The tractor-trailer rig rolled smoothly through the night, the driver swinging it effortlessly through the gentle curves in such a manner as to not disturb the night, his load, or his co-driver sleeping in the back of the extended-size cab. It had been a while since he’d been up this way, and though he didn’t have any deliveries bound there, there was one place he had to drive by. As he pulled off the main road, a couple of coughs and a quiet sneeze told him that his partner was awake.
"Are we there yet?" the female skunk asked as she slid into the second driving seat.
"Nope," he replied. "Just checking on something."
"Or someone," she grumbled back. "One of these days I’m gonna steal your ‘little black book’ and find the dirt you have on all those people."
"It’s not always dirt," he advised her as he made another turn onto a lesser-traveled street. A high fence hid the estate from view from the road, but the gates stood open in the early morning hours.
The skunk eyed the open gates suspiciously as the truck slowed. "I take it that’s not normal," she half asked.
"No…" he agreed as he put the truck back in gear and turned it for the gate.
The walls continued inside the fence, forcing them to hold to the path leading to the main buildings. As he drove, she quickly and efficiently checked and primed their weapons; a pistol for each of them, her sub-machine gun, and his shotgun. While the Gene Wars were behind them, there were still those that had issues with mixed teams, and there had been a few times one had had to defend the other.
Just before a turn obscured the entrance, the backup cameras showed the gates closing. "Someone knows we’re here," he told her. "Just play it by ear."
"But you can’t carry a tune," she teased back as several multistoried buildings came into view.
The truck rolled to a stop in front of the main building. While the main doors were closed, a set of side delivery doors were opened wide, the light from within silhouetting a very large shape.
"What’s she doing out?" he muttered as his partner stared in shock. An eight hundred pound Bengal Tiger sat there, looking up at them. "New plan," he quietly said, even though there was no way the tiger could have heard him from outside with the engine still rumbling. "Put your guns away… all of them," he added when she hesitated. At her dirty look he added, "You can stay in the cab if you like."
"What are you going to do?" she demanded.
"Just taking a little stroll," he said unhelpfully. "There’s no way in heaven or hell she got out without a ‘little’ help."
"I don’t like it."
"Do you remember that truck stop in New El Paso?" he asked. She frowned as she nodded; they’d barely escaped with their lives. "This is much safer," he assured her as he popped the door latch. He stepped down from the cab and re-latched the door before turning to the waiting tiger.
"I know it’s a nice night, but shouldn’t you be in your cage?" he gently chided her.
The tiger slowly got up, exposing her heavy belly as she sauntered over to him and gave him a gentle head butt which, while gentle, still forced him back a step.
"At least she’s been fed recently," the skunk said from the open window.
"I don’t think that’s a meal," he replied as he scratched the tiger’s ear, earning a rumbling purr that rivaled the nearby truck.
"She knew you were coming," said a small voice from a nearby bush.
They watched a cattaur-looking creature of about seven or eight slip from behind the bush. Stepping up to the tiger, the cattaur gave her a hug and said, "Bedtime, Mother." The tiger had other ideas and twisted her head so she could catch his long shirtsleeve in her teeth, dragging him along as she turned.
"Ok Gipsy, I’m coming too, you can let go now," he suggested as he tried to free his shirtsleeve. Gipsy released the cloth but sidestepped, almost knocking the human over.
The cattaur turned to the skunk still watching from the cab. "You are welcome as well."
The side doors closed once the four of them were inside.
Noticing that the cattaur hadn’t activated the doors, the human commented, "I take it you had some help getting her out."
"Just my sisters," the cattaur admitted. "Blackie offered to mind the security station while the guard had her lunch. Zig-Zag helped me bypass the door sensors."
As if on cue, a wildly striped cattaur came around the corner and pulled a piece of foil off the sensor that told the systems the doors were closed. Zig-Zag then came over and gave the human a hung. "Hi Neal, long time no see."
"Hey yourself, kitten," he replied. "Say hello to my partner, Sally."
Zig-Zag gave the skunk a hug and said, "I am Zig-Zag, daughter of Gipsy.
"And I am Sunshine, also daughter of Gipsy," their guide told her. "We’re Chakats."
Sally frowned. "Okay, I’ll bite, what’s a chakat?"
Neal smiled and said, "Just another type of furball."
"Hey!" Sunshine protested, "We’re very special furballs thank you."
"Also full of themselves," Neal added.
Both chakats mock growled at him while Sally noticed that Gipsy just kept walking, as if she knew that it was all in fun.
As the chakats closed what had to have been at least six sets of security doors, Sally found they were in the biggest ‘den’ she’d ever seen. Mats for lying on had been piled in corners and some showed chew marks, both tiger and cub-sized tooth marks littered the edges. There were six pens, two of which were open. One was bare and looked unused, the other Gipsy headed for.
"I’ll settle her down," Sunshine told Zig-Zag. "You get them to the main section before Janet comes back from lunch."
"Too late!" a new voice softly laughed from a nearby speaker. "You’re busted!"
"Can’t have," Zig-Zag countered as shi looked at the hidden camera. "The alarms always go off when we get ‘caught’."
"No fair," the voice pouted, "you know I can’t wake everyone up unless it’s an emergency."
"Lucky us," Zig-Zag replied. To Neal and Sally shi said, "Come on before she changes her mind."
The lounge they were led to was filled with low chairs and taur pads. On one of the pads sat a pure black chakat, while a human woman sat beside hir. Zig-Zag gave the other chakat a dirty look. "You told!" shi accused Blackie.
"No shi didn’t," the human replied as she got up. "I’ve told you before that you might fool the security system, but you’ll never fool me."
"Sorry, Mum, but Gipsy gets really restless when she feels he’s near," Zig-Zag murmured.
Giving the chakat youth a hug, the woman turned to Neal and gave him a hug as well. "It’s been too long since you were last up this way."
"You know how it is, Kathy," he replied. "I go where I’m needed. I noticed you still haven’t filled that sixth pen."
"We just got lucky with that shipment you brought us. None of the others we’ve tried to get were as suitable as what we’ve got."
"I thought Gipsy looked like she was about due again," Neal suggested.
"Another week or two," Kathy admitted. "So… what brings you our way?"
"Just another load. As they’re just thirty minutes south of here, I thought I’d do a drive-by – only to see someone had left the doors open and the welcome mat out."
"Never mind the big guard kitty waiting at the door," Sally commented. "I’m Sally by the way."
Kathy gave Sally a hug as well. "I see Neal’s social graces haven’t improved any."
"Too old and stuck in my ways," Neal admitted with a grin. "Well, it was nice seeing you and the kittens again, but I need to get some sleep before we deliver that load in the morning."
"They’re not expecting us until noon," Sally pointed out, "and I want to know why you know about furs I haven’t heard of – never mind why a tiger supposedly knows when you’re around."
Kathy smiled at the skunk. "You mean he hasn’t told you about sleeping in a carrier full of tigers one freezing night when his truck heater had failed?"
"They were in cages," Neal threw in.
Kathy ignored him. "Or did he tell you that he woke up to find he’d rolled so his back was to one of those cages? And that Gipsy had snaked her paw through the bars and was holding him close to her?"
A new voice joined them in saying, "And have you ever told him that Gipsy tested the highest for empathy of the big cats he brought us? Or that cubs from her have stronger empathic abilities than the others do?"
"No, Charlie," Neal said giving the newcomer a firm handshake. "She just treats me like a mushroom, kept in the dark and covered in s…"
"Neal!" Kathy exclaimed. "Not in front of the cubs!"
"What?" Neal replied innocently. "You haven’t taught them that word yet?
"I know what word," Blackie said smugly.
"I don’t care if you know the word, just don’t say it," Kathy told hir.
"What word?" Sunshine asked as shi came in, having only heard the last few words.
"Shit," Blackie told hir before ducking under Kathy's swat.
"Bedtime, all of you!" Kathy told the chakats.
Neal deliberately misunderstood and told Charlie, "I see she’s still bossing you around."
"You get used to it," Charlie replied as Kathy glared at him. "Yes dear, going to bed now dear," he said as he too left the room.
Ruefully shaking her head, Kathy turned to Neal. "No need to sleep in your truck. Neal; we have a spare room – or two if needed," she added looking at Sally.
"One will do," Sally said. "I’ve taught him what happens if he misbehaves."
"I see," Kathy said with a grin. "Just don’t stink up our building please."
The room they were led to contained a bed large enough that anything but an equitaur would have called it roomy. Eyeing the bed, Sally said, "You will stay on your side, right?"
"Of course, my dear," Neal said in a snobbish manner. "I can emulate a perfect gentleman when the need arises." He then grinned as she slipped off her skirt to reveal white panties with pink butterflies. "It just never does," he added.
"Anything you say will be held against you," she threatened on seeing his grin.
"Tits," Neal said with a chuckle.
"What?" she demanded.
"You promised to hold whatever I said against me. ‘Tits’ sounded far safer than laughing at your little butterflies."
‘Bastard’ was the last word muttered in the room that night.
Neal was gone when Sally woke up, but she was far from alone. There were at least a dozen of those ‘chakats’ in bed with her, from the eight year olds she’d met just a few hours ago, to a pair of cubs that might has been three months old. One of the youngest was what had awakened her by working diligently to try getting milk out of her nipple.
"They always want to meet new people," Sunshine said from somewhere behind her.
"They or we?" Sally asked hir as she tried to free her breast from the little kitten. "Sorry kiddo, but I don’t have any milk for you."
"Ok, we like meeting new people," Sunshine admitted with a grin.
"What’d you do with that human I came in with?" Sally asked as she got up, looking for her top.
"Out in the pool."
The pool turned out to also be where the tigers took their morning dip. Sally found Neal in the deeper water as the tigers soaked in the shallows. As he skimmed leaves and small sticks off the water’s surface, he looked up and grinned. "Come on in, the waters fine."
Sally hesitated, but the chakats dragged her into the pool with them, the tigers ignoring the skunk among their cubs.
Next came feeding the troops, the older chakats helping feed their mothers as the tigers laid down to allow the youngest ones to breastfeed.
Neal and Sally were then led to the dining hall where they met up with Kathy and Charlie. After gathering a few items from the buffet, they joined the Turners.
With a gleam in her eye at the thought of getting a little ‘dirt’ on her partner, Sally asked Kathy, "How long have you known Neal?"
"About ten years now," Kathy admitted. "He delivered our tigers, and then showed up every few years to see how we’re doing."
"Gipsy wants him to come more often," Zig-Zag told them from the next table.
"So, he doesn’t have any real reason to be here, but you let him in anyway?" Sally asked, a little confused.
"As you’ve seen, one of our big cats does like him, and he’s harmless enough," Charlie said, stopping when he caught several of the chakats trying to choke back laughter. "What’s so funny?" he asked.
"It’s Neal," Sunshine told him. "He was thinking something was really funny."
While they’d been talking, a three-year-old cub had joined Neal. As he fed hir from his plate, Neal commented, "The night I delivered Gipsy and the others, it was storming pretty badly and, like last night, the Turners offered me a bed for the night. As Sally can attest to, I sometimes have trouble sleeping, and that was one of those nights. In the neighboring lab, someone had forgotten to log out of their terminal, and there I found why you guys wanted some oversized housecats." Giving the kitten in his lap a cuddle, Neal continued, "A new type of fur, lots of improvements, lots of potential; and possibly the most dangerous beast to roam the earth since man."
The cub had been watching him talk without any show of upset or fear. Shi watched as Neal slid his plate out of the way and allowed him to lift hir to the table, bringing them eye-to-eye.
Neal let hir rub noses with him before he added, "I just like to check from time to time to see how the great experiment is going."
"There’s something more," Sunshine said, feeling he was hiding something.
"Well… I might have added a gene pair or two to keep you from getting out of control," Neal suggested.
"There’s no way!" Charlie blurted out. "It takes years to even have a clue what you’re doing in a genome!"
"Let’s test that shall we?" Neal said as he grinned at the cub in front of him. "This one’s young enough that this is the first time shi and I have met, so shi doesn’t have any memory of anything I might have done on my previous visits. These beasts are going to be bigger, stronger, faster, and most likely smarter than most humans, so I just wanted an ability to beat one if it ever came down to a fight."
With one hand holding the cub’s lower torso to keep hir from moving, Neal held his other hand in front of hir with two fingers extended. The cub’s eyes widened when Neal started scissoring his fingers back and forth. Shi started to squirm and the fingers came nearer, and shi was giggling uncontrollably before they even had a chance to touch hir.
"You’re claiming you made them ticklish?" Sally demanded.
"I haven’t ‘tickled’ hir yet," Neal pointed out. "And Kathy did catch me playing a game on that terminal when she went to check on me the next morning."
Having felt like giggling when Neal was teasing the cub, Sunshine turned to Blackie with hir fingers scissoring. Blackie backed away quickly, fighting back laughter.
Breakfast was forgotten as the chakats had to try ‘the tickle’ on each other, the Turners looking on worriedly.
"Don’t worry," Neal assured them. "They’ll outgrow it."
"Did you really tweak our settings?" Kathy asked.
"I’m not, and have never been a genetic engineer. And somehow I doubt your program had a ‘more ticklish’ button for me to push."
"So how did you know that cub would know what you were going to do with your fingers?" Sally asked once they were back on the road.
"They’re empathic," Neal explained. "I have tickled the older ones, and their anticipation of what was going to happen set off the cub before I could even touch hir."
"So you really didn’t mess with their genes."
"If you say so."
“Bastard …” Sally muttered as Neal just grinned. A snorted snicker had her whip her head around to stare at him, only to see him raise an eyebrow in her direction – though his eyes stayed on the road.
“I didn’t think it was that funny,” Neal commented as Sally continued to stare at him.
“I didn’t …” she replied.
Neal let out a quiet sigh before saying, “Is this a bad time to ask if you remembered to secure everything?”
Sally took a moment to reply. “The Samson’s Electrical Works compound has had fur disliking types bothering us before. I had things prepared in case things went sour.”
“So whoever’s back there is lying on our primed and ready weapons?” Neal dryly commented, eliciting a pair of surprised hisses from behind their seats.
“I’m afraid so,” Sally admitted.
“Why don’t you rack our toys forward and go see what we’ve got,” Neal told her.
Sally turned her chair so she could slip aside the curtain and access the sleeper compartment behind the truck’s cockpit. Up against the back wall and staring at her wide-eyed were the chakat youths Sunshine and Zigzag. Sally let out a soft snort as she lifted the bed’s cover to remove the first of several weapons, turning forward to secure it before reaching for the next. “The first two we saw last night,” she told Neal as she resumed her seat.
“Zigzag, Sunshine, get your furry noses up here for me to bop!” Neal called towards the back.
“W-We’re sorry!” Zigzag said, ducking back when Neal’s arm came around.
Neal reached further back before dropping his hand on the back of hir neck. Dragging the reluctant chakat youth forward, he growled, “Letting Gipsy loose inside your own compound is one thing, but this is just plain stupid! What the hell were you little idiots thinking?”
“But we hear about all sorts of places, but we can never see them!” Sunshine whined.
“Those guns you saw me moving are there because not all humans like furs, and there are furs that don’t like humans,” Sally quietly told them. “And there are humans – and furs – who really don’t like humans and furs that cozy up together.”
“So riding with us can put your furry little tails in danger,” Neal commented. “Too bad I wasn’t planning on heading back to your den; I might have gotten their channel and codes.”
“Channel 42, and I have the codes,” Sally admitted, “I had a little chat with Janet while you were talking with the Turners.”
“Punch it in,” Neal told her.
Sally spent a moment on one of the keypads before saying, “All yours.”
“Thanks,” Neal acknowledged as he swung down a small boom microphone. “Break 42 this is the Red Bear lookin’ for that Lady Dragon, Dragon Lady ya got your ears on? Over.”
“Red Bear, this is Cub Minder, Dragon Lady is busy and not in the best of moods,” what sounded like Janet’s voice replied, sounding worried.
“Cub Minder, our dragon lady wouldn’t by chance be missing a pair of mangy hatchlings, would she?”
“She certainly would! Do you know which way they flew off?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Neal admitted. “Does she want them cuffed and stuffed – or just skinned?”
“Well, she would like to see a decent return on her investment,” Cub Minder suggested.
“Well, they won’t go for much, but tell her I’ll split the profits with her when I next see her,” Neal agreed. “Out.”
The chakats looked between Neal and Sally, mystified at the conversation. “Does this mean you’re taking us back?” Sunshine asked, sounding hopeful.
“After we make our delivery,” Sally told them. “We have to be there on time or there’s a penalty.”
“Rumors are they have furs working and living in all the compounds now, but that might just be so we’ll lower our guard,” Neal commented.
“You’re always telling me to not borrow trouble,” Sally reminded him.
“And I’ve also told you that it’s best not to walk into anything blindly,” Neal countered. “We have had issues with them before,” he reminded her.
“Oh, I remember,” she said, “I wonder if they ever got all of my spray out of their office?”
“Or all the holes patched after I ventilated it for them,” Neal agreed.
“What happened?” Sunshine asked.
“The group there was holding me hostage, trying to get Neal out of his truck,” Sally told hir. “We had mortar launchers tucked into the top of the trailer and Neal was using them. At the time there were several warring factions in the area, so the first thing Neal did was blow open both of their gates.”
“The better to make my escape,” Neal quipped.
“He then took down several sections of their wall.”
“The better to let others in at them too.”
“Then he started blowing holes in their buildings.”
“Once you get started, it gets to be too much fun to stop,” Neal added with a phony grin.
“Weren’t they shooting back?” Zigzag wondered.
“They were! But this isn’t the same truck; that one could shrug off anything less than a direct anti-tank round hit,” Sally told hir. “And Neal had a couple of guns mounted on each corner of that trailer; sticking your head out to aim meant getting it blown off.”
“I was making it too expensive for them to hold her,” Neal explained. “My one truck – no matter how nice and powerful – was not worth them losing their entire compound.”
“And the longer they held me, the less compound they had left,” Sally added. “If I hadn’t been so scared it might have been funny. Neal would fire off a set of mortars and then demand ‘Where’s my skunky little bitch? Bring that sweet pussy to me now! If she’s been harmed – or killed – then you’d best make peace with whatever gods you believe in.’ He’d then count loudly to ten and the next set of mortars would go off.”
“That sounds mean!” Zigzag said as shi frowned at the back of Neal’s head.
“He had to,” Sally told hir. “If he’d acted like he really cared about me, they would have used that to get him out of the truck – and then we’d both die. On the other hand, if he acted like a spoiled brat, angry that they’d taken one of his toys …”
“Making it safer for them to release you than to keep trying to get to him,” Sunshine surmised.
Neal shrugged. “There wasn’t anything else I could do.”
“There was, and you almost had to do it,” Sally corrected. Turning to the chakats, she added, “You have to understand that me being tortured and raped was a very real possibility if he allowed them to keep me, so he finally said ‘If I can’t have that bitch – neither will you!’ and he started marching his shells towards where they were holding me.”
“Well, that and that I’d just hit one of their munitions bunkers; the fireworks were getting dangerous to stay around.”
“And they let her go?” Zigzag asked.
“No, they ran and left me behind,” Sally told them. “They had me tied up, but I could still shake my tail!”
“Shake your tail? Doesn't that mean you ran away?”
“I couldn’t run, my legs were tied. But Neal had given me a very special tail clip, and they hadn’t found it. You see it generated a radio pulse when shaken back and forth.”
“Telling me where she was,” Neal added. “I just drove through what was left of their building and picked her up. Boy did that place reek of her spray!”
“That was a few years ago,” Sally reminded him.
“And I understand the compound has changed owners a few times since then,” Neal countered. “Whether there’s still any anti-fur issues around there remains to be seen.”
“Ten minutes out,” Sally said.
“So it is,” Neal agreed. “Five until we deploy our backup, start the self tests.”
“Just one and three?” she asked.
“We’ll be in a lot of trouble if we need more than that,” Neal pointed out. “And that still leaves the other three if we need to make a run for it.”
“Three what?” Zigzag asked.
“Three run-about remotes,” Sally told them. “Little mobile weapon platforms; while they can each carry two, we normally run them by remote control.”
“They have some armor, so they can be used to escape a dangerous area if needed,” Neal added. “Sadly, they weren’t made with taurs in mind, so while each of you might be able to fold yourselves into one, I can guarantee you won’t like the ride.”
Other than Sally hitting a few buttons and a couple of thuds from behind them, there wasn’t much to tell the cubs that the platforms had deployed. A few minutes later the truck approached a high security fence.
“Several of the towers have snipers,” Sally reported as she watched the displays from several of the cameras mounted on the truck and trailer.
“Anyone aiming at us?” Neal asked as he flipped a series of warning covers away from the switches they protected.
“Nope, just watching, though one of them’s on a radio,” Sally replied.
“They’re worried about something,” Sunshine told them.
“Did their worry go up or down when they saw this truck coming?” Neal asked hir.
“It just changed a little, but I don’t think you are what worries them.”
“We’ll know soon enough, here comes somebody,” Sally said as an older looking wolf morph stepped out of the guard post by the gate and slowly walked towards them.
“He’s … hopeful about something,” Sunshine said as he came closer.
“Hmmm,” was all that Neal said as he watched a display on his side of the truck cab.
Sally saw what he had seen and chambered a round before moving her seat so that Neal’s body hid her gun arm from the driver’s window, Neal leaning back would give her a clear shot if it was needed.
The wolf easily climbed up the side of the truck’s cab, placing him muzzle to nose with Neal.
“You brought a gun with you, may I see it?” Neal asked with a smile as he held out his hand.
“This is still a rough area,” the wolf explained as he offered it to Neal butt first.
Neal wasn’t surprised to find the clip full, but he was a little relieved to see the wolf had been carrying it with the chamber empty. Returning the weapon the way he’d received it, Neal asked, “You the Johnson that placed the order?”
“My father,” the wolf admitted. “But the order wasn’t the only reason we wanted you here …”
“Oh?” Neal asked, a little frost added to his tone.
“You cleared a really bad group out of this compound the last time you were here.”
“While the different groups around here have pretty much settled down, there’s still a couple bones of contention that we can’t resolve …”
“And?” Neal said again.
“The old Miller road …”
“Was heavily mined by several groups – before and after the cease fire,” Sally said from behind Neal. “Past efforts to clear the mines were hampered by being shot at by those that don’t want the road cleared …”
“All the groups want it cleared now,” the wolf assured them.
“He believes what he’s saying,” Sunshine quietly said.
“But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t told one thing and others intend something else,” Neal pointed out. “Why me?” he asked the wolf.
The wolf actually smirked before saying, “Word is that minefields don’t stop you.”
“But I won’t clear one just to help one group attack another,” Neal countered. “Where are the other heads of the groups?”
“At their compounds; your load has consignments to each of them.”
“Yet this was the only address on the order …”
“We drew the short straw for asking you for help.”
“You know it’s going to be a while before I trust all of this,” Neal pointed out.
“We know,” the wolf agreed.
“Do you speak for your compound?”
“Are you willing to bet your life that this really is peace between the compounds?”
He hesitated for only a moment before saying, “I do.”
Neal nodded. “Very well then; go back in and tell them you’re coming with me to confirm this with each of the other compounds.”
“Where’s he going to ride?” Sally asked as the wolf walked back to the guardhouse.
“I was thinking about the old bumper seat,” Neal suggested with a grin. “It will show us just how much he trusts this peace …”
The younger Johnson soon found himself riding on the wide front bumper that had pivoted ninety degrees to make a bench seat; hold down hooks securing his seatbelt; and goggles protected his eyes as the vehicle started turning away from the gate.
Neal took it easy on his new passenger, keeping the speed down and easy turns as they headed to the next compound. There it was a female cat that came out to the truck and confirmed that they too wanted Neal to clear the road. Though Neal didn’t ask her to, she joined the wolf on the bumper seat for the ride to their next stop.
They pulled up to their last stop with a wolf, cat, badger and a rabbit all riding the bumper. This time it was a male fox that waited for them. The four from the bumper moved to talk to him. Neal and Sally listened in by way of a shotgun microphone mounted on the top of the cab. The conversation seemed to start out okay, but quickly broke out into an argument between the five.
“So much for peace in this area,” Sally murmured.
“And the others all felt so sure,” Sunshine told them.
“Just the fox, and he’s angry about more than just the road I think,” Zigzag added.
Neal was simply frowning at their observations. He sat there for another minute before he started undoing his seatbelt.
“And where do you think you’re going?” Sally half demanded.
“To get an answer sometime today,” Neal replied as he opened the door and climbed down.
It took the arguing furs a minute to notice one annoyed human approaching them. The wolf was first and simply stopped yelling at the fox, the others noticed his silence before looking to see what could have caused him to stop pushing his side of the argument.
The fox scowled at Neal as the others went silent. “No one touches Miller’s road!” he growled.
“So, why did your compound tell the others they wanted it cleared?” Neal didn’t quite snarl back. “I won’t be delivering cargo to this area if the groups are still fighting – and if you’re not fighting, then that road doesn’t need to stay a deathtrap.”
Putting his hand on his revolver, the fox smiled as he said, “You’re out in the open, human.”
“So are you,” Neal countered, as there was a strange noise from the truck. The hood’s fender panels had opened up to reveal twin Vulcan mini-guns, their barrels already a spinning blur. “Mine’s bigger, and they can’t be stopped by shooting me …”
The fox looked like he wanted to draw anyway, but he held back for the moment.
“I would speak to the head of your compound,” Neal told him.
“She’s resting – and will not be disturbed!” the fox snarled back at him.
“If you won’t wake her, I will,” Neal said as he brought both hands up – and placed his fingers in his ears.
The other furs were a little slow to realize what was going on, and the long piercing double tone from the truck soon had them all trying to protect their ears from the painful sound. The fox had been forced to follow suit, but he had drawn his gun and now held it against his head.
Four times the tone sounded, forcing them to keep their ears covered. The moment the fourth tone started to die, Neal suddenly stepped forward and tore the revolver from the fox’s grasp. Breaking the revolver open, he shook the bullets out before tossing the weapon away from them. “Now maybe we can talk,” Neal told the fox.
The fox had stepped back when Neal had taken his gun; he now growled as his arm came around and he flicked his wrist.
A glint of silver as the arm came around was all the warning Neal had – he had just enough time to start to twist away, but not enough time to dodge as the stiletto buried itself in his upper arm rather than his chest where it had been aimed.
Whether anyone called out or yelled was not heard as a ‘bra-bra-brap!’ sound from the still spinning barrels on the nearer fender gun marked the end of the fox. The wolf had also seen the blade flash and had drawn and armed his weapon, but he never had a chance to fire as he watched the first shot almost cut the fox in two at the gut. The next was in his chest while the last caused the head to explode. Turning to face the truck, he pointed his gun at the sky as he ejected the magazine and then cleared the chamber.
Neal had also turned towards his truck, he grunted in pain as he pulled the thin blade out of his arm before dropping it. The cat was closest and bent down to retrieve the stiletto.
“Don’t touch the blade,” Neal cautioned her. “Carefully take it to the truck and Sally will check it for toxins. She’ll also give you my med kit.” Letting his arm freely bleed, Neal made his way back to the truck and sat down on the bumper seat.
It wasn’t the cat, but Zigzag that came over with the med kit, Sunshine close behind.
“I thought you two were to wait in the truck,” Neal complained as the others stared at the two taurs in confusion.
“Sally’s up there cussing you out for being stupid,” Zigzag informed him as shi opened the case. “And Kathy trained us for basic first aid after one of the tigers cut herself on some old glass.”
“They’re calmer with us doing it than the grownups,” Sunshine chimed in.
“Okay then,” Neal said, giving up on getting them back into the truck. “First a couple shots, there should be a tetanus booster on the top, and an Anti-bio-NF, in the shoulder please.”
“Shouldn’t we stop the bleeding first?” Sunshine asked in confusion.
“Just in case there was something on that blade, I want to let the blood flow for a minute,” Neal told hir. “By then Sally should have that blade tested for the more common fast-acting toxins.”
Shots administered and wound cleaned out, Zigzag hesitated before closing the wound with stitches. “Do you want a pain killer first?” shi asked.
“I get funny reactions to most pain killers, and I need to stay alert right now,” Neal explained. “Just sew away.”
“Toxin pages one and two came up clean,” Sally’s voice reported from a speaker in the grill. “Do I need to tell you just how stupid that was?” she snarled. “You know there a lot of people that hate your guts for getting in their way!”
“And most of those that try to express that hatred end up like the fox,” Neal replied as Sunshine helped Zigzag wrap a bandage around his arm.
“I’m detecting several of them by the door, but no one seems ready to risk opening it,” Sally told him.
Testing his arm movement, Neal turned back towards the compound and called out, “If you want to talk, this would be a good time. If you’re thinking of attacking, not such a good time.”
The main door opened just far enough for a fox head to stick out. It observed the twin Vulcan mini-guns were pointed at the door and ducked back inside. Moments later an elderly fox vixen carefully stepped through the door, moving slowly with her cane.
Neal and the furs around him did not go out to meet her, letting her limp her way to them.
Eyeing Neal’s bloody arm, she said, “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“What was ‘supposed to happen’?” Neal countered.
“He had agreed to tell you that we wanted the road cleared – if you can do it … it seems he lied to me …”
“I wasn’t told why you all wanted me, so I don’t have the proper equipment with me,” Neal pointed out.
“You mean you don’t have the normal clearing equipment!” the old fox countered. “I know you have other ways of doing things.”
“And they are rather dangerous for those nearby …”
“I don’t care anymore. We’re closest and will bear the greatest risk if something goes wrong,” she snapped at him.
“Why now, after all this time?” Neal wondered.
“I – I’ve lost three grandchildren to those mines this last year – no more!”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Neal promised. “To do that road right with what I have will take most of a day, and we’ve lost most of this one …”
“We don’t care how long it takes, we just want it done,” the fox assured him, the others nodding in agreement.
“All right then, if the winds are calm, we’ll start tomorrow – and I’ll call and see if we can get a mine sweeper up here in the next few weeks to ensure we get them all,” Neal told them. “Keep your people inside your compounds after dawn, that will be the safest place for everyone.”
“How are you going to do it?” the wolf asked.
“Well, as there is evidence that the mines out there range from anti-personnel to anti-tank, I thought we’d start with a little blasting to trigger those we can from a distance,” Neal told them. “It’s really all I can do with what I have with me.”
“We’ll be ready,” the fox assured him.
“You’ll hear what will sound like an old air raid siren starting ten minutes before I start,” Neal promised as the vixen turned to limp back to her compound.
Neal followed the chakats back up and into the cab while the others resumed their bumper seats. Sally drove them each to their compounds before heading them away from the area.
“Recall one and three,” Neal told her, “I’ve got to reload them.”
“You mister are going to lay there while I reload them,” Sally told him hotly.
“You can’t,” Neal gently corrected her. “You don’t know the protocols,” he softly added.
“Like hell! You gave me every code for this bucket of bolts,” she protested.
“I gave you everything you’d need for the day-to-day running and defense, but I didn’t give you the war protocols.”
“War protocols?” she asked in confusion, “Do I even want to know?”
“Not really,” Neal admitted. “Things were different during the wars …”
“Mom said your other trucks were even more like tanks than your last one.”
“They were, and they each carried more firepower too. While most areas have calmed down, there are still hot spots like this one that can’t find peace.”
“And what are these so called ‘war protocols’?”
“They were made to bring the hell of war to those that refused to accept peace. In this case though, I want to use a device made for war to destroy what the wars have left behind. I will reload one and three to deliver the payload, and then we can use them to run the course a few times to see if there’s any bigger stuff we missed.”
“Ok, so how can I help?”
“Once the remotes are back, I can start changing them over for their new task while you truck the cubs home.”
“I’m not leaving you unprotected –” Sally started to protest as both the chakats yelled out, “We’re staying!”
Neal turned to glare at them. “This shit’s dangerous! If I make one mistake it could kill everything within a mile of me.”
“All the more reason to force you to be careful,” Sally shot back. “Or, you can tell me how to do it and you can truck the kids back yourself!”
“Neither will give in,” Sunshine told Zigzag, “They both think they’re right and they won’t give in …”
“Like when Kathy and Charlie fight?” Zigzag asked, sounding worried.
“No, this is worse. Neal thinks others might die – but that it needs to be done. Sally’s just trying to protect Neal – but he won’t put her at risk to protect himself.”
“Empathic critters can be such a bother,” Neal complained to the cab in general.
“Damn straight,” Sally agreed. “Trying to analyze away a perfectly good mad …”
Neal looked thoughtful. “The remotes were built to handle just one of the big boys each. I’m going to place the full load out on two of them; I don’t want to launch anything from the truck.”
“So we don’t get blown up?” Zigzag asked.
“Those munitions are all forty to sixty years old, a false launch or premature detonation would be deadly,” Neal informed them.
“What type munitions are they?” Sally asked.
“It’s an airburst with a twist,” Neal told her. “It’s a precision mortar/rocket deployed fuel air bomb in two layers. I don’t claim to understand all the details, but it’s like a giant shaped charge. The outer layer goes off faster somehow and forces the main charge straight down as it’s going off. The results are like a bomb several times bigger hitting the ground – but with a lot less of the primary blast going up or to the sides.”
“Just how powerful?”
“Set one off between the two closest compounds – and they’d both disappear.”
“Why didn’t you warm me we were carrying those things?”
“Because they don’t ‘burn’ any worse than a magnesium fire if they aren’t ‘deployed’.”
“Damn you! And you’ve been sitting on these things for decades?”
“We’ve been lucky enough not to have needed them. They were a last resort type of weapon; like a nuke but much ‘cleaner’ and more restrained. To only be used when we didn’t dare lose,” Neal softly said, looking far older than he had a minute ago.
“And who decided that?” Sally asked softly.
“He had to,” Sunshine told her, not liking at all the feelings shi was getting off of Neal.
“You asked one time if I was a monster. Well, I can be. I can look at a person or a group of people and decide if they need to die. I have decided more times than the three of you can count to. Some of the decisions were easy, ‘armed person attacking unarmed’, or coming up on a group gang-raping their victim. Others were harder, knowing that if I didn’t act at that time I’d be leaving them free to cause even more pain and bloodshed at some later date …”
“Then we make a good team. I didn’t think twice when that fox threw his knife at you.”
Zigzag was looking somber as Sunshine quietly said, “One of our little sisters came out all deformed and Kathy and Charlie had to put hir to sleep. Kathy cried for days …”
“There will be crying whether I do this or not,” Neal quietly said. “The others have tried clearing them on several occasions, but the mines keep cropping up.”
“You think someone’s putting the mines back,” Zigzag guessed.
“Which is why we won’t launch from the truck; someone may try to destroy the launchers,” Neal agreed.
“Those other furs thought you could do anything,” Sunshine told him.
“They probably grew up on the stories of what their parents had seen. Those old trucks were almost tanks – and one rolled away from more than a few very serious poundings. But we were also more like a small convoy back then, with dozens of support vehicles and thirty to fifty humans and furs. We’re not even a shadow of that now, so we have to be more careful.”
“Did my mom know about your ‘war protocols’?” Sally asked.
“She knew they were there, but she didn’t have the keys,” Neal admitted.
“Just as well, she can get quite hotheaded at times,” Sally agreed.
“My responsibility. I set them up, I aim them, and I push the button,” Neal told them.
“Can we at least help with the less dangerous parts?” she asked.
“With my arm the way it is? Yeah, you can help.”
“How bad is it?”
“Hit hard enough to dig a bit into the bone, aches like hell right now.”
“And I know about your problem with pain killers, damn it …”
“After we blast the road, I’ll let you dope me up and drive us back to chakitten land,” Neal promised as he pressed a few buttons on his controls.
“Wait – why did you just release the other three remotes?” Sally asked in confusion.
“To do this right is going to take four of them,” Neal told her. “The fifth will be part of our insurance policy if there is really someone out there that doesn’t want those mines cleared.”
Zigzag helped Neal while Sunshine assisted Sally in setting up each remote the way Neal wanted them. This took them the rest of the day and into the evening, when their dinner announced itself. The truck’s infrared system detected it stepping out of a stand of trees and took aim with one of its smaller guns as it alerted its masters. Sally smiled when she saw what was on the screen before tapping the accept key. A single shot rang out as she said, “We eat fresh venison tonight!”
Neal finished up on the remote he was working on as the other three went to retrieve the now headless doe.
A ring of stone was quickly made to help control the fire they would soon be starting, and then Sally showed the youths how to properly skin the deer so that the hide could be made into other things.
Neal ended up with a good-sized piece of the liver – well-cooked in case the deer had been harboring any worms – while the other three feasted on the rest of it. With the remains buried a ways from the camp; it was then time to get some rest. Though still youths, the taurs each out-massed Neal, making the sleeper a tight squeeze for all four of them. Neal’s offer to sleep in his driving seat was ignored as they pulled him into the back with them. Getting ready to sleep, the cubs found that the back wall opened, and after rolling off the wide bed to the rear they discovered a head that no taur could fit in, as well as a small cooking area.
The early morning hours found Neal up a little before the sun, making a couple of minor changes to the remotes before sending them on their way.
“What were you doing?” Sally asked as she climbed down from the truck’s cab.
“I promised to give each of the compounds a warning before I started,” he reminded her. “A remote will drop off an alarm at each compound’s front gate before going to their positions.”
“You’re not going to use the one on the truck?”
“There’s something you’re not telling me,” she stated.
“There’s a couple things I don’t know yet.”
“Damn you, is this more of your little black book?”
“If I knew then I’d know. As I don’t, we’ll get to find out together.”
“The way I heard you tell them, I thought the whole valley would hear the warning, not just the compounds …”
“Most of the valley will hear them; we just won’t be giving them a single target.”
“You think there’s something out there.”
“In the last twenty years nothing has gone down that road or into the surrounding forest and come back out. And we’re talking humans and furs that had been through the wars and knew how to survive …”
“Ok, so just what do you have planned?”
“I have to assume whatever’s in there has spies and knows I’ve been asked to clear that road. Two of the remotes will start clearing the road with the smaller mortars while the big ones are launched. If there is something in there, they’ll either hide as they’ve been doing all these years – or they’ll come out of hiding and try to kill whatever is knocking down their minefield.”
“And then the big ones go off,” Sally quietly said.
“That’s the idea anyway,” Neal agreed.
“No more of a warning than you have to.”
“They’ve kept this area on edge for far too long.”
“What if there’s no one in there?”
“Then I’ve wasted a few mortars but we’ll have still cleared the mine field,” Neal pointed out, “Which is all I was asked to do.”
Shortly after dawn, a siren at each compound began its warble, waking any that may have tried to sleep in. Ten minutes later two of Neal’s remote vehicles rolled onto the near end of the old Miller road. The lead remote fired off a series of mortars, walking them down the middle of the road. As expected, each blast set off some of the mines around the impact points, and in some cases they then triggered other nearby mines. As the first remote reloaded, the second carved a new line a few meters from the first strikes, tripping still more mines.
The almost constant bombardment helped cover the sounds of the other two remotes firing off their much heavier payloads – but it also helped drown out a growing noise from the nearby forest …
The first remote platform was just starting its fourth round of launches when two helicopters rose above tree line from deep in the forest. The lead chopper aimed and fired on the firing remote, its heavy rounds slicing through the well-armored remote with ease and tearing it to pieces. Once finished with the first remote, the chopper was just turning to the second when there was a blinding light from above. The flash was almost immediately followed by a massive shockwave that sent both choppers spinning down and out of control back into the forest that had spawned them. The shockwave – which would be detectable by earthquake equipment thousands of miles away – stripped the foliage from those trees it didn’t knock over, tripping many of the traps scattered throughout the forest. Along the road the shockwave did even more damage as it set off the mines in and along the road, and collapsing several previously hidden hollowed out areas under the road and in the surrounding forest.
Of the two remotes, the remains of the first were tossed away like a small toy in the wind, while the second was flipped over on its armored top.
While the airburst had been high enough to not set the remains of the forest afire, there were still clouds of smoke welling up from the ruined copters as well as a few of the new holes along the road.
While the further compounds had suffered only moderate damage from the shockwave and winds that followed it, the nearest camp was nearly leveled, their walls were down and most doors and windows missing from the buildings – those that were still standing …
It took a while for one of the other remotes to make its way over the now very rough terrain to where the other two had fallen. Its camera scrolled over the damaged and destroyed remotes before continuing down Miller’s road. It stopped to examine the newly opened pits and to try to see what might have been in them before turning for the still-rolling smoke of the downed flyers.
One was hung up in the now denuded trees, but the second had crashed not too far from the road. The impact had been severe enough to tear the craft open, spilling out its cargo and crew. Each body was examined before the remote turned and continued it way down the road.
While very rough from all the mines having left various sized craters, the remote was able to travel down Miller’s road without mishap. The remote then turned to retrace its path.
While Neal had been driving the remote, Sally had been slowly driving their truck towards the fox’s compound. He let her drive the remote back as he and the chakats got out to inspect the damage.
Neal was heartened to see that the other compounds had beaten him there, everywhere there were teams of furs and humans helping clear rubble and looking for those possibly still trapped in the half collapsed buildings. He and the chakats got out and walked the compound, Neal letting the chakats feel what they could. Twice they found someone the other groups had failed to locate. Once they had to tell a frantic vixen that they couldn’t feel her mate or cub under the pile of wreckage that had been their home – though that story would end on a better note as they later learned that the tod had extracted himself and their pup before the roof had fully caved in.
Neal and the youths were returning to the remains of the main gate when the elderly vixen approached them. “That was a bit more than I was expecting,” she dryly commented.
“I warned you I only had the ‘hard way’ with me,” Neal countered.
“So you did,” she admitted. “Was it really needed?”
Johnson’s son and the representatives from the other compounds had joined them, so Neal said, “I’m afraid it was; if you will all come with me?” before leading them back to his truck. Once there he pulled a large screen display out of the cab before attaching it to the shady side of the truck. Powering it up, he pulled loose the remote control and flipped though the choices. The others soon found themselves watching one of Neal’s remotes popping mortars at the road before them before the display shook as their platform fired in turn. There was more than one sharp intake of breath when the helicopters rose over the tree line and destroyed the first remote before the screen went white from the overload.
Pausing the display, Neal commented, “From the way they chewed through my remote I’m guessing they were firing anti-tank rounds, and there’s nothing in this area – including my truck – that could have survived that kind of firepower.” He changed the camera view to one now looking over the remains of the two remotes before going down the now cleared road. None of those there had ever seen around the first bend before in their lives, the mines had been in place longer than any but the elderly vixen had lived. They now watched as the camera showed them the remains of the road – and what had been hidden from view. Some of the now visible pits suggested even more might have been hidden under their collapsed coverings. Further back, there was what looked like a half collapsed hill with what appeared to be trucks or other equipment half-hidden under its opening.
“We need to ensure there aren’t more of them waiting in deeper holes,” the wolf half suggested, the others nodding in agreement. Turning to the fox he said, “I’m sorry, but making sure there’s not something waiting in there to attack us is more important than your repairs.”
She waved him off as she said, “Of course it is. But I do need to make sure my people all have a place to sleep tonight … I can offer ten of my best to help with searching while the rest work on the repairs. You can pull however many as you want from those that came with you.”
“If I may suggest?” Neal asked. With a nod from the furs he said, “We have no idea what you’re going to find, so I’d suggest a few quick recon groups with a larger force held in reserve in case a recon group ‘finds’ something too big for them to handle. I can also offer a few things to help blast tunnels closed if we need to.”
Several teams were formed and quickly headed out as a larger group with heavier weapons soon followed them. Sally had turned the remote around and started it back towards the destroyed compound to add its weapons and communications links.
The first recon teams were approaching one of the nearer pits when there was a crash below as some of the debris shifted. They watched as it shifted again and a bruised and blooded human crawled from the rubble filled cave. He turned and helped the next one crawl out, and they helped a third. It was when they started passing weapons through the hole that the furs had to act.
“I’ve got this,” a small and slim fox vixen stated.
“How do you figure?” asked a much larger fox, the wolf behind him ready to also disagree.
“I’m a smaller target – and you’re the better shot if this turns ugly,” she snapped back as she stepped to the edge of the pit and called down; “Put the weapons down! Anyone carrying a weapon will be shot! If any weapon is fired down there, we will kill every last one of you!”
Proof of her sincerity came moments later when one of them grabbed a gun and tried to point it up and in her direction. While her friend may have been a better shot, she still managed to put three of her five round burst in the human’s torso.
“Which word didn’t you idiots understand?” she demanded of those staring up at her in shocked surprise.
“If they can hear you at all,” the other fox muttered. “We were a lot further off and my ears are still ringing …”
“They heard her well enough to turn when she spoke,” the wolf pointed out. “If they still think they can act like nothing can touch them, they deserve whatever they get.”
“There’s more of them over here!” a cat called from the edge of another pit. “Looks like mostly women and children – all human.”
“Already had one over here going for a gun when they saw us, don’t take any chances,” the wolf called over to them.
“No problem,” the cat called back. “It looks like your gunfire has warned these that we won’t be putting up with much.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the roar of a large turbine engine lighting off in the back of the hill opening. The crashing of metal on metal preceded the team that had gone in, who were now trying to get away from the ruined entrance as quickly as they could. The last one – a ferret morph – was just rounding the corner when something large plowed through the vehicles and remains of the door. The tank operator was either driving blind or was blindly driving, because they then drove the tank straight into one of the deeper pits, almost crushing some of the humans still coming from the shaft within the cavity.
“Make sure there aren’t any more of those damned things!” the wolf hollered at the team that had run out. “The next one may not be so dumb,” he added as he looked in the pit. The tank’s main barrel was jammed into the far wall and the spinning treads were still trying to move it forward.
In an action bordering somewhere between bravery and stupidity, the wolf then ran over to the edge and jumped onto the tank’s lower deck. The driver’s hatch had been dogged down from inside – but the one on the turret was not secured and the wolf yanked it open as he quickly ducked to one side.
When no shouts or shots came from within, the others watched as he brought his hat over the opening as a decoy. Finally he risked his head, first for just a moment before he went back and took a longer look. It was hard to tell if what he next said was a curse or a prayer, but he turned around and dropped into the open turret hatch. Nothing happened for about a minute, and then the tracks were disengaged and the engine died.
Climbing out of the turret, he called up, “Dead before I opened the hatch. Poor guy wasn’t belted in and I think he broke his neck when he hit the pit. The body was holding power to the tracks.”
“You’re an IDIOT you know that?” the little fox yelled down at him.
“But now we have ourselves a tank!” he countered.
“We don’t need everyone fighting over a damn tank!” she protested.
“Let me rephrase,” he said a little softer, “we now have something we can remote and run up and down this road to see if we missed any of the bigger mines …”
“Ok, but I still think you’re a moron,” she replied.
“No worse than you,” the other fox pointed out. Looking past her, he grinned as he called out, “Ho! We have backups.”
“What have you found?” one of the new arrivals call back.
“Mess of humans, and a tank,” he told them. “Seems they’re the reasons we could never get that road cleared.”
“The remote’s still at the compound, they’re rigging it for close in support.”
“No problem, that blast took a lot of the fight out of them.”
“Heh, no surprise there. I’m more surprised anything is alive in here, I’ve seen tornadoes that did less damage to a wooded area.”
Conversation was cut short by three dull ‘thump’ sounds in the distance. Those with keener hearing could then hear the staccato sound of several machine guns firing before they were cut off by a slower firing – but much heavier sounding – gun.
“On it!” a squirrel chittered as she and her team hurried further down the road.
“What’s up?” asked the wolf still standing on the tank.
“Seems they had another exit; we just heard mortar and gunfire from the road away from the compounds,” the fox told him. “Sam’s team’s heading that way to check it out.”
“She’d better watch her fluffy tail; they may have more surprises waiting for us.”
“Helicopters, a damn tank … how the hell didn’t we hear them in here?”
“Maybe some did, and didn’t come home when they went in to confirm what they thought they’d heard.”
“Or no one believed them, this has been our ‘haunted’ ground for a very long time.”
“Well, we know they had more exits now, how do we go about finding them all?”
“We could just ask them,” the vixen suggested. “Make each one draw us a map of the place, not all will remember to lie the same way.”
“Not a bad idea,” the wolf admitted.
“I’ll ‘not a bad idea’ you!” the vixen snarled at him.
“Save it for when you two aren’t playing with your guns,” the older fox retorted. “Keep your minds on our friends here.”
“Group push,” the radios they all carried squawked. “Airborne recon launching. No shooting up my birds ya silly furballs!”
“I’ll show him ‘silly furball’,” the vixen growled.
“No, you won’t,” the older male snapped back, “none of us are going to do anything to get on that guy’s bad side.”
“I ain’t gonna kiss no human’s ass,” she protested.
“No one said you had to, ya little idiot. But you best walk carefully around someone that can come up with this kind of shit at the drop of a hat. He was asked to swing by, but no one told him the real reason.” Waving his free arm around he growled, “This is what he could pull outa his ass on a moment’s notice, do you really want to see what he can come up with when he’s got time to plan?”
The vixen also looked around as if seeing things for the first time, not a sprig of green on any of the trees, the heavy support beams jutting out from the remains of the hillside bunker, the humans – still dazed and confused as they crawled out of their holes and into the light. “Okay … I’ll play nice with him.”
“No one said you had to play nice,” her radio said, the voice was that of the skunk they’d seen with the human trucker, “but we only have a couple of those flyers on hand, so losing them means you guys get to do the recon the hard way.”
“Not to mention anyone shooting at them then gives you a target?” the vixen softly suggested.
“Just so,” she heard the skunk agree. “Just a sec – fielding other calls. More than a couple sites heard our little boom …”
“Damn, I didn’t think of that. We could have their friends coming in after us,” the vixen muttered.
“That’s why me and Neal are staying with the truck, from here we can give you guys more of a heads up if anything starts moving this way.”
“Hey! If you’re done flapping your tongue over there – we have work to do …”
“Yeah yeah,” the vixen muttered as she moved to join the others.
“Heh, we got better maps out of those kids than we did the adults … and that was before we tried bribing them with food!”
“I’m hoping that doesn’t mean you threatened to starve the kids,” Neal said as he looked over the composite underground map he’d been handed.
“Na, they were fed prior. But when we started offering treats, we learned of the rooms they’d been told not to talk about,” the wolf assured him. “As there was a second set of tunnels ‘hidden’ from the first, it made our job easier.”
“Or it would have if half the collapsed rooms weren’t tied to the hidden passages,” the vixen countered. “The adults were having trouble trying to explain some of the extra pits.”
“Were you able to confirm that we got all of them out?” Sally asked.
“We had one ‘firefight’,” the vixen admitted. “One of the squirrels lost some tufts off their tail when they surprised us, and they had no intention of surrendering to us.”
“Did you get them out?” Sally repeated.
“No. We tried smoking them out, but they refused to come out …”
“That’s what those blasts were, you sealing them in,” Neal quietly said.
The vixen nodded. “We were told not to take any unnecessary risks with them,” she reminded him.
“Oh, I’m not complaining,” he said. “While it would be nice to find out what all they were doing and why, stopping the threat was the main goal.”
“So now what?” the elderly vixen wondered as she joined them.
“Well, if you consider that road ‘cleared’, I have two hitchhikers to drag home by their tails,” Neal said.
“And if you’re done with my human, it’s past time I put him down for a while to heal,” Sally added.
“I think we can manage things from here,” the vixen agreed. “It’s time for all of us to rest and recover from these events.”
“We’ll unload tomorrow then,” Neal agreed.
“No,” Sally countered. “We will unload tomorrow. You are taking those pain meds and getting some sleep.”
The next afternoon found Sally driving them back to the chakat compound. Zigzag half in, half out of the other seat watching the scenery go by as Sunshine cuddled with the still sleeping Neal. They had been taking turns all morning, one of them always with Neal after Sally had to give him a second dose of the pain meds when he’d tried to get up in the middle of the night. She was about to tell the chakat that it wasn’t much farther when Zigzag suddenly turned and climbed back into the sleeping area.
“I can sense her,” Sally heard hir telling Sunshine.
“Is she mad?” Sunshine asked, apprehension easy to read in hir voice.
“I can’t tell,” Zigzag admitted. “I think she’s trying to stay calm so as to not upset the others.”
“Who, Kathy?” Sally asked. She knew they were still miles from the compound and she was wondering how the chakats could be sensing anyone at such range.
“K-Karen,” Sunshine told her. “She helps with security.”
“She was away when you were there – that’s how we were able to sneak out,” Zigzag added.
“She’s gonna be mad …”
“Do you think she’s madder than I was when Neal took that blade?” Sally asked.
“Almost,” Sunshine admitted.
“And yet Neal survived my being mad at him – as you two no doubt will as well.”
Thirty minutes later saw the big truck turning into the estate, again Sally had found the gates opened wide for them and she eased them in as Neal had done a few nights ago. There was a lot more to see in the daylight, and more activity as well. As before, Gipsy waited for them at the side door, her tail lashing about as if she was impatient about something.
Sally stopped the truck on almost the same spot Neal had and looked down at the large tiger.
“I’m here to deliver a couple of your wayward cubs,” she told the tiger just before she saw movement to the side.
What arose from the shade was a cougar morph much taller than Sally or Neal. While the tan with shades of brown striped figure had a well-defined pair of breasts, there was also a noticeable bulge at the crotch. “Where’s Neal?” the morph didn’t quite demand.
“Hopefully still asleep, and you are?” Sally shot back.
“Karen, head of security, herder of kats. Knowing Neal, I find it hard to believe he’s actually taking a nap …”
Sally frowned as she said; “He took a blade to the arm a couple days ago.”
“That have anything to do with the shock wave we felt and heard yesterday?”
“He cleared the old Miller road south of here,” Sally admitted.
“They asked him to.”
“And they cut him up in appreciation?”
“No, it seems there were a couple that knew the secret of the road, a human extremist group had been hiding in there all this time.”
“What in the hell did he use?”
“Some type of airburst.”
Karen’s eyes widened a little in surprise, “He still has more of those damn things?”
“Had. As in I think he dumped everything we had on them.”
“So he knew they were there …”
“He claimed he only suspected, but he took a lot of precautions setting things up and then setting it off.”
“I kind of noticed you’re missing a couple remotes …”
“He used them as bait to draw them out, the bits and pieces are in the trailer.” Sally’s grin wasn’t pleasant as she added, “A pair of attack choppers popped up to kill them – just before Neal’s little boom knocked them down.”
Karen involuntarily shuddered before saying, “I’ve been in the air for a couple of Neal’s booms; damn things nearly shredded my wings off!”
“He didn’t warn you?”
“He warned me – but I had to keep the heat on the enemy until the burst. Neal thought I was too close and was threatening to abort, but I told him to fire … he was almost right, I didn’t walk but crawled away from the wreck … I was never so happy to see one of those cramped little remotes – even with Tally cussing me the whole way home.”
“You knew my mother?” Sally asked in surprise.
“Oh yeah, since the day she hooked up with Neal and our little convoy. The stories I could tell – if I didn’t fear having her spray me from nose to the tip of my tail!”
“Hmmm, she’s not here, but I am, perhaps you’re fearing the wrong skunk …”
Karen's grin turned evil, “Tally I owe, you I don’t.”
“I’d still like to hear more about that time, Mom doesn’t like to talk about it …”
“Perhaps another time,” Karen allowed, “For now, you have a couple youths I need to deal with. Oh, and did you keep that blade?”
“Yeah, I’ve got it; all the tox screens came up clean.” Turning her head back inside the cab Sally quietly said, “Time to face the music kids.”
Karen nodded as shi said, “Just the same, we have more in-depth tests we can run from here. I don’t want to find out the hard way we missed something slow-acting.” Seeing Zigzag’s muzzle next to Sally’s, shi quietly growled, “Front and center you two!”
They were more than a little hesitant getting out of the truck and in front of the much larger morph, but cringe was the proper word to describe what the two chakat youths did when Karen pulled a pair of bright pink harnesses out of hir cargo pants pocket.
“I’m sure you two know why you’ll be wearing these for the next two months,” Karen said as shi tossed them each one.
“Two months?” Sunshine didn’t quite wail.
“Considering the ruckus your disappearances caused before Neal called us? You’re lucky it isn’t until you hit puberty!” Karen snapped at hir. “And I really don’t like coming home to a mess of upset tigers and cubs – all because the two that I thought I could trust betrayed the freedom I allowed them …”
“We’re sorry,” Zigzag sobbed, Sunshine was also in tears by now.
“Not as sorry as you’re going to be,” Karen growled. “Put them on.”
The harnesses were simple enough, they went around the upper torso in such a way that it’d be hard for the wearer to wiggle out of. The clasp was positioned such that someone other than the wearer had to seal or release it.
“Fifty feet, you know the drill,” Karen told them. “All yours, Gipsy,” shi told the tiger, who looked from one of her cubs to the other before slowly getting up and meandering towards the doors. She stopped when twin beeps informed her that her ‘kittens’ weren’t closely following. The look over her shoulder spoke volumes and Sunshine and Zigzag were quick to join the tiger before their harnesses beeped again.
At Sally’s curious look, Karen said, “The tone lets everyone in hearing know that a kitten has strayed from hir mother. To older cubs that go where they know they aren’t allowed it’s a badge of shame.”
“Have you ever thought of tying one of those to Neal?” Sally half asked.
Karen snorted. “More times than I can count to,” shi admitted. Looking down the length of the truck and trailer shi added, “You can leave this here if you like, we aren’t expecting anything else in the next couple days.”
“We’ll lock it down a little better this time; we don’t need any more stowaways.”
“Just don’t set any of the anti-personnel stuff. I don’t want to have to explain us losing a cub to curiosity.”
“No, I think even Zigzag and Sunshine have had enough booms to last them a while,” Sally agreed as she locked things down and grabbed a remote. “I’ll leave the rear fans running so it doesn’t get too stuffy for Neal.”
“Don’t bother,” Neal grumbled as he dragged himself off the bed to slide into the other driving seat. “Mornin’, Karen.”
“Evening, Neal. I heard you zigged when you shoulda zagged.”
“That too,” he muttered. “How’s tricks?”
“Same ol’, nothing ever happens around here.”
“Other than runaway cubs.”
“Only when some fool makes it easy for them to sneak into his truck!”
“Enough you two!” Sally snapped between them. “Not ten seconds and already fighting like an old married couple!”
Both Neal and Karen grinned at the skunk. Neal said “And here you are getting between them. I thought your mom had taught you better …”
From her other side, Karen was saying, “First rule of getting in the middle of a fight is to be better armed than either of the combatants.”
“I’ll bite the nose off one while I spray the other!” Sally warned.
Karen let out a laugh. “Yeah, she is her mother’s daughter,” shi told Neal.
“There was never any doubt,” Neal agreed. “Now, if we’re done with introductions, I need to get out and walk the rest of the fuzz out of my brain.”
“How bad is it?” Karen asked, showing the first actual concern Sally had seen out of hir.
“You’ve seen me much worse,” he assured hir. “Hell, this isn’t as bad as a lot of them. Just feels like there’s an extra layer of cotton between me and the rest of the world.”
“Good thing I didn’t let you drive then,” Sally told him, only to have Karen snicker.
“I’ve seen him drive so zoned out he didn’t even know we’d made it home,” Karen told her. “Tell him where and if there are any friendlies to watch out for and let him go. Some of the paths he’s cleared –”
“– are tales for another day,” Neal suggested.
“Oooh, this ought to be good,” Sally said with a grin.
Sally waited until they were done with the dinner meal before she again broached the subject of her mother’s past. More than a couple of eyes in the room took note on how Neal ignored it.
Karen also smirked at him before saying; “Your mother had a way of introducing herself that didn’t always go well with others. My first sight of her was Neal muttering a curse and reaching into a bush next to the path we were on. When he pulled his hand back out, he was holding a broken revolver – with a five or six year old skunk hanging off the other end!”
“Mom”, Sally guessed.
“Yeah,” Karen agreed, “and what a scrawny, smelly little thing she was back then. If the wind hadn’t been at our backs I’d have smelled her a mile away. You guys normally don’t stink unless you’ve just sprayed – or if you’re ill and your mother might have been in both categories when we first met her. “Anyway, Neal twisted the gun out of her hands and tossed it away while scolding her for bluffing with an obviously broken gun. Then she turned and tried to spray him – only to have him not only catch and keep her from raising her tail, but to give her butt a couple swats for her trouble.”
“Was she hurt?” Katherine asked.
“Na, Neal was paddling her to show he could, not to cause any real damage. Anyway, he stood her back up and asked her if she would like to try again. She shook her head while rubbing her backside before she ran off in the direction he’d tossed her ‘gun’.”
“What were you guys doing on foot? I thought you two were part of a convoy back then,” Charles wondered.
“We were,” Karen admitted, “but some of the villages we visited weren’t near roads built to take our convoy. That was one of the reasons for the convoy, to help service and support as many furry and human/furry villages as we could took all kinds of transportation – and protecting it took all kinds of firepower. That’s where Neal came in; he had ‘acquired’ some of the heavier munitions and a tank like chassis to mount it on. He also was our chief mechanic, though not the only one.”
Neal let out a small grunt before saying, “There was always too much work to be done just maintaining the group – never mind any of the damage caused by fighting or defending ourselves …”
Karen nodded. “I was more air recon, air delivery, and bomber wing – depending on what skill-set was required. We had a rather rag-tag group where everyone did more than one thing to help keep the group alive and moving.”
“And you guys always liked how I got rid of an old truck after upgrading,” Neal muttered.
Karen smiled in recollection. “Yeah; remoted, loaded out, and leading the parade into hostile areas.”
“Better they spend their ammo on it rather than us,” Neal reminder hir.
“Back to my mother if you two don’t mind …” Sally reminded them.
Karen snickered but then continued; “The next time we saw her, we were almost to the village and she had found her gun. But this time she stepped in front of Neal and carefully set the gun at his feet. He gave her a long look before he pulled a ration bar out of his backpack. ‘Trade’ he told her, and she barely had the gun in his hand before she’d snatched the bar out of the other! She wolfed it down and then disappeared into the brush as we reached the village – and we then discovered why she was in such poor shape.”
Looking over at Sally, shi said, “Tally’s parents never returned from a hunt, and the village had turned her out.”
“W-Why?” Sally asked in shock and hurt at the thought of leaving a child to survive on their own.
“Because they didn’t think they had enough food for one more mouth,” Karen snarled, the memories still angering hir even after all the years. “But she got back at them. Not knowing anything better, she began stealing what she needed and costing them far more than feeding one more mouth would have.”
“They smelled her on me,” Neal murmured. “They were more interested in chasing her down than trading with us.”
“So we headed back to our convoy, having wasted a trip,” Karen finished. “And Tally was waiting at the trucks when we returned.”
“And you took her in?” Sally guessed.
“No, while we had a skunk couple that was willing to clean her up and look after her, she latched on to Neal and ignored the rest of us,” Karen laughed. “We found her a bed, but she kept trying to get into Neal’s!”
“So I stunk as bad as she did,” Neal muttered. “First thing the next day was moving the convoy to a nearby river crossing so we could dunk a skunk …”
“No, she was not dunked in a freezing river!” Karen quickly said at the looks they were getting. “We had portable knock-down rooms, horse troughs for bath tubs and could use the engines to heat water while recharging the trucks’ batteries. And since we had a couple skunks of our own, they knew – and had the supplies to help de-stink her and Neal.”
“They also helped teach her how not to stink up the place,” Neal added. Him adding, “Thank the deities she passed it on!” earned him a dirty look from his co-driver.
“You’ll get yours, mister,” Sally informed Neal. “But how did my mom get to be such a crack shot?”
“That was Neal and a little incident shortly after we took Tally in. Neal had been careful to teach Tally not to point a gun at people, much less shoot at them. That’s when we got ambushed at one of our stops; one of the locals wanted everything, not just their share of it.”
“And Neal nuked them into tomorrow?” Sally asked.
“That was the problem, Neal was the one they caught outside,” Karen told her.
“Can’t stay cooped up in a truck all the time,” Neal added. “And I’d just finished some repairs on one of the trailers when they popped out of the bushes.”
Karen frowned. “Don’t know how we missed them, but one of the trucks’ warning horns went off even before Neal raised his hands over his head – and the other trucks started heading out.”
“You just left him?” Sunshine burst out in surprise.
“They had to,” Neal quietly said. “My truck was the heavy hitter and we couldn’t have someone taking it for their own – it would put too many other villages at risk, so it had a failsafe. I had to key in a reset every eight to ten hours or it’d decide there was a problem and put on a lightshow from hell.”
“Like the one that cleared Miller road?” Zigzag asked with a shudder. Shi and Sunshine had convinced Gipsy to join them in the main room so they could hear the story.
“Much worse,” Neal said. “It was to make sure the truck and whoever tried to take it ceased to exist. As we were parked a little over a mile from their village, it would ‘cease to exist’ too. The funny thing is it wasn’t something we kept a secret – we wanted them to know that no good would come from hijacking us, but these fools tried anyway.
“There was three of them,” Neal recalled, “and their leader – an older wolf morph – was so pissed when the other trucks started pulling out. ‘Call them back or I’ll shoot you here and now!’ he’d yelled at me. ‘They won’t return – they know what happens next,’ I told him in return. ‘Either I drive my truck out of here myself, or everything within ten miles gets blown to hell. There’s a countdown timer clicking down as we speak, you may have five hours until the ball goes up - or you may have all of five minutes left to live …’ I’d seen a couple of the furs that normally rode with me climb onto other trucks as they pulled away, so they didn’t have anyone left to torture to try and force my hand.”
“I’d grabbed my gun and gone to ground,” Karen told them. “I was working myself around the field for a better angle when a shot rang out.”
“Just a little shot though, like one from the twenty-two I’d given Tally to practice with,” Neal said with a small grin. “The wolf was wearing several layers so it probably felt like little more than a tap on the shoulder when she hit him. He ducked and spun around as her next shot went through the same space – right across the top of his muzzle!”
Karen was also grinning. “Blinded by pain, he started firing wildly – actually taking out one of his buddies for us. The last one had just found Tally as she fired again from under a bush when I managed to get a good line and nailed him.
“Our fall-back position was a little over thirty miles away, the rest of the convoy was happy to see Neal’s truck rising over the last hill – but they were more than a little surprised when they spotted Tally manning one of the open-air gun-ports …”
“She’d earned it,” Neal told them, “and she went on to learn every position on every truck in the convoy – including rough-riding those little run-abouts – which came in handy a few times Karen tried flying too close to one of my big booms.”
“So, how did she meet my father? She’d never say,” Sally half pleaded.
“War is hell,” Neal said slowly, his thoughts more in the past than the present. “We’d rescued him from the rubble of a building after taking out a small army of fur haters. He’d lost his leg and almost didn’t make it.”
“That wasn’t all he’d lost,” Karen snapped before eyeing Sally and deciding to shut up.
“What? What else did he lose?” Sally demanded.
“His will to live,” Neal said after a long moment of being glared at by the skunkette. “He’d just lost everything else he’d loved or cared for – the lone survivor.”
“He begged us to kill him,” Karen quietly admitted, “He had nothing left and nothing to look forward to.”
Neal let out a small snort before saying, “And then Tally walked in.”
“True love?” Sally asked hopefully.
“Oh hell no!” Karen laughed. “She listened to his self-pity for maybe thirty seconds before ordering the nurse out of the room.”
“And then she read him the riot act,” Neal said. “You could hear her screaming clearly across the whole compound, put any and all the drill sergeants I’ve ever known to shame.”
“And when that didn’t have the desired effect, she sprayed him!” Karen laughed, “Right in the face! Boy, was she pissed when Neal told her she had to de-stink him and the rest of the room.”
“And I stuck her with playing nursemaid, as no one else wanted to go in there,” Neal reminded her. “But it did get him to stop asking to be put down before we moved on and reached one of our main bases.”
“Where he found missing a leg didn’t make one worthless,” Karen told them. “We had humans and furs there missing two and three limbs and still being useful to the community. You don’t need to be fully functional to be able to cook or garden.”
“Or to teach,” Neal added. “One rescued foxtaur was paralyzed from the mid-hip down and back. The kids were more than happy to move him about as he taught them their letters – and how to hunt.”
“Neal managed to get Tally to attend school while we were on site, but the moment Neal’s truck started to roll she was on it.”
“Yeah, your mother was a regular pain in my backside,” Neal told Sally with a small grin.
“I’ll show you pain the next time you turn your back on me!” Sally promised.
Karen smiled at the byplay. “Your father fit in quite nicely after he found that slow or limited mobility wasn’t an issue with many of the tasks about the camp. And one thing we’d learned early on about caring for survivors was to keep them busy. Heh, I asked on his third day there if he still wanted to be put down – oh the glare he gave me!”
“So they hooked up?” Sally asked.
“Not for a year, and then only because I think Neal worked out the timing so we’d be there in time for Tally’s heat.”
“There’s no evidence of any such thing,” Neal countered.
“Oh no, no evidence except you turning the last half of the trip into a mad dash – you claiming it’d be good to see if the people and machinery could take it,” shi mock growled. “We weren’t running any greenhorns that trip, so we knew that wasn’t the excuse.”
“It worked out well enough,” Neal said with a smile. “A month later and she was getting car-sick from the truck’s motion; quite a surprise after all those years of riding with me.”
“She didn’t take it well,” Karen reminded him.
“No, but she did let you fly her back to base – despite her hate of those flimsy craft you liked to fly.”
“If she was that car-sick, how the heck could she fly?” Sally wondered.
“Doped up,” Karen said with a chuckle. “She stayed at the base until your brother was born and barely weaned, then it was back to riding with Neal.”
Neal smiled in memory. “Tally tried bringing him along, but those older trucks were a lot rougher riding and no place for a pup.”
“And you two years later,” Karen told her.
“Which she blamed on me again,” Neal added. “Thank god the war ended before you guys were really old enough to become a part of it …”
“We’re still seeing bits of the war even now,” Sally reminded him.
“Bits,” he agreed. “But back then it was only bits of safety with war around every corner.”
“Was it like that everywhere?” Zigzag asked.
“No, cub,” Neal said quietly. “Some areas were almost free of any fighting, others were rendered scorched earth by the fighting. A few places held an uneven peace – at least until one of the warring factions moved in. Officially it was forty years, but it may be another forty before I’d dare drive an unarmed and unarmored truck from one coast to the other.”
“So you’ll keep driving?” shi wondered.
“That’s up in the air to be honest with you.”
“That’s why you’ve been training Sally the way you have,” Karen said. “Not as a co-driver but as a replacement.”
“I saw your bird,” Neal said instead of answering. “Hasn’t been flown in at least a year.”
“I’ve had other things keeping me busy,” shi snapped back.
“And I’m getting tired of driving, perhaps it’s time for a career change …”
“Oh? And what new trick do you think an old dog like you can learn?” Karen asked with a laugh.
“With the war over there’s a growing interest in space, and after tripping over those cat-like critters, we’d better get our act together before something less friendly finds us.”
“So you think space is the next big thing?” Karen asked with a snort.
“And I think it’s time for a change,” Neal countered with a raised eyebrow. “When have you known me to step down when I could step up instead?”
“When?” shi asked.
“Soon,” Sally replied for him. “He’s been studying while I’ve been driving. Warp engines and warp cores, life support – you name it, if it’s for surviving in space he’s been reading up on it.”
“You won’t be rid of me tomorrow,” Neal told her, “but yeah, soon.”
Gipsy picked this time to get up. She slowly walked over to where Neal was sitting and placed her head in his lap.
Gently scratching behind her ear Neal smiled slightly as he said, “Yeah yeah, I’ll miss you too, you oversized rat chaser.”
“We haven’t seen anyone in an hour and we are running empty,” Sally pointed out. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
“This from the stinker that thinks I keep too many secrets,” Neal chuckled. “Well, the sun is low enough to blind or at least confuse anyone that does happen to see us,” Neal agreed. “What the hell, start the preflight.”
“Secrets from me you tailless ape! Engine’s giving full power to the generator, batteries and capacitors at full charge, power board is all green.”
“Anti-grav and repulsion systems balance and self-test green, computer online. Testing lift.”
“We’re getting light on our wheels. How hard you going to push it?”
“We’ll stay in ground effect, we’ll have more control and less power drain that way.”
“There’s a boat ramp on the far side that we can use to climb out with if you want to keep the wheels wet the whole way.”
“And one on this side near that bombed out bridge. We can get to the water that way.”
“Oh, shit. We have company on our six. Coming up fast.”
“Shit indeed, take over driving while I reconfigure the computer.”
“They’ll be all over us if we slow to take the boat ramp.”
“Full speed ahead. Just pretend the bridge is still there.”
“Why do you think I’m reconfiguring? It’ll be a bit less controlled at that height, but we’ll be across the lake in seconds. Oh, did you see any air support back there?”
“No air, three cars, two bikes.”
“Start the smoke and we’ll see if they have radar or infrared.”
“Infrared won’t save them – sun’s in their eyes!”
“And radar isn’t going to like those coils once I bring them up. Quarter-mile to the bridge fast as the ruts in the road will let you.”
“You could lighten us a bit more you know.”
“Saving it for when we’re fifty feet over the water – or were you in need of a dunking?”
A fisherman had been out on the lake trying to catch his dinner when he heard the sounds of multiple engines from the west side of what had been a bridge spanning the lake. Turning around in his boat he was just in time to see a large rig and trailer start across the remains of the western span – smoke from the truck so thick it almost hid the trailer as it roared along.
The truck left the bridge where the span ended, but it continued on as if the bridge was still intact, but not the two cars that had blindly followed the now flying truck, they dropped and splashed into the cold waters below.
The truck wobbled a little as it seemed to line up on the eastern span; it actually flew over the first hundred feet of roadway before the tires barked as they finally touched down.
Still bellowing smoke, the truck and trailer crossed from bridge to land and disappeared; leaving a lone fisherman with one whale of a tale to tell …
Copyright © 2008 - 2015 Allen Fesler Redbear1158 (at) either gmail or hotmail dot com
Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.
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