"Get outta that car, and your hands better be empty!"
Angie Harper jerked violently, banging her head on the underside of the dashboard where she'd managed to wedge herself when the shooting started. She figured once the explosions stopped and the echoes had died away that it might be safe to come out. That patrol didn't waste a moment on her; there seemed to have been someone else outside but it was hard to be sure. She'd been yanked from her fitful doze in the front seat by the sounds of the battle, and didn't take the time to catch all the details before diving onto the floor of the beat-up Honda that had sucked up its last drop of gas sometime around sunrise. Maybe if she kept quiet they'd decide nobody was there, and leave… that delusion was shattered along with the driver's side windows that were blown inward seconds later. She screamed hoarsely, feeling the sting of safety glass as it cut her hands and face even as she tried to duck lower.
Crouched in combat position between their van and the Visitor patrol vehicle, Ham Tyler and Chris Farber exchanged a look of cautious surprise. That scream was no lizard, that was for sure, but there was no telling who was in there, or what (or who) they had with them. Tyler stood and took a couple of steps, ignoring the several Visitor bodies that littered the area.
"You're not gonna get a second invitation! And the next round'll be a lot lower!" He waited. Nothing at first, but he thought he could hear ragged breathing as he ventured closer.
Inside the car, Angie weighed her options. Right, options were a thing of the past, like every other thing she used to take for granted. The voice sounded human, but who knew? Was this Visitor territory, or Resistance, or disputed? Even the "middle of nowhere" didn't exist anymore. She had no idea where she was or who had control of what. Her ears were ringing from the disruptors and gunfire. Even if they weren't Visitors, she didn't relish the idea of turning herself over to them. There were no rules anymore – none that she understood anyway. No law, nothing at all but the roads that were taking her to… where? She didn't even know where she was running, or if it was away from something or into something worse, if that were possible. Don't kid yourself, she thought, anything is possible now. Her racing thoughts were jolted by another round of gunfire that exploded from closer by this time, but not where it had been promised, or it would have killed her. Playing with her? Since the invasion sickos everywhere felt free to play.
"You got until three; one… two…" Tyler had altered plan, approaching the vehicle as he motioned Chris to circle around behind the small stand of bushes where the runty little car was nosed in out of the sun.
Angie scrambled out the passenger door, stumbling as she went. When she glimpsed the biggest, shaggiest man she'd ever seen she darted reflexively in the opposite direction, regained her footing, and ran blindly. Away, or to. It didn't matter, she had stopped thinking clearly days (weeks?) ago. The next rush of firepower screamed over her head. She dropped to her knees, doubled over and shaking. Christ, she was so tired. Even the march of footsteps through the raggedy grass and the shadows that fell across the ground in front of her couldn't persuade her to raise her head.
"Well go ahead, will you? Kill me, or feed me to the Visitors, I don't care. I can't do this anymore."
The two men exchanged a glance. They'd heard that sort of thing before, more times than they could count, more places than they could remember.
Dropping his voice from the original commanding bark, Tyler asked, "You got any weapons?" Purely a matter of form, and habit. This one probably couldn't even handle a tire iron at the moment.
Angie raised her hands. "I got nothing. I don't even have gas." If you're going to kill me just please, please do it now. She didn't have the guts to suffer like she'd heard others had, not that it would be a choice in any case.
Tyler and Farber stepped back. Farber shrugged toward his partner, who responded with a "stand down" look. Both of them stepped back a few paces and lowered their guns.
"Okay, get up," Tyler directed. When she didn't move he added, "We're not going to shoot you, or feed you to the lizards, unless you give us a good reason to."
Gee that's reassuring…even if I have no idea what anyone might consider a good reason. Angie tried to stand, not thinking it would be a problem. But halfway to her feet she swayed to the side, and the big shaggy guy shot a hand out to steady her. She pulled away once she was upright and wiped the dirt and sweat from her face with a bloody hand, wincing as various cuts connected with one another, finally raising her head to get a good look at Tyler and Farber.
She gestured vaguely. "So. What now?"
Tyler noticed the edge of fear in the three words. No bravado or sarcasm, which is what he and Chris had become used to from both ally and enemy. The woman was about 5-6, thirty-something, medium build, hadn't been spending much time at the gym judging from the audible wheeze under her breath. She was dressed in blue jeans and a torn chambray shirt and black sneakers, her narrow face framed one side by a length of hamster-brown hair tangled in a sloppy braid that hung in front of one shoulder. More like a giant dreadlock, at this point. Narrow eyes, too, almost flat, beat down which wasn't surprising. But not dead. Ham thought of a phrase someone once used to describe his own eyes: One-way. Taking everything in but not letting much out. For Tyler it was a well-honed skill, but this one… who knew, maybe it came natural to some people. One person's skill was another person's… whatever.
"There's water in the van," Chris announced out of nowhere. "You look like you could use some."
They turned to lead the way but Angie hung back. The dead Visitors didn't bother her much. But going into a van with these guys…
Tyler turned sharply and answered the unspoken doubt. "Look, lady, if I wanted a piece of you I could take it right here, al fresco." She jumped at the brutality of the image as he went on, "But I got that poison out of my system a long time ago and my partner here," he indicated Farber, "he never caught it. So you can stay out here and die if you want, or you can risk a drink with us. Up to you." He turned on his heel and strode to the van where Farber had already pulled out a jug.
Out of ideas or even random thoughts, Angie followed numbly. She even managed to croak, "Thank you," after the big shaggy guy handed her a battered plastic cup she immediately swilled from, suddenly aware of her ravenous thirst. She didn't count on puking it right back up again. Tyler sat in the open side door of the van and shook his head with a bitter smirk.
"Look I don't mind you thinking we're rape artists. I don't even mind you making us waste valuable ammunition to get your attention. But try not to waste the water, okay? It's a lot harder to come by than ammo or a good reputation."
Angie glared at him as she wiped her mouth on her dirty sleeve, flinching again from the stinging on her face. The man sitting in front of her was lean, hard-faced, forty-ish. Both he and his younger-looking friend were dressed like some sort of street corner commandos, the shaggy guy in jeans and a fatigue shirt, him in black jeans, t shirt, and leather jacket. The shaggy guy had a more open face, though she had no doubt he was just as hard as his buddy. Maybe less guarded when he figured he didn't need to be. But Black Leather, he had a look like a slammed door. The only way in was through his eyes: quiet, deeply black. No, not black, more like chocolate. Dark chocolate. But definitely unsweetened
"So I still don't get what happens next." Angie wasn't at all kidding, though a little less certain of a hellish immediate future. Loaded into the rear area of the large, well-appointed (for mercenaries, anyway) van, rehydration and a spell of relative silence had revived her enough to ask the question.
"You can get out right here if you want," Tyler replied shortly. Chris was at the wheel. Angie had rapidly figured out who was pretty much in charge, even if the two of them behaved as "comrades". She did sense that Chris might be the voice of reason when things got crazy.
When Angie didn't reply, Tyler asked "Okay, then, where were you headed? Not that you were going to get there."
"I don't know." An honest answer.
Tyler leaned around from the front seat to look more directly at their passenger. Still filthy and dreadlocked, but more coherent than before. "Lost?"
"No. I mean I don't know where I was going. As in I have no idea. I was running, not going."
Well he got that, at least. "Yeah." When Black Leather didn't comment further Angie resumed staring blankly out the window opposite from where she sat slumped on the floor, surrounded by bundles and cases of god knew what.
Tyler prodded, "Not that we're big on formalities, but at some time we might have to tell someone who you are."
Ha ha. "I have a name, if that's what you're asking." Angie was wary of giving out too much information.
"Believe me, I'm not looking for a biography."
Her "host" smiled unexpectedly. "Angela Harper?" He pondered for a moment and nodded to his companion. "Angels and harps. We could use a good omen." His partner laughed and nodded.
Ignoring the cynical attitude Angie observed, "You have me at a disadvantage," figuring neither one of these mercenary troglodytes would rise to the observation.
"You have that backwards," Tyler corrected, "considering your lack of weapons. Free ride, no benefits, that puts us at a disadvantage. So why don't you tell us where you came here from, and why, or we might start to wonder why the lizards just happened to be waiting where you just happened to end up."
Right. Angie's who-cares mood was suddenly adjusted by the renewal of the realization that she was traveling with well-armed strangers, in a who-knew-where man's land, in a world where nothing she ever understood still applied. "Boston."
Big Shaggy at the wheel responded, "Boston's a crater."
She shot to her feet, almost banging her head against the roof. "What!" Angie knew that her own neighborhood was laid waste. "Look, I went home after work and home was in flames, but how could the whole city be…"
"Lizards, that's how," Tyler declared. "And sit down before you fall on your ass."
She gulped a breath and dropped to the floor. She'd left work at the library, grabbed some groceries in Back Bay, and it wasn't until she reached Columbia Road that she saw the flames and smoke, and knew. Well not knew, exactly… she saw the ruin and headed toward the nearest outbound ramp, not thinking, not registering. Just driving. Because though what was happening didn't seem real, it also wasn't exactly a surprise.
"It was just the south part of the city," she protested lamely, "when I left it was just my neighborhood, you probably don't understand the area," Angie could feel her gut contracting as she spoke. "Just the south part", she thought how absurd that sounded, even as she said it. Funny how things like destruction get redefined as "just" your neighborhood.
"Look, I'm sorry," the Shaggy Guy said, absurdly apologetic concerning the circumstances, "they were planning to blast the whole metro area, to teach the East Coast resistance a lesson. You must have got out before they finished it off."
The enormity of the statement left her empty. Finally she asked, "So, where did you guys come out from?"
Tyler's honest answer sounded as empty as Angie felt. "I don't remember."
They rode in silence for another twenty miles or so. Tyler glanced over his shoulder at their passenger, who was slumped against he wall of the van, eyes closed. But not asleep.
"For someone on a mystery ride with strangers and a van full of contraband you don't ask many questions."
She opened her eyes and looked at Black Leather looking at her. "What's the point? The answers won't change anything. You just laid it all out… mystery ride, strangers, and contraband. Weapons, no doubt." She just didn't care about who these guys were. Didn't care about much of anything at the moment, in fact. The world had become such a surreal place she wasn't sure anymore what to care about anyway.
"Suit yourself." Tyler turned to face forward, then turned back again. "Maybe we should be asking more questions, though. Like I said, why did a lizard patrol ignore you but try like hell to kill us?"
Angie sighed. She'd decided by now that these guys were either Resistance or mercenaries or both, and figured the questions would be coming soon enough, so she hadn't bothered to volunteer any information on her own. "Sorry, I didn't think to ask them." Not wiseass, just… weary. Black Leather's eyes narrowed. Not amused. Well she wasn't trying to, was she?
"I don't know, okay? I ran outta gas, and I fell asleep for a while, and woke up to you guys fighting. That's it. Maybe they were just about to check me out when you came by."
The shaggy guy nodded toward his partner. "She's got a point."
"My name's Chris Farber," the shaggy guy told her, glancing in the rearview. "This here's my partner, Ham Tyler."
She wasn't sure she'd heard right. "Ham… like in sandwich?"
He'd heard that line enough for it to get on his last nerve, but Tyler still couldn't sense a sneer in her voice. "Like in 'Hamilton', as in Alexander."
"Oh. Sorry. So your parents were history buffs?" She thought about it for a moment, and decided why not talk like a human being? They'd been nothing but neutral since picking her up, so what the hell.
"Not exactly. More like my family namesake, if you go back far enough."
Interesting pedigree. "Looks like we have a little history in common, Ham Tyler. I'm descended from one of your namesake's nemeses. The final one, in fact."
Tyler shook his head. "Harper? I don't recall that from the history books."
"Burr. As in Aaron. My mother's side, if you go back far enough."
"Maybe I shouldn't be turning my back on you, then," Tyler observed, eyebrows raised.
"I'm no good with a gun. I can't pick my fights, or my targets, worth shit."
Ham smiled a little, something Angie sensed was a rare occurrence. "Good thing you're traveling with professionals, then."
"I kind of got the feeling I was." She closed her eyes again, and blew out a sigh, louder than before. "We sure aren't in Kansas anymore, Toto."
"That where you're from originally?" Chris asked her, not because he thought so but because he was bored.
"Boston. Maybe I should have said we aren't in the BPL anymore."
"BPL?" Farber echoed.
"Boston Public Library," Tyler informed him.
Christ, who was this guy, Angie thought. Obviously a hired gun, but talking US history and libraries?
"Yeah," Angie explained, "I was in the tech department. Computer cataloguing, database management, that kind of stuff. I could mine data and suss out applications and back-door diagnostics like Aaron Burr could backshoot."
Another smile from Tyler, but one he kept to himself. "A regular Conan the Librarian."
"Ha, ha. Not much use for that anymore, I guess."
Farber and Tyler exchanged looks. They were intending to hook up with the West Coast resistance, and anyone with tech skills would be a plus. That is, if she could be trusted.
"Don't be so sure," Tyler observed. "Fighting the lizards takes more kinds of tech than the old-fashioned kind." This time his smile was wicked as he turned to his partner, "Though computers aren't as much fun."
"Look, do you mind?" Angie asked suddenly, "I'm kind of talked-out. Just let me know when you're gonna drop me off and how to get to somewhere I might not get killed."
Tyler didn't turn around to answer. "Useful skills and a closed mouth… I like that in a woman. And the best way not to get killed is to stick with us. We're not pretty, but we're still standing."
"From your mouth to the Visitors' ears. Or gills… or whatever. Can we just shut up now?"
Five hours, one gas-up and a driver-swap later Tyler pulled the van onto a dirt road that took them into a wooded area far from the main road.
"We'll camp here. Another day's driving and we'll get to L.A. I've got a few contacts between here and there, we shouldn't have too much trouble finding the resistance cell, if they're still alive. They're a bunch of rookies, still figuring out how to save their own butts, never mind 'saving the world'."
Angie helped Chris to haul some stuff out of the van. "If they're so shaky, why do you want in?" she asked. She wanted to ask how he got to be such a cynic, but figured that was kind of a stupid question to ask a mercenary, duh-wise.
Ham was laying a fire near a random pile of boulders. "Because they're the only game in town. And as shaky as they are, they've been raiding closer to the top of the lizard food chain than anybody else."
The turn of phrase made Angie shudder. "Great. Speaking of food chain, you got anything to eat?"
"Funny you should mention that," Tyler tossed her a can opener and indicated the box of various canned goods and other supplies Chris had put down near the fire. "Since you can't shoot, you can cook."
She caught the can opener by reflex, stared at it and then at Tyler and Farber. "I guess a woman's place in the revolution hasn't changed much since the 60's."
Her tendency to reduce sarcasm to a neutral observation ticked Tyler off. He didn't much care for passive resistance, it lacked balls. Step up and mouth off, or don't bother.
"Look, lady," and his voice took on the same hardness it had when he and Farber first "invited" her to share their water, "Since we've already eliminated sex and violence from your repertoire, that leaves cooking and cleaning. We don't carry parasites."
Parasites? That was a bit much. "Hey, I didn't ask to come along." Before either man could give up an obvious response Angie continued, "Fine. Considering what's been happening around me lately it'll be nice to do something I'm good at." She meant it. Running from aliens, ducking firefights, riding in a van with mercenaries… her life had become a sci-fi action comic and she'd never liked those at all. Cooking, now that was something she could relate to.
While Tyler and Farber sorted through some things in the van and discussed their plans for L.A. Angie threw together some canned vegetables and freeze dried chicken (what a collection, she thought, field rations and dent-sale stuff) and managed to cook up some rice with a can of chicken broth, using only a little water to dilute it. Mustn't waste the water, she remembered ruefully.
They sat on some wooden cases to eat with camp gear-type plates and utensils.
"Do I want to know what I'm sitting on?" Angie asked.
Farber shook his head negative. "Let's just say this is a non-smoking area."
When she glanced uneasily at the fire Tyler actually laughed out loud. "Jesus, Conan, you are over your head, aren't you."
She blinked at him. "I'd have to reach up to touch bottom." Tyler's smugness faded.
"Well this beats lizard chow, anyway," Chris offered.
"You were fresh out of rat," Angie informed them both.
Finally, Tyler thought, a glimmer of wiseass. But only a glimmer. Those one-way eyes of hers worked too well to reveal anything more.
When everything was cleaned up, and packed back into boxes Chris dropped a couple of sleeping bags out on the ground near where he and Tyler had been sitting engaged in yet more discussion and planning.
"There's an air mattress and a bunch of blankets inside," Chris indicated the interior of the van. It was well into spring, but nights could still be cold in the middle of nowhere.
"Thanks. What time we leaving?" Not that it mattered much, since she had no idea where they'd actually be going and had lost her watch days ago. She'd never been to the West coast, though she supposed if she'd had enough gas she'd probably have ended up in L.A. on her own.
"We'll let you know."
As she walked to the van Angie observed miserably to nobody in particular, "Gawd, I can't even remember the last time I was able to wake up by myself."
Tyler's voice followed her in the darkness, a verbal smirk. "I thought we settled that issue."
She pivoted and returned to the circle of firelight so both men could see her. "I mean, I can't remember the last time I just slept as long as I needed to, and woke up because I woke up, on my own, and not because there was pounding on the door, or a search raid, or sirens, or explosions, or screams, or..." Angie stopped herself, feeling dangerously close to an edge she didn't want to visit and not noticing the look of recognition on the faces of both men.
"Or a firefight," Farber added soberly.
"Yeah. Or a firefight."
After a moment Tyler spoke. "I stand corrected."
Angie moved to stand directly in front where Tyler sat so she could look him in the eye. "Maybe you've been at this kind of thing so long it's not a horror movie to you anymore like it is to me. You can call me Conan the Librarian and I won't snap back because maybe all I'm good for in this 'new world' is comic relief. I'm not an ad hoc guerrilla or a weapons specialist," she told him, "but I won't slow you down and I won't sell you out. And if we part company in L.A., good luck to you both. Me, I'm lost in the ultimate wilderness without a map and right now you're the closest thing that passes for native guides. The last I saw of any life I could recognize as mine, as real, turned to smoke in the rearview, and I can't seem to remember even when that was. So don't expect too much of me because I've never read Soldier of Fortune, and I can't deliver like a resistance fighter, and I can't pretend I can. And… and," she ran out of words, not knowing anymore what she was trying to say. She was so fucking tired.
Tyler's voice was so quiet Angie almost found it soothing. "Point taken. Get some sleep, Angel."
"Angela," she corrected. "You can call me Angie."
"Get some sleep, Angie." But he liked his choice better. They needed a good omen.
After she'd climbed into the van Chris turned to Ham. "You don't need to mess with her head like that, brother. She's right, we're not exactly on equal ground here."
Tyler stared into the fire. "She's wrong. It's still a horror movie. You get some sleep too. I'll take first watch."
Two hours later when Tyler leaned into the van to grab the canteen he heard a stifled whimper from just beyond the door. Moving to one side, he let the feeble light of the campfire wash the interior. Angie was asleep, curled up in a ball on the air mattress, clutching one of the blankets against her mouth in a bunched-up knot. From what little he could see her face was screwed up in a grimace of… pain, fear, loss, something. Something all too recognizable, now that he saw it in front of him. She was also shaking with the cold, having lost the other two or three blankets he could see jumbled on the floor next to her. Ham climbed into the van on his knees with a stealth that had taken decades to perfect. He knew he wouldn't wake her, he was too good at what he did to wake up a sleeping stranger. He'd killed enough to know. After spreading the blankets over her he added another from a pile in the corner. The trembling subsided but the whimpers continued, as regular as breathing. Before he could think about it, he'd reached out a hand to lightly touch her head. She didn't wake up, but mumbled in her sleep, "gone?"
"Yeah," Ham told her quietly, "they're gone," and the whimpering was replaced by the slow, even respiration of sleep. He didn't want to know her story. How different could it be from all the others?
"Shit," he muttered under his breath, and heard Chris call in a stage whisper,
Ham took the canteen and returned to the campfire. "Yeah. Just needed a drink." He took a slug and passed it to his partner, who was eyeing him curiously. "What?"
"Nothing. My watch. Your turn to get some shuteye."
Angie woke partway, stretching a little and reaching and trying to orient herself… where? She couldn't remember. Then she did. She'd fallen asleep on an air mattress in the back of a van driven by two dodgy men she'd met less than a day before. Cold, she remembered being cold, then warm again, and something else… no, the thought wouldn't crystallize. But she wasn't there now, on an air mattress in the back of a van, this was a bed. A decently-sized bed. True, she was still dressed in the filthy clothes she'd fled in, her hair a bound-up ratty mess, but the sheets were smooth and clean, and she felt the weight of blankets, and a bedspread or quilt too. Warm, she woke up warm for the first time since before the Visitors had commandeered the gas and electric utilities, randomly shutting off buildings, now and then, here and there, to discourage residents from remaining in any one place too long. Frequent moves meant loose associations. Angie had stayed put, though, and it had been so cold…
She poked her face from under the covers, and peeked out into the dim room. Chris Farber was sprawled on another, similar, bed next to hers. He took up the whole thing, covers flung loosely over him. Across the smallish room Ham Tyler lay snoring quietly on a fold-out couch, fully dressed and shoulder holster exposed where the black leather jacket gapped away from his shoulder. When did they get here? She remembered a dream, about when she was a little girl, she'd fallen asleep in the car and Daddy had carried her in to bed. It had to have been a dream. Warm, with no reason to wake, Angie slid back into sleep.
"Ham, Chris. I expect you last night."
"So did we, Sascha. Unexpected delay. Look, we have an extra guest. You got a triple?"
"I have double with fold out. That okay?"
"Sure, thanks. We have business tomorrow, can you take care of our guest? She's about yea tall," Ham raised his hand to a vague height, "kind of medium size, she can use a clean set of clothes."
"'She'? Ham Tyler, you are holding out."
"You have a rich fantasy life, Sascha."
"Out here, is all I got. You look beat."
"Beat, but not beaten. Thanks, Sascha."
"No worries. Sleep well. Tell your 'guest' ring 0 tomorrow, I will look after what she needs."
They'd gone back to the van, Chris grabbing a couple of duffle bags and heading to the room with the key. Ham bent down and jiggled Angie's shoulder. "Rise and shine."
"Nooooo…" she'd slurred in protest, shrinking away. When had she last felt safe enough to sleep that deeply, Tyler wondered. When had anybody, who wasn't fully armed?
"Okay, this time you ride for free." He scooped her up and lifted her out of the van, using his back to slide the door shut. She reached around his neck like a five-year-old being carried to bed, head dropped on his shoulder, no sound but a quiet breath. When they got into the room Farber had already pulled down the bed farthest from the door.
"Drop Sleeping Beauty there, bro."
He did, and pulled the covers up. She scrunched down under, burrowing deep into the pillow.
"You take the other bed," Tyler directed as he pulled open the sofa, then double-locked the door. "No watch tonight, Sascha's got us covered. Christ, I need a good night's sleep."
"You said a mouthful." Chris settled on the other bed, leaving his shoes on. Tyler did the same on the pull-out.
"So I think maybe we should drop her off somewhere." Farber ventured.
"You got any ideas where to drop off a refugee who can i.d. us?" When Chris didn't answer he went on, "Fine. Then we do our thing tomorrow and come back, and take her with us tomorrow, unless you want her spewing to the next lizard patrol that runs into her."
"Hey man, no worries." It was one of the things that kept them in perfect balance, the need never to explain.
Some time later Angie was wakened by the brutal need to pee. She slipped out of bed and found the bathroom, closing the door quietly so she didn't wake the others. When she came out she paused at the fold-out where Ham lay deeply asleep, no longer snoring. She studied his face, faintly illuminated by the parking lot light that filtered through the cheap curtains. The "slammed door" look was gone, the perpetually furrowed brow and narrowed eyes relaxed. Now she had a clearer look at the scar near his left eye, and wondered what wild story might account for it. When she looked at his hands, one spread loosely across his stomach and the other flung out to the side, she realized it was the first time she'd seen them when they weren't clenched around something, or gesturing tensely. She also noticed he didn't look at all vulnerable like most sleeping people do. Just… well kind of "ready", like a computer on "standby". Before returning to bed she picked up the spare quilt where it had slid to the floor and carefully draped it over him.
Not carefully enough, apparently. As she crawled back into her own bed she heard Tyler whisper, "Thanks, Angel."
Too embarrassed to respond, she burrowed into the pillow and went back to sleep.