DAY THREE: MORNING
Chris had turned the TV on as he and Ham were moving their supplies from the motel room to the van. Angie did a last sweep under the bed for anything they might have missed and as she stood again the aerial view of a city imploding caught her eye. It looked like one of those controlled demolitions, where a building collapses into its own footprint, only much, much bigger. It was a whole city, or most of it, and as the camera pulled back she caught a glimpse of blue water to the side. A voice intoned, "This is the promise of a new beginning, the eradication of terrorist strongholds soon to be replaced by a new and shining city, raised by the Visitors."
"My god, what's that?" she breathed.
Ham shot a glance over his shoulder as he and Farber lugged a last case of weapons out the door. "Boston, looks like. Sascha said they were caving it in today, gonna rebuild it as a lizard city." They grunted their way out to heave the case in the van.
Angie stood motionless, not even breathing. Boston? Where she'd grown up, where she'd lived and worked, it was her home, those were her friends, her life. Sure, she'd seen the fires when she left, but it had registered in her mind like a "small" disaster, a few buildings, something that could be rebuilt after the Visitors were defeated (as if she knew how that would happen). Like Europe, after WWII. Rebuilt, repaired. Home again.
And as she watched, it was gone. Nothing left but a deep dirty hole with dust settling, miles and miles across. Even the harbor seemed to darken as she watched.
Chris had come to the door to tell her to get a move on, Ham was firing up the van. When he saw Angie, pale and gasping, staring blankly, he called back to Tyler.
"Hey bro, I think we got a problem."
Angie sank down on the end of the bed, still staring at the screen with eyes so wide they seemed to fill her face. "It's really happening," she rasped, "it's really happening," and silent gasping began, each one a separate strangling sound that bent her a little lower until she was doubled over her knees in crash position. Farber returned to the van as Tyler stepped into the room.
He picked up the remote from the table and clicked off the TV before standing in front of Angie. She didn't seem to notice, so he knelt in front of her. "I thought you knew."
She raised her head suddenly and her response was nearly a scream. "You thought I knew! How could I know, how could I know my whole life and friends and home could be gone?" She gestured wildly toward the now-dark TV screen. "That's me, how can I be gone like that? How can there be nothing left?"
Ham saw panic in her face, and despair, and brutal comprehension. And finally, rage. He'd seen it before, that ugly moment when it all crystallized and someone who thought she had a clue learned she'd crossed over to a whole new "normal" and there was no going back.
"I thought it would stop," she insisted, "I thought it would stop, why didn't anyone make it stop!"
Tyler slid closer and gripped her chin in his hand. "Listen, there's people working on that, it's gonna stop."
She was looking right through him, terrified and uncomprehending, and he realized he was pressing hard enough to mark her face. He would have withdrawn his hand, but Angie wrapped her fingers around his wrist and leaned into it, sliding off the bed to collapse on the floor in front of him.
She stared at him with wild eyes, waiting for him to say something, to impart some of that savage wisdom he seemed to store behind that closed-up look. Why wouldn't he explain?
"You know this, you've been here before, tell me what it means," she begged, staring hard into his eyes and seeing nothing she was looking for, "nothing makes sense anymore, it has to mean something!"
"It doesn't mean shit," he told her in a hard voice, "What happens, happens, and you deal with it. No meaning, no sense, nothing to figure out." He spoke as if reciting a field manual. "You either live through it or you don't."
When the backed-up emotion came boiling out of her in raging sobs it was like every grieving aftermath he'd ever seen. They all were the same, everywhere he and Chris ever went in their "work" somebody's world was ending for no sane reason and everybody wanted to know why and thought the man with the gun had the answers. How pathetic was that? The longer he lived and the more he lived through, the fewer answers they had and the less sense it made. No lessons learned; the only net gains were enemies and expertise.
"You deal with it," he repeated, to her or to himself, it didn't much matter.
"Not good enough," she erupted bitterly.
Angie felt like she was losing her mind, like she was going to scatter in a million pieces. She clenched her fists together and inhaled an impossibly deep ragged breath, ready to blow it out in a wild scream.
And then this stranger, this armed and dangerous and cynical mercenary man had his arms around her, as silent now as she was not, one hand at the back of her neck, the other spread wide on her back. No empty words, none of the clichéd comforts that would be all wrong anyway. He was just… still. And he held her still, and said just one word: "Breathe." When she didn't respond he shook her hard, once, and she heard him repeat closer to her ear, "Breathe."
So, steadied by strong hands and silence, she did. Remarkably Angie found she was able simply to breathe in, and out, and the wild racing in her head slowed. In a very few moments she was calm and quiet again, if feeling a little bruised and uneasy inside.
When Ham let her go she sat back on her heels and regarded him with puzzlement. "Who are you?"
A flicker of something crossed his face for barely a heartbeat. Then the wry hard look returned. "Nobody special." When he saw she was about to pursue the issue he added, "It's not magic, it's just a little Buddhist trick I learned from a buddy in Bangkok. To think clearly you have to focus. Sit still, be quiet, and breathe. Works every time."
It did sound kind of like something one of her friends had been into. "Uh-huh." She was still a little dazed by her crazed outburst.
He got up and pulled her to her feet. "C'mon, Angel, we're burning daylight." As if the previous five minutes hadn't happened.
Angie followed him out the door. "Why do you keep calling me that?" she asked. It was a little annoying, and more than a little embarrassing.
"I told you, Angela Harper, harps and angels, we could use a good omen."
As Ham slid the panel door open to let her in Angie stood in front of him, incredulous.
"I'm a good omen. Yeah, right." Considering what she'd been through and how she'd just melted down it was a ridiculous notion. "You can't be serious."
"Pickings are slim lately," Tyler observed drily with what she was beginning to recognize as his patented smug smirk. "Now get your ass in or we'll leave you with Sascha, and he's running low on lamps."
Chris turned to look at Angie where she sat in the back on a case of ammo. He pointed at the darkening smudges on her chin, figuring they might be from yesterday's struggle with Sascha. "Battle scars?"
"Focus wounds," she told him.
When she caught Ham's faint smile in the rearview, she knew it was the right answer.
DAY THREE: HIGH NOON
Sometime before noon Ham turned off the secondary state road and headed into what looked like small farm country. Another few miles, and he pulled off into a wooded area.
"Time to commune with nature," he announced as he and Chris climbed out of the vehicle. Angie sat hemmed in by more boxes, bags, and cases than the day before. Ham leaned back in the driver's side door and told her, "You too, unless you're part camel."
"What are you talking about," she demanded. She was cranky and bored, tired of being packed in the back like cargo.
"Tap a kidney." No response. "Take. A. Leak." He widened his eyes and enunciated each word as if addressing a simpleton, then climbed back in and leaned between the seats, reaching a hand out. "Don't worry, there's plenty of foliage to guard your virtue."
God, she was getting tired of being used for verbal target practice. Once Tyler knew she had no real taste for verbal swordplay he never let up. Nevertheless she grabbed his hand and let him pull her forward and out, and would have fallen on her face if he hadn't caught her by the back of her sweatshirt just in time.
"Shit, they raise 'em graceful in Beantown, huh?"
That got her last nerve. "'Beantown'? Only tourists and TV call it 'Beantown'."
Tyler's smug grin made his pleasure evident. He'd found a button to push. "Five minutes. If you get lost, we're leaving without you."
"Lucky me," she muttered as she turned to take in their surroundings.
"Sorry, I didn't hear that?" He was dying for a comeback, because she was so determined not to give him one.
"Nothing. See you in five."
The two men walked off together and Angie found some dense pushes where she could "tap a kidney" in private. When she returned to the van Tyler and Farber were discussing something, pistols in hand. As she got closer Tyler informed her, "Another mile or two and we'll be deep in Lizard Land. That means we're gonna be targets because we're strangers. Which means we gotta be ready."
Angie saw they'd pulled a box from under the passenger seat and were grabbing clips, jamming them into every available pocket. Then they pulled out larger clips, taped them together facing up-and-down, and took out a couple of Uzi's. At least she thought that's what they were: short, ugly and certainly automatic.
"Since you can't shoot you're gonna have to drive. Can you handle a stick in a rig like this?" Tyler nodded over his shoulder at the slightly oversize Chevy van they'd been trapped in for days, hours, miles. Drive? Hell, yeah!
"Yeah, I drove something like this back home."
"Delivery?" Chris asked.
"Bookmobile," she announced with a straight face.
The two men exchanged looks of fatalistic amusement and Chris crawled back into the van to lay out more ammunition and check the latches on a couple of small sliding panels Angie hadn't noticed before.
"Our kind of magazines are a little more volatile than you're used to," Tyler warned her.
"I said I can handle it." Finally, something she could do better than cook, only these two had no idea. She held out her hand for the keys and Ham dropped them into her palm.
He was doubtful, but they really needed two on weapons and since they had a third along for the ride, and she'd be in the way anywhere but the front seat, the options were limited.
"I'll navigate," he told her flatly, "When I say turn, you turn. When I say stop, you stop. When the shooting starts I'll jump in back with Chris, but you listen to every word I say, got that?" That slammed door look was firmly locked in place again.
"Fine, you're in charge. I have no idea where we are anyway."
Angie followed Tyler's directions for the next few miles. She was impressed with the way the van drove; the one she used in Boston was like driving a rusty tank. "Hey, this handles nice. Custom job, huh?"
Farber's voice drifted out of the back , "You have no idea."
"Actually, by now I think I do."
They'd only gone a little farther when the blast of a disruptor blew a chunk out of the road, just missing Angie's door. "Shit!" She swerved to the right, almost putting them on two wheels.
"Take it easy!" Tyler barked, "it came from up there on the left, that low ridge."
"I'm fine," she recovered control quickly and sped up. "There's a place up there," she saw a mirror image of the left-hand ridge ahead on the right; the road must have been cut between them, trees and a small rock ledge closer to them than the one the shot came from.
Chris had his high-res field glasses pointed out one of the small hatches on the left side of the van. "I see one vehicle, must be a random patrol out this far. Obviously not expecting anyone but lizards."
Ham was already in back, the other hatch door locked open, his Cobra pistol and Uzi ready. "On my mark," he ordered Angie, "cut left, and we can take them out, three, two, one," before he could get to "mark" Angie had gunned the engine and headed off the road toward the sheltered position Ham and Chris hadn't seen, and she hadn't mentioned.
"Hey!" Ham made a grab for the back of her seat but was knocked back again by the bouncing of the wheels on rough ground, "I said left!"
Pumped with fear Angie snapped back, "Shut up and shoot!" With disruptor fire coming faster, some glancing off the roof and reinforced side panels, Tyler had no choice but to jam his Uzi out the hatch and pour fire on the Visitor ATV as it started to move.
Ignoring Tyler's futile orders and shouted obscenities, Angie headed straight for the low group of trees and rocks. At the last minute she jerked both the wheel and the stick and executed a near-perfect dogleg turn that skidded them alongside the formation, leaving the sliding panel door closest to the flat rocky rise with a few feet to spare. The front end tore away some tree branches but the windshield remained intact. She scrambled out the passenger door and yanked open the sliding panel door to give Ham and Chris room to back up, then peered through the windows in the cab to see where the patrol was. The white vehicle was bearing down on them, though the rough terrain off the road was preventing accurate aim. Chris had ripped open a box and handed some impressive looking throwables to Ham, keeping a couple for himself.
"Down!" Tyler roared at Angie and flat-handed the back of her head, knocking her to the ground at his and Farber's feet. He armed one of the specialized grenades and Chris gave him a shove up so he was standing on the threshold of the side door. Taking quick aim, he reared back and flung the grenade over the roof of the van. It landed short, but the explosion forced the patrol vehicle to roll. Ham found another grenade in his hand almost before he reached back again. This one landed squarely in the middle of the overturned Visitor vehicle, and the shrapnel caught the four patrol troops as they tried to scuttle to safety. He held another ready to go, but seeing no more movement Tyler disarmed it and handed it down to Farber and dropped to his feet on the ground again.
When the echoes had died Angie struggled to her feet. Farber circled around, gun ready, to survey both the shattered Visitor vehicle and their own, which had suffered no damage except a couple of scratches from tree limbs. Tyler remained immobile in front of Angie, his face a mix of blind rage and (unpleasant) surprise. She expected a verbal explosion driven by adrenalin and pure anger, but he seemed beyond words.
Taking advantage of the lull, Angie shrugged as Chris rejoined them wearing a rare expression of his own that she couldn't quite identify. Rubbing the throbbing spot at the back of her head she reminded them mildly, "I told you I could drive."
Eyes narrowed, Tyler stepped up to stand looking straight down into her face and for a moment she thought he might actually hit her, and this time not to save her life. Even Farber seemed ready to reach out to pull him back. But having suddenly and completely given in to the surreal experience of the past weeks and months, and especially the past ten minutes, Angie didn't flinch. Finally, she had something she could be smug about, and even a gun toting bully wasn't going to spoil it for her. But Tyler surprised her.
"A bookmobile," he growled in a very low voice.
Sensing she was safe Angie allowed herself to feel extremely pleased. "I guess you've never done Back Bay at rush hour." Now Chris Farber joined Ham to stare at her. It was obvious they were beginning to wonder if what little she'd told them was the truth.
"I'm gonna ask once," Tyler intoned in the dead-level cold voice he reserved for interrogation. "Where did you learn to drive like that." No question mark.
"Okay, okay, no I didn't learn that at the library. I dated a guy for a while who did some demo derby driving. He taught me a couple things."
Just that casual. Tyler felt like his head was going to explode. This silent, nonaligned broad was nuts. He shook his head, began to walk away, then spun back and pointed a finger as if it were the Cobra automatic he'd re-holstered.
"You're crazy, lady," he told her, internally surprised that his last thought could exit so easily through his mouth.
She blinked at them both. "You're carting a crapload of heavy weapons cross country, paying off KGB safe houses with vodka, looking to join a revolution you don't even trust, to fight lizards who eat humans for breakfast. And I'm crazy." She shook her head wildly, and winced again as a tiny bolt of pain caught in the back where Tyler's hand had connected. Then she stepped as close up to Tyler as he had to her, except she was looking up. "Mister, you wouldn't know sane if it bit you on the ass."
Farber cocked an eyebrow toward his partner. "Got a point there, bro."
"Shut up," Tyler growled. He had his comeback at last, and he didn't like it much.
Angie huffed in frustration and stalked away, asking over her shoulder, "You got anything like aspirin in this rolling armory? My head hurts!" She was tired of being confused, and scared, and clueless. She couldn't do much about it, but the taste for simplicity that usually kept her silent was being overcome and the only defense she could think of was to get by herself for as long as she could manage. She sat down against a rock and wrapped her arms around her drawn-up knees, then dropped her head forward, eyes shut tight. She wanted to go home. Of course if she were silly enough to say it, Rambo would be only too happy to remind her it was a black smoking crater. She would not cry, she would not.
She heard steps approach, and someone settled on the grass next to her. No hesitation.
She raised her head and opened her eyes to see Ham Tyler handing her a couple of brown capsules and a canteen. Angie took the capsules and stared at them a moment. "Oh, I don't think something this small is gonna work." She swallowed them down and swigged some water, grimacing as she tipped her head back.
"Better a smack in the head than to lose it." He rose on his knees next to her. "Put your head down again."
It sounded more like an invitation than an order. She leaned her head down on her knees again, and felt him grip the nape of her neck with the fingertips of one hand. Sure, and firm, precise. Of course, she thought to herself, you can't set explosives with gorilla paws. Then his other hand at the back of her head, the same precise pressure. "Breathe," he said, and they stayed that way for few minutes. Then he slipped his hand under her forehead, cradling the back of her neck with the other, and lifted her straight again.
"How's that." No question mark.
She turned her head experimentally. The pain was gone. "Thank your buddy in Thailand for me."
He changed the subject. "Back there," Ham told her, "you can't do that again. I don't like surprises, especially under fire."
"Me neither, but I guess I can kiss that preference goodbye. I'll try not to surprise you again, though. I just didn't think to say anything… I'm so at home in my own head, I'm not very good at sharing. Besides, I'm a big fan of 'whatever works.'"
A smile pulled at the still mouth. He could certainly "relate", as the new age lefties were fond of saying, before the invasion anyway. "Well if you have any other useful skills don't keep them to yourself."
"I think my skills are tapped out. No computers around, and I just did my one driving trick. I swear I don't know if I'll ever be 'useful' again. Certainly not in this company." She sighed. "I always figured the best way to learn what's what is to shut up, watch, and listen, and act accordingly. Most questions don't get you anywhere; just asking lets everyone know what you want to hear so you never get any clarity. Margaret Mead had it right, immersion and osmosis is the way to go. But everything's crazy now, and I don't know what anything is supposed to mean." She was silent for a bit, staring at the grass between her feet. "I miss clarity, and quiet." She didn't catch Ham's subtle nod.
"We've got to get going if we want to get to L.A. before nightfall. And those lizards probably had a tracker installed; their friends will be coming looking for them. You okay to drive?"
She'd drive even if her head was still pounding like a sledgehammer. Let someone else play cargo for a change. "Sure. You okay to let me?"
Ham pulled her to her feet and smiled the Crocodile Smile (his smiles were so rare and distinct that Angie had begun to name them). "When I'm not, you'll know it."
No surprises there.
DAY THREE: MID AFTERNOON
After the drama of the Visitor showdown things settled into the familiar routine of drive, drive, drive. Angie was happy not to be stuffed in the back of the van anymore, but it seemed like they'd never actually get where Farber and Tyler meant to end up. She checked the clock in the dashboard for the thousandth time, the odometer for the millionth.
"You're gonna make me say it, aren't you?" she accused her passengers suddenly. Ham smirked at her from the passenger seat.
"That's right. Go ahead and say it."
"How much farther?"
Guffaws from the rear of the van. "Okay bro, I owe you that twenty. I really thought she'd make it."
Angie shook her head in disgust. Juvenile mercenaries, talk about an oxymoron.
"Take that dirt road up there on the left," Ham directed.
She found it with a little difficulty, the dirt track being mostly shielded from the main road, and stopped in a clearing when Ham indicated "Park it here." He jumped out of the passenger seat.
"Okay, sit tight. I'll be back in an hour." With no further explanation he slammed the door and headed off into the brush.
Angie was startled by a canteen suddenly thrust forward between the seats. It was almost possible to forget someone else was in back. If Ham Tyler was spare in his conversation, his partner Chris Farber was positively sphinx-like.
"Thanks." After she drank she handed it back again, but he'd opened the side door of the van and climbed out, and was now stretching and groaning. She'd been miserable back there, and he was twice her size, up down and sideways.
"Not exactly built for comfort," Angie observed as she also got out to stretch her legs and back. "Or speed." Considering the quantity of arms and ammunition and other "equipment" yet unrevealed, she was frankly amazed it could move at all. She still didn't understand how she kept from rolling it over or blowing it up during her bout of stunt driving.
Chris laughed. "You made it move right quick back there."
"Panic is a powerful motivator." She paused and considered how far she'd traveled in just a week, and added, "For a lot of things."
The big man's smile softened a little. "You're doing pretty good for a rookie."
"Every refugee is a rookie," she observed. Farber looked away as if he were seeing something he shouldn't, then went around the van to pop the hood. Angie knew she probably shouldn't ask and also knew she was breaking her own rule about asking questions, but something had been poking in her mind since last night. She walked over to where Farber was "deeply" involved in checking the oil and other distractions from the moment.
"I get the feeling I remind you guys of somebody."
He was going to tell her no, or mind your business, but thought better of it. He replaced the dipstick, and looked her in the eye as he wiped his hands on his shirt.
"Lemme tell you… you remind us of everybody."
Immersion with these two and the unavoidable osmosis of the past few days relieved her of the need for details. "Ah. There must be lots of 'everybody' where you've been." Everybody surviving at the edges of Tyler's and Farber's peripheral vision as they arranged whatever they were paid to arrange to disrupt whatever needed disrupting, everybody left behind to pick up the pieces (or get blown into them). Everybody passing from normal life to the foreign landscape of chaos, everybody they couldn't afford to notice even as they couldn't keep from noticing. Angie figured there had to be something that registered at some time, flashes of something they were able to disregard or store in a black box in their head for later, when it could be washed away by whatever they drank or screwed or smoked. You live through it, Ham told her that morning, or you don't. Sit still, be quiet, and breathe. How they managed that, she couldn't imagine. Suddenly it was Angie who felt like a voyeur.
"You're doing pretty good too," she told him. "In case 'everybody' ever asks." She left him to finish checking things under the hood, and stretched out in the shade to wait for Tyler's return. She used to have friends like those two seemed to be, more than the sum of their parts. One or two, anyway. Part of the 'everybody' who hadn't lived through it, while she had. What a fucking crapshoot.
A boot toe nudged her awake. "Up and at 'em, Angel. We'll be where we're going in an hour, tops."
She shielded her eyes from the glare of the sun and saw Tyler standing over her, loaded down with yet more stuff. Cameras, it looked like, bandoliers of film, a map case, a knapsack full of other stuff. He noticed her noticing, and explained, "Can't just show up and say 'howdy'. We're gonna do a little surveillance first, a little osmosis before we immerse if you get my drift. Reno set us up a station near the resistance hideout."
DAY THREE: 10 PM
Angie wasn't sure what a rebel camp (or even a rebel) was supposed to look like, but the abandoned water processing plant visible through the rusted chain link fence didn't remind her of any action movies she'd seen. She watched warily from the camper that had been setup by her companions' mysterious contact. Who knew whose side anyone was on? She jumped at the movement coming from around an abandoned car, but Chris was out with his Uzi almost before Tyler could brush off the bespectacled guy who looked weirdly like a gun-toting CPA, followed closely by his equally out-of-place looking Mexican cohort.
"In about 10 seconds you're gonna be cloud dancing," Farber drawled. In spite of the sudden abundance of firearms and attitude, Angie almost laughed out loud. Cloud dancing! Who the hell says "cloud dancing"?
The two very embarrassed rebels argued like teenagers as they were forced to lead the way into the recesses of the processing station. Chris nudged Angie forward between himself and Tyler. Good thing too, because the rush of armed humanity that suddenly appeared in front of them in the narrow passageway would have had Angie heading for the hills if she'd been bringing up the rear. A guy who might have been good looking if he didn't radiate "cocky" stepped to the front and lowered his weapon, prompting the others to follow suit.
"How ya doin' Gooder?" Tyler greeted the Cocky guy. No smiles there. "Mike Donovan, " he told his companions, then pointed to each of them in turn, "Chris Farber, Angie Harper." He returned his attention back to Donovan. "Don't tell me you're in charge of this rat hole, Gooder?"
"Ham Tyler," the other man returned, "I should have known you'd crawl out from under some munitions dump sooner or later." He turned to the others behind him. "'Gooder', that's short for 'do-gooder'," and went on to "introduce" Tyler. On and on, in multiple syllables and self-righteous hyperbole.
The resumption of what was obviously a pissing match of historical proportions was cut short when Donovan asked Angie, "So what's an apparently nice girl like you see in a guy like this?"
Taking a step forward she informed him tersely, "He doesn't talk too much."
The look on Donovan's face told Angie he was assuming that she was a road dividend, either against her will or because of her own willingness to screw whoever looked useful. It suddenly didn't seem very ironic that she felt more comfortable with Tyler and Farber, regardless of their unknown history, than with these "regular people." Especially this Gooder, who struck her as such an utter prick that he was already reaching some buttons even Tyler hadn't found yet.
"So much for instant fellowship," a female voice commented from behind Donovan. A very petite blonde limped forward, followed closely by a dark-haired man. Both seemed a little more together than the others, but that didn't seem to be a very high bar at the moment.
"I'm Julie Parrish, and this is my colleague Robert Maxwell. I'm afraid we're in charge of more things than we'd like to be, so if you're here to help I'm glad to hear it. You look like you've had a long, hard trip. Let's get you something to eat and you can learn about what we're doing here."
Tyler dismissed the notion of hospitality. "We didn't come here for a tea party, lady. Why don't you show us around and we'll get down to business. Looks to me like you people need some serious organization."
"Some people run on adrenalin and testosterone," Angie shot a pleading look at Tyler, "but wimps like me need a little nourishment, thanks." Ham tipped an indulgent (hell, patronizing) nod, and Chris just went along. The collection of rebels, all of whom looked to Angie as much like a fish-out-of-water, trailed off about their business.
During the brief meal, the planned mission at the latest big press event celebrating the opening of the new "chemical plant" (aka food processing center) was mentioned.
"So why you wasting time trying to forge passes?" Angie wanted to know. "You're lucky you got away with it the first time."
"Wasting time? How else are we going to get in?" Robert wanted to know, and Julie's expression suggested agreement.
"Well first of all, the first thing they're gonna look for is forgery. That means their pass readers will be hard coded for narrow parameters."
Julie and Robert exchanged a look. "What did you do before you met up with these two?" Julie asked, carefully avoiding the value judgments Mike's attitude had been screaming earlier.
"IT at Boston Public Library."
The two scientists were silent for a moment, and even Donovan looked subdued. "But Boston's," he began.
Tyler interrupted in a low voice, "She knows, Gooder."
Angie ignored them both. "What I mean is that the best way to get around the Visitor system is to breach it at the weakest point, at the applications level."
"Which means?" Maxwell inquired.
"Long story short? Persuading it to expand its horizons regarding what is defined as a pass. In simple terms, if a pass includes a photo 1 by 1 inch, rewrite the parameters to accept 5 by 5 inches. Like that."
"Can you hack into the Visitor systems and reprogram them? And how do you know how they work?"
Angie shook her head. "I can't program worth shit. But I can weasel with app codes like god's gift. And to answer the other question, any occupying force needs to be able to link with their target's systems in order to take effective control, so bridge technologies would be the primary focus on the ground. For practicality's sake their own home-based stuff would be limited to their ship systems, especially when they've come this far. Anyway, my theory is that code writers' egos are consistent throughout the universe: they all believe they're so brilliant that external corruption is impossible. So the security is token, and limited to very obvious areas, like programming. And that's probably only so nobody will mess with their 'perfect' creation! So anyway, all you have to do is rewrite the app parameters, and almost anything you create that looks remotely like one of their passes will skate right through their scanners."
Donovan wasn't convinced. "How do you know so much about what the Visitors would have to do to conquer us?"
Patience, Angie reminded herself. "The prerequisites of conquest have been recorded for thousands of years, you just have to read them." It all worked together, she'd learned, history, science, technology and even military logistics. There wasn't anything in life you couldn't find if the library was big enough.
"But you're talking about Earth history."
Now Angie sat back with a sidelong glance at Tyler and Farber, who were already (almost) smiling in anticipation of her reply. After just three days Tyler and his partner knew her better than anyone left alive. Though she hadn't noticed it, Tyler had been watching Angie with some interest as she became more comfortable and spoke a little more freely. Found her element, he thought, or something close to it. He was willing to admit he was glad to see it, glad to know there'd be some useful purpose for having brought her in. From time to time he'd encountered women who got his attention enough to be a distraction, but this was different. No worries of going soft, though he couldn't pinpoint exactly why. Maybe it was that she understood quiet and clarity like he did, knew the value of observation over inquiry. Those kinds of people - rare, rare - didn't worry him. They were reliable... like Chris Farber. Well, maybe a little different. Tyler had never carried Farber to bed and felt his head drop with a sleepy sigh. Ham still didn't really want to know Angie's story, but he was coming to know her, and it felt safe. He was even willing to admit it felt good. It had been a very, very long time since getting to know a woman felt like anything more than a risk, or a grudging necessity.
"They're aiming to conquer Earth," Angie reminded Donovan casually, "Mars history won't help 'em much."
Robert and Julie were intrigued, if doubtful. "How do we find out what the pass parameters are?"
Angie considered this for a minute. Hacking into the system would be the best way, but that would involve skills far beyond her own and risks far beyond imagining.
"Get hold of a pass, and copy it. Just copy it, don't worry about how to imitate it convincingly. If I can see what its makeup is, I can reasonably spec the parameters." She paused, suddenly aware her thoughts were running ahead of certainty. "No guarantees, you understand. Just better odds than a straight forgery."
Robert smiled at Julie and Mike. "Better odds are exactly what we need. Let's meet again in the morning and we'll figure out how to get a pass." He looked meaningfully at Mike.
Suddenly Angie realized that Tyler hadn't said a word. That Farber was silent was no surprise. She looked at Ham, since he was at least familiar with the mechanics of rebellion and subterfuge.
"Works for me," he said simply.
Funny how a full moon could show up on exactly the wrong night.
Ham sat down a step or two above Angie where she'd taken refuge after the preliminary "meeting".
"I thought you'd run off."
Angie didn't bother looking back at Tyler. "Run off? Just tell me which way, and I'm gone."
"Maybe you should stick around for that meeting tomorrow."
She snorted. "Maybe I should get the fuck outta Dodge before they find out I made promises I can't keep." It was getting easier to speak her thoughts out loud.
"I didn't hear any promises."
"A mere technicality." She stared at the moon for a few minutes. Tyler said nothing, but she knew he was still there. "You know movies?" He knew history and books, why not movies?
"Just the classics."
Well, then. "So I keep thinking, in the back of my head, if I click my heels together three times, I'll go home. Spiral effects, harp music, the whole nine yards. But I'll be home after three." A moment or two of silence. "But Kansas is so gone now."
Tyler didn't comment. Angie Harper was looking less like all the others all the time. Or maybe she did look like all the others, but he was getting a close enough look at what made them all different from one another.
"Now you know why I don't say much. I talk kind of crazy, like you said."
"Crazy is the new language, Angel. You're just lucky you learned it early."
A deep sigh. "I don't think I'll ever be lucky again. 'Course right now I'd settle for a little more time like now, a little quiet. Not silence, just… still. You know? I mean most of these people seem okay, stuck in the middle of the weird zone like all of us, but even when they're not talking they're not quiet. There's this buzz, this edginess." She turned suddenly, and looked Tyler in the eyes. She could see them, under the full moon, deep chocolate. Still definitely unsweetened, but not as bitter as she'd first thought. "You're quiet, Tyler. I don't know why, after all you've done, but you are."
He gave a quiet laugh, a token joke. "Stealth. Comes with the job."
She shook her head. "Nah. Stealth, that's deliberate. Quiet, it's… innate. Like the song says, you can't memorize Zen."
"Nobody you've heard of." She rose, and looked down at him. "I should find my bunk and maybe get to know the new compadres. Julie showed me around, but this place is a freaking rabbit warren."
"The better to hide you in, my dear." Fairy tales were literature, too.
She shook her head and smiled. "Shit, Tyler, you are a font of... all sorts of stuff."
When he stood and curled a hand around that hamster-brown braid and leaned into her, her first thought was how that hard-looking mouth was anything but. Then, how there was no groping or hard grasping with manly hands, just light fingers to steady her face against his. And no tongue jamming down her throat, thank God. Not gentle, exactly… gentle was deliberate. This was… innate. And brief enough that she didn't actually get the chance to respond, as she was still making up her mind if she should.
No protest, Ham noticed, but nothing else either. Win some, lose some. He let her go and considered her from the step above, then shrugged. "Maybe not. Back to Plan A is fine with me."
She could tell he meant it. "Wait," and she grabbed him by the leather lapel and pulled him back down to her. Ironically, with an insistence whose absence had so impressed her a moment ago, as if she could draw that quiet and stillness into herself from him. Ham indulged her for a second or two, then pulled back a bit.
"Easy, Angel. I'm not going anywhere."
She was embarrassed, caught out. "Sorry." How long had it been since she'd been kissed by someone who had nothing to prove?
He looked down at where her right hand was still clutched on his jacket as if she were afraid to let go. "No, not like that," he worked his thumb into her fist to loosen her grip and open her hand. "Like this." He kissed her palm lightly, and closed her hand. "Easy. Stand still. Be quiet." Then that not-hard mouth was on hers again, a little less brief than the first time. "Breathe."
"Well okay then," she said finally, as if something had been settled. Then in response to the nanosecond of consideration that flashed through her brain she said aloud, "Why ask why."
His smile, the honest one she'd seen only a few times, showed in the dark. "That was a beer commercial."
"Can't get nothin' past you."
"Good," she confessed with an exhausted sigh, and dropped her forehead against his arm, "I so hate having to explain things."
"Not to me, Angie," when he spoke her name low and quiet it sounded more intimate than any nickname. "I got you from word one." And as abruptly as he'd kissed her, he stepped back from her. "Okay, lights out. Tomorrow after that meeting you start lessons."
"If you're gonna run with professionals, you're gonna learn to shoot."
She rolled her eyes. "I told you, Tyler, I'm no good with guns."
"You'll do fine," and Angie was stunned to see him tip her a mischievous wink. "If all else fails, pretend it's a lamp."
As they walked back to the entrance of the building Ham wrapped an arm around Angie's shoulders and dropped a kiss on her head. "See you in the morning."
She looked at him in puzzlement, having expected something a little different might be happening. Not surprisingly he read her perfectly.
"Later," he promised with a smile, "I'm not going anywhere."