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.