cheek as he closed his eyes and relished in the touch and smell of the woman he considered to be his. She looked up noted there were several heavy saddlebags strapped to Zeus’s back.  

Tara shook her head in the negative as she knelt and opened her arms to Otres. The little Otter came up and gave her a hug before nervously letting her go and stepping back. When she saw the pink pack he was carrying, she laughed. “Cute pack, Otres.”

He smiled, showing his teeth and blew a raspberry. I think so; it can hold all my worldly goods.

Tara looked as if she was going to say something else, but she dismissed it and faced her friend. “No way, sister,” Tara shook her head. “I want to meet this man. Momma Rathbourne said he is from the ancient era.”

That caused Ra’naa to pause. “Wait, from the ancients? He’s one of them?” She rubbed her temples, to either side of her horns. “How is that possible?”

Tara shrugged and stood. She quickly dusted off the knees of her pants and then clapped her hands together. “It was that ship you saw.” She placed her hands on her hips and cocked her head to the side. “You did see a ship, right?”

It flew right over our heads, Otres projected into both their minds simultaneously. I’ve never seen anything like it! He then searched for and found the memory of the event and shared it with Tara.

Her eyes grew wide as she witnessed the event, which had taken place only a short while ago. She then glanced to the North and could just make out the smoke from where the ship had crashed. “At least we know the pilot’s alive.”

Ra’naa looked down at Otres. “Do you want to come with us, or should I send you home with Tara?”

Are you kidding? He thought and then squeaked excitedly. He gestured towards the smoke off in the distance. I would love to see the wreckage of his ship! I really want to meet this man from the ancient time as well.

She rubbed her temples again and thought about it. She knew that Uplifts were not all that common a sight back before the end of the final wars. It was only after the world had nearly been destroyed the Uplifts began to appear in significant numbers. Her father had speculated that during the closing years of the wars scientists or other organizations had purposely loosed the virus into the ecosystem.   The Uplift virus caused drastic mutation in most of the fauna it encountered. Every species infected would give birth to mutated offspring. These evolved or mutated offspring would gain humanlike or higher levels of intellect, and some would even become fully anthropomorphic.

It certainly explained the sheer numbers of intelligent animals they had encountered over the years. She did not really know, nor did she care when it came to it, but this man, this ancient, might try to harm Otres.

The little Uplift was either reading her thoughts, or he could tell what she was thinking from the look on her face. I’m not too concerned. If he turns out to be hostile, I’ll just hide.

Ra’naa dropped her hands and shook her head vehemently. Her long dragon-like tail swished in agitation behind her. “Not a chance. If he tries to harm you, I’ll beat him senseless.

“You and me both,” Tara nodded. “No one gets to pick on you except us!” She grinned down at Otres who in turn rolled his eyes and shook his head. He crossed his arms in a very human-like gesture.

“Time’s wasting,” Ra’naa said as she reached up and grabbed hold of the stirrup. Zeus knelt somewhat, making it far easier for her to vault up onto his wide back.

Tara rolled her eyes. “God above, you keep repeating that.” She then saw what  Zeus was doing and looked pained. Her whiskers drooped. “He didn’t do that for me.”

Ra’naa laughed as she adjusted her position, shifting her sniper rifle so it would not rub against Zeus’s side or back and irritate him.  His back was so wide she had no choice but to ride side-saddle on him. She reached down and motioned towards Otres. Tara picked the little Otter up before he could even protest and handed him up to Ra’naa. He squeaked and chittered, baring his sharp teeth. What the hell? I’m not a piece of luggage!

“Sorry, Otres,” Ra’naa apologized and hugged him tight against her bosom before turning and putting him on the saddle behind her.

He relaxed slightly and let out a deep sigh. At least you didn’t try to put me in one of the saddlebags. He pulled off the pink backpack and held it up for Ra’naa. Can you put it in one of the bags for me?

The thought of how he would look inside one of the voluminous bags made her laugh. She took the offered pack as Otres let out another very indignant squeak and crossed his arms as she opened one a pack and placed it inside. “Sorry, Otres.”

He glared at her once and then relaxed. Ah, forget about it. I know you would never do that to me.

She leaned forward and stroked Zeus’s thickly muscled neck. The flesh beneath her fingers shivered ever so slightly. She knew his sweet spot. When she heard the harrumph, Ra’naa glanced over at Tara, who was standing next to a mare. She had her arms crossed beneath her ample breasts and a frown furrowed her feline features. “You spoil him!”

Ra’naa shrugged and continued to stroke his muscular neck. “And you would too, if you raised him from a colt.”

“Zeus,” Tara called out.

The horse turned his head and regarded her evenly. His ears twitched and his tail swished back and forth, almost impatiently, as if he wanted her to continue.

“How about you showing some of that love for me?” She demanded. Tara reached up and grabbed hold of the stirrup, using it and her natural agility to climb smoothly into the saddle. Like Ra’naa, she had to sit side-saddle on the horse, even though he was somewhat smaller than Zeus, he was still too wide.

Zeus rolled his eyes and turned away from her. He nickered softly and pawed the trail with a hoof twice the size of a dinner plate. He lowered his neck and sniffed at the foliage growing off to the side of the trail and daintily nibbled some of it.

Ra’naa patted his neck again. “Come on, Zeus – you can eat later. I promise to give you some sugar and oats.”

He turned his head to regard her and nodded up and down, twice. With that, the horse turned and began to trot to the north. The other two horses followed obediently, spacing themselves out evenly. Otres settled into the saddle and leaned up against Ra’naa’s back. Zeus’s back was so wide he could have stretched out and still not been in danger of rolling off.

Tara sat on her mare, knowing it was pointless to be angry with the animal. She did not have a favorite horse, and she probably never would. She knew that Zeus tolerated her only because of how close she was to Ra’naa.

The day had grown quite warm, but after months of cold and being stuck underground, the sun felt wonderful. Insects had begun to re-appear and were only slightly annoying as they rode. Ra’naa pulled off her jacket and stuffed it into one of the saddlebags. She closed her eyes and sighed as the air dried the sweat which was starting to form on her neck and breasts.

“Hey, Ra’naa,” she called out after only a few minutes.

“What?”

“We really need to get some hovercycles.”

She laughed. “No way, I would much rather ride Zeus than one of those ancient machines. I trust Zeus with my life. Hovercycles have no soul, they aren’t alive. I certainly could not control one or earn its trust like I have with my baby,” she patted his neck. The horse snorted and whinnied, obviously pleased with the complement.

If you happen to find one of these hovercycles, I should be able to fix it, depending on the extent of the damage. Otres sent.

“We have a few old motorcycles and several pre-fall ground vehicles. They’re not as advanced as the hovercycle, and we’ve been able to keep them running all these years,” Tara replied. She had a brush out and was carefully grooming her long tail, fussing over each little burr or bit of dust that had managed to get caught in the fur.

That woman is so vain, Ra’naa thought. She did not want to hurt her friend’s feelings. Otres could hear her thoughts as easily as if she spoke them aloud.

True, Otres agreed as he looked over at her, following maybe ten meters behind. She is looking for a mate. I can sense it in her thoughts. She desires younglings.

She just wants to have sex! Ra’naa managed to keep from laughing aloud. She doesn’t care for a man; only what the man can do to her.

You’d be surprised, Otres projected cryptically. I know you want sex too, and it’s just a little disconcerting. After all, thinking of you Exotics - He projected the image of a couple of dogs mating into her head. Well, for me it’s kind of like watching this.

She could not help herself, she burst out laughing. Ra’naa laughed so hard she nearly lost her balance and fell from Zeus’s back.

“Hey,” Tara cried. “What the hell is so damn funny?”

“Oh go ahead and show her!” Ra’naa managed to say through her giggles. She reached up and wiped tears from her eyes and watched as Otres explained to her what they had been talking about.

The look on Tara’s face was almost too much for her to stand. She laughed so hard she began to hyperventilate. Otres backed away from her, fearing that her uncontrolled movement would potentially unseat him.

Finally she managed to get her mirth under control enough she could breathe properly. Ra’naa wiped at her eyes and hiccupped when she looked at her friend. To her delight, Tara was fighting to keep from smiling.

Feeling content, even if she was a little excited and felt the stirrings of butterflies in her stomach, Ra’naa began to sing. “Leave the sleep and let the springtime talk in tongues from the time before man. listen to a daffodil tell her tale, Let the guest in, walk out, be the first to greet the morn. The meadows of heaven await harvest, the cliffs unjumped cold waters untouched. The elsewhere creatures yet unseen. Finally your number came up. Free fall awaits the brave.”

Otres listened to the sound of her voice, his whiskers twitched and he chittered happily.

Ra’naa smiled, happy to see someone who appreciated her talent. “Come, taste the wine, raise the blind. we will guide you from the light, writing noughts till the end of time… Come, surf the clouds, race the dark, it feeds from the runs undone. Meet me where the cliff greets the sea...

What is this song? Otres asked.

“A band she loves from the ancient, and I do mean ancient days. All the songs were written over six hundred years ago,” Tara told him.

“Riding hard every shooting star, come to life open mind, have a laugh at the orthodox. Come, drink deep, let the dam of mind seep, Travel with great Élan. Dance a jig at the funeral...” Ra’naa sang.

Please continue. You have an excellent voice!

They travelled the trail for nearly an hour. They passed several herds of Chance Deer as well as some Elk. She never liked the deer, as they were far too dangerous to hunt. She was considering shooting one of the Elk though, maybe after they met up with the pilot. It would make a nice meal for the group to share. The Squirrel and Chipmunk population grew dramatically during the winter months. Everywhere she looked she could see the little creatures, many of them stood and watched as they passed. They were calling out warnings to one another or squeaking angrily at the intruders

She knew that the predators would grow fat over the following months. No one would go hungry this year.

Ra’naa continued to sing nearly the entire time, her soft voice ringing clear throughout the forest around them. She went through nearly twenty songs from one particular group, having long since memorized each verse. With each passing kilometer, she felt the fluttering sensation in her belly grow. She could still see the smoke from the downed fighter in the distance, although it had thinned out considerably. Ra’naa had been concerned about the potential for a forest-fire, but the winter had been long and the ground was still quite wet.

Finally they came around a bend in the ancient highway and could see where the ship had crashed. There had been a fire, but it had not lasted long. It had torn a gash through the trees, turning several into nothing more than kindling. The impact had caused significant damage to several others. She sat and stared at the remains. “Wow.”

Tara brought her mount up and she too stared at the remains of the ship. Her feline eyes widened in wonder. “You can say that again, sister.”

Ra’naa tapped Zeus on the side of his neck and the horse knelt so she could climb off with relative ease. She landed on the ground and re-adjusted the rifle on her back. “You want to come with me?” She called over her shoulder.

Of course I do! Otres replied. He clamoured down the stirrup and jumped the rest of the way to the ground, where he landed lightly, barely stirring up any dust.

A second later, Tara was standing with her. Unlike Ra’naa, Tara had unslung her assault rifle, but left the safety on. She placed one hand on Ra’naa’s shoulder. “You know how fire and explosions will attract predators and the Damaged,” she said gravely.

“Right,” Ra’naa grinned sheepishly, her cheeks turning red. She opened the strap on the holster strapped to her right thigh and pulled out a pistol that looked too large for her hand. She thumbed the magazine release and checked to make sure it was fully loaded before slapping the magazine home. With muscle-memory borne from years of practice, she slid the weapon home.

“Here,” Tara said, reaching up and opening one of the saddle bags strapped to Zeus’s back. She had to stand on her tip-toes but she managed to find what she was looking for. She withdrew a second holster and belt and handed it to her friend.

Ra’naa stared at the offered weapon and shook her head. “No, thanks. I prefer my own.”

Tara rolled her eyes and forcibly shoved the weapon and belt into Ra’naa’s protesting hands. “Take it, your father ordered me to give it to you.”

She reluctantly took the weapon and raised one eye. “Dad told you to give it to me?” She snorted. “Yeah, right.”

“I’m serious!” Tara said indignantly. She put her hands on her hips and leaned in until their noses were nearly touching. “Momma Rathbourne said that you had better take the EMP pistol, as you were probably going to need it!”

Ra’naa’s electric-blue eyes grew wide. “She thinks some of the creatures might have escaped the resort?”  The thought of those horrors gaining a foothold on the mainland was something she never wished to contemplate. The only reason the creatures had not over-run the entire region was they were exceedingly vulnerable to salt-water. It destroyed them.

Tara could easily understand what Ra’naa was thinking. “She didn’t know for sure, but she wanted you to have something to use, just in case.”

Reluctantly, Ra’naa strapped the second gun belt to her hips and secured it in place. She snapped open the magazine pouch attached to the holster and noted there were at least a dozen or more energy cells.

“Oh, right!” Tara snapped her fingers and then slapped her forehead. “I brought several boxes of EMP rounds for your toy as well.”

“Which bag?”

Tara indicated the same bag from which she had removed the pistol. “Right there.”

When Ra’naa reached for the bag, Zeus knelt for her, making the task all that much easier. She saw Tara roll her eyes and she stifled a giggle as she pulled out two boxes of twenty rounds. Each was pre-fall in manufacture but she knew they would be in perfect order. Her father never traded for anything that did not work as promised. “Hopefully we won’t need to use them.”

A minute later they left the horses to graze on the foliage beside the ancient highway and were following the path of destruction through the trees. The path was difficult due to the wreckage and debris left from the ship’s passage. Several areas were still smoldering, where the fires had died down to nothing more than embers. Ra’naa shuddered to think of what could have happened if the ship had crashed in the late summer.

She paused to catch her breath. Tara and Otres stopped as well. The little Otter carefully touched a piece of wreckage with one paw to make sure it was not going to burn him. He lifted the shard of metal and examined it.

Tara was gazing out over the Pacific Ocean, maybe a third of a kilometer from where they were when she stiffened and grabbed Ra’naa’s arm. “Get your rifle, I see something!” She pointed down the slope towards the water.

Ra’naa did not bother with her rifle. She blinked several times to bring into play one of the gifts her ancestors had bestowed upon her. A membrane covered both her blue eyes and suddenly she could see the shore as if she was standing right next to it. She scanned the waterline and then she saw it. “I think we found our pilot.”

The figure was only about fifty meters out from the shore and from the way he was moving, she could see he was exhausted. He was wearing a strange full-body suit, which hugged his form like a second skin. Each stroke of his arms came slower and slower. He was tired.

“That has to be the pilot we’re looking for,” She said a second later. Ra’naa felt giddy and scared all at once. “We better get down there; it looks like he’s about done for.” She did not bother to wait to see if the others were following. She started to make her way back down the side of the hill when movement near the swimming figure caught her attention. She stopped dead in her tracks. She focused in on what she had seen and felt her stomach grow cold.

“What’s wrong?” Tara said as she nearly ran into her.

“I think some of the undead managed to get off the resort!” She shouted and then handed her sniper rifle to her friend. “Use the scope!”

Squinting, Ra’naa focused in on the figures she could see closing in on the lone swimmer. They certainly did look like undead – skeletal faces and bony limbs protruding from the waves as they methodically swam. Then she furrowed her eyebrows and reached for the rifle. “I was wrong,” she said hotly. In one smooth motion she pulled the rifle from Tara’s surprised hands. The other woman began to protest, but Ra’naa had the weapon up to her shoulder as she peered down the telescopic sight. A second later she caressed the trigger and the weapon bucked, giving off a nearly ear-shattering boom. The head of the nearest of the creatures suddenly disappeared in a spray of bone and organic matter.

“What the fuck?” Tara cursed.

“Deep Dwellers,” Ra’naa filled in. Already she was shifting her aim for the second closest of the strange creatures. The rifle bucked and boomed a second time and the pursuing creature’s head exploded. Satisfied she bought the pilot enough time, she deftly ran down the debris-covered slope.

“God-dammit, would you slow down?” Tara screamed as she did her best to keep up. She did not have the other woman’s agility or gracefulness, although anyone calling her clumsy would be sorely mistaken. She continued to follow her friend, cursing the entire way. She even slipped and fell flat on her rear, twisting her tail in the process. A very cat-like howl of rage and pain burst from her lips as she regained her footing.

Otres looked only once as he passed her, to ensure she was not seriously injured. By the time she got back to her feet, Ra’naa had crossed the shattered remains of the highway and was more than halfway to the shore.

Still cursing, Tara gave chase.

***

“Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad I am so tired,” Declan practically cried. He was not all that far from shore, but with everything that had occurred in the past hour, he was at his limit. The currents flowing between the haunted island and the mainland were far stronger than he had imagined. More than once he was almost dragged under by the powerful current, but each time he managed to fight his way back to the surface.

Now he was maybe fifty meters from shore, if he was judging the distance correctly and his arms were on fire. Lactic acid burned through every fiber of his body, making each stroke feel as if he was weighed down by a thousand pounds.

“C’mon, Doc, only a few more meters to go. I’ve seen you crawl five times that distance on your hands and knees for a hot piece of ass.” Babs encouraged him. If he died, she died. It was as simple as that.

“Thanks,” he gasped. “I’ll make it. I just got away from someone’s twisted idea of a haunted attraction, and woke up from a three hundred year nap. I’m not going to fucking drown here!”

“Atta boy, Doc!” Babs cheered him on, trying to sound as encouraging as she could.

Suddenly, there was a loud thundering crack from somewhere up the shoreline, followed a second later by a second report. The noise was so unexpected he stopped in mid stroke. “What was that?”

“You got me Doc, maybe its duck hunting season?”

“I don’t think I want to find out, but could someone be shooting at us?” He asked as he resumed swimming. As he swam, he looked over his shoulder and actually screamed. About ten meters behind him, he saw a monster out of his worst nightmares swimming after him. “You have got to be fucking kidding!” He shouted and renewed his effort to make it to shore. Once he got there, he did not know what he would do. He was so very tired. Still, he had to try, absolutely had to.

The heads of the creatures he could see were skeletal, the bones washed white from exposure to the ocean. The eyes were strange, very strange. Instead of the blue pin-pricks hidden deep in the empty sockets as he had seen before, they were white and had pupils. The bodies appeared all wrong as well. Sure, they were bony, but from the little he could see, the bones were from different species of animals. And they appeared to have human proportions, as if they were not undead at all. It was as if the creatures were encased in a suit or armor made out of bone.

Whatever they were, he did not want to deal with them. The creatures bore too much of a resemblance to the horrors he left behind on the island and he wanted to escape. He pushed his body further than he had in many years.  He figured he had maybe fifteen, twenty meters at the most. The unexpected sight sent another burst of adrenaline through his body and it proved to be just enough. He crossed the remaining meters far faster than he figured he should have been able.

When hands and knees hit the rocky ground beneath the water, he scrambled up, slipping as he hit dry land. Declan fell flat on his face and felt something snap in his chest. He grunted and stifled a cry of agony. He nearly passed out from the pain as he pushed off the rocks to his feet. Each breath he took felt like someone was ripping him across the chest with a white-hot knife. Survival was the upmost thought in his mind. Once he got away from the creatures, he could think of taking care of his injury.

There was another thundering report and it sounded as if it was only a few meters ahead and to his left. When he lifted his head to look his heart nearly stopped. A woman was standing there, holding a military-grade sniper rifle to her shoulder. She was tall and shapely, and had a pair of large horns protruding from her forehead. In the faction of a second he had to study her, he noted she also had a reptilian tail there were scales visible on her face and neck.

Then the rifle boomed.  He recognized it as a Barrett fifty caliber, although he was not entirely sure of the actual model. A stream of fire blew out the front and from both side of the muzzle as the heavy projectile flew straight and true. The target was not Declan; no it was something behind him. He turned his torso despite the pain from his cracked or broken ribs. It was enough to see what she had been shooting at. It turned out to be one of the creatures which had been in pursuit.

He threw his hands up in the universal gesture of surrender. The movement caused another wave of agony to spread across his chest. Still, he managed to call out. “Don’t shoot!” He practically begged. Declan was more than a little annoyed at the pleading tone in his voice. He was so tired and scared when it came right down to it, he really did not care anymore.

“Get over here!” The woman with the rifle ordered. She still had the weapon up and at the ready as it thundered once again. This time she tilted the rifle up and with fluid movements that spoke of long hours of practice, she ejected the magazine and slapped a fresh one home.

From just behind her, Declan spotted a strange sight. Another woman was running towards them, cursing a blue-streak, and right behind her was a large Otter. The second woman had orange and white fur, whiskers and a tail. Then it hit him. Both women were Exotics!

He took several more steps towards the two women when his legs finally gave out. It was combination of exhaustion and hitting his foot sliding in-between two heavy stones. He twisted his ankle and with a cry of pain, he fell forward again. He was pretty sure he blacked out for a couple of seconds due to the flare of soul-numbing agony in his chest.

The two Exotics moved past him, the one with the sniper rifle methodically shooting every few seconds, while the other woman fired an assault rifle. It looked like a M-77, but somewhat smaller and more compact. The weapon spit out a steady stream of carefully controlled three round bursts. Declan struggled to pull his ankle from between the stones. As it turned out his foot was well wedged into the crevice. Each time he tried to pull it or turn it to get the limb out, the pain grew worse. Combined with his broken ribs, he was in terrible shape.  

“There, get the two on the left!” He heard the woman with the sniper rifle order. A fraction of a second later, her heavy weapon boomed and he heard the staccato burst from the M-77 assault rifle. Declan tried to turn to see what was happening, but the pain was too much. He did the only thing he could – he sat there and tried not to pass out from the pain.

How badly are you hurt?

“Babs, this is no time to goof off,” he said aloud as he changed tactics. Instead of trying to pull his foot from where he was trapped, he began to shift the stones around his limb.

“What are you talking about,” Babs said, sounding indignant. “I haven’t said a thing.”

He was about to reply when the Otter appeared right in front of him. Much to his shock, the Otter was wearing a small pink backpack. It scampered across the stones with ease and jumped from side to side, alternately looking from him to his trapped limb.

 I asked if you were badly hurt?

Declan did not know what to make of this. He could hear a male’s voice as clear as if it was spoken aloud, but it was coming from inside his head. Declan opened his mouth to reply when he heard the first woman call out.

“We’re clear, that’s the last of the Deep Dwellers.”

“What the fuck is a Deep Dweller?” He mused. He was beginning to see spots of light before his eyes. Nausea welled up so fast he barely had the time to open his faceplate before he spewed bile onto the rocks. The stream barely missed the Otter, who squeaked irately. The little Uplifted creature deftly dodged out of the way.

“Babs, I…” the pain and exhaustion took its toll and at long last, he fell unconscious.

Ra’naa was there a second later, staring down at the stranger they had just rescued. Otres was squeaking and chittering so fast she had no way of knowing what he was upset about, until she saw the puddle of bile. It almost made her laugh, but she controlled it. After all, she did not want to offend her little furry friend.

He nearly ralphed on me! He shouted into her thoughts and pointed towards the bile.

She moved and knelt next to the man. He was dripping wet and smelled strongly of the sea. His suit was intact, and other than being wet, looked like it was in perfect condition. “I guess this is the pilot?” Ra’naa asked no one in particular.

A breeze wafted across the stones and brought the scent of spilled blood and spent cordite. The sun was still high overhead and was beating down on the beach. All around her the ever-present sand-fleas were bustling and jumping, disturbed by their presence.

“Looks like he managed to get his leg caught but good,” Tara observed. She had just changed the magazine on her assault rifle and had pocketed the empty.

“Give me a hand here, let’s get him off the beach and back to the horses.” Ra’naa ordered as she began to shift and toss aside the rocks that had his foot and ankle securely trapped. When Otres tried to help, she shook her head. “Do me a favor and keep your eyes out for more of the Deep Dwellers, would you?”

Sure, I don’t think I’m strong enough to help anyhow. Otres chirped and then scampered away to a nearby log. He scampered up the driftwood and stood on his hind legs, scanning up and down the beach.

“He’s pretty cute, don’t ya think?” Tara said as she helped Ra’naa lean him back into a more comfortable position. “Kind of pale though,” she said, her tone distasteful. She reached down and ran her fingers across his sallow cheek. “And really thin, I don’t think he’s eaten in a while.”

Ra’naa shifted another heavy rock and let it roll to the side. “Would you give me a hand here already?” She said angrily as she lifted another stone and tossed it to the side.

“Sorry!” Tara replied somewhat sarcastically. She knelt and helped Ra’naa move more stones and in another half-minute, they had his ankle and foot free. Even through his suit, they could see how badly it had swollen. Tara cursed.

“Yeah, looks like he might have broken it,” Ra’naa agreed. “Glad dad and momma Rathbourne had you bring an extra horse after all. “Top or bottom?” She asked a second later, indicating the unconscious man.

“Bottom,” Tara said. “Wait, you’re a lot more gentle than I am, you better take his legs instead, I might just aggravate his condition.”

Ra’naa smiled at her friend. “Good thinking,” she agreed and then moved around until she was standing before his legs. She knelt and positioned herself so she was right between his legs. She reached down and grabbed the pilot from underneath his knees. “On three.”

“One,”

“Two,”

“Three!” Together they lifted the man and nearly toppled over. They had been expecting a much heavier burden and both had overcompensated for the expected weight. When she twisted his injured leg, the man moaned but otherwise remained unconscious.

Ra’naa and Tara exchanged sheepish looks and tried again, this time knowing what to expect. Moments later they were carefully making their way across the stones and debris towards the trail that ran along the ancient highway.

“Any signs of our Dweller friends?” She shouted.

Just the ones you two killed, Otres answered. What are they doing around here? This sure isn’t their usual hunting grounds.

“Maybe the winter was harder than usual on them and they are getting desperate,” Tara mused. “Great, just what we need, those evil fishy bastards haunting our shores.

“Maybe they heard the crash and came to investigate,” Ra’naa offered reasonably. By this time they had made it off the shore and were now on the trail. The three horses approached them, with Zeus in the lead. He lowered his head and gave the pilot a sniff and then jerked back and sneezed violently.

“He certainly doesn’t like the way our friend smells,” Tara laughed.

They lay him on the trail and stood there, arms crossed as they stared down at the prone figure. “Maybe we should get him out of that suit,” Tara offered.

“Could you at least wait until we get home to see him naked?” Ra’naa huffed, exasperated.

Tara’s eyes narrowed slightly. “That’s not what I meant. Maybe he has other injuries or there is something wrong with his suit.”

Ra’naa knew she was being more than a little unfair. Why had she said that? She mentally shrugged; it was something she could think about later. “Did you bring some clothing?”

The tiger-woman grinned. Her tail swept from side to side and she twitched her long whiskers. “As a matter of fact, yeah I did. After what momma Rathbourne said, I figured I better do so.”

Ra’naa studied the prone man for a second, examining his suit. It was made of some strange, form fitting fabric she had never seen before. She reached out with her right hand and tugged at the collar. It was attached to a ring, but the fabric appeared pliable enough.

In a few minutes Tara had brought the clothing and a blanket. Between the three of them, they managed to figure out how to strip the suit off the injured and unconscious man. They worked in silence as they peeled away the suit. The flesh beneath was as white as an albino’s and did not look healthy at all. It was obvious to both women he had been quite muscular, but he was a mere shadow of what he had once been. And the smell that emanated from his flesh was almost bad enough to gag them.

“Holy mother of…” Tara gasped.

“What? What is it…” Ra’naa followed her gaze and she gasped as well.

To say the pilot was well endowed would have been an understatement. Ra’naa felt her cheeks turn a bright red and she stood up, turning her back. “I’ll get the canteens, we can’t put him in the fresh clothing until we get him cleaned up.”

“That settles it,” Tara said with only a hint of huskiness in her tone. “He’s an ancient.”

“What makes you so sure?” Ra’naa asked ash she retrieved the canteens from one of the saddlebags.

“All the evidence,” Tara said, unable to take her eyes off him. “His ship, the suit he had on, and two aspects of his physical state. He’s clearly been out in space a very long time, and only the ancients were vain enough to have their dicks enhanced.”

From everything Ra’naa had read and watched regarding the ancients, that much she could not disagree with. They were incredibly vain and were always changing their physiques to match their moods and desires. After all, Exotics were one of their longest lasting legacies of their vanity.

Swallowing, she steeled herself and returned to Otres and Tara. Together they quickly washed and dried his body off and with effort, dressed him in the clothing Tara had brought. The clothes were too loose on his emaciated frame but at least it was better than the suit he had been wearing.

Ra’naa knew more than her share of first-aid and she determined the pilot’s ankle was not broken, just badly sprained. He would have a lot of trouble walking on it for the next few weeks. She wrapped it up in a bandage and then they managed to sling him over the back of the third horse. Once he was secured in place, they were ready.

“I really want to examine that ship,” Ra’naa said forlornly as she looked at the wreckage.

So do I, Otres agreed. I think maybe I’ll stay behind and see what I can discover.

Tara and Ra’naa shook their heads in unison, but it was Ra’naa who spoke first. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. If the crash attracted the Deep Dwellers, it will have caught the attention of god only knows who else. Maybe even the Purists.”

The little Otter shuddered and made a sour face. Right, I never thought about them. At the very least we will probably have scavengers showing up soon. He looked at his two companions. Huh, all the better reason we should stay and see what we can find then.

Ra’naa shook her head. “Forget it, Otres. Come with us. We will head home and I’m sure my father will send an expedition right away, though night will be here soon. As it stands, unless we go now, it’ll probably be dark before we get back to the community.” She rubbed her arms vigorously, as if trying to ward off the cold.

They finished securing the pilot to the back of the horse and did a quick inspection of the battlefield. Scavengers like crabs and gulls were already picking away at the eight Deep Dweller corpses they left in their wake. By this time tomorrow, there would be little evidence of the creatures. The bones, for sure, but little organic material, if any, would remain. The beach scavengers would not be going hungry this night.

Without a second glance back to the wrecked ship, they began their journey south towards home.

Chris Van Deelen is the author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC sourcebook  Creatures of the Tropical Wastes  sourcebook, co-author of its  Wisdom from the Wastelands  game supplement and contributor to the  'Sword of Kos: Hekaton'  Anthology.