Buck Who? Chapter 8

Chris Van Deelen

Chapter 8: Welcome to our world

April, 23rd  2668, The Community

Tara took out a tube of a flesh-colored gel and poured it into the ugly slash on Ra’naa’s arm. The tube was an ancient medicine, one whose sole purpose was to seal cuts, and stop the bleeding. The gel also contained a mixture of powerful antibiotics and a healing agent, which not only numbed the pain but encouraged the cells to regenerate. Ra’naa sighed in relief as Tara gently rubbed it into the wound.

“Can you walk?” Tara asked as she wrapped a clean roll of gauss around the now-sealed slash. The bandage instantly began to turn red as it soaked up Ra’naa’s spilled life-blood, but she was not in immediate danger. The gel sealed the wound and there was no threat of her losing any more.

Ra’naa smiled, feeling much better. “The question is - can we run?” Her voice was raspy and low. That was always the problem whenever she spit acid at someone or something. She was almost immune to the effects, but regurgitating so much stomach acid always had a detrimental effect on her voice. It would wear off in a few hours though and she would be able to speak normally.

The trio took off running. Ra’naa knew they lost time as Tara applied the gel, but that could not be helped. The slash from the Purist’s knife would have proven to be a major hindrance, and they had no choice but to treat it. If they had not, Ra’naa would not have made a kilometer. Blood-loss and shock dropped her into a well of darkness from which she may never have returned.

They ran for nearly a full hour, going deeper and deeper into the dark-green majesty of the temperate rain-forest. Animals of all manner skittered and hid, some stood boldly and scolded them as they crashed through the underbrush, making a hellish racket. When the trio finally slowed down, there was no sign of pursuit.

Suddenly, Otres stiffened and held up one paw, motioning the two women to stop. They obeyed and each raised the weapons they were carrying. Ra’naa had her sniper rifle, but it was slung across her back and would be all but useless in close-quarters combat. Still, she had her handgun and in a flash, it was in her hand.

There was the sound of a huge creature, or creatures, coming towards them. With the darkening sky and the little light which could make it through the green canopy overhead, it was almost as dark as night where they were.

Then they all heard a familiar whinny and instantly, Ra’naa relaxed. “It’s Zeus and the others.”

Sure enough, less than a minute later the brute of a horse led the other two through the heavy underbrush. It was a quick and simple reunion, with the horses coming up to meet them, heads lowered and their eyes shining with recognition and pleasure. Zeus’s big eyes narrowed when he caught the coppery scent of her spilled blood. His head bobbed up and down and he grunted in dismay, and then followed his nose until it was just barley touching the bandaged arm. He sniffed at it and then lifted his head to stare into Ra’naa’s eyes.

She stroked his soft nose as she spoke. “I’m alright, one of the bastards managed to cut me, but I’ll be okay once we return home.” Reunited with their mounts and the stranger from the sky, they began the long trek back home.

She had to admit she was feeling much better. The pain was but a distant tingling-twinge - not exactly pleasant, but far from painful. Ra’naa knew it was her imagination, but could have sworn she felt the very cells going into over-drive. Her body, bolstered by the medicine, began to repair the damage inflicted by the Purist’s blade.

The pilot was still unconscious and gave no sign he would be waking anytime soon. Ra’naa did not know what to make of that, and the three of them discussed the ramifications of his state. As they talked, the sun slid lower and lower into the Pacific Ocean, until all that remained was a hint of light on the far horizon. It was as if someone had flicked a switch, because as soon as the sun disappeared, the temperature seemed to plummet. In only minutes they could see their breath, misting out as they breathed and spoke.

By the time Ra’naa and her companions reached the entrance to the hidden community, night had fallen and the temperature had dropped to just above freezing. Although it did not appear as if the jacket the young Exotic was wearing would keep her warm, its pre-fall material retained body-heat and helped the woman remain comfortable. If Otres or Tara were cold, they gave no indication.

Far above the sky remained cloud-free. It was unusual for this time of the year. More often than not the sky was overcast and it would be at least drizzling out, soaking the ground and making travel treacherous. The trio had to count their blessings for this minor favor from whatever gods watched over them.

The gates were already open and the watch had their weapons at the ready. The night forest was alive with all manner of creature, including many dangerous mutant predators. The various creatures had long ago learned to stay clear of the community, least they find themselves on the menu. The problem was that every spring, some young and inexperienced mutant monsters would figure the community would be a good place to hunt.

Few of the creatures ever escaped with their lives. The hides of those foolish enough to make the attempt would adorn the walls and gates, a clear warning to others of their kind what lay inside.

As soon as they passed through the gates, one of the guards, a pure human male, came up and waved his hands for the trio to stop. He was an average man. Height, weight, even his looks were unremarkable. He could effectively disappear into a crowd and remain un-noticed.

“Ra’naa, your father is waiting for you in the lodge,” he said without preamble. Even his voice was bland and average.

It took her a second to remember his name. “Thanks, Conrad.” She beamed a smile at him. He was one of the many humans who lived in the walls of the community, and his bloodline had been part of the community since its inception. Though she had grown up with him and liked him well enough, often it was difficult to remember his face or even his name.

Conrad touched the brim of his cowboy hat and stepped aside.

Zeus continued to lead the way, but instead of going for the stables and the promised oats and treats, he went straight for the large pre-fall building. The structure started out as a rich-man’s hunting lodge before the fall. The building had long since changed uses over the centuries and was currently used as the community’s seat of government.

Ra’naa slid from Zeus’s back and patted the horse on his muscular flank. “Go back to the stable; I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Zeus eyed her for only a few seconds, as if tasting her words, looking for the bitter flavor of a promise broken. She reached up and stroked his soft nose, letting her hand linger on it for nearly thirty seconds before finally moving it.

“A promise is a promise and after I see dad, you’ll get your treat.”

He whinnied and bobbed his head up and down, pawing at the dirt before him. Satisfied, he turned to find his way to the stable.

Tara watched him go and shook her head. Before she could comment, Ra’naa held up her hand to silence her friend. She knew exactly what the tiger-woman was going to say. Ra’naa was tired and feeling the effects of the day’s excitement, not to mention the healing wound on her arm. When it came down to it, she just did not want to deal with her friend.

“Mind taking our friend to the infirmary?” She asked, changing the subject before Tara could bring it up.

“Sure, I guess, but don’t you think your dad would like to see him first?”

“What’s the point?” Ra’naa said. Her eyes flicked over to the other brute and the unconscious man strapped to his back. She had to admit she was amazed the man had not woken during the hours they had spent in the forest. After all, the ride could have been anything but comfortable.

“I see,” Tara sighed dramatically. “I guess I’ll have to make do and get him settled.”

“Don’t go out of your way or anything,” Ra’naa countered dryly, a sardonic grin on her tired face.

The tiger-woman flipped her off and then lifted her hand to blow her a kiss. “See you later?”

Ra’naa rolled her eyes dramatically but relented with a smile. “See you later. I think I could use a nice, long soak after the day we have had.”

Otres, all but forgotten in the excitement of returning to the community, looked up and blinked his big, weary eyes. Water? You have a stream or pond here?

Tara twisted on the back of the brute and helped lower the little Uplift to the ground. “Better than that, we have full hot and cold running water, and the biggest pool you could ever wish for,” her smile showed her slightly elongated canines. She twitched her whiskers and her tail swished in excitement at the prospect of a long, luxurious bath. The day had been cool, but her body was still dirty and somewhat damp after being out on the trail the whole day.

Where is this pool?

Tara pointed to one of the buildings down the street. “Just follow me; we’re going to go right past it.”

With a wave goodbye, the little Otter chittered excitedly and bounded off after the brute carrying Tara.

A quiet, relaxed smile rested on Ra’naa’s young face as she watched her friends leave. Now they were home, she allowed her body and mind to relax and she began to take inventory of her aches and pains. The worst was the healing gash on her arm. The painkillers imbedded in the cool gel had recently worn off. She was pleased the pain was not as bad as she had expected it to be. It was part of the miracle of the gel they used. It was thick and had a strange odor, but it helped promote nearly miraculous healing. She figured when she got around to changing the bandage, there would be nothing more than a long angry scar. It would be the only evidence of the wound she had taken, and even the scar would fade in a matter of a few days.

With the sun having long since set, the streets were all but abandoned. Most people were inside their homes, finishing their evening meals and cleaning up before spending quality time with their families.

Ra’naa lifted her face towards the star encrusted night sky. It was rare at this time of year, to gaze up and not have the sight impeded by clouds. The sky was exceptionally bright, with a pale-blue glow effusing almost everything around her. The moon was swollen and hanging overhead, while the aurora borealis danced and wavered, adding its own beautiful glow.

She lifted the reigns and felt a twinge come from the wound on her arm. The young woman had to smile – the gel had worked wonders, so much so she had all but forgotten the damage. Instead of a sharp, nearly all encompassing burning sensation where the blade had neatly separated flesh and muscle, she felt was a dull sensation. It reminded her of when she slept on her arm and cut off circulation, it was numb.

Still, her jacket had been damaged and was covered in dried blood. It would not do for her to meet with her father. He was over-protective of her as it was. If he saw the jacket, he’d probably have a fit.

One of the perks of being the daughter of the communities leader is she had a cabin only a few doors away from the lodge. So stopping there to change her jacket and freshen up was not out of her way. 

Her father could wait a few more minutes. As it was, by now word had been spread from the guards and patrols that she was back, and Ra’naa knew her father would be relieved. Still, she did not want him to have to wait more than what was necessary.  

***

Max Ahteen sat and stared at the sheath of papers held. He had read the same line at least a dozen times in the past five minutes before finally giving up. Sighing, he tossed the sheath to land on the desktop. His hands free, he reached up and ran his fingertips around the base of his two horns, luxuriating in the sensation. A headache, caused by the tension the events of the day, threatened to overwhelm his senses. Needles of stress tore through his synapses, running jagged edges along each pathway, teasing them into misfiring.

At least, that’s how it looked to him. Max lowered his hands and rubbed his eyes before glancing at the ancient chrono strapped to his wrist. It was nearly nine in the evening and he had been waiting on pins and needles for his daughter to return. After the visions momma Rathbourne had earlier, he knew his baby would be fine, but still he would never stop worrying about her.

After all, it was his duty as a father to worry.

Feeling his tension ebb ever so slightly, he allowed his golden eyes to roam the room. Several lanterns were placed strategically around, the flickering glow adding a homey, comfortable feel to the place. One large window allowed the occupant a view of the town proper. It was crafted from a single piece of armaglass, and as such was nearly impenetrable. Considering the time, only the occasional patrol could be seen – otherwise the streets were barren.

The desk, a beautifully sculpted and perfectly fitted together series of driftwood logs had a smooth surface, polished so much it shone in the dim light. Although it was difficult to tell, with the scattering of paper, books and other paraphernalia scattered across, as if tossed by a playful wind.

When he returned his gaze to the armaglass window, he was delighted and relieved to see the figure of Ra’naa approaching. He knew she had arrived, safe and sound, only about twenty minutes ago, thanks to the guards.

She was moving quickly and her gaze never took in the office, situated on the second floor of the lodge. Max looked down to the corner of the table and saw a small plate, still piled high with sandwiches as well as several bottles of beer. The beverage was a specialty, which they had traded for earlier that week. It came all the way from across the Rocky Mountains and had been bottled in the former resort town of Banff.

He picked up two bottles and twisted the caps off each, and placed one on the other side of his desk. It was within easy reach of anyone sitting in the single, leather-bound chair, used for guests. The chair was one of the few original pieces that had come with the lodge, and it had been lovingly maintained and reupholstered many times over the centuries.

Sitting back in his chair, he pushed all thoughts of the trouble with the Purists as well as the petty squabbles of the community’s folks. His daughter had a story to tell and he was eager to hear it.

There was a light rapping on the door about a minute and a half later. It was a sound he heard many times over the years and he knew who it was. “Come in, Ra’naa.”

Every time he saw her it took his breath away. She was the spitting image of her mother -god rest her soul. She had the same facial features and the same almond-shaped eyes. He skin was not quite as dark as her mother’s had been, but she even possessed the same build. Max shoved the feelings of grief down into the dark recesses of his soul. The pain of her loss was still as fresh today as the day he had lost her.

“Hi, dad.” Ra’naa smiled as she walked into the room.

He got up from his chair and rounded the desk, his arms open and welcoming. Ra’naa rushed up to embrace her father and they stood there, hugging for nearly thirty seconds before he finally released her. “How was the expedition?”

“We talked Otres into coming back to the community with us,” she started.

“I know, I heard, well done. I want to know about the pilot,” he said. Max lead her over to the desk and pulled the seat out for her, as he had done so many times with her mother.

Ra’naa lifted her tail and pushed it through the convenient hole, which had been part of the seat’s original design. Comfortable, she leaned back and closed her eyes and breathed deeply. “It’s been a long, long day,” She said at last.

“Have a drink,” he pointed at the cold bottle sitting on the desk.

She grabbed it and took a long, slow swallow, enjoying the bitter taste of hops and the other ingredients. When she spied the sandwiches on the desktop, she raised one eyebrow. Her father waved a hand at the food and she dug in, eating hungrily. She had not realized how famished she had been until now.

Between bites, she explained how they had come across the wreckage of the fighter and the subsequent rescuing of the pilot from the Deep Dwellers. Max interrupted on the occasion to ask a question or for clarification of a point, but otherwise let her continue. By the time she got to the encounter with the Purists, the sandwiches were finished and they were both on their second beers.

“So, let me get this straight,” Max asked, his face a mask of concern. “You gave away your presence to the Purists so you could rescue Otres? After the little shithead snuck into their temporary encampment and got caught?” He placed his empty beer bottle on the desk and rubbed his eyes as he shook his head.

Ra’naa was feeling more than a little miffed. Otres was her friend. Hell, he was her father’s friend and yes, he did something really stupid. Was that any reason to let him die? Not in the least. Her consciousness would never have let anything happen to him. She acted, evil men died, and they escaped with their lives. “Yeah, dad, that pretty much sums it up in a nutshell.”

To her shock, Max’s face cracked into a wide smile. “That’s my girl,” he laughed. “I would have done exactly the same,” he confessed. “The difference is I would have stuck around and I would have killed all those racist bastards.”

She felt relief wash over her like a cooling wave of pure water. Over their conversation, tension had been building in her muscles and back. Ra’naa had believed her father would have been very angry with her. As it turns out, he was pleased. Deep down, Ra’naa desperately wanted her father’s approval, and she had just gained it.

Then again, she never did anything to cause him to be disappointed in her. She was a good daughter in that regard.

“I wish I would have killed the leader,” she said wistfully. “I hit him in the chest with one of the EMP rounds Tara brought me. I know he went down and I disabled his suit, but I didn’t get a chance to finish the job.”

Max mulled over her words, his eyes staring off into space. Like his daughter, he had a habit of caressing and rubbing his long horns as he pondered something. “This could cause serious problems,” he said after a full minute had passed. “It’s a shame you couldn’t have taken a prisoner. I would really have liked to have a chat with one of those assholes. The more we learn about them, the better we can deal with them.”

“Sorry, dad. I could have tried to take one prisoner, but we were in a real hurry to get away. Our initial attack took the bastards by surprise, but I don’t think we would have kept the advantage for long.”

“No,” Max shook his head and pushed away from the desk. He stood up and walked over to the big window, so he could look out over the street below. A large bat flitted by, its sonic echolocation causing the window to vibrate ever so slightly. “You made the right choice by running.”

Ra’naa stood up and walked over to stand next to her father. They did not speak for several minutes, each lost in thought. Anyone watching would have been amused to see their large tails moved in perfect synchronization. The spiked appendages moved gently swaying back and forth, almost as if in time to their heartbeats.

“I am just glad you weren’t hurt,” he said at last, looking down at his daughter.

“Um…”

Max’s eyes narrowed in concern. “You were hurt?”

She could never keep anything from her father. She nodded once, barely noticeable to anyone but her father.

He turned and faced her, concern evident on his masculine face. “Where? How?”

She lifted her arm and pulled down the sleeve. The wound she had sustained at the hands of the Purist was all but healed. All that remained to show she had been hurt was a long, red line.

Max gently took her arm in his rough, calloused hands and he inspected the remains of the wound. The flesh was a deep crimson, and the skin around the wound was slightly swollen and it was hot to the touch. Still she did not even flinch as he probed the nearly healed wound with his fingers. When he looked up, his eyes met hers and held them. “The gel?”

She nodded. “Yeah, I was glad Tara brought some with her.”

He sighed. “A knife did this, and from the angle and breadth, I’d say right to the bone?”

Ra’naa nodded. In truth, his prodding produced a deep, dull ache, and that was the extent of it.

“We better get you to the infirmary, let one of the medics take a look at it.”

“Dad, I’m fine. By the morning even this,” she held up her arm and ran her fingers down the red flesh, “will be gone.”

Max shook his head and smiled. She was her mother’s daughter, no doubt about it. She had the same stubborn streak, especially when it came to her health and welfare. “And I guess we can look in on the pilot while we’re there.”

“If he’s awake,” Ra’naa said.

He nodded. “If he’s awake,” he changed the subject. “Any idea where Otres went?”

She nodded. I’m sure Tara told him about the pool. I’ll stop in on the way and see if he’s there. I am pretty sure he too would like to meet the pilot.

“Sounds good to me,” he waved an arm at the door. “Shall we?”

She nodded and they left his office.

***

Though the streets were empty, Otres still felt nervous. He was not used to being around so many Humans, Exotics and Mutants. It had to be his ancestors genes that kept him nervous and cautious, a survival mechanism carried over despite his intellect and psionics.

He watched for only a handful of seconds as Tara and the pilot were carried away by the brutes. They were going to the community’s infirmary to make sure the man got help. Before they parted ways, Tara gave him directions to the building which housed the community's pool, hot-tubs and steam rooms. The pool and tubs were fed by underground natural hot-springs and provided luxury few in the post-apocalyptic world could enjoy.

The night was dark and the air was filled with the familiar scents of growing vegetation, animal spoor, and other less pleasant smells. Otres could easily make out the scent of fresh, clean water, which this close to the source easily overpowered the other odors.

It felt so strange to be standing in the open like this, Otres realized. He spent a few seconds to take in his surroundings and mentally marked the shadows and other natural cover he could use to hide. It was only the right course of action to take, after all, even if the community was to become his new home.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a single heartbeat. The cool and richly scented air helped calm his racing heart and ease the tension and fear he felt. When he opened his eyes he dropped to all fours and scampered over to the entrance. He had to stand on his hind legs to reach the door handle, and it turned easily in his paws.

Still feeling fearful and cautious, he opened the door a crack and peered into the structure. There was a small anteroom, where people could hang their coats and store their boots and footwear. A pair of doors led from this room into the interior.

No one was inside the small room. From what Otres could see, there were no coats on the hooks, nor were there any sort of footwear on the floor. He figured he had the building to himself.

Sure enough, the structure was empty. The first of the two doors opened to reveal another small room, filled with benches and a shelf built into the wall. It was divided into cubby-holes and Otres figured they were used to store the bathers clothing and personal belongings. A pair of enclosed toilets were located discretely to the side, which had doors to give the users a modicum of privacy. Another door was visible at the opposite end of the room, and he scampered across the semi-damp floor, his nose twitching as the scent of clean water grew stronger.

When he opened the door, he was very pleased to see the interior contained a huge pool, easily thirty meters to a side. The floor was covered with dirt and natural rock. Pathways were visible and there were plants everywhere. Grass grew alongside the pathways that led to the pool itself, and there were flowers and other large, leafy plants. The smell permuting the air was rich with life and moisture, and he instantly felt at home.

Otres was happy to discover whoever had designed the pool, did so to make it look as natural as possible. With a squeak of delight, he leapt into the water and dove as deep as he could. It bottomed out at about two meters, and the floor of the pool as constructed of concrete. It broke the illusion of it being a natural basin, but if he was honest with himself, he did not mind.

He swam and frolicked, enjoying the warm, clean water. He loved the Pacific, but it was filled with predators and all manner of debris and other material. Some of it was man-made, cast-offs from a long dead civilization. Some was the toxins and other materials left over from the final wars. He knew how to avoid those, but despite all of it, he still knew where to find un-touched locations to enjoy.

Diving to the bottom, he was pleased to discover at the far end of the pool, it dropped to nearly six meters in depth. Surfacing, he saw there was a long platform attached to the edge of the pool. With a curious chip, he slid out of the pool and inspected the platform. It was about three meters long and only a meter wide, and had a springy quality to it. He scampered up and around the platform, testing it with his weight.

Inspiration hit him. He scurried to the platform, and then ran towards the other end. Just before he hit the opposite end, the leapt into the air and brought his weight down on the very edge. As he suspected, it dipped and then propelled him high into the air, out over the pool. He squealed with delight as he hit the water like a furry torpedo.

When he broke the surface, he was startled to hear clapping and a soft laugh. It took Otres only a second to locate the source. Ra’naa was standing on the edge of the pool, a huge smile creasing her face. He noticed when she smiled like that; it made her look like a cub.

I like this place!

“I can see that, Otres. Are you glad you came with us?”

Very! Can I live in here? He projected to her. And it was I who originally wanted to join the community, just happened you wanted to ask at the same time.

Her face took on a slight look of concern. “I don’t know,” she confessed as she crossed her arms under her breasts. Her tail swished slightly, back and forth. “I’ll have to run it past dad first.”

Otres lay on his back and floated, looking up at her. His big brown eyes studying her face. Ah, I understand, this is a communal pool, everyone uses it.

She nodded and chewed on her lower lip, thinking. “Yeah, and I really don’t think anyone would mind if you stayed here, but we need to talk to dad first,” She glanced over her shoulder. “In fact, that’s why I am here, to see if you wanted to come with us. We’re going to talk to the pilot.”

He shot out of the pool and scampered up to her, leaving water covering the ground behind him. Of course! Shall we go?

She nodded and grinned. “I have an idea, if you’re interested.”

What is it?

They walked along the pathway to the exit. “Would you like to stay with me until we settle it with dad?”

They were almost at the door when he finally answered. I would like that. I’ve never spent time with anyone, but I believe I would enjoy sharing your home, at least for a little while.

“That settles it then.”

***

The trio entered the infirmary a few minutes later. They entered the reception area. It was small and comfortable, about four meters a side in diameter. There was a rustic desk sitting near the back wall, and several benches made out of logs were placed strategically around the room. A woman was seated behind the desk and she smiled when they entered. “Mr. Ahteen, we’ve been expecting you.”

“How’s the patient?” He asked, returning the woman’s smile.

“Asleep the last time I checked, although Tara just went to check in on him.”

Max nodded. “Anita, would you mind checking out Ra’naa’s arm?” He waved a hand at his daughter. “She was wounded earlier today, and she used the gel, but still…” he let the sentence trail off.

The woman stood from behind the desk. She was not quite as tall as Ra’naa or Max, being about thirty centimeters shorter. She walked with a visible limp, and when she reached out to take Ra’naa’s arm, she had only three long, multi-jointed fingers on each hand. She slid the sleeve up and examined the wound. After a few seconds, she smiled, showing perfectly white teeth. “I see no sign of infection, and it is almost fully healed. There is nothing else I can do for her.”

Ra’naa grinned crookedly at her father. “See dad? I told you it was nothing to worry about.”

A strange look came over his face but it was gone in a mere heartbeat. Ra’naa could not be certain, but it was almost a look of deep sorrow and longing. He sometimes got that way when he looked at her, or after she used a particular turn of phrase.

“Good,” he nodded politely. “Mind if we check in on our guest then?”

Anita nodded her affirmation. “Be my guest, but if he’s still asleep, leave him be, pleaes.”

“Agreed.”

***

Declan slowly became aware of his surroundings. Swimming out of the depths of unconsciousness seemed to take an eternity, and portions of his mind did not want to return to the waking world. It held too many horrors and bad memories for him and his soul wished to weep and return to the warm embrace of eternity.

A soft voice was always with him, whispering into his unconscious mind, promising love and acceptance. Something told him it was the same voice he had heard during his nearly endless nights of pleasure. Soft, tender and warm, the words caressed him and filled a hole in his heart and soul.  A sweet longing, which part of him wanted to return to the voice, to the memories. Another part of him only wished to return to her, to feel her soft, moist femininity wrapped around him and the promise of release. And another part of him only wanted to remain in the darkness. He knew everyone and everything he had ever know were long since dead, probably turned to radioactive ash.

And yet…

With a barely audible groan, he opened his eyes. He was lying flat on his back and for the first time in over three centuries, he felt… comfortable? He was warm, almost too warm in fact, and he could feel the softness of the blankets covering his body. Wherever he was, the room was dark, although a soft glow kept the worst of the shadow’s at bay. The light danced and flickered and the strange yet familiar odor of candlewax reached his nose.

He lay there, unmoving, for what felt like hours, but his internal clock registered only a few minutes had passed. “Where?”

“It’s about time you woke up, Doc.” Babs said into his mind. “You’ve been out of it for hours.”

“Babs?” He spoke aloud. “Do you have any idea where we are?”

“Sure, Doc. You might have been out of it, but I could still use your ears, although I wish I could have opened your eyes.” She mused. “We’re in a place called the community. Our rescuers were a couple of Exotics named Tara and Ra’naa and they have an Uplift with them named Otres.”

The image of the two strange but very attractive women came to his mind. He was a little embarrassed, as even through his terror and exhaustion, the first thing he noticed about both women were their curves.

Then there were the breasts on the tiger-woman. He began to imagine what he could do with those. His cheeks began to heat and he instantly fought down the images, instead replacing them with the horrors from the resort.

If Babs had noted the thoughts, she did not comment, although when she spoke to him, there was a barely detectable twinge of coldness. As he lay on the soft, warm bed, she filled him in on everything that happened while he was out of it.

“Wow, sounds like the world has totally gone to hell,” he mumbled and tested his strength by sitting up. It took more effort than he would have liked to admit. Declan felt as strong as a young boy, and that was embarrassing.

“You can say that again, Doc.” Babs quipped and sighed. “It’s all gone - everything we both knew. What are we going to do?”

He took a deep breath and blew it out his nose in a heavy, soul-weary sigh. Pulling off the covers he was startled to discover he was completely naked. Declan blinked and looked down at his slug-pale skin and a shudder ran through his whole body. “My god…”

“Sorry, Doc,” Babs said as sincerely as she could muster. “All that time in cryonic suspension, your banites had to cannibalize what they could to keep you from dying.”

He continued to stare down at his emaciated body. The muscle tone was completely gone. He could count his ribs and when he touched his belly, it reminded him of when he was but a boy. Declan felt like crying and as the hot tears burned the corner of his eyes, he wiped savagely at them.

Any trace of coldness was gone when Babs spoke to him. “Doc, it’s okay. You’re alive and it’ll take a few meals, but you’re going to be as good as new in no time.”

“I’m not crying!” He hissed and stood up. He felt even weaker but determination flooded his mind. He was not going to show it, not to himself, not to Babs, and certainly not to the people who had rescued him.

In the dimness of the candlelight, he could see he was inside a small room, maybe three meters to a side. His bed was huge, a queen or bigger and it took up most of the room. There was a small rustic nightstand beside the bed, and another one located near the door. There was a mirror on the wall to the right of the single door, but he did not look into it. He really did not want to see his face. On the opposite wall to the nightstand, there was a small closet.

Walking slowly across the roughshod wooden floor, he reached out and opened the closet. Inside there was a pair of old jeans and a white shirt, but nothing else.

“Where the hell is my suit?” He wondered aloud. “Babs, did you hear what they did with it?”  He reached out and grabbed the jeans and shirt and tossed them on the bed.

“After the woman Tara brought you in and handed you over to a couple of…” If she had been a real woman, she would have bitten her lips and her forehead would have furrowed as she thought. “I guess we could call them medics, or maybe nurses and that was the end of it. She never told them about your flight suit or anything else.”

He scanned the closet and ran his hand over the small shelf. He blew out his cheeks in frustration. At the very least he had hoped his handgun would still be present, but there was no sign of it.

“Maybe they kept it to clean and oil?” Babs offered helpfully.

“I doubt that,” he considered his predicament and ran his hand over his chin. There was the scratchiness of stubble and it bothered him. During his time as a pilot, he shaved every single morning, even when he was not on duty.

As he was returning to the bed, the door opened, spilling bright light into the darkened room. He threw his hand up to shield his eyes and heard a sharp intake of breath.

“You shouldn’t be out of bed,” a feminine voice chided and soft footfalls reached him.  He noticed a very distinct accent in her voice. It was impossible to place, but if he had to guess, it was a mixture between the Asian dialects and that of the people who called the prairies their home. It did not really come as a surprise thought, after three hundred years he was glad they still spoke English.

Almost as an afterthought, he dropped his other hand to cover his member, although it was not adequate for the task. He was thankful this was not a case of morning wood. That would have been almost too much to take. “Sorry,” he mumbled just as the woman reached him. His eyes had re-adjusted to the light and he saw it was the same tiger Exotic he had first met. “Tara?”

Her hands were warm and soft as she took him by the wrist and elbow. She was starting to lead him back to the bed when she paused in mid-step. “How do you know my name?”

He shrugged. “Heard your friend call you that when you were killing those monsters on the beach.” Suddenly Declan felt weak and hungry. He staggered when he tried to take a step. “Shit, this is not good.”

Tara, still supporting him, shifted her position so she could drape the arm over her shoulder. She pulled him in tight and helped him over to the bed. He was very aware of her heat and smell, a strange mixture of soap and sweat, which clung to her thin dress. And there was the fur, so soft he could imagine running his hands up and down it, feeling the silky softness between his fingers.

She carefully sat him on the edge of the bed and then knelt before him. Tara leaned forward and grabbed both his legs, her face tantalizingly close to his crotch. His eyes drifted down in time to see her dress had fallen open to reveal her large and beautifully-shaped breasts, hanging there. The urge to reach out and caress them was nearly overpowering.

Tara lifted his legs half-way up from the floor when she realized he was staring. In a tone that was almost mocking, she half-smiled, showing sharp teeth. “Like what you see?”

 Not trusting his voice and already feeling the blood shifting in his body, he swallowed and nodded. How the hell could he be thinking of sex at a time like this? He wondered as Bab’s began to laugh in his thoughts. “You always have pussy on your mind,” she paused and then laughed even harder. “You just hit the jackpot with this one, doc!”

It took a supreme effort of will to get his vocal cords to respond to his command. “Yes, but what I really would like is something to eat, and drink.” He lifted his legs under his own power and scooted under the cover to hide is rapidly growing erection. It took a little bit of adjusting but he managed to hide the tell-tale bulge.

She continued to stare at him for several eternities, her green eyes narrowing slightly as she ran her tongue over her full lips. She stood slowly, not bothering to adjust her dress, which had slide enough to uncover her right breast completely. “What’s your name?” She asked in a deep, husky voice.

“Shard,” he answered. How he wanted to reach out and grab the exposed breast, how he longed to feel the soft fur beneath his palm. It took effort, but he managed to pull his gaze away from her body and looked into her green eyes. Were they glowing in the dim light, or reflecting the flickering candle flame?

“Shard? She asked as she sat on the side of the bed. “What kind of name is that?”

Declan turned his head so he could see the clothing he had taken from the closet and concentrated on that. When it did not work, he thought of fat old nuns, dead kittens, and rotting corpses. His erection was so strong it was becoming painful and he was terrified she would notice it. “Sorry,” he croaked. “That’s my handle. My name is Declan Starrett.”

“Declan,” she rolled his name off her tongue as if tasting it. “You were the pilot of the crashed ship,” she stated more than asked.

He nodded and like a drowning man reaching for a life-preserver, he latched onto the memories of the last battle he had participated in. The images of his fellow pilots dying in starbursts of fire and released energy helped chase away any thought of sex. “Yeah, I am.”

Tara reached out and placed a hand on his thigh, so very close to his hidden erection he actually yelped and pulled away. Her eyes went wide at the completely unexpected reaction and yanked her hand back as if she had been scalded. “What’s wrong, you hurt?”

Declan laughed uncomfortably, thanking Jesus, Mohammad and Buddha she had not touched his manhood. “No, not at all, you just startled me!”

“Nice save Doc,” Babs teased and then projected a perfect image of Tara. The tiger-woman was on her hands and knees, her naked body facing him.  A look of absolute lust mixed with need and want changing her features. “I know you want this!”

“Goddammit!” He burst out angrily as he mashed his fists into his eyes, trying to crush out the mental image.

Tara jumped off the bed in fright, hissing and baring her teeth. Her claws slipped the sheaths and she landed in an unarmed combative posture. A low growl rumbled in her throat, promising pain and eventual death.

“Shit!” He cried out when he saw her.

She relaxed her posture, her fingers curling back into a more relaxed position, the sharp claws disappearing. Unconsciously she re-adjusted her dress so she was completely covered.

In the dim light of the candles, he could see the look of absolute embarrassment on her face. To his utter amazement, he finally took note of the long, black and orange tail as it swished from side to side. The movement was hypnotic as it telegraphed the agitation and tension the young woman was feeling. Even her whiskers were twitching as she fought to bring her emotions under control.

Finally she relaxed and smiled sheepishly, almost coyly. “Sorry, Shard,” she apologized. “You just scared me.”

He nodded. At least his reaction killed his desire and his erection had disappeared like a snowflake in a nova. “No problem,” he squeaked.

The two stared at each other for a heartbeat and then she began to laugh. As it turned out the laughter was contagious and in seconds both he and Babs were laughing as well.

They had to wait for the tension-reliving laughter to pass, but finally they could speak. “I really am hungry and thirsty, so do you think you could get me something?”

She wiped a tear from her eye and felt her cheek muscles hurting from the smiles and laughter. “Sure thing,” she looked thoughtful. “Would you prefer to be called Declan or Shard?”

“Declan. Shard was my handle when I was a pilot, but since I’m no longer in the military, and you’re not a pilot, let’s stick with Declan.”

Tara smiled sweetly. “I’ll bring you something shortly.” She waved at the pants and shirt, still lying on the bed where he had left them. “Do you need a hand getting dressed?”

“No!” He practically shouted and then managed to bring his nerves under his control once again. “I mean, no, I got this. After all, I’ve been dressing myself for a couple of decades now.”

Tara managed, just barely, to hide her disappointment. “Alright, but if you need any help, let me know.”

Try as he might, Declan could not get his voice to work. He only nodded.

A few seconds later there was a light rapping at the door, which caused both to look up in surprise. It broke the spell and Declan called out. “Come in.”

Three figures entered. One he instantly recognized as the other woman who had helped rescue him from the strange creatures on the beach. The second was the little Otter he had seen, the Uplift. The final figure was a man, but like the girl, he too was an Exotic. He had the same horns, the same pattern of scales on his face and neck. He even had a thick tail, which dragged on the floor behind him.

Declan felt as if he had been punched in the gut when recognition filled his mind. Even Babs, who had remained silent after her inappropriate teasing gasped when she too recognized the man.

“General Ahteen?” He blurted.

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.