Hal and Maggie scouted ahead of the strike group as far as the high school in Acton.
They were all the soldiers Weaver could spare to tilt at windmills with Buffy's people; and two more than she even wanted, but that was the compromise they'd come to. It was a good twenty five miles from Acton back to downtown Boston where the structure loomed – a significant run, even for Slayers, whose strength and speed were geared more toward sprints than endurance. And the remnants of the Second Massachusetts were another ten miles past that now, camped in a pocket of conservation land. So they'd have had to travel slowly enough for bikes to keep up for at least that initial distance regardless. Made sense to take the car that far, and conserve energy.
Past that, though – the Skitters would have to know which direction they'd gone, and they had every reason to be watching the routes in to Boston for movement. Porter's intelligence had suggested the aliens' aerial sensors only detected groups of six hundred or more people and weaponry bigger than RPG launchers, but the recent attacks proved there was something else at work, too. So custom mufflers or no, the bikes were just too loud for Buffy to be comfortable with. Hal didn't want to listen to her, but Maggie had a little more sense, fortunately.
Hal would never be able to keep up with them. If he tried to follow anyway, they'd just be trading one Mason in captivity for another. And even if Dr. Glass knew how to take harnesses off without killing the kids they were attached to? Buffy doubted stealing a second group of the aliens' slaves would be anywhere near as easy as the first, especially if the Skitters were capable of recognizing who Hal was. Better to have him furious than loose in the streets, complicating their mission to rescue his father more than it was already.
"Believe me," Buffy told him. "I know how you feel. My sister – she was kidnapped when we were younger, held hostage by someone I knew wanted to make a production out of killing her, and I would have let the whole world burn to get her back."
"Did you?" he spat.
"Get her back? Yeah. No world-burnage, though the cost was higher than I would have asked anyone else to pay." Understatement; but the details hardly mattered now.
"Then you should understand how I feel," he said, hands tightening on the handlebars of his motorcycle.
"I do," she replied, as calmly as she could. She'd been sixteen once, too, and just as reckless about her own mortality – which was saying something, given that she'd already been the Slayer at that age, and his world had ended months ago. "But you have to understand this, too: this isn't the way to get your dad back. If it can be done, we'll do it. But we're stronger than you, and faster than you, and you would just hold us back. Do you understand me?"
He ground his jaw, but he must have picked up a little common sense over the last few months, because he nodded tersely. "Then we'll be waiting for you to bring him back. Don't screw it up," he said, sullenly.
"Or what?" Stasia snorted. "Kid, if we screw up? There'll be nothing you can do to us, 'cause we won't be coming back."
Maggie stepped up then, laying a firm hand on Hal's shoulder. "We know," she said. "Good luck. Dusk's falling – if you're going to have a chance at this, you'll need to go now."
Buffy nodded, then turned to the others, holding a hand out toward Kennedy. Kennedy clasped it in hers, then glanced at the other girls; Zahra and Stasia layered theirs on top, forming a cross.
"Let's do this," she said. Then they turned as one and headed toward downtown Boston at a ground-eating lope, the pale blue autumn sky fading to blackness above them.
It was true dark by the time they reached the place where the fighters of the Second Mass had fallen. The bodies were gone – Buffy really didn't want to think about what the Skitters did with the corpses, or why, but they'd done the same thing in every major population center the Slayer group had been through from Akron to Acton – along with their weapons, but their vehicles and other supplies were still there, wrecked and turned over and stained with relatively fresh blood.
They hadn't spotted any Skitter work crews to that point, though they'd had to crouch under a bridge once while a flock of flyers went over. Buffy figured most of the aliens had pulled in close, repairing the damage Mason had done to their base with the mech-metal RPG, but there was no way to be sure, so they'd kept to the shadows as much as possible. It seemed to be working, so they followed the same procedure, only more slowly, down side streets the rest of the way toward the structure.
Finally, they reached the stripped area around the base of the nearest support pillar, staring up at the towering construction. She still didn't see any Skitters – which made sense, if the aliens bedded down at night with the harnessed kids, like Hal said – but there were plenty of mechs patrolling, their humming powerplants and echoing steps providing constant background music.
"You know, we should have known the Skitters were only foot soldiers before this," Kennedy murmured, as her eyes tracked a mech crossing the cleared ground not thirty yards away from them.
"What do you mean?" Buffy frowned at her.
"Look at that thing," she pointed. "Two legs, like one of those – what are the Star Wars things Andrew always compares them to?"
"AT-STs," Zahra piped up. "Scout walkers, only smaller; no room for someone to drive them."
"Right," Kennedy rolled her eyes. "We design things that way because it's familiar to us," she continued, gesturing at her own legs.
"But Skitters have a lot more legs than that," Buffy whispered, as the light bulb lit up in her thoughts.
"I hope their commanders aren't even harder to kill than they are," Zahra winced.
"Well, one way or the other, we're about to find out," Buffy frowned, her stomach sinking as she watched the mech walk away. Anyway she looked at it, this was going to be a tough nut to crack. "I think I've spotted their pattern; but it's pretty tight. It looks like we won't be able to get past without taking down at least a couple of mechs. You've memorized where the power plants are, right?"
"Right," Stasia and Zahra echoed her.
"Okay. We don't have bullets to waste, so we'll have to take them down with just a couple of shots and move on before the rest can converge. Then through that opening, there – Kennedy and I will switch to Scythe bullets after that. You two stay with the mech rounds. Anything important will be up above the hangar levels, so we'll cut our way on up, and reassess when we get there."
"It's going to be rough," Kennedy frowned. "I don't like the odds. I thought the idea was that just four people could get in and out without having to go through their whole damn army."
"Maybe three people still could," Stasia said, speculatively.
"What? No," Buffy stared at her in alarm. She'd already discarded that option as too risky. "I'm not going to ask anyone to sacrifice themselves."
"Look, we all appreciate how protective you've been of us since what happened to Mellie," Stasia snorted, tucking loose wisps of reddish blonde hair back under her ballcap. Then she unslung her pack and started removing ammunition, filling the pockets of her rugged cargo pants. "But put a little faith in us, okay? We aren't new to the Slaying biz, either, and I don't plan on dying tonight. Here."
She handed the half-emptied pack to Kennedy, then drew her handgun, took the safety off, and checked to make sure a round was chambered. "I'm a lot faster than they are; I'll draw them off, and down as many as I can before I go to ground. I'll meet you back at the school afterward."
"Stasia–" Kennedy bit her lip, then shouldered the other girl's bag over hers. "Be careful, okay?"
"Teach your grandmother to suck eggs," Stasia snapped back. Then she exchanged a forearm grip with Zahra and leaned over to press her forehead against her friend's, their pale and olive-toned complexions almost indistinguishable amid the camouflaging dirt and shadows. "Luck."
"Luck," Zahra echoed her, hoarsely.
Buffy swallowed, then gave in. "Kick some metal ass."
Stasia replied with a flashing, crooked-toothed grin, then turned and took off, hugging the edge of the cleared space. She made it nearly a quarter of the way around the circle before 'accidentally' stumbling out into the open; then she shouted as if in surprise and panic and lifted her weapon, firing three shots in quick succession at the nearest mech.
The groans of power plants ratcheting up sounded all around them the two-legged death machine staggered, then collapsed. Targeting lasers powered up, streaking the rubble where Stasia stood with red lines and dots – but the Slayer was no longer there, stumbling back into the ruins. At least a third of the assembled mechs followed after, shaking the ground with their bounding steps.
The chase was on. And – their cue was up. Buffy exchanged solemn glances with Kennedy and Zahra, then took a deep breath and moved.
Buffy craned her neck upward, staring through the dimly lit tangle of steel beams crossing back and forth as far as she could see, and swore under her breath. "Shit."
She wasn't sure what she'd been expecting to find inside the leg of the Skitter structure, but it wasn't the endless steel spiderweb of open space they'd actually encountered. She'd thought it would be mostly solid, with a staircase or some kind of alien elevator to carry the ground-level workers upward, and even worried that whatever space lay beyond the access arch wouldn't allow them passage all the way to the top. She'd forgotten to account for the Skitters' six legs and amazing climbing abilities.
Kennedy scowled upward next to her, checking out the positions of the crossbeams nearest the asphalt level while she and Buffy switched their mech bullets for Scythe rounds. "We can still do this," she murmured, "but it's going to be a bitch bringing Mason out this way, even if he's a hundred percent."
"We might be able to steal one of their shuttle things," Zahra whispered.
Kennedy snorted. "Yeah, and did any of us ever have flying lessons? Horses, I can handle; planes, not so much. And that's before you get into the whole alien factor."
"It can't be that hard," Zahra murmured, but shrugged to concede the point.
"Well, we'll just have to cross that killing field when we come to it," Buffy said, then holstered her handgun again and leapt upward, landing in a crouch on the lowest of the horizontal beams. Kennedy and Zahra followed as she navigated around the angled beam intersecting hers and leapt for what looked to be the next stable point in their deconstructed staircase.
They were about thirty-five feet off the ground, far enough up the angled metal structure that 'down' was no longer centered over asphalt but rather part of the thick metal wall, when the humming moan of returning mechs echoed up through the narrow space; Buffy swallowed, and exchanged a glance with Kennedy. "I guess Stasia's gone to ground already," she said, worry sinking like a stone in her stomach.
Zahra cocked her head, then whistled lowly. "She must have taken down a bunch of them, though. Unless they're guarding her somewhere – it sounds like maybe only half of them came back."
Buffy opened her mouth again to reply – then froze as Kennedy hissed and waved them both to silence. "Shhh. Behind us," she breathed, quietly enough that a normal person wouldn't have heard her.
Buffy braced one hand against the beam under her crouching legs and turned her head – only to swallow convulsively as she saw what Kennedy had freaked over. A handful of yards away, tucked up against the slanting ceiling-slash-wall where the base of several crossbeams met, a slightly concave platform held a Skitter nest. Literally, a nest; something soft had been spread over the hard, rough surface of the curving metal, and on that cloth lay sprawled half a dozen curled up children, each one with the ugly growth of a harness sprouting from their spines. A Skitter sprawled atop the pile, eyes closed, its six rough, slimy green limbs stretched out so as to encompass all of the children in its sleeping grasp.
"Oh, my god," Zahra choked out, making a retching noise in the back of her throat.
Aware now what to look for, Buffy scanned up and down the sloped passageway, making note of other platforms tucked amid particularly dense tangles of metal. There were more down than up, which made sense; going by the example of the few kids the Second Mass had managed to save, the harnesses mostly just healed the kids of any curable defects or illnesses during the first few months and adapted them to the control of the Skitters. They wouldn't be able to actually climb like their masters – or fellow slaves, depending on just what Anne's discovery of the harness inside a dead Skitter really meant – until their bodies began growing new, alien tissue on their own. Like Rick. And Ben.
And at least – she couldn't even guess. Several dozen other kids, here inside just one leg of the tower. If they hadn't tried to get Mellie back – if she hadn't died – she might have ended up living like this, growing into one more arrow in their alien conquerors' quiver. Buffy hadn't let herself really think about it in the months since her whole world had narrowed to just eight souls – but how many other Slayers around the globe had fallen into Skitter claws like Mellie? How many slept like this nightly even now?
And that wasn't the only disturbing question the sight of the nests brought up. If Colonel Porter's plan to blow up the structure had succeeded, how many innocents would have died here? Somehow, she didn't think their reports of this mission would make Weaver feel any better about the dozens of Second Mass soldiers who'd died trying to get their hand-built ANFO charges into place. Damned if they did, and damned if they didn't. This wasn't a clear-cut case, like the vampires she'd hunted before the skies fell; the original child was still in there, under the hardwired mind control that made them into the aliens' puppets. But that didn't make them any less dangerous to face.
Her trigger finger itched, and for one sickly hateful moment she wanted nothing more than to drill a Scythe bullet right through the 'mama' Skitter's forehead; even if she couldn't free those particular kids, she could at least rid them of their controller. But if she did that, they'd lose all chance at completing their mission, and maybe bringing back not only Mason but some valuable intel on the Skitters' masters as well. She dragged her gaze away from the nest with an effort, swallowed past the lump in her throat, and jerked a thumb upward for Kennedy's benefit.
Kennedy nodded, eyes haunted, and turned to lead their upward climb, even more quietly than before.
She couldn't have said how long it took them to reach the top; the passageway narrowed further as they went, until there wasn't room for any more nests and the three Slayers had to hand-over-hand their way up through the dense metal maze rather than jumping. But it did go all the way up to the lowest hangar level, as she'd hoped; a barely Skitter-sized gap at the top opened out in the inmost wall of a scorched, damaged flyer bay, probably the one Mason had hit with his mech-metal grenade round. There was plenty of debris for the intruders to hide behind as they emerged, organized into piles, and the illumination level was very nearly as dim as the scattered night lighting below.
Three more clumps of Skitters and their charges, visible from where she stood, told her why: they were the specifically designated repair crews.
"Here we go," she whispered, gesturing them toward what looked like the doorway into the complex proper. Unlike the archways they'd entered through, this one was closed with an actual door, probably auto-triggered by the little box up at shoulder height rather than any kind of knob.
Time to find out if the skinny, storklegged controller beings bothered with electronic locks or scanners. She darted low around the wall until she reached the thing, then stood cautiously to wave a hand in front of the probable scanning mechanism. Kennedy and Zahra positioned themselves at angles where they could fire at anything on the other side without risking a direct shot themselves, tensing as the door opened – then lowered their weapons slightly, peering through into the equally dimly lit corridor beyond.
"I wonder if their planet has a diurnal cycle close to what ours has? Maybe they're all asleep," Zahra whispered.
"We should only be so lucky; you know we've fought Skitters at night before," Kennedy said, then darted through, sweeping her gun in an arc as she checked both directions down the passage and then around the corner at a T-junction just a few paces to their right. "None here, though; and I see what looks like an elevator a few yards down."
Buffy stepped through last of their group, and tried not to jump when the door swished shut abruptly behind her. "We'll probably see more movement on the other levels – this one's under construction."
"Right." They staggered their progress down the hall, covering each other as they moved, then made it to the elevator; fortunately, access to it was controlled much the same way the door had been. That was about where their luck ran out, though. It took them three long minutes of puzzling to figure out how to get the thing to move; the arrow for 'up' was easy enough, but they had no idea which of the other alien symbols indicated 'the floor with the prisoner cells on it' and which meant 'hangar level' or 'fire alarm' or something else equally problematic, and just tapping one of them didn't work; there was an activation button that also had to be hit in turn.
All of the controls were way above comfortable waist height for her, or even Kennedy; it was becoming increasingly obvious that the leadership caste were much, much taller than standard issue humans. And by the time they actually got it to move, they must have triggered something, because the moment the doors opened again they were faced with a mech and a quintet of Skitters, weapons at the ready.
Slayer reflexes saved Zahra as the mech's targeting lasers painted a trio of dots over her heart: she plugged it three times and was halfway through a dive to the floor before it even fired once. She grunted, but Buffy couldn't spare any attention to check on her as Zahra and the mech both collapsed; she was busy firing at the Skitters and executing a dive of her own. So was Kennedy.
The Scythe bullets proved their worth then. Buffy barely managed to tag the three nearest her with one bullet each, and not at all in locations that should have been vital, but each one of them immediately collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut, breath rattling in their throats.
"There'll be more where those came from," Kennedy said. "I think I see stairs. There weren't any on the hanger level – but I'm pretty sure we're above those now. We'll probably be better off using them than the elevator again, at least 'til we're on our way out; I memorized which button lit up first, so I know how to retrace our steps when we're done."
"Good," Buffy nodded. "Zahra, are you alright?"
"Fine," the girl grunted, prodding at her upper left arm with the fingers of her other hand. "Just grazed."
"Just one more question," Kennedy put in, then paused long enough to make sure Buffy turned to look her in the eye. "We can still abort without getting ourselves killed. Probably. But if we go past here... it could be the vineyard all over again."
"I know," Buffy said, licking her lips. "But we won't. And not just because of Mason; there's too much to learn here, and we won't get another chance at this."
"Just making sure you'd thought it out," Kennedy nodded. Then more mech footsteps began to echo down the corridor, and she grimaced, gesturing toward the door marked with the corrugated image of a staircase. Some things transitioned the culture barrier, apparently.
It took them three more levels – and another two dozen Skitters and four mechs, on the level they'd thought might be cells only to discover it was storage – to finally find what they were looking for. Buffy hissed at the sight of a tall, skeletally skinny grey-skinned being standing in front of an opening in the corridor wall, blocked off by a shimmering curtain of air; he had a teenage girl with him, probably the Karen that Weaver and Hal had mentioned, and she was saying something in calm, drugged, reasonable tones to the prisoner on the other side of that curtain. A dish of food in her hand testified to the purpose of her being there; Buffy was cheered to see it, because the fact that the Skitter masters were still trying to wheedle him meant that there was still enough of Mason left to offer resistance.
The alien had started to turn at the sound of the door sliding open, so Buffy plugged him without even checking to see what it intended do to them in turn – they couldn't afford to let him transmit their appearance to the Skitter teams hunting them. Then she lifted her gun to do the same for Karen – and hesitated, unable to fire the shot, images of Mellie and a teenage boy in love she barely knew reproaching her for her intentions.
Fortunately, Zahra was on the ball. She flew out of the doorway quicker than Karen could react to her companion's death and dropped the girl to the ground with a very precise chop of her hand. Of the younger Slayers, she was the one that had had the most formal martial arts training; Buffy breathed out a sigh of relief as she stooped to check Karen's pulse and give a nod of acknowledgement.
"Karen! Who's there? Did Weaver send you?" a hoarse male voice sounded from inside the cell; he'd probably been trying to avoid his water ration, too, though he'd have had to drink something by now to still be alive. Or else screaming. She hoped it wasn't due to screaming, but she wouldn't bet on it.
"Sort of," Zahra said, looking up from the fallen harnessee to smile at the prisoner. "We're from the Fifth Mass – what's left of it – and joined the Second a few days ago."
"The Fifth...? What...? Did Porter...?" The professor rasped, frantically, as he slowly approached the curtain from his side. Buffy could see him now, as she hurried up to join Zahra; he was a lot scruffier than in the picture Ben had showed them, with fever-bright eyes and cheeks hollowed by recent, persistent hunger, but he was alert, and didn't look badly wounded or under any other sort of control.
"We've got to hurry; do you know how they open these things?" she asked, ignoring his questions.
"There's – something to the left of the door," he told her, gesturing with a shaking hand. "When they take me out, it beeps several times; there's a code."
"Screw that," Kennedy said, frowning at the indicated panel as another chorus of humming mech power plants began to approach from somewhere else on the level. Then she punched the mechanism as hard as she could, before Buffy could protest. The curtain sputtered for a moment, then steadied – and she punched again, this time into the wall just beside the panel, which like the rest of the structure had been built from standard salvaged Earth materials rather than the stronger mech metal. The wall caved in, she yanked something that looked like a tangle of spaghetti out – and the curtain sputtered again, this time fading away into nothingness.
Not a moment too soon. Mason tried to shuffle toward her, a mixture of hope and despair in his features that made her heart hurt, but whether from hunger or hidden injury, he was moving at about the speed of a crawl; Buffy shook her head and leaned forward, bracing her shoulder against his stomach, then stood up again, heading full tilt for the stairs as he folded, draping over her shoulder.
Rescue achieved. Now they just had to get him the hell out. Through probably every last Skitter and commander critter currently zeroing in on them.
"Wait," Mason said, roughly. "What – you can't – Karen–"
Zahra snorted and bent, just within his line of sight, to shoulder the blonde girl, too.
"Tracker–" Mason objected again, and Buffy swore.
So now they had amateur surgery before them, too, before they could return to the Second Mass. And maybe ten Scythe bullets left apiece. The mission just got better and better.
Well; they'd faced worse odds before. They would survive this, too.
Kennedy darted to the stairway door, waving it open and taking a long look down inside.
"Shit," she said. "I see lights coming up from below, and–"
Gunfire stitched up the hall toward her position, and she threw herself flat to the floor, the wall spitting sparks above her head from bullet impacts.
"Kennedy!" Buffy gasped, then glanced helplessly down toward the other end of the level's main corridor; there weren't any Skitters visible in that direction yet, but there was a wavering in the quality of the illumination there that suggested approaching aliens with their own light sources, and she could hear the impacts of mech footsteps and the shrieks of angry Skitters. They'd been cornered.
"This way," Zahra gasped, staggering with her burden toward a narrow side corridor several paces beyond Mason's cell. It was still lit only by the dim glow of the overhead lighting, suggesting it might yet be a safe escape route.
Buffy hesitated a second, waiting to be sure Kennedy hadn't been hit and was scrambling after them, then bolted for the gap herself, Mason's bulky frame unbalancing her a little as she ran. She heard a thunk as she staggered a little making the turn, and winced; but he barely groaned. She hoped she hadn't just made things worse for him, but better a headache than leaving him in that cell.
Zahra slowed as they neared another door that looked like the elevator they'd found on the hangar level, but Kennedy didn't, bolting past Buffy and Zahra both to lead them further on. "They'll be coming up that way, too," she gasped by way of explanation, weapon at the ready as she ran.
"Then what–?" Buffy objected.
"Rope. In Stasia's pack," Kennedy panted. "And considering where we came up – we should be near an outer wall." She skidded around another corner that was barely even visible before she reached it, and kept running; Buffy heard three more gunshots before she and Zahra made the turn themselves, and saw three commander types' bodies twitching and bleeding on the ground.
Zahra awkwardly detoured around them. Buffy didn't bother, running right over them with a grim feeling of satisfaction. And beyond that–
"I guess they're not much for air conditioning or pretty views," Kennedy snorted, as she drew to a halt at the dead end beyond. Several doors opened off the corridor – maybe the offices for the jailor aliens? In which case, she was doubly glad Kennedy had run into those three in the hall. At the stubby end, a gap opened in the wall instead, about a yard tall. It was wide enough for Kennedy to stand in from the inside, but narrowed through the thick metal to only two handspans at most, dim starlight reflecting of off water visible below. A window slit, like the archer's embrasures in castles of old.
"I guess glass is harder to salvage than metal," Buffy said grimly. "And their weapons are better than ours; they could fire out of each floor this way if they had to."
"They really don't plan on going anywhere, do they?" Zahra mused. "Never mind. Kennedy, move. Take her; I've got the mech bullets, remember?"
Kennedy moved away from the gap, accepting Karen's limp, harnessed form over one shoulder, but kept her handgun ready as she backed away. Buffy moved to the side, too, lowering Mason to his feet to brace him next to her as he started to struggle in her grasp.
"Wait," he struggled to say, between panting breaths. "Wait – I shouldn't have said. We. We're going to have to leave Karen; they'll track her back to the Second Mass. I can't risk. And Ben. They said–"
Zahra ignored him: she started firing systematically into the sloping walls of the embrasure, punching right through the lower-quality metal they were constructed from in a dotted line. She reloaded twice during the process, shooting as fast as she could, then began kicking at the nearly severed chunk of wall, trying to knock it loose into the night outside.
"There are three more of us with Ben; don't worry about him," Buffy hissed in Mason's ear. "And we'll figure something for Karen. We have to get your tracker out anyway, you said. Worry about you."
He gave her a long, intense look at that, a searching intelligence in his gaze that belied his physically worn state and the stress he must be under. Finally, he nodded, just as the red glow of mech targeting lasers shot around the corner to illuminate the walls of their cul-de-sac. "There's a collaborator not far from here," he said. "She might have something – shit. Gun. Do you have–?"
"Just stay there," Buffy hissed, and darted out into the corridor, laying down covering fire as a pair of Skitters led the way.
She'd barely tagged those when a door opened unexpectedly to her left; there must have been more of the tall ones in there, waiting for the appropriate moment to step out. Duh; jail offices, they probably had security cams of some kind–
Before even her impressive reflexes could turn her to face them, though, some kind of energy bolt leapt from the nearest of them, and everything went blurred and heavy and ow–
She had an impression of shouting, and more movement; the spang of bullets impacting with mech carapaces; someone else falling to their knees next to her outflung arm, followed by an explosively loud sound above her ear and a splash of warm wrong-smelling blood across her face; and finally a hand, waving in front of her slowly blinking eyes.
"–Ma'am? Ma'am? Are you–? Damn, I think they–"
It sounded like Mason, she thought. Huh. He hadn't stayed where she'd put him.
Then Kennedy was there – she'd never mistake that scent, even under the tang of sweat, slime and gunpowder – levering Buffy up off the floor again.
"Buffy," she tried to say, thickly, but couldn't quite get her tongue to cooperate. She wasn't anybody's ma'am.
"I've got you," Kennedy said, and started dragging her toward the outer wall. She could feel a breeze on her skin now; so Zahra had probably – oh. That tugging feeling – something being tied around her–
"Zahra's taking Karen down first," Kennedy barked after a moment. "You next; we'll bring up the rear. I'm sorry, professor, but you're going to have to climb on your own. And don't you dare let go; Hal's waiting for you. Do you hear me? Your kid and Maggie are waiting for you in Acton."
"I'll manage," he said, a quiet conviction in his voice. "Here's her gun; don't you die for me either."
"Way ahead of you there," Kennedy said grimly. And then there were scraping sounds of moment. Followed by more gunshots. Then a dizzy swinging, a clunk of her head against something hard, and – air. Moving air, with a creepy sensation of great height beneath them. Buffy shivered, gradually coming to full awareness as ruined Boston became visible over Kennedy's shoulder, and tightened her arms around her girlfriend as the feeling returned to her fingers in a wave of pins and needles.
"Flyers," she murmured, as soon as she was sure she could say it coherently. She didn't want to startle Kennedy while she was climbing for both of them, but if someone shot at them while they were swinging out over the rooftops of the damaged city–
"I know, I know," Kennedy hissed. Zahra's down, she–"
Kennedy broke off, and Buffy winced, as staccato gunfire started up again from below. They were close enough to the rooftops now to see green-skinned creatures moving on them a block or two over from where the rope came down, like great nasty spiders with long-range stingers.
"I gave her Stasia's Scythe rounds, they were in the backpack too," Kennedy breathed. "If Mason – shit." Kennedy jerked, and Buffy cried out in pain as a bullet fired from somewhere below angled up to graze Kennedy's leg and pierce Buffy's thigh.
"Same. Damn. Leg," Buffy groaned; her knee was still a little sore from their last firefight with the Fifth Massachusetts.
"Shit. Can't – I think we're close enough – hold on. Mason, MOVE!"
Gravity took hold; darkness swirled around them, and then they fell, still tied together, impacting on an unyielding surface. Buffy gritted her teeth past the shooting pains from her leg and the newer bruises, thankful for her Slayer healing, and fumbled her knife out of its sheath; the way Kennedy was pinned, she wouldn't be able to do it. There hadn't been time for Pope to cast her a mech-metal kukri yet for Skitter hunting between bullet moldings, but her old one would do the job, for this.
She sawed through the ropes binding her to Kennedy, then stood and staggered free, nearly knocking Mason down as he limped over to aid them.
"That collaborator," she hissed, gripping his arm and clutching at her thigh with the other hand. "Near–?"
The gunfire nearby picked up briefly as Kennedy got up and dragged herself over to join Zahra; then fell off again as they finally took down the nearest group of snipers. They had to go before more boiled out of hiding, and maybe knowing the quarry was temporarily holed up with one of their own allies would give the fleeing group a smidge more space to figure out a way around the tracker and the harness. 'Cause they sure weren't performing even amateur surgery on anyone now, not with two fourths of the rescue party wounded themselves and another missing and the whine of flyers finally leaving the structure–
"Close enough," he said. "I know where, from here. But you're bleeding–"
"I'll take care of that," Kennedy said, storming back and digging into Stasia's backpack of bounty again. She pulled out three more items: an energy bar and a bottle of water, which she shoved at Mason, and then Dr. Glass' first aid kit. "Eat; we can't have you dropping on us if you're supposed to be the guide. Zahra? Get the girl and cover us. Buffy? This is going to hurt–"
She fumbled a bottle out, then poured some kind of cleansing fluid over Buffy's leg; the world erupted in sparks of white fire behind abruptly clenched eyelids. "Fuck," she hissed; or maybe Kennedy did; or maybe both of them at once.
Quick motions tied a length of bandage and absorbent pads in place. Then Kennedy packed the supplies away and pulled Buffy to her feet again, arm braced over her shoulder. "You good to go?"
They were halfway home. Which meant practically there, right? Buffy tried to reassure herself.
"'S'long as you're with me," Buffy breathed.
They moved, heading for the stairwell access and the first steps of their route out of the city.
By the time the three Slayers and their two charges made their way down to the street from their rooftop escape, the dim, steely light of predawn cast the buildings above them in sharp relief. Everything looked still and quiet, but Mason, some color back in his face after half an energy bar, kept glancing upward with a worried expression.
"The ships that went out – you said Hal and Maggie are back in Acton?" he rasped, hobbling along at Buffy's side with one arm around her shoulders.
She was leaning on him, too, the pair of them amounting to approximately one healthy person at the moment, while Kennedy walked point and Zahra brought up the rear with Karen still unconscious over her shoulder. "I told them to lay low nearby; and Stasia was supposed to join them after she led a bunch of the mechs away," Buffy replied. "The flyers shouldn't pick them up; their heat eyes aren't that percept-y. At least, they've never been before."
"I hope you're right," he said grimly, "but it seems equally plausible that they simply haven't cared enough to come after the smaller groups until now. Until we took the fight to them. Weaver only took fifty soldiers after the structure, and split them further after that, but they still caught almost all of us, one way or another."
"Yeah, well, we have a theory about that," Buffy said, quietly. "We can talk about that later, though, back at camp. How much further is this collaborator's house you were talking about?"
"Not – not far. Fifteen minutes, maybe, at this pace." He winced, pressing his free hand in a fist against his shoulder. Strips of dirty white bandage wound around the back of his hand, spotted with blood; he'd been wearing half gloves when they found him, but he'd torn his palms up despite them on the rope climb down from the structure. Buffy'd been too out of it from the overseers' stun shot to see what had happened, but she guessed he'd slid most of the way; he wasn't in any shape to have gone hand over hand at high speed the way Zahra and Kennedy had.
"That where they put the tracker?" She gestured with her chin at the place he was rubbing, a couple of inches below the collar bone. His shirt didn't look torn or bloody, but then, aliens capable of designing things like those harnesses probably had a pretty decent grasp of medical procedure.
"Yes – at least, I'm assuming that's what it is. They were presumably planning to let me go eventually to corral the last of the resistance without unnecessary expenditure of force." He made a sour face. "That's what they said when they took me; they didn't want to use force. I thought they meant with me, but apparently that's their general public policy. According to Karen, all of their violence has been in response to our aggression."
Kennedy jerked to a stop in front of them, rounding on him with a fierce expression. "Our aggression? They attacked first!"
"Right, because our first response was to attempt communication," he said, a deep frown creasing his haggard face. "With radio waves."
Zahra took a ragged breath behind them. "That's how they communicate amongst themselves. They don't talk; they transmit."
"Our initial messages must have been about as pleasant to them as it would be for me to stand next to the speakers at a death metal concert," he snorted.
Kennedy clenched her hands around her gun. "You are not going to stand there and try to convince me they're just misunderstood," she said, darkly. "I don't care if they thought we did attack first, that isn't something you bring along hoping to make allies," she said, pointing at the back of Karen's neck where she drooped over Zahra's shoulder. The ugly, swollen shape of the harness stuck up out of the collar of her shirt, mute testament of the alien's control over her.
"No, I'm not," Mason said, drawing himself up straighter as he stared calmly back. "I'm saying, they consider every violent act they've committed on this world to be measured retaliation for something humans have done. Overreaction, from our point of view, obviously, but... they stopped our sonic attack; they made it impossible for us to use it or any other high tech weapon against them again; and they expected us to concede the playing field. But we didn't. They don't know how to react to that, other than to keep killing us – and they'd really prefer to leave a viable breeding population."
The longer he spoke, the more he reminded Buffy of Giles; it was making her heart ache. Mason had the same force of earnest conviction in his speech that her Watcher had had, and the same knowledgeable way with words. "They just told you that?" she asked. "Why now? Why haven't they tried to talk to anyone before?"
He sighed, some of the starch going out of his spine as he met her eyes. "They wouldn't say. But I can guess. They knew from Karen how much I know about Earth's history of violence; they knew from Rick they would be able to use Ben as leverage; and they knew from their last wave of attacks that the Second Mass was the last human resistance within striking distance of their Boston base."
"Several birds with one stone," Zahra said, voice tight with stress. "Which, speaking of. Guys?" She dropped to a crouch behind an overturned car, glancing up at a wave of shapes cutting through the sky.
The rest of them followed, Buffy hissing with pain as the motion stressed her wounded leg. The flyers were returning. And if they could sense Mason or Karen...
Most of the flyers kept going, back in the direction of the structure, but two swept into a slow arc, turning back to skim closer to the jagged skyline.
"This could be a problem," Buffy said. "How close are we now, professor?"
He popped his head up over the car, scanning the street for landmarks, then gestured toward one particular cross road. "That way. Couple of blocks."
"Crunch time," Kennedy said, glancing between the incoming flyers and the indicated road. "You really think there's something there that can help us?"
"I really do," he nodded. "Something occurred to me while I was – between conversations, in there. It should work. I'm almost positive it will."
"Should? Almost?" Kennedy blinked at him, then shook her head, frowning. "You'd better be right."
"I am," he said. "Now let's go before they get close enough to shoot us!"
He struggled to his feet; Buffy went with him, bolstered by Kennedy's presence as the other Slayer dropped back to wrap an arm around her other side. Zahra grunted and lifted Karen again, and they were off; they reached the shelter of the side street just as the flyers got close enough to fire, but they couldn't turn quickly enough to follow immediately.
The next few minutes went by at a limping run, the streets still alarmingly quiet around them save for the shriek of engines overhead. Mason gestured as they finally reached the right door, then swore under his breath as they approached it – it hung slightly open, and a wide, bloody handprint stained it just above waist height.
"Looks like they've been here already," Kennedy said, wincing as she shoved it open with her boot and dragged the three of them into a precisely decorated, dust-free living room beyond. An upturned tea set, shattered and fragrant with nearly-dry liquid, gave testament to what had happened there.
"Shouldn't matter," Mason panted at them. "Kitchen. Grab any aluminum foil you can find. There should be some in a drawer – this was her house before the Skitters came, and they've been bringing her luxury items ever since they sent her back."
"Tin foil?" Zahra said incredulously, lowering Karen to the couch. "You have got to be kidding me."
"Don't knock it," Mason said, shrugging out from Buffy's arm and gesturing her toward a chair. "The people that used to wear it claiming it would block alien mind control? Weren't actually all that crazy. Well, they were," he grimaced, "but not because of their taste in hat fabric. Radio waves can be blocked or attenuated by anything that conducts electricity; which means, a sheet of aluminum can completely block them out, provided that you use enough of it."
Kennedy pushed her into the seat, then helped him toward the kitchen; as Buffy sank onto the welcome cushions and inspected her bandages, she heard them scraping drawers open and rummaging inside. She was still bleeding, but not too badly; and she had Stasia's pack. She zipped it open, rummaging for the med kit again, then tossed it toward Zahra.
"Give her something to keep her out," she said. "I think I saw pain meds in there earlier. We don't want her waking up partway there."
"Good idea," Mason called back. "Here – what's your name?"
"Really? Okay, Kennedy – wrap as much of this around her as you can. Not just the harness, her whole neck and torso, several layers' worth. As long as she doesn't tear it, it should work as a quick and dirty shield until we can get her to Anne."
"And what about you?" Kennedy replied, rushing back into Buffy's line of sight with a long, narrow, familiar looking box. "If we use it all up on her–? I told you, we're not leaving you behind."
"No, no, I've–" He hissed between his teeth, an alarming sound that brought Buffy struggling upright again to see what was going on.
"Wait, professor–" she said, aghast at the sight of him wrestling his shirt off, exposing a slightly raised, flushed area of skin on the front side of his left shoulder. The swelling was notably cleaner than the rest of his lean frame; he probably hadn't seen a bath in even longer than she had.
"There's no time!" he said, hand shaking slightly as he grabbed a kitchen knife from the counter. "It has to come out before it sinks roots like the harnesses do. And the Skitters will have us surrounded by the time you're done with Karen; we have to be completely untraceable from here."
Buffy looked away, swallowing hard, and distracted herself repacking the first aid kid while Kennedy and Zahra manipulated Karen to a sitting position, passing the tube of paper thin metal around her. She accidentally knocked something off the coffee table as she moved; some kind of journal, written in a looping feminine script, which fell open to a point three quarters of the way through its pages.
"Those nice young men aren't coming back, are they?" she read as she picked it up, then winced and stuffed it into Stasia's pack along with the med kit. It might contain useful intel; every little bit would help. And speaking of salvage; she glanced around, eyeing the knickknacks on the end tables and the mantelpiece.
Her perusal was interrupted as Mason swore, then dropped the knife in a clatter. "Got it–" he said, voice trailing off in a pained grunt. She glanced over just in time to see him take a few steps out of the kitchen, rag pressed against his shoulder, then sway to a stop, eyes rolling back in his head.
"Crap," she swore, then shouldered the pack and got back to her feet. Wounded or not, she couldn't afford to let her injury slow them. Time to kick it up a notch. "Ken, you're going to have to take him. Give me the guns. He's right, we've got to go, and there's no way I can manage him like this."
The humming moan and clanking steps of mechs echoed in through the open door, and Kennedy gave her a distressed look. Then she nodded and tossed both her weapons to Buffy, before ripping off an extra strip of foil to wrap the rag Mason had been clutching against his sluggishly bleeding shoulder. "If he catches an infection from this, remind him later it's his own damn fault," she hissed, then braced herself and lifted him from the floor, slinging him in an awkward fireman's carry.
They headed for the back entrance, slinking out into a still shadowed alley under the cover of a cloudy Boston dawn.
Twenty five miles to the rendezvous in Acton. They'd be lucky to get a tenth that far.
But they were still moving. And as long as that remained true, there was hope.
Buffy stirred out of a painful doze to the sound of a distant, muffled buzz; not the hum of mechs that had haunted the few minutes of sleep she'd managed to catch that day, but a distinctly mechanical, human sound that told her Hal and Maggie hadn't listened to her after all.
At the moment, she couldn't care less – as long as they weren't bringing another flood of Skitters behind them. The hobbled group of rescuers and rescued had made their slow way out of Boston mostly in the shadows of its remaining buildings, breaking line of sight with the flyers' preferred paths as much as they could and detouring at the slightest rasp of noise that didn't come from their own feet. They'd still been unavoidably ambushed once more during their escape; they only had a handful of Scythe bullets left between them after taking down the party of searching Skitters, and the mech rounds were almost gone, too. Eventually, though, their evasive tactics had paid off; they'd picked a bridge with enough space beneath it to nap in and enough cool concrete overhead to shield them from eyes in the sky, then curled up for a few hours to recharge.
That had probably been a mistake on her part. Her wounded leg had stiffened badly, inadequately pillowed against the chill autumn earth; she wasn't going to be any kind of asset if it were bandits rather than the scouts of the Second Mass approaching. But it had probably done Mason some good; she could see him stirring as she blinked her eyes open, the first time he'd been conscious since they'd left that woman Sonya Rankin's apartment in Boston.
He nodded solemnly at her as he got to his feet, one hand pressed against the shoulder he'd removed the tracking thing from, then back out a few feet to look up at the bridge. Kennedy was already standing there, gun in hand, and she gave him a long look before handing him another – a suspiciously familiar looking one, too. Buffy patted at her holster, then sighed, aggrieved, as she realized where it had come from. Not like she'd been using it. But still. She'd cried when Mr. Pointy met its demise; she'd missed the weight of the Scythe in her hands for weeks after its breaking; and her gun was equally hers, hand etched with fanciful symbols by Andrew in one of his artistic phases.
The sound grew closer, and closer – then sprouted another level of engine noise, the throaty sound of an aging, hard-used truck. Zahra perked up at that, darting out to stand next to the others, then started jumping up and down and waving her hands as their imminent visitors grew closer. "Stasia!"
Buffy closed her eyes and let out a heart-felt sigh of relief. Then she braced a hand on the sloping bank and pushed herself creakily to her feet. She'd been half convinced some lingering force of karma was going to even the score on them, punishing them for surviving against all odds by taking Stasia; but if she was here, that meant they'd all made it out. Somewhat the worse for wear, but they'd effectively carried out a raid on the mothership without losing anyone. That was more success than she'd had – than anyone human had had, that she was aware of – in all the long months since the alien apocalypse.
She felt a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as she reached Kennedy, leaning her weight against the taller girl's shoulder as they waited for their rescue.
Stasia flew down the bank a moment later at full speed, practically tackling Zahra and exclaiming over the bullet graze on her arm. Hal was equally frantic to reach his father; they stood there with fists wrapped in the back of each other's shirts for a moment, reassuring each other they were alive, before Mason pulled back a little and gestured to the harnessed girl wrapped up in radio-wave blocking tinfoil.
"Karen? You got her, too?" he said, lit up as though his Christmas had come early, bringing out the sixteen-year-old she'd rarely seen inside the already experienced soldier. "What's with–? Is that because the harness–?"
"So your dad says," Buffy nodded at him, then at Maggie, looking down from the bridge above. "It's probably better if we don't stay out here any longer than we have to, though."
"No duh," Stasia said, breaking away from Zahra to give Buffy and Kennedy a once-over. "Shit, Buffy, after all that talk about not sacrificing anyone you sure look like you tried your damndest to go out in style."
"Yeah, well, you know me," Buffy smiled back at her wanly. "Haven't met a death that would stick yet; and if you think I'm ready to allow you guys out into the wild without me, you've got another think coming. Like, just for example: totally appreciative of the rescue, but you know I told you to hole up with Hal and Maggie, not come back for us."
Stasia scoffed at that. "Puh-leaze. Like I'd let Zahra bogart all the action."
"I don't think you have to worry about that," Kennedy said, nodding to the abused backpack resting atop their meager pile of gear beneath the sheltering cover of the bridge. "You saved our asses by leaving that with us. Way to be prepared, Slayer."
"Colin Powell said there are no secrets to success," Mason spoke up, brow wrinkled a little, probably at Kennedy's word choice. "It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure."
Hal snorted, still smiling widely as he bumped his dad's shoulder with a fist. "Now is not the time for one of your lectures, Dad. Save it for later, all right?"
Mason flinched at the pressure on his wound, but smiled back at his son. "All right. I do have a lot of questions, though – Buffy? Did I get the name right?"
"I'm surprised you understood that," Buffy grinned at him. "But, yeah. I'm Buffy Summers. And don't worry; we'll be staying with the Second Mass, so there'll be plenty of opportunity to talk."
"Good." He turned, finally, and started up the hill, half leaning on Hal; Maggie came down as soon as they'd cleared the top, skidding down to Karen's position to haul her up. She made a face at the crinkle of the aluminum, and shot a worried look up after Hal that Buffy was pretty sure she hadn't meant anyone else to see, but she shouldered the girl without complaint to carry her up to the truck.
Zahra went for the packs. And Buffy? She yelped as Kennedy picked her up in a stereotypical bridal carry, and couldn't stop herself from giggling as they went up the hill. Relief washed through her in a cool wave; she rested her head against Kennedy's shoulder, and just breathed as they made for the bed of the truck to settle in for the ride out past Acton back to the new camp.
It had been almost exactly twenty four hours since they'd set out when they rolled off the road into the secluded creekside area Dr. Glass had chosen for their camp, the stars just winking into view on the deep velvet of the sky as Maggie turned the engine off and Stasia and Hal coasted to a halt on their bikes. They'd taken the long way 'round to hopefully throw anyone following them off, though they'd probably still have to move camp in a day or two to be sure; but in that moment, the last of the light lingering on Kennedy's profile as Buffy rested against her shoulder, she felt more at home than she had anywhere in months, not even with the Fifth Massachusetts.
What seemed like half the camp came to greet them: Weaver steel-jawed with the tiniest glint of wetness in his eyes, gruffly requesting a debrief after they'd got some sleep; Pope whistling with admiration over the state of their injuries and the depletion of their ammo; Mason's younger two sons rushing up to wrap themselves around him in a way that reminded her of how the younger Slayers treated Andrew; Dr. Glass following more solemnly behind them with open tears on her face–
Oh, there was definitely romance brewing there. Buffy smiled and wolf-whistled with the rest as the doctor wrapped her hands around the professor's face, then leaned up to taste his lips in a kiss that looked like it would have gone on forever if he hadn't twitched when she dropped her arms to wind them around him. Then came the scolding, which soon grew into an invitation for all of them to join her in the clinic tent. Whatever the hour, the doc was a lot more rested than they were.
Buffy wasn't going to argue with that. She limped at the back of the group, arm still around Kennedy's waist, pausing only to accept fervent, careful hugs from Andrew, Danielle, Erin, Persey, and Mason's littlest, the impatient Matthew.
"Thank you for saving my dad," he said.
"He helped save us too, you know," she told him, gently ruffling his mop-top of hair. "Your dad's a big damn hero."
He giggled a little at the tame swear, then let go, running off to join his brothers. Ben smiled back at her as Matt joined him; she nodded to him, then smiled to herself in satisfaction.
"Today was a good day," she murmured to Kennedy. So much for her curse. Despite all the pain and hardship, the uncertainty, the death she'd dealt, the things they'd learned about the Skitters and their masters' superiority complex – they'd done a lot of good, and for the first time in awhile it looked like there might be a lot more after that. The Second Mass were good people.
So had the Fifth been, of course, and their group in Ohio. But they'd struck back today. They hadn't lost anyone doing it. And some tiny part of her that had been unanchored ever since Giles' death was already latching onto Mason.
This time around would be the charm. She was suddenly sure of it.