Julie had the raiding party up at the crack of dawn. Even so, it was obvious Tyler had been up for hours. He was already in the saloon, the incomplete floor plans for the water plant spread out on the bar and tables.
"Man, don't you ever sleep?" Elias grumbled as he made his way to the coffee pot.
Tyler threw him an amused look. "Every couple a two, three days, for maybe four, five hours." He said in a surprisingly pleasant tone.
"Really?" The look Tyler gave Robert was less amused and the anthropologist remembered Tyler's promise of two nights before. 'I won't always tell you things, won't answer every question but I won't lie.' "I mean, most mammals have a day/night cycle. It sounds like your people don't follow that pattern." He knew he was babbling to cover his gaffe and from Tyler's slight smile, he knew it as well.
"Depends on the race, actually, as to rather we sleep day or night. My people prefer to sleep in the afternoon. In emergencies, I can go without sleep for days but then I end up in a healing sleep until I catch up. Good points, bad points." He pulled one of the plans free of the others and set it on top, studying it thoughtfully and Robert bit his tongue on any further question. They were here to plan and prepare for the raid. He'd have his chance for questions tonight.
Julie grinned at the obvious effort Robert was making not to ask questions. Hopefully they would soon be too busy for questions ... a thump drew her attention and she turned to see that Fontana had set one of the boxes of new weapons on a nearby table. Chris and Rico were behind him, also carrying boxes. She was about to thank them when she realized that she had the only key to the storeroom and ... she checked quickly ... it was still in her pocket.
"How did you get in the storeroom?!" She blurted out. "It was locked!"
Fontana blinked at her. "And your point is?" He asked politely.
Setting down his box, Rico caught her eye. Holding up a hand, he mimed extending a claw and then using it to pick a lock. Julie let out the deep breath she had taken.
"Mike, remind me to replace all the padlocks with combination locks as soon as possible."
"You can take those apart, you know." Fontana said cheerfully and Julie glared at him.
"Fontana, out." Tyler said curtly.
"Well, you can. I mean ..."
"Fontana!" Fontana was out the door and, from the sound of it, on the roof before Tyler finished the word. There was a sudden scrambling sound, a slithering and then a crash.
"I think those shingles are rotting." Maggie said helpfully, looking back as she opened the doors to step into the saloon.
"Yes, I noticed that. Thank you. Ouch." Fontana's voice came from ground-level.
"Anything broken?" Tyler called over his shoulder.
"Several shingles and a crate. An empty crate, thank Trinity."
A moment of silence while the man checked. "No."
"Good. Now go away!"
"He isn't joining us?" Natalie asked.
"Fontana's a smuggler, not a fighter. He'll smuggle things onto and off of the planet but he doesn't fight unless he absolutely has no other choice. He's covered by an entirely different set of rules then I am."
"Meaning if he gets caught, he has a very good chance of surviving. Not many beings are willing to mess with the Confederation's Smuggler Guild. Of course, in a situation like this, it's easy for ... " His voice trailed off and Julie was surprised to see an old pain flash through his eyes.
"People to disappear?" Julie finished and Tyler slowly nodded.
"Of course, the Guild can ... and will ... retaliate. Though I doubt that matters to the Visitors." Tyler gestured to Chris and together they attached the latest schematics for the plant to a nearby wall.
"Smuggler's Guild? What kind of civilization has a Smuggler's Guild?" Natalie asked scornfully.
Tyler gave a sharp bark of laughter. "And who said we were civilized?" His hand suddenly flashed to one side and there was a sudden sharp squeak then Tyler was casually tossing the claw-slashed body of a rat into a nearby trash can. "Damn cats are falling down on the job." He grunted to his partner as he pulled a rag from a nearby pile and absently cleaned his claws, ignoring the shocked looks some of the others were giving him.
Chris eyed the table where the rat had been hiding behind a stack of videos. "Damn rats are getting too bold." He indicated the plans they had just hung up. "This the latest?"
"Yeah. And I suspect they're none too accurate. Parrish, when are you two going out to the plant?"
"Day after tomorrow." Julie replied, her own stomach a little queasy from the casual way Tyler had killed the rat. While Tyler still didn't look too happy about her going, at least he wasn't arguing about it.
"Fine. So next couple days we work on shooting and moving quietly in the new vests. Being made of metal, they will make noise so ya gotta get used to moving quietly in them. So each of you grab a vest and pair off. Head for the large field to the north. We'll start there. Oh, and watch out for wild dogs. There's a couple packs of them in the forest."
Donovan handed out the new weapons, splitting the Visitor handguns up between the best shooters and the other guns to the remaining raiders. They had decided to take only a few of the rifles, giving them to their best marksmen. Each raider grabbed a vest as they went out the door, Tyler and Julie watching them go. As the last one left, Julie picked up her vest and then grabbed another one, shoving it at Tyler as he passed her. He glanced down at it.
"I don't ..."
"We have plenty. You have no reason not to wear one." She said firmly.
His eyes flickered to the box, seeing three vests still there. "Everyone has one?"
He hesitated briefly before stripping off his jacket and taking the vest.
"You realize that you're driving Robert crazy."
Tyler's lips quirked. "I have to amuse myself somehow. Don't worry. He'll find it's worth it." Pulling his jacket back on, he started to walk by her.
"Who disappeared?" Julie asked abruptly then wished she hadn't as Tyler stopped dead, back visibly stiffening then he was gone, the swinging doors slamming hard into the walls.
"You do like to live dangerously." Fontana said and she jumped.
"Don't do that!" She turned to face him, more angry with herself then with him. At least until she noticed he was absently juggling a familiar padlock in his hand. "The Confederation has a Thieves Guild as well, doesn't it?"
His lips quirked into a smile. "I made journeyman before I transferred to the Smuggler's Guild."
"Not surprised." She turned to walk out of the saloon.
Julie stopped dead. "What?"
"You asked who disappeared. That's your answer. His father disappeared."
There was no humor in Fontana's short laugh. "Doubtful. It's a big universe, doh'le, and Kimke was a Spacer, dutied to an explorer ship. The ship vanished. Whole crew gone. Nothing has been heard from them since. Maybe crashed, maybe destroyed, maybe still wandering around out there. No one knows."
"Any chance he's still alive?" There was no answer and Julie looked over her shoulder. Fontana was gone, the room was empty. She shivered slightly before stepping out of the building.
The morning was actually worse then Julie ever thought it would be, even though Tyler never once raised his voice. Every time someone screwed up, he would just give them a look that somehow said it all. He changed around some pairings, making sure each pair had at least one strong shooter. He simply ignored any argument. Julie refrained from protesting and kept an eye on the new pairings, pleased to see that they worked just as well, if not better, then the old pairings. The morning passed swiftly until, at last, they broke for lunch.
Not even Chris went near Tyler during the lunch break though he did keep a wary eye on his partner. Every now and again, he'd look at Julie and she could see the question in his eyes. What had she said to set Tyler off? She sighed and stood up, ignoring the questioning looks as she walked over to where Tyler sat on a rock, smoking a cigarette. He was watching the woods, looking as if he hoped some wild dogs would come out just so he'd have something to kill.
"I'm sorry." She said quietly.
For a moment, she didn't think he was going to answer. When he finally spoke, it was in a remarkably soft voice.
"So am I."
He didn't bother to ask her what she meant. "A little over thirteen years."
"You knew Fontana would tell me."
A muscle twitched in Tyler's cheek. "I knew he was listening. On the roof." He looked back at the town. From where they were, he could just see the tops of the buildings. She followed his gaze but couldn't see anything of interest.
"So what is Fontana? To you?" She added hastily when a dark gleam of humor flashed in Tyler's dark eyes. "Family?"
The man's lips quirked into a slight smile. "You might say that. Something akin to a brother-in-law."
"Okay ... now you're driving me crazy." She frowned at the amused look he gave her, though she was more relieved then anything else. "You should eat something. How much weight did you lose anyway?"
Tyler dropped the cigarette into the dirt and ground it thoroughly under his heel. "'Bout twenty pounds. I'll gain it back fast enough." He flicked a look at the woods then back at the would-be raiders sprawled on the grass. "I'd prefer you didn't tell anyone else about my father." He said quietly. "Especially Donovan."
"Because Donovan can be a remarkably self-righteous bastard and I don't need his platitudes." Julie winced at his harsh wording but didn't argue. Donovan could be a little hard to take at times. Tyler stood, still eyeing the woods with a frown. "Remind your people to watch out for those dogs. I'm pretty sure a couple of them are sick."
Julie looked at the woods nervously. "Rabies?"
"Maybe. Fontana and I'll go out later. See if we can kill them." He saw the protest on her face and said dryly. "They're not man's best friend anymore, Parrish. And we don't want any of the kids trying to make friends with them."
That possibility drove any thought of protest from her. "Just don't let Fontana bring any of the bodies or anything back to the base."
Tyler chuckled softly. "Now you're starting to figure him out." He turned and walked over to where his partner sat on the ground. Chris tossed him a sandwich and he sank down on the ground next to him, crossing his legs as he reached for a bottle of soda. The two men began to talk in low tones, in a language no one else could understand, though Julie did hear the name Kimke. So Chris knew about that.
"What was that about?" Donovan asked as she re-joined him.
"Tyler thinks some of the wild dogs might be sick." She glanced around at the others, all of whom were listening curiously, and raised her voice. "So watch your step, everyone. Don't try to make friends with any dogs and remind the kids not to as well. They could be rabid."
That made more then a few people eye the woods uneasily. "How many dogs are there?" Sancho asked nervously.
"At least two packs of them." Tyler said, reaching for another sandwich. "Maybe eight to fifteen dogs a pack. A few loners. Those are the ones that are probably sick. I've crossed their trails a few times." He shook his head. "Some of them just don't smell right."
"When have you been out in the woods?" Natalie asked sharply and Tyler threw her an amused look.
"Every night I can. Nighttime in the woods is the closest I get to home these days."
Chris grunted. "Not enough moons." He pointed out and Tyler glanced up at the sky.
"True. But I can pretend."
"How many moons does your home world have?" Robert asked suddenly from where he was sprawled comfortably on the ground.
"Three." Tyler answered without hesitation. "One big, two smaller. Otherwise it's remarkably like Earth a few thousand years ago. A little larger, roughly equal amounts of land mass to ocean, pretty close to the same gravitation pull. Days are a little longer, years a little longer. Otherwise ..." He shrugged.
"How do you know there's not enough moons, Farber?" Natalie asked suspiciously and the big man grinned.
"Been there. Once." He said cheerfully. "Years ago."
"It occurs to me," Donovan said suddenly. "That Ham Tyler wouldn't be your real name."
"Took you this long to figure that out, did it?" Tyler smiled slightly at the sour look on Donovan's face, absently using a claw to cut open a small package of cookies and offering a chuckling Chris half of the contents. "It is on Earth."
"And off of Earth?" Donovan persisted and Tyler gave him a long thoughtful look.
"Komees Ihn'e s'tolqui o'Myraihhe d'Nivana." He said distinctly then added. "Stick to Tyler."
"Long name." Donovan said and Tyler shrugged. Robert looked like he wanted to say something but didn't. Instead he laid back, studying the sky thoughtfully and mentally filing away questions for the evening.
"Nivana." Caleb said suddenly. "You said that was the name of your home world."
Chris laughed and Tyler surprised everyone when he gave Caleb a real smile. "Good catch. Yeah, that last bit after the d signifies home world." He drank the last of the soda and tossed the bottle into one of the boxes then rose, brushing off his jeans. "All right, back to work, everyone. Come on, Maxwell. Stop trying to figure out my name."
"I think I already got it figured." Robert said contently.
"Oh?" Donovan asked. "How do you figure it?"
Robert flicked a look at Tyler, who only raised an eyebrow. "Okay." Absently, Robert gestured with his hands. "The last part indicates home world. The first part, I bet, is what we'd called a first name. The middle part should be some kind of family indication. I'm thinking it's mother's name." He glanced inquiringly at Tyler, who smiled slightly.
"Mother's name?" Maggie asked.
"Myraihhe. Sounds like Myra. That is what Fontana said your mother's name was. So the first part, Komees Ihn'e, would be your first name ..."
"We call it common name." Tyler cut in.
"Common name then. O'Myraihhe would be ... I'm guessing ... of Myraihhe so s'tolqui would probably mean ... child?" He glanced at Tyler. He wasn't certain but he thought the man looked impressed.
"Tolqui means child. S'tolqui means male child ... son."
Robert grinned. "So essentially it's ... Komees Ihn'e, son of Myraihhe, home world Nivana."
"Essentially." Tyler offered Robert his hand and he took it, letting the other man pull him to his feet.
"So your people are a matriarchy."
"Always have been." Tyler grunted.
"So what you said when you found out Pamela was Supreme Commander of the Visitor fleet ... what was that?" Donovan asked, referring to Tyler's unflattering remarks when Martin had told them the fleet's commander was female.
"That, Gooder, was what you expected me to say. You expected me to be a racist, sexist bastard, so I was." He smiled his familiar teeth-baring smile as Donovan flushed. "Didn't want to disappoint you. Let's get back to work before the rain starts." He turned and walked toward where they had a series of targets set up, leaving several of the others eyeing the skies nervously.
"I vote we stop expecting him to be a racist, sexist bastard." Caleb said quietly. "I like him a hell of a lot better when he's not living down to our expectations."
There was a murmur of agreement around him and Chris laughed, shaking his head as he followed his friend. The storm inside that had driven Tyler earlier seemed to have broken, leaving only a calmness that was startling to the others. He could still make someone who dropped her weapon feel two inches tall and he still projected an air of mild contempt and arrogance but he unwound enough to show them a few tricks to shooting their rifles faster and more accurately and how to more easily accommodate the silencers on the handguns. When he noticed Sancho's skill with knife throwing, he showed him some additional tricks while Chris worked with Maggie on using the crossbow.
There was some protest when the rains started but Tyler simply asked them if they planned to cancel the raid if it was raining that night and drove them to continue. Though she had some misgivings, Julie backed him up. He didn't keep them out there long, though, and they were soon making their way back to base before the gentle springish rain could turn into the threatened deluge. Caleb dropped back to walk next to Chris, who was taking rear guard.
"What's with Tyler and rain?" He muttered the question and Chris threw him an amused look.
"Noticed that, uh?" It hadn't be easy to spot but Caleb had noticed that every now and then Tyler would pause abruptly and search the ground, his face stony and eyes wary. "It's not the rain. It's the things that can come out of it. Long story. I'll try to tell it to you sometime." He paused. "The good thing is the rain'll keep Fontana inside. He dislikes it lots more then Ham does." Then Chris was moving away, toward the mock stable, leaving Caleb looking after him, shaking his head. The skies really opened up then and everyone scattered, heading for their respective quarters.
"Don't use up all the hot water!" Chris barked as he entered the RV. He heard Ham laugh and grinned himself. "I owe Caleb a story."
"Why you don't like the rain. You mind?"
There was silence for a moment. "No. Guess not. Just don't let Fontana hear it."
Chris grimaced as he stripped off his jacket, hanging it up to dry. From what he heard, Ham had almost lost both his legs that day and did get that scar on his face but Fontana had lost a leg and more as well. Granted, it was years ago but the rain still made Ham uneasy. Which was hell for him in 'Nam. And South America. And pretty much everywhere they'd traveled.
"We got leftover stew, if Fontana hasn't eaten it. Where is he anyway?"
"Up in the loft. I doubt he'll come down. I'll go up for awhile. When's Maxwell coming over?"
"Probably after suppertime. Or maybe I'll head over after we eat and send him over."
"Sounds good." Ham stepped from the small bathroom, dressed only in a pair of cutoffs. Chris glanced at him.
"You planning on shaving?"
Ham rubbed his hands over stubble. "No. No, I don't think so. I'm tired of the old me. It's time for a whole new me."
"Now that's scary." Chris muttered and Ham laughed.
"Only for some, I think. Only for some." He sobered, shaking his head. "Seriously. A change in appearance, even just a beard, may help. I'll still have to be a class A bastard at times but maybe they'll stop expecting me to be that way all the time."
"If it'll ..." Chris paused then seeing Ham's questioning look, continued bluntly. "If it'll help you settled into yourself, I'm all for it. You're whipsawing back and forth and it's confusing people."
"Not half as much as it's confusing me." Ham reached for a shirt and pulled it on. "It's been twelve years since I've been home and seven years since I've been with any of my people for any length of time. Having Fontana here helps but it's still hard to let go. Harder still since I can't let completely go. I have to find a balance between what I am and what the majority of humans will find acceptable." He glanced at Chris somberly. "Even you have a hard time accepting everything."
Chris shifted uncomfortably. "It might help if you talk to Parrish. Tell her ..."
"No." Ham said firmly. "After the raid. If she survives it. If I survive it. Then I'll talk to her."
"And if you don't survive?"
"Then you can talk to her. If neither of us survives, then it's a moot point."
"So it sounds like Tyler's been reading what people's opinions of him are and reacting in the way they expect him to react." Robert said, shooting a glance at Donovan, who glowered back at him. About a dozen others were scattered about the lounge of the mock whorehouse, one of the most comfortable rooms in the entire town, which made it the informal living room of the camp.
Donovan would have liked to argue about Robert's observation but he couldn't find a basis for disagreement. He had formed his opinion of Tyler within minutes of their first meeting and that had blinded him to other things. Now he saw them in a new light, realizing that Tyler had treated everyone in his group, then and now, the same, no matter their sex or color. Females weren't coddled, he pushed them just as hard as the males, though sometimes in different ways.
"He's still doing it." Donovan said and Robert shrugged.
"Protective coloring. He's been doing it for so long, he probably finds it hard to stop."
"He calls Sancho 'Slick'." Hansen pointed out.
"Yeah but I don't think he means it as an insult. At least, not any more. Again, he came into the group acting the way people thought he would act. Should act. Now, I think, it's just a word. A nickname, maybe. If Sancho asked him to stop calling him that, he probably would. Now."
Sancho shrugged it off. He'd long since realized that Tyler's formerly biting use of the word had faded, that it was no more then a nickname. He'd been called worse and by people who really meant it.
"So where he comes from, women rule?" Maggie asked.
"Not necessarily. Essentially, it means the bloodline goes down through the mother."
"Maybe his old man just didn't hang around." Hansen suggested maliciously.
"Since I doubt anyone really wants to be cleaning blood off the chandeliers, I seriously suggest you do not ever say anything like that anywhere near Ham's hearing." Chris said from the doorway. "The Barbarosian figure family through the mother." He glanced at Robert as he walked over to grab a soda from a cooler set on the bar. "And if you ask Ham to explain the Barbarosian family structure, I suggest you provide lots of chalk and a really big wall. Maybe two walls. And lots of time. They give extended family a whole new meaning. Last count, they had forty-three different words just to indicate kinds of cousin. Not to mention the different ways of indicating siblings, depending on whether they are related via mother and/or father and/or other. And then there's the differences between various kinds of kin. It can get really ... complicated. Same with government structure, now that I think of it." He sank into a chair near the merrily-burning fire.
"How about religion?" Father Andrew asked.
"I've never asked." Chris hesitated then shrugged. "When he gets pissed, he tends to swear by the Trinity, which isn't exactly a part of their religion. Now that it's out in the open, he'll probably start swearing by his Deities. Whether or not he'll talk about them, I don't know. Those questions, I think, should wait until after the raid."
"Speaking of which ..." Robert started to stand.
"Hang on a minute, Maxwell." Chris waved him back down.
"Another change of plans?" Hansen said.
Chris stiffened then apparently decided ignoring Hansen was the best way to go. "I promised Caleb a story and I thought you might like to hear it as well."
"Story?" Donovan asked.
"Why Ham doesn't like the rain."
"The rain?" Hansen laughed. "He's afraid of the rain?"
"'It's not the rain.'" Caleb quoted. "'It's the things that can come out of it.'"
"Hansen, shut up or I'll find a flight of stairs to toss you down!" Robert snarled at the same time. This brought a moment of surprised silence.
"And I'll help him." Sancho finally said. Others murmured agreement.
Hansen flushed with anger but fell silent, for which Chris was grateful. He rolled the bottle between the palm of his hands, trying to work out where to begin. He was also a little leery of telling the story with Robin present but, he reflected, she wasn't exactly a child any longer. At her age ... well, when Ham was her age, he was living this story.
"When Ham was in what we'd consider his late teens, he was a cadet at one of the Confederation's military academies. Not unusual, most Confederates attend one or the other of them sometime in their lives. Part of the curriculum is to spend time on one of the training planets. Planets that, for some reason or another, weren't inhabited and wouldn't be. Usually because there was a some feature or another that made it not very habitable. One training planet had a particularly vicious breed of fish on it that made it off-limits to colonists."
A half-dozen eyes glared Hansen into silence even as he opened his mouth. Chris noticed and smiled slightly.
"Translated into English, these fish would be called slaughterfish. They can get up to two, maybe three feet long. Carnivorous with teeth like a piranha. Bad enough in water but these monsters could leave the water and travel on land for as long as fifteen minutes before they start to dry out. Not much to worry about usually, the camps were set up a good distance away but once a year there's a real heavy rainy season. Heavy enough to soak the ground to the point that slaughterfish can travel for miles. And they do. Normally the cadets are removed from the planet long before the rainy season starts. Unfortunately, when Ham's group was there, the rainy season came early. Real early. And the retrieval ship didn't arrive for four days."
He paused, trying to figure out how to convey what had happened. Ham had told him the story in 'Nam, to explain why he couldn't sleep on rainy nights ...
"My nose is blind." Pular Singe complained, shaking her head in an attempt to rid her fur of water but the driving rain made it impossible.
Komees Ihn'e glanced at the sodden ratgirl. "So's mine. So use your eyes."
Pular Singe snorted. Not only was it night but the rain was coming down in a solid wall, making it impossible to see two feet in front of themselves. Bows and crossbows were useless in this weather, everyone had the melee weapons they were most familiar with. He had his double-bladed longsword slung across his back but was using a spear as his main weapon. Pular Singe had her long knives. The three Taz had their rifles but you couldn't shoot what you couldn't see.
He knew the camp was behind him, even if he couldn't see the tents. Those not on sentry duty were doing their best to sleep. He wondered how many were actually succeeding.
A Cadet Master appeared suddenly next to them. The two cadets ignored her as they continued to scan the darkness, concentrating on the ground. There was so much mud now that they literally stood ankle-deep in it. It caked their legs and obscured their cadet colors. Not that it mattered.
"Either of you need a break?" The Cadet Master, a Timnor, asked in her snarling voice. Her fur was caked even worse then Pular Singe's since, unlike the ratgirl, she wore only a loincloth and Cadet Master tunic. They both indicated 'no' and the Cadet Master grunted, thrusting containers of hot broth into their hands before moving on.
Pular Singe popped her container open immediately and drained it in just a couple gulps. Komees Ihn'e grinned, tucking his container into his tunic for later. She saw his amusement and bared her fangs at him. Her ability to eat anything that crossed her path was notorious. The duo returned their attention to the darkness.
The night eased into dawn, not that it made much difference to the amount of light. Komees Ihn'e looked up to the sky, trying to gauge if there was going to be any daylight but the rain was too heavy. A sudden squeal jerked his attention downward again and he flipped his spear, driving the blade through the slaughterfish that had appeared directly in front of him. He froze briefly, staring down at the churning mud, suddenly realizing that it was no longer mud but a living carpet of slaughterfish. Throwing back his head, he let out the undulating cry of warning that brought the rest of the camp from their tents and jerked his spear free, stepping back to stand shoulder to shoulder (well, shoulder to hip, actually, to the being to his left) with the other cadets. Pular Singe had darted behind the line and now reappeared, squeezed between him and the cadet to his right. Her teeth were bared and she was snarling, a long knife in each hand.
What followed was a mind-numbing slaughter but it was slaughter with no end. Killing one slaughterfish only brought two more into it's place, more to feast on the dead then to attack the cadets. The cadets took advantage of this, killing slaughterfish and tossing the bodies as far away as possible, hoping the living would go for them. Perched on the few rocks scattered around the camp, the Taz fired into the mass, aiming only enough to miss cadets since there was no way for them to miss the slaughterfish.
Komees Ihn'e felt his arms tire. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to continue until his spear broke. He dropped what was left of it and drew his own long knives. Pular Singe had vanished from his side and he could only hope she still lived but he had no time to check. The slaughterfish were still coming ...
He felt razor-sharp teeth sink through his leather greaves and into his leg. Thrusting downward, he buried a knife into the slaughterfish biting his leg but another one was already there, biting hard enough to sever muscle. Komees Ihn'e fell hard, landing on his back in the mud. Panicked, knowing to remain on the ground would be certain death, he tried to get back onto his feet but sharp teeth were now in both of his legs and he screamed in pain, slashing with both blades and claws in an attempt to drive his attackers away. Sharp teeth suddenly filled his sight and he jerked to one side as pain seared along the left side of his face. An axe thumped down, cutting the slaughterfish in two. Hands and tentacles grabbed him and dragged him back, out of the range of the attacking slaughterfish.
Komees Ihn'e could hear Pular Singe's shrill chatter and felt relief that she was still alive. Ignoring his pain, he heaved himself up to look at the defending line of cadets but what he saw first was his own legs. Or rather what was left of them.
At which point he passed out.
"Ham knows intimately what it means to be eaten alive." Chris said bluntly. He flicked a look around his listeners, all of whom seemed to be suitably subdued, even Hansen. "Both of his legs were torn up bad, one foot gone totally, and his face and shoulder slashed open. Fontana lost the major part of a leg and most of an arm and a notable chunk out of his side. Took two years for Ham's foot to grow back and Fontana's injuries took a good four, five years. Seven cadets and two Cadet Masters were killed. And most of the survivors still have a hard time sleeping when it rains." He glanced over at Robert. "Ham's up in the loft with Fontana. You'll probably have to yell for him."
"Yeah, sure." Robert muttered, trying to shake the images Chris had conjured for them. "Think I'll take some beers along."
No one protested when he scooped up a six pack and headed out into the rain.
The next day was a repeat of the first. A threatened rebellion by some of the resistance members was quelled by Julie, who bluntly told them to either buckle down or leave their guns and vests and send someone out to replace them. Tyler had looked at her in some surprise after her cool words and then with an odd thoughtfulness.
The day after was considered a day of rest, since Julie and Donovan were leaving to check out the water plant. When they returned, hours later, it was to find the majority of the camp standing around the corral behind the mock stable, all in various stages of hysteria. Even the cats clinging to the fence looked like they were ready to laugh themselves right off the rails. Curious, the couple walked over to see Tyler sprawled on his back in the center of the enclosure, Harmony next to him. She was laughing, he had his eyes closed and looked disgruntled.
"What happened?" Julie asked Caleb.
"Ham was giving Harmony a hard time about her, ah, well, her pacifism. He challenged her to break a supposedly unbreakable hold." He started to laugh again.
"She went for his cojones." Sancho gasped from where he was sprawled on the ground.
"And she almost got them, too." Tyler added, opening his eyes. Releasing Harmony's hand, he shoulder-rolled to his feet. Reaching down, he pulled Harmony to her feet. "Not bad."
"Hey, just because I don't fight doesn't mean I can't defend myself."
Tyler looked at her then nodded. "Point taken. Now that we've managed to amuse the hell out of the cats and the camp ..." He looked over at the newly arrived couple. "What happened to you two?"
Julie felt herself color. "We took the long way around, to make sure we weren't followed."
"Oh?" Tyler's nostrils flared then his eyes narrowed, eyeing her coolly. Her color deepened when she realized that the man could smell exactly what they had been up to for the last couple hours. "You're sunburned." He pointed out. "I don't think the lizards' body suits sunburn."
Julie glared at him. "We'll get changed and then we can report." She started to turn.
"You might wanna stick around." Chris murmured to her. She threw him a puzzled look and he nodded back to the corral. She looked back just in time to see a flash of metal and an odd-looking staff was suddenly bury itself in the dirt in front of Tyler. He looked down at it then up at the loft. The doors were open and Fontana stood there, a staff in hand. No, not just a staff. At each end was an axe head. A really sharp axe head.
Without a word, Tyler stripped off his shirt, tossing it to one side and reached down to pull the staff from the ground. It had a sword blade at each end, double-edged and sharp. He stepped back, idly rotating the double-bladed sword.
Fontana leapt from the loft, landing in front of Tyler. Without a word, he attacked, swinging at Tyler's legs but Tyler was already leaping into the air. What followed was a heart-stopping display of fighting that had more then a few of the watchers gaping in astonishment. Both men were obviously experts with their chosen weapons, parrying and slashing with equal skill. Both were grinning with obvious pleasure as they dodged, ducked, and leapt clear of the other's attacks.
"My God." Julie breathed. "How dangerous is this?" She asked Chris and he looked at her as if he was wondering at her intelligence level.
"They're playing with really sharp weapons." He pointed out.
"Should they be? If Tyler's hurt ..." Her voice broke off as Tyler's weapon came apart in his hands. At first she thought it had broken but then she realized that Tyler had taken the double-bladed sword apart, giving him two longswords. With a flick of his wrist, Fontana's weapon also came apart, leaving him with an axe in each hand.
"They're playing to disarm, not to draw blood." Chris explained.
"But they could do injury. Which we can't afford right now." Julie said curtly. Stepping up to the fence encircling the corral, she whistled shrilly. To her surprise, the two men stepped back from each other and looked at her inquiringly. "We can't afford you being hurt, Tyler. Not now. So how about putting the sharp objects away."
The two men looked at her then at each other. Donovan started forward, ready to back her up but Chris grabbed his arm, glaring him into silence. "She can't led if you keep fighting her battles for her." He hissed.
"She's right." Tyler said to Fontana, stopping Donovan from snapping back at Chris. Startled, he looked back at the two men but Tyler was speaking to Fontana. "And your offense still sucks."
"You still drop your left shoulder every time you're going to attack with the axe in your right hand. You should go back for a refresher."
Fontana scowled at him then shrugged guiltily. "Planning on it. Chim is insisting."
"Good for him. Come on, let's get something to eat. You might wanna get some lotion on that sunburn, Parrish. We'll meet in the saloon in an hour. Just us three for now." He added as he re-attached the longswords back into one. Tossing it over the fence for Chris to catch, he snatched up his shirt and vaulted over the fence. Slinging the shirt over his shoulder, he retrieved his weapon and headed into the mock stable. Fontana took a moment to return his weapons back to their original double-bladed form and then followed Tyler over the fence and into the building.
"He's right, Julie." Harmony said. "You really are burnt. Want me to get you something from the infirmary?"
"I'll get something. Thanks anyway. Here, get this film to Alice, will you?" She headed for the dorms, intending to grab some clothes and heading over to the showers. Donovan fell in next to her. "You realize that Tyler knows exactly what we were doing, don't you?"
"He may suspect ..." Donovan started. Julie looked at him and wrinkled her nose. Donovan flushed as he realized what she meant. "Damn! I hadn't thought of that." He muttered.
"It'll make life interesting, that's for sure."
An hour later, the couple entered the saloon. It was empty except for Tyler, who looked up from the photos he had spread out on the bar. "Know anyone in the group that can rappel?" He asked curtly.
"Rappel?" Donovan blinked. "I can, a little. I think Robert can. Why?"
"Just an idea about the raid. Might be the best way to get our people from one level to another quickly." He waved a hand at the photos. "Alice and Chris are developing more pictures from the video. What else do you have?"
Julie set her sketch book on the bar. The sketch the book was opened to showed the geographical layout of the area around the plant. "A backup escape route. Looks like an old bridle path."
Tyler looked it over and grunted. "Good." He glanced at the photos then looked at Donovan. "Your scaly buddy sent a message for you to meet him tomorrow. Usual place, usual time. He has something for you." He said curtly, dark eyes expressionless.
Julie felt Donovan stiffen next to her and she dug an elbow into his ribs in warning. "Did he say what?"
"No." He set the photos he held down and looked out the window. "We can go over these tomorrow, after you meet with your friend. He might have something worthwhile." His tone suggested otherwise then, before Donovan could retort angrily, he changed the subject. "Did either of you see Fontana on your way over?"
"No. Why? What's wrong?" Julia asked when she saw Tyler's frown.
"Nothing's wrong. Fontana's just not used to Earth and humans. He doesn't usually work this sector. At least, not alone."
"Why is he still hanging around anyway?" Donovan asked.
"I asked him to." Tyler said curtly. "Besides, Johnny's still re-stocking his ship." He caught the look on Donovan's face and gave him a bared-tooth grin. "You don't think Fontana's hauling stuff to Earth solely out of the goodness of his heart, do you? The stuff he brought in costs, Gooder. Fontana will take back a haul and sell it then maybe make another run here." His grin broadened. "You won't believe what the major part of his cargo out is."
"Probably not." Julie said. "What?"
Humor glinted in Tyler's dark eyes. "Pickle juice."
"Excuse me?" Julie's voice hit a high note and Tyler laughed at her expression.
"Pickle juice. The Shikito adore pickle juice. They drink it like you'd drink soda. If you can get the real stuff out to their planet, you can make a fortune. That and cheesecake, as odd as that may sound. But the pickle juice alone will pay for his hauling stuff here."
"What other kinds of things does the Confederation like from Earth?" Donovan asked thoughtfully.
"Well, actually, the Shikito aren't part of the Confederation. Yet. But the most in demand items include ..." Tyler paused then shrugged. "Books, comic books, horses, cats, some kinds of dogs, silk and other kinds of cloth, some types of gems and minerals ... turquoise, opal, and jade for example. Artwork, music. Tea, various spices. Chocolate. A variety of things. The Smugglers Guild has been operating off of Earth for centuries. In fact, the Guild Master's been living on Earth on and off for the past eight hundred years."
"Oh?" was all Julie could manage.
"Yep." Tyler headed for the door. "William. In Switzerland." He paused at the door, looking back over his shoulder and smiling faintly. "Who also happens to be my mother's father." Then he was out the door and gone.
"Y'know, it occurs to me." Julie said after a long quiet moment. "That we haven't once considered how old Tyler might really be."
"I don't think I want to know."
"Want to know what?" Robert asked as he entered, his arms full of notebooks and Robin trailing behind him.
"How old Tyler really is. He just said something about his grandfather traveling back and forth from Earth for the past eight hundred years." Donovan explained and Robert grinned.
"William in Switzerland. He told me about that." He dropped his armload on the table, the gleam in his eye suggesting Tyler had told him a lot more. "By his people's standards, Ham's young. By our standards ..." He shrugged. "Ham's roughly one hundred and thirty-seven years old." His grin widened at the couples' surprise. "Apparently his people can live for a very long time. Remember Wolf in Rome? She's close to five thousand years but then she's also a member of the Four Quarters and apparently they are an exception."
Julie's mind raced, connecting a number of dots. "So the birth rate would be slower? A female would only be fertile every few years?"
"Roughly every three to five years."
"So the menstrual period would be every three to five years? I'm envious."
"I was too." Robin looked up from the notebooks she was sorting. "Until I found out that pregnancy lasts almost two years." She looked down at her swollen belly and made a face.
Julie threw up her hands. "Okay. No longer envious."
"Plus they seem to be prone to multiples." Robert said. "Twins are very common. Ham has a twin brother."
"Not on Earth, I hope?" Donovan asked. "One of him's almost more then I can handle."
"No. Apparently his brother takes after their father. He's what they call a High Warrior ... their version of a chief security officer ... on a spaceship. And before you ask anything about that, we haven't gotten into spaceships or space travel as yet."
"You think he's telling you the truth? About everything?" Donovan asked, a disbelieving note in his voice.
Robert looked thoughtful. "Yeah. Yeah, I think he is. He's answered just about every question I've asked. I don't think he's making anything up. I think he's telling the truth. If he doesn't like a question, he simply doesn't answer it. And then sometimes, if I ask it again, he will answer."
"Had many of those?"
"Only a couple. Of course I'm sticking mainly to family structure and home life type questions. With a little biology thrown in. So far, we've only discussed his people. But he says there's another seventy-three sentient species in the Confederation alone." He grinned. "Wanna hear something really interesting? The Barbarosians have eight different races. They have ... and keep in mind I'm using the English words for them ..." He started to tick them off on his fingers. "Two different aquatic ... or water-dwelling ... peoples. An avian ... or flying ... people. A dwarf race and a race of giants along with what we might call an elven race. And then they have a race that has fur and a tail. And then there's Ham's people. And apparently there are variances within the races as well. Three different kinds of dwarfs and two different kinds of giants as well as something called a low giant and something called a tall dwarf."
"That's not possible ..." Donovan started.
"Why not?" Julie interrupted him. "We're not talking about Earth. And even on Earth, it could have been possible. Maybe not a flying race but the others could have happened. In fact, there are legends of some of those races on Earth so who's to say they didn't exist here once."
"That's kinda what Ham said. Apparently they've always wondered at the ... sameness ... of Earth humans. He said that first night that his people could never understand why humans have such a hard time recognizing that they are all the same species when the majority of our races all look so much alike and they, who have such wide variances among their races, rarely have had that problem."
"Can they inter-breed?" Julie asked.
"Yeah but they usually don't. For various reasons. When they do, the child always takes after the mother. Aquatic mother, aquatic baby. Giant mother, giant baby. Etc, etc. And they are not genetically compatible to Earth humans. Ahhh ..." Robert glanced quickly at Robin, who noticed the silence and looked up to blink at him.
"Come on, dad. I'm transcribing your notes. I've already read all that. And lots of other interesting things too." She had two notebooks open in front of her, copying from one into the other neatly. "Your handwriting's getting worse. What's this word?"
Robert looked over her shoulder. "Aquatic." He turned back to the couple. "They are, for the most part, sexually compatible but not genetically. Not even with help." He added with something akin to relief.
Julie was nodding slowly. "For one thing, the gestation periods would be way too different."
Robert nodded, settling into the chair across from Robin and reaching for a notebook. "Another interesting tidbit. Their ancestry is feline/lupine based, not primate. That would be where the claws come from. As Ham put it," Robert grinned, sudden laughter dancing in his eyes. "'Our ancestors ran on all fours and bayed at the moon.'. Then Fontana added, 'Every now and then, we still do.'. At which point, Ham chased him up into the loft and threw him out the loft doors."
"I wondered what that was for." Julia mussed. Well, Fontana had landed on his feet and it had been obvious that Ham hadn't really meant to hurt him. After seeing their version of play, God help them all if they ever actually did try to hurt each other.
"They're awfully casual about hurting each other, aren't they?" Donovan remarked.
"Not really. Sure, they fight a lot but you'll notice neither of them actually get hurt and with those claws, they could do a lot of damage."
"They don't use their claws. Haven't you noticed?" Robin said. "Even when they were fighting with those weapons in the corral and kicking at each other, they never unsheathed their claws."
"That's true." Robert sounded surprised. "Ham said that when they fight, they fight until one of them squawks then it's considered good manners to break off and check each other for wounds. Apparently fighting's okay but actually hurting each other isn't."
"Has he mentioned why he's here, on Earth?" Donovan asked. Julie had moved from his side and was reading over Robin's shoulder.
Robert shrugged. "When I asked him outright, he said 'Family obligation', which I misunderstood and got us into the whole sexual/genetic compatibility discussion. Originally I thought he meant there were half-Barbarosian offspring on Earth. After he explained why that wasn't possible, he told me that his family had been Outriders on Earth for generations. Most of the Outriders here are related to him. Let's see," He ticked them off on his fingers. "Already mentioned that William is his mother's father. Well, Allan in Africa is his father's father. Tom, Johnny, and Gator are all his cousins. Nefti is his younger sister and Rik is her partner ... husband if you prefer. Even Wolf is apparently related to him in some way."
"And Fontana? I'd guess he's not a blood relation if they're ... errr ..." Mike glanced at Robin and flushed. The girl made a face at him.
Robert grinned. "They're not lovers, despite what everyone thinks. Not yet anyway. Fontana is Ham's brother's lover ... or rather, partner. Not his."
"Oh." Donovan said weakly.
"So that's what he meant when he said Fontana was sort of his brother-in-law." Julie said.
"Apparently. He did try to explain a common Barbarosian family unit but I honestly got totally lost. I'm pretty sure there's nothing like it on Earth. Well, there can't be, since there is only one native sentient species known on Earth. But he does consider Fontana his brother-in-law. Or rather their version of brother-in-law."
"But they sleep together ..." Donovan started.
"Yeah. They 'sleep' together." Robert stressed the word 'sleep'. "If there were more Barbarosians here, they would all be sleeping together. They are a remarkably social people. They like to be near each other. It's ... soothing. Remember when Ham was in that healing sleep? How Chris stayed near him as much as possible? Same principal. Has a lot to do with scent."
"Can I read these? When you're done making them readable, that is." Julie asked. Robin giggled and Robert glowered at them both.
"We're making a couple extra copies so folks can read them. Should have them ready by tomorrow. Of course, I'll keep adding things to the master copy. Ham said he'll help with writing up the Barbarosian family unit later. That should take an entire notebook. Maybe two. Is that the supper bell?"
"Sounds like it, yep. Coming?"
"No, I'll be joining Ham and Chris. They tend to cook their own meals."
"Robin?" Julie looked at the girl.
"Well, I was kinda thinking maybe I could go with you, dad. Maybe take notes."
"Not a good idea." Donovan said firmly. "Tyler wouldn't like it."
"Oh, I don't know." Robert said thoughtfully. "I don't think he'll mind and it would make it easier. We'll take a chance."
Donovan looked like he was ready to protest and Julie grabbed his arm. "Come on. Let's go get something to eat." Julie said firmly. "See you two later." She tugged Donovan after her and out the door before speaking again. "Leave it, Mike. Robert knows what he's doing."
"He's going to be disappointed. Tyler is not going to like having Robin along."
"Maybe. Maybe not. Y'know, Mike, I don't think you know Tyler nearly as well as you think you do."
"I know him better then anyone else here."
"Sure about that, Mike?"
Donovan frowned and didn't answer.
"I don't know." Robin said, gesturing at the pad with her pencil. "It just kinda made sense. If these two are affiliated with air, then the opposite should be water and ... hey! Wait a minute! You mean I'm right?"
Robert grinned at his daughter's surprise. He really hadn't been too sure how Ham would react to Robin coming along but he hadn't even looked surprised. He'd just waved her to the battered easy chair that had previously been in the infirmary. She had settled in comfortably with a pad and pencils, idly sketching between taking notes. Shortly after that, Polly and Katie had wandered shyly in and were soon settled at one of the long tables with their own pads and some markers. At some point, Robin had began sketching out something Ham had been explaining and he had noticed.
"Pretty close. Polly," He looked past Robin to where her younger sister was sitting. "Hand me four different color markers. Any colors. Doesn't matter. Here." Taking the markers, he used them to sketch quickly on the pad. "You have this part right. Air, with Phoenix and Dragon. Now you go opposite ..."
"And you have water."
"Right. With ..." He paused thoughtfully. "Chris, what did you say the closest thing to a rhi'sar on Earth is?"
"Sable." The big man said, not looking up from the book he was reading.
"Okay, so that's Sable and Kirien ... he doesn't translate easily into English. Maybe dragon-horse ... no, we'll stick with Kirien. Go here and you have earth with Wolf and Coyote. Opposite them is fire with Ounce and Dakeera ..." Ham frowned then shrugged. "Saber-tooth would be the closest thing. And that," He tapped the pad lightly before tossing the markers back onto Polly's table. "Is the basis for the current version of the Four Quarters. These four," He gestured at the pad. "Are what you might call the Shamans. The remaining four are the Warriors."
"And they're what?" Robin asked. "Gods?"
Ham shook his head. "No. Closest thing on Earth would be ... demigods, I guess. The roster of the Four Quarters changes every now and again, sometimes without warning ..."
"And sometimes in ways that make no sense at all." Fontana said from where he was sprawled on top of the RV. "We've been trying to figure out that whole Horse/Hawk/Dragon/Phoenix situation for centuries. You really have to ask William about that, Kom."
"I've tried. He wouldn't explain it. Wolf is even worse. She just laughs hysterically and wanders off muttering something about flying pigs."
"Your family can be so much fun."
Apparently Ham couldn't find a basis to argue with that so he went back to studying the chess board, leaving Robin to ponder her sketch. Polly leaned over the back of Robin's chair to stare at it as well.
"Willie said Xon was a member of the Four Quarters." Polly said suddenly and Robert looked up in a mixture of surprise and trepidation, hoping his daughter's question didn't put the man off. Ham moved a chess piece and then leaned back to point at something on the pad. "Dragon? So he's Dragon?"
"Was Dragon." Ham corrected. "The current Dragon is a female Sslisslik, which is a reptilian species not the least bit like the Visitors. And between the two, Phoenix served as the ... well, it's not technically correct but for convenience's sake let's say air's Warrior for a time."
Robin looked at her pad, confused. "I thought Phoenix was a Shaman."
"He is. Normally. But, for some reason, after the previous Dragon was killed, he shifted from air's Shaman to air's Warrior. The then Horse shifted to become Hawk, air's Shaman, and Kirien took his place as water's Warrior. When the new Dragon appeared as air's Warrior, Hawk stepped down, and Phoenix returned to being air's Shaman. This is the current layout. It's been that way for about 800 years. Give or take a few decades." He grinned at Robin's expression. "Confusing, ain't it?"
"Well, it works. For us. They're not exactly a Deity, they're not exactly mortal. They ... represent the Deities, might be the best way to put it."
"So they have a direct line to your Deity? Or is it Deities?" Robert asked.
"Deities. And pretty much. They're the ones we deal with the most." He looked up. "Fontana, how about going to see if those pizzas are ready yet." Fontana rolled off the RV, landing deftly on bare feet than vanished into the vehicle. "How did we get on the Four Quarters anyway?"
"You were explaining your people's version of chess. Which, quite frankly, was giving me a headache." Robert moved a chess piece.
"Oh, good. I'm not the only one." Chris muttered.
"Yeah, it's complicated. If we survive this war, I'll just send you a copy of the rule book. Books. If you don't wanna bother reading them, they make for excellent doorstops. Oh, good. Food."
Fontana grinned, offering the pizza to the girls before letting Ham drag off two pieces. Robert grabbed a couple pieces as well then Fontana went over to settle near Chris with the remainder. Ham stooped and dug into a cooler set next to him, finally bringing out a soda. He offered one to Robert before nudging the cooler toward the girls with his foot. "Help yourself, kittens."
The duo returned to their game, not talking much now as they played. At nine Fontana, carrying an already sleeping Katie, accompanied the girls to their trailer, since the curfew for everyone under eighteen was nine o'clock. Once they were gone, Ham dug out a pack of cigarettes, offering one to Robert before lighting up one for himself.
"For some reason, I'm surprised you'd smoke."
Ham shrugged, absently rubbing a hand over his chin. He was finding that a beard was going to take a little getting use to. "Nasty habit. If I tried it back home, mother would slap me off a summit."
"Again." Chris cut in.
Robert looked over his shoulder at Chris then back at Tyler. "Okay, why did she slap you off a summit? Or do I want to know?"
Ham laughed. "I was trying to get my sister to climb up there. She hates heights. So she's clinging to a ledge about thirty feet below me, claiming she's admiring the view and I'm teasing her to climb higher because the view was better from there. At which point, our mother comes up behind me and smacks me. Hard. Not off the summit but pretty close."
"Woman has a hell of a arm." Chris added.
"How would you know? She never hit you."
"She sure sent you flying."
Ham shrugged. "Caught me off guard. Took us a couple hours to get Nefti down from that ledge."
"What us? If I remember correctly, you were up on the summit, yelling down gratuitous advice. And avoiding your mother. Well, at least until she got your other sisters together and they ganged up to toss you in the pond."
"Hey, I would have gotten away if Oded hadn't tripped me up with his tail. And someone really should have mentioned Lady was down there. Suddenly finding oneself in a not so very big pond with a thirty-seven foot long alligator is not the least bit amusing." Ham ground the cigarette out in a nearby dirt-filled coffee can and glanced at his watch then around the room. "Curfew in fifteen minutes. I better find Fontana. Wanna just leave the game set up for tomorrow night?"
"Sure." Robert reflected that he was getting use to the off-hand remarks Ham occasionally made. He had little doubt that everything the other man was saying was true but he couldn't help but wonder if he sometimes said them just to see other peoples' reactions. He watched Ham leave the building and then looked back at Chris. "Oded would be a Treean?" He asked, referring to the Barbarosian's tailed and furred race. Chris nodded. "And Lady ...?"
"Is a thirty-seven foot long alligator someone took to Nivana from Earth years ago. Don't ask me why. Or from exactly where. They tend to adopt the oddest creatures." He shut the book and slipped into his jacket pocket. "And that thirty-seven foot ... does not include her tail. She is one big mother. 'Course, you should see Monster. She's an anaconda. A seventy-seven foot long anaconda."
"Okay. Nivana just made the top ten list of places I don't ever want to visit." Robert carefully moved the chess board out of the way.
"Actually, they're both fairly friendly." Ham walked back into the stable, a disgruntled-looking Fontana trailing along behind him and Robert wondered what mischief the man had been planning. "Well, not friendly but they seem to understand the concept of 'as long as we don't try to eat the two-legged creatures, they won't try to hurt us'. Though it is rather unnerving to see the youngers bouncing around on their backs."
Robert blinked then glanced quickly at Chris, who grinned and nodded.
"Not to mention the fact that both of them live on Rathorn, not on Nivana. The sentient species there are more capable of dealing with them."
"I get the idea your people are never boring." Robert said, not noticing the sudden sharp looks Chris and Fontana both gave Ham.
Both Ham and Fontana grinned. "No, never boring." He agreed then both he and Fontana looked up abruptly, their amusement fading. "Shuttle." Ham said tersely and Robert was out the door and running for the dorms to warn them. Lights were hastily flipped off and people got off the street and into the various buildings. Two minutes later, a shuttle could be heard passing overhead.
Robert stood in the shadows of a dorm-trailer. Across the way, he could see Ham in the door of the now-dark stable. The earlier friendliness was gone completely, leaving behind the hard eyes and cold, remote expression of the stone-cold killer Donovan had often spoken of and that some of them had seen in action. Robert suppressed a shudder.
Then the shuttle was out of sight. Ham looked after it for a long moment then his eyes closed briefly and he reached up to absently touch the medallion hanging against his throat. When his eyes opened again, the coldness had faded, his face seemed to soften and he was again the man Robert had spent the evening talking with. The man who had teased Polly mercilessly and had gotten Robin to laugh for the first time in weeks. Maybe months. Ham looked up at the open doors of the loft then turned and vanished back into the stable.
Robert glanced up as well, knowing that Fontana was there before he even saw him. A moment later, Ham appeared behind the other Barbarosian then they were moving back, disappearing into the shadows of the loft. By now, everyone knew the duo slept together in the loft -- they were doing nothing to hide it -- and most assumed they were lovers. A few of the less enlightened members of the Resistance had tried to make something of it but the fun had faded fast when it became very clear that Fontana had no idea what they were alluding to and Ham just plain didn't care.
"Can I come with you again tomorrow night?" Polly's voice came from behind him and Robert looked up to Polly leaning out of one of the trailer's windows.
"You're supposed to be in bed." He said sternly, not mentioning the fact that she hadn't actually come with them but had snuck in later.
"I am in bed. I'm just not laying down in it."
"Well, lay down in it and go to sleep." Robert said. "And if Ham doesn't mind, you can come over tomorrow night."
Polly grinned and vanished from the window. Robert grinned as well, reflecting that his daughters, even little Katie, were rapidly losing any fear they may have had of Ham. Of course, listening to the man tell stories of how he, with the help of a couple other cadets, had snuck an alien version of a sheep into their cadet master's quarters and the resulting chaos that followed or the time he and Pular Singe had done a midnight run over the rooftops of the local village for reasons he didn't make clear -- Robert suspected it wasn't completely legal even where he came from -- did help.
"Fontana?" Ham settled onto the blanket next to the other man.
"Hmmmmm?" Fontana said sleepily, turning to burrow against him.
"As soon as you can, send a message to my mother and ask her if she could get Hellspawn to take Lady and Monster back to Rathorn for awhile. The komodos as well, I think."
Fontana opened an eye, looking at him suspiciously. "What are you planning, Kom?"
"I'll explain later." Ham found himself suddenly and quite expertly pinned. He'd forgotten how fast Fontana could be.
"Explain now." Fontana growled.
Ham hesitated then, not wanting to explain claw marks in the morning, began to explain.
Donovan came back from the rendezvous with Martin with a video cassette and a grim look. A look that Tyler echoed once they had watched the video.
Tyler pulled out the cassette and set it with the other items for the raid. "You trust Parrish, Gooder?"
Donovan threw him a sharp look. "Yeah, I do."
"Good, 'cause she'll be your partner. Get Robert and teach her the basics of rappelling. Here." He gestured at the most complete layout of the plant, with additions made in careful pencil strokes. "The quickest way down to this area would be to rappel down. You and her will be doing that."
Donovan glanced at where he indicated and nodded. "All right."
"You got the rest of the day. Chris picked up the equipment you're going to need ... don't ask from where. Tomorrow we finish up, double-check all the equipment and go over the exact assignments." He glanced at the pile of material and his face tightened. "And tomorrow night we hit the plant."
"You gonna be talking with Robert tonight?" Donovan asked and Tyler gave him a surprised look.
"Probably." He grinned slightly. "He's still trying to figure out our family units. That oughta take him a few years."
"How much of it are you making up?"
Tyler stiffened, his face hardening. "None of it, Gooder. I keep my word. I said I'd tell the truth and I have and I will." He said curtly. "Now get out there and make sure your girlfriend can keep her end up." Turning, he walked out of the saloon.
Donovan looked after him, frowning. After all his long association with Tyler, he had a hard time believing that the man was actually telling the truth but Robert seemed to think he was. Of course, Tyler was a master of deception and Robert could be fooling himself into believing what the Barbarosian was telling him. Like the Visitors, Tyler could be telling Robert what he wanted to hear. Julie, he knew, had one of the copies of Robert's notes. He'd discuss it with her later.
"I'm getting to be not too fond of heights here!" Julie squeaked and Donovan laughed then, hearing a second sharp bark of laughter behind him, looked back, surprised to see Tyler standing not far away, dressed in a black t-shirt and cutoffs. He knew that was what the man often wore these days when not on duty but it was still startling to see. He was watching Julie as she concentrated on rappelling down the side of the mock whorehouse, his face expressionless.
"Not bad." He said when Julie hit the ground. She looked up, startled to see him there.
"Do your people rappel?" She asked as she unattached herself.
"On rock. For wood ..." He raised his hands, extending his claws.
"I wouldn't think they'd hold your weight."
Tyler shrugged. "They do. Sometimes we use bracer/gloves with metal claws in them as well. Gives a little more power to ..."
A sudden shriek cut off his words and Tyler's head snapped around, searching for the source. Another shriek, this time with the words "Katie! Don't move!", gave him a direction and he was running for the other side of the camp, Donovan and Julie behind him.
Robin had her hands firmly on around Polly, holding her close. Katie was closer to the building, wide eyes staring at the raccoon that had obviously tearing through the trash that had been left behind the saloon. Even from this distance, Donovan could see the foamy spittle around the raccoon's mouth and he reached for his gun. Next to him, Tyler put on a sudden startling burst of speed. Snatching Katie up in one arm, he leapt upwards just as the raccoon darted forward. The claws of his free hand dug into the side of the building, toe claws groping for purchase in the wood then he was up and out of the raccoon's reach.
Donovan could hear the shouting behind him as he took careful aim and fired, the sound of his gun buried in a number of others. The raccoon was killed instantly.
"Robin! Polly!" Robert reached his daughter's side. "Go inside the trailer. Go. Now."
"Katie ..." Robin started.
"I'll bring her. Go on. All you kids! Go on!" Robert ordered and they reluctantly obeyed. There was a thump next to him and he turned to see Ham standing there, a white-faced Katie with both arms securely around the man's neck. It took them both a minute to convince the frightened girl to let go long enough to go to her father, where she wrapped both arms around his neck and hung on tightly. Julie helped him check the girl over, noting with mutual relief that there was no sign of injury.
"You better get her washed up good, just in case." Julie said and Robert nodded. He looked around, finally seeing Ham sitting on a nearby step, checking his legs for injury. He looked up as Robert approached, who was startled to realize that the man was almost as pale as Katie.
"Thank you." Robert said.
Ham nodded. "You might want to burn the clothes she's wearing. Just in case."
"Are you hurt?"
Ham shook his head, not bothering to hide his relief. "No. I got into the air fast enough. Once we take care of ... that, I'll take a shower." Grabbing the doorjamb, he pulled himself to his feet but ended up leaning back against the building for a moment.
"Jeez, Tyler." Donovan looked at him and he half-smiled. "Nice to know you're afraid of something."
Tyler looked at him for a long moment, his eyes going hard. "I'm not the least bit ashamed to admit that the thought of rabies scares me ..." He cut off his words, looking at the number of young ears still in hearing distance. "Spitless." He finished. "Rabies is one of the few diseases known to jump species. I have no idea whether or not it could effect one of my people and I have no intention of ever finding out." Pushing himself away from the building, he moved to peer into a nearby barrel and grunted. "This'll do. We'll have to burn the carcass." He glanced around at the others. "Elias, could you get something flammable? Gasoline, kerosene, something along those lines."
"Yeah, sure. Give me a hand, will ya, Sancho?" The two men moved toward the small fleet of vehicles hidden under camouflage netting.
Tyler grabbed the barrel and rolled it away from the building. "We'll need a shovel ... something to scoop the carcass up in. And if you got anything you want burned, bring it on over. This may take awhile."
"And we'll have to be a lot more careful with leaving trash out." Julie said. "Once this is taken care of, we'll clean up this area. Move the trash area further from the camp."
Chris appeared, a bag of charcoal over his shoulder and a shovel in his hand. Handing the shovel to his friend, he tore open the bag and dumped the contents, as well as the bag itself, into the barrel. Tyler gingerly scooped the carcass up and dropped it carefully into the barrel, along with the trash that animal had been digging through. With a powerful wrench of his hands, he broke the shovel in half and dropped it in as well. Robert reappeared with Katie's clothing.
"Probably overkill but just in case." He said, dropping them into the barrel.
"Here. This is all we can spare out of our stores." Elias carefully poured a half-bucket of gasoline into the barrel.
"It'll have to be enough. We can burn this trash while we're at it." Taking a box of matches from Chris, he lit a match and flipped into the barrel, stepping back as flames roared up. "Someone will have to keep an eye on the fire." He glanced around impassively.
"We'll take turns." Julie said curtly. "Mike, you and I can take first watch." Ignoring Donovan's protests, she looked around. "Who wants second watch?"
They soon had a half-dozen volunteers to watch the fire and Julie set up a schedule, making sure anyone who was going on the raid took an early watch so they could get some sleep. "When it's done, the last group buries what's left. Come on, Mike. Let's get this area cleaned up."
Donovan glowered at her but she ignored him. "You're supposed to be delegating duties like this." He grumbled as he pulled on a pair of gloves, grimacing at the trash scattered about.
"Never ask your people to do something you wouldn't do yourself." Julie dropped an armful of trash into the barrel.
Chris glanced up as Ham stepped out of the bathroom, toweling his hair dry. "You okay, man?" He asked.
Ham grunted. "Sure." He tossed the towel into a nearby hamper and dropped into a chair. "I didn't think of raccoons." He said in disgust.
"Hey, we know it now. We deal with it now." Chris said sternly and after a moment, Ham nodded. "Robert came over, said he wouldn't be over tonight."
Ham chuckled. "Not surprised. I don't feel much like talking anyway."
"I, ah, loaded up some stuff for him to take back for the kids. Soda and such."
"Some of it. There's some left."
"Better be." He eyed his friend then grinned. "Have plans for tonight?"
"Ahhhh ..." Chris flushed and Ham's grin deepened.
"I was wondering why the place was so clean. When's she coming over?"
"A couple hours."
Ham nodded absently. "I think I'll get Fontana and go do some hunting."
"Not for rabid dogs, I hope?"
"If we cross paths with any of them, we'll put them down. Otherwise we'll just get some food. You need anything?"
Chris reached over and opened the small refrigerator. "Nope. Everything's still here."
"Great." He stood and moved toward the door. "Then I'll see you ..." His lips quirked. "In the morning."
It was nightfall when they returned to the camp. Ham sent Fontana back to the stable with their catch and took a detour past where the contents of the barrel were still burning. The two people tending it were feeding the flames old newspapers and trash. Two buckets of water were nearby, ready to douse the fire if a shuttle should come too near. Satisfied that was being taken care of, he headed back to the stable and up into the loft.
He headed for the open loft doors, dropping to sit cross-legged there. From here, he could see most of the camp. The street was bare, except for the sentries at their posts. He could see some people in the saloon and others in the lounge but most were undoubtedly in bed. He doubted many of them were alone.
He heard Fontana settle down behind him, so close he could feel the heat of his body. "Tomorrow will be busy." Fontana commented, resting his chin on Ham's shoulder.
"Very. Are you planning on behaving yourself?"
Fontana sighed. "If I must, I must." He shifted slightly, lips lightly brushing the back of Ham's neck. Ham's breath caught and he shivered. "Afraid?" Fontana murmured against his skin.
"Yes." And he was. Not of dying, no, but of failure. Of watching other beings die and knowing that it was because he hadn't trained them enough or hadn't taught them the right things. "Humans die too easily." He added bitterly.
"They'd die faster if you weren't here." Fontana pointed out.
"That's not all you're afraid of."
"No." He looked down at his hands. Capture was also a possibility but he didn't plan on surviving to fall into phrashi hands. Claws, razor-sharp, were a last resort but he wouldn't hesitate to use them on himself, if need be. If he was quick enough, he could tear open his own throat before anyone could stop him. Cut deeply enough and he'd lose too much blood before his body could compensate to survive.
Fontana's hands covered his own. "Don't!" he said sharply. "Don't think that way. As long as you live, there's always a chance of escape."
Ham slipped his hands free but didn't pull away from Fontana's embrace. He hadn't lied to Robert when he'd told him that he and Fontana weren't lovers but he'd also known that the longer Fontana was here, the more likely they would be. While there were some women and a couple men in the camp that interested him, most of them were already taken and of the others ... well, he doubted they'd be interested in an a lover with claws.
"You've been on Earth too long." Fontana chided.
Ham stirred then whirled to push Fontana to the floor, covering his body with his own, tangling his claws in the other's hair. "You think?" He purred then he was up and leaping for the makeshift room. Fontana was up and after him within the second, tackling him and sending them both tumbling onto the blanket. Ham grunted at the impact then Fontana's mouth was covering his. Hands fumbled at clothing, stripping each other until bare flesh met bare flesh.
Their first coupling was frenzied, both having being celibate too long to take it slow. Once desperate need was fulfilled, they slowed down, taking their time exploring each other with hands and mouth and body.
Tomorrow night there could be death but tonight ... tonight was a time to live.
Author Notes: I kept having to balance what Ham and Robert
would talk about against what I wanted to reveal about the Confederation
at this time, which is why this part took so long to write. Not to mention
the fact that this story keeps going in directions I do not expect but it
on the water
Next part. Watch for it.
By the way, I was rather surprised at how this part ended as well.
Phrases: doh'le: girlie, Komees: wolf, Ihn'e: eyes, Tolqui: child, S'tolqui: male child or son
New Interlude: There is an XXX-rated interlude that continues where this one leaves off. It contains graphic sex between two men. You have been warned! If you still want to read it, here it is.