The tactical guys had some time to kill until the "Geek Squad" concluded its planning meeting in the week before the next raid. Application parameters, copy codes, bridge interfaces… it was enough to give the "direct intervention" members of the rebel camp a bad case of twitchy trigger fingers.
Ham Tyler wandered into the saloon to grab some coffee. Weird place, this old Hollywood set where they'd just set up the new camp. He felt like he should be carrying a six gun instead of a Beretta. At the end of the bar was Mike Donovan, a.k.a. (do)-Gooder, the third member of the triumvirate that included scientist Robert Maxwell, doctor (okay, med student) Juliet Parrish that had managed to keep this raggedy group alive since the invasion. Tyler worked with Donovan and coordinated tactical strategy and materiel procurement. Okay, not "worked with", barely tolerated. Despite having to deal with such rank amateurs, they'd managed to put together a tight little squad, weapons runners and strike force combined. The Geek Squad included Angie Harper, the library computer tech who'd fallen into Tyler and buddy Chris Farber's path (and van) en route to this little corner of Hell-A. She was, Tyler was beginning to realize, threatening to become a permanent member of the closed, locked, and moated keep that passed for his life. Okay, not "threatening"… but he couldn't come up with another word for it. Not yet.
Right now Tyler could see that Donovan was in the pseudo-saloon for much the same reason as himself, to kill time between killing more lizards. And, apparently, to empty the coffeemaker of the last cup.
"Leave some for the real soldiers, Gooder."
"Good morning to you too, Tyler. I'm making more. House rule: whoever empties the pot fills it."
Ham gestured, limp-wristed, and deadpanned, "Oh thank you, I'd hate to violate Resistance etiquette!" He waited for the coffee to run and then filled a nearby mug with it, black. Joining Donovan at one of the few intact tables he inquired with wide-eyed innocence, "Do I have to sign the mug out, or will you trust me with it?"
Mike slammed his mug on the table. "You wanna give it a rest, Tyler? I'm sorry I pissed off your girlfriend last night."
And a long night it had been after having to pack up and race to this new location. Donovan had made the mistake of trying to hurry Angie's careful packing of the computer equipment by implying that she didn't understand the urgency of the move. She had returned smartly that if it wasn't done properly they might as well just leave it behind as trash, "and if that happens, the others might wanna do the same with you." She'd informed Tyler after their arrival at the movie ranch, "That 'Gooder' friend of yours, he seems like he's on the right side and all but he's kind of a pain in the ass, isn't he?"
Swallowing a smile as he remembered the conversation, Tyler swilled from his mug and grunted, "She's not my girlfriend."
"Whatever. The point is we're all at least trying to be on the same side. I'd appreciate it if all I have to dodge are the Visitors' shots, okay?"
Point scored, Ham offered a smug smile. "Oh well, if you'd appreciate it…" He relented when Donovan rolled his eyes and rose to leave. "Okay, okay, Gooder, truce called. I don't know how you've gotten this far with such a thin skin." Tyler glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the back room where the meeting was going on. "I hope this works. I'm all for technology, but I'd rather see it devoted to the direct approach." Communications, and weapons.
Donovan shrugged. "Maxwell and Julie know more about this stuff than I do, but the way your girlf-" Tyler's glare made him change direction, "the way Angie described it, it makes sense."
"If she can pull it off."
"Well we'll know better after we copy that pass and get it back here. With Willie's help on the Visitor language symbols it shouldn't take her too long to figure it out, if she's as good at this as she says." Donovan looked uneasily at Tyler, who did not leap to the defense of his not-girlfriend's skills. "You're not exactly offering a ringing endorsement, Tyler."
He sat back and gestured with both hands, "I don't know any more about what she can do than you do. The equipment we've been carrying,"
Donovan cut him off with a smirk, "Yeah, I know… more designed for the 'direct' approach."
"Angie, this is Willie. He's a Visitor who's joined us." Julie's introduction was tempered by the knowledge of the newcomer's possible reaction.
Angie looked closely at the sweet-faced, curly headed guy who sat uncertainly between Robert and Julie. She'd noticed him since her arrival, and had written off his odd speech and behavior as "slow". Now she understood he was out of his element, but wasn't convinced that his new allegiance was genuine.
"Hi, Willie. I'm from Boston." She added pointedly, "It's not there anymore."
Willie nodded. "I am sorry you have been de-homogenized." He waited, and noted the perplexed expressions of the other three. "You have lost your home," he continued, "as have I. But you did not do so by choice. I am defamed that members of my species have farmed you."
Neither Robert nor Julie attempted to explain. Finally Angie responded, "You mean you're ashamed?" In spite of his mangled vocabulary, Willie's downcast expression said it all.
"Yes," he told her, "I am 'ashamed'. We are not all like this, wanting to destroy your planet. There are others like me. We must hide, and do what we can to help. We want to help, though it is not sleazy."
"You mean 'easy'," Angie told him with a smile. "I'm sorry too, Willie, nobody should have to walk away from their home and people to do the right thing."
"Robert and Julie have told me that I can help you to understand our language and technology, so you can do what you said is possible. To scam our asses."
Angie looked at her three new compatriots and laughed out loud. "You're righter than you know, Willie. If I can learn what you're willing to teach me, we can even scan your passes, too."
"When can be a good time for us to begin?" Willie inquired.
Angie looked at her watch, newly acquired along with second-hand clothing and other necessities. She didn't want to know who had owned it previously, or what had become of them.
"Well I kind of have an appointment now with another 'teacher'," she told him. "How about I look for you when I get back?"
He nodded agreeably. "I will be easy to fund," he assured her.
"You mean easy to find, Willie," Julie corrected gently. "If you can't track him down, Angie, come get me. Robert and I will be here all day running tests." They'd managed to set up a new lab using the generators they'd gotten from the hospital and the fuel that Ham and Chris had gotten from places she didn't care to inquire about.
"Sounds good," Angie agreed, "and hey Willie, you help me with your language, I'll help you with ours."
Willie smiled and nodded, declaring, "Sounds like a good eel, Angie."
Tyler intercepted Angie and Willie as they exited their meeting together.
"Okay, geek hour's over. Time to learn how to save your own ass, and maybe somebody else's." Tyler didn't try too hard to sound reasonable. He had great appreciation for how important computer-driven technology was, but he wasn't in the mood to hear Angie argue again that she didn't need to learn how to fire a weapon. Everyone in this band of random guerrillas knew how to shoot something, even if they needed some proper training and discipline. True to his word, he'd been standing outside the door when the initial planning discussion of what Angie could contribute to the art of B & E at the lizard food processing plant concluded. Nobody was happier than he was that getting in might be a whole lot easier than they'd planned, if her computer fudgery worked. But certain imperatives could not be ignored.
Angie looked uncertainly at Ham, then at Willie. After some initial hesitation (after all, his kind had removed her home city from the map) she realized this Willie wasn't any more a storm-trooper than some of the kids forced to serve in the German Army in WWII. Victims of circumstance existed on all sides.
"It is all right, Angie. Like we agreed, we will we begin your lessons later." Willie nodded his agreement toward Ham, whose trust he was still trying to gain. It was not an easy task. "He is right. The fence is extremely important."
Ham swallowed a snort of derision. "See, even Willie knows." The lizard dipshit Ham thought to himself. "Defense, the kind that goes bang and makes 'em drop, that's what keeps you alive to crunch your codes."
"Okay, okay! But if I blow your head off by accident don't come crying to me."
Willie looked puzzled as she trudged down the hall toward the exit door. He looked at Tyler, who at least appeared satisfied to have won the argument at last even if he didn't appear grateful for Willie's help. "But how will you 'come crying' if she blows your head off?"
"Shut up, Willie," Tyler grumbled as he followed Angie outside.
The "firing range" was an old concrete culvert that ran by a long-disused access road. When they reached a locked grate in the cement wall Tyler took out a key, undid the heavy padlock, and dragged out a duffle containing a variety of pistols and other small arms and ammunition.
"Let's keep it simple," he muttered, and pulled out several light-to-medium calibre automatic handguns. When he straightened and turned around, he was greeted by a hard look.
"Why do you have to be so nasty to Willie? He really seems like he's one of them."
He spat out the snort he'd swallowed earlier. "You got that right. He's one of them." When she shook her head and prepared to disagree Ham thought, shit, this is going to be a long day.
"That's not what I meant, I mean he's one of them, the Resistance. He's here to help. He walked away from his own life to do it."
Tyler's voice was harder than Angie's look. "Yeah, me too. Now I brought you here to shoot targets, not shoot the shit. And the sooner you think of 'them' as 'us', the better."
"You don't think of them as 'us', why should I?"
He didn't look at her as he snapped a clip into each of the pistols one at a time. "Because you're closer to being one of them than I am. Now can we get started?"
She didn't budge. "Willie's gonna teach me Visitor language symbols, so I can find more ways to get around their security and weapons. I know it's not as exciting as making something go 'bang' but in the long run it'll pay off, and more than one dead Visitor at a time. Why are you so set against learning more about them?"
Now Ham dropped his hands to his sides and gave her a level, painfully patient look. "I thought you didn't ask questions."
"Yeah, well in this case I'll make an exception. Because if I can suck it up and learn how to shoot, you can suck it up and learn enough about these 'lizards' to maybe give us a better way to fight them."
"And you think that screwball Willie is the one to teach me, right?"
"You see any other friendly Visitors around willing to share their secrets?"
Christ, he pulled me into a verbal pissing match without even trying. She hated that, nobody else had been able to find her buttons so regularly, let alone play the Minute Waltz on them like Ham Tyler could, and it had gotten so she just couldn't keep her mouth shut once he got started. Donovan was easier to snap back at, but for some reason she didn't want to give Tyler the satisfaction.
"You ever think you might just be a little too trusting for your own good?" he asked her then, with that raised-eyebrow "listen up" look.
Angie took a step closer and looked him in the eye. "Yeah, for about two weeks now. So show me how to kill a man at forty paces, or whatever this thing can do, so I don't have to listen to your Soldier of Fortune riff any more." Zing. His face tightened as if she'd flipped a switch. Hey, this could be fun. She wondered for a moment how wise it was to piss off an armed mercenary, then figured someone who'd kissed her like he had probably wouldn't shoot her just for smartassing back at him. It seemed to be what he'd been looking for, in fact.
"Fine." He stuck a gun in his belt and held out his hand, palm down. "Extend your right hand, make a fist," he demonstrated with his other hand and stepped back a foot or so, "shoulder height, like you're sighting along your thumb."
When she did what he'd asked he instructed, "Okay, lock your wrist, and lock your elbow, but not out straight." She did it. "Now, hold that," and he smacked his hand up hard against the underside her fist.
"Ow! What was that for?" She surprised him by ducking back dramatically as if expecting another blow. Tyler pretended not to notice.
"Calm down, I'm checking your strength to see what you can handle. Automatic weapons have a real kick. Okay, do it again."
Angie clutched her hand protectively against her stomach. "I don't think so. I didn't know learning to shoot involved getting beat up by the instructor."
Tyler noticed she actually looked spooked. Maybe he was being a little too hardass.
"Lemme see," he reached for her hand, "c'mere," and he stepped closer and pulled it to where he could look at it. "You're fine." He let her hand go and watched as she shoved her first reaction back inside.
"Yeah, I've had worse."
He didn't want to know what that meant. "Here, just hold it out, and try to hold it steady. I promise I won't hit you again." He leaned closer. "Okay?" She nodded, and held her hand out again. This time he put his hand underneath hers and applied pressure in a couple of upward jerks. "Okay, I think I know what'll work."
As Tyler selected one of the smaller-calibre pistols Angie asked him, "You go through this with all the others?" She knew he and Chris had been leading some training drills.
"Nope. Just the real rookies. And believe it or not you seem to be the only one." He handed her the gun and she held it the way she figured she was supposed to. It wasn't particularly heavy or dangerous-feeling.
"Good, just like that." He paused. "You gun-shy?" He'd met plenty of people who were afraid of the noise for one reason or another – usually because they'd been shot, or close by when someone else had been.
"Depends on what you mean by that."
Tyler rolled his eyes. "I'll take that as a 'no'." He jogged about 20 feet away and set up some small rocks in a row on the raised concrete ledge that ran along the culvert, then returned to where Angie was standing.
"Stand like this." He turned her to face the "targets", "Stand a little wider, not too much," he got behind her and nudged her feet apart with his toe. "Okay, right arm out like you did before, don't grip too hard but lock your wrist." He touched her shoulder, straightened her arm a bit, then held her wrist to gauge her grip. "Now with your other hand, just support your gun hand." He reached around in front and guided her left hand to cup it under her right.
She couldn't help but notice his total lack of opportunism, remembering the guys in the bar where she used to work during college, the ones who "taught" the girls to shoot pool by plastering themselves behind them and grabbing every body part they could reach. She'd have been grossly disappointed, not to mention mightily pissed off, if Tyler had tried those juvenile kinds of moves. As it was, he stepped back an inch, left hand resting lightly on her left hip and the other barely touching her right shoulder. "Okay, look along your arm and right down the end of the pistol, see that notch? Line that up with the first rock there on the left." His voice was low and intimate, almost seductive. He was initiating her into something that his life had centered on, depended on, for longer than Angie could even guess.
"Now, stand still, focus, breathe… just as natural as you can, just like you were looking along that finger, now just squeeze, don't pull the trigger, just give that whole pretty thing a squeeze."
She did, and the kick he'd warned her about wasn't quite as bad as she'd expected, though of course she missed by a mile.
"Wow, that's impressive," she announced in a flat voice.
"Actually it wasn't bad; you held pretty steady. First you gotta get the feel, then you'll get the aim." His voice had dropped into that low, dark tone again. Angie turned to face him.
"Look, do you mind getting lost for a while? I think it'd be easier for me to get into this without any distraction."
Distraction? He was a first-class sharpshooter, and had taught everyone from Navy Seals to Special Services to freelance coup artists how to shoot, and this nutcase geek was calling him a distraction?
She read the look. "Look, you showed me how to load it, and how to shoot it. What can I mess up? There's nobody out here to shoot accidentally, anyway."
Now it was her turn to roll her eyes. "I haven't been that depressed lately, honest." No smile was forthcoming. "Look, I really think I can manage not to point this thing at myself. Just leave me a couple clips and I'll get used to it." Without that low, quiet voice to fill my head.
"I didn't show you how to load."
Angie popped the clip out, popped it in again, checked the safety, and sighted along her arm like she'd done a moment ago, pointing the gun toward the rock targets. When Tyler looked surprised she reminded him, "Best way to learn, remember? I shut up, watch, and listen?"
"Two out of three, anyway," he muttered, then told her, "Okay. But I'm coming back in half an hour, you got that?" He handed her two more clips. "Half an hour."
"Fine. I'll be here."
He stalked away, but when he was out of her sight Tyler doubled back and took cover behind one of the abutments about fifty feet above where she was. He'd be damned if he'd leave a first-timer alone with a cache of guns and ammo. So he leaned against a nearby boulder, and watched.
Angie hefted the gun, held it this way and that, getting used to how it balanced when she moved her hand. Then she cocked her arm, straightened it, cocked her wrist, straightened it, locked her elbow not-quite-straight, and her wrist. She did this a few times, sighting through the notch at the end of the barrel. Then she squared her stance, steadied her right hand with her left, and stood motionless. Stand still. Be quiet. Breathe.
She stood there for so long, still as a statue, that Tyler thought she had zoned right out. He was about to return to see what was up when bang! Angie pulled the trigger, and he actually jumped at the unexpected sound. A small explosion of dust and concrete chips puffed out just to the left of the first rock he'd laid out. Not too bad, Angel. Next time she stood there even longer. Tyler checked his watch, one, almost two minutes. Then, bang. This time she hit the first target a glancing shot, and he could see her nod firmly in acknowledgment. He smiled to himself; it was clear she was approaching this the same way she must have approached learning about all that computer stuff. Slow, methodical, and getting a sense for how the machine worked so she'd know how to work with it. And a weapon was a machine, after all, though not many people thought of it that way. She shot her way through one clip, taking a little less time to set up each time. When the clip was empty she checked the chamber (by god, he realized, those one-way eyes were always on the job), popped the clip out and almost absently jammed it in her back pocket before snapping in the next one. By the time she'd gotten halfway through the third clip she was taking even less time to set up each shot, and fewer shots to hit the targets, though she still wasn't hitting them squarely. When she shot close enough to knock the rocks off their perch she re-set them. Tyler was so absorbed in observing Angie's learning process he missed his return deadline by a good ten minutes; it was only when she'd emptied all three clips and sat down on the low ledge near the ammo stash that he checked his watch again. Yeah, well, lots of things to do in this wannabe guerrilla camp, plenty of excuses for coming back late. He crept quietly back to the path they'd taken to the spot, then strode briskly (and audibly) down the incline to the improvised firing range.
"So how'd you do without 'distractions'?" Tyler delivered this line with a practiced smugness.
"Hit 'em all, eventually."
He went to the far wall and picked up some of the target rocks, examining them closely. "So how do I know you didn't just walk over and knock 'em off in time for me to get back?"
Angie rolled her eyes and checked her watch. "Because you said 'half an hour', and it's almost three quarters."
Ham dropped the target rocks and walked back to where Angie stood.
"Right, and how do I know you didn't fire into thin air and dump the rocks twenty minutes ago?"
What a dumbass, she thought, and declared, "Maybe because you've been watching me since you 'left for half an hour', ya think?" Tyler's flat-footed astonishment was a welcome surprise. "Hey, no magic powers… I just knew you'd never leave me alone to play with your toys." She gestured with the very empty pistol, keeping it pointed toward the ground, proud of her grasp of weapons etiquette. But Tyler's astonishment evaporated, replaced by a look harder than any slammed door she'd seen in him so far. She shrank back a step, but couldn't escape the hand that flashed out and grabbed her right wrist in a painful vise grip, his other hand snatching the pistol away before holding it muzzle-up next to his face.
"Don't you ever," he intoned in an ice-cold voice, "call this a 'toy'."
As Angie's face emptied of expression Tyler dropped her hand and turned away to return the weapons to their stash. She was still standing there in shocked silence, not having moved a muscle, when he finished locking the grate and straightened to face her again.
"I scared you," he acknowledged, and took a step closer, looking deep into her fearful eyes and not softening a bit. "Good. This isn't a game, Angel. The minute you think it is, you're dead."
Angie followed Tyler back to the makeshift rebel compound in silence. Once they'd arrived outside the saloon she ventured in a shaky voice, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like it sounded."
Tyler shook his head, his face a picture of knowing-better, and he took hold of her wrist again as if she still held the weapon she wasn't taking seriously enough.
"Problem is, you did. You don't get it yet. You're smart, and you have sense, but not the kind of sense you need now. This isn't the mean streets of Boston, it's a whole new kind world. You only think you get it."
"I'm trying. I may not get it yet, but I'm really trying."
"Trying's not good enough. When you get that maybe you'll be okay." He still had a hard grip on her.
"Can you let go now?"
Her eyes told him he was hurting her. He let her go.
"You don't have to save me, Tyler," she told him, "Even if you could, I can't make up for everybody else."
His eyes told her she was hurting him. She took his hand in a much lighter grip than he'd taken hers, but with no less emphasis. "It's okay, really. Be The Fixer if you have to be, but you don't have to fix anything for me, and I can't fix anything for you."
Tyler looked down at where Angie held onto his hand, and at the red mark he'd left on her wrist.
"What would you say if I told you we need a day off." No question mark.
"A day off from what?"
"Every fucking thing."
How could she argue with that? "I'd say hell, yeah."
He withdrew his hand. "Grab a few things. Meet me at the motor pool at four o'clock. We're getting out of here tonight."
"To where?" She knew she shouldn't ask but couldn't help herself.
"Anywhere but here. Four o'clock. I'll take care of everything."
For some ungodly reason, Angie believed every word. "Four o'clock, I'll be there."
Tyler slipped a hand behind her neck and brought his face so close to hers she thought he was going to kiss her, but he didn't.
"You never disappoint me, Angel." Then he did kiss her, but on the side of her head, then let her go.
From the look on his face Angie could tell it had been a very long time since he'd said that to anyone.