"Hold still, now. This won't hurt a bit."
With practiced ease, Doctor Ryan Wolfe inserted a needle into his patient's arm. The patient shifted uncomfortably as the hypodermic slowly filled with green, viscous ooze.
"Perfect." Wolfe smiled down at the reluctant Visitor. "Cheer up, Willie. Just think about it--physically, your species has a lot of advantages over ours."
"That is not good for you," Willie remarked, rubbing his arm. "Do you want anything else now?"
Wolfe smiled crookedly. More experienced than almost any other human when it came to Visitor physiology, he had recently taken on the duty of being Willie's physician--and the temptation to abuse that privilege for the sake of his scientific curiosity was often too strong to resist.
"Well, now that you mention it, mind if I have a look at your eyes?"
"Again?" Willie queried. Wolfe had just examined his eyes the week before.
"Well, you know--I like the color. I been thinking about doing the den in that lovely shade of red, and I want to get it just right."
With a pained smile, Willie acceded to the doctor's wishes, gingerly removing the prosthetics that gave his eyes their human appearance. A moment later, after a hesitation, he looked up at Wolfe with red reptilian eyes.
Wolfe leaned forward to begin his examination. "Since Visitors are so sensitive to bright light, I've been wondering if we could work something out to blind them temporarily. Tell me, have your eyes adapted any more to Earth sunlight than when you first got here?"
"Not much," Willie admitted.
"Right." A moment later, Wolfe straightened. "Okay, all done, for now anyway. Thanks, Willie."
"Doctor, have you seen..." Mike Donovan's voice came from the porch outside, fading abruptly as the resistance leader stepped through the doorway, only to be confronted by Willie's crimson gaze.
Suddenly recalling the exposed state of his eyes, the Visitor turned away quickly, fumbling with his prosthetics. After a moment he looked up again, with the illusory sky-blue eyes which his human friends were accustomed to.
"Good morning, Mike."
Donovan cleared his throat. "Uh... I've been looking for you. We could use your help on something."
"I will do anything I can."
"Just wait'll you hear it first, okay?" Donovan waved a hand at Wolfe. "See you later, Doc. Come on, Willie."
Code named Camp Freedom, the latest base of operations for the Los Angeles resistance was an abandoned movie lot--and its nerve center, laughingly called the "wardroom", was a wood-frame mock saloon. It was the place where resistance members gathered to forge mission plans, or to celebrate the minor victories they were able to achieve.
When Donovan and Willie came in, Julie Parrish waved to them from the table, moving over so Donovan could pull a chair up beside her. Willie watched the human sit down, then moved to the nearest empty chair and seated himself. A slender face leaned into his view, and with a small start he glanced to his left, encountering the friendly smile of Jessica Rain.
Since her arrival, Willie had worked often with the former police officer, helping with the endless repairs to the camp's run-down buildings. She had shown an interest in his company which he welcomed. He had learned little about her, except that like him she was from a large family, and that her heritage was rooted in one of Earth's more ancient cultures. But what he knew so far of the quiet, intelligent young woman, he liked and respected.
He could not say the same of the man who stood leaning against the dilapidated bar.
Alexander Cole, the human ex-POW who had fallen victim to Visitor experimentation, carried his bitterness and rage like a shield. His few short weeks in camp so far, under the care of Julie and her new colleague Ryan Wolfe, had healed him of his physical wounds--but it was questionable whether anything would erase his hatred of Visitors. The half-developed reptilian scales which scarred his chest were a permanent reminder of the reason for his feelings.
Willie feared the man.
It was possible that Donovan had noticed Willie staring at Cole, because the resistance leader turned his own gaze toward the bar. "You want to come over here?"
"No, thanks," Cole said tersely. Donovan glanced at Julie, and she gave a slight shake of her head--a quiet warning to let the man be. Shrugging, Donovan turned to address the others at the table.
"Earlier this morning, we got word from one of our friends in the fifth column," he began, ignoring a contemptuous snort from Cole at the mention of their Visitor allies. "He told us the Visitors are moving a shipment of a new neurotoxin which was brought specially from the home planet. Apparently, they plan to wipe out an entire town in Texas, where a particular resistance cell is driving them nuts."
"That is bad," Willie observed bluntly.
"Very bad." Donovan nodded. "That's why we're going to blow up the shipment. It's here, east of us, at Fort Kellerman." The resistance leader pointed out the Visitor-controlled military base on a worn map. "Victor said the stuff's highly flammable, which means a few well-placed explosives should do pretty well at incinerating the whole lot. What we're more concerned with is just finding it, since the Visitors label all their cargo in Visitorese."
Jesse arched an eyebrow. "And you want Willie to go, so he can identify the stuff you're looking for."
Willie glanced from Mike to Jesse and back again. "I would be glad to help with this, Mike."
"Be sure. They're moving the toxin tonight, which means the job has to be done today, in broad daylight. It could get pretty tricky."
"I am sure," Willie reiterated.
"There's one other thing." Donovan sighed. "Julie and I won't be going. Philip asked us to be at a secret fifth column meeting to arrange some contacts, and Ham and Chris won't be back from San Francisco until tonight, so... we'll be leaving command of the job to whoever's crazy enough to want it."
"I am, but I can't go," Jesse declared unhappily. "One of my old partners from Florida is going to be contacting us by radio for an information exchange. If I'm not the one to take the call, he won't talk."
"You'd better stay then. We need that information." Julie leaned back in her chair with a sigh.
All eyes turned to Cole, who straightened and stalked toward the table. "Any chance to get back at the lizards."
A shiver of trepidation tingled through Willie's crest, but he refused to reveal the feeling. He gazed searchingly at Cole, but the man did not return the look.
Donovan stood up slowly, guaging the risks and his trust of Cole, but finally spread his hands in agreement. "Okay. Cole, pick the rest of your team."
Fort Kellerman was a baffling maze of hangars and storehouses, but Cole seemed to know where he was going; he led his team quickly, quietly, and without notice. Feeling nervous and alone, Willie followed behind the ex-POW and the others--three men he hardly knew.
Peering cautiously around the side of a building, Cole watched the activity of a group of Visitors nearby. "Definitely getting ready to ship something big..."
"How do you know where we're going?" asked one of the men, named Stanley, in a tight whisper.
"I do," Cole answered densely. "If the scalies do things the same way humans did, the shipments in transit should be in that storage building." The structure he pointed out lay on the other side of a seemingly vast stretch of pavement, with little cover in between.
Heavy footsteps sounded close by, and Cole pulled back sharply, pressing against the wall. The others followed suit, and seconds later a beefy, helmeted shock trooper lumbered into view.
Cole swung out with lightning speed, catching the trooper across the throat. The Visitor's helmet tumbled off, revealing undisguised reptilian eyes which bulged wildly as Cole exerted a crushing stranglehold. The trooper let out a hissing, inhuman gasp, and after a few terrible moments his forked tongue flopped out, the red eyes rolling back.
Cole's lips were twisted in a hard smile. He let the trooper fall to the pavement, heavy and unmoving.
"Come on," he said, in a frighteningly casual tone, and led the team on toward the storage building where he believed their objective awaited.
And he was correct. The building was filled with stacks of crates and containers, all labeled in the bold, severe shapes of Visitor lettering.
Willie wandered among the rows of crates, silently reading the contents, searching for the neurotoxin they had been sent to destroy. He was still shaken by Cole's cavalier act of murder, in a way he had never been when seeing other humans kill.
Not even Ham Tyler took a life with such satisfaction--even pleasure.
Recognizing the unique footsteps of Cole's predatory stride, Willie turned to find himself staring the man in the eyes. Cole put his hands on his hips and glowered, speaking in a harsh, taut voice. "Anything interesting, Wally?"
"Willie," the Visitor corrected automatically, wincing when he received a glare in return. Then he shook his head and quickly moved on to the next row of crates, conscious of Cole following him.
A cluster of bright red metal drums caught his eye, and it took only a glance at the toxin warnings on the labels for him to know this was what they were looking for. "This is it, Mister Alex."
Cole did not acknowledge him. "Let's get to work," he said to the other three humans.
Stanley lowered the knapsack slung over his shoulder, and began to remove explosive components. Willie watched as the humans swiftly assembled six small, powerful charges, then rigged them into place among the drums and set the timers.
"Let's get out of here," Cole ordered, and started for the loading bay.
Just as they reached the doors, a shock trooper appeared, clipboard in hand. He looked up from the manifest just in time to see a fist flying toward his jaw.
"Come on!" Cole snapped, thrusting the incapacitated Visitor aside, and set off at a run.
They had covered barely half the wasteland of open pavement when an alarm began to wail. Cole shifted course, heading for a row of grounded Visitor skyfighters. From the corner of his eye, Willie saw a cluster of figures in red uniforms pour out through a doorway.
Cole had reached the closest skyfighter, but the hatch seal was encoded. Willie reached his side; he began to work the code, as their three teammates laid down cover fire amidst a storm of laser blasts. One of the men grunted in pain a moment before the hatch slid open.
Cole shamelessly shoved his way past Willie and headed for the small vessel's cockpit, leaving the Visitor to help their injured comrade--Stanley--through the hatch while the other two continued to hold off the shock troopers. Once Willie was inside, they followed, and one of them keyed the hatch control. "Get us out of here, Cole!"
"Alright already..." The engines suddenly thrummed to life, and the skyfighter began to rise. Caught off-balance, Willie was thrown to the floor. His head struck something hard, and he lay stunned for a moment before slowly sitting up.
Stanley slouched against the bulkhead, a deep scorch mark cutting across his shoulder from a Visitor laser blast. His expression was taut with pain. One of the other men, whose name Willie couldn't recall, had come up with a first-aid kit and was already beside the wounded man. The last man, Carl, moved to the cockpit to speak with Cole.
Willie leaned back against the bulkhead and breathed deeply, gathering his nerves. He was unable to smile when the nameless man gave him a reassuring nod. "You did good, Willie."
The Visitor shrugged and tilted his head toward Stanley. "Will he be okay?"
"Sure I will," Stanley mumbled, reaching with his good arm for a handhold to help himself sit up. The other put a firm hand on his chest. "Just hold still, old codger. We don't want you bleeding all over the nice clean skyfighter."
Carl made his way back to them. "Company's coming. They sent another skyfighter after us, so hang tight."
A dozen explicit curses drifted back from the cockpit. Cole was unexpectedly skilled at the helm of a skyfighter--but he wouldn't be any match for an experienced Visitor pilot.
At least things couldn't get much worse...
A jolt passed through the skyfighter, accompanied by a very subtle, very disturbing ping, and the pitch of the engines changed to a rising whine. The deck began to shudder as the nose of the craft tipped downward.
"Hang on!" Willie commanded instinctively, bracing himself for an impact that happened all too fast.
The next sensations to register in Willie's mind were the biting smell of smoke, and a dull ache at the back of his head. The deck beneath him was tilted at an angle. He was laying facedown, in a position that a less flexible human skeletal structure could never have tolerated.
Coughing, he sat up and peered through a thin veil of smoke, his heart sinking as he saw the limp body of Stanley. Sprawled beside him, unbreathing, was the man whose name Willie hadn't even known. But Carl was stirring and clutching at his left side. Willie pushed himself to his feet and took Carl by the arm, helping him up. Neither spoke.
In the cockpit Willie found Cole, halfway under the console and evidently unconscious--his right leg was twisted at an improbable angle below the knee. Willie knelt beside him to examine it, but at his touch, Cole lurched into awareness. He blindly swung out an arm, forcing the Visitor to recoil, then grasped the edge of the pilot's seat and pulled himself upright to stand on his good leg.
Willie gave up on helping him and made his way back to the cabin, where Carl was kneeling silently over the bodies of their two teammates--perhaps praying. Cole followed, using handholds to hop across the sloping deck on one leg until he found a good place to ease himself down into a sitting position. The severity of his broken leg was obvious, and Carl probably had broken ribs, as well.
Willie took stock of himself, but found the mild concussion was his worst injury. He had a few cuts and bruises, most notably a slash across his forearm where damaged scales showed beneath torn pseudoskin, but otherwise he was intact.
Carl gingerly stood up, holding his side. "We'd better get out of here and find out where we are. Can you open the hatch? It's stuck."
Nodding, Willie made his way to the hatch and began to work the keypad controls. The mechanism balked, but at last the hatch jolted halfway open before jamming completely. Sunlight poured in through the opening, and Willie drew back, fumbling for his sunglasses. They were miraculously unbroken.
Carl had already climbed out. Willie deferred to Cole, but he silently declined, turning his head away. After a hesitation, Willie followed Carl outside.
Even through the sunglasses the light was overwhelming, and when his eyes adjusted as much as they were going to, he realized why. The scorching rays of the sun were reflected by a vast expanse of sand, as far as the eye could see.
The skyfighter had crashed in an empty desert.
Carl stood at the top of a dune that had partially swallowed up the craft, shading his eyes from the sun. "We're a long way from anything."
Willie felt a muscle in his throat twitch anxiously. "Can we find a road from here?"
"Your guess is as good as mine." Carl put his hand on the Visitor's shoulder. "I'm thinking it'd be better if we can get some radio equipment working in what's left of the skyfighter. If anybody can do that, it's you."
In silence, they slipped back into the hulk of the skyfighter, and Carl updated Cole. "Miles of desert all around. With no clue exactly where we are, and almost nothing left usable in here, I wouldn't want to try to make it back anywhere without help."
"I will try to fix the radio," Willie said, moving toward the cockpit, but Carl put a hand on his shoulder. "First, I think we ought to bury Stanley and Burt."
Willie's gaze dropped to the two still forms laying on the deck, and he nodded.
Carl did his best to help dig the shallow graves, but it was clear he was in pain, and Willie at last insisted that the man rest. He stood in the shade of the wreck and observed while Willie finished the job alone, burying the two men and marking each grave with a small circle of stones. Cole watched in silence.
After the duty to their fallen comrades had been served, Willie shuffled back into the craft and entered the cockpit, sitting down in the co-pilot's seat. He'd managed to salvage a few woefully inadequate emergency tools, and in a few moments had opened the casing of the communication console, exposing the intricate lacework of wires inside. Hoping that his training in cryogenics equipment had prepared him for this complex repair, he set to work.
He soon lost track of time, and his fingers began to ache from splicing damaged wires. It was arduous work, and when it came down to it, there was no guarantee the radio could be powered even if it could be repaired.
He had just leaned back to rest, rubbing eyes that had become bleary from the sensitive work, when a sharp cry from outside snapped him to alertness. He bolted up from his seat and rushed for the hatch, but the sight that met his eyes from the sands beyond froze him where he stood.
No fewer than seven gray-green shapes he recognized--fins that knifed through the dry sand like those of a shark through water--were moving among the dunes.
Ever since his youth, Willie had feared the beasts, the only surviving predators on the Homeworld capable of threatening an unwary Visitor hunter. There had been rumors from other resistance cells of crivits being released to breed in Earth's desert regions, but now, the proof lay before his eyes. He watched in sick fascination. The crivits moved in on the two graves so recently dug, kicking up geysers of sand in the throes of a violent feeding frenzy.
And then he saw Carl.
The man was trapped atop a steep sand dune close by, where the sand was too loose for the crivits to traverse. His eyes met Willie's, and he began to descend the slope, making a run for the safety of the skyfighter.
The Visitor tried to gesture him away, to send him back to the relative safety of the dune. But it was too late. A smaller crivit than the rest--the omega of the pack, denied a share of the feast the others laid claim to--had picked up the scent of new prey.
There was no time.
Willie closed his eyes, bracing himself against the screams. His stomach lurched, but he clenched his fists and willed himself not to move until the cries had ceased. Then he exhaled a shuddering groan and turned away from the hatch.
When he opened his eyes, he was staring into Alex Cole's hollow gaze. And a new kind of fear prickled through his spinal ridge, as he realized he was trapped, alone, with a man able and possibly eager to kill him.
Their gazes were locked for a long moment, and then Cole wordlessly let himself slip down against the bulkhead to a sitting position on the deck. His face contorted as a flash of pain passed through his leg, but then it returned to being an emotionless mask.
Willie emboldened himself. "Mister Alex... your leg is hurt. Let me help you."
A glare was the response. "Keep your claws off me, lizard, or you'll be in a lot worse shape than me."
Willie was in no mood to argue. Without question, he returned to the cockpit, but he couldn't focus on the work ahead of him. He sat still, trying to dispel the memories of the death to which he had just been witness.
He had experienced worse. His best friend and one-time employer, Elias Taylor, had been vaporized as he watched. But although he had closed his eyes, the screams of a man slaughtered by crivits were almost as gut-wrenching.
This would never get any easier for Willie. He was all too soft for his own good in a world so filled with pain.
Sounds of labored exertion drew him from his reverie, and he went to the passageway separating cockpit from cabin. Cole had salvaged the makings of a splint, and was trying to bind it together around his leg.
"Leave me alone," Cole snapped, and cursed as a knot slipped loose under his fingers. Willie moved closer to kneel just beyond Cole's striking range, tentatively reaching out to assist. The slight but powerful human raised a hand, and Willie tensed to jerk away, but then the hand dropped to the deck and Cole uttered a deep sigh. He turned away, jaw clenching, as Willie tied the splint.
Cole was sweating, and Willie suddenly realized that the temperature, especially inside the metal confines of the crashed skyfighter, was soaring. It may have been comfortable warmth to him, but it was sweltering heat to a mammal.
A brief investigation led him to a canteen half-filled with water, and this he wordlessly placed within Cole's reach. The man ignored it, folding his arms over his chest and closing his eyes.
Sighing quietly, Willie returned to his work.
Alone at the wardroom meeting table, Jesse Rain looked up from her notes as Julie limped in through the swinging saloon doors, jeans dusty and sleeve torn.
"Julie, what happened?"
Gingerly the small blonde woman eased herself into a chair. "We met a couple of Visitor guards on our way back from the meeting," she replied, rubbing the back of her neck. "We sort of had to explain things to them."
"Oh, he's okay. He's making sure we weren't followed." Hitting a tender spot as she explored her bruises, Julie winced.
"Here, let me." Jesse stepped behind Julie and began to massage the smaller woman's aching shoulders.
"Ooh, you're good at this," Julie sighed, relaxing as the pain eased.
"Would you believe I learned it from Willie?"
"It's true! Aparently, the sense of touch is very important to Visitors. They have special techniques for relieving pain and easing tension with their hands. Willie's a lot better at it than me. He showed me after I came back a little sore from that warehouse raid last week."
"Hmm." Julie smiled faintly. "Sounds like you've hit it off pretty well with him."
"He's nice," Jesse replied earnestly.
"Yeah. He is." Julie rested her chin on her hands tiredly. "We usually forget he's had it pretty rough. One way or another, he's lost almost everyone close to him."
The statement came as a surprise to Jesse. With an expression of somber interest, she resumed her seat. "Tell me."
Before Julie could reply, Donovan walked in, sporting some dramatic bruises. "Where is everybody?"
Jesse shrugged. "Ham and Chris should be here any time. Willie and Cole and the others aren't back yet, either." A shadow of concern crossed her face.
"Hey!" Doctor Wolfe abruptly burst through the doors, in a state of high agitation. "Bad news, gang."
"What is it, Doc?" Donovan asked, concern rising.
Wolfe dropped into a chair. "I just heard it over the radio. Sounds like our guys pulled off the job at Fort Kellerman--but the Visitors shot down the skyfighter they escaped in, somewhere in the Mojave Desert."
Donovan cursed, rising from his chair. "We've got to go and find the crash site. There could be survivors."
"Want to lay odds on that?"
Ham Tyler's strident voice cut through the anxious atmosphere of the room. He had come in through the back door, and now stood at the end of the bar, arms folded.
Donovan rounded on him. "I don't bet on people's lives, Tyler. If there's a chance, we go." He glanced back at Julie and Jesse, whose gazes echoed his resolve.
Faced with the majority vote, Tyler put his hands on his hips and shrugged.
Alex Cole woke in a slight daze, barely aware of the constant, throbbing pain in his leg. The fact that he didn't feel it much concerned him slightly, but then, so did the rough dryness of his throat. With a wince and a murmured oath, he shifted his position and looked around.
Close by, but just beyond arm's reach, was his Visitor benefactor. Sitting cross-legged with a tangle of wire and metal before him, Willie even looked lizardlike.
No words were called for. Licking his dry lips, Cole reached for the canteen Willie had left within his reach. Beside it sat something else which looked like a package of beef jerky; perhaps some kind of survival rations. Cole ignored it, taking only a slow sip from the canteen.
"Part of the radio?" he asked neutrally, gesturing to the mess of parts in front of the Visitor.
Staring down at the pile with an almost comically frustrated expression, Willie nodded.
"Won't work yet?" the human asked next, and was answered by a shake of the head.
Having gained all the information he felt there was to have, Cole warily opened the package of what could barely be called food. The rubbery brown stuff was of Visitor origin, and smelled unpalatable when he cut it into pieces with his hunting knife. The taste was not much better, but he choked down a little of it, with a few more swallows of the precious water.
Just as he was finished, an eerie noise drifted in from across the empty desert--a guttural, growling howl. Feeling a chill run up his spine, Cole glanced at Willie. The Visitor stopped his work for only a brief moment, then sighed quietly and continued.
"The crivits?" Cole asked warily.
"Yes." Willie's tone was subdued. "Many."
Cole's expression grew haunted. "I watched the lizards feed five of my friends to crivits."
Willie's expression became pained, but he said nothing--a silence that stirred an annoyance in Cole. Scowling, he turned onto his side and closed his eyes, seeking a return to the oblivion of sleep.
In the darkness, the battered blue pickup truck bounced across the sand, forlornly searching for missing comrades. Sitting squeezed between Donovan and Tyler, who was at the wheel, Julie felt alone in her worry; no one spoke.
There were others out searching, including Jesse, Maggie and Chris in Tyler's own van. Sooner or later, they would find something. Julie just hoped what they found would be the missing resistance fighters, alive and well.
"Hey, Julie, you awake?"
Stirring from her daze, Julie looked up at Mike. "Huh?"
Donovan gave her a sympathetic effort at a smile. "Better get Chris and the rest of them on the radio, and tell them to hold off for the night. We can't do much until it starts to get light again."
"Yeah." Slowly, Julie reached for the two-way radio, her spirits sinking.
With the onset of night, the wind outside the shelter of the ruined skyfighter had picked up, and the temperature cooled to a surprising degree. Though good for Cole, it left Willie feeling a chill.
Hunger had begun to nag at him, as well. He had little need for water; Cole would not have to share the meager contents of the canteen. But neither could Willie bring himself to detract from the scant supply of survival ration. It was just barely edible for the human, and the longer it could be made to last, the better his chance of survival.
For the Visitor, there was another option.
Upon convincing himself that Cole was deeply asleep, Willie left the comparative shelter and safety of the wrecked skyfighter and slipped out into the barren sand. After about fifteen minutes of furtive searching in the darkness, he caught an unfortunate kangaroo rat.
Returning to shelter with his squeaking prey, Willie faced a long moment of hesitation.
A few years ago, he had shared the carnivorous diet of most Visitors--but living among humans had changed him considerably. The Visitor habit of consuming live or freshly killed prey was abhorrent to his human friends, and as a courtesy to them, he'd adopted a vegetarian diet that suited his needs. He had gotten used to it, even come to like it.
And slowly, in the matter of his people's dietary habits--as in so many other things--he had come to think as humans did. Now the prospect of live prey was an unpleasant one.
But the need to survive and maintain his strength finally won out over the inhibitions he had developed. Resigning himself, Willie put the rat to as humane an end as he could, and quickly downed it whole.
Long unaccustomed to meat, his stomach protested mildly. Willie grimaced and closed his eyes, trying to remember a time when such habits had seemed natural to him.
"That is revolting."
With a shock of surprise and chagrin, Willie looked up at Cole. The human was awake now, watching him with intense eyes and a disgusted expression.
"I... have not done that since some time ago," the Visitor explained hastily. "I am a vetinarian."
"I think you mean vegetarian," Cole observed stiffly.
"Oh. yes." Trying to relax, Willie shrugged apologetically. "My English is not great yet."
Cole folded his arms. "Don't you ever sleep?"
"Then sleep. It makes me nervous having you sitting there staring at me all night."
Chastened, Willie stretched out where he was sitting, his back turned to Cole. He heard the human utter a half-satisfied grunt. And despite a nameless uneasiness that tugged at his nerves, he closed his eyes.
Leaning against the front fender of Ham Tyler's ramshackle black van, Jesse Rain folded her arms, gazing out ruefully across the moonlit sands.
"C'mon, Jesse, you gotta get some rest." Looking up from his huge sleeping bag, Chris Faber's expression was one of gentle admonishment. Beside him, his girlfriend Maggie Blodgett nodded in agreement.
"I couldn't sleep. Not yet." Jesse pulled her jacket more tightly around herself in the cooling night wind.
Maggie rested her chin on her hands. "You really are worried about Willie, aren't you?"
"He's gotten his scaly hide out of a whole lot worse," Chris offered cheerfully. "Don't you worry."
"Oh, I know he's a survivor." Jesse rubbed her hands together nervously. "But so is that lunatic Cole. And you know how he feels about Visitors."
"Hey, the other guys on the team wouldn't let Cole do anything to Willie." Maggie tried to offer a reassuring smile, but it was lost somewhere in the dark. "Just... promise you won't do anything nuts, okay?"
"I won't wander off by myself when you're asleep, if that's what you mean," Jesse answered tiredly.
"You will try to get some sleep too?"
"Soon," Jesse allowed after a brief pause, and when nothing more was said she added, "Good night, guys."
"G'night," Faber mumbled, already half asleep, and Maggie responded softly, "Get some rest, Jesse."
Soon the couple's breaths had slowed into the regularity of repose. Alone in silence--except for an occasional noise from Faber that was some sort of snore--Jesse's feelings began to weigh more heavily upon her.
She hadn't been able to stop thinking all day about her conversation with Julie.
In her brief time with the Los Angeles resistance, Jesse had grown fond of Willie. He was a hard worker and a gentle, shy companion. She would make up word games to help him expand his English vocabulary, and in return, he had done his best to share with her some of the nuances of Sirian ways. He was much more intelligent than his limited English made him appear to be. In fact, he seemed to have sophisticated opinions about life and art and culture; he just couldn't express them fluently. At least not yet.
But Jesse had felt that a part of him remained closed and alone--and it wasn't just because of a lack of words. She thought it was due to his isolation from his own people. But Julie's words made her suspect a deeper hurt.
Heaving a sigh, Jesse gazed off toward the horizon. "Be okay, Willie. We'll find you."
Alex Cole could not sleep. His gaze kept returning to the Visitor who lay asleep nearby, and the sight of him inflamed the anger that burned deep within.
He could absolve no Visitor of guilt for the suffering he had felt. No act of kindness could change the color of a lizard's blood.
Cole stirred from his forced inactivity, ignoring the sharp pain in his leg as he pulled himself forward. When he managed to cover the distance between himself and his benefactor, he slowly withdrew his knife from its sheath, and held it barely more than an inch from the sleeping Visitor's throat.
It would be a quick death, far better than a Visitor deserved. Better than the torture and suffering they had inflicted on so many humans. He would never know what hit him.
The knife never came down. Cole sat motionless for a long time, with the blade poised to spill green blood.
He couldn't escape the fact that this Visitor was different. He had tended to the human's injuries, provided him with food and water while forsaking their few provisions himself. He couldn't make up for the crimes of his species, but in his own small way, he had tried.
At long last, Cole turned away, jamming his knife back into its sheath with a grunt of frustration. He struggled back to his resting place by the bulkhead.
And when he looked again at Willie, the Visitor was silently gazing at him in the dark.
"Why?" Willie asked quietly.
Something in the soft, unaccusing earnestness of Willie's voice made Cole flinch. His mouth felt even drier as he responded brusquely, "Why did I, or why din't I?"
The Visitor merely shrugged, and once again, his calm demeanor grated on Cole's nerves.
"Because I won't get out of this bloody desert with you dead," he half-lied harshly, turning away.
"I hope we will both get away," Willie responded softly, then allowed the silence to resume.
Willie did not sleep for the rest of the night. In the gray hour before dawn, Cole grew restless in his hazy repose; the heat of his skin suggested the onset of a fever, a prospect that worried Willie. He understood that feverish humans could behave irrationally--and that he did not need.
However, Cole's sleep continued. He was getting slowly worse, perhaps from an infection--Willie couldn't be sure. But he did what he could for the human.
Sometime after sunrise, Cole woke, eyes glassy and face pale. As he had the day before, Willie placed the nearly empty canteen within Cole's reach, but he made no move to take it.
"I don't hear the crivits," he murmured.
"They are still asleep. When the sand is warm, they will come back."
Cole blinked, his eyes clearing slightly, and made an effort to sit up. "Then maybe... we can get out of their territory before they wake up."
Willie shook his head. "No. They can feel things moving on the sand. Walking out there would wake them up, and they're very fast."
"Better taking chances than sittin' in here with you..." The persistent human groped for a handhold to pull himself to his feet.
"Mister Alex, please!" Willie protested. But Cole was already up. He began to move toward the open hatch, leaving the Visitor stymied--he had no desire for physical contact with Cole. But the man had to be stopped, for his own good.
Reluctantly, Willie attempted to wedge himself between Cole and the opening. "Mister Alex--"
Cole swung his fist, connecting with painful--very painful--accuracy. As quickly as his mind could register the blow, an explosion of colors erupted inside Willie's skull, followed by darkness.
He didn't know how long the blow left him senseless. But when he came to, his jaw aching, Cole was nowhere to be seen. Alarmed, Willie rose and went to the hatch.
The one dark speck in the distance that had not been there the day before had to be Cole.
Clenching his jaw, Willie gazed into the sky, calculating the increasing light and heat of the sun. Not a trained crivit tracker, he had no way to be sure if there was enough time to retrieve Cole and return before the beasts began to wake and hunt.
Sighing heavily, the Visitor snatched up his jacket and sunglasses, and set out across the sand in pursuit of his errant companion.
Stumbling along with the aid of a twisted metal rod he had somehow fashioned into a crutch, Cole was not hard to catch up with. Willie moved in an irregular pattern designed to avoid the crivits' interest--unlike Cole's rhythmic flailing. At last he caught up with the human, seizing him by the arm.
Smaller than the Visitor but equally strong, Cole fought back, but Willie was prepared this time and ducked. He managed to lock an arm around Cole's waist and drag him down to the sand, trying to still him. "You'll bring the crivits, Mister Alex!"
Cole wrenched himself away. But rather than try to escape, he dropped to the sand and wrapped his arms around himself, shivering slightly. "Leave me alone."
"Come on, Mister Alex. I'll take you back to the skyfighter. It will be safe there." Willie reached out to take Cole by the arm.
"Leave off!" Cole jerked his arm away and buried his face in his hands, lapsing into dry, rasping sobs. "You scalies killed Mum, Dad and my brother... I'll never owe my life to one of you."
A pang of sorrow thumped in Willie's heart. He understood now, all too well. Cole uttered a weak groan as his sobs eased, clutching at his chest and the half-formed scales that marked it.
"First you took my family," he whispered. "Then you took my friends, and then... my humanity."
For Willie, who had always felt for the suffering of other creatures, the words were crushing. He had borne enough inner guilt for the crimes of his race, without the burning accusation of a man who had been hurt more than most. He searched hopelessly for words to reply, but not even in his native tongue could he have expressed everything he felt.
In his pity for Cole, in the guilt and anger for the deeds of his people, Willie could find only one small sentence that he never even got to complete. If he had, its impact would have shaken everything that Alex Cole believed and felt.
"I wish..." the Visitor said faintly.
Cole lifted his head and blinked. He was too physically and emotionally exhausted to hate any longer. "What?"
Willie shifted uneasily, drew a breath and started again. "I wish..."
The snarl of a crivit, distant yet but growing nearer, cut short anything he might have been about to say. He looked back toward the hulk of the skyfighter, his heart sinking.
His wounded companion must have followed his gaze, because Cole spoke in a rough voice. "Leave me. Go back. Save your own scaly hide."
Looking at the human, Willie slowly shook his head. He drew his gun from his shoulder holster and stood up. "I won't leave you, Mister Alex."
Cole stared at him with a wondrous expression.
The noises of the crivits were drawing nearer, and a moment later, gray-green fins began to appear. Willie counted more than ten. And his only weapon against them was a handgun with eight teflon-tipped bullets that might or might not penetrate a crivit's thick hide. Cole had only the hunting knife, and by the time a crivit was close enough for that, it would no longer matter.
Feeling an unexpected calm, Willie raised the gun, aimed, and fired at the eight closest animals. Amid scattered snarls of pain, the uninjured crivits turned on the only one which had been seriously wounded--a delay, but merely a moment's worth. Willie knelt and took the knife from the sheath on Cole's belt, then turned to face the crivits' approach. He would not surrender either of their lives without a fight.
The Visitor glanced over his shoulder, to see Cole looking up at him with an unreadable face. The human opened his mouth to speak--but before he could, a gunshot in the near distance ripped the air.
Two shapes, black and blue, had emerged against the horizon. As the van and pickup truck took shape and drew nearer, the rider in the back of the truck began firing off shots at the crivits with a rifle. Willie recognized the gunman as Ham Tyler.
The van slid to a stop several yards from Willie and Cole, and Chris Faber leaped out. Without waiting for any comments, he hustled the injured human into the vehicle, and Willie gratefully followed.
The moment the door banged shut, the Visitor was seized in a fierce hug. "Willie, I'm so glad you're alright!"
Crest twitching, he politely pulled back from the embrace. Jesse let go of him self-consciously, giving him a smile which he managed to return faintly.
From the driver's seat, Maggie glanced over her shoulder. "Are you and Cole the only ones who made it?"
Willie closed his eyes wearily. "Yes. I am sorry. Mister Alex is hurt, but I will be okay."
"You bet you will. Both of you."
Back at camp, Alex Cole's leg was put in a cast by Julie and Wolfe, and he was left to rest in the clinic. Silently glad to be free of him, Willie relaxed in the wardroom and recounted, as best he could, the events of the past two days.
"You're really something, Willie," Donovan offered when the story was told. "I don't think I would have gone after Cole when he took off."
Willie blinked. "I didn't want him to be hurt."
At his side, Jesse patted his hand. "He wouldn't have done the same for you. That's what makes what you did special."
"You're right, I wouldn't have," a voice interrupted. The resistance fighters looked up in time to see Cole hobble through the doorway, leaning on a crutch.
"You shouldn't be up," Julie protested.
"Wolfe let me up, for a few minutes. He knew why I wanted it." With slow and difficult movements, Cole approached the table, his expression contrite.
"Willie... I'd have a word with you."
Perplexed, the Visitor stood up, and Cole gazed at him for a long moment.
"I treated you unfairly, yet you saved my life," he said at last. "All I can do... is... apologize."
A smile slowly spread across Willie's face. Returning it somberly but sincerely, Cole held out his hand, and when Willie accepted it, he was surprised by the resolute firmness of the human's grip.
Julie smiled up at them from the table. "There may be hope for you yet, Cole."
Copyright 1999 Jordanna Morgan