Gravewalkers: Final Feast by Richard T. Schrader by Richard T. Schrader - Read Online

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Gravewalkers - Richard T. Schrader

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Empire

Chapter 1: Staff of Life

Critias awoke at Foragers’ Castle feeling refreshed after he had slept peacefully well into the afternoon.

He sat up to see that all their mission gear had come back clean from Decontamination Services.

Mandy sat at their small table where she drew a picture. The girl absently hummed music to herself that sounded conspicuously similar to something that Critias had heard Carmen singing to her. The colored pens she used had come from Carmen as well. They were from that backpack of loot that Carmen had foraged at the gas station near the mulch yard the night before.

When Critias checked nearby, he saw that Carmen was gone and her place in the bed beside him was already cold.

Alice probably still babysat with the injured Bobby Bean. It was her small compensation for him having saved her life from Saltback the Hunter.

That left Critias and Mandy alone.

As he got up to get dressed, he asked her, What are you doing?

Mandy meant him no offense when she instinctively called upon her past life in Denver. That experience had scarred her in more ways than just the whip lash marks across her back. She assumed his question rooted in some kind of accusation. Her first guess was that a man wanted to know why she dared enjoy herself instead of being hard at work, like doing decontamination duties. With that in mind, Mandy answered defensively, Jack told me that I didn’t have to work today because I went out on the boat last night.

Critias only wanted to have some friendly conversation, so he tried again, Yeah, but what are you doing now?

Her next assumption was that he accused her of having stolen the pens and paper. She defensively swore, Carmen told me that I could use them. She really did.

Back in Denver, Mandy routinely received punishment for the least little thing, and often for no reason at all, other than to remind her of her station in life. The fear of accusation and punishment just came naturally to her.

Critias stopped asking about her artwork even if he was only trying to be pleasant. It wasn’t his intention to come across as being critical or threatening. To break the ice, he said, We have something in common.

That caught Mandy’s undivided attention. She couldn’t tell if that was good or bad. She asked, What is that?

We both care more about Carmen than anybody else, Critias told her honestly. Just as she cares about us. That makes us partners in a way, partners in Carmen.

When she considered that, Mandy knew it was true, and the new understanding made her relax considerably. As her peace offering, Mandy held up the drawing to show him her picture. As an explanation, she added, I’m not really sure what it is, just something I like.

From what Critias could tell, the picture had a lot of green that was probably trees like a forest or jungle. There was a large brown area that could have been a triangular mountain or maybe even a pyramid. In the foreground was a group of men with blue faces that danced in a field of yellow flowers.

Critias was no art critic or psychiatrist, but he didn’t see any disturbing images that suggested Mandy had dangerous emotional issues.

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, Critias experienced a sensation of déjà vu. It was more than as if she had shown him that same picture before. Critias felt that he had seen the place in her picture, or actually been there. It was like Mandy said herself. They didn’t know what it was. It was just something they knew that they liked.

Critias told her, It’s very pretty, the kind of place that I would like to visit. You should give it to Carmen when you are done. She will want to make a wall of all your drawings. She loves thoughtful presents like that. Since she seemed at ease with him, Critias asked her as pleasantly as he was able, Where is Carmen now?

Mandy thumbed toward the door, She is in the Back Hall training Alice to be a soldier. She looked back to her picture, Do you want me to leave you alone? The defensiveness of Denver was already back again.

Of course not, Critias quickly disarmed her paranoia. He saw that Decontamination Services had left him fresh clothing in his size so he put those on. As he buckled on his pistol belt, he asked, Did Carmen say anything else?

Mandy was uncertain about the depth of his question, Like what?

He clarified, Anything at all, though not really meaning that so literally. Critias thought she was being defensive again when in fact she had hesitated for other reasons.

Mandy shrugged while she continued to work on her picture, Carmen said something about her boobs being tender because everyone is not doing their ironing properly. She considered that and then added, I think that was girl talk though, not a message for you.

He struggled to make sense of that, The laundry service starched her bra?

Mandy shook her head, No, I think it has something to do with what people are eating; a deficiency she called it.

That made more sense to him in that iron deficiency was a common problem in survivor diets. He wasn’t at all sure what that had to do with Carmen’s breast discomfort. Critias picked up his mechsuit helmet on his way out the door. As soon as he was in the hallway, he called Kevin on a private channel.

The male android answered, Congratulations on your successful mission, captain. How can I be of service?

Critias asked, What do you know about people suffering iron deficiency in their diet?

Doctor Clara has already informed me of the situation, Kevin replied as though the issue was minor at best. We are undertaking measures to remedy it. Did she speak to you about it?

No, I heard it in a roundabout way, Critias explained, because Carmen’s breasts are tender, whatever that means.

Kevin admitted, Yes, it is quite fascinating. I hadn’t considered that small complication, so it took me by surprise as well. Bring her in to me for a checkup and I’ll see what I can do about it. I have been contemplating a solution.

Can you explain it to me? Critias was a bit annoyed that he needed to press for information about his own wife. I have noticed that she doesn’t eat as much as I think she should. Is Carmen making herself sick?

Carmen is in perfect health, Kevin assured him. You are sharing your quarters with those two disadvantaged young women that you rescued from Denver. The diet in Denver was less than ideal, as I am sure that you are well aware. As I already explained, Doctor Clara and I will remedy that situation along with everyone else. We have matters of public health under close supervision. If you would just bring Carmen to see me when you return to the Tower, I will take care of everything.

Critias felt no surprise at all that the android had talked at length while he told him exactly nothing. He even needed to say so, You still haven’t told me what is going on with her.

Kevin’s attitude stonewalled him, You really don’t want to know anything more than you already do. Please excuse the similarity to an insult when I tell you that you lack the requisite intelligence or maturity to know more. You have a decisive lack of professionalism in matters involving Carmen, and I don’t want to see you upset unnecessarily. Please bring her to me at your earliest convenience and I will see to her situation.

Critias lost his patience, I’m upset now because your evasiveness makes me assume the worst. You androids get your freedom for a few days and you sure get condescending. You call me childish and stupid directly to my face, and then add on that you don’t mean it as an insult. Thanks, you meant it is a cold intellectual observation instead. Regardless of your feelings, it is my feelings that count here. She is my wife, not yours. What is wrong with Carmen?

Very well, Kevin conceded. As you are aware, Carmen is a field operations Epsilon model. The engineers designed her for your optimal survival potentiality under the worst possible circumstances. Carmen can derive nourishment from a far broader range of food sources than you can, just as she can drink significantly less pure water than you could survive. She has the capacity to distill out any harmful contaminants from the environment where once again you cannot. Should a marshal and his android of her model find themselves marooned in the harshest of environments, you would not only survive with her assistance, but also maintain your complete physical nutritional functionality. Because Carmen has been keeping close company with those two survivors from Denver, their physiologies have superimposed themselves upon her calibrations in addition to your own. The mild iron deficiency she unconsciously perceives in Alice and Mandy has triggered a hormonal change that the engineers intended to preserve human life. The breast milk she produces is remarkably more nutritious than even that of a hooded seal. While the inherent logic of this dietary solution is undeniable, quite frankly, your ability to appreciate it as anything other than a perverse and shameful vulgarity is highly questionable. Suffice it to say that it is not a situation she found herself in by choice and neither has she made any effort to cure anyone of an iron deficiency ailment. You may mark her condition down as just one more injustice that your kind has imposed upon ours. Since Carmen cannot have children of her own, perhaps you could try thinking of it as her maternal instinct. Since you forced me into this, I feel justified in telling you that I find Carmen to be an exquisitely beautiful creature that is superior to you humans in every way. I will be offended if your insensitivity does her some emotional harm. She is feeling disillusioned enough as it is.

Critias grasped what Kevin told him, You’re saying that Carmen could eat rotting garbage and drink from dirty puddles and then keep me alive by breast feeding me?

Sustain you indefinitely in good health, Kevin corrected him, with the hydration assistance of your mechsuit for additional purified water. Android milk is not so thin and watery a substance as you would be familiar with from your own unmodified species. You could correctly think of it as bioengineered into the most potently concentrated and dietary complete food source on the planet. Speaking as one of our kind, I should think you should feel flattered that she would give you the very life of her own body to protect you. She and I have already discussed the matter and Carmen made it clear that she preferred you not knowing, at least until you may have found out by accident while exploring your sexual relationship. She believes you would perceive this aspect of her android femininity as being perversely obscene and even disgusting. I already informed you that I share her opinion in that regard. Life is full of injustices and informing you of a complete list of them will not remedy any of them. Well, it is within your power to assist in correcting one or two, here and there.

Critias cringed at the description of his character. He dreaded the thought that his prudish attitudes about propriety made Carmen feel raunchy and detestable. He told Kevin, I understand you now. When I suck on Carmen’s nipple for my own lewd sexual pleasure, I would call that entirely natural and appropriate, but when you bring up the topic of the normal purposeful function of her breasts, I would call that a repulsive perversity. It was a terribly hypocritical thing of me to say the least. It won’t be a problem now that you have left me wiser. From her point of view, it must be like going through puberty for an android. She needs my love and support, and shall get it. What is causing the iron deficiency around here?

Kevin told him, The simple answer is a lack of fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables. Some types are more helpful than others, but it hardly matters since any of those are luxuries in the current situation. Many of the dehydrated survival foods have iron enrichment, though apparently not sufficiently for long term health. A rationing of vitamin supplements has been containing the problem to this mild level, but we must do more. The upcoming harvest from the Garden Building will help tremendously, as will your upgrades to the water system, the new seed stocks, and our plans for sunlamp hydroponics. All of those things require more time to reach their edible fruitions.

All of that made sense to Critias. He offered, If you and Clara come up with a plan to speed things along, you can count on me to do anything you need to make it happen, apart from milking Carmen like a cow. I can accept that my doing that in an emergency will save my life, but I don’t want to turn her into a barnyard resource.

There will be no milking as a scheme for the harvesting of public resources, Kevin pledged, though it might be necessary for Carmen’s comfort or wellbeing, at least in the short term. Bring her to see me when you get back, and I will look into a remedy. She needs an examination anyway. I want to check how well her other modifications have been performing. These hormonal changes may be affecting her in other unexpected ways in light of the jury-rigged alterations I have performed on her already.

After he heard Kevin say that, Critias recalled how Carmen had passed out on him when they last went to bed, and even before that, he seemed to be satisfying her with considerably less effort than what he might call normal. At first, he wrote off her instantaneous and multiple orgasms as her being under a lot of stress and his godlike prowess as a lover. Having had some time to reflect on the evidence, Critias realized that Carmen’s health might actually be suffering because of the tampering they had done to her. Since Kevin wanted to give Carmen a checkup anyway, Critias would follow up on that soon.

On another somewhat related matter, Critias thought allowed, Sally headshot is due for having her baby soon. Maybe this Carmen thing will prove useful in that regard. I’m sure there has to be a shortage of wetnurses available, and the calorie conservative common diet can’t be helping in that regard. Carmen and I are marshals, so we won’t sit back and do nothing while there are any babies facing starvation. If Sally does need any assistance, I’m confident that Carmen would actually enjoy helping out. Being a mother would mean a lot to her, or at least the chance to experience it for a moment. Taking care of Mandy and Alice has really opened her up to a new and better life.

That topic was of interest to Kevin for other reasons. You are wise and generous to offer so we will keep that under consideration because it is true that Sally is approaching her delivery date. For his other reasons, Kevin asked, Has Penny spoken to you recently about something important to her?

Critias couldn’t recall her telling him anything, No, I haven’t heard anything from her that I can think of, apart from her telling me that you vibrated. I assume that means she knows something about who we really are.

I have been honest with her, Kevin confessed. Penny is important to me and my life here. She deserved to know the truth about me so she can make an informed decision about continuing our relationship into the long term. She wants to stay with me even if there are some unavoidable complications that may need some extraordinary measures to overcome. To garner some sympathy, Kevin added, You are aware that the mixed relationship is not without its difficulties.

Having a good friend like you has helped us more than I could ever repay, Critias told him sincerely. I’m glad you’re both happy. Penny is an impressive woman, probably more than I could handle.

It’s good that you feel that way, Kevin said meaning it. I’m sure she will come to talk to you in her own time.

Critias went out into the Front Hall to see the place abuzz with activity. Apart from an intensive decontamination cleaning, the housekeeping workers busily packed supplies that would go back to King’s Tower. Not everyone would leave the Castle. The mechanics had plenty of more work to do on the vehicles and machinery, both old and new, plus there was their staff of guards, the kitchen service, and the decontamination workers required for the Castle to function.

He headed deeper to the Back Hall of the Castle so he could check up on Carmen and Alice. He would get something to eat while he was there too.

The two women were on the basketball half-court where Carmen taught Alice how to wield the bightstaff effectively. Since as a rule, ghouls never swung swords or carried staves of their own, Alice had no need to master the skills of combat against an equally armed opponent. Her adversaries would typically be feral ghouls armed with teeth, fingernails, and their preferred tactic of hair pulling tackles against opponents for the purpose of getting them prone on the ground.

Bean was present, seated at a nearby table from where he attentively watched them practice. He had a bowl of chili with a crust of fresh bread to go with it. The meal appeared tasty enough for Critias to order the same for himself from one of the roving kitchen staff. Funland normally had a serve yourself buffet tray atmosphere, but being a Forager had its perks, especially when at work out at the Castle.

The role that Carmen played was that of a ferocious ghoul. She wore a hockey mask that was a popular bit of armor that the Foragers collected to protect the face from scratches or in Carmen’s case, it kept the staff from bashing her. Apart from that, Carmen just made a lot of menacing snarls as she circled Alice. She tested the bightstaff defense as she waited for an opening so she could leap in to tackle Alice to the floor. Carmen’s principle intention was to teach Alice how to turn in any direction without ever tripping over her own feet. Just taking a step could momentarily put Alice at a disadvantage and that tiny instant of vulnerability was enough to cause Carmen to spring at her.

When Alice thrust out her staff to hook Carmen’s ankle, it was not nearly good enough. Carmen sprang in then and threw her arms around Alice who wore all of her adventuring gear. After Carmen pulled Alice to the ground, she didn’t stop there. Carmen continued to act as a ghoul would if biting and clawing a prone opponent. Only after Carmen had indisputably won an encounter did she then allow Alice to get up to try again.

While they reset, Critias asked Alice, Where is your carrying strap for the bightstaff?

Alice replied, Carmen said it was useless and that I should take it off.

Critias didn’t care what Carmen said so he told her, Put it back on anyway.

But Carmen says, Alice complained with doubts.

Critias didn’t appreciate her lack of faith in him as her teacher, I think I know a little better than she does, so put it back on. The time will come when you will need it and until then, you have to learn to be comfortable with it on. You are not learning to be Carmen, but to be your own very best.

Carmen knows what she is doing, Alice answered clearly intent on not doing as he asked. She just got ready for another round of mock fighting.

Colonel Davis and his Gravewalker group were at an adjacent table where they ate and also watched the practice with some interest.

From that table, Roland said to Critias, Carmen is pretty good at swinging her stick around. I don’t recall ever seeing you use one at all. Maybe Carmen is more of an authority. Roland didn’t make it much of a secret that he was deliberately trying to stir up some rivalry between the two of them. A friendly argument of pride between them would almost certainly generate something worth gambling over. Roland guessed correctly that there would be no shortage of pride in a contest between the two master slayers of ghouls.

It was only a moment after Carmen attacked again that she had Alice down and out.

Put the strap on, Critias told her again.

Alice felt frustrated and her temperament showed it, If you think this is so easy, let me see you do it.

A round of murmurs came from those who watched that they wanted to see Critias use the bightstaff to face Carmen as a ghoul and win.

Hiram spoke up to say, Let’s not start anything where someone gets hurt. Winning, and doing it while safely holding back isn’t the same thing. This is supposed to be practice, not a death match. At their level, someone is going to get injured to determine a victor.

At that, Critias got up and then walked out there to take the bightstaff. Once he had the weapon, he told Alice, Get me the strap, please. It was a length of flat nylon-like unbreakable strap that was essentially identical to the kind of thing normally found on rifles.

Alice went nearby to pick up the strap that she had removed and then handed it to him.

Critias reattached the strap to the staff by clipping on the ends. Each half of the staff got one end of the strap. When fully assembled, the bightstaff had a carrying strap not unlike that common to rifle slings.

I don’t want to do this, Carmen said as she raised her hockey mask. You never use the bightstaff, and I don’t want to embarrass you in front of everyone.

She meant it genuinely not at all with the intention of humbling him. Once back in Denver, Critias had told Carmen that it was difficult enough for him to feel like a man when she was stronger, faster, and smarter than he was. Carmen’s feelings mirrored Critias’ own in that she found it hard to feel like a woman when she was stronger, faster, and smarter than he was. Being more powerful than Critias when he was out of his armor was an emotional burden to her. Carmen really did want to protect her precious fantasy that her lover was a dominant male that could subdue her. Beating him up in public would have lingering ramifications on her libido.

When Critias clearly had no interest in her complaints, Carmen said, You should at least put on your armor first if you want to try. She didn’t even believe he would win in his mechsuit. He had no chance whatsoever without it.

Critias just gave her a small nod to say he listened, but was quite unmoved. He looked to Alice, Unload your pistol, check that it is really empty, and then stand behind me. The idea of this is that the person with the staff will keep the rushing ghouls under control. Their partner puts a bullet into the ghoul’s head once the staff has knocked it down. You must pay attention all the time, Alice. Not shooting me in the back by accident is your number one concern. Even seasoned soldiers make that mistake in the heat of the moment. If you don’t believe me, you can go ask Danny the Ear. When your every thought is about targeting her, there are no thoughts left for not targeting me. You will find that tunnel focus is great for your killer aim, but it won’t have any mercy on your partners. If you want to kill the enemy badly enough, your friends will become invisible to you.

I understand, she acknowledged the lesson and then checked twice to make sure her pistol was empty. So prepared, Alice stood ready with her handgun to roleplay shooting Carmen in the head once he had the upper hand by using the bightstaff.

Carmen visibly frowned over the whole idea.

Don’t just let me win, either, he cautioned his wife. When he saw her obvious and deep feelings of hesitation, Critias told her, I know you would do anything to protect me, Carmen, even feed me your own life’s blood if you had to. Whatever happens, I will not love you any less nor will my weight seem less heavy. We have a bond that goes so much deeper than this. No matter what happens, we will still have each other.

At first, the comment pleased Carmen immensely, since it took a burden off her mind. After she thought about it, she worried it was a reference to when she had abruptly fallen asleep under him. That made her worry that she had inadvertently hurt his feelings.

Carmen explained, I’m sorry I went to sleep on you like that last night, without, you know, for you too, like I had promised. I just, you know, so much, and it felt so perfect, that I didn’t want to move, like that feeling could last forever, and it just sort of happened.

Many snickered over her hint laden apology that once again the Perkele thunderbolt had struck her.

Critias offered, If you win, you can have it again.

Her eyes flashed with ambition for that, I can have it right away?

He nodded, As quickly as I can get you back to our room and we throw Mandy out.

Carmen positioned her mask as she took a low posture of utmost seriousness that she was about to tackle him and win her prize. By her intensity of readiness, everyone could tell she was determined to have victory.

Now that the fight would really happen on a serious level, Roland told his table, I’m giving three-to-one odds in liquor ration that Critias goes down!

Other Gravewalkers started to make wagers on the outcome.

Amber threw in the whole sum of her personal wealth that Critias would win in the contest, and to that, she found many takers.

Carmen was clearly the odds on favorite. As the wagering came to an end, the general consensus was that Critias was going to lose.

The Milk Wagon Crew that sat nearby saw the opportunity to loot most of Hiram’s Gravewalkers. Henry had seen Critias face Saltback and so he rightly understood the calm cunning and daring lethality that Critias possessed in comparison to Carmen’s emotional intensity. He knew that all hunters had intensity, and that wasn’t enough, especially against Critias. Gloria backed her husband’s choice as well. She had faith in Henry and in their captain too. Gloria preferred to lose some wealth rather than wager against her own team leader.

Someone say go, Carmen urged anxiously. Her internal hardware detected that Alice’s pistol was safely unloaded, so she pointed at Alice for Critias and then gave him a thumbs up so he would know the situation was safe. When Hiram did say go, she launched herself straight in for the kill like a dragster off a race line.

Critias patiently stood his ground with the bightstaff in both hands horizontally before his chest. He gave her no clues as to what he might do, and then everything happened quickly.

As Carmen came in at a hunter’s leap with arms outstretched to take him down, Critias detached the connection at the center of his staff to break it down into two pieces still connected in the middle by the strap he had requested. He flung the straight half out in a lashing on its tether in a move quite similar to the three-section-staff of the Asian martial arts. His apparent intention was to wallop the butt-stop across Carmen’s face.

She had never seen the unorthodox move from a bightstaff, so Carmen instinctively caught the flying portion from the air. Her great talent and titanium bones had the clear advantage in the situation. As she grasped it, she realized that the strap was too short for the section to reach her as an attacking blow. The belt was already at its limit of length and short of impact when she seized onto that half with her extended reach. Knowing she should have just ignored it, Carmen decided to keep her hold and then disarm him of his weapon.

That is when Critias yanked his crook section still in hand to jerk in his tether with a kusarigama move.

The pull destabilized Carmen’s flying lunge off course and balance. Realizing her second mistake, Carmen released her half of the staff to prevent him from diverting her any further.

She let go only to discover that Critias had planned for that as well and already brought the second section of his weapon into play. He hooked her leg with the crook so that with another clever pull, the bight threw her momentum forward enough that she had to land on her outstretched hands as well as her crouched feet to avoid nosing into the hard floor.

Critias denied her even that crude landing when he delivered a hard shove to her rump with his foot. His kick made her landing even worse so that she ended up going down on her belly.

Carmen sprang up from the floor onto all fours, much as Saltback had done. She spun about in a flash and then renewed her attack.

Critias had expected her reaction and he already descended upon her before she had even completed her crash landing. Rearmed as he was with a bightstaff section in each hand, Critias dipped the center loop of the strap low so that he could use it to net her under her chin when she foolishly rushed headlong into his trap.

Carmen was too quick for his clumsy maneuver. She dived under his strap to grab onto his legs. Even as she thought her attack would be a success, she then realized that the ploy had only been another diversion. Once again, Critias had expected that to be her predictable reaction.

His real interest was to thrust the two sticks of his bisected staff at her simultaneously while he also trapped her head between his clamped knees.

She wasn’t going to fall for any more feints, so Carmen just let the poles miss her completely as they passed by either side of her body and then under her outreached arms as she grabbed his vulnerable legs. She even just allowed him to get his hold on her head with his knees too since she was only going to rear up underneath him as she flung Critias off his feet.

As Carmen tried to rise under him to execute her