"I think everyone can start breathing again." Rico said in a dry voice.
"What the hell was that?" Maggie's voice squeaked.
"The main reason I'm really glad the man's on our side." Rico replied.
"Excuse me?" Natalie said. "He was ready to kill ...!"
"But, you will notice, he didn't." Rico looked to Julie for help. "Considering what he's been through over the last few weeks, it's not surprising he's a bit short of temper."
"He's right." Julie said. "Just because Tyler looks well doesn't mean he is." She glanced at Donovan, who was apparently in deep thought. "Chris was right. We should have waited a couple more days."
"I wasn't going to even bring it up!" Mark still looked a little white. "I mean, all I had was something someone said! And all he remembered was a note on some file some thirteen years ago!"
Natalie looked exasperated. "But he was investigated ...!"
"And cleared." Donovan cut in. "He had an air-tight alibi."
All eyes turned to him but Donovan didn't seem to notice. He was frowning at Rico, who looked back with no expression.
"You know about it?" Julie asked. She didn't really want to but she also knew that if this group, especially Natalie, didn't hear what Donovan knew, things would get made up. Things that could be even worse then the truth.
When it became apparent that Rico wasn't going to help out in any way, Donovan looked at Julie. "I was one of his alibi witnesses. Me and maybe a half-dozen other news correspondents. He was acting as escort, him and several of his men." He shot a look at Natalie. "Which included Chris."
Natalie looked disappointed. "Then why was he investigated in the first place?" She said in a tone remarkably close to a whine.
It was obvious that Donovan didn't want to talk about it, unusual considering the animosity that existed between the two men. He glanced at Rico again but the other man was studying the dregs in his mug, thin-lipped and unhappy. Donovan rubbed at the bridge of his nose, just as unhappy. "He was investigated as a matter of routine." He said in obvious reluctance. "Because the three men who were killed were believed to be involved in the rape of Tyler's wife."
Reactions to this were varied. Caleb's face went as expressionless as Rico's and Elias let his head fall back onto the table with a thump. Mark muttered "I don't think I want to be sober for this" and Sancho began to swear again. Natalie looked cheated.
"So he had motive."
"But no opportunity." Donovan said sharply, his patience with the woman obviously frayed. "Look, I have no doubt he was involved in some way but he didn't kill them. And none of his men killed them. Every single one had a rock-solid alibi. Which, before you say anything, is suspicious unto itself but there is no getting around it. You also have to consider the fact that Tyler, who had never acted as escort for anyone before, was assigned to us by his commanding officer. Which means that he was probably involved as well." He looked around the room, a faint challenge in his eyes. "Officially, the three men ran afoul of drug dealers and paid for it."
"And it was let go at that?"
To keep from throwing his mug at the woman, Donovan set it on the bar behind him. "I saw the crime photos. What was done to his wife. She'd been savagely beaten. Pretty close to every bone in her face was broken. She almost died. As it was, she was in a coma for three months and she never really recovered. I understand she died a few months later." He glanced at Rico, who nodded curtly. "The only problem I'd ever had with it was the worry that the wrong men were killed. Which is no longer a worry."
"Why not?" Father Andrew asked in surprise.
"Scent. Tyler was the one who found her. He must have smelled the scents of her attackers and been able to identify them from that." Donovan grimaced at the thought of Tyler finding his wife, broken and bloody, in their home and being able to smell the scents of the men who had so savagely violated her on her body. Martin had said Barbarosians couldn't go insane but he was willing to bet Tyler had come very close to it then.
"Not exactly something you can bring up in court." Rico said woodenly. "Even if Mrs. Tyler could have identified them -- which she couldn't -- it probably never would have gone to court."
"Why not?" Maggie asked in surprise.
"Because she was just some local gook girl who lucked into marrying some lonely GI." Rico snapped. "And her attackers were three apple-pie, squeaky-clean, all-American white boys from good families. In fact, a couple months after the attack, one of their fathers tried to bribe Tyler to stop making a fuss about it."
"And he survived?" Elias asked in surprise.
"Only because he made the bribe -- well, he didn't call it that -- in front of Tyler's commanding officer. If Major Barker hadn't been there, it could have been a very different story." Rico grinned unpleasantly. "As it was, the man got a full taste of what everyone here just experienced. He headed out of the country fast, let me tell you."
"Major Barker?" Donovan frowned thoughtfully. "That the same Barker who headed that shadow agency Tyler was involved in before the Visitors came?"
Rico shrugged. "Probably. He had a reputation for being able to train and command difficult soldiers. Of which Tyler qualified. From what I heard, he was the only man Tyler respected enough to listen to. He was also the one who destroyed a number of records concerning military personnel and secret agents. Including Tyler's and Chris'. He didn't want the Visitors to get their hands on them."
"The Visitors killed him?"
"No. He killed himself. He knew if the Visitors had gotten a hold of him, they could pry out the secrets those files held. Who were the best clandestine agents, best fighters, best leaders, best dirty-works masters. The world needed those people more then it needed him. He managed to take out the secret file backups and about a couple hundred Visitors when he did it though." He saw the question in Donovan's eyes and grinned without humor. "Mini-nuke. Took out the ultra-secret file storage complex in the Rockies. It was never reported in any papers; by that time the Visitors had enough control to guarantee such things weren't revealed."
Natalie cleared her throat pointedly. "Aren't we getting off the subject?"
"Not really." Julie stood up. "The subject's closed. We continue going the way we have been. Maybe we'll get more information after the raid, maybe not. Tyler was right. Pretty much every person in the Resistance has things they can't talk about and things they won't talk about. I think we can respect that." She looked at Natalie. "Just like we respect your right not to talk about what drove you to join the Resistance."
Natalie's face went white. "That's hardly the same thing ...!" She started to protest but all around her, Resistance members were getting to their feet. Harmony and Father Andrew gathered up the dirty mugs and set them on the bar.
"When did it get dark?" Elias asked in surprise
"Don't know but I'm hungry." Sancho scooped up a couple Styrofoam cups and dropped them into a trash can. "Let's go see if there's anything left."
"Sounds good. Pop?"
Caleb didn't look up. "I'm not very hungry right now. Go ahead and eat. I'll get something later."
Elias looked like he wanted to say something more then shrugged. "Yeah, sure."
"Let's leave the mugs until later, guys." Julie said as she started to the door. "I think something to eat is called for right now."
The group left the saloon. Even Natalie, scowling darkly, tramped out the door, leaving Caleb alone with his thoughts. As soon as everyone was gone, Caleb rose and went back to the kitchen in the back of the saloon. It had been modernized, if you called the 1930's modern. The refrigerator was old and beat up but still worked and they used it to hold a broad range of drinks. Pulling out three ice-cold beers, he made sure the door was shut securely ... it never closed properly ... and walked out the back.
The mock stable's door was open, for some reason the duo never completely closed it. Just outside the RV's door, under a pool of light, Chris and Tyler had set up a small chess table and were in the middle of a game, ignoring the curious looks passersby gave them. Tyler, his back to the door, had shed his leather jacket; Chris' jacket hung on the back of the beat up lawn chair he was sprawled comfortably in.
Chris glanced up as Caleb approached but Tyler didn't seem to notice him, intent as he was in the game. His left hand was now wrapped expertly in bandages and Caleb couldn't help but reflect that this was probably not the first time Chris had patched his friend up.
Chris grinned in appreciation as Caleb set two of the beer bottles on the table next to the board. Tyler just glanced at the bottles and scowled.
"Donovan talks too much." He muttered, returning his attention to the board.
Shrugging, Chris took one of the bottles and gestured for Caleb to pull up a chair. He snagged a nearby battered lawn chair and opened it, sitting down and stretching out his legs. Twisting open his own beer, he looked over the chessboard then at the scowling man once again intent on it.
"He had to tell us something. You of all people should know what kinds of things people can make up." He took a deep drink then leaned back comfortably and started talking in a deliberately provoking tone. "I could now proceed to say the standard things one says in this situation. 'It was a long time ago.' 'Shit happens.' Etc, etc." Chris was looking at him as if he'd lost his mind but Caleb was watching Tyler, waiting for him to raise his head. When he did, his eyes were amber with anger. "I had a sister, once." Caleb said abruptly and Tyler's head jerked back as if he had been slapped, the anger fading from his eyes. "Different locations, different names, different endings, same fucking story."
The hardness eased from Tyler's face, leaving behind the raw agony of an open wound that refused to heal. "Linn ..." There was more emotion in Tyler's voice then Caleb ever thought possible. He looked back down at the board but not before Caleb caught the glint of tears in his eyes. "She was a strong woman. A fighter. Remember, Chris, when we first saw her ...?"
The big man smiled slightly, shaking his head in remembered wonder. "Yeah. That rifle she was carrying was bigger then she was. But she sure knew how to use it."
"After she was attacked, she just wasn't strong anymore. Mentally, yes ... hell, she was holding me together ... but physically ..." He shook his head. "She just ... faded away." Tyler reached for the last bottle of beer and twisted off the top, drinking deeply.
Caleb rolled his own bottle between the palms of his hands with a sigh. "Renee wasn't strong, period. She killed herself three years later. Everyone knew who had attacked her but nothing could be done. They were too rich, too preppy, too white. Last I heard, each of them had made it big. Went on with their lives as if nothing happened." He looked at Tyler. "I much prefer your solution."
Tyler looked up, baring his teeth in a savage grin. "Where I come from, rape is a capitol crime. No trial. No appeals. No mercy."
"But then you have a foolproof way of telling you who the attacker is." Caleb pointed out. "Us numbnoses don't have that option."
Chris choked on his beer and Tyler began to laugh, a deep, throaty sound that startled Caleb. Still chuckling, Chris wiped beer from his face and grinned at Caleb's puzzled look, tapping his nose with a wink. "That's what they call us. Ham's people. 'Numbnoses.' Sometimes I get the feeling they think we are in a way blind. Handicapped." He glanced at his friend. "It can be unnerving as hell but useful too."
"But not always easy to hide or explain." Tyler moved a chess piece and leaned back, his voice peevish. "People always want to know how you know something. You can't explain that you know they're lying by the way their scent changes or that they've been where they claimed they haven't because you can smell them there."
Caleb swirled the beer remaining in his bottle, watching it idly. "What's it like?" He asked abruptly. "Where you come from?"
There was no immediate answer and Caleb looked up. Tyler was staring behind him but it was obvious he wasn't seeing anything in the barn. He was seeing something far away; innumerable planets and maybe even a universe or two away. There was no hardness in his eyes now; just a look of intense longing.
"Nivana." He said quietly. "It means green in one of our languages. Green grass, clear skies, blue oceans ... Imagine the Americas a few thousand years ago." He smiled slightly. "No pollution, no highways, no masses of people. Just rolling plains and forests. Small villages, roaming nomads ... "
As he listened, Caleb absently peeled the label from his now-empty bottle. In his mind's eyes, he could see the place Tyler was speaking of. Where a being could travel for days and not see another sentient being. The plains and forests and mountains filled with animals, both prey and predator. The streams and rivers teeming with healthy fish, water clear enough to drink from. The wide-open spaces used by land-locked farming communities and traveled by nomads. Where the fastest travel was by train and everyone's preferred mode of transport was either a carnivorous horse-creature or something that closely resembled a giant wolf. Where crime was so rare as to be non-existent, high-tech weaponry unseen save in the planet's single port city or carried by the Taz. Where diversity was the norm and families could consist of up to a dozen different species or more ...
Caleb finally looked up as Tyler's voice trailed off. "With all that at home, what the hell are you doing here?" He asked.
For a moment, he thought Tyler was actually going to answer him but the sound of loud voices jerked the man from the near-trance homesickness had put him into. He looked over his shoulder and out the barn door but there was only darkness there. Whoever was arguing was out of sight. And not making much sense.
"When did it get dark?" Tyler asked in surprise.
Both Caleb and Chris started laughing and Tyler threw them a hurt look. "I was occupied. I didn't notice." He said grumpily.
"And I'd better go get something to eat before they close the kitchen up." Caleb stood, dropping the bottle into a nearby trash barrel. "I do have a quick question though, if you don't mind."
Tyler shrugged, tossing his own empty bottle into the barrel. "Shoot."
"You said you can't ask the Confederation for help. If we contact them, can we ask them for help?"
Tyler smiled, not his customary bared-tooth grin but what appeared to be a real smile. "I was wondering if anyone would figure that out."
"So that's a yes." Caleb made it a statement rather then a question. Even so, Tyler nodded. "Of course, we have to figure out how to contact them."
"I'm afraid you're on your own there."
"Not surprised." Caleb sighed. "'Night, you two."
Ham stared at the board, frowning.
"When did it get dark?" He asked again in a peevish tone then glared at his grinning friend.
"You're still off-balance, aren't you?"
"Yes. And I hate that feeling." Ham glanced at his watch. "Not even eight yet. Damn."
Chris grinned cheerfully. "So we keep playing. At least when you're like this, I have a chance of winning."
Ham scowled darkly.
Chris didn't mention that every game he won made him worry more.
Three hours later, Ham tipped his queen and stood, stretching. The base was quiet, only the sentries were still awake. At least, Ham reflected, they had better be. Maybe he should check them out before ...
"Leave the sentries alone." Chris said sharply and Ham gave him a wounded look.
"Would I do something like that?"
"Yes." He glowered at his friend then started to pack away the chess pieces.
"Spoilsport." Ham muttered as he vanished into the RV. A couple minutes later he stepped back out, now wearing a sleeveless black shirt, tucked into black jean cutoffs. No boots, no watch, a single fingerless glove on his left hand to protect the bandages there and the ring he normally wore now hanging on the chain with the ivory medallion. He looked quickly toward the open barn door to see if it was clear then was up the ladder and into the loft almost faster then Chris' eyes could follow.
"Bring back a couple rabbits! I'll make stew tomorrow!" Chris called after him then, shaking his head, he closed the box holding the chess pieces and folded up the table. Now, with his true origins made public, Ham was reverting more and more to his true self. He'd undoubtedly maintain his human persona for when he was dealing directly with the others but now ...
Of course, having a born predator for a best friend did have it's perks. There was always fresh meat for the table.
Ham heard Chris' shout and grinned. Pausing at the window facing the woods, he looked around carefully, narrowing his eyes at the sight of a telltale glow of a cigarette. Someone, he realized, was watching the back of the barn and he felt a surge of anger. He moved quickly to the wall then, using his claws like a cat, climbed silently up to the ceiling and through a hole to the roof. He paused, looking around cautiously. The glow hadn't moved, which told him that the watcher hadn't seen him. Not surprisingly. Even in the jungles of 'Nam, he'd had the hardest time teaching people to look up.
For a brief moment, he considered slipping over and giving the watcher the shock of her life but decided against it. Might be fun but might also blow his plans for the night. Making his way across the rooftops to the saloon, three buildings away, he climbed down to the ground and slipped through the shadows until he was close enough to smell the watcher. A man, he realized, whose name he didn't know but who was usually in Hansen's company and he felt an unexpected surge of relief. So it was Hansen who was having them watched, not Donovan or Julie. That damn Hansen was getting too big for his britches. Well, he'd do something about that tomorrow.
Right now, it was time to hunt.
He knew that any large prey had been eliminated from these woods decades ago but rabbits and squirrels were abundant. Slipping into the darkness, he settled into an easy lope, heading away from the base and deeper into the woods.
One of the toughest things, he had discovered early on in his days on Earth, was the human tendency to sleep at night, a time when his people were most active. Sleep in the hottest part of the afternoon, hunt during the night. Well, not just hunt but, he bet, that's what the humans would remember. They could be remarkably single-minded at times.
He paused at the edge of a small clearing, looking back toward base. He couldn't see it any longer, not even the glow of lights. Smiling slightly, Ham dropped into a crouch, breathing deeply to drink in the wide variety of scents flooding the air. Rabbit, squirrel, rat, feral cats, feral dogs ... he'd have to watch out for them ... even, to his surprise, a coyote.
On nights like this, with the scent of potential prey surrounding him and darkness hiding the fact that the trees were alien to his home world, that he could almost pretend he was at home, on Nivana, out on a dark night's hunt. His siblings and cousins would be ranged around him, each searching for the night's perfect prey. As much as he hated to admit it, it was most often Nefti, his younger sister, who found it. Capable of tracking the three-month old scent of a lizard over rock and through water, his grandfather had said about her in open admiration.
He could almost feel the quick rub of a cheek down his arm, another along his back, a younger leaning briefly against him, another taking refuge in the shelter of his body. It didn't matter what they did during their everyday lives; Archeologist, Outrider, Prin, High Warrior, Dimra, Teacher, Student. Or even what species they were; Barbarosian, Timnor, Taz, Chi'Tok, Shikito, or any of the other Confederation species. Here, in the open lands of Nivana, they were kindard. Never mind that the interplanetary organization that they had fostered was the largest and strongest in the known universe, that the schools populating the Confederation the finest known, that the peace they'd helped bring about had reigned for over 800 years. Here they could drop the pretenses and be their true selves.
A rustle in the grass caught his attention and, without moving, he looked that way. Scent told him it was a rabbit, a mostly-grown male and well-fed. He froze in place, watching, waiting for the rabbit to come out of cover. He was downwind of the animal so as long as he didn't move, the rabbit shouldn't detect him. And he could wait for a very long time.
Not that he needed to this time. The rabbit hopped from the underbrush, sniffing cautiously, searching for danger before hopping a few steps further into the clearing. It paused again.
Ham leapt out of his crouch, claws extended. Finally sensing him, the rabbit leapt as well but it was too late. Sharp claws caught it up then quick hands snapped it's neck. Instinct took over then and Ham was across the clearing, and perched on a boulder with his prize before the rabbit's squeal faded. Once there, he relaxed with a soft chuckle, reflecting that the old lessons never faded from one's mind. 'When hunting alone, kill quickly and get to safety. Remember, there's always something more dangerous then you out there and it's hungry too!' 'Yes, mother', he thought to himself as he took an intent look around, sniffing deeply to make sure there was no other predator out there.
Satisfied that he was safe, at least for the moment, he used a razor-sharp claw to deftly peel away the skin and cut away meat. With his teeth still blunted, he had to cut the meat smaller then usual, swallowing the pieces without chewing them. Heart, liver, kidneys, even breaking bone for the marrow inside, taking in the protein his body still craved. Those tasteless bars only went so far. While they did fulfill the need, they did nothing for the cravings.
Immediate hunger satisfied, he relaxed and looked around cautiously. The blood scent could bring out the wild dogs. The cats didn't concern him, his people were good at bargaining with felines, and a coyote would be easy to deal with but wild dogs were another story. Absently he licked blood from his fingers then grinned, wondering what the others at the base would think if they saw him now. Blood on his hands, blood on his face. Killing with his bare hands and eating the meat raw. At least, he reflected, his people didn't eat their prey alive. Of course it was still possible the Earthers would think his people just as bad.
He shook himself free of that disturbing thought and looked down at what was left of the rabbit. The bones were stripped clean of meat. Regretfully he wrapped what remained in the skin and dropped to the ground to bury it next to the boulder. In different circumstances, he could have done something with it but now he just didn't have the time. With his hunger satisfied, he could take a more leisurely time tracking down proper stewing rabbits for Chris. He slipped into the darkness.
Hours later, a couple rabbits, a squirrel, and a slow moving quail dangling from one hand, Ham walked back to the base. He passed by the watcher ... no, a new watcher. This time it was a woman. The temptation to grab her and leave her hanging upside-down by her bootlaces was almost overwhelming but he wrestled the thought down, reminding himself that he still had to act human. Of course, a human would probably do something worse.
He wrestled that thought down as well (Chris would be proud of him) and climbed up the side of the saloon, making his way back to the stable. Dropping down through the hole, he ignored the ladder and just jumped down to the stable floor, landing in a half-crouch. He glanced quickly at the barn doors, seeing with relief that Chris had half-closed them, blocking off curious glances while leaving their view of the street clear. He paused to hang the night's kill from a couple nails and wash off blood in the rain barrel they kept filled with water. Blood remained under his claws and he shrugged. He could clean them later.
Glancing down at his clothes, Ham grimaced at the bloodstains. He'd better change before anything else or he'd forget and wouldn't bloodstains raise questions among the humans? Well, maybe not but he'd better not take any chances. He opened the RV's door and stepped in, closing the door firmly behind him. In the darkness, he could hear Chris' steady breathing. If anyone else had come in, the man would already have been on his feet, gun in hand, but years of working together had acquainted Chris with Ham well enough to know when it was him entering the room, even in his sleep.
Ham paused, leaning back against the door. Closing his eyes, he breathed in familiar scents. His own, Chris'. No one else was allowed in the RV and one of the more pleasant surprises he'd had when he'd finally come out of the healing sleep and came back was the realization that no one had searched it. They may have tried ... there had been a variety of scents on the door ... but no one had actually gotten inside. He wondered briefly what Chris had done to prevent that. Probably the live grenade trick.
For now, he was content to bask in the familiar scents, letting the humanness of Chris' presence bring him back to his own adopted human persona. Many people thought that Chris' habit of calling him 'brother' was meaningless, just something the big man called him but Ham knew Chris meant it and though he never referred to him the same way, at least not in English, the feelings were there. Brother, best friend, partner, and once, long ago, something much more. They both knew about the rumors concerning their relationship circulating through the camp ... the same rumors that had followed them for years ... but neither of them really cared what anyone else thought.
Straightening, he padded silently to the footlocker stowed under a table, stripping off the bloody clothes as he went. Tossing them to one side, he pulled out clean jeans and T-shirt and dressed quickly. On an afterthought, he double-checked the bandage covering his hand. There was some blood staining it but it was his own blood oozing outward. He must have torn open the wounds but it was nothing serious. Chris could help replace the bandages later.
He left the RV and went back to the roof. Once again, he went to the saloon and climbed down but this time he traveled through the shadows until he was on the other side of the street. He wanted a flat roof this time, one with a chimney, where he could see to the east and the only one in the base was on top of the old-time whorehouse that helped serve as both dorm and mess hall. Climbing up, he made his way to the east side of the chimneystack and settled in comfortably, absently cleaning his claws free of blood, waiting for the sunrise.
Author Notes: Gee, none for this part. :) At
least, not right now. heh
Phrases: Prin: Planet Administrator, Dimra: Healer, Kindard: family, whether biological, adopted, or chosen, not always of the same species.