The warehouse was a gloomy refuge. Echoes rang hollowly from the rusted sheet-metal walls, and towers of stark wooden crates loomed up toward the patched ceiling far above. A floor of bare, cold concrete was spotted with oil smudges, like old bloodstains at the scene of a crime.
Juliet Parrish sat folornly on a crate, taking stock of a future that had rarely looked so bleak.
The armistice had been a deception, plotted by the Great Leader--a trap from which the resistance leaders had barely escaped with their lives. The Visitors' ensuing military strike had been costly, cutting down resistance forces and scattering many of those who remained.
The times were growing desperate. That was why Julie, along with Mike Donovan, had reached the difficult decision to send Elizabeth Maxwell--the Starchild--to Chicago to live with her mother. The young woman, a hybrid of human and Visitor heritage, was too important to remain in the dangers of Los Angeles. She had said her tearful goodbyes that morning, and set out with Kyle Bates.
That left Donovan and Julie with only seventeen battle-weary resistance fighters, two of those injured in the Visitor attack that had driven them from their last refuge. The warehouse would be shelter enough for the night, but in the morning, the search would have to begin for a new hiding place.
For a moment, the small voice of doubt that had lurked in Julie's soul for three years became stronger.
She shook her head. Sometimes, she wondered if that tiny cry of despair within her was a lurking shadow of her time spent in Commander Diana's conversion chamber. It was a thought that frightened her.
She started when a hand touched her shoulder, and turned to gaze into the green eyes of her lover and partner.
Tall, tanned and muscular, journalist-turned-freedom fighter Mike Donovan was a handsome man, with a smile that always made Julie's spirits lift a little. Smiling in chagrin at her startlement, she took his hand in hers.
"Tell me we've been through worse, Mike. I could believe it from you."
Donovan's expression became rueful, and he quietly evaded the question, letting his gaze wander around the confines of the warehouse. "We'll have to find a better place to stay after tonight."
"I guess better medical facilities are too much to hope for," Julie sighed, looking sadly to where their two injured comrades lay on blankets on the floor. She hadn't been able to do much for them; fortunately, their wounds were not severe.
Donovan shrugged. "Anything's possible. Maybe Howie can at least help us get some medical supplies. And Philip might be able to help us find a new hideout."
"I hope so," Julie said softly.
They were interrupted by the approach of Willie, the resident Visitor expatriot. A self-imposed outcast from his own species, with a gentle heart and an imperfect grasp of English, the young reptile in human guise had been their friend and helper almost since the beginning.
"Excuse," he began hesitantly, and gestured to the injured men. "Julie, you are needed over there."
"Thanks," Julie answered, reluctantly rising from the crate and going to her patients. Donovan looked at Willie, managing a smile.
"So what do you think?"
The Visitor's brow furrowed in puzzlement for a moment, but then he appeared to discern Donovan's meaning, and shrugged. "I... think that things are not very good now. But I think we will make them better again."
"Ever the optimist, eh?"
Willie looked at him dubiously. "Isn't an optimist someone who tells people if they need glasses?"
Donovan frowned, then abruptly broke into a welcome laugh. After a moment, he explained to Willie the difference between optimist and optometrist.
Julie made her way back over, carefully winding one of their precious few rolls of gauze. "Good news, it looks like Don's bleeding has stopped. I think he'll be back on his feet in a few more... days..."
Her words trailed off as Sancho Gomez, who had been standing watch as the lookout, came in through the loading bay with an extraordinary expression on his face. "Uh, Mike... Julie... there's someone outside I think you better talk to."
Exchanging glances, Donovan and Julie drew their handguns in unison and followed Sancho outside.
A narrow alley separated the rear of the building from a rough strip of man-made woodland. The setting sun on the opposite side of the warehouse cast deepening shadows in the alley--but even in the fading light, the man who stood by the rusted-out dumpster could never be mistaken.
It was Julie who first found her voice, to cry out in astonished greeting.
Ham Tyler, ex-CIA agent and professional killer of Visitors, sauntered toward them with a casual, feline stride. His face was typically unreflecting. It wasn't until he stood eye to eye with Donovan that he spoke, in the quiet, gravelly voice which Julie had secretly missed.
Despite the surprise and involuntary delight lurking behind his eyes, Donovan didn't miss a beat. "Oh, not you again," he said flatly, but the corners of his mouth twitched in a desperate effort not to smile.
Julie didn't try to hide her pleasure at seeing the man, and put her arms around his ribs to hug him. He stood tolerantly motionless until she let go of him. "Hello, Julie."
"I'm not even going to ask how you found us. What are you doing here?"
"Business. Chris, Maggie and I have stumbled onto a little problem, courtesy of the Visitors." Tyler looked past them toward the warehouse. "What a dump. You going to invite me in, or are we going to stand here all night?"
Chuckling, Donovan gestured to the door with a flourish, and let Tyler lead the way.
Inside, no one greeted Tyler, but all who recognized him gave him their attention. He may not have been liked, but he was respected--and he knew it. Sitting down on the edge of a crate, he continued with his explanation.
"Back in Oklahoma, we picked up a resistance fighter who was in some trouble with the lizards. Jessica Rain, from the Ponce de Leon unit in Florida. Apparently, her blood brother is one of the higher-ups on the research front--a guy you might've heard of, Doc. His name is Ryan Wolfe."
Julie nodded. "Doctor Wolfe started out as a pediatrician, but he began studying herpetology after he found out about the Visitors. His research helped Robert Maxwell and I to develop the Red Dust. After the reinvasion, he came out west a few times to help work on some projects."
"He's been captured, and intelligence says they've shipped him here to put his scientific know-how to new uses. Miss Rain took it upon herself to make her way here and get him back. That's still her idea, despite my efforts to make her realize what a bad one it is."
Julie sighed, shaking her head. "If we do lose Wolfe, it'll be a big loss to our scientific community. Maybe Philip can find out something."
"Who's Philip?" Tyler asked bluntly.
Donovan frowned. "It's a long story."
"Then you can tell it to me on the way," Tyler said as he stood up. "You're getting out of this rat trap. Get your stuff, if there's anything worth salvaging."
"What?" Julie queried.
"Just what I said. Chris, Maggie and Rain are waiting for us, in a better place than this." He put his hands on his hips. "Or would you rather stay here?"
Shaking his head in amazement, Donovan started instructing the resistance fighters to prepare for the move.
"You've got to be kidding," Donovan muttered later.
Tyler's "place" was a familiar old movie lot, its dirt and gravel roads lined with broken-down Old West fronts. It was home to the resistance, briefly, once before.
"The lizards found you here once. Be a while before they think of looking here again." Tyler turned his dinosauric black van onto the main avenue, pulling up in front of a run-down mock saloon fronted with a broad porch. Three people, a man and two women, were waiting there.
"So you did find 'em," observed Chris Faber, as Tyler stepped out of the van. He was a mountain of a man, with the looks of a Hell's Angel and the mind of an intellectual. He grinned through his thin red-gold beard at Donovan and Julie, and his golden-haired girlfriend Maggie Blodgett came forward to give Julie a hug.
The other woman, tall and athletic in build, stepped forward. Bronze-hued skin, dark eyes, and long, glossy black hair set off her distinctly Native American looks.
"Miss Rain," Donovan guessed, stepping toward her with his hand extended.
"Call me Jesse." She shook his hand firmly. "We've heard a lot about you in Florida. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Jesse used to be a cop," Maggie offered.
"Yeah--until Ryan decided to work late one night, and ended up being forced at laserpoint to operate on a wounded Visitor." Jesse paused, looking to Donovan and Julie. "That would be my blood brother, Ryan Wolfe... that's how he found out what the Visitors really are. They were going to kill him, but he got away. He stumbled across me while he was on the run, and after that, we were both in for it."
"Ham told us about Doctor Wolfe," Julie replied. "The fifth column leader, Philip, might be able to help us find out what happened to him."
Tyler shook his head, newly enlightened by tales Julie and Donovan had spun on the way. "I still can't believe you've hooked the twin brother of your old pet lizard, Gooder."
"Don't talk about Martin that way," Donovan snapped. "He was more human than you are."
"Knock it off," Julie cut in, then looked apologetically at Jesse. "These two used to do this all day. I actually missed it, until now."
"Sounds like me and a couple of my sisters," Jesse replied knowingly.
"Excuse, Mike. Where should I put this?" Willie edged forward with a box of ammunition in his arms.
Donovan glanced around. "Up on the porch is fine. We'll sort it out later."
Willie nodded and began lugging the box toward the porch, aware that the stranger, Jesse Rain, followed him. After setting the box down, he straightened to find himself looking directly into her warm black eyes.
"You're one of them, aren't you?" she said softly. "A Visitor, I mean."
His crest twitching nervously beneath his pseudoskin, he hesitated, but she smiled. "Hey, I won't think twice about it. Some of my best friends back home are fifth columnists." She held out her hand. "Jesse Rain."
"I'm Willie." After a hesitation, he squeezed her proffered fingers shyly. "How did you know what I am?"
She shrugged. "It's the way you move, I guess. Between growing up in alligator country and spending so much time around the reptiles in Ryan's lab..." Abruptly she stopped. "I'm sorry, I could have phrased that better."
Willie, not fully understanding her, accepted her belief that she had erred and smiled at her. "That's alright."
"So how did you end up here?"
"It is a long story. I am an ex--expectorate..." he attempted, but knew he had misspoken when Jesse's eyebrows arched and she laughed.
"An expatriot?" she offered.
"Yes. I was to go to Arabic, but they sent me here, and I did not know English..." He trailed off sheepishly.
"You seem to have learned a lot in three years. I was raised with English, and when I decided to learn my tribe's native language, it took me a lot longer to speak it as well as you speak English now."
Willie ducked his head at the compliment, then reluctantly glanced toward the boxes still stacked in the back of Sancho's truck. "I must finish."
"I'll give you a hand," she said with a smile.
Aboard the three-mile diameter disk that was the Los Angeles mother ship, hanging fixed above the city, all was quiet. Philip, Inspector General of the Fleet and leader of the fifth column movement in opposition of Earth's conquest, took the rare chance to relish a moment of peace.
He'd never intended to live his life in such a tenuous position. In fact, the real reason he'd come to Earth was to avenge the murder of his brother, Martin. He had been told the murder was committed by the infamous resistance fighter Mike Donovan--only to learn that Donovan had been a friend to Martin, whose life was taken by Diana, Commander of the Fleet.
In losing Martin, Philip had been robbed of more than his brother. Some part of his own soul was lost as well.
However, there were moments--brief, tantalizing moments--when Philip felt that missing piece of his heart still lay somewhere on Earth. It was almost as if Martin had entrusted it to the humans for safe keeping.
Perhaps that was why he did what he did. To find what had been taken from him, and perhaps in some way become whole again. He'd grown certain over time that his future was bound to that of the fertile planet his people had invaded; perhaps it wasn't so far-fetched after all.
But his was not a role he could cope with on his own any longer. He had stretched his abilities, his loyalties and his stamina as far as he dared. He needed a helper, and after weeks of reviewing personnel files and making inquiries through the fifth column network, he had found a better candidate than he could ever have expected.
Lieutenant Victor, as he was known on this planet, had been a childhood friend to Philip and Martin, and Philip's nearly constant companion at the Academy after Martin departed for Earth. And sometimes, after Martin's death, Victor had been Philip's only tie to sanity. After he'd come to Earth to avenge his brother, Victor had remained his sole confidant through the letters they exchanged. From the homeworld, the younger Visitor had followed his discoveries, and his change of heart toward the humans.
At last Victor had decided to abandon his legal studies and take part in the quest for peace on Earth. He had been assigned to the New Orleans mother ship, where he became part of the fifth column, and the letters between himself and Philip had continued.
For Philip, it wasn't difficult to have Victor assigned as his adjutant--a prospect at which Victor had expressed boundless delight.
Philip leaned back at the desk in his spartan quarters. He was awaiting Victor's arrival now, and quietly anticipating the presence of someone who knew him better than anyone--except perhaps, in a strange way, Mike Donovan. Though Martin had never told anyone here about Philip, it was as if knowing one brother so completely had enabled Donovan to know the other equally well.
The door signal chimed softly, and he sat up straight, laying aside his contemplations. "Come in."
He had seen a photo of Victor's human guise in the personnel file, but even so, it took him a moment to really recognize the face of his friend beneath the mammalian pseudoskin. Victor was lithe, not overly tall, with sharp--almost elfin--features, mischievous green eyes and reddish hair. Or at least, that was his human analogue. Philip nodded as he saw past the disguise, to the sharp wit and energetic spirit that lurked behind the Lieutenant's eyes.
"Victor," he began, rising from his desk. "You look..."
"Like a mammal," Victor replied cheerfully, stepping forward, and his palm met Philip's in a Visitor handclasp. "It's wonderful to see you again. When I got the letter saying you wanted me here..."
"I do what I have to," Philip replied, gesturing for Victor to sit down. "If this planet is torn apart by the conflict and the Leader's plans, our people will die. I'm not going to let that happen if I can help it."
"So," Victor began, seating himself across from Philip. "How can I help here? Aside from my duties as your adjutant, of course. My guess is you'll want me to run errands planetside, represent you at resistance meetings, that sort of thing. Am I right?"
"I need you for those things, and more." Philip leaned forward earnestly, giving his adjutant a fond smile. "I've needed someone like you on my side for a long time."
"Just say the word, Philip. For you and for the things I believe in, the sky's the limit." Victor grinned. "And by the way, you can call me Vic. It's a nickname that kind of stuck after this female--"
Philip waved his hand, chuckling. "Save it, Victor. Vic. I see you're still as popular with the ladies as you were back at the Academy. Maybe Diana--"
"No way." Victor shook his head abruptly. "I'll do anything for the cause except that, my friend."
"I was teasing you, Victor." Philip grinned, feeling amused for the first time in ages. "Frankly, I don't think she'd trust any subordinate of mine that much."
"Good," Victor uttered with conviction.
"At any rate." Philip spread his hands, sighing as the weight of responsibility crept back in to fill the void left by Martin's absence. "There's word that Diana is involved in a project at the moment--and a potentially very dangerous one. It's being investigated, covertly, by our network. As soon as we have a report, you and I will take it to the resistance, and I'll introduce you."
"Sounds like fun." Victor paused. "I have to admit, even though I think the humans are kind of weird, they fascinate me. Some of the things they come up with..."
"I know the feeling," Philip chuckled. "Trust me, once you begin working with the likes of Donovan, you're going to find them every bit as exhausting as I do."
"Maybe," Victor replied with a cocky wink, then stood up. "If that's all..."
"Yes. Settle into your quarters and get some rest. I may be calling on you at any time from now on."
With one last smile at his superior and friend, Victor left, leaving Philip to gaze after him with wistful fondness. The nearness of a friend made him feel better already.
Diana, Commander of the Visitor Fleet, leaned back in her chair with an indulgent stretch and perused her science staff's latest reports.
She was not aboard the mother ship. Far be it from her to admit it to the Leader, but aboard her own ship, her actions were under too much fifth column scrutiny. Instead, she had appropriated the research facilities of Science Frontiers, in what was to her a delicious twist of irony. She almost wished that patronizing fool Nathan Bates had lived to see it.
Well, maybe not.
Here she had chosen to establish her own personal scientific playground, a secure place to carry out experiments too important for the fifth column to discover. She could leave her security chief Lydia to attend to the affairs of the mother ship, and lose herself in the work that interested her most.
The reports pleased Diana, and she set them aside, rising from the desk to stand before one of the containment cells along the wall. Behind the invisible force field, her most prized experimental subject lay on a cot, drugged into paralysis but still conscious.
She had been doubtful about leaving him unconverted. With their will intact, humans were a danger to themselves and others, especially when captive--but the conversion process would have interfered with their critical research. The drugs used to sedate food animals were an effective alternative, however. And better yet, he was conscious of his condition--a fact that sent a small thrill through Diana's spinal ridge.
The Visitor smiled darkly at her subject, her beautiful human guise reflecting nothing but self-indulgent cruelty. She relished the fact that he knew he would be her key to overcoming the Red Dust.
Donovan was up with the dawn, to find others had risen even earlier than he. Tyler and Faber were already at work, repairing the wall of a building chosen to be their armory-storehouse. He went across the road to where the two busied themselves with hammers and nails. "Good morning."
Faber grinned, but Tyler, mouth full of nails, merely grunted an acknowledgement. Compared to his usual reactions, it was equivalent to a hearty greeting.
Donovan leaned on the porch railing and surveyed the length of the street, breathing in the cool morning air. Others were up and about as well, chipping away at the work that lay ahead of them to make the reclaimed camp livable again. Many of the structures needed repairs to the roofs and walls, to say nothing of interior refurbishing.
"It's a good place," Faber observed, as if reading Donovan's thoughts. "Needs fixing, but you should have electricity again by tomorrow. Might even be able to work out running water from that little river." He pointed east, in the direction of a brook that skirted the edge of the property.
Donovan smiled approvingly. "Home sweet home."
Across the street he recognized Julie's petite form and short blonde hair, and when he waved to her she came over, rubbing the small of her back. "I can't wait to get some cots. Those wooden floors are brutal."
Her lover smiled sympathetically, remembering that her hip had been arthritic since it healed of a laser wound received in the first invasion. "You should have stayed with me last night. I think I'm a little softer than wooden boards, at least."
Julie's response was a nervous smile which, to Donovan, looked rather forced. "Maybe some other time, Mike. I kind of need some time by myself, to try to figure out how we're going to pull this place together again."
He frowned faintly. "I understand," he lied.
"Well," Julie changed the subject, looking to Tyler and Faber. "What about you guys? Will you be staying?"
Faber shrugged his huge shoulders and deferred the answer to Tyler, who didn't look up from his work. "Not more than a few days. I figure soon Rain will find out Doctor Wolfe is either dead or converted, so we may stay around to take her back to Florida."
As Donovan quietly seethed in irrational anger, Julie said, "There may be hope of getting Wolfe out alive, Ham. We have much stronger connections in the fifth column than we did when you were last here."
"Lizards," Tyler snorted. "So maybe she gets him back. They're still going to want to go home."
"That doesn't mean you have to leave." Donovan spoke quietly and earnestly. "We've lost a lot of good people in the last few months. We... could use you with us again."
Tyler turned to look at him, and the subtle shift in his usually inexpressive eyes spoke volumes. He knew just how hard the admission had been to Donovan. But the understanding quickly melted back into dispassion, and he harumphed, turning away. "If you believe in your lizard buddies so much, you should ask them for help, not me. I don't play by your rules any more, Gooder."
Donovan muttered a curse. "Tyler, why don't you admit why you really want to leave? You're afraid. Visitor invasion, guerilla warfare, it's fun and games to you--but you're terrified of actually feeling like you belong somewhere."
Tyler's shoulders hunched slightly. Hit a nerve.
"Believe what you want." The older man still didn't turn to look at him. "You people are too soft for me."
For a long moment Donovan glared at the back of Tyler's head, his frustration smoldering. At last he snapped.
"Have it your way, Tyler. Just run away again. Don't commit. Don't trust. And whatever you do, don't start to care." Donovan stomped off the porch and crossed the street.
"What was that for?" Faber puzzled aloud, staring after the resistance leader.
Julie sighed, sharpening her words to as fine a point as she could. "He's just missed Ham, Chris. And Ham won't give him any other way to show it."
She turned and went after Donovan, as Faber watched her go. Tyler was still for a long moment, then quietly resumed his work.
Across the street in the old saloon set, which was being made into a wardroom for meetings, Julie found Donovan slouching at the battered old conference table someone had come up with. She sat down beside him, putting a hand between his shoulder blades. "Mike, go easy on him. That's just Ham being Ham. If you let him know how you feel, you'll only make him distance himself even more."
"He's just so frustrating." Donovan shook his head. "We need him here more than ever. Now that he's back, I don't want to see him walk away again."
"Neither do I." Julie's fingers moved down his arm to his hand, and he clasped it tightly, wishing he felt more meaning in her touch than he did. He shrugged, meeting her eyes.
There was more openness and intimate caring in those blue depths than he had seen in weeks. He parted his lips to breathe in deeply, but the beginnings of an entreaty slipped out unbidden instead.
His words were interrupted when Willie stepped through the swinging saloon doors. "Excuse. Philip has called and wishes to meet with you."
Donovan sighed, clamping down on a flash of temper. "Tell him he's welcome to the housewarming," he said, and at Willie's puzzled look he explained shortly, "Give him our location and tell him we'll meet right here."
"Ahh." Willie hesitated, then turned and left, headed for the camp's makeshift radio shack.
Julie gazed pensively at Donovan. "Tyler's not going to like your inviting Philip into camp."
"If he's not going to stay with us, what's it going to matter to him?" Donovan wanted desperately to pursue the course of their conversation from moments earlier, but the openness was gone from Julie's eyes, replaced by soldierly seriousness. He released her hand. "All the same, you'd better tell him we're going to have company."
Nodding, Julie started for the door, but turned back to him briefly. "Mike...?"
Her expression wavered between weary purposefulness and quiet longing--but her dutiful side won out, and a grim mask concealed her feelings again. "Never mind," she murmured, and quietly stepped out of the wardroom.
Mike sighed, shaking his head. "And the score is missed opportunity twelve, Donovan zilch."
An hour later, the sleek white shape of a Visitor skyfighter landed at the end of the street, where the resistance fighters had gathered to observe the arrival. The familiar tall form of Inspector General Philip emerged from the craft, followed by a shorter, thinner Visitor with a lieutenant's stripes on his uniform.
As he strode forward to greet Philip, Donovan noticed from the corner of his eye that Tyler and Faber were standing off to one side, watching. His momentary satisfaction gave way to annoyance when he realized that Tyler had a hand beneath his worn leather jacket.
"Welcome to our new home, such as it is," Donovan began as he greeted Philip with a Visitor handclasp. "We just came back here last night."
"I believe it's a sound choice," Philip said appraisingly, taking in their surroundings from behind the radiation visor that shielded sensitive reptilian eyes from the sun. Then he gestured to the younger Visitor. "This is Victor, my new adjutant and my friend from youth. He'll be our liaison when I can't meet with you myself. I ask you to give him the same trust you've given me."
"Pleased to meet you," Victor said energetically, thrusting out his hand in human fashion. Somewhat amused, Donovan accepted the handshake, but his gaze quickly shifted back to Philip's grave expression. "What's the news?"
"Troubling." Philip folded his arms over his chest. Unlike his brother Martin, who had so artfully learned human mannerisms, Philip still held to a certain military stiffness--and a quiet kind of distance that marked him as alien. "As you know from the case of Robin Maxwell, there is a very small number of humans whose genetic makeup can be recombined with ours. Diana has discovered another."
Julie stepped forward quickly, taking over from Donovan as the discussion took on scientific overtones. "What is she going to do with him?"
"Not going to. It's what she has done. The security on her research has been so tight that our network was late in learning of him." Philip sighed. "It's believed she has tried to infuse the subject with Sirian DNA, in an effort to produce antibodies for the Red Dust."
"Is that possible?" Julie breathed.
"Our research sector believes so. But we don't know how far along the experiment is--that's why you have to bring him out. As soon as possible, before she can fully develop the Red Dust antibiotic."
Donovan frowned. "Philip, that's a huge risk you're talking about. If Diana has him in the labs on the mother ship, can't the fifth column get to him?"
"If he were aboard the mother ship, yes, but he's not. Diana is using the old Science Frontiers complex for her own purposes these days, and her staff are all carefully chosen loyalists. The fifth column hasn't been able to infiltrate it."
"And we're supposed to?"
Julie shook her head. "It makes sense, Mike. I know the layout of Science Frontiers. If the Visitors haven't found out about the secret tunnels under the complex, we should be able to get in and out alright."
To Donovan's surprise, Ham Tyler stepped forward, his hand sliding out from under his jacket but his body still tense as a whip. "So you're expecting them just to waltz right into a Visitor-run research facility, spring a prisoner who may or may not be converted or even alive, and get back out again. This is the basic story here?"
Philip gave Tyler a look that would have made any other man feel like an insect under a microscope, then gazed at Donovan flatly. "What is this?"
Donovan grunted. "Ham Tyler. Synonymous with trouble."
"I've heard of him." Philip returned a level gaze to Tyler. "For your information, we do know the prisoner is alive. He'd be no use to Diana dead. And I'm told conversion would adversely affect the experiment."
"If they complete the experiment," Julie said, "and they really can produce Red Dust antibodies, we'll be right back to square one with the Visitors. We have to do this, to protect the safe zones up north."
"It's your party," Tyler replied with sudden disinterest, and after glaring at him for a moment Donovan nodded. "We'll do it, Philip."
"Very well. When you get into Science Frontiers, your target is experiment number 22-A. I'll contact you again tomorrow." Philip turned to board the skyfighter.
"Excuse me," a voice interrupted, and the Inspector turned. Jesse Rain stepped from among the observers. "I've come a long way to find a man who was captured. We were told he was brought here to Los Angeles. His name is Ryan Wolfe, and he's a doctor."
Philip regarded her silently for a moment before answering. "It's possible, but I've received no word about him. I'll look into it."
"Thank you," Jesse replied softly. Philip inclined his head to Donovan, then disappeared into the skyfighter with Victor, and after a few moments the craft lifted off.
"Looks like we've got an appointment tonight," Donovan said. "Who's in?"
His gaze shifted to Tyler, and the Fixer's unreflecting eyes rolled to one side, giving in to what the night held.
The approach to Science Frontiers was less than glamorous--a trek through the sewers to one of the passageways underneath the research complex. Nathan Bates had ordered these chambers and tunnels constructed, as storage space for massive tanks filled with the Red Dust bacteria. They were his trump card in many encounters with Diana, and they still stood, sealed off by the Visitors but otherwise untouched.
Tyler and Faber led the way, followed by Mike, Julie, and their guest Jesse Rain, who had offered her help. Willie brought up the rear of the group, nervous, as he always was when going up against his own people.
His time with the resistance had taught him how to fight, but at heart he was still a pacifist. He hated the conflict between humans and Visitors--but his species had wronged the humans, and if his knowledge could help his human friends protect themselves, he was quick to give it to them.
Even if siding with them sometimes required him to do things he abhorred.
Startled, Willie looked up from the damp cement floor of the tunnel to find that Jesse had fallen into step with him. She smiled gently. "You look preoccupied."
He wasn't sure what the word meant, so he shrugged. "I am worried. If the Visitors can overcome the Red Dust..."
"We're here to make sure that doesn't happen." She gazed at him with interest in her dark eyes. "You say 'Visitors' as if you don't even consider yourself one of them."
Willie lowered his eyes uncomfortably. "Sometimes, I do not know. I have come to think as humans do, and they... are better to me than my own people."
The words were simple and honest. Willie's remembrances of life on the Homeworld were not fond ones. Ignored by his father, ridiculed by his older and stronger siblings, he had felt loved only by his mother--and she had died soon after he was drafted and began his training as a cryogenics technician. Losing her had affected him deeply. And with her gone, there was nothing left for him to miss among his own kind.
"I guess I can understand," Jesse replied. "You don't seem much like a Visitor at all. You're a lot... gentler. I guess maybe that doesn't fit in too well among them."
Willie nodded ruefully.
Tyler's strident voice cut into their exchange. "Willie, Rain, anytime you're done with your little heart-to-heart." He was standing at the base of a ladder set into the concrete wall of the tunnel.
The ladder led up through a trapdoor--and straight into the office of the late Nathan Bates. Everything was exactly as he had left it, from the strange modernistic sculptures to the picture of his son Kyle on the desk.
Tyler picked up one of the amorphous artworks from a shelf and studied it with detachment. "I think I'll take a couple of Bates' old toys for target practice."
"Not now, Tyler," Donovan retorted. "We've got to find out where the prisoner is being held."
Willie smiled. "Excuse," he said, politely motioning Donovan away from the desk. He sat down and leaned toward the computer, plying the keyboard with slim fingers.
"Great idea," Julie approved. "We've got to locate experiment 22-A. See if you can find out about security, too."
After several moments of tapping, Willie leaned back and read from the monitor. "There are eight Visitors locked--um, logged in now. Two scientists and six shock troopers. Experiment 22-A is in Lab... Sixteen."
"That's two floors up," Julie supplied.
"Then let's get moving." Tyler went to the door, unholstered his gun and glanced up and down the hallway outside the office, then stepped out and headed for the elevator. The rest followed him quietly.
Donovan scowled, remembering a rather unpleasant experience at the same elevator not long before. Someone had done a good job of cleaning up the grenade shrapnel.
The bell chimed, the doors slid open...
And they came face to face with an armed Visitor shock trooper.
Tyler reacted on reflex, his fist connecting with his target's jaw hard enough to split the pseudoskin. The trooper stumbled against the rear wall of the elevator and sagged to the floor, unconscious.
The Fixer shrugged nonchalantly and stepped in.
When they reached the third floor, Faber cheerfully hefted the Visitor over one shoulder. "I'm gonna stash this guy in a closet someplace."
"Hurry back," Tyler admonished. Faber raised two fingers in the "Victory" sign and and swaggered down the hall with his load. Meanwhile, Julie had moved up the hall, to the door of Lab Sixteen.
"Okay, let's check it out." Donovan raised his gun and took up a position on one side of the door. He reached out, grasping the doorknob, and turned it quietly. The door swung open without a sound.
Tyler moved in, and the two unattentive Visitor guards never had a chance to defend themselves.
Not looking at Tyler's handiwork, Julie stepped toward the three detention cells adjacent to the door. The lights within were turned out; the first was empty, but a limp figure lay sprawled on a cot in the second.
"Willie, can you get this open?"
The young Visitor moved toward the keypad on the wall beside the cell. His brow furrowed in concentration, and the pad buzzed defiantly each time he entered an incorrect code, but after a few moments the transparent energy field winked into oblivion. Julie stepped into the cell and leaned over the cot to examine the prisoner. A male human, he lay in a drugged oblivion.
"Nice setup Bates left for Diana," Tyler grunted, sitting on the edge of the nearby desk and thumbing through some loose folders. "His lackeys could at least have trashed all this stuff before they got out."
Julie's back was turned, but the others heard her when she let out a soft gasp. She recoiled from the cot.
Donovan reached her side in two strides. "What is it?"
Julie drew a deep breath to steady herself, then slowly pulled open the prisoner's ragged flannel shirt.
His bare chest was darkened by what seemed, at first glance, like the discoloration of scarring. But a closer look revealed the truth. The skin was leathery, and bore a rough pattern of scales--a grotesque parody of Visitor skin.
Donovan caught his breath, turned away, and ground out a curse. "What have they done to him?"
Julie shook her head, clutching the man's wrist. "Pulse, respiration, body temperature--they all appear to be lower than ours. These DNA infusions..."
Something dangerous lurked in Tyler's expression. "You're saying this... person is part lizard."
"No. I don't know." Julie turned away from the patient. "He does have some partial Visitor characteristics. But he's human, basically..."
"'Basically'?" Tyler snorted.
"Look," Donovan interrupted firmly. "What matters right now is whether the Visitors can use this man to immunize themselves against the Red Dust, right?"
"Right..." Julie looked back at the prisoner. "I can't tell that here. Not until I can get him back to camp and run some tests."
Donovan shrugged. "Alright then, we take him back. Tyler--"
"Umm, excuse me. Maybe you folks could do me a favor before you leave."
The new voice, a man's, came from the darkened third cell. A shadowed figure sat up on the cot within, touching a switch, and the lights came to life.
Jesse gasped. "Ryan?"
The prisoner, a man in his thirties with light brown hair and broad shoulders, rubbed his blue-green eyes. "This has gotta be a dream... Jesse, is that you?"
"Yes, it's me!" Jesse rushed to the aperture of the cell, remembering at the last moment not to reach past the boundary of the force field. The two gazed at each other for a moment in mutual amazement before she turned to the others. "This is Doctor Ryan Wolfe, my blood brother. The man I came west to find."
As Willie worked to release the force field imprisoning Wolfe, the man stood up--revealing his impressive height--and surveyed the faces before him. He picked out Julie. "Why, fancy meeting you here, Doctor Parrish."
Julie managed a smile. "Hello, Ryan. I'm glad to see you're alright." She frowned. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah, I think so. Some bruises maybe. And starving! The lizards don't feed their prisoners enough."
Jesse laughed. "Ryan eats like a horse."
The force field dropped, and Wolfe stepped out of the cell, picking up Jesse and lifting her several inches off the floor in a bear hug.
"What were they going to do with you?" Tyler asked.
Wolfe shrugged. "I was lucky. They wanted the dark thoughts and evil plans locked up in my skull, but they didn't have what they needed here. Apparently they were waiting for conversion equipment to be sent down from the mother ship. Red tape held 'em up, I guess."
Donovan found himself awed by the flippant way Wolfe talked about a potentially gruesome fate--but there was no time now for humor. "Fascinating as this is, it's got to wait. We've got to get out of here. Chris..." He chucked a thumb toward the other prisoner, who still lay unconscious.
Faber shrugged, stepped into the cell and picked up the man like a rag doll--but with surprising gentleness. Only then did Donovan realize how thin and short in stature the prisoner was. Anyone looked small next to Faber, but he made the figure draped over his shoulder look about the size of a kitten.
"Heads up!" shouted Tyler, as a figure in a lab coat stepped into the room with a gasp. The Fixer plowed into the female Visitor, cracking her head against the wall.
"Let's get out of here," Donovan said urgently, and ushered the others out of the lab.
Somehow, the resistance fighters made it back to Nathan Bates' office and escaped through the tunnels without notice. It was the dead of night when they got back to camp. The prisoner was left, still unconscious, in the building Julie had designated as the clinic; Wolfe volunteered to sleep there, to be close by in case the patient woke. The rest shuffled off to their quarters for a few hours of sleep.
Willie woke early, and went in search of breakfast at the temporary hash house. A vegetarian, he contented himself with a fruit salad, and took his bowl to one of the assortment of scuffed, formica-topped tables scattered through the room. He was just sitting down in a gaudy plastic chair when he saw Julie and Donovan come in. After they fetched their breakfast, he motioned them over to his table.
"Morning, Willie," Donovan greeted as he sat down, and went on with the discussion he and Julie had been having. "So he's still not awake?"
"Not when I checked. But Ryan woke up while I was there. I gave him some of your clothes, Mike. They'll probably be a little short for him, but, well..."
Donovan rolled his eyes. "Thanks a lot."
"Rise and shine, kids." Ham Tyler stalked over, carrying a tipsy stack of stale doughnuts on a paper plate.
"Good morning, Ham." Julie looked a little surprised by the fact that Tyler was joining them--a sentiment Willie could agree with. The man was not exactly social.
"How soon will you be running your tests on the POW, Doc?" he asked without preamble.
Julie sighed. "I'll be going over to start work on it as soon as I'm done here. Ryan will probably be helping me. Believe me, we're in as much of a hurry as you, Ham."
"Not likely. I want that guy gone, whatever he is. I don't trust anything with scales." Tyler glanced at Willie. "Present company excepted."
The admission--if he had understood the words correctly--made Willie's lips turn up in a small smile. He realized what it meant to be accepted by Tyler.
But Julie and Donovan were more preoccupied with the first part of Tyler's statement. "He needs our help, Ham," Julie said softly. "Maybe he can be treated."
"Oh yeah. I forgot I was in the charity ward again." Tyler bit off a chunk of doughnut, chewed twice, and swallowed. "He's dangerous, Doc. I trust my instincts on this one."
"He's been drugged halfway to hell and back," Donovan answered incredulously. "What do you think he's going to do?"
"I guess that depends on exactly what he is. But there's no way you can convince me he's still human."
Julie sighed. "Ham, all I know for sure is that this man was physically violated, in a way no one has ever been before. He may have suffered severe psychological scars."
"So he'd probably thank you to put him out of his misery."
"Tyler!" Donovan snapped. The older man gave him a flat look, and Willie sighed, wishing he hadn't invited the humans to his table when they were in quarrelsome moods.
He brightened when their other rescuee, Ryan Wolfe, bounced into the room. After getting a heaping plate of syrup-soaked pancakes from the counter, he made a beeline for their table, where he sat down and coiled his limbs over the chair with almost Visitor-like flexibility. "Morning, folks."
A Visitor's smile and three human faces wearing blank looks were the response to his greeting. Stymied, he played with his fork for a moment. "Uh, Julie, you still got somebody watching the patient?"
"Yeah, Sancho's over at the clinic." Julie leaned back, resting her hands on the knees of her faded jeans. "Will I have your help running the tests?"
"You bet. I can't wait to see what that guy's made of."
Tyler murmured something that was undoubtedly rude, pushed away from the table and stalked out.
Wolfe stared after him in puzzlement. "What's with him?"
"Terminal loss of humanity," Donovan said sourly.
Julie sighed. "So, Ryan. Have you seen Jesse this morning? How is she?"
"Uh, I think she was out on one of her walks. She's the back to nature type. It was kind of her way of rebelling against her parents--they wanted to raise her like the white man does, but apparently in her teens she started getting the itch to explore her roots."
"You seem pretty close to her," Donovan observed.
Wolfe blushed darkly. "It's not like that. We've saved each other's lives more than once--we're close friends. She made me her blood brother... I'm not sure she's even the right tribe for that, but I guess she wanted me to feel special." He shrugged. "And that's all."
"Jesse is very kind," Willie offered, thinking back to his few encounters with her.
Wolfe gazed at the Visitor as if just noticing him. "You're Willie, right? Aren't you...?"
Willie sighed. "Yes. I am."
"Kind of hard to tell. The fifth columnists back in Florida, they... act like Visitors. You don't."
It was roughly the same observation Jesse had made. Willie shrugged. "I have lived among humans for a long time."
"So, what, are you ever... how do I put it... a volunteer test subject?"
"Don't get any ideas, Ryan," Julie admonished. The doctor grinned and shrugged.
"Well," Donovan murmured after a long silence, "it's going to be a long day."
After breakfast, Julie headed for the clinic, with Wolfe tagging along.
"Go easy on Willie, okay Ryan? He's been with us for a long time, and done a lot for us. He deserves as much respect as any resistance fighter."
"Oh, I was just curious about him." Wolfe looked down at the small woman who kept up so well with his long-legged strides. "Any lizard who's on our side is as good as a human in my book. I don't generalize."
"That's good to know. Thank you, Ryan." Julie stepped ahead of him into the clinic--and froze in her tracks.
Sancho Gomez lay sprawled on the floor of the outer room, a dark bruise beginning to show on his temple. As Julie knelt beside him, he moaned and put a hand to his head.
For some reason, Julie remembered that Tyler had left the mess hall before the rest of them, and his words regarding the rescued prisoner echoed ominously in her mind. He'd probably thank you to put him out of his misery... With a flash of horror, she rushed through the doorway and into the inner room where Diana's experimental subject had been left. He was gone from the cot, but Julie felt a moment of relief when she saw a ragged form huddled in the corner.
And then she saw the hypodermic.
The needle was already in a vein of his right arm. He glared defiantly up at her, his thumb poised dangerously over the plunger.
"Stay back." His voice was a rough snarl.
Her heart pounding, Julie raised her hands. "You don't have to do this. We want to help you."
"No one can help me." His thumb inched closer to triggering what was in its own right a loaded weapon. It was impossible to tell what the hypo was filled with, but there were plenty of toxic chemicals among the medical supplies stacked in the boxes and crates by the wall.
"Please," Julie said softly.
Wolfe's tall, lank frame suddenly appeared in the doorway, and he gaped as he caught sight of the patient.
The man was distracted for one precious moment. Julie lunged forward, ripping the hypo from his hand, and recoiled so fast she almost stuck herself with it. She flung it away, and it rolled beneath the cot.
The man was frozen in shock for a long moment; then, defeated, he slumped to the floor.
Julie glanced at Wolfe, asking him with her eyes to restrain the patient. Wolfe did so, lifting him off the floor, and the pathetic figure hung unprotesting in his grasp.
It was the first time Julie had gotten a good look at him. He was short--not much taller than her--and his build was one of skin and bones. He was pale. His brown hair was disheveled, and would perhaps have been curly if it weren't cut so short. His gray eyes were dull and despairing, filled with the shadows of past horror and grief. Wolfe pushed him to a chair, where he slumped like a puppet with cut strings.
Suddenly aching with sympathy, Julie knelt beside the chair and took the small man's hands in her own. His fingers--long and graceful in a way that was almost disproportionate with the rest of him--caught hers almost reflexively. But his head still hung down on his chest until she said, in a quiet but firm voice, "Look at me."
His chin lifted slowly, empty eyes meeting hers.
"You're safe," she said softly. "Whatever it is they did to you--"
He swore in a low rasp. The words that followed, however, were in a rough but clear voice that was distinguished by an accent which wasn't quite Cockney. "The lizards... they're trying to make me... into one of them."
"That isn't true." Julie's searching hand found the back of a chair; she pulled it opposite him and sat down, her other hand still holding his. "I know what they've done to you is frightening. But you're still human. You've got to believe that, and let us help you, because we need your help too."
A flicker of wary curiosity crept into the tormented eyes, and he lifted his head a little more.
Julie went on. "The Visitors thought that... that what they were doing to you would change your immune system, so they could use you to create a defense against the Red Dust. We have to run tests and find out if they could have done that."
The eyes went flat again, but the answer was calm, if nearly inaudible. "I understand."
"Good. Please believe that we're going to do everything we can to help you." Julie paused. "What's your name?"
The patient dropped his eyes back to his lap. "Alex Cole," he murmured.
"Alright, Alex." Julie rose, removing her hand from his and squeezing his shoulder. "For now, I'm going to give you something to relax you. Okay?" A grunt was the response, and Julie shifted through one of the boxes not yet unpacked, searching for the sedative she had in mind. Just to be on the safe side, anything she gave him would have to be harmless to Visitor physiology... she shuddered involuntarily.
Willie appeared in the doorway. "Excuse, Julie, but Mike asked me to find you. What happened to--"
He got no further; Cole suddenly exploded from his chair, tackling the hapless Visitor. They both tumbled through the doorway and hit the floor of the outer room.
Cole threw his full weight onto the forearm he had pressed to Willie's throat. The Visitor choked, struggling.
Wolfe swooped down on them both and pried Cole away, lifting him bodily. The tall young doctor had a powerful build--but his face registered surprise at the struggle the much smaller man put up. "Julie...!"
Another moment, and Julie was at Wolfe's side with a hypo. The injection acted almost instantly, and Cole sagged in Wolfe's arms, slipping into a sedated lethargy.
"Put him back on the cot," Julie instructed, kneeling beside a very dazed Visitor. "Are you alright?" she asked of Willie as he sat up, rubbing his throat.
"Yes... I think so," he sighed, blinking in bewilderment. "Did I do something wrong?"
Still sitting on the couch and nursing a concussion, Sancho remarked sourly, "Don't worry, Willie, it's just that guy's way of saying good morning."
Julie shook her head. "Cole has been deeply traumatized. We can't expect normal reactions from him--but that doesn't excuse this." She helped Willie to his feet. "Tell Mike I'll see him at the wardroom in half an hour. I've got to deal with my patient."
Nodding, casting one more glance at the doorway beyond which the "patient" lay, Willie departed. Julie went into the back room again, where she asked Wolfe to take care of Sancho. He was reluctant to leave her alone with Cole, but finally gave in and left the room.
Cole was laying on the cot, eyes closed. "What was that, a pet?" His words were slightly slurred, but he was much more resistant to the sedative than an ordinary man.
Julie didn't dignify the question. "How did you know Willie was a Visitor?"
"Just... felt it."
"Uh-huh." Julie's sympathy was gone. She began to strip her patient's shirt off; he opened his eyes and began to murmur a protest, but she gave him a look sharp enough to silence him before beginning her preliminary examination.
"For your information, Willie is a member of this resistance cell. He's as loyal as you or I."
"He's a lizard..."
"I'm not in the mood to discuss it, so I'm going to put it this way. If you so much as touch Willie, I'm going to turn you over to a man named Tyler who thinks these--" she jabbed at the half-formed scales on Cole's chest with a finger--"make you as dangerous as one of them."
The response was a vehement oath which, considering what Cole clearly felt for the Visitors, Julie had expected.
"Spare the language, please. I meant it when I said I was going to try to help you, but you're not making it easy."
The patient was silent for a long moment, and thanks to the numbing effects of the sedative, didn't fidget at her touch as she continued to examine him. After a long time, he finally asked, "This is America? California?"
"Los Angeles." It occurred to Julie that Cole must have seen and recognized Diana, while she was conducting this ungodly experiment on him.
He grunted quietly. "They caught me in Egypt. Seems like so long--had to be a few months ago. Labor camp, most of the time, until the blood tests. Then being shipped here... the lab..."
"Easy," Julie replied tonelessly. "All that's over."
"Not for me." He closed his eyes again. "Not until every last lizard is dead."
"What is he, Julie?"
Sitting at the meeting table in the wardroom, Donovan gazed at his partner as she sat down. His question was quietly troubled.
Julie shook her head. "To be honest, I can't really be sure. In some ways his physiology reminds me of Elizabeth's, but he's... more human than her." There was no other way of saying it.
"What about the Red Dust?"
"Based on the test results, the Visitors didn't complete the experiment, but they were on the right track."
Donovan's eyes darkened. "So if they ever catch this guy again, they could finish what they started, and maybe it really would give them a Red Dust vaccine."
"Maybe. The scientific level they're working at is a little beyond me."
"So what do we do with him?"
Julie shrugged tiredly. "I don't know what Cole is going to want to do, but at least for now, I want to keep him here. He needs both physical and emotional therapy, and he's in no condition to travel. We have to give him time."
"According to Willie, he doesn't like Visitors much. He could be a good fighter with us."
"Or he could kill all our fifth column friends." Julie sighed. "That's something else that worries me, Mike. There was no way he could have known Willie was a Visitor. It's like he sensed it somehow." She paused. "After all... there's a precedent for Visitor-human hybrids with a sixth sense."
"I don't think so. I guess only time will tell. Ryan and I have a lot to learn about Cole."
"You're forgetting something, Julie. Ryan and Jesse might not be sticking around for much longer."
"Actually, that's something I wanted to talk to you about," a feminine voice interjected. The swinging doors opened to admit Jesse Rain; she hesitated at the threshold, then smiled and stepped in.
"What can we help you with, Jesse?" Donovan asked.
"I've been talking to Ryan. Mister Tyler was urging us to get ready for the trip back to Florida, but... we've decided not to leave. At least not yet. They're overcrowded back home, but you need good people here."
Julie smiled. "You and Ryan are welcome here as long as you want, Jesse."
Ham Tyler's voice spoke from the back of the room. "I guess you'd better make it unanimous."
Starting, Donovan turned in his chair to look back at Tyler incredulously. "You're staying?"
The Fixer grunted. "Well if Rain and Wolfe aren't going back to Florida yet, that leaves Chris, Maggie and I without anyplace in particular to go. Might as well stick around for a while."
Donovan couldn't resist a smile.
Copyright 1999 Jordanna Morgan