To course across more kindly waters now
my talent's little vessel lifts her sails,
leaving behind herself a sea so cruel;
and what I sing will be that second kingdom,
in which the human soul is cleansed of sin,
becoming worthy of ascent to Heaven.
The Visitors' Earth Security Headquarters didn't look like a fortress. Awash in floodlights, it gleamed like a jewel in the night. The blue laser fencing that surrounded parts of its perimeter lent it a sapphire-like aspect.
It was built in the mid-1920s as a wealthy local physician's residence and was said to have been modeled after Michelangelo Buonarotti's own Villa Collazi in Florence. The Tuscan-style villa, built within a grove of old oaks and surrounded by manicured lawns and an exquisite garden, projected opulence and refinement, completely without any garishness or excess. Over the years of its existence, it had transformed from a private mansion to a Roman Catholic novitiate to an exclusive all-girls high school.
Within weeks of the Visitors' arrival, the all-girls high school was relocated (there were persistent rumors that the school's administration only did so under heavy pressure), and the property was leased to the Visitors themselves. Almost immediately, the property and its buildings were refurbished and retrofitted to accommodate Visitor technology. Various computer hardware and their proprietary support systems were installed; communications arrays were put in place; landing pads and refueling stations for the Visitor shuttles were built on the grounds; an armory was built in the basement of what used to be the main mansion and was stocked with the latest Visitor weaponry; also in the basement, a heavily-fortified and fully-equipped prisoner holding and interrogation area was also built. These and other alterations were done, yet completely hidden from public view, to the point that anybody not associated with the Visitors was completely unaware of them.
From the outside, very little had changed in the appearance of the buildings on the property. The only real sign of the Visitors' control and presence there, aside from the omnipresent red-clad Visitor personnel walking about, were the gigantic red flags emblazoned with the Visitors' symbol in black in the center, hung proudly – some would say arrogantly – from myriad flagpoles attached to all of the buildings. But outside the ivy-covered walls of the property, no one knew that this was the one of the most secure Visitor strongholds on the American west coast.
That, in truth, was the reason behind the property's appeal: It was a cloistered environment, secure from the outside, beautiful to look at yet designed to hide itself from interlopers and curious eyes even as it stood in plain sight. In a way, it was consistent with the Visitors' penchant in having two completely distinct faces: There was the beautiful face in full public view, and there was the uglier face hidden away under the mask.
Just days before the local resistance's raid on the Los Angeles Medical Center, a laser fence was installed to augment the stronghold's perimeter security. The laser fence guarded all the entry points into the property, now very strongly discouraging anybody curious to even have a peek through the gates. However, for the most part, the ivy-covered wall, seven feet tall at the sidewalk level outside the property, constituted the property's perimeter defense.
Since Earth Security Headquarters was in the middle of a posh residential district in Sierra Madre, a suburb about twenty miles east of Los Angeles, nobody ever batted an eye at the presence of assorted vehicles parked in the area. The presence of maybe a dozen various pickup trucks and vans parked up and down the block was nothing abnormal at all.
Except, of course, for the fact that these vehicles on this particular evening belonged to the Los Angeles resistance. All of these vehicles had their drivers waiting, crouched away from view with walkie-talkies in their hands. They were waiting, staying alert.
And in one of the vehicles, a For open-bed F-150, Elias Taylor leaned into the driver's window from his place on the bed. "About twenty minutes to go-time," he said quietly.
"I'm just waiting for that fence to go down," Robert Maxwell said.
"Hope we can pull this thing off without a hitch."
"Yeah. Me, too."
Their comrades were already inside the property, hidden amongst the foliage and the shadows.
The main building of Security Headquarters was a hive of activity. Uniformed cleaning ladies were working with vacuum cleaners, dusters, glass cleaners, brushes of every type, cleansers of every description. Security troops were marching to their stations, and technical support staff were checking and double-checking their tracking systems and communications equipment.
In the main reception area on the first floor, Daniel Bernstein was looking at a checklist on his Visitor-issued document reader. Helpfully it had the text translated to English. On the top-right portion of its screen was a digital clock; it said, in bright red characters, "20:42."
He was talking to a Visitor Security officer when he felt himself pitch forward, having been bumped by someone behind him. Annoyed, he whirled around, and he saw to see a decrepit old woman in a cleaning lady's uniform looking up at him fearfully.
"Oh, pardon me," she said, immediately dropping her gaze onto the floor.
"Watch where you're going," Daniel snapped. She bent to pick up her bucket, then started to walk away, but then he grabbed her left arm. "Stop." He studied her face intently as she looked up at him again. "Do I know you from someplace?"
She was flustered, but she managed an embarrassed smile. "No," she said finally, a bit of fear in her voice. He continued to stare at her. "I'm just one of the help," she croaked. "Please let me go, sir. I've got more work to do."
Daniel continued to look at her, slightly repulsed at the crone's appearance, yet not able to shake the distinct feeling that he knew who she was. "I guess it's not that important," he said finally. "Carry on."
The old woman bent down again and lifted her bucket, then scurried away.
"That was too close," Ruby Engels thought to herself. "Gotta be more careful."
She took a moment to inhale a deep, calming, cleansing breath, then she hurried away from the main reception area with her bucket in hand. She looked back over her shoulder frequently, vigilant for anyone who looked like might be following her.
"I hope nobody sees me," she kept thinking to herself. "There's too much at stake."
Her heart was pounding hard and loud like a giant bass drum in her ears by the time she reached the elevator. Though she didn't look up, she knew what the bilingual sign on one of the walls said – in both English and in the Visitors' native alphabet, it read: "Restricted Area. Access to Designated Personnel Only."
"You used to be so much better than this at keeping your nerve," Ruby chided herself as she put her bucket on the floor by her feet. "This really isn't any different than being on stage; it's all about the performance. Just out of practice, I guess."
She felt for the Visitor access key in her hip pocket, then allowed herself a small smile as she took it out. She pushed it into the receptacle set into the door frame and watched as the door into the elevator slid open. She then picked up her bucket and started to enter the elevator. "Maybe I need the reassurance of having an audience watching me."
She was just about to laugh quietly at her own private musings when a Visitor's voice shocked her back to the present moment. "You!" said a security trooper. "Old woman!"
Ruby's blood froze as she turned around and saw the tall, muscle-bound Visitor Security trooper.
Mike Donovan's eyes had long ago adjusted to the darkness. In the shadows afforded by the hedges and trees and foliage near Security Headquarters' main building his comrades were invisible as they busily armed their various weapons. They were spread out at various tactical positions, with some positioned up in the trees and others prone on the ground. The idea was to make it as difficult for the Visitors as possible to fix on any one position once the shots started firing.
Some were positioned strictly to be decoys, to get the Visitors looking the wrong way while the real key hitters took out the important targets.
Donovan marveled at the elegance and logic behind Ham Tyler's plan for this operation. Despite his comfort with the plan, he couldn't deny that he felt the nag of doubt tugging at his soul.
He nudged up against Tyler. "How we doing?" he asked, his voice barely a whisper.
"Chris has the archers ready; all our gunners are in position. Just waiting for the go."
Donovan tapped Tyler on the shoulder in acknowledgment. He had a worry weighing on his mind, and he gave voice to it. "I hope Ruby makes it."
"She'll do just fine."
"I shouldn't have let her talk me into this."
"Your timing sucks, Gooder. Hell of a time to let guilt get you back on your senses."
Donovan winced as he admitted just how right Tyler was.
Juliet Parrish didn't want to move, but the tug on her arm propelled her forward. She kept her eyes to the floor as she was forced along, watching her feet now encased in black boots take each unwanted step.
She thought idly about how the Visitor woman – her name was Lorraine, if she recalled correctly – had come into her cell and asked her to get up. At first she refused; she was consumed with terror every time those figures in red came in through the sliding doors for her. That was just her automatic reaction to seeing those people in the red uniforms. Then she would look up into their faces, and if she saw Lorraine's she would allow her fear to loosen its desperate clench on her heart. But if she saw not a face but the lowered black mask with the golden helmet...
Juliet closed her eyes and pushed that thought away, refusing to sink into the mire of terror induced by the memories inspired by those figures in red with the gold and black helmets. Memories of being dragged out of her cell and forced into that room with the glass walls and the flashing lights and the swirling clouds of chemicals that rose up to engulf her. Memories of terrors lived and relived. Memories of pain. Memories of the crushing weight of guilt.
Memories of death.
Memories of another woman in red, one she called "Momma."
Juliet looked down on herself and saw she was now wearing the same red uniform.
She shut her eyes again. A different memory now, of warm water cascading over her, of a soft towel on her skin, then of Lorraine telling her to get dressed. Lorraine had handed her the red uniform, complete with the black boots and black cap, and gave her the necessary privacy – an infinitely precious luxury to her – to get dressed.
It was quite strange now, actually, to be wearing clothes again, after who knows how long it had been since she last did. That realization, and the importance that she attached to it, made the experience all the more alien to her.
She opened her eyes and summoned all her courage to look at the Visitor holding her bicep. She had forgotten that he wasn't wearing one of those golden helmets with the black mask; she had been too consumed with fear to take note of his features when he took her from Lorraine, and all she could do was to keep her gaze on the floor even as he fastened his powerful hand on her arm.
The Visitor looked down at her as he pulled her along, and Juliet couldn't help but feel that he was trying to see deep inside her. Despite the desperately uncomfortable feeling of self-consciousness that was threatening to overcome her, she tried to meet his gaze, but she couldn't summon the will to keep her eyes on him. She was somewhat surprised that she sensed no hostility, no malice, from this male Visitor. If anything, she felt something akin to concern, even compassion, from him. She looked down at her feet again.
She didn't know how long they had been walking; she didn't bother to notice how many corridors they walked down, nor how many doors they passed through. But she did notice when they arrived at what clearly was one of the Mother Ship's shuttle docking bays. The sounds of machinery and activity and the din of airlocks opening and closing and the hisses and spits of hydraulics and pneumatic components assaulted her ears the moment the doors into the bay slid open.
The Visitor pulled her towards one of the craft, one with its loading ramp open. Juliet had a sudden recollection of a time when she was ushered out of a similar vehicle, surrounded by what seemed like a dozen of the red-uniformed people holding her tight and with weapons drawn and trained on her. The fear from that long-gone moment flashed like a grease fire at that moment, and she dug her feet into the floor.
But the Visitor holding her was much too strong, and she was forced up the shuttle's loading ramp. She stiffened, frozen like a statue, when she saw the dark-haired woman in red who smiled at her waiting inside the vehicle.
It was her, the one whose face was always in her nightmares.
Ruby turned around and looked up at the hulking figure in red. "How did you open the elevator? That's strictly off-limits," he boomed down at her. She didn't fail to notice that his right hand was resting on his weapon, ready to draw if necessary.
Her mouth had gone completely dry and her heart felt like it was ready to explode, but somehow Ruby was able to find the right things to say. "Oh," she said with exaggerated slowness. "Well, I have approval."
The Visitor looked at her doubtfully. "They told me to give it a special cleaning," she said to him. "For Steven and Diana. 'Make it spotless,' they said!"
"Let me see your authorization."
Ruby smiled. "Oh, I have it here," she said, thrusting her hands into her pockets. The Visitor's facial expression did not change when she produced nothing. She looked up, as if she was concentrating, then bent down at her bucket. "Oh, it must be down here," she muttered as she made a show of searching the wash bucket.
"Hurry up, old woman," the Visitor said as he stepped towards her.
Without warning, Ruby drew a wash bottle filled with muriatic acid. She shot a few squirts into the Visitor's eyes.
As he staggered in blindness and pain, he bent over at the waist. Ruby saw her opportunity and pulled the wrench Tyler had given her a few hours earlier from the bucket and sent it crashing hard into the Visitor's nape. The forceful, well-placed blow killed the Visitor instantly.
Ruby wasted no time and gathered up her bucket and its spilled contents and activated the elevator. In mere seconds she was descending deep into the bowels of Security Headquarters.
Daniel Bernstein paced through the reception hall with the predatory intent of a lion. He scanned the room for one red-and-white-clad figure in particular in amongst the crowd. There were about two dozen women in the cleaning crew all dressed in the same uniform, but the one he was looking for was nowhere to be found.
With a frustrated grunt he approached one of the Security Troopers. "Where's the old woman?"
"The old woman!" Daniel said impatiently. "The cleaning lady!"
"I have no idea."
Daniel stomped away, never seeing the trooper's look of curiosity fixed on him.
Ruby Engels peered out of the elevator car. It was hard for her to see in the subdued lighting in the sub-basement level of Security Headquarters. She tried to listen for any tell-tale signs of unwanted company, but found it impossible to hear beyond the din of the generators, motors, cooling systems, and other machinery.
She stepped out of the elevator and headed towards an array of large electrical control boxes set against the east wall of the building. She rounded a few corners until she saw her first landmark, a spiraling staircase heading towards the building's ground level. Ruby smiled, pleased to see something she was expecting to see. This staircase was going to be her escape route out of the sub-basement level. She continued walking until she found the control boxes, right where she expected them to be. "It's a good thing I paid close attention to Donovan's briefing this afternoon," she thought to herself. "Everything's right where Martin's schematics had them."
Ruby set her bucket down on the floor, then she withdrew the pre-made wad of plastic explosive rigged by Tyler's associate, Chris Farber. She placed the explosive on one of the control boxes, then set herself around a corner about fifteen feet from the control boxes. She then took out the remote control detonator and her walkie-talkie.
She pressed the transmit button and whispered, "I'm in position."
Through the noise of the machinery in the sub-basement she never heard the sound of the elevator doors sliding open.
Ham Tyler lowered his night-vision binoculars and touched the ear piece in his left ear, activating his radio. "Okay, Ruby, it's almost here. We can see the shuttle on its way down."
Mike Donovan slid silently next to him. "I hope Ruby makes it."
"She'll do just fine."
Tyler and Donovan both looked back up at the descending Visitor shuttle with their binoculars. "Looks like we've got about a minute," Mike said.
Mike looked around. Up in the tree above him Maggie Blodgett and Chris Farber were arming their weapons – a crossbow for Maggie, a longbow for Chris – with Teflon-tipped arrows. Sancho Gomez was up there with them, armed with an M4 assault rifle. And in the bushes and up in some of the other trees in the garden, the other resistance fighters were likewise sharpening their focus for the upcoming firefight.
"Looks like we're good."
Tyler nodded, then touched his ear piece again. "Get ready, Ruby. It's almost here."
The Visitor shuttle slowed its descent as it got closer to the landing pad. When it was about thirty meters off the ground, it deployed its landing gear. The shuttle lifted its nose ever so slightly as it continued its landing.
"About twenty seconds," Tyler muttered. Donovan nodded and gave Chris and Maggie a thumbs up, giving them clearance to select their targets.
"Ten seconds," said Tyler as he let go of the binoculars and reached for his SIG Sauer P226 silenced pistol. He silently counted down the seconds, then touched his ear piece. "Okay, Ruby. It's down. Standby for my signal."
Tyler and Donovan watched as spotlights mounted on the main building's roof swung toward the newly-arrived craft on the landing pad. The shuttle's pneumatic systems vented themselves, sending up clouds of condensed vapor with multiple hisses. "Good thing that stuff evaporates quick, or you'd be shooting through a smokescreen," Donovan quipped.
Ham didn't answer, instead raising his pistol so that he was looking down its sights. As he did so, the shuttle's starboard hatch started to open.
"Now hit Martin in the leg, like we planned," Mike said quietly. "When he goes down, that'll be our signal for our guys to open up."
"You know, Gooder, from this distance I can almost cut him in half."
"Anything more than a flesh wound, you get the same."
Tyler couldn't help but smile when he heard the annoyance in Donovan's voice. "Okay, Gooder."
Ham let the brief moment of levity between himself and Donovan breathe for a second or two more, then he refocused once again as the lower portion of the hatch finished its downward motion and settled on the landing pad.
A pair of Security troops stepped from inside the shuttle and positioned themselves at the hatch, one to each side of it, weapons drawn. Seconds later, four more people walked slowly down the ramp in pairs heading for the main building.
Tyler allowed himself a small smile as he saw two blonde heads in the lead. Martin walked beside a small woman whom he kept on his left side, holding her arm. Behind them were two dark-haired Visitors, whom Ham immediately recognized as Steven and Diana. He was tempted to go beyond the parameters of his assigned role and just unload on them – I might never get a better chance than this – but swallowed the impulse.
He had a job to do.
In fact, so much of this operation depended on whether or not he could make a supremely difficult shot.
Though he would have hated to admit it, Tyler felt a spark of genuine respect for Martin at that moment. Martin had a part to play in what was very shortly to unfold – a fairly dangerous part, putting his life and well-being in the hands of someone who had treated him with undisguised disdain – but he seemed completely undaunted about the possibility of something going horribly wrong.
"Looks like E.T. came through," he thought to himself as he re-focused on Martin, shelving all other distracting thoughts away. He watched the Visitor's gait and pace carefully, looked down the sights of his P226, then squeezed the trigger.
Martin fell immediately as he felt the impact of the slug into his thigh. As he fell he dragged Juliet down to the ground with him. He pressed his hand tight on his bleeding leg, applying strong direct pressure in order to stem the bleeding, and he looked with amazement at the fact that Tyler had indeed managed to hit the strap that held his sidearm to his thigh.
Gunfire exploded all around them, and he felt Juliet stir and try to get up. He moved and covered her body with his. The ache in his leg intensified as he slid on top of her, feeling the tendrils of unconsciousness begin to tighten their grip on him.
The first to shoot after Martin fell were Maggie and Chris with their bows. Their arrows found Shock Troopers stationed on a balcony overlooking the landing pad and Security troopers guarding the west-facing side entrance into Security Headquarters. When these targets fell, the rest of the Visitors' attentions were diverted towards them.
That's when the gunfire erupted. With their backs turned, the Visitors never had a clue about the rest of the rebel force hidden in the shadows of the garden. The Teflon-tipped ammunition was supremely effective, cutting a swath of death and destruction through the Visitor soldiers and guards.
Tyler picked off target after target, his eyes searching for Diana and Steven. "Damned scaly bitch managed to slither away and hide," he thought. He touched his ear piece. "Lights!"
The booms of muffled explosions from somewhere underground joined the symphony of automatic gunfire and the whooshes of arrows whistling at speed through the nighttime air. At that moment, the entire Visitor compound fell dark, the only light emanating from the muzzles of the rebels' weapons.
The roar of an engine and the screech of protesting tires rose above even the bursts of automatic gunfire, which now had intensified. Tyler looked at the F-150 barreling down the long driveway towards Security Headquarters' main building. The F-150 skidded to a stop next to the west-side entrance, and a shadowy figure clad in black rushed towards the vehicle.
"Gooder, you timed that just perfectly," Tyler thought as he watched Donovan reach for Juliet on the ground, kick Martin in the face, then throw the petite woman onto the bed of the truck. Elias Taylor caught her in midair, then covered her up protectively.
Donovan clambered onto the rear of the bed, banging on the metal to signal Robert Maxwell to gun the motor. Suddenly, someone reached out for his leg and almost dragged him off of the bed of the truck just as it started to speed away. Donovan looked down and saw a Visitor Shock Trooper wrapped around his left leg in desperation. He kicked with his right and pulled himself aboard the truck when the alien finally let go.
As the truck accelerated away past the shuttle on the landing pad, a bright yellow streak of light sped from the shadows of the trees in the garden towards the alien craft. It was a Stinger missile. The Stinger hit the Visitor shuttle, instantly exploding and transforming it into a fiery pile of broken pieces.
Diana shielded her eyes from the brightness of the flames and explosions. She looked at Steven, who had joined her just inside the west-side entrance into the main building. She saw Martin sprawled on the ground, bleeding and unconscious just outside the doorway. She looked for another blonde head, but she knew that she would not find the one she wanted. The Earth vehicle that had come and stopped just a few feet away, then left in a huge hurry surely now had repossessed the woman she had once called her "masterpiece."
So much time, so much effort, so much potential... No thanks to this latest fiasco, the fruits of all that work may yet still go to waste.
She didn't bother to disguise her disdain as she said to Steven, "You should be terminated for this blunder."
Ruby Engels walked briskly towards the spiral staircase out of the basement level. Thankfully the emergency lights still worked; otherwise, she would have had no choice but to navigate through the semi-darkness. She saw the spiral staircase that would lead her out.
She stopped in her tracks and gasped as a beam of light blinded her.
"So," said the voice of the man holding the Mag-Lite aimed at her face. "You are a spy."
Ruby willed herself to sound calm, even though her heart was going so fast it felt like it was going to explode. "Who, me?" she said innocently in her crone's voice. "I was just down here working, when all of a sudden I heard a boom -"
"Nah, nah, nah, nah, you're lying, you're lying!" Daniel Bernstein said. "I saw you!" He reached out and grabbed the back of her head, intent on pulling Ruby by her hair. "You're coming with me."
The wig came off of Ruby's head, and Daniel looked at her again. Ruby saw the unmistakable glint of recognition in his eyes, mixed in with anger. "I do know you!" he said.
"Yes, you do know me."
"You – you were lying to me! Well, what, did you think you could outsmart me, huh? Huh?" He reached for her again. "You're coming with me, and we'll see -"
"And be a hero?"
Daniel hesitated for a moment and looked at Ruby.
"Let me go, Daniel. For your grandpa Abraham."
Daniel shook his head, but Ruby could tell she hit a nerve when she mentioned his grandfather's name. "I've known you all your life. Do you remember all the good times we had? All the smiles, the laughs, we shared together with your grandpa?" She allowed herself to relax a little as she watched Daniel reflect on memories from not so long ago. "You were such a good boy, Daniel. You couldn't change, to be so without... honor."
She shook her head. "I don't believe it."
Ruby took a few cautious steps toward him. Daniel seemed frozen, conflicted by myriad emotions at war with each other. Ruby was emboldened by his inaction.
"Stop," he said suddenly, his arm moving towards his sidearm.
Ruby had one hand on the spiraling banister, one foot on the bottom step. She looked at him, then took another couple of steps up the staircase.
"Stop," he said again, more insistently this time.
Ruby paused and looked at him again, then continued climbing the stairs.
"I'm warning you," Daniel said with anger rising in his voice. He drew his sidearm. "I said stop!"
The shot echoed inside the basement level, hurting Daniel's ears. For a moment he was blinded by the flash of his Visitor sidearm, its energy discharge much brighter than his Mag-Lite.
He heard the thuds of dead weight impacting on the metal spiral staircase, and felt the lump settle at his boots.
He never looked down at the corpse of Ruby Engels as he stepped over her to report to his superiors.