Buck Who? Chapter 6

Chris Van Deelen

Element of Surprise

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

With several hours of daylight left, they began trip home to the community. Each was lost in thought, mulling over the ramifications of the ancient pilot having fallen into their custody. The wind blew strong along the trail, lifting the little dust that had accumulated and tossing dried leaves about like tiny, animated and desiccated dancers. Other than the occasional wild animal and bird, the small group saw no sign of life. That was a little surprising, as the crash of the ancient’s ship surely must have garnered some attention from the mutants and other creatures. Though the heavy rain-forests seemed empty, it was teeming with life, both animal and sentient.

Hunters, trappers, tiny communities comprised of human, Uplifted, mutant and Damaged could be found - if one knew where to look. There were also farms and fishing huts hidden away from view, not to mention several other ventures.

This section of British Columbia had been hit hard during the last exchanges of the final wars. Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria as well as numerous factories and other facilities were prime targets. According to Ra’naa’s father, few survived or could survive in the region for the first couple of generations. His ancestors lived in the same underground shelter they currently used during the coldest winters. It had been constructed in the remains of an ancient, long played-out copper mine. For hundreds of years the mine had remained forgotten, except by the occasional grow-op entrepreneur and animals. No one in the community knew who had purchased and revamped the ancient mine, and when it came down to it, no one cared. The result is hundreds of people survived the final wars and had called the mine home. Three generations had lived and died there, never having seen the sunlight.

Nature had its way and the wounds inflicted upon the land by mankind in his attempt to exterminate his brothers finally faded. Once again the region was capable of sustaining life and many of those who had survived in the shelters and bunkers returned to the surface.

Ra’naa pulled her attention back to reality. She could easily lose herself in her musings if she was not careful. Her father had commented upon that habit several times. She was a thinker, but had trouble choosing the right time and place.

They travelled about three kilometers from the crash site when Otres stood up and began to chitter excitedly. Before she realized it, Ra’naa had unslung her rifle and was flicking off the safety when his voice rang in her mind. I hear vehicles approaching.

“Where?” She asked. Already she blinked and brought her telescopic vision to play. She scanned the trail and the ruined highway as far forward as she could. The problem was the road followed the curvature of the land. She could only see for about fifteen hundred meters before the road disappeared around a bend in the land.

Ahead, and I guess still several kilometers but they are approaching fast.

Ra’naa did not need to look to know Tara had also unslung her assault rifle. Few travellers along this stretch of the coastline used vehicles of any type. Most travelled by foot or used beasts of burden. The reasons were varied, but when it came right down to it, the main reason is few possessed the ancient vehicles. The second reason was the rugged terrain was typically too hard for ancient vehicles to bypass without risk of serious damage. They were often too precious to risk on such a trail.

“Do you see anything?” Tara called out.

“No, but we better get off the trail and into the brush. I have a bad feeling about this.”

Despite their incredible size, Zeus and the other horses moved across the ruined highway with ease, stepping assuredly and never loosing traction or falling. It was amazing how the animals could move over almost any type of rugged ground without falling or breaking a limb. The mutant horses moved with a grace which put their ancient ancestors to shame. In seconds the small group was moving deep into the thick undergrowth, the green and brown of the forest engulfing them as they moved.

They did not have long to wait. With each passing second the sound of the approaching vehicles grew in volume. The community had several of the ancient pre-fall vehicles, which they carefully maintained and used only on the rare occasion. Ra’naa had only ridden in them a handful of times over her life, so even seeing one of the vehicles was an unexpected treat.

She was certain the first vehicle was a large pickup truck, but it was difficult to be certain. The vehicle had been heavily modified – mainly having plates of armor being attached to protect it and the crew. The bed had been enclosed by metal-alloy plates and there was a machine-gun mounted on a turret on the top. A single figure, dressed in black combat armor, rode on top. He gripped the weapon firmly and scanned the terrain as the vehicle passed.

Ra’naa did not know the model of the weapon but she knew it was deadly. The truck was painted all black and there were no visible decorations or symbols visible. From the brief glance she had of the rumbling, clattering vehicle, she could see three men sitting in the cab. The second vehicle in line was another pickup, as heavily armoured, but this one lacked a machine-gun turret.

The third vehicle was completely different. It was not a truck – instead it appeared as if it had been transported through time. It was a beautiful, all white hovercar. The sunlight gleamed off the polished surface and she figured if she was close enough to look, she would see her own reflection. Someone loved the vehicle and took great pains to ensure it was properly maintained. She did not want to think of the man-hours required to keep such a vehicle up and running, not in this world.

The fourth and last vehicles in the convoy were a flat-bed truck and another car. The truck was the only one which appeared to be unarmoured, and she was curious as to what its purpose was.

As it passed, she noticed something particularly odd about the rear of the vehicle. Ra’naa had seen her share of the created. Her father called them robots and occasionally used the term droids. Other people referred to them as living metal or artificial life. She preferred the term created. 

The created – or robot, appeared as if it was part of the truck. If she had not been paying attention, she would have dismissed it as cargo or some sort of tool. The thought made her smile, as she believed the created was, in fact, a tool. It had a short, squat body, shaped like a barrel. A pair of multi-jointed arms hung loosely at its side, and in the brief look she had, she could see multiple ports located all across the torso. Finally there was an oval-shaped head, situated atop the torso, with multiple lenses – its eyes.

How curious.

The sound of the five passing vehicles was loud, louder than anything she had heard in the past. Every animal within hearing distance of the convoy had stopped in their tracks and stood perfectly still. Even the few insects, which had appeared after the long winter, were silent.

A few moments after the last of the ancient vehicles had passed their position, a powerful and exceedingly unpleasant odor wafted over their position. Otres instantly began to sneeze and cough and even the horses backed away nervously. Ra’naa was initially worried the fumes might be toxic or poisonous. Ra’naa dismissed the thought as she remembered the same stench the vehicles they used at the compound produced. The fumes could be toxic, but only if constantly inhaled over time. This brief exposure, however unpleasant, would not harm them.

Still, the chemical fugue was something she did not wish to encounter again.

Once the small convoy passed, the small group waited for several minutes. It made sense to remain in hiding, as there was a good chance the convoy may have had a straggler or a rear guard. After five minutes passed with no sign of further vehicles, they believed they were in the clear.

Tara stood and reached out, offering her hand to Ra’naa, who took it and climbed to her feet. They stood in the leafy undergrowth and stared up the trail towards the crash-site. Thankfully, there were at least two curves in the ancient highway. Unless the convoy had sent scouts back along the trail, the odds of their discovery were remote.

“Do we follow them or do we return to the community?” Tara asked. Her feline features were unreadable, but Ra’naa knew her friend well enough to see the curiosity brimming in her slanted eyes.

“We should get home,” she answered after a long pause. Her tail swished and thumped on the ground, conveying her indecision as she chewed on her lower lip. Ra’naa wanted to see what the strangers were up to, but she feared them. They could be simple scavengers from one of the many companies which had sprung up over the centuries. Such a find of pre-fall technology would be worth a great deal of gold and precious metals to the right buyer.

She was not so sure however. The immaculate hovercar did not sit well with her. It was like a splinter in her mind, wriggling and burrowing, begging to worked at until it was finally out, revealing hidden secrets. 

“Maybe they’re just scavengers, from one of the local bands,” Tara mused and shrugged. “They could be harmless, just after the scraps.”

It was scary how often the tiger-woman shared Ra’naa’s thoughts. She opened her mouth to reply and then realization hit her like a slap to the face. She reeled back at the sudden epiphany. “They’re not scavengers,” she said slowly. “They’re Purists.”

Even Otres looked at her skeptically, although a shiver ran through his little body. Tara tilted her head to one side and her tail twitched rapidly. “How can you be sure?”

“Something one of the traders told us before the first-frost last fall,” Ra’naa said, gesturing with one hand towards the distant community. “Some of the survivors of the raids and attacks said that they had seen a pre-fall white hovercar, like the one that had just passed.”

The one aspect of the Purists everyone knew was the technology they used. It was said the soldiers carried slug-throwers and military grade firearms. That was bad enough, since most of the tribes, Damaged and other mutants used melee weapons, bows and crossbows or primitive firearms. Going up against pre-fall military-grade weaponry was almost laughable in comparison.

To make matters worse, the Purists had in their possession many pre-fall vehicles, and body armor. The technological edge was heavily skewed against the tribals, as these Purists weapons could easily penetrate the leathers and furs worn by their foes. Their weapons, even the rebuilt firearms, rarely could even scratch, let alone penetrate the body armor worn by the Purists soldiers.

The most terrifying rumor passed onto them was these Purists also used Powered Armor. This armor was so rare as to be considered mythical or the stuff of legends. Each attack was led by a single figure wearing this mythical armor and rode in a pure white hovercar.

Tara snapped her fingers before Ra’naa’s eyes. “Wake up,” she said sarcastically. “We lost you there for a moment.

Ra’naa felt irritation at the flippant gesture and remark, but she pushed her feeling aside. She reached up with one hand and brushed an errant strand of her blond hair out of her eyes and then related what she had been thinking about.

So you think the presence of that white hovercar means the group belongs to the Purists? Otres asked. He had his arms crossed and was standing, staring up at his two Exotic companions.

“Yes, I believe so. I think you and Tara should return to the community. I want you to take the horses and travel through the forest and stay away from the trail. You will be caught out after the sun sets, but there is not much we can do about that. Zeus knows these woods and should keep you three out of harm’s way.”

“And what do you think you’re going to do?” Tara asked. She also crossed her arms under her rather ample breasts. She frowned to the point of almost snarling as her whiskers twitched in perfect synchronicity with her tail.  

For all intent, she was the daughter of the leader of the community, and as such she had much more leeway in her actions and choices. Some thought it made her act like a spoiled and privileged child. Sometimes she agreed with their assessment of her, other times she did not. In this instance, she was far stealthier than her buxom friend, and could remain hidden from sight. With the shadows growing longer and the thick foliage surrounding the undergrowth, spotting her would take luck or serious technology.

Ra’naa put her hands on her hips and stared defiantly at her friend. “I’m going to scout and gather as much as I can on our uninvited guests,” she nearly shouted. “While you and Otres will take our newfound friend back to the community.”

Tara closed the distance until they were nearly nose to nose. Both women’s tails were swishing madly, showing their agitation and mutual anger. “Like hell I will. You need me to watch your back,” she retorted and lifted one hand to poke her between the breasts. “And besides, if anything happened to you, your father would kill me, and I’d never forgive myself!”

Otres stepped between the two arguing woman and placed one hand on each of them. He was not strong, and pushing them apart would be nearly impossible for him. Still, his intention had the effect he was hoping for. Both women separated but continued to glare.

Either we all go or we all stay.  He thought. I don’t wish to travel the woods alone, and as quiet as you can be, he looked up at Ra’naa with his big brown eyes. You sound like a herd of stampeding Elk compared to me. His whiskers twitched in amusement and he chittered what sounded like a laugh.

“Fine,” Ra’naa backed off, appearing to deflate. “I don’t like this but I guess, no matter what I do, I’m stuck with the two of you.”

“Damn straight, sister,” Tara nodded triumphantly.”

Ra’naa looked at the horses and the unconscious pilot. She picked her way through the thick undergrowth and stood next to Zeus. The mutant horse lowered his head and stared at her, waiting for her to speak. She reached up and stroked his long nose and giggled as his pink tongue flicked out and licked at her hand and arm.

“If anything happens to us, I want you to go back to the community. Make sure the pilot,” she indicated the man - “gets back to my dad. He will know what to do.”

Zeus nickered and his head bobbed up and down several times. He stopped and lowered his head once more and stared her in the eye. She could nearly read his thoughts and knew he was telling her to be careful, and to not to get hurt or worse.

“Trust me, we will be fine,” she spoke gently.

“Famous last words,” Tara muttered darkly.

***

Bradly Travis grew more and more nervous the closer he and his convoy got to the crash site, and that irritated him to no end. He tried to analyze why he was feeling as if he was driving towards his death, or the death of someone he cared about. It really made no sense. Could it be the underlying fear the very thought of the resort instilled upon him?  He had studied the ship in depth he and his men had been sent to locate. Thanks to his Mercedes AI, he had been able to upload the statistics and imagery of the fighter to his armors internal system.

Studying the ship had helped, but he still could not shake the feeling.

The resort. Before the final wars it had been a high-end luxury escape for the rich and famous of the ancient era. He knew the history of the place and had even seen videos taken during the ancient times. It amused him to think the ancients had gone out of their way to make a video series about the location. To his opinion, it was tacky as hell. The videos were all about the rich and famous cheating on their spouses, getting caught and dealing with the inevitable divorces. The sappy romances were bad enough, but what was far worse than that were the occasional murder or theft that had occurred. The crap the ancients found entertaining never ceased to amaze him.

Knowing there was a chance his squad might encounter the undead denizens of the place filled him with a sense of dread. As he visualized the creatures in his mind’s eye, his hand strayed to the pistol strapped to the outside of his power armor. It was a heavy duty military grade EMP pistol, more of a carbine than an actual handgun. The EM-22A7 had a selective fire rate of single shot to fully automatic. It was one of the higher quality weapons manufactured before the final wars and had been lovingly maintained by the armorers living in the compound. The weight of the weapon reassured him, at least somewhat.

Again his mind drifted back as they approached the site of the crash. During the final wars, several weapons of mass destruction had been targeted against the cities Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle. Most had been nuclear or anti-matter in nature, but one weapon had been a nanotech terror weapon. He and many of his fellow commanders had spent many hours speculating why the weapon had been deployed. More to the point, they argued about which of the cities had been its original target.

Considering how many nukes and anti-matter weapons had been used against Seattle and Vancouver, they finally agreed it had to have been originally targeted upon Victoria. In a way, it made sense. The enemy which had deployed the weapon wanted to inflict as much terror as possible upon the city and the surrounding environs. At the same time the enemy did not want the infection to spread out of control. Sure, the undead were extremely vulnerable to EMP and energy, but that did not help if the entire continent became infected.

Why the weapon had not detonated in Victoria was up to speculation. It was quite possible the missile had been damaged upon re-entry by defensive laser batteries. These weapons were still existed, although most had been destroyed during the final wars. Many of the facilities had been built into the mountains. This had the advantage that they could be retracted into their granite homes, protecting them from all but deep-penetrating bunker-busters.

As far as Bradly knew, a few were still functional, waiting for commands from long-dead commanders. These facilities were on the Purists ‘to do’ list. Capturing the facilities would be very costly, due to the AI and robotic defenses many still possessed.

He shook his head and brought his mind back to his original train of thought. All anyone knew for certain was the missile was carrying a payload of undead nanotechnology veered off its programmed trajectory. It smashed into the island housing the resort, where the nanites were released to infect those unlucky enough to be on the island. As luck would have it, the inhabitants comprised the rich and famous who had retreated to the resort to wait out the war.

Somehow footage of the unbelievable horror managed to get off the island. This footage found its way into the compound’s archive. There were five different types of nanotech undead known to exist on the island. The regular Zombies, Floating Torsos, Bloody Skeletons, Banshee’s and finally the Bone Dervishes. Thankfully all types were vulnerable to salt-water and as such were confined to the island itself.

As a younger man, he had taken a squad to the island, without his father’s knowledge. The hotel on the island was rumoured to contain the uncounted wealth brought by the men and women who had fled there to wait out the war. Gold, precious metals and gemstones, artwork and even technological artifacts were said to be stored inside the resort’s massive vault, deep beneath the structure.

It had been his intention to make his father proud. He and his squad were heavily armed with energy weapons, especially EMP devices and he had the confidence only the young possessed. Bradly had fully believed it was to be a cake-walk and he would retrieve the lost wealth from the resort.

In the end, he was the only man to have escaped the island alive. All twelve men he had brought with him remain on the island to this day. Each man had succumbed to the nanotech, which saturated every part of the island. They had destroyed over a hundred of the undead, using the weapons they had brought with them. It had started out as easily as he had expected it would.     

The insidious nature of nanotechnology was it entered the body through the skin or through the act of breathing. Four of his men had stripped off their body-armour and clothing and began to rip the skin off their bones, turning into the Bloody Skeletons. Five more had become Zombies and three had just died. He had no idea what they would have become, and he was not ever interested in going back to find out.

Martin Travis had been livid when Bradly returned. His rash actions had cost twelve experienced men and his father had nearly killed him, the beating he inflicted had been so bad. Bradly took it without even trying to defend himself. In some ways he had wished his father had actually killed him. He could never forgive himself for what had transpired that fateful day. He wished he would have listened to his father and had never gone to the island.

Someday in the future, once they had enough powered armor, they would return. The only way they could take the island and retrieve the wealth lost there would be to go in fully encased. The suits had to be utterly invulnerable to breaches; otherwise the very air would infect and kill them.

“Sir, we’ve arrived at the destination,” one of his men reported over the radio. It snapped him out of his musing and he sat up straighter in his seat. The sun was beginning to set and the beach was bathed in a reddish glow. He could see the swath of destruction caused by the impact of the ship, as well as the wreckage strewn around. Thankfully the ground and trees were still damp enough the crash had not started a forest-fire.

He ordered the Mercedes’ AI to bring the car to a halt. When the gull-wing door opened, he had his faceplate down and secured and he stepped out from the vehicle. His men were already spread out in a defensive formation as he unslung his EM-22A7 and flicked off the safety.

“Check to see if the pilot survived,” he ordered and then turned to two of the nearest men. “Head down to the beach and set up a perimeter. Kill anything that moves. This find is ours and I have no intention of sharing it with anyone.”

A chorus of ‘sir’ and ‘yes sir’ reached his ears. He was pleased as his men spread out, moving with practiced ease and confidence. Several went straight for the wreckage, while others set up a defensive perimeter. The two he ordered moved for the beach, their weapons held at the ready, fingers exerting the tiniest amounts of pressure on the triggers.

Bradly kept his faceplate down and tried to stamp out the butterflies filling his stomach. He had no idea why he felt so nervous, and it continued to bother him. Once they recovered the wreckage and returned to the compound, he would have to meditate and try to pinpoint the cause of his anxiety. 

With the causal assurance his men expected of him, he sauntered over to the swath of destruction cut into the trees and undergrowth. Everywhere he looked he could see chunks of metal and other unidentifiable bits of debris. Seeing the results of the crash, he highly doubted the pilot would have survived the impact.

His men were moving slowly and with purpose. They kept their weapons up and ready, while their eyes scanned every shadow, every leaf and fern for signs of movement or possible hostiles.

The trip up to the main body of the destroyed craft took longer than he had expected. The terrain was rough and hampered easy movement. He and his men had to be careful of stepping on a hidden shard or pocket of burning undergrowth. Though all visible fires were out, here and there smoke was still wafting up from the ground.

After what he could have sworn was several hours of gruelling travel – although only a handful of minutes had passed, they reached the wreck. He did not need to be a trained medical doctor to see if the pilot had been in the craft when it hit, the pilot would have not survived. The nose of the fighter had compacted horribly as it hit the side of the hill. Portions of the ship had been flung out in all directions, as if by a gargantuan baby in the midst of a temper-tantrum.

He approached the remains of the fuselage and tried to figure out where the cockpit would have been located. After a few seconds of study, he found the section of the craft and knelt to study it more closely. Bradly reached up and rubbed the chin of his helmet. It was a habit he had tried to rid himself of for years. Try as he might, he never seemed to be able to.

He figured he was looking at where the cockpit should have been. He leaned in and brushed aside some of the wreckage, burnt leaves and branches, exposing the wrecked cockpit. Other than a tangle of melted wires and shattered instrumentation, there was no sign of the pilot or seat.

He stood and brushed his knees, though the suit automatically repelled dirt. “Could it have been controlled by an AI?” He pondered aloud. He shook his head. Not likely.

“Sir!” A man called from behind him, “We’ve found something!”

He turned and regarded the speaker. “What is it?”

“Bunch of Deep Dwellers on the beach,” the man started.

Bradly held up his hand in a dismissive gesture. “I told you, kill anything that moves, especially if it’s something as genetically-unclean as those freaks.”

The man shook his head and did his best to hide an irritated scowl. “No sir, that’s not what I was concerned about. Someone beat us to the punch. They’re all dead, and have been so for maybe an hour or less. Someone had been here and shot the freaks.”

That tidbit of information grabbed hold of his attention like a rabid dog and refused to let go. “Say again?”

The soldier barely managed to supress an eye-roll as he repeated himself.

“How many?”

“We’ve counted eight dead.”

Bradly mulled over the ramifications. It was possible they had scared away scavengers, who had encountered the freaks and killed them. “Get the hauler up here and load as much of this ship as you can. I want to trucks to hit the road, one North, the other South. See if you can find any evidence of whoever killed the freaks.”

“Right away sir!” The soldier saluted and made to turn and head back to the convoy.

“Hold up, soldier,” Bradly barked, growing annoyed since he had not dismissed the man, and he did not like the soldiers attitude.

The man stopped and faced him. “Sir?”

“Get whoever is best at tracking to see if they can find a trail,” he said. “If you find anything let me know. Otherwise have the men split up into twos and have them scour the woods. Maybe we will get lucky and find something other than wreckage.”

“Right away, sir!” The man saluted and when he turned to carry out the orders, Bradly did not stop him.

He continued to study the wreck before him when suddenly he smacked his forehead with one gauntleted hand. Bradly silently cursed his lack of forethought as brought up the schematics of the ship on his armor’s HUD. It took him only seconds to see what he had missed. There was no seat in the ship, nor was the canopy anywhere to be found because the pilot had ejected!

Elated by his sudden epiphany, he quickly returned to the ruined highway. Already the wrecker they had brought was slowly trudging its way up the slope. Several technicians and their guards were picking up chunks of debris and tossing them onto the flatbed truck. The robot had come to life and was grabbing each chunk of wreckage with its arms, attractor beam and a series of metallic tentacles. It had removed many covered panels from the floor of the flat-bed and was quickly storing the pieces away.

He knew they could not recover everything, but they would get what they could. Why leave possible resources for the scavengers or genetic freaks to possibly use?

When he reached the highway, another soldier ran over to him, his face flushed with excitement. “Sir, we found tracks!”

That news pleased Bradly, but he kept his tone neutral. “Where?”

“On the trail,” the solider said. “We looked around and found they lead south. Whoever it was, they were using those big freakish horses.”

“Damaged or mutant’s for sure then,” Bradly frowned. Only the mutants dared to use the mutant horses they had dubbed ‘Brutes’. His father had others in the community attempt to tame the beasts. They knew the creatures were excellent draft animals and their enhanced intelligence was a bonus. No matter how many they captured or tried to break, in the end they were forced to put the beasts down. The animals would never bend to their will and almost had an instinctual hatred for his people. Bradly knew the mutants and other genetically inferior beings in the wastelands used them with little or no difficulty.

And that really pissed him off.

“Yes sir, that’s what we figured. Should we pursue?” He paused for only a fraction of a second and continued. “What about the scout you sent north?”

Bradly was about to shake his head in the negative, but quickly dismissed the though. What harm was it to send one vehicle to scout ahead? Maybe they would get lucky and find more signs of the beasts and the riders. “Yes, send another truck and several men, and get on the horn and call the other truck…” He was hit by a sudden thought. “No, belay that order. These genetically inferior freaks can be cunning, and they might have circled around and are heading north. The tracks could be a ruse.”

The soldier looked skeptical, but reluctantly he nodded. He was of the mindset the Damaged and other mutants were far less intelligent. Unlike those who were not touched by the fickle hand of radiation, mutagenic and toxins - in other words, pure humans. “Yes sir, although I think you give the freaks too much credit for intelligence.”

“Even animals have a certain instinctual cunning,” Bradly observed dryly. “We’ve been surprised by the freaks more than once.”

“True enough, sir,” the soldier agreed. He then left to carry out Bradly’s orders.

***

Tara, Ra’naa and Otres used the foliage to cover them from casual viewing. The undergrowth was so thick in this section of the coastline someone would have to know where to look to find you. They watched as the men of the hated Purists began to gather up the debris of the downed fighter.

Ra’naa felt a shiver of cold dread tingle her spine as one man, who had to be the commander, took a report from one of the soldiers. She figured the man had to be in charge because unlike the rest of the men, he was dressed in a suit of powered armor. The way the soldier speaking to him was gesturing towards the trail, she realized they must have found the tracks.

“This does not look good,” Tara breathed out so quietly if Ra’naa had not been listening she would have missed the woman’s words.

“No, and I’m willing to bet they found our tracks,” Ra’naa agreed. “And probably the bodies of the Deep Dwellers.”

“We should have tossed them into the ocean,” Tara shook her head.

“Wouldn’t have mattered, most likely the corpses would have washed back up on shore in a matter of hours anyhow.”

They lay on their bellies watching as the soldier saluted and left the commander. The armored figure stood and watched - both hands on his hips. Ra’naa was curious to see what the man looked like under the armor. She figured he probably was as ugly as the day was long. No one with as much hatred in their heart and soul could not be easy on the eyes.

Had Mother Rathbourne seen what was going to happen? Is that why she sent the EMP pistol and the rounds for the rifle? Ra’naa did not know, and she would not know until she had a chance to speak to the old mutant. Knowing she would probably need them, she popped the magazine from her rifle and ejected the round which had been chambered. She quickly peeled off the first three rounds and replaced them with the EMP rounds Tara had brought with her.

“Hey, where’s Otres?” Tara hissed between her teeth.

Ra’naa started and nearly jumped to her feet. Sure enough, the little Uplifted Otter was nowhere to be seen. She cursed softly and closed her eyes.

***

Otres slinked through the undergrowth, scarcely disturbing even a leaf or Fern frond as he moved. By the time Tara and Ra’naa discovered he was gone, he had snuck his way up to the immaculate Mercedes. Taking a quick look around to ensure he had not been spotted, he slipped beneath the ancient legacy of a long-dead people. There was more than enough room for him and in seconds he was beneath the magnificent machine. He could not help let his eyes roam over the complex piece of technology as mulled over his next action.

As soon as he had seen the Purists and their convoy of rarely seen ancient vehicles, Otres knew there a battle was coming. He was feeling mixed emotions. Otres did not deny he useless in a straight up, knuckle dusting, all-out fight, and the knowledge burned a hole in his heart. At the same time, little uplift wished he could do something more than hide. It made him feel like a coward. He knew instinctively his friends would start the killing, and soon. Blood would flow this evening, and it would feed the hungry soil. New life would spring where each drop fell, and he hoped none would be from his two companions.

It took only a few seconds before he knew just what to do. His whiskers twitched and he rubbed at them with one hand-like paw. If the action would not have drawn so much attention, he would have squeaked in laughter. Carefully Otres reached up and grabbed hold of a handful of heavily reinforced cables. The metal felt cool and smooth in his paw and for only a heartbeat he marvelled at the sensation.

He closed his brown eyes concentrated for only a few seconds. The air around his paw shimmered and he felt the familiar sensation of pins and needles run through his limbs. Time began to flow faster and faster, seconds turning into months and in only a minute, the wires aged as if they had been used for over a century.  He felt the material soften and fray at the edges, and there was an acrid stench as a few wisps of smoke curled up from the wire.  A spark flew from the cable and he knew it would not take long before it would break apart and stop the vehicle in its tracks.

Otres waited and listened for several long seconds and rolled over on his stomach. He watched as numerous pairs of booted feet ran this way and that. The sight nearly caused him to chitter with laughter. The humans were always on the move, running here and there. They would be so much happier if they slowed down and took time to enjoy the simpler pleasures in life. 

After nearly a full minute passed, he crept out from beneath the vehicle and took in his surroundings. There were still plenty of the Purists, but no one was looking his way. He decided to take full advantage of their inattention. With the deftness only his kind possessed, he raced from the Mercedes to the nearest of the trucks. He slid under the chassis just as a pair of soldiers walked over the spot he had occupied only seconds before.

He understood the primitive vehicles much more than the high-tech machines like the hover car, so it took him no time at all to disable the vehicle. They would not be getting far with a rusted and ceased drive-train, that’s for sure.

The wait for him to leave his hiding spot was a lot longer this time. He carefully peered around the wheel of the now-disabled truck and watched as a group of the Purists approached the truck nearest him. They stowed their weapons and gear and finally climbed in. The ancient beast of a vehicle coughed and growled and at last started up, spewing a cloud of bluish-grey smoke out of its exhaust system. Otres carefully pinpointed where the rest of the guards were stationed and when the truck began to rumble forward, he dashed across the ground. He was careful to use the grass and foliage to hide his presence.

Just as he slid beneath the remaining truck, he heard a shout of dismay. “Hey, what the fuck was that?”

He nearly squeaked in dismay as he realized he had been spotted.

***

“Shit,” Tara cursed as the cry echoed around them.

Ra’naa had to agree with her colorful assessment of the situation. It took her and Tara several long minutes before they finally spotted their little companion. She was both very angry and pleased he had taken the time to do what he could to help them. Though she did not know it at the time, she finally admitted to herself they would do what they could to dissuade the Purists. Ra’naa half chuckled and she shook her head.

Tara glared at her. “This is no time to be laughing,” She crouched and readied her assault rifle. She double-checked to guarantee the weapon’s safety was off and a round was chambered.

As was her habit, Ra’naa removed the magazine to the rifle and quickly checked to make sure it was fully loaded, even though she had only a few minutes before swapped out the rounds. She slapped the magazine home and then lay on the ground. Ra’naa slipped the protective cover off the scope and put the red-dot on the chest of the man in the powered armor. All this occurred in the space of two heartbeats.

“It’s nothing, just thinking, that’s all,” she smiled and took a breath. She blew half of it out and then stroked the trigger.

The weapon’s thundering boom caused every bird within a four kilometer radius to take flight.

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.