The trip was made mainly in silence, Tyler ignoring Donovan's attempts at conversation. Instead he spent his time scanning the side of the road. Finally, about an hour away from their destination, he spotted what he'd been looking for.
"Pull over, Donovan."
"What?" Donovan threw him a confused look. "We're almost there!"
"I have to take a leak. And we still have over an hour so pull over."
Donovan scowled but obeyed, watching as Tyler stepped out of the van and into the woods. Right now, he hated the man more then he thought possible and a part of him wanted to make this for real. One thing stopped him though and that was the knowledge of what Julie would think of him. And the realization that his own opinion of himself would match hers.
Once out of sight of the van, Tyler paused, letting Maggie come to him.
"Everything set?" He asked quietly.
"Yeah." She offered him the weight belt. "But it's iffy."
"Everything these days is iffy." He slipped the belt on and zipped up the windbreaker over it. "What's the plan?"
Maggie pulled out a handmade map and ran through the pickup plans. After a moment, Tyler nodded. "Looks good. Go on, get back with the others." He grinned at her inquiring look. "I wasn't kidding when I told Donovan I had to take a leak. Now go on, scoot."
Maggie grinned and scooted.
Tyler finally sauntered from the woods and walked around the van. "Move over, I'll drive the rest of the way."
Donovan reluctantly obeyed. "What took you so long?"
"Took some time to enjoy the view. Trinity knows when or if I'll have that chance again. Here." He pulled a folded up photo from his pocket. "Red mark is where you ... 'knock me out'."
Donovan looked over the photo, frowning. "All right. Any particular reason for that exact spot?"
Tyler didn't answer, just offered him the alien device. "Julie couldn't figure out how to clean out the cylinder so she just took it out. Be sure to drop it in your pocket afterwards so no one will notice."
"Right." Donovan muttered, noticing Tyler's casual use of Julie's first name, something he'd never done before. That he knew of.
"And here." Tyler handed another piece of paper. "Your instructions once you got your kid and gotten away." He pulled out his gloves and started to work them on over the bandages.
"I thought I just went back to the base." Donovan looked at the paper.
"You never used to be so damn stupid, Donovan." Tyler said sharply. "Diana's going to have homing devices all over that kid and we don't need you leading her right back to the others. So you either go there or you hit the road. Besides," He started the van. "You can't go back without me. Fontana would have your heart. And I don't mean that figuratively." He steered back out onto the road.
Donovan stared at the words on the paper, memorizing them before speaking again. "Look, Tyler, I ..."
"Had a good reason for what you were planning." Tyler finished curtly. "Yeah, you did. In your own mind. But what the hell makes you so damn special, Donovan? Alice has both parents and a little sister missing, Paul's wife vanished, and Rico's entire family as well. Even ..." He paused, not finishing that sentence. "What gives you the right to endanger everyone in some insane scheme to get your kid back? Hell, if anyone else tried this stunt to get one of their loved ones back ... trading anyone else in the camp for them ... you'd be screaming bloody murder."
Donovan flushed darkly, knowing that what Tyler was saying was true. Not wanting to discuss it any further, he looked out the window.
Tyler fell silent as well, his point made.
Julie found herself sitting in the church, staring at the cross hanging on the wall. It wasn't exactly the kind of cross you'd expect to find in a Roman Catholic church. Ham and Fontana had made it and, for some reason, they had made an ornately carved Celtic cross. Father Andrew hadn't said a word when he first saw it, just helped the duo hang it up. Less then a week later a menorah appeared on the altar and then a copy of the Koran and even a small statue of Buddha.
Many of the residents appreciated Father Andrew's attempts to be multi-denominational but some people objected to the paintings that had begun to appear on the walls to make up for the lack of stained glass windows. Ham had spent the long nights he didn't need to sleep or wasn't standing sentry duty drawing out various scenes. While many were of Earth religions, some were of a decidedly alien nature. Julie herself found them to be fascinating depictions of other species and was even now tempted to get up and enjoy them. But she was just too depressed.
"There is nothing you could have done, you know." Father Andrew's voice came from behind her and she looked over her shoulder to see him sitting in the pew behind her. "Donovan made his choice. Granted it was a bad choice ..."
"A bad choice!?" Julie blurted out, feeling a stab of anger. "He could have destroyed everything! God, if he had succeeded ..." She saw the glint in the priest's eyes and stumbled to a halt, realizing he had gotten the response he wanted. Her anger faded and suddenly she felt incredibly lost. "I just don't understand why Donovan was going to do it. It isn't like him at all!"
Father Andrew leaned forward to rest his crossed arms on the back of her pew. "The 'Gooder' image, you mean? The ... shining knight on the white horse? He doesn't really exists, you know. Donovan has his flaws. For one, he can be incredibly narrow-minded about certain things. He sees Tyler one way and, despite everything that has happened over the past few weeks, he has refused to see him any other way. To him, everything Tyler has done is a plot. A manipulation for his own ends. He doesn't see the ... the other things Tyler's done. Just because he can do them." He looked around. "This church, for one thing."
Julie smiled suddenly. "Helping me and Harmony make up something Robin can eat without getting sick." The girl's body had craved raw meat, which of course she couldn't stand to eat. Tyler had suggested that wild game, lightly cooked, might help and helped them make up a thick meaty stew. Julie wasn't sure of all the ingredients, all she knew was that it had worked. She sobered. "His attempts to get his personal funds transferred into our accounts."
"Tyler has thrown his lot in with us totally and he deserves some respect for that."
"I know. I'm just ... not sure what to do about it."
"Both of them ... everyone here for that matter ... needs to know where they stand. Part of the reason Donovan might have thought he could get away with it is because he doesn't understand Tyler's place in this group. No one really does. Is he just a member of the Resistance? Is he an outside advisor? Is he part of the chain of command? And where does Mike stand, for that matter? Is he co-leader? Member of the Resistance? Second in command? What? A lot of people think Mike's your co-leader and no one's too sure where Ham fits in."
"You think I should set up an official chain of command?"
"You need to. And you need to do something else as well." He paused until he was certain he had her attention. "You need to let Donovan know where he stands with you as well. He's not jealous of you and Tyler ... yet ... but eventually he's going to start seeing things between the two of you that just don't exist."
Julie straightened. "Wait a minute ..."
"Julie, there are already rumors. Totally untrue, I know but ..." He groped for words. "Remember what Chris said, that first meeting? Tyler isn't human and he doesn't think like a human. To him, he can be friends with you or Alice or Harmony or any other woman in the camp and that's all. Friendship, period. But Earth men see a man and a woman being friends and jump to the conclusion that it's a step away from the bedroom. Even when it's the farthest thing from the truth."
"Never mind the fact that Tyler's sleeping with Fontana."
"Fontana's leaving soon. And, as he's stated before, Tyler prefers women. And being what he is, he tends to be ... friendlier than a man who is not involved with a woman would normally be."
Julie thought back on Ham's actions with Fontana in the clearing. Neither of them acted like that in public but how long before Ham forgot? Or, for that matter, they let him forget? He already had a tendency to stand too close. "So I should reassure Mike that nothing is happening and that nothing is ever going to happen." She looked at the priest mischievously. "You sure about that?"
"Yes." Father Andrew said firmly. "You love Mike and Ham ... Ham is interested in someone else." He smiled at the look on Julie's face. "We've talked. Watch him sometimes, with the other women. You'll see."
Julie blinked, wondering. After a moment, she shook her head. "All right. I'll see what I can do." She stood up. "I haven't had breakfast yet. Join me?"
"Sounds good. Oops." Father Andrew reached in to adjust something in his inside pocket, smiling at her expression. "Letters. Ham asked me to deliver them to his family. I want to keep them with me."
"Not Fontana?" She said, surprised and the priest laughed.
"As Ham put it, 'I'll trust him with my life but not with my letters. He'll have them read before he reaches the moon!'" He paused, his expression once again serious. "You know he gave his medallion to Polly, for safekeeping."
Julie's hands tightened around each other. "Yes." For safekeeping or, though he hadn't said it out loud, for delivery to his family, if he shouldn't make it back. She stood up, looking around the church once again before walking over to one of the paintings, the centerpiece of one wall.
A huge man-bull, what they would call a Minotaur, dominated the scene. Alago, Ham had called him. The All-Father, a supreme Deity for some species, a minor Deity for others but one of the few that appeared in almost all Confederation and some non-Confederation religions in some form or another. Perched irreverently on the Deity's head was a Kitling but the Deity didn't seem to mind. He was too busy keeping an eye on the dice game being played out before him and Julie almost laughed. 'All our Gods play with loaded dice' Chris had said so long ago and she could believe it. She just hoped and prayed that the dice were loaded in their favor.
"Does Ham pray?" She asked suddenly and Father Andrew looked surprised at the question.
"Not here. Not in the church." He gestured toward the woods. "He goes out there, to the woods. Or sometimes to Ruby's grave." It wasn't really a grave, of course. They hadn't been able to retrieve her body. "I've been tempted once or twice to go with him but ..."
"Well, to be honest, I'm almost afraid someone will answer." He shrugged at her look. "Come on, let's get that food." They started for the door, passing by a painting of the Trinity at rest. As she did every time she passed that painting, Julie looked at the middle figure, reflecting that Robert was right in calling that particular race of Barbarosian 'Elves'. With her delicately pointed ears and lavender hair, Nit'shi fit the word perfectly.
"Just remember, Julie." Father Andrew Said, hand resting on the doorknob. "No matter what, you can't please everyone. Just do what's best for the group and for the Resistance." He opened the door, letting her pass through before following.
Julie grimaced. She hated being the leader, knowing that sometimes she'd have to make decisions that would upset some people. But there was no one else she could trust to do it. Or, at least, do it right. She glanced along the street before crossing and stopped dead at what she saw. Luckily Father Andrew had already stopped or he would have run into her.
"Do you see ..." She started.
"Yes, I do."
"Good. I thought I was losing it." She moved closer to the stable and took a deep breath. "Fontana!"
"What?" The man's voice came from the loft but he couldn't be seen.
"There is a very large hawk walking down the center of our main street!"
There was silence for a moment. "What makes you think I know anything about it?"
"Earth hawks do not come in bright green!"
At that, Fontana appeared in the loft opening, dressed only in a pair of shorts. He looked down at the scene below. "Ully! You heard the lady! Earth hawks do not come in bright green!" There was a pause. "They don't come in lavender either!" Another pause. "Or ... whatever color that is!"
"Looks kinda mauve-ish." Father Andrew commented. "What's going on?"
"I'm not sure." Julie looked at the now bright blue hawk standing not ten feet away. "I think it's a friend of Fontana's."
"Ully is part of my ship." Fontana said from behind her and Julie jumped in surprise, not realizing he had dropped down from the loft. He held out his arm and the hawk took to the air, gliding close to rest on the man's fist. "Where's Reginald?"
"Took the low road." The hawk said in a shrill voice. "Be here in maybe an hour. Maybe two."
Fontana glanced at Julie. "You might want to tell your people that if a red fox comes sauntering into camp, they shouldn't shoot at him. He might shoot back."
"Yeah, sure, right. I think we better talk. In the saloon." Julie added, thankful that it was still very early in the morning and most people were still in bed or at breakfast.
"Sure." Fontana followed her over to the saloon. Linda was already there, the manuals spread out on a table. She looked up, eyes widening.
"Since when do hawks come in plaid?" She asked.
"Ully, knock it off." Fontana tossed the bird into the air and he glided to land on the back of a chair. "I don't recommend landing there."
"Uh?" Ully looked up.
Overbalanced the chair toppled, crashing to the ground, leaving Ully stuck on his back and unable to get upright. He flapped his wings helplessly.
"If this keeps up, I'm gonna start denying I ever knew this bird." Fontana said to Julie.
"Help me up!" Ully shrieked.
"Is he always like this?" She asked, amused.
"Help! Me! Up!" Each word was accompanied by the slam of wings hitting the floor.
"Actually he's being pretty mild right now."
"Help me up or I am going to start singing!"
"Now that's a fate worse then death." Fontana reached down and grabbed Ully's legs, swinging him upright. The bird hunched over, wings partially spread as he glared at the man.
"I can't help but feel that that was a negative comment concerning my singing." He growled balefully.
Fontana tossed the hawk toward the nearby table and Ully landed, muttering under his breath. He paced for a moment, finally pausing to pick up a pen to put in his beak.
"So your ship is here?" Julie leaned against the wall.
"Yeah. She's hiding somewhere close by. With the mothership so close, no way will she be making a peep so she sent her mini-mes out to let me know she's here."
"Mini-mes. Okay. So you'll be leaving ..."
"Tomorrow night." Fontana looked at her expressionless. "Depending on what happens."
Julie started to answer then jumped at a sudden babble of voices behind her.
"What the hell is that?" Hansen started into the saloon then, as the plaid hawk abruptly turned a bright yellowish-orange, decided to stay on the other side of the doors, looking in.
"If I'm not mistaken," Robert stepped into the building, eyeing the hawk with some amusement and a lot of interest. "That is an Ish'kirien."
"Mind translating that for those of us who don't speak anthropologist?" Father Andrew asked with a grin.
"A member of a sentient machine species, one of the three species who founded the Confederation." Robert glanced at Fontana. "Am I right?"
"Yeah, you are."
"Whoa! Now that is wrong!" Ully picked up a pencil and jabbed at the open manual. "Here. This should be ...." Balancing on one leg, he scrawled something on the page Linda had been looking at.
"We haven't translated that yet."
"What translate? That's just wrong. If the phrashi are using this, I'm amazed any of their communication devices are working!"
Fontana moved to look over Linda's shoulder, frowning. "You think the manuals are fake?"
"Eh?" Ully spat out the pen and used his beak to flip pages, looking them over before shaking his head vigorously. "I doubt it. I think it's probably just an error in the manual."
Fontana looked thoughtful. "Robert, you free for a while?"
"Yeah, sure. Why?"
"I was thinking maybe you could help Ully translate a couple of the manuals. He can translate but it would be faster if someone else was doing the writing. I'll keep working on the communications one with Linda but it would be handy to have the weapons and shuttle repair manuals done as well."
"Sure. Let me make sure the girls are doing what they're supposed to be doing and I'll be right back."
Julie followed Robert out the door, not surprised to see a number of residents standing there in a mixture of apprehension and curiosity. "Okay everyone. Back to whatever you were doing. And if you happened to see a red fox stroll into camp, please point him toward the saloon." She sighed and muttered in an aside to Father Andrew. "That's not something I ever thought I'd say."
The priest laughed. "We all seem to be saying things these days we never imagine we would be."
"That the warehouse?" Tyler asked, slowing the van to a halt and Donovan looked up from the alien device he'd been fiddling with.
"Yeah." He glanced at his watch. "Ten minutes to nine. Cutting it close."
"There'll be watchers." Tyler glanced at the buildings, noting their abandoned look. Empty and broken crates were scattered about; all the windows were boarded up. "Why was it abandoned anyway?" He asked curiously.
"Too far out. Arthur had hoped to set something up but never had the chance. There was a fishing village around here once."
Tyler steered the van down toward the warehouse, parking carefully just off of the pier. Pulling off his sunglasses, he tossed them onto the dash and looked around, memorizing everything he could before opening the door. "Let's get this over with." He muttered.
"It would help if I knew the plan." Donovan muttered back, feeling horribly uneasy.
"You know your part of the plan and that's all that matters. Now go!"
Donovan stepped out of the van and followed the other man toward a stack of crates. Just short of them, at the spot indicated on the photo, Tyler paused, looking upward.
"Shuttle coming." He said curtly and Donovan nodded, pulling the alien device from his pocket.
"I hope this works." He said tightly.
"Not half as much I do." Tyler's voice was cold, his face as remote as the day Donovan had first seen him in the previous headquarters.
Maggie flinched as Tyler fell bonelessly to the ground, hoping fervently that the man was just a real good actor. "Chris?"
"Don't worry." He murmured back. "Ham knows how to take a fall." He turned the binoculars to where the Visitor watchers were. Caleb and Elias were already slipping down to them, taking them out expertly. Taking their weapons, the two men slipped back into the shadows and back to their assigned locations.
Chris nodded in satisfaction. They'd come a long way since he and Ham first saw them in their previous doomed headquarters.
"Shuttle." Maggie murmured and he turned back to watch the alien ship land on the pier not far from Donovan. Four troopers stepped out then Diana, strutting as if she already owned the world. 'Not gonna happen, lady' Chris thought grimly as four more troopers appeared behind her. Good, Donovan wasn't letting them near Tyler until he saw Sean. Diana had the boy, dressed in a brown Youth Corp uniform and looking remarkably calm for the situation, brought out. Only then did Donovan step back and allow a trooper to approach Tyler.
The trooper used his foot to push Tyler onto his back. Ham rolled limply, the epitome of an unconscious man. Crouching next to Tyler, the trooper pulled off a glove, raising the hand to show Diana the exposed claws. Diana smirked, obviously pleased, and gestured for Sean to go to his father. She said something to Donovan that made his face tightened then the man had his son and was pushing him toward the van.
"Get ready." Chris said quietly and Maggie raised her crossbow. He reached down to pick up the detonator strip, glancing down once to confirm the rifle was ready as well. He knew without looking that Caleb and Elias were above them, also ready. "Wait for the signal."
Maggie nodded slightly, already aiming for her target. Diana was circling the fallen Tyler, obviously taking her time gloating over her prize. Ignoring the sickness in her stomach over the thought of what the alien planned for the Barbarosian, she watched as Diana finally stopped on Tyler's far side, gesturing her men forward.
Chris gritted his teeth at the sight of the heavy chains the troopers carried. Signal or no signal, there was no way he could allow Tyler to be chained. He drew a thumb lightly over the first button, watching, waiting ...
And then Tyler finally moved, his hand flashing up to claw through one of the trooper's throat. Another trooper, who had just dropped to a knee by him, leapt up and into the path of Maggie's otherwise well-aimed bolt. The woman cursed, reaching for another bolt.
Chris felt a surge of relief, part of him afraid that Donovan had pulled a fast one, and brought his thumb down on the first button. The explosives on the far side of the pier, set by pure chance directly under where the shuttle had landed, began to explode and the pier collapsed underneath it, tilting the shuttle nose-first toward the water before becoming trapped. A second button and the warehouse went up, sending wood flying in every direction. Chris quickly pressed the remaining three buttons before dropping the detonator and reaching for the rifle. He raised it, using the scope to track Ham's progress.
He saw a crossbow bolt strike another trooper, sending him to the wooden pier and then, as the pier started to break apart, into the water below. Chris grinned in satisfaction before finally spotting Ham, up on his feet and sprinting for the end off the pier and the safety of the ocean. The Visitors, even Diana, were too busy trying to dodge flying shrapnel and keep their footing to worry about him. Except for that one ...
Chris spotted the trooper taking deadly aim at his friend and twisted to fire a quick shot. The bullet hit true and he grinned to see the Visitor's head literally explode, torn apart by the mushrooming bullet. 'Better his then Ham's' he thought to himself before turning back to check on Ham. His heart almost stopped when he realized the pier was collapsing under the man's feet, threatening to send him into the water and possibly into the path of the falling wood.
Ham felt the pier collapsing under his feet and he clawed desperately at the wood, cursing the boots that kept him from using all of his claws. 'Not here! If I fall here, I'll be buried!' He felt his claws catch and he literally scrambled back up onto the still intact part of the pier. Not for long though as more and more of the rotting wood gave way. He ducked his head and sprinted for the water. Not far, just a few more feet ...
Something struck his back hard and he fell, rolling. The last of the pier gave way beneath him and he fell toward the water, fragments of wood falling all around him.
Diana hissed curses in her native language as she saw the Barbarosian fall into the water. All those possibilities ... Well, she could make sure he didn't help the Resistance any longer. Turning, she snapped out an order to one of her guards. The man wavered, then, seeing the look on her face, raced off to obey.
Chris muttered a curse when he saw Ham tumble into the water but there was nothing he could do about it. He turned his attention back to the Visitors, trying to pick them off. Diana was already hidden behind the part of the shuttle still above water and the others were running for cover. Dropping the detonator into his pocket, Chris started to rise, ready to signal the retreat. While it was tempting to finish off the Visitors, that wasn't in the plan and they couldn't take a chance on more arriving.
"Chris!" Maggie said sharply and he snapped the rifle up in time to see a trooper toss something in the water after Ham. He pulled off a quick shot, sending the trooper scurrying for cover but it was too late. Water spewed from the ocean and what little that remained of the pier there collapsed.
"Damn! Come on! Let's go!" Gesturing Maggie ahead of him, they ran for the van where the others were already waiting. Rico had the vehicle already running and they piled in.
"Think he's all right?" Maggie asked as they pulled away.
Chris set the rifle carefully down, his face grim. "I don't know. That last explosion ... depends on how far away he managed to get."
Ham hit the water badly, the impact driving out what little air was left in his lungs. Desperately, as his vision threatened to darken, he breathed water. There was a sharp pain in his upper chest as the third lung began to function, drawing oxygen from the water and passing it down to his regular lungs without allowing any of the water through. Allowing the weight of the belt and wet clothing drag him downward, Ham looked around, trying to get his bearings.
A slab of wood fell almost on top of him and instinctively he jerked to one side. Too late he realized he had gone the wrong way and was now under the collapsing pier. Desperately he swam in the other direction, barely getting clear then something exploded nearby. He tried to scream as pain lanced through his ears and he felt himself blacking out.
Dimly Donovan could hear the explosions behind them and he winced. Sean twisted in his seat to look behind them.
"What's that?" He asked.
"Some folks voicing their opinion of Diana, I think." Donovan said grimly, increasing the van's speed. He didn't know much about the whole plan but he did know that Tyler had been of the opinion Diana would do this on her own. She wouldn't have wanted to share a captive Barbarosian with anyone so it was unlikely there would be other shuttles around but all that flash and noise would draw in not only the Visitors but the law as well.
"Should we check it out?"
"No. We have someplace to be." It would take them an hour to reach the rendezvous Tyler had given him directions to. Forcing worry about the others ... and the knowledge that if anything happened to them it was his fault ... from his mind, he concentrated on his driving. "Josh is there. Bet he'll be happy to see you."
"Yeah, great. Who else is there?"
"Lots of people. You don't know them. Oh, I almost forgot." He reached into his vest to pull out Sean's baseball hat. "Here. I've been keeping it for you." He glanced over to catch the boy's reaction and was disappointed to see nothing.
"Yeah, thanks. Where are we going?"
"Somewhere safe." Donovan said, stifling his feelings of unease.
Ham looked around groggily, wondering if he'd been out for a minute or several minutes or even longer. He ached all over and when he looked at his watch, he wasn't too surprised to see it broken. There was a foul taste in his mouth and the smell of blood in the water. He remembered what he'd told Julie that night not so long ago 'We can survive under water but we're not built to live there by any means. Except, of course, for our Aquatics.'
Case in point, his eyes weren't made to see underwater, especially in water so filled with silt he could barely see a foot in front of himself. Stripping off the remaining glove and his boots, he started for the surface, pausing just short of it. If there are troopers up there ... But there was nothing else he could do. Slowly he emerged long enough to look around, finally focusing on the still-smoking pier. Once he established where that was, he submerged again and began to swim for the pickup point, hoping he made it in time.
Caleb and Rico set up sentry points while Chris, Elias, and Maggie ran for the water. They weren't that far from the pier and all were nervous as they divided their time between scanning the water and scanning the skies.
"Ten minutes." Chris said grimly and Maggie bit her lip, searching the water harder. Ten minutes and they would have to leave, Tyler or no Tyler. But he knew where to come and he would come ... if he wasn't dead or captured or unconscious under the water ...
"If he doesn't come ..." She started.
"He can make to the base on his own." Chris said curtly then he shook his head, letting his worry show. "But that last explosion, he could be hurt."
"Damn." Elias muttered, looking over the water and trying to see underneath it as well. He was still trying to reconcile Donovan's actions with his image of the man and he wasn't being totally successful. And while he didn't like Tyler, he had to give the man credit for his willingness to help Donovan get his son back. He wasn't sure he would have been able to do the same. "Hey! Wait! There!" He pointed down the shoreline and they turned to see a dark figure in the waves, half-tumbling onto the wet sands.
Together they ran for him, Maggie reaching him first, grabbing at the sodden windbreaker and pulling him toward land. She was alarmed to hear him choking and to see a hand reach up to clench at his throat. She grabbed the hand, worried that Ham might tear his own throat in his panic. "Chris! What ...?"
Chris was next to her, reaching for Ham. "He's still fixed for breathing underwater and he can't get rid of the water. He's being drowned by air. Move back." Rolling Tyler over so he was face-down, Chris wrapped an arm around him, bracing him as he drove a fist between the other man's shoulder blades then again, as hard as he could. Ham choked as water, blood and mucus erupted from his nose and mouth. Collapsing into his friend's arms, he gasped for breath.
"I hate that." He said thickly, his voice slurred. "I really, really hate that."
"Gotta admit it's handy." Chris said in relief, relief that turned to worry when the other man didn't respond. "Ham?" He touched the other's cheek lightly.
Ham looked up at him then shook his head, stopping abruptly with a wince. "Don't bother talking to me. My eardrums are blown."
"Damn." Chris muttered. He looked around, suddenly aware of how exposed they were. While they hadn't seen or heard any shuttles it didn't mean that they weren't on their way. "Let's get the hell out of here."
Helping Ham to his feet, they hurried for the relative safety of the van.
Donovan turned into the campgrounds and into the area Tyler had indicated. Harmony and Sancho were already there and Alice as well, dropping down from a nearby tree. Harmony had an armful of clothes which she shoved unceremoniously into Donovan's arms.
"Get him changed. Everything goes. Hurry!" She snapped when Donovan didn't move. "We don't need them getting a fix on us!"
"Here, Sean." Donovan handed the clothes to his son. "Change in the van."
"Make sure he gets everything." Alice said curtly and Donovan scowled. "Just leave it in the van." She added, ignoring the look on Donovan's face as she went back to searching the skies.
Donovan watched as Sean changed from the Youth Corp uniform into the jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, frowning when he saw the boy slip something from the pocket of the uniform, holding onto it as he jumped down from the van.
"What's that?" He asked, sharper then he intended.
Sean held out his hand to show him a watch. "Grandma gave it to me."
"When?" Donovan asked, knowing full well that all possessions are taken from the suspendees and he doubted they were catalogued since they didn't plan on ever returning them.
"Right before we came to meet you."
"You saw your grandmother before Diana brought you to meet me?" Donovan said slowly, feeling a little numb.
"Yeah. She said she'd be seeing us both real soon." Sean said cheerfully.
"Right." Sancho appeared next to them. Ignoring Sean's protests, he grabbed the watch, tossed it into the van and slammed the door shut. "Get in the other van. We are gone! Now!"
"But, Dad! Grandma said to hang on to that!" Sean looked genuinely distressed and Donovan grabbed his shoulder, steering him toward the other van.
"We'll get you a new one; your grandmother will never know. Hop in and let's go."
Ignoring the boy's protest, Donovan shoved him into the van and slammed the door shut. Sancho was already on his way and Donovan watched as he turned in the direction opposite the way they were signaling to go.
"Where to now?"
"To meet Ham and the others." Was all either woman would say as they turned back onto the highway.
Rico pulled the van into the back of the motel, parking it among the half-dozen abandoned cars there. The town near the motel was a small one and one thoroughly emptied by the Visitors less then two months ago. But there was still electricity and the water still ran and that made this place invaluable as a temporary safehouse for the Resistance. At one point there was even talk of making it a secondary base but nothing had come of it as yet. Now it was used mainly by transients and the homeless.
Maggie was the first out of the van, running for the nearest room, lock picks already in hand. To her surprise, she had the lock jimmied in less then twenty seconds ... those lessons from Fontana really were helpful. Opening the door, she headed straight for the bathroom, flipping on the water.
"We got hot water!" She said after a moment.
"Good." Chris grunted from behind her, dropping a knapsack onto the sink. "Ham can't stop shivering." He glanced at the towel rack, seeing only one rather limp and dusty towel. "Think you can find more towels?"
"I'll see what I can do." She disappeared out the door.
Ham limped into the bathroom, already stripping off his soaked shirt. Chris gave him an inquiring look and he shook his head. "I can handle it." Chris nodded and stepped out, shutting the door behind him.
Ham stripped off the remainder of his clothes and stepped into the shower without bothering to test it first. The water was hotter then he normally liked but right now it felt wonderful. He sank to the bottom of the tub, sitting in the spray, letting it warm him. Absently, he tried to cut the bandages off, wincing at the sharp ache every time he unsheathed a claw. Finally he just worked off the remaining bandages, tossing them to the other end of the tub before leaning back and resting his head back against the wall.
He was still alive, that alone amazed him. Deaf and hurting all over but alive. What was it Chris has said so long ago? 'You gotta stop taking these crazy chances' or some such. He wished he could but his acceptance with this group hung by a thread. He couldn't afford to make any worse enemies then he already had and if he hadn't helped Donovan then somehow whatever happened would have ended up being his fault, even though Donovan had been the one in the wrong. Too bad they couldn't just tell everyone the truth behind all this ... he grinned at the tarnishing the 'golden boy' would take.
Someone poked tentatively at the shower curtain and then again, a little harder. Curious, he reached up and pulled the curtain back slightly to see Maggie standing there, a perturbed expression on her face. She offered him a washcloth.
"Where are the guys?" He said, amused. He knew his voice was too loud but he still couldn't hear it.
"Buggered out." Maggie spoke slow enough for him to read her lips. "Checking the area."
"And left you holding the washcloth." He was rewarded with a smile.
"And towels." She gestured toward a pile nearby. "Are you hurt?" She asked, gesturing at his hand.
Ham glanced at his hand, realizing there was blood there. He grimaced. "Came damn near to declawing myself. Other than that ..." He paused, looking down the length of his body for the first time, realizing he had more scrapes and bruises then he'd originally thought. "Other then that, I don't know."
"So stand up and let's take a look." At Ham's surprised look, Maggie shook her head and sighed. "You haven't got a thing I haven't seen before."
Ham eyed her suspiciously. "How would you know? Have you been peeking?"
Maggie crossed her arms and glared at him. Finally he pulled himself to his feet, clenching at the wall bar as he swayed and almost fell.
"Ham?" Concerned, Maggie reached out to steady him.
"Balance is off. Stiffened up too, damn it." He said in that too-loud voice, gripping her arm. "How's my back look?"
Maggie looked, whistling softly at the bruise covering almost all of his upper back. "You've got a hell of a bruise." Remembering that Ham couldn't hear her, she leaned back and repeated herself so Ham could read her lips, adding, "Chris' blows probably didn't help."
"Probably not. Hurts like hell."
"Think you might have some broken ribs?"
"Maybe. Maybe just cracked. With any luck, just bruised." He reached out to turn off the water and stepped from the shower, gritting his teeth at the surge of pain that swept over him. Once he was steady on his feet, Maggie released his arm and grabbed the one loose towel, shaking it free of dust and offering it to him before turning to tear open the plastic covering the clean towels she had found. She clenched her teeth at the thought that these freshly laundered towels had probably been delivered right before the Visitors had cleaned out the town, taking guests from the hotel as well as the inhabitants of the town. Shoving those thoughts from her mind, she gathered up a few towels and turned to see Ham briskly drying his hair.
With a sigh, Maggie gingerly prodded Ham in the side, taking care to stay away from any bruises or abrasions. Even so, Ham winced and looked at her reproachfully.
"You're not very modest, are you?" She hadn't meant to say it out loud but she had given him that towel to cover himself.
Despite himself, Ham glanced downward, smiling slightly. "Never thought I had anything to be modest about." Then he paused, suddenly feeling strangely embarrassed. "Sorry." He muttered, lowering the towel to secure it around his waist, looking anywhere but at Maggie.
Maggie felt her lips quirk. Not at what he'd said ... in the course of her career as a pilot she's heard some pretty raunchy things ... but at seeing Ham embarrassed. She'd never thought to see him embarrassed about anything. Not that he has anything to be embarrassed about ... cutting that thought off firmly, Maggie offered him another towel and he resumed drying his hair. "At least I feel warm again." She heard him mumble and she grinned.
Pulling the jar Fontana had given her before they left from her pocket, she touched Ham's shoulder to get his attention. "Need help getting dry?"
He looked at the jar with obvious relief. "My back?" He looked at her appealingly and she nodded, pulling a towel from the package and gingerly drying his back. Despite her attempts to be gentle, she could feel him flinch several times and hiss with pain once or twice. Finally she gestured for him to sit down and reached for the jar.
"If that's the one that numbs, use gloves or you won't be able to feel your fingers." Ham said sharply, just before she dipped her fingers into the bluish-green salve.
Maggie paused, remembering the surgical gloves Fontana had handed her. She pulled them from her pocket and slipped them on. "That's right. He did say this salve numbs pain. How many types of kuta are there anyway?" She asked as she tentatively dabbed the salve onto the numerous scrapes and cuts.
"No idea but it's good for what ails you. Literally. We use it for everything. Speaking of which, did Fontana give you any packets of powders?" Ham asked hopefully, watching as she rewrapped his hands. Not as good as Julie would have done but not bad.
"As a matter of fact ..." Maggie pulled out a couple red packets from her pocket.
"Good." There was relief in the man's voice. He poured a packet of powder into a glass and filled it with water, drinking it down so rapidly that Maggie knew it had to be medicine. At her inquiring look, Ham explained. "For infection." He hesitated, his eyes shadowed. "My people can be prone to ear infections so I'm glad he sent it along." He raised his head suddenly, nostrils flaring. Absently he licked his lips. "I smell KFC."
Maggie blinked in surprise. "Get dressed. I'll go see what's going on."
What was going on were several buckets of chicken being passed around the group, which now included Sancho, Alice, Harmony, Donovan, and Sean.
"You stopped for KFC?" She asked, reaching for a piece of chicken.
"Figured you'd all be hungry." Harmony offered her a plate then another one to Ham, now dressed in jeans and an unbuttoned western-style shirt. Ignoring the plate, he snatched up a bucket and retreated to the wall next to the bed, sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaving the others staring at him in surprise.
"If there's anything Ham likes better then KFC," Chris said from where he sat, feet propped up on a bed. "I haven't found it yet."
"In other words, stay away from his chicken." Sancho grinned as Ham tore into a piece of chicken with obvious hunger.
"Unless you wanna be minus a hand." Chris laughed.
"Glad we grabbed that extra bucket." Alice offered Ham a container of milk. He looked up, eying her almost suspiciously before finally taking it with a nod of thanks.
"Don't try talking to him." Maggie spoke up, noticing that Donovan was looking at the man. "He can't hear you. His eardrums were ruptured." She was pleased to see a guilty look cross the former newsman's face. Sean, she saw, was looking at oddly at Ham. Of course, Ham wasn't wearing gloves or boots and was gingerly using his claws to dissect another piece of chicken. She wondered what Diana may have told the boy about Ham or Ham's people.
"Otherwise he's okay?" Donovan asked almost hopefully.
"Lots of scrapes, cuts, and bruises, one covering about half his back. A few splinters and he claims he was almost declawed."
Chris grunted. "He probably won't be able to use his claws too well for awhile."
"Claws?" Sean said tentatively and Chris looked at Donovan, almost daring him to explain.
"Yeah." Donovan said stiffly. "Tyler's an alien, a different kind of alien then the Visitors. He's been working with us."
"Oh." The boy looked like he would have liked to say something more but he didn't, concentrating on his food instead.
Silence reigned as everyone concentrated on eating. A chance for take-out was very rare and they took full advantage of it. After several minutes of silence, one by one, they all became aware of a low rumbling sound. At first alarmed, they looked up and around until, finally, they were all looking at Ham.
"Is he ... purring?" Maggie finally asked.
Chris frowned, seeming almost reluctant to answer. He looked around the group thoughtfully then shrugged. "Kinda. I doubt he knows he's doing it." He grinned suddenly. "I told you he loves KFC."
So it's like a cat." Harmony said. "Involuntary."
"Yeah, well. It's not like he can hear himself." Chris threw Donovan a dark look and the other man flushed.
At that moment, the Barbarosian seemed to realize he was being stared at and he looked up, licking his fingers. "What?" He demanded.
Maggie touched his shoulder lightly to get his attention, speaking slowly. "You were purring."
Ham looked at her, his face tightening, then abruptly he looked away, down into the bucket and Maggie got the sudden impression that sheer will, and maybe exhaustion, was all that kept him from fleeing. She threw Chris a confused look.
The big man shrugged. "On Earth, people who are different tend to end up dead. Or worse."
"Oh." Maggie said weakly, seeing more then a few of the others shift uncomfortably. Next to her, Ham pulled another piece of chicken from the bucket and resumed eating. His tenseness had eased but the sound had stopped and, much to her surprise, Maggie found herself missing it.
"Don't fret about it." Chris said suddenly, in a surprisingly gentle voice. "Sometimes he has a hard time realizing not everyone's going to break out the stakes and torches every time he does something different."
"You make it sound like that's happened." Caleb spoke up. Like Chris, he was sprawled comfortably in a chair, feet propped up on a bed.
Chris hesitated, watching his friend gingerly peel the skin from a piece of chicken. "Ham's been fairly lucky. Most of the people who have found out about him have ended up as friends or allies. But there's been a couple times ..." He jaw tightened but he continued anyway. "He disappeared shortly after we both left the Army, for maybe three years. I don't know what happened, never asked, never intend to but when I saw him next, he wasn't the same man I knew before. What ever happened was bad enough to turn him into the man you knew when we first arrived. Hard, cold, closed-off. The second time was your buddy, Medina." He looked directly at Donovan. Donovan choked on a piece of chicken but Chris continued ruthlessly. "He only had Ham for a few days but it took him months to heal properly. I won't go into details."
"Thanks. I have enough nightmares to deal with." Caleb said. "And Medina was ..."
"A 'freedom fighter'." Chris made air-quotes with his fingers. "Man ran the largest damn poppy fields in South America with slave labor from the villages but because he was fighting the ... evil overlords, Donovan was toting him as the good guy. Of course, Medina was very careful not to let Donovan see the dark side of his enterprise." He tossed a biscuit into the air and caught it, looking at his friend for a long moment. Ham stared down into the bucket as he ate, refusing to look up. "Tony knew though. He's the one who helped me get Ham out." For a moment, Chris looked caught up in memories, none of them good.
Donovan gaped at him in shock, remembering that Tony had taken an unexplained leave of absence after Medina was killed and his group wiped out. He'd always thought that maybe the carnage there had been the reason for it.
"And Medina?" Sancho asked.
"Dead." Chris said curtly. "As well as the men who'd been working with him."
"Tyler killed them." Donovan blurted out. "Those claws ..."
"Yeah, he did." Chris interrupted him bluntly. "Considering what they'd been doing to him and to the others they were holding prisoner, I can't blame him for it in the least. I don't think," He shot a quick look at Sean. "You want me to go into details."
"Don't you dare." Harmony said weakly, looking a little sick.
Chris gave her a sympathetic look. "It was a long time ago, hon, and he survived. Not without his own nightmares though."
"No trials, no appeals, no mercy." Caleb said suddenly and the two men shared a brief look of perfect understanding, ignoring the others' confused and questioning looks.
Finding that the bucket was now empty save for well-gnawed and broken bones, Ham finally looked up and around, eyes narrowing with suspicion at the expressions on the faces that looked back at him. "It's not nice to talk about a guy when you know he can't hear what you're saying." He grumbled, rubbing a hand along the side of his face and Maggie almost laughed. The gesture looked remarkably like that of a cat rubbing a paw across its face.
"But it's lots safer." Chris remarked then grinned cheerfully at Ham's scowl.
"Hell." He reached for a wet towelette and used it to wiped grease from his face. "I'll just get it all from the little fella once I can hear again." He grinned at Sancho with sharp teeth.
"Hey!" Sancho sat up straight as laughter erupted around the room. "Come on, you guys! I don't wanna know what he means by that!" His own laughter belayed his feigned panic and Ham's grin broadened. He looked down into the bucket, searching through the bones once again before looking up and around hopefully.
"I'm beginning to think we should have just brought a few whole chickens." Alice grumbled as she looked through the other buckets, finally offering Ham one still a third full. He took it with a mumbled 'thanks' and resumed eating.
Chris chuckled. "He needs the protein right now, to help with the healing process." Absently, he looked through the curtain, scanning the street. "We best get a move on." Chris tossed a biscuit at Ham, who frowned as it landed in the bucket. He picked it up, looked it over intently then started to munch on it before looking inquiringly at his friend. "Gotta get going. You can finish eating in the van. Yeah, you can take the damn bucket." He rolled his eyes as the others burst out laughing. Ham glowered at them all, not loosening his hold on the bucket, a hint of laughter in his dark eyes.
"Come on then." Maggie rose. Ham glanced at her then started to stand. With a hiss of pain, he fell back to his knees, clenching the bed to keep from falling on his face. Concerned, Maggie dropped to his side.
"Damn." Chris stood up, frowning as he eyed his friend. "Can you help him to the van, Maggie?"
Maggie nodded, picking up the bucket of chicken and handing it off to Alice. Ham looked up at that, looking ready to protest but Maggie cut him off.
"You need help getting out to the van." Maggie made it a statement rather then a question and Ham nodded wearily. He draped his arm over her shoulders and she slipped her arm around his waist, taking care to avoid the bruise on his back. She knew she wasn't very successful even before he flinched but it was the best she could do as she helped him to his feet. With her support, he moved stiffly toward the door. Behind them, the others gathered up the trash and used towels, leaving as little trace of themselves behind as possible.
It was almost suppertime when the two vans pulled into the camp. Julie stepped from the saloon to watch as the doors opened and people stepped out. Her eyes slipped over everyone, counting heads, unbearably relieved to count the correct number plus one. Donovan stood next to his son, obviously wanting her attention but she had her duty first. She looked at Ham, now being helped from the van by Caleb and Maggie. The Barbarosian's face was pale and drawn and alarm shot through her.
"What happened?" She asked, starting forward, Fontana beside her.
Maggie looked up, shaking her head. "Don't bother trying to talk to him. His eardrums were blown."
"What?" Fontana looked at Ham sharply. Julie was surprised to see an almost guilty look cross the latter's face then Fontana was heading for the man, steering him toward the stable in a manner that allowed no argument. Ham didn't protest, just leaned on the other man for support as they walked.
"Am I missing something?" Julie said to no one in particular.
"Barbarosians can be prone to deafness." An English-accented voice came from behind Donovan and he turned sharply, startled to see a red fox now balanced the hood of one of the vans.
"Meaning?" Julie asked, looking as if talking red foxes were all the norm these days.
"Ear infection can keep the ears from healing properly, which in turn can cause deafness." The fox swiped at his own ear. "Due to their metabolism, certain infections can occur very quickly in Barbarosians."
"Like ear infections."
"Like ear infections."
"Damn it! Everyone, get cleaned up, get some food, and relax for a while. We'll meet in the saloon in an hour for debriefing. Harmony, would you mind getting together some medical supplies and bringing them over to the stable?" She headed at a rapid walk for the stable. Maggie looked after her then, after a moment's thought, followed her into the stable.
Donovan looked after Julie, feeling hurt and, he was surprised to realize, a little jealous. A sudden grunt distracted him and he looked down to see that the fox had landed with an awkward thump on the ground.
"That was graceful." Robert remarked and the fox snorted.
"Hey, I'm a fox! Not a cat!" He gave himself a vigorous shake.
"Where did that come from?" Donovan asked, his disappointment in Julie's lack of greeting making him curt.
"'That' is Reginald and from the look in his eye, I don't think he appreciates being referred to as 'that'." Robert said. "He is a part of ..." Robert paused, glancing at Sean. "Well, let's just say he's a ... a guest." Robert jerked his head toward the top of the van. "The ... ah ... flying fox up there is Ully. They're both friends of Fontana's." The hawk perched on the van's roof now had the exact markings of a red fox and Reginald muttered something softly, glowering up at the hawk. The hawk preened tauntingly back.
"Oh." Things clicked in Donovan's head and he half-smiled, realizing that, finally, Fontana would be leaving. And maybe, if he was lucky, Tyler as well. "That's means Fontana's sh ..."
"Yes, it does." Robert curtly cut him off, glaring at him. Donovan fumbled to a halt, confused. "Julie's set up a bed in the trailer for Sean. You might want to grab some supper and talk with Julie as soon as possible. I need to check on the girls. Ully, how about we meet in the saloon in about an hour, see if we can finish that translating tonight?"
"I'll be there." The hawk shrieked and dropped from the van, soaring off. Robert turned and headed for the trailer.
Donovan looked after the man, still confused.
"Have you considered," Reginald said from where he now sat on the ground, examining stretched out toes critically. "That there are some things that the kits do not need to know? Especially kits who have spent way too much time in phrashi hands?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Donovan snapped before he realized he was talking to a fox.
"You're supposed to be an intelligent man. You figure it out." The fox rose and and turned to leap inside the van.
"Dad." Sean asked slowly. "How can that fox talk?"
"Well, I doubt it's a real fox. Maybe it's a machine."
"Like a robot? Cool!" Sean grinned for the first time since Sancho took the watch away.
Donovan looked at the boy in surprise. Sean had never had much interested in such things before. "Yeah, I guess it is. Come on. Let's get something eat and then I'll show you around."
Ham sat on the sofa, giving the impression he was ready to fall asleep. Maggie wasn't surprised, considering the intense activity he'd gone through and the very full meal he'd eaten. He had dozed off once or twice in the van but never for very long. It was as if he'd been afraid to fall asleep.
She perched on one of the long tables, watching as Fontana gently applied a pale cream ... yet another variation of kuta ... directly into Ham's ears, all the while explaining to Julie what needed to be done to keep infection away and, if infection did occur, what to do about it. He also went over more detailed explanations about the other medicines in the kit, most of which was derived from kuta.
"How likely is deafness?" Julie asked.
"If his ears get badly infected, there's a seventy-eight percent chance of deafness." Fontana said bluntly and Julie threw him a shocked look. "Minor infection can be prevented or cleared up with the dried kuta powder and this cream but if major infection sets in ..." He let his voice trail off.
"He can't sleep in the loft. There's too much dust and dirt up there." Julie said with some alarm.
"He'll sleep in the RV." Chris said from where he sat nearby. "Alice is fixing us up a room in the saloon."
Julie grinned mischievously. "Not the loft?"
"Hehehe." Chris threw a book at her. "Funny lady."
Ham looked surprised at the exchange, which of course he couldn't hear and their respective positions kept him from reading their lips and reasoning out what they were saying. Fontana moved his hands in what Julie realized was a type of sign language and Ham grinned.
"For a while so many of our people were going deaf that it became mandatory and that never changed."
Julie flinched at the thought and took a deep breath. As much as she hated the idea ... "Would it be better if he went back with you then?"
Fontana's face tightened. "He can't, not now." He said curtly. "Traveling in space would drastically increase the chances of him going deaf."
"Oh." Julie said weakly.
"And I have to leave. I've already been here too long." Fontana continued, concentrating on re-bandaging Ham's hands.
"I'm sorry." Julie said.
"Don't be. Kom would have insisted on staying anyway."
Aware that they were talking but unable to tell what they were talking about, Ham touched Fontana lightly on the shoulder. At his lack of response, Ham looked at Julie inquiringly. She grimaced and gestured at her ear, mouthing space travel at him. He nodded in understanding.
"What's this?" Reginald's voice was muffled by the familiar red and white bucket he was dragging in with him.
"You stopped for KFC?" Julie's voice rose an octave.
"Is that a bad thing?" The fox shoved his muzzle forcefully through the top and came out with a piece of wing, crunching it between strong teeth. "Yum, good."
"Alice did. Good thing too. Ham needed it." Maggie spoke up.
"I like this." Reginald muttered, pulling out another piece.
"Yeah, but ... is there any coleslaw left?" Julie asked plaintively.
"Ham finished most everything off on the way back."
"Well, that helps explain why he's ready to pass out." Fontana said with a slight grin. "I better get him inside and into bed."
Julie glanced at Ham, now half-curled up on the sofa, almost asleep. Before she could agree, he jerked awake and pushed himself upright, looking around in confusion. Fontana signed something at him and he frowned, starting to shake his head. He stopped abruptly with an involuntary wince of pain.
"He's afraid to go to sleep. If he goes into a healing sleep, it may increase the chance of deafness." He caught her confused look. "Some things can speed up in a healing sleep, including the rate of certain infections. It means someone will have to keep a very close eye on him, make sure infection doesn't set in while he's asleep. Once it sets in ..." He paused, shaking his head. "While I'm still here, I can do it."
"When you leave, we can keep an eye on him." Maggie spoke up firmly. "You said there would be a fever?"
"Yes. Our body temps are roughly the same as yours. As long as it doesn't get higher then standard human, he should be infection-free."
"But when you're in a healing sleep it drops, doesn't it?" Julie asked.
"Usually, yes. Body functions slow down but the healing process speeds up so you got to be careful with that. Of course, I doubt he'll let himself go into a healing sleep. And none of the wounds he has are life-threatening so he shouldn't go into it involuntarily."
Crunch, crunch. "Uh-oh." Reginald's voice was muffled.
"So we keep a close eye on him." Julie rose, brushing off her jeans. "I better go find Mike and ... are you okay, Reginald?"
"I seem to be stuck." The fox backed up, pawing first with one paw then the other at the bucket stuck on his head. Julie reached down and gave the bucket a hard yank. Seeing nothing but bones left inside, she tossed it into the nearest trash barrel. Picking up the fox, she carried him out of the stable.
"Hey! Where you going with my fox?" Fontana looked at Chris. "Where's she going with my fox?"
The big man shrugged. "Gonna go put him down among the chickens, I bet."
"I'm just showing Sean around, Ian."
Ian looked apologetic but he didn't move an inch. "Sorry, Mike. Orders. No unauthorized personnel in the research areas."
"When did this start?" Donovan said impatiently. They had heard the same thing in several different places and Donovan couldn't help but notice that there seemed to be more guards then there'd been before.
"Orders came down yesterday. We're getting more and more people joining and we can't be sure who might be converted or maybe even just working for the lizards. Been too damn lax around here." Ian said cheerfully but then he was always cheerful.
Donovan felt his face tighten but Ian didn't seem to notice. He grinned down at Sean. "Heard you got your kid back though. Looks like the plan worked okay."
"Plan?" Donovan said sharply. "You know about that?"
Ian looked confused. "Well, yeah. Julie said something about you and Ham working out a plan to get your kid back."
"Yeah, it worked." Donovan said stiffly. "Where are the kids anyway?"
"Up to the north field, I think."
"Thanks. Come on, Sean." They walked away from the research building and through the town. "There's maybe a dozen kids around your age here. We got classes going ..." He grinned at Sean's grimace. "It'll keep you busy at least ... hey, Natalie. What's up?"
Natalie was walking toward with a frown on her face. He could see some of her friends ... the main body of the anti-Tyler group ... nearby and had the sudden feeling that she was about to say something he wasn't going to like.
"Mike." She smiled thinly, eyes sliding to Sean. "This your son?"
"Yeah, Sean, Natalie Barnes." He glanced at the half-dozen people sitting on the porch of the whorehouse. "Something wrong?"
She looked at him for a moment, lips compressed. "I take it you haven't heard yet?"
"Julie's named Tyler as her second-in-command." She was watching him closely.
Donovan barely managed to keep his reaction from his face. "That's her right."
Natalie looked disappointed in his lack of response. "But he's not human!"
"Whether anyone likes it or not, he is the best man for the job. Human or not." Donovan pointed out, ignoring his churning stomach. No matter what his personal opinion of Tyler, he knew he had to back Julie's decision. "No one else here has his military experience or contacts." He looked at the woman closely, sensing that she wasn't saying everything. "What else did she say?"
"What?' Natalie looked taken back. "Oh, something about you, Caleb, Maggie, some others being her ... or their ... Seconds."
"Well, yes, I think that's what she said."
"I see." Donovan wasn't certain what all of this meant but he suddenly felt better. 'Julie knows what she's doing' he thought to himself. "Sounds workable." Was all he said out loud.
"It's going to cause problems." Natalie warned.
"Is that a threat?" Julie said cheerfully as she approached, the fox cradled in her arms.
Natalie flushed. "No, of course not. It's just that ..." She looked behind her at the others. "Well, some people don't like it."
"Can't satisfy everyone." Julie pointed out. "I had to do what was best for the group on a whole and Tyler is the best person for the job, period."
"Double period! I want some more of whatever that was." The fox said, twisting to look back over Julie's shoulder.
"Chicken. And it's all gone."
"Damn." The fox muttered. "I can see why Komees Ihn'e likes it so well though."
"Yeah, he managed to go through a bucket and a half of it." Donovan chuckled.
"Yeah, well, for some reason he needs the protein." Giving Donovan a sidelong look, the fox swiped at his ear. Donovan gritted his teeth and the fox grinned at him with sharp teeth.
"Why is that still wandering around loose?" Hansen asked curtly.
"'That'. I'm a 'that' again. Next time I come to Earth, I'm bringing a copy of 'Manners Maketh the Sentient Being'." Reginald grumbled then looked around. "Make that lots of copies."
"Just be sure they're in English." Julie said before looking at the others. "Reginald is a guest. So is Ully. There is no reason for them not to wander around, as long as they stay out of the secured areas. As near as I can tell, they are both 'he's', not 'that's'. And as long as they are here, you will treat them with respect." She looked around the small group before setting Reginald down. "Sean, why don't you head over to the north field and meet the rest of the kids? Reginald, you mind? You know where the north field is."
"Certainly. Come on, kid. And if you see that bloody Ully, warn me, will you? He keeps going for my tail."
"Damned if I know. He always was a little strange."
Ignoring Donovan's concerned look, Julie waited until Sean was out of earshot before dropping her friendly manner and crossing her arms, glaring at the gathered group. "I would like to take this moment to stress, behind any chance of misunderstanding, that there will be no more talk about attempting to hijack Fontana's ship." Surprised and, in some cases guilty, looks appeared on several of the faces looking at her. "Fontana has provided us with a great deal of help and I find it repulsive that some people in this group are actually thinking about how to steal his ship."
Natalie frowned. "Come on, Julie! Think about it. Having his ship could be a big help!" She looked around for support. "Donovan can fly a Visitor shuttle." She pointed out. "How much harder could this ship be?"
Donovan looked thoughtful. "She might have a point ..." His voice faltered at Julie's dark look. "Hey! I was thinking more of asking for the use of his ship! Not taking it!"
Julie shook her head. "She's a smuggling ship, not a fighter or a scout. She couldn't be much help. And as for stealing her ..." She looked back at the small group. "Like Ully and Reginald, Dorothea is a sentient being, quite capable of deciding her own fate. Do you think she'll let you get close enough to hijack her? And if you did manage to board her, what would keep her for heading into deep space and opening her hatches on you? Not to mention the fact that she could send word to the Confederation, which would effectively end any help they are currently giving us." She looked around the gathering, which now included several other people who had come over to see what was going on. "Anybody here wanna take that chance? Are you that cock-sure that we can win this war all on our own?"
Julie was satisfied to see that most people didn't think so.
"Why should we try going it alone, if we can get help from others?" Caleb said reasonably. "'Sides, from what I understand, a smuggler ship wouldn't be much help. They're built for speed and concealment. Not much in the way of armament or anything like that. I'd rather have this one bringing in supplies and stuff."
"Not to mention the fact that, from what Fontana says, she is one stubborn little vixen." Robert added.
A chorus of agreements, mixed with laughter, greeted this remark and Julie smiled.
"Glad to hear it. Because if anyone, and I do mean anyone, blows our chances of continuing to get help from Ham's people," She locked eyes with Natalie. "I will personally shoot that person." She was satisfied to see the woman blanch and looked around. "Is that understood?"
Another chorus of agreements, more subdued, answered her.
"Good. Now we have a debriefing in ... make it thirty minutes." Most people began to drift away until only a small group remained.
"How's Tyler?" Caleb asked quietly.
Julie took a quick look at who remain before speaking. "At the moment temporally deaf with some very real danger of it becoming permanent." Worried looks appeared. "Fontana showed me what to do to help prevent that but there is still a chance."
"Wouldn't it just be safer for Tyler to go back home?" Donovan said hopefully.
Julie's lips thinned. "He can't. Apparently space travel and inner ear damage don't mix. Deafness would become almost certain then." She glowered at Donovan. "So like it or not, he has to stay." Donovan had the good grace to look away and Julie turned to Robert. "Are the girls ready?"
Robert made a face. "They've been ready for a while now. Honestly, I think Robin has something up her sleeve but she won't tell me what."
Julie raised an eyebrow. "Worried about it?"
He shrugged. "Not really. I just figure Ham told her something she can't pass along. Not yet anyway."
"Good. See you at the salon in thirty minutes then."
The rest of the group drifted off, leaving Julie and Donovan alone.
"Well?" Julie said.
"You have things you want to say. Say them."
Donovan opened his mouth to deny it then fumbled to a halt. "Okay, fine. Why didn't you talk to me before making Tyler second-in-command?"
"Why should I have? It's not like you have a legitimate excuse for him not to be." Julie countered. "Even you have to admit that he is the best person for the job. There's no one else here with his qualifications."
"That's true." He agreed reluctantly."But people don't like it."
"Some people don't like it including, apparently, you. Mike, I did what's best for the group. If I thought I could get away with it, I'd hand leadership over to him in a second but like he said before, he doesn't have the qualifications to run this kind of a rebel camp. So here's the situation." She took a deep breath. "I am the overall leader, the General if you will. Ham is my second-in-command; he reports directly to me and takes orders from me. Our seconds are you, Sancho, Caleb, Maggie, Robert, Elias, Alice, and Chris." It was more complicated then that but Julie wasn't about to go any deeper into it. "You might want to keep in mind that there were a number of misgivings about making you a Second but we don't have a reasonable excuse not to. Not one we'd want to reveal publicly anyway."
Donovan flushed slightly. "And if Tyler's hearing doesn't come back?" He half-challenged.
Julie's lips thinned. "We'll deal with that then." Her curt words made it obvious the subject was closed. "Now on to Sean ..."
"What about Sean?" Donovan said sharply.
"There can be no doubt that he's been converted." Julie said bluntly.
"Wait a minute!" Donovan protested, even though she was just saying out like what he'd been fearing all this time.
"No way would Diana pass up a chance to put a spy right into our camp and he wouldn't have stood a chance." Julie overrode him ruthlessly. "We have to work on the presumption that he is converted. Security has been increased throughout the camp. No unauthorized personnel anywhere they aren't supposed to be. There was a suggestion that Sean go with Fontana but!" She threw up a hand to stop Donovan's protest. "Even if it were within the Rules I didn't think you'd agree. Another suggestion was to send him to your mother but that would put him back into Diana's reach and God knows what she'd ask for next time."
Donovan flinched at both her tone and her look.
"So he stays here. We keep an eye on him, keep him from contacting anyone outside the group and keep him away from anything he doesn't need to know. Just like all the other children and anyone else who doesn't need to know these things."
After a long moment, Donovan nodded. "Fine."
Julie visibly relaxed and any anger Donovan may have felt melted away when he realized she had expected him to be more antagonistic about the possibility that Sean had been converted. It was, after all, a very real possibility and something he wouldn't put past Diana. Or, he hated to admit, his mother. The fact that Sean met with her before the exchange upset him more then he cared to admit.
"Now the official story about this little fiasco is that Diana tried to cut a deal with you ... the Barbarosian ... Tyler ... for Sean. You turned it around and told Tyler about it and the two of you worked out a plan to double-cross Diana."
Donovan took a deep breath, not bothering to hide his relief. "Tyler agreed to go with it?"
"He suggested it. Apparently he thinks it would be bad for the Resistance if it were publicly known that one of the Resistance's best-known heroes would trade an unknowing member of the Resistance for his son." Donovan flinched. "So he suggested this story. Diana can say what she wants. We just continue telling our version. But you!" She poked Donovan in the chest with a sharp finger. "You just remember that you owe Tyler big. One word from him and I would have canceled the mission. Understood?"
Donovan's face tightened. "Understood."
"Good. Now let's go to the debriefing. And then we're going to have a private chat."
Julie didn't have a chance to answer as a sudden loud 'Tally-ho!' came from behind her and she jumped to one side as Reginald barreled between them, the whole of the camp's children running behind him. "Tally-ho! Thar she blows! Arm yourselves and prepare to rebel boarders!" The fox howled, turning to run in a circle that grew smaller and smaller until he was a whirling dervish, chasing his own tail. The majority of the children stopped in their tracks, laughing so hard most of them ended up on the ground.
Harmony joined the couple, panting slightly at the effort of keeping up with the children. "Think we could keep the fox?" She asked Julie. "The kids love him."
Julie shook her head sadly as Reginald suddenly bounced sideways to snatch something from Polly before taking off down the street, yelling 'Cally-cally-catch me if you can!'. Polly whooped and raced after him, the ivory Trinity medallion bouncing on her neck and the rest of the children behind her. There was a shriek above them and Ully, now a rather nauseating fluorescent green, swooped after them. "Unfortunately, I think it's against the rules."
"Yeah. Double damn. Did you tell them about Ham?"
"I just told them that he was hurt. Again. Polly's mad. She seems to think he gets hurt an awful lot and most of the time it's not his fault."
"She's got that right."
"She wanted to go see him but I suggested she might want to wait until morning. Then Reginald started acting up ... I think to distract them."
"Good for him."
The three resistance fighters followed the children, the yammering fox, and the obscenely colored hawk back into town.
Author Notes: None this time around.