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.