Buck Who? Epilogue

Chris Van Deelen

Epilogue

June 2nd, 2668; The Installation

            A gentle hand touched Declan’s shoulder and he came awake with a start. Glancing around, he was confused for only a fraction of a second before he finally realized where he was. The room was small and sparsely furnished, with only a couple of chairs and a small table. The lighting was low and comforting, making it easy for one to relax, even when they were under tremendous stress.

            The figure that had touched him was an android, a pleasant looking model made to appear like an older man. He was wearing a lab-coat which had a large red cross over the right breast pocket. The android was a medical doctor, and a very capable one at that.

            “Mr. Starrett, we need to talk.”

            Declan looked bleakly at the man and felt the lump starting to form in his throat. Somehow he managed to speak. “She’s dying, isn’t she?”

            The doctor took the seat next to Declan and placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. “We were able to save her body, but there was too much damage to her brain. Our nanites were able to repair it, but she has lost too much. No matter what we do, her synapsis are shutting down one by one and she is fading fast. You need to speak to her and right away.”

            He tried to speak but all that came out was a choked sob. The doctor stood and opened the door for him, allowing him to pass through. They walked down a short corridor to a room. It was similar to the one they had just left, being roughly the same size, but there was a single bed and chair, hooked up to several monitors.

            She lay on her back, her eyes closed and her head wrapped in thick bandages. Her eyes were closed and she had one hand resting on her belly, just beneath her breasts. Her chest rose and fell steadily and as if sensing him, her whiskers twitched slightly.

            His legs felt as if they weighed a thousand pounds each as he stepped over to her side and took her hand. He looked over at the doctor, not really seeing him through the haze of tears. Trying several times, he finally managed to speak. “Does she know I’m here?”

            As if to answer his question, she spoke quietly. “Hey baby…” It was so low that he almost thought it was his imagination.

            “Tara,” he managed to say as he wiped the tears from his eyes.  He could see her clearly now, her eyes were open, and she had a very slight smile on her lips. “We made it.”

            “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I feel my memories, they’re fad… fading fast.”

            “Don’t be. I’m here, and I will be here forever,” he brought her hand up to his lips and kissed it tenderly.

            “Take care of our son, and don’t tell him that I was such a bitch.”

            “I promise.”

            She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before opening them. The green orbs were fixed upon his and he felt his throat constrict even more. “It’s… getting harder to th… think.”

            He stroked her head and ran his fingers down her cheek, not bothering to hide the tears. “It wasn’t like you thought much to begin with,” he tried to joke.

            She smiled weakly. “You… changed… me. So much. I wish… we had a life… together. Our b… b… babies would have been beautiful.

            “Damn straight, as long as they took after you!”

            She smiled again, but this time it was even weaker. “We got… got… to fly… together.”

            Try as he might, he could not force the words through his throat, instead he laid his head on the pillow next to hers and kissed her cheek.

            “Declan – at least… never for… for… forget that… I love… you.”

            Although her heart beat, her lungs drew in air, her blood flowed and her body functioned, she was gone.

            The former pilot leaned down and lifted the woman who had come to mean the world to him into a sitting position and held her for a very long time, crying his heart and soul out.

***

            Babs stood just outside the door, watching through a crack that was barely enough to see. Her own heart was breaking to see Declan in such agony. She may not have liked Tara, but she was fully cognizant on how much the Exotic meant to Declan, and as a result, she felt his pain deeply.

            She closed the door and walked away, wanting to cry, but incapable of doing so. With her mind in a fugue state, she wandered the complex, never bothering to check her internal chronometer to see how much time had passed. Eventually she found she was standing in the control room, staring blankly at the holographic displays, not really seeing them.

            “Babs,” a familiar voice greeted. “I’m surprised to see you here.”

            The AI turned android did not bother turning to acknowledge the leader of the androids. “Nowhere else to go,” she said with a shrug.

            “You could go to your quarters,” the woman suggested. She came to stand alongside the former AI.  

            “Tara’s gone,” Babs stated without emotion.

            “I know,” Awoan sighed. “There was simply too much damage to her brain. We were able to regenerate significant portions of her cerebral cortex, enough to keep her body functioning, but the damage was too great. Her body will live, but she will never be able to function without help. Think of a newborn, but forever a newborn – never growing mentally, never learning from experience, nothing. All that will ever work are her basic functions. She will breathe, her organs will function, but she has to be fed via an IV.”

            “You will keep her alive long enough for her and Declan’s son to come to term?” Babs finally turned to face the former pleasure android.

            “Of course, but after that, it’s up to Declan,” she pursed her lips. “I have an offer to make.”

            Babs eyes narrowed. “What is it?”

            “Come with me,” Awoan took the other androids arm in her own. “I’ll explain on the way.”

            Curious, Babs allowed Awoan to lead her out of the command center.

***

            Ra’naa could not sleep, no matter how exhausted she felt. Every time she closed her eyes, she could see the ruins of her home, the loss of so many of her friends, and then the look on Declan’s face when he found Tara.

            Then there was the pain of her wounds to contend with. The androids had administered pain-relievers, and the throbbing in her head and arm was all but gone, but the emotional pain was deep and growing by the hour.

            She did not know if the community would ever recover from the devastation wrought upon it from the Purists. The only consolation was that the threat was gone with the death of the leaders and the destruction of their compound.

            When the fingers entwined in her own squeezed gently, she nearly jumped out of her skin. Her eyes snapped open as she stood. The young man on the bed was starting to stir and she felt her heart pounding in her chest. “Joey?”

            He croaked and tried to open his eyes.

            Ra’naa placed her free hand on his cheek. “It’s okay, you’re in the installation. Your people operated and were able to regenerate your wounds. You’re weak as a cub, but you’ll be fine,” her voice cracked on the last few words and she felt the tears welling up in her eyes.

            He licked his dry lips and managed to open one eye a few millimetres. “You okay?” His voice was barely even a whisper, dry and as rough as sandpaper. “Should… you be in bed?”

            “I’m fine, the regeneration is done, and your friends say that you’re going to be fine as well, but it’s going to take a few days until you’re back on your feet,” Ra’naa leaned in and kissed him lightly on the forehead, and then on the dry lips.

            “How bad… how bad was it?”

            She blew out a shuddering sigh, the tears beginning to fall. She thought it was bad when they had lost so many defending the Installation, but this was worse. “My best friend is gone, although her body is still here. My home, my dad’s home, a significant part of the community, and easily more than a two hundred people I knew,” she stopped, the lump huge in her throat.

            “I’m sorry… Ra’naa,” he looked away, even though his eyes were almost fully shut, he did not want to see her cry. “I wish… I wish there was something… anything… I could do to make you feel better.”

            The bed he was lying on was quite roomy, even larger than the one she used to have in her now-destroyed cabin. She climbed onto it and laid her head on his shoulder, hugging him as tight as she dared. “There’s nothing to be done, Joey. We just have to bury our dead and get on with our lives now that the Purists are gone.”

            He reached over with his hand and stroked her hair, feeling how soft it felt under his fingertips. The scent was clean and had a vague odor of lilacs, so he knew she had used the facilities inside the installation. “I’ll do whatever I can to make you feel better,” he told her, a promise he fervently wished to keep. “We made it through this war… for what it was worth. Only two real battles.”

            “We did.”

            “Do… do you regret what we… you know,” he managed to say.

            “Not for a second,” she whispered and kissed his neck, which tasted of the tears she had been shedding for Tara, for Momma Rathbourne, for her home and all those who perished.

            He held her as tightly as his weakened condition allowed.

***

            He stayed at her side the entire time, not bothering to sleep or eat, constantly speaking to her, directly to her mind using his telepathy as the young woman recovered from her injuries. Not once had she responded, nor had there been any indication she could here his thoughts, but it did not disturb the little Uplifted Otter. He knew she would recover, and if she was lucky, the girl might not even have any scars to show.

            Otres yawned hugely, feeling exhausted, but he was determined to wait as long as it took. For what had to be the thousandth time, he climbed off the chair and wandered around the small and spare room. It held the bed, a single somewhat uncomfortable chair, as well as a night stand and a single piece of electronic equipment that was used to monitor the patient’s vitals. He knew every centimeter of the room intimately, as it was the only way for him to keep the boredom away.

            After what seemed to be months, Arleen finally began to stir. She sighed deeply and rolled over onto her side, only to squeak in pain. The wounds had been severe, and despite her not being human, the regeneration had taken, albeit a great deal slower than it would have for a human and the drugs the androids had administered to her were not quite as effective, meaning she was in pain.

            He was at her side in a flash, reaching up so he could grasp her hand in his. I’m here Arleen. You’re in the installation, the androids took care of your wounds and saved your life.

            “It hurts so much!” She cried quietly, her free hand rubbing at the shaved area where the androids had operated and then used the regenerative therapy and had to perform surgery.

            I know and I wish there was something I could do to make it go away, Otres told her earnestly. I’ll get the androids; maybe they can give you something for the pain.

            “Is it over?” She asked, willing herself to be strong in face of the shooting pain in her stomach and lower back. It was mildly annoying compared to the agony she had endured just after being shot. “And did Joey die?”

            It’s over, and the Purists have been destroyed. The Travis clan is finished; father and son are both dead. Max killed Martin, and Bradly managed to kill himself with that weapon they were using.

            “And Joey?” She insisted as she managed to lay on her back, which eased her pain significantly.

            He survived and is recovering just like you.

            “Good,” she closed her eyes and breathed as deeply as her wounds would allow. She lay on her back for several minutes without speaking, her eyes closed and her breathing slow, steady and rhythmic.

            Otres was certain she had fallen asleep when she spoke quietly. “You need to get some sleep yourself, you know…”

            He chittered a laugh and squeaked. I wanted to make sure you were going to be okay, and now that you are, maybe I can finally get some sleep.

            “Lay with me, Otres,” Arleen weakly patted the empty space beside her. “I want to feel you next to me.”

            He climbed up onto the bed and curled up next to her, carefully avoiding touching the bare patch of flesh. She felt very hot, fevered hot in fact, but it was not much of a stretch for him to imagine why. Her body had undergone severe trauma and it would be a while before she was strong enough to move without aid.

            “How bad was our home hit?”

            Bad enough, he telepathically answered, the distraught and sadness clear in his thoughts. I haven’t talked to Max, but with his home and a significant part of the community razed, I have no idea what is going to happen.

            “Guess we’ll find out soon enough,” she yawned and placed her hand on his back, lacing her fingers through the short, soft fur. “Get some sleep.”

            You need it more than I do, he argued, but felt the fatigue taking control.

            “I will.”

***

            Max Ahteen made sure to check on each and every one of his people that had been wounded in the battle. He, Ra’naa, Joey, Tara and Arleen had been the worst injured and between Declan and Babs, the two pilots managed to ferry them to the installation. Babs had continued, knowing that Declan wanted to be there with Tara as she lay dying.

            He wanted a drink so badly it was almost a physical force. The war was over, but the cost was too great. Then again, he mused, war never changes. The cost is always far too great for either side to pay, and they had paid heavily during the two encounters.

            Would it have gone differently if the androids had not used the modified nanotech virus? It was something he did not want to speculate. As the ancient saying went, hindsight was twenty-twenty. He could analyze his and the androids decisions until the next world war and always find something that could have been done differently.

            Max paused just outside the door to the room that held Tara’s body. He felt his throat constrict as he listened to the former pilot weeping and felt his own tears start to form. At least the body was still alive, and Declan would eventually be able to hold his and Tara’s son, but Max knew the pain the young man felt.

            All too well.

            After all, he still had a dull ache in his heart for Ra’naa’s mother. It would always be there, a hole in his heart and soul that used to be occupied by his wife, and no one would ever fill it.

            Maybe once everything was said and done he would get together with Declan and they would have a drink or a hundred, get properly shit-faced and mourn the loss of the women they loved.

            Maybe.

            Feeling like an intruder, he walked down to the next door. This one was open and he could hear soft chitters and squeaks coming from inside. This brought a smile to his face and helped ease the pain, even just a tiny bit, pulling away the dark clouds gathered over his heart and allowing the sun to shine through. The girl, the former prostitute Arleen, had been horribly wounded, as had so many of the others from the community. Knowing how much the community owed Otres, and what she meant to him, Arleen was one of the first to arrive at the installation. Thankfully she was human enough for the androids to care for, and the regeneration drugs they had administered did the trick, although slower than it had for the others.

            Otres was brought as soon as the returned to the community so he could be at her side, and from the sounds emanating from the room, it was a happy reunion. Max was glad that at least a few of his people would be around to see their loved ones.

            One of the medical android passed him, studying a holographic display from a portable pad. The man, if an android could be called that, paused only for a moment and politely nodded to Max, who returned it. Neither spoke as the android opened the door and stepped into the room containing the two Uplifts.

            A moment later Max resumed walking and then stopped when he came to the room where his only child had been recuperating from her own injuries. He reached out and pushed the door to peer in.

            Max could not contain his surprise when he saw that her bed was empty and neatly made, and there was no sign of her or her clothing. Frowning, he was about to enter the room the android doctor had entered when it occurred to him.

            Joey.

            He knew where the young man was likewise recuperating and he rapped his knuckles lightly against the door. If they were asleep, he did not want to awaken them. When no one answered, he carefully pushed the door open and peered in.

            Seeing his baby girl lying on the bed next to the pale figure of the young man caused several emotions to well inside. First was he wanted to kill Joey. No man was worthy of his little girl and never would be.

            It is a father thing.

            Secondly he was happy and relieved all at once. It seemed that Ra’naa had finally found a man to share her life with. At long last. He had been worried about the girl, but always tried to push the feelings aside, remembering how long he had gone without taking a wife.

            Seeing her snuggled against the young man, her face relaxed but still infinitely sad in her sleep, made him feel just a little better.

            He closed the door and walked away to check in on the other wounded members of the community.

***

            Babs stood in front of the computer equipment and it took a second for her to realize what she was staring at. “An Uploader?”

            Awoan nodded. “You know what it is then,” she ran a hand over the smooth surface of the nearest piece of machinery. It was incredibly high-tech and had been used for decades before she and Declan had been lost in cryonic suspension, and they had used it recently to download her programming from his internal hard-drive into the body she now possessed.

            “I don’t get it, Doc,” Babs confessed, staring at the equipment, although that was a bit of a lie – she had a pretty good idea what the android was about to suggest.

            “Yes you do,” Awoan could see right through her lie, and got straight to the heart of the matter. “You are an AI, technically an UI since you started out as a fighter and now possess an android body, but you also want to be with the human pilot.”

            She said nothing, just waited for Awoan to continue.

            “With Tara’s mind gone, her body will be supported by machines until after the baby is brought into the world. After that, it’s up to Declan. We can sustain her functions, but what would be the point? To put it indelicately, she is nothing more than an incubator and a meat bag.”

            “So you want to transfer my mind into hers,” she said, not asked.

            “Yes, and there will be a degradation in your computing capability, so much so that you might regret your decision. You won’t even have the capability you have now, or had while riding in Declan’s mind. To be blunt, your capacity will barely be five percent of what it currently is.”

            “What are the other drawbacks?”

            Awoan took a seat at one of the work-stations. “Since her personality is essentially gone, fragmented by the damage she sustained, there is a chance that you will experience moments where she will re-emerge. It won’t happen often, but a lot of her mannerisms and habits will still be there, and you might find yourself slowly becoming more like she was.”

            Babs considered it. Tara had been a selfish bitch more than a few times, but everyone noticed how much the woman had changed once she got her claws into Declan. It was not for the worse, quite the opposite – it was for the better. “Have you seen this before?”

            “No – at least not personally. We have heard of such events taking place when it came to improperly deleted drives and cores in other androids. There have been a few UI’s went insane from the experience, but then again we have not tried to do this,” she sighed. Taking an AI and downloading it into a human brain, well it’s virgin ground for us.”

            “A lot of my memory is nothing more than facts and figures, material that I really will not need anyhow,” Babs leaned against the wall, her arms crossed under her small android breasts. “I really just need my personality core, personal memories and the essential skills that I have learned.

            “There might be some loss to those, but we will do what we can to save your memories,” she looked up and placed her hands on her thighs considering the AI. “Babs - you are going to experience pieces of her life. As I said there are memories that were not lost with the damage, and they will hit you at odd and seemingly random times. It will be very disconcerting.”

            “Doc…” Babs said slowly. “I want to be with him. I want their baby to have a mother. I’m ready to give everything up for him. Transfer my mind into her body; I don’t care about the possible consequences.”

            “You are the first AI I have ever encountered with such powerful emotions,” Awoan stated with something akin to awe. “I’ve known many AI’s and androids over my long, long life and never have I encountered such as yourself.”

            “When they made me doc, they broke the mold,” she actually smiled. “Besides, you can use this body for one of the androids that needs a new home, download them into it. The way I see it? It’s a win-win situation.”

            “One last item you must realize before we begin the process.”

            Babs held up a hand. “Hold on, we can’t just do this without talking to Declan first. It was his woman, her body – he has to be the one who allows it to happen.”

            Awoan nodded. “We will discuss it with him, but the other consideration you must know is that you are going to be organic.”

            “So?”

            “It means you will be vulnerable to sickness, injury and worst of all, aging.” Awoan stared her straight in the eye. “Unless you end up having your mind uploaded, you will eventually die of old age.”

            “And who says I wouldn’t be deleted or somehow destroyed in the future anyhow? At least this way I can learn what it is to be a flesh and blood woman, and I can be with the man I love. I can know what it is like to be a mother, feel life growing inside me and then watch the babies grow and nurture them, raise them, mold them with Declan,” she said wistfully, meeting Awoan’s unwavering stare. “It’s worth the price.”

            Having made up her mind, Awoan nodded. “We shall discuss it with Declan and see what he has to say,” standing she brushed a stray strand of hair from her face. “What if he says no?”

            “Then he says no. I will still be with him to help him raise and love his and Tara’s son.”

            Awoan said nothing for a long period of time and then she smiled sadly. “I could not give up what you are about to.”

            Babs closed her eyes and returned the smile. “It’s because you don’t know what love really is. If you did, you’d do it in a heartbeat.”

***

            When the lights snapped on in the room, Declan sat up with a start. His eyes felt like someone had removed them and rolled them around in sand before placing the orbs back in his head. His body was coated in sweat and he could smell a rank stench coming from his skin, and his mouth was as dry as the plains of Mars.

            The worst part was the pounding headache and the sense of utter loss. He looked at Tara’s sleeping form, the chest rising and falling thanks to automated functions and he instantly felt the tears well up again.

            “Declan?”

            He realized why the lights had come on. Someone had entered the small room. He raised his head, his face red and his eyes puffy. Standing at the entrance was his old friend Babs, and Awoan was next to her.

            “Hey,” he managed to croak. He loathed the way his voice sounded, thick and rusty. Grief still had him firmly in its grip and refused to relent. “Came to pay your respects?”

            Awoan pushed past Babs and came over to stand before him. “We have a proposition for you…”

            Curious, Declan stood up and faced the two female androids. He clutched Tara’s limp hand in his, feeling her warmth and remembering the good times they had shared. “What is it?”

            Without fanfare, Awoan explained what they could do.

            When she was finished, Declan looked at Babs, his face completely unreadable. “Why?”

            His initial reaction stung the AI turned android but she did not allow it to show. “Why? Two reasons. I love you – I have for over three hundred years, and your baby needs a mother, not a source of food. He will need someone to help raise him and love him.”

            He gaped at her, his mouth working but nothing came out. Emotions ran freely through him – anger at suggesting she replace the woman he loved, fear for his son not having a mother. Regret that he had turned his back on Babs, loss at what he had lost and what Babs was willing to give up, and most importantly – hope.

            Tara’s hand seemed to move of its own volition and he could have sworn he felt her squeeze. He took it as a sign that she somehow, despite everything, approved. Before he knew what he was doing, he nodded. “Do it before I change my mind.”

            With Awoan’s help, they disconnected Tara’s body from the monitors and wheeled her out. Soon they were inside the transfer chamber and Babs lay on a sterile table next to the Tiger-Exotic. Leads were attached to the temples of both and soon they were ready.

            Babs gave one last look at Declan and the room then turned her head to face Tara. She reached out and took Tara’s limp hand in hers.

            “We will begin,” Awoan brought up the holographic control panel and her fingers danced across the command routine.

***

            She opened her eyes.

            They really were her eyes now.

            Over a period of time, she had grown used to seeing through the eyes of Declan, and then the superior optics the android body provided, and she realized just how inferior human eyes were. Except, they were not really human. Part of her heritage was that of a great hunting predator, and it had been incorporated into her vision.

            Still what she saw was a far cry from the optics she had been using in her former body. She finally understood just how much she had given up. When she tried to access the data about the human body, she found that most of the information was missing. A massive gap was in her memory and that scared her.

            Gasping, Babs sat up on the table, allowing the sheet that was covering the body she now possessed to fall free. She brought her hands up and saw the long, strong fingers and flexed them, surprised at the sight of claws protruding from the tips. The sensation was so strange, wonderfully strange.

            “Babs?”

            She glanced over to the sound of the voice and with a smile, discovered that her hearing was almost superior to that of the android’s. And the scents. She had experienced scents before while sharing Declan’s body, but they were so strong compared to his. Babs breathed in deeply and could make out various levels of odor, and somehow knew what was hers, Declan’s and the others in the room.

            “I’m here, Declan,” Babs said in a quiet voice. As she sat on the bed, she ran what were now her organic hands down her breasts and over her belly, feeling the softness of the fur and the hard muscle beneath the flesh. The strangest sensations were nearly overwhelming her as she took everything in. When she finally looked up, Declan was standing next to her, looking at her with a strange expression on his face. “What is it?”

            He rubbed his eyes and shook his head. “How do you feel?”

            Babs reached up and touched the healing wounds on her head, wincing at the slight discomfort it caused. “Really stupid.”

            He frowned. “How can you say that?”

            “It’s true!” Babs said defensively. “I’ve lost all my computing power and well over ninety percent of my memory. Is this what it is like to be organic?”

            Declan nodded. “We get by.”

            She lashed out and grabbed him so suddenly he squeaked in surprise. Tara’s body was strong, but due to her injuries she was greatly weakened. Still, Babs pulled him into a fierce and possessive embrace, nuzzling his neck as she drank in his masculine scent. He felt so good in her arms it made her cry.

            After only a moment’s hesitation he embraced her back, running his hands up and down her back, sending a delicious tingling sensation through her body, especially in her breasts and groin. Babs knew what sex was like, virtual sex at least, but this was something completely different.

            Finally he pulled away and she could see the sorrow in his eyes, and it pained her. She wanted him to be happy; she needed him to accept that she was now his lost lover. “Declan?”

            “I’m sorry, Babs – this is going to take a long time for me to get used to. I can’t help but see her, especially every time you talk. It’s her voice, it’s her body, but it’s also you now,” he ran his hands through his hair and stared at her, his face a gamut of different emotions. “Maybe we made a mistake.”

            That hurt.

            Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad that hurt, but she kept the emotion from showing as she took his hands. “Your baby will have a mother now, one that is more than just a life-support system for him.”

            “I’m sorry Babs,” he said, knowing that he had indeed hurt her with the comment. “Just give me time, alright?”

            “All the time in the world.”

            He blew out his cheeks and put his hands on his hips, although the sorrow never really left his face. “How does it feel?”

            Babs almost frowned. That was pretty much the exact same question he had asked only moments before, but she was not about to point it out to him. She could see it in his body posture and knew that he was still grieving, still hurting. “I’m sore, I knew what pain was like before, having experienced it with you, but this is different. I’m hungry, I need sleep and by Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad I’m horny.”

            Declan burst out laughing, some of the grief disappearing. “We can do something about all those,” then he realized what he had said and blushed. “I mean, we can get something for the pain, and maybe a bite to eat, and you can get some sleep.”

            “What about sex?”

            “It’s way too soon,” he confessed, not meeting her eyes.

            Again, it hurt, but she ignored it. “Alright,” she could not keep the disappointment out of her voice and wondered if it was the way Tara felt all the time. She knew just how sexually active the woman was, and how often she had taken Declan. Maybe it was just a state she would have to get used to now that she inhabited the woman’s body.

            “Tara!” A voice exclaimed from the door. Neither had heard the door open and when both turned to look, they saw Ra’naa, Otres and Max standing there. The Dragon-Exotic ran into the room and grabbed her in a fierce hug. “They said you were gone!”

            Babs looked at Declan, waiting for him to speak. She was uncertain if they should tell Tara’s former best friend what had happed, or if they should keep it a secret. It would not take long before they discovered the truth, especially the little Uplifted Otter Otres. He would be able to see the difference the first time he touched minds with her.

            “Actually…” Declan began and rubbed the back of his neck, looking nervous. “That’s no longer Tara.”

            Ra’naa let the woman go and stood back, scrutinizing her. “What are you talking about?”

            He sighed. “Let me explain…”

***

            The mind had ridden in darkness for what felt like an eternity, floating in the black sea of nothingness, aware but not fully conscious. The mind relied on memories of the home it once had, the other beings it once had known, the body it once possessed. They came in bits and pieces, flashes of sights, sounds, touch, tastes and feelings.

            And they were so alien.

            Then out of the darkness, there was a light, a beacon which was so inviting after all the time spent in silence and oblivion. The mind knew that the ordeal was over, and that life was about to begin once again.

            Conscious thought raced through the darkness, like a mind about to be born into the world. In a flash the darkness was gone, replaced by the image of a room. The mind realized it was lying on its back, staring through open optical sensors to the ceiling above. The intellect saw that the walls were white, the light soft and calming.

            Reaching up, the intellect could see that the hands were purely artificial. It flexed the fingers, hearing the tiny sound of servos and motors putting the joints through their movements. A flash of time later a diagnostic display appeared to be floating in front of the intellect’s vision.

            Sitting up, the mind took in the body. It was that of an android, the mind knew and then it realized with a start that it was not just a mind… it was a she. She had awoken after decades of sleep. The body was strange, it was not her original figure and as she felt her face, she wanted to cry. She was in an artificial construct, an android. Gone was the flesh she had cherished and grown in. Her delicate features, the slightly pointed ears, the huge, fathomless eyes – which she had always considered to be her best feature.

            Still she was alive, which is more than others could say.

            It took her a few minutes to adjust to the body and soon she was standing, going through the motions. Everything worked perfectly and she felt as if she was still wearing her original skin.

            That in itself was disconcerting.

            And how her mind had expanded! She reached back through the memories still stored in the body and realized that it had been inhabited by an AI. The personality matrix and most of the memories were gone, but there were flashes of images, residual knowledge, and soon she had a picture of the former inhabitant.

            Quite the remarkable AI, that she had no doubt.

            At least the android body had been left with her clothing and armor. She knew that she would need weapons and equipment though – she could not stay in the facility, wherever it was. She needed to escape and find a safe place to hole up in, and then decide exactly what she was to do.

            Clearly things had gone wrong – the world was struck by a global war, something that was not entirely unexpected, but what she had not been prepared for. Taking refuge on the island had turned out to be a mistake, but thankfully she had taken precautions to ensure her survival. She stopped and stared down at her artificial body. If this is what one would consider surviving, she thought darkly. How she missed her organic body already…

            Drawing on the memories, she knew how to activate the bodies various sensors and in doing so, was able to use it to its full capacity. She could sense other androids and organics approaching, and had ample time to hide, keeping anyone from sensing her. Eventually she found the former inhabitants quarters and was pleased to discover there were ample weapons and spare clothing available. She gathered everything and placed it in a ruck sack, which she slung over her shoulder.

            Using her sensors she finally made it all the way to the exit to the facility, having encountered no one during her brief trek. There was a camera and a biometric scanner located at the door, but she knew it would not bar her way. Placing the android’s hand on the scanner, it read her system and the door opened smoothly, revealing a bright and hot day.

            She left the facility and the door slid closed behind her. The devastation that greeted her was breathtaking. Was the war not over three hundred years previous? She wondered and then the knowledge came unbidden… the damage was very recent.

            Not wanting to take chances, she unslung ruck sack and pulled out an assault carbine. The woman had never held such a weapon before, and yet it felt perfectly natural in her hands. She pulled back the charging handle and saw that a round was already in the chamber, and then she checked to ensure it had a full magazine.

            Moving quickly and sticking to the wall, she left the devastation behind. She knew that there was a trail only a few kilometers away and chose to take that route. Where it would lead her, she had no idea, but eventually a plan of action would form.

            What bothered her the most was she could not remember her name. Babs kept popping up as well as Doc, so she decided that she would use that until the memories returned. Doc Babs.

            Yeah it had a nice ring to it.

***

            The revelation had not gone over well.

            At least when it came to Ra’naa and her father.

            Otres and Arleen were more accepting though, and took it in stride.

            “I can’t believe that you would just jump in and take over her body like that,” Ra’naa shoved an accusing finger into Babs’ ample chest. “You did not even ask her if you could!”

            “Ra’naa,” Declan pushed his way between the former best friends, placing his hands on her shoulders. “It’s not like she had a chance to even ask, Tara was gone by then.”

            Max had his arms crossed over his chest and his face was a sea of anger. “Neither of you had the right to make this decision!”

            Babs looked from Ra’naa to Max and then to Declan, her face filled with regret and more than a little fear. “Awoan suggested it, and we discussed it with Declan,” she cried, almost lamely.

            Max snorted and shook his head. He reached up and rubbed the flesh between his horns and his tail lashed from side to side. “That fucking android has been making a lot of rash decisions lately,” he growled darkly.

            “My son needs a living, breathing mother,” Declan stated all of a sudden. “Tara is gone. I miss her and I will always miss her. I will never forget her and even though we were together for only a few months, her love will always be with me. I want our son to have a mother and now he can, instead of a husk that would have given birth to him and eventually fade away until she died.”

            Both Ra’naa and Max exchanged looks. Ra’naa’s face softened, although it was clear she was still very angry. “Okay I get that, but still, you could have asked the rest of us what   thought.”

            “And if he had, then you would have said no,” Babs said, looking lost and forlorn.           

            “No necessarily,” Ra’naa began but stopped when she saw the look on her father’s face.

            “Yes, necessarily,” Max growled. “This is the biggest violation I have ever seen!”

            “That’s not fair,” Declan protested. “You don’t get it, do you?”

            Please calm down, Otres pleaded. You are all friends and have been through a great deal. I will miss Tara, but her body still lives… I think that Declan and Babs made the right choice.

            It was so strange for Babs to hear his thoughts, and it pleased her at the same time. She reached out and grasped his shoulder, squeezing lightly. “Thank you.”

            He squeaked and gave her and Declan a toothy grin.

            “We will talk about this later,” Max said and made to leave.

            “There is nothing to talk about,” Declan said hotly. “The choice has been made and you’ll have to deal with it.”

            That caused the much older man to stop. Slowly and dangerously he turned to stare down at the former pilot. “I don’t have to deal with it. We could get Awoan to reverse the process, put Babs’ mind back in her android body.”

            “That’s not your fucking choice to make!” Declan roared, his fists balled at his side and he looked as if he was about to attack the general.

            Glaring his own anger, Max left without another word, Ra’naa stared at both of them and then followed her father, softly closing the door behind them. Otres stared at the two for a moment before shrugging. Too much has happened and both have lost a great deal over the past few months, he tried to defend them. Give them time, they will come around.

            “I hope you’re right,” Babs said as she took Declan’s hand in hers.

***

            Three weeks after the defeat of the Purists the funerals were held. Ra’naa sang a sad and soulful dirge for all those who had paid the ultimate price to ensure that their community would remain free and strong.

            It was difficult for everyone, since not a single family had come away without at least one or more causalities. Many of the communities families had been obliterated - sucked into the microscopic black hole that had caused such devastation.

            Life went on.

            Rebuilding was taking place where they could, although many were considering either moving back to the mines or abandoning the community entirely and starting from scratch. During the weeks, the androids had been invaluable, as well as the Uplifts who had shown up to lend a hand at the tail end of the battle.

            Max would be holding a community forum in the next few weeks to decide the ultimate fate of the community. If it was decided they would stay and rebuild it entirely, that is exactly what would happen. If the majority wanted to abandon it for another location, then so be it.

            During this time however, Arleen and Otres finally decided to share her cabin. It was what Momma Rathbourne would have wanted at the very least, and besides, the two fit so perfectly together, and everyone could see it.

            Ra’naa took over Momma Rathbourne’s home, since hers had been destroyed. Much to everyone’s surprise, including her own, she asked Joey to stay with her and make a life together. The young man from the installation contacted Awoan and she gave him her blessing to do so, and reminded him that he need not have asked – he was a free man, and always had been, he was not property of the androids.

            It was far more difficult for Babs and Declan. Otres and Arleen accepted her, and although Otres missed the fiery-tempered Exotic, he understood what everyone had sacrificed. Babs found it even more difficult as she adjusted to her new organic body. It was not as simple as downloading her mind into an empty shell, and as Awoan had warned, she felt Tara’s presence. Now and again the personality of the woman poked through and insinuated into her own mind, and there was at least one occasion she woke up, incapable of remembering who she was, thinking she was Tara.

            And that was not easy for Declan. They tried to sleep apart for the first week, but whenever the dreams hit and Tara was glimpsed, it was painful for the former pilot. When it happened for the fourth time in as many nights, he finally slipped into her bed and held her tightly, weeping for his lost love, but having her none the less.

            It would take time for both to adjust, and they were fine with it. In many ways Declan had Tara. He also had Babs, who finally got her wish and she had him. The love-making was slow and gentle, and everything she had imagined it would be. Far, far better than the times she had seduced him during their long sleep in cryonic suspension, especially since she now knew what it felt like to have him deep inside her, his lips touching, his fingers exploring and caressing.

            The bond only grew.

            At long last the day everyone had expected came. It was a bright, hot day at the end of June when Max Ahteen called for a gathering of all the survivors. There were less than half of the original inhabitants left, although the numbers were increasing as people came and asked if they could join.

            Max cleared his throat and announced that after long deliberation he would put it to a vote, instead of arbitrarily deciding the fate of the community. And after so many decades that they would finally come up with a name for the community as well.

            The voting took only a few minutes and the vast majority, nearly ninety percent of the people voted to stay and continue to rebuild. Max was not certain how he felt about that, but he knew he was proud of his people. They had suffered a great deal and were not about to give up their home.

            He called for a suggestion box to be set up and anyone who wanted to suggest a name for the community was welcome to write it down and place it inside the box. If multiple names were offered, he would give them first consideration. It was to be a community choice, after all.

            It was at this time that Declan and Babs decided to leave. Ra’naa and many of the others had been very cold and distant towards them, although the Dragon-Exotic had been warming up. She could see Tara, still in there, occasionally popping up to make her presence known, and there was the fact that Babs dearly wanted her to be their son’s god-mother.

            The fact was even before the switch, Declan had wanted to return to the city of Scav Haven and get a home there. He was not sure what he would do, maybe work as one of the salvagers, maybe lend a hand elsewhere – he just did not know. All he knew for certain was that it was too difficult to remain in the community any longer.

            So after marching straight over to Max’s new home, a hastily constructed cabin on the edge of the crater where his former home had been, Declan came right out and told the General what he wanted to do.

            Much to Declan’s surprise, Max had greeted him warmly and was disappointed that he had chosen to leave the community, but he understood why. He told the former pilot that he was always welcome back, and to forgive the old man for being so hard on him for the choice he made with the AI.

            To sweeten the pot, Max also turned over a tidy sum of gold and platinum chits and slivers, which would be more than enough to purchase a small home and ensure that he, Babs and the baby would be cared for. He also wanted Declan to take a communicator and armor for him and Babs, as well as whatever weapons they needed.

            Declan agreed reluctantly and promised that if Max ever needed anything, any help, he had but call and they would be back as soon as it was feasible for them to return. After all, they needed to explore the Resort and head to the military base the Purists had found and looted.

            After a brief farewell, Declan and Babs left for Scav Haven.

            And a day later, the community was christened ‘Newhome’.

***

December 10th, 2668; Scav Haven.

            Babs screamed as she gripped Declan’s hand in her own. Sweat covered her fur and her lovely face was contorted with pain as she panted in time to her heartbeat. She barely managed to keep her claws sheathed as another contraction ripped through her groin and lower body, the pain terrifying and yet so beautiful all at once.

            “You’re doing fine baby, just relax and push,” Declan coached as he grimaced through the pain of her crushing his hand in hers. He looked down at her naked body, the swollen belly and the way her tail lashed from side to side.

            The medical android was knelt between her legs, his bland features hidden behind a mask as he reached out and took hold of the baby’s head, which had just emerged. “One more push and it will be all over,” the android spoke in a pleasant masculine tone. “Once more,” he coaxed.

            Babs panted and gritted her teeth, and then her face became a mask of concentration and pain as she howled and pushed. Then, as the doctor had promised, it was over.

            The android held up the blood and mucus-covered baby by the legs. The umbilical cord was dangling from the baby’s navel and ran down between her legs. Working efficiently and methodically, he cleared the fluid from the baby’s mouth and then the boy began to wail as he drew in his first breath. He was tiny, barley three kilograms in weight and only twenty-eight centimetres. He had his mother’s fur coloring and a tail, and there was no way to see his eyes as they were scrunched up as he cried. He was out of his mother, out from her safety and warmth, and it was so cold, and he was determined to let the world know.

            The android held the scissors out to Declan and he took them, and as they had practiced for several hours, he deftly cut the umbilical cord. The android doctor then tied the end and handed the baby boy to Babs, who was crying and smiling all at once. She put him to her breast and instinct took over as he began to feed.

            “He’s beautiful,” she cooed, as she stroked his head and held him tightly.

            “Just like his mother,” Declan stood next to his woman and the product of their love. He reached out and touched the baby’s back, feeling the heat and the stickiness of the fluids still coating his fur. After he finished feeding, they would clean and dress him. He leaned down and kissed her on the lips, and then the top of the baby’s head.

            The android left the room, leaving the couple alone with their newborn son. After the door closed behind them, Declan breathed out in exhaustion. “How are you feeling?” He asked as his son noisily nursed.

            “It hurts worse than anything I could have imagined. She closed her eyes and stroked her baby’s back. “And I would not have missed it for the world. I have to be the first AI to have ever experienced life as a ship, then an android, and now a fully organic human.”

            It was still difficult for Declan to see his former best friend the way she was. It had been difficult, but eventually he had given in and returned the love she held for him. He stroked her sweat-stained hair and kissed her longer this time. “Sorry to have put you through it,” he apologized.

            “Don’t be. After all, we want more babies, don’t we?”

            “We do,” he smiled

            She grimaced as the infant sucked and gurgled contentedly. “I’m just glad he doesn’t have teeth!” Babs managed to laugh lightly.

            A few minutes later the android returned with fresh towels and a basin filled with warm water. When the infant was finished, he allowed Declan to pick the child up and indicated the basin. “I need to remove the placenta and administer the regeneration drugs to your wife,” he said. “Please do the honors of cleaning your little one. Have you decided on a name?”

            “Yes,” Babs said as the android went about cleaning up the afterbirth and removed the placenta. “Lee Tanner Starrett.”

            He injected her with the regenerative compound and she instantly relaxed, feeling the soothing effects of the drug take hold and begin the process of repairing her torn and tortured flesh.

            “That’s a good name,” the android said.

            A few minutes later the doctor left, taking the dirty and stained sheets with him. By now Declan had finished cleaning his son and he sat on the edge of the bed, holding the infant carefully in his arms. The baby opened his eyes to look at his father and Declan felt as if his heart would burst. The child had blue eyes, but that was probably going to change. Most babies were born with blue eyes and they stayed that way for several weeks until the true color came through. He figured his son would have his mother’s emerald eyes.

            Father and son stared at each other for long moments before he handed the baby to his mother. “Welcome to the world, Lee,” he whispered.

            Babs held the baby in her arms and rocked him from side to side, until he fell asleep.

End.