Martin's usually friendly demeanor had been replaced by impatience.
"You're late, and I don't have much time. What happened, did you run into a patrol?"
Donovan's fattening lip was hard to miss.
"Nah, just a little disagreement with a friend. So what did you learn, did that Todd guy do what he said he would or are we on borrowed time?"
"We've always been on borrowed time, Mike. Don't tell me you've forgotten that?"
Donovan shook his head with a hard frown. "Not a chance. So did the High Command send the patrols to our old camp?"
He'd never believed that would happen. Martin's answer shook him nonetheless.
With a grim shake of his head Martin informed Donovan, "Todd's story was never taken seriously. As soon as he returned to the library he was taken up to the mother ship and brought to Diana, and she went to work on him to find out the truth. Shortly before your raid, Command learned that he'd been deleting computer search and viewing trails and were certain that his protégé was a member of the Resistance."
Diana, the commander of the invasion forces. She'd turned a military action into a personal vendetta, having adapted the innate Visitor mania for advancement to her own advantage. She was despised and disdained even by her own kind. But as in all wars, the fear her power engendered protected her. And as all others human or alien, she used that fear to still more advantage.
"Shit!" Donovan felt suddenly queasy. More than queasy, knowing that the Visitors had to have converted Todd and gotten almost as much information as they needed to find the rebel camp. Though if Angie had told them all the truth, he didn't know their specific location. If Angie had told the truth… No, he decided. For better or worse, Angie would never have lied about anything that might have risked Ham Tyler's life. And to be honest, he was ashamed to have given in to the doubt that she would have risked any of her fellow rebels regardless of their distrust. "Well if he's been converted, we have to move fast."
"No chance of that. Conversion is for the conquered. And the new truth drug is for 'typical' prisoners." Just then Martin looked a little sick, the kind of face Donovan had seen in the mirror when he considered, during his Old World assignments, just how low humanity could sink. "Diana has done some studies on human behavior, and has been impressed by the human refinement of interrogation when information is secondary to punishment."
"You mean torture." Donovan's pre-invasion career had fully educated him in the details of the concept of inflicting pain for the goal of… inflicting pain, when no other benefit was possible. His next question was posed without judgment, "What did he give up?"
"Nothing. Not even misinformation. He told them to 'fuck off and die'. A decidedly human expression I imagine he learned from your friend Angie Harper." Martin paused for a moment as if settling something inside. "You don't understand our idea of torture…"
Donovan cut him off. "I don't need to hear it." He'd probably never meant anything more sincerely in his life.
"I think you do." Martin's demeanor became coldly detached. "I think all of your kind need to hear it, because too many of you still believe that none of us care for anything but saving ourselves. Our ancient history has a very specific tradition of harsh interrogation. We begin by raising body temperature, to increase the sensitivity of sensory receptors. Then the top layers of skin are peeled off, slowly, to expose yet more nerve layers."
"Martin, you really don't have to," Donovan interrupted as much for Martin's sake as his own. In spite of his obvious discomfort, Martin continued.
"Then salted water is doused on the subject, triggering extreme pain and convulsions. But not leading to death."
"Okay, Martin, enough!"
Donovan's greenish complexion and hitching breathing told Martin that his message had gotten across. "He died, in great agony and only when Diana allowed it. He told her nothing."
"Nothing of value, anyway…" Donovan emphasized. The transformation he saw in his friend and ally made him step back several paces.
"I mean nothing!" Martin exploded. Too long risking everything for people who never believed the Fifth Column was quite as noble as humans had worn out his patience. Even Donovan's "enlightened" attitude only seemed to reach as far as his genetics, and what Martin had heard today made him as angry as… as… a human. "He said nothing from the moment he was taken," he continued, "and your people must know this. Every detail that sickens you as a race even as you know you've done the same to your own kind. It's time for your people to believe that some of us, at least, are no different than you. Some of us will sink to anything to benefit ourselves, and some of us will sacrifice ourselves for the right thing even if we're not certain we'll succeed. Your people need to know that many of us want to know you as a new people whose alliance with us can measure more than the sum of both our cultures, even if many of you can't appreciate it." Martin paused, gathering his self control. "I'm not going to apologize, Mike, you think you've understood from the first but..." he didn't finish that thought, and switched to another, "I never met this Todd, but I can't keep from wondering if you or I would have had the blind courage to do what he did… run headlong into absolute uncertainty for something he'd only just begun to believe. No allies, no plans, just the belief that something so wrong must be opposed. I can't help wondering how many others like him there are out there. Like Todd, and Willie, never realizing that others believe as they do but simply knowing something is wrong and that it must be stopped."
Donovan took in what Martin had said and balanced it against what he thought he'd overcome. Yeah, I'm all right and righteous about playing nice with the "allies" but shit, I never did really believe Todd was anyone worth trusting. Maggie and Angie went through enough shit to make a saint doubt god, but in the end they trusted him.
"Okay, Martin. I'm sorry I'm more one of 'them' than one of us. I guess I was so into being one of the 'good guys against the bad guys' I never thought too hard about anyone who was stuck in between."
Martin seemed edgy. If he'd had a watch, Donovan was sure he'd be looking at it.
"Okay Mike, apology accepted. Humans can only be expected to advance so much." The joke fell flat, but the effort was appreciated. "We'll keep gathering intelligence but as far as another raid we'll have to take the lead from you." In spite of their dark conversation, Martin smiled grimly. "Looks like I'm gonna have to repeat my 'sum of both cultures' speech to my people too."
"Thanks, Martin." The words held far more weight than their syllables. "And I'll find a way to tell Maggie and Angie and Willie about what happened to Todd before everyone else can draw their own conclusions from it. They deserve to hear it first. Not that I pretend to know how to keep from tearing them up with the news."
"I've never met your friends," and suddenly the grimness left Martin's smile, "but I think you don't give them enough credit. We've all been through enough to tear us up, but we're still here."
True enough. Still, as Donovan returned to camp he found himself trying to rehearse his words as carefully as he could.
"You're sure he didn't tell 'em anything?" Tyler asked after Donovan had filled in the very exclusive pre-camp meeting gathering that included himself, Maxwell, Julie, Willie, Maggie and Angie. Willie looked stricken, and Maggie nauseous. But Angie… for the first time ever Tyler could read nothing at all. The one-way eyes that hadn't mattered so much in the beginning (because they hadn't lasted very long) had slammed shut so abruptly he was surprised nobody jumped at the sound.
"No, Martin's people gave a very, ah, detailed account." Which Donovan himself had spared the others. Angie and Maggie don't need to hear that shit, it's enough they know any of it.
Angie spoke first in a practical voice that surprised everyone. "So what now? They're allergic to salt, so how do we use that?"
"Much more than allergic," Robert emphasized, "Willie and I have decided that shutting down the Visitor purification capabilities will virtually cripple the invasion. Unfortunately the scope completely exceeds the reach of even the world wide resistance… there's just no way to launch a large enough network of attacks to shut everything down."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that…" Angie mused. Incredibly, she was smiling. "Willie you've been scoping out that 'friendly humans' module, right?"
"Yes. Thousands of humans, the over world, all areas of work. They all seem to be males." He glanced uneasily at the other men. "I do not know why."
"And is there contact information?" Angie prodded.
Willie shook his head in discouragement even as he told her, "Yes, but they seem to be in a primitive earth format, chain mail? There is no connection to the Mother Ship."
"E mail," Julie corrected. "And you're right, the Visitors are way beyond that."
Angie's smile had widened, and only Tyler recognized why. "You guys remember what she said about lizard tech when we first got here?" he asked them.
Blank stares all around.
"Bridge technology," Angie reminded the others, "so they can 'talk down' to us, making it easier to hook up and learn everything." She nodded as her smile widened. "And hello? Why would they have stored email addresses if they weren't considered useful?"
"Great," Donovan acknowledged, "but what the hell can we do with them from our end?"
"Jesus, Gooder, did I slap all the sense out of you last night?" Angie turned her attention from Donovan to the rest of them. "Viruses. The plague of the digital age, and email has never been eclipsed as the primo infection agent."
"Good point," Robert agreed, "but how do we get any ally of the Visitors to open an email from us?"
Duh. Angie rolled her eyes. "Congratulations, Dr. Maxwell, you've just outed yourself as a prime target for spammers and hackers. My bet is you opened every Trojan Horse that galloped your way, am I right?"
Awkward silence from "Dr. Maxwell."
Finally Maggie and Tyler both nailed Angie with a glazed stare. "So why don't you tell us what the hell you're talking about," Maggie invited through clenched teeth, remembering how she'd hated the superior attitude and secret language of the techno geeks back in the Old World. Tyler wasn't far behind.
"We have their names, we figure lots of 'em must know each other depending on their security level and area of work. So… we just take a shot on the names and attach the stuff they'll find the most inviting."
Now Maggie laughed out loud. "Now I get it!"
Tyler raised both hands and beckoned, "And 'it' is?"
"For those close to the top of the Visitor security chain… a message that promises power."
Now Donovan mimicked Tyler's gesture. "And what is the no-fail bait for the rest of us mere male grunts?"
Angie's reply was emphasized by her world class smirk.
Even Julie had to agree.
As expected Tyler was not quite convinced. "Well this all sounds great, but what happens if your happy geek light at the end of the tunnel morphs into an oncoming train?"
"Blow it off the tracks," Angie announced flatly. "Because if this doesn't work, we are flat-out fucked and might as well go out with a bang."
At the camp-wide meeting that followed the discovery was shared and a plea was put out for anyone adept at programming and/or hacking. A punkish looking teenager, known to have no family in camp, stood up.
"Hey. I was expelled from high school for hacking into the grading system and sending fake failure notices to everyone."
"Must have made you popular," Robert commented archly. The others nodded toward him in encouragement. "You're hired. What's your name, son?"
The punk with the long black hair and grubby clothes shifted uneasily.
"Name, kid, or we're gonna start asking more 'intimate' questions!" Tyler barked.
The entire assembled camp groaned and grumbled in unison, various "oh shit" and "hell ain't that great" scattered throughout the room.
Angie rolled her eyes and almost laughed. It was perfect, in a way. She was so tired of having all eyes turn to her at the mention of certain things, and people. And not-people. Maybe this would finally get it out of their system.
Robert shushed the group.
"Fine, Todd, welcome aboard. Willie and Angie and I will catch up with you tomorrow or the next day. Okay, everybody, one more thing. Donovan's contact in the Fifth Column told us that the other 'Todd' you've heard of didn't die in a firefight." No surprised faces.
"I can tell you figured that out on your own," Donovan continued. "What none of us knew is that Diana took a special interest in him, and used some very primitive torture to do it. And that he kept his mouth shut, about everything."
"Right, like we can believe that," an anonymous voice called out.
Mike rose form his seat at the "head table". "You can take it to whatever bank is left standing, wiseass. It's time for all of you to get a grip on it… not every Visitor is the enemy. Once this war is over you're gonna have to face a whole lot of them that wanted nothing to do with what's happened to us, and hating them won't bring back anything you've lost." All at once he seemed taken aback by his own eloquence, and sat down awkwardly. Julie stepped in and ended the meeting.
When the meeting broke up Angie lit out for the barracks like her ass was on fire, or so Tyler interpreted it as he followed at a respectful (okay, a wise) distance. She's way too cool after hearing about what happened to that lizard. Tyler read it as overcompensation…he'd become so used to seeing it in Angie that in general it was no big deal. But that still calm in her eyes, the "one way" look, that was something that hadn't shown up in a long time. Feeling something like a sissy Tyler followed (chased? Nah!) Angie to their quarters.
When he sauntered – oh, so casually – into the room he saw Angie yanking clothes from the few drawers of the one chest and then dragging out bags from beneath the bed.
"I'm okay," she announced breathlessly without looking at him.
"Bullshit. Don't think I'll believe you're fine after hearing that shit."
Angie stopped then, and stood still to look Tyler in the eye. "I didn't say I'm 'fine', I said I'm okay. You of all people should know the difference." Then she kept talking as she tore through more of her belongings. "I just realized how tired I am of all of this…"
"Angel, you just need to," Tyler began but was shut up sharp by Angie's shout.
"Stop! Okay? Just stop. Jesus it's not your fault but it all adds up to I've figured out the problem here. I'm tired of needing the pep talks and the hugs and kisses to get me past myself, I'm tired of feeling like second string."
"You're not second string. Anyone who says that," and again Tyler was silenced.
"I didn't say I am it, I said I felt like it." Angie paused for a moment and shook her head as if something new had entered and she needed to settle it. Then she went back to rummaging as she continued talking, as if to herself. "And I've figured it out." She stood upright and again looked Tyler in the eye without a hint of doubt or wondering. "And I finally know what's holding me back."
The tip of an icy claw hooked into his gut. And for the first time in living memory Ham Tyler didn't dare open his mouth. He just stood flat-footed as Angie gathered and piled belongings.
Shoving things from one bag to another, then rummaging through drawers, barely pausing for breath, Angie went on, "Honestly, you know me better than anyone and you know I'm not the same person you found broke down under a tree in the middle of fucking nowhere, since then I've shed my skin about a thousand times, all the Old World me that made me feel sorry and guilty and accomplished nothing, it's all burnt off bit by bit. But there's one thing left to do, one thing I need to leave behind because I'll never be who I'm meant to be now until I do."
The finality of the statement shook something loose in Tyler and he took a step toward her, "For christsake, Angel... Angie, don't do this," and at that second she sprang from where she was crouched over her leather "road bag" and raised a hand in triumph.
"There!" Held aloft in one hand like a trophy was a glittering pair of scissors. Only then did she focus on what he'd almost said. "What?" As they stared at one another, Tyler in confusion and Angie in disbelief, she repeated, "What? Don't do what?" she asked.
He didn't answer, but when the chocolate eyes darted quickly around the room and came to rest again on hers, Angie got it. Of all the things she'd seen and felt and done with Tyler, his many looks and smiles and subtle inscrutable masks she'd learned to read, she'd never seen him, well, she'd never seen him vulnerable. Like he'd seen her, so many times. The reversal, so brief, was so complete it shook them both.
"Jesus, who's crazy now?" Angie muttered, taking in the mess she'd made and shaking her head sheepishly. "You couldn't have thought…"
He tried to shake it off, as well. "Well you tell me what all of this means," he waved his hand around the room, "you tell me what you need to 'leave behind', then we'll both know what to think."
Angie seized the hamster-brown braid that had grown much longer since she'd left her old life, and held it away from her head like a foreign mass.
"This, this last part that attached me to me like a fucking leech on my soul, what was and what happened and the parts of me I've gotten past," she paused. "Since coming here, since meeting you and coming here and coming through all this shit it's still here from before. If you're right, if I'm gonna come out the other side and be okay, I gotta leave the last of this behind."
She took the end of the tightly-bound plait and abruptly cut off the bottom third, then held it up to show him. "That's the part of me from when I made believe it'd all be over soon, and nothing bad was really happening, when my friends were disappearing and I pretended they just left town." She tossed it in the wastebasket, grabbed the shorter unraveling braid, and cut off another piece as Tyler watched in silence.
"That's the part from when I was with David, wanting to believe his lies enough to pretend they weren't lies at all, not knowing they were bigger and worse than I ever could imagine." Into the wastebasket it went, then she grabbed the last bit she could manage and cut it off close to the back of her neck, "And this is from the months of going undercover and giving up parts of myself I never knew could be given up, and learning how low I could sink when I had to… and what I could do on my own because you weren't here for me to fall back on…" her voice trailed off as she dangled the last handful of hair over the wastebasket, "Mexico, this was you in Mexico."
When she faced him again Tyler was struck with the image of Samson, only in reverse. Angie had shorn what she believed made her weak, and it already showed in her face. She looked less weighed down than he'd ever seen her, as if she'd gotten free of that past she was always trying to outrun in her sleep. She held out the scissors to him.
"Can you help me with the rest?" When he didn't answer right away she acknowledged, "I never asked for help before, did I? I always made you offer. Now I'm asking. I'm sorry it took so long."
"C'mere," was all he said as he cleared some random clothes she'd flung on the chair, and sat her down. He was no stylist but he'd gotten the gist of what she needed, and after a few moments what remained of Angie's hamster-brown hair lay in somewhat random pieces and layers against her head, the rest scattered on the floor. When Tyler had finished and laid the scissors on the bureau Angie asked him, "You don't mind, do you?" Some men had such a fetish for long hair.
"Only thing that mattered to me is it was attached to you." He bent and kissed the top of her head, "I love you Angel, braided or bald."
She got up and went to the mirror to look at herself. She saw the same face as before, but could see something different too. Tyler appeared behind her and observed to their reflection, "Looking good."
Then she turned and he saw a smile he'd never seen from her before, coming straight through her eyes. Even the tears that crept into them seemed lit by something.
"Well, Angel, how does it feel?" As she threw her arms around his neck, he knew exactly what she'd say.
"Clean," Angie pulled back a bit, and laughed at his knowing smile, "it feels clean."
She stroked the fingers of both hands along his bearded face and offered, "I know this was always just left over from Mexico… If you want to, you can shave it off."
He'd never liked that beard and she knew that as well as she knew he kept it for her because she loved it. Some women had such a fetish for facial hair.
Tyler shook his head and pulled her closer, not very subtly rubbing his face against her hands, and then her cheek, then along her neck and under her ear, smiling against her skin as she shivered.
"Maybe later, maybe not… now c'mere," still making a meal of Angie's neck Tyler drew her toward the corner, and shoving clothes and bags aside with one hand he insisted in a husky growl, "I know there's a bed under here somewhere…"
A/N: This isn't quite the end, of course. Another story to follow that brings the rebels in LA and elsewhere to victory, and promises new lives for all.