Chapter 1: Hunahpú
At first, Tom Mason didn't know what had woken him. Or even that he was truly awake, not just experiencing a particularly realistic dream. The scents of damp earth and decaying leaves, the chirps and calls of distant crickets and forest-dwelling birds, the feel of branches and the sleeve of a weather-roughened jacket against his cheek: these had become all too familiar during the long months since the alien invasion.
Sheets were a luxury in the post-apocalyptic world; a roof over his head never quite a guarantee. It could have been any of hundreds of mornings since the skies had fallen. The long haul from Boston to Acton, when the Second Massachusetts Militia Regiment had still been three hundred strong; the weeks he'd spent hiking cross-country after his unpleasant sojourn with the Espheni; the slog south to Charleston after he'd rejoined the Second Mass; he'd grown used to bunking rough since humans had become an endangered species. Add in a scent of diesel and the background chatter of voices, and he might have drifted right back to sleep, content to soak up every precious second of rack time he'd carved out of his exhausting schedule.
But instead of diesel fuel, there was only the faint aroma of wood char; and in place of his sons' cheerful bickering, the only out-of-place noise he could hear was the faint crack of damp twigs snapping underfoot. Tom frowned vaguely as he drifted further up through the layers of consciousness, some indefinable note of alarm tickling at his awareness ... only to snap fully awake all in a rush as something unexpectedly dropped onto his face. Whatever it was, it stank: a writhing slick-skinned thing that made his heart trip over in his chest with instinctive panic. He flailed, picturing Skitter limbs and myriad other unsettling forms of Espheni biotech, frantically trying to get whatever it was away from him.
Every cell in his body was sending up a protest by the time he succeeded, and he cracked his eyes open, wondering what the hell was going on. He was stiff, exhausted, and sore as much in mind as muscle and bone. Had the Skitters found him? Karen, again? Had he fallen asleep on patrol? Had there been another battle?
He was still trying to gather his thoughts when a sharp bark of laughter hit his ears, and reality crashed back in with a vengeance.
Charleston. Anne. The secret mission to find President Hathaway. The plane crash. General Bressler's death. Hiking southward. And – of all the men to be stranded in the wilderness with – John Pope.
Tom glared up at the looming figure of the Second Mass's resident rabble-rouser, perched on the fallen log Tom had put his back to when he'd laid down after his watch, and briefly, bitterly resented every time he'd spoken up to Dan Weaver on Pope's behalf.
"I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little tired of frog legs," Pope grinned down at him, insufferably bright-eyed and hale for a man who'd rattled around in a crashing plane less than forty-eight hours before. "I thought we'd go epicurean this morning."
Tom glanced reflexively at the thing Pope had thrown at him – nothing alien after all; just a common snake half a yard long – and didn't bother trying to rein in his frustration. He braced himself against the log, climbing to his aching feet as Pope jumped down, unwilling to take whatever else the man had to say from a position of weakness. "You think that's funny?"
"Ain't nothin' funny about eating snake, man," Pope drawled, still laughing, apparently blind to Tom's rising temper.
Tom's head was pounding; he'd been tense and on edge for days between his job and whatever was going on with Anne; and he had the unsettling feeling he'd shared a lot more than he should have about his childhood the night before out of some mistaken attempt to finally convince Pope he wasn't the ivory tower idealist the ex-con had scorned from the moment they'd met. On any other day, he might have had the perfect response to the juvenile trick, but he was finding it a little hard to remember why he always gave the man an easy out when Pope kept throwing it back in Tom's face.
He scooped up the snake and flung it back the moment the other man set the shotgun down. "Asshole."
Pope's jovial expression faded into a frown as he caught the thing, finally realizing Tom wasn't following his lead. "It's a joke, you puss," he snarled back, a smear of dried blood at his temple making him look even more the hardened ex-biker king than usual.
Some joke. From a kid Matt's or Ben's age, Tom might have forgiven that. Or even Hal, at his most pigtail-pulling stage of flirting with a girl. But from a man his own age, who'd fought off every attempt Tom had ever made to extend a hand to him with fists and accusations, it seemed a bit of a reach.
"Oh, you think we're friends now? Share a few campfire stories and now we're blood brothers?" The adrenaline of the sudden wakeup was still coursing through him; he squinted through the throbbing ache in his temples, wondering why it couldn't have been Cochise or even Bressler he was stuck with, and for once didn't bother trying to find the most constructive way out of the confrontation.
So what if he'd dragged Pope out of a burning plane the day before, and Pope had kept him from stumbling into an enemy scan beam? So what if Pope had, by his own admission, accidentally killed at least one man with his bare hands, and Tom had spent most of his life trying to avoid acting out of anger? The most Tom's stubborn patience had ever earned him was a series of increasingly intimidating responsibilities ... and of late, equally staggering failures that Pope just couldn't seem to resist rubbing in his face.
Charleston has a mole. Everybody knows it. And instead of delaying your trip to Keystone to find out who the damned spy was, you – you wanted to go play with the big boys, didn't you?
He had one nerve left, and Pope was standing on it.
Pope's jaw worked, fury snapping in his eyes, and for a long moment Tom thought he was going to throw the snake right back, probably following it up with a fist. He felt his own hands clench, dirty fingernails digging into the half-gloves covering his palms; he was ready for it, more than ready for it, tired of always trying to find the best in things and working toward the good of the community and squashing down the furious temper he'd inherited from his father.
And why not? Pope could take it. And for once, the only one around to get hurt if he lost it was himself.
But the moment continued to stretch on, dragging on uncomfortably until Pope's eyebrows rose and he broke into another derisive laugh. "Yeah, yeah I do. And you can't take it, can you?"
"Excuse me?" Tom frowned back, thrown by the unexpected charge.
"You've been fixated on me since the day we met; I saw the look on your face when you realized I wasn't just another dumb thug. Like if you just tried hard enough to get me to see things your way, I'd end up as what, the philosophy professor across the hall from your history classroom or something?"
Tom's face heated, but Pope snorted and went on, a malignantly amused glint in his eye. "Like I'd ever bend the fucking knee for a chance to be normal. Been there, got the fucking scars. But I think I get it now. You looked at me and thought there but for the grace go I, didn't you? You thought if you just gave me a hand up, a chance to be civilized, the monster underneath would magically go away? Hah. Life's no fairytale, Professor. I'm not the Beast. And you're no Frog King."
Tom's frown deepened at that. He vividly remembered reading the Grimm version of the Frog Prince story, with its subtly different name, to Ben when his book-loving son had been small. Tom had been expecting a typical Disney ending, given the well-known saying about kissing many frogs to find a prince ... and been entirely dismayed to find that the original tale's transformation happened when the selfish princess threw the frog into a wall. He'd glossed that for Ben's hearing, but Pope obviously knew the Grimm tale, and was using it to once again rub Tom's nose in a newly exposed vulnerability. What a surprise.
"Don't flatter yourself, Pope," he snarled. "I've never asked you to do much more than look outside yourself once in a while. And I've never claimed to be a prince. No surprise you do, though."
Pope laughed again, more heartily this time, the skitter claws hanging around his neck clattering in accompaniment. "That's the part of my little rant that gets your goat? Man, I've had you all wrong this whole time, haven't I? You're not the condescending nose-in-the-clouds do-gooder jerk I took you for; you're just so far up your own ass trying to hold it all together that your first response to anything that doesn't fit your idea of how things should be is to try and nudge it back in line.
"Well fuck you very much, but I'm not going to let you manipulate me back into hating your guts just 'cause I caught you off guard. You are my friend now, Mason, like it or not. So let's try this again." He tossed the snake up and down in one hand, almost daring Tom to go ahead and punch him anyway as he continued in an insufferably cheerful tone. "Good morning, Mr. President! How's snake for breakfast sound?"
Tom was tempted; he was sorely tempted. He wasn't in the mood to be teased, or managed, or treated like a child having a tantrum. But no matter how much Pope's verbal jabs made him clench his jaw ... there was still that little check in his gut about striking without cause.
But how else was he supposed to respond? All of his reasons for keeping Pope around were still valid; just as valid as the fury burning through his system like acid. And ... it didn't help that Pope wasn't exactly wrong.
There was no telling what might have happened next, if it had been up to him; but the world they lived in was seldom that kind, and he was interrupted by a faint chittering noise carrying from deeper in the woods. In the years before the invasion, when he and Rebecca had taken the boys camping, Tom would have thought that sound meant squirrels; but he knew better now.
"Better than Skitter," he replied, instead. "But it looks like we'll have to hold off on that pleasure."
Pope let out an aggrieved sigh, amusement fading as he stuffed the dead reptile in a pocket and turned to scan the upper tier of the forest canopy. "Add it to the list," he muttered, attention drawn away from Tom as completely as if a switch had been flipped. "Told you the fire would draw 'em, didn't I?"
"Yeah, you did. Add that to the list," Tom replied, making sure the medpack was secure and setting one hand on the grip of his gun. "Ambush them?"
More Skitter vocalizations soon proved that a bad idea, though. There had to be more than just a couple of the aliens out there; branches snapped, and several trees shifted without the touch of a breeze within Tom's line of sight over at least a hundred and twenty degree arc of forest.
"Screw that," Pope decided, then turned to run, taking up the shotgun again as he leaped over a cluster of fallen branches. "Keep up, Professor!"
"Damn it," Tom cursed, running after him.
He really did have the devil's own luck, sometimes. They'd had enough on their plate already without another round of Skitter tag before breakfast.
They did at least manage to fell two of their pursuers; none of the six-legged aliens bore any face paint, and they showed no hesitation at the sight of the men's weapons, marking them as neither rebels nor experienced at fighting humans. Between Pope's shotgun, Tom's handgun, and their knives, that might have given them a chance in a close quarters engagement with plenty of cover and no mechs to back the Skitters up ... but unfortunately neither of them knew the terrain, and it didn't favor human footing.
Pope proved that the hard way a few minutes into the chase, stumbling to a sudden stop at the lip of a rocky cliff a few paces ahead of Tom. His arms flailed as he struggled to regain his balance, nearly bent over at the waist; then he threw himself back a step, arm outstretched to halt Tom's charge as well. They'd managed to find water at last, but not in any kind of friendly form. A waterfall-fed stream rushed by several man-heights beneath them, white with froth where it coursed between steep, rocky banks, its voice a dull roar.
"Nice knowin' you, Mason," Pope commented dryly, staring down into the rushing water.
Frustration curdled in Tom's gut, then hardened into determination. If his first response to anything that didn't fit his plans was to try to manipulate it to everyone's advantage – then Pope's was to always assume the worst and act accordingly. It wasn't the first time he'd wondered how much of Pope's berserker reputation was rooted in fatalism, and how much just pure contrary hatred of the Espheni and their servant Skitters. From his perspective, the two often looked much the same.
"Giving up on that idea of friendship already? Might have known you'd be a quitter in that, too," he taunted.
Pope didn't so much as look at him, lifting the shotgun toward the leading wave of Skitters approaching through the trees. "I'll show you quit," he growled.
Tom shook his head, backing toward the line of taller trees a few paces from the cliff in such a way as to keep himself between Pope and the Skitters – and Pope between him and the cliff. The stream had seemed fairly deep at first glance, and the cliff itself had no overly sizeable rocky projections; that meant they had a chance. A slim one perhaps, but better than nothing.
"Be my guest," he shrugged, as he gauged his distance from the edge.
Pope's eyes widened as the penny dropped, and he met Tom's gaze again, indignant. "No. I saw this movie. No way."
"Got a better idea?" Tom grunted, crouching to ready himself. It wasn't as though he was looking forward to it himself, either; but he liked the idea of passively awaiting his death even less.
...Maybe he and Pope really did have more common ground than he'd like to think. They just sought very different ways of implementing it. He shook his head at that thought, blew out a breath, and charged.
The last things he carried with him as he barreled Pope over the cliff were the sight of the man's eyes, wide with surprise, and the sound of his first name ringing in his ears.
Tom came to himself the second time that day feeling even colder, wearier, and in more pain than the first, but in an inexplicably better mood: as if some thorny problem that had been bothering him had settled in his subconscious while he was otherwise occupied. He coughed dirty water out of his lungs, then crawled up the slick bank of the stream – God only knew how far down from where they'd went in – and collapsed onto elbows and knees in the chilly mud. He turned his head slowly to make sure Pope was still with him, and sighed in relief to see the other man struggling his way on shore only a few paces downstream. They'd lost the medpack and the shotgun, but they were both in one piece.
Pope staggered to his feet, then glanced Tom's way, and an unreadable expression passed over his face. For the second time that day, Tom wondered if he might be about to take a swing at him ... but for the second time, his suspicions fell short. Pope's fingers balled up into fists, then unclenched as he staggered over in Tom's direction, and finally dug into the earth as he collapsed back to his knees at Tom's side.
"So. This is how you make friends when you're really trying, huh? No wonder the wind went out of Weaver's sails so fast. All that insubordination and mutiny were just your way of showing you cared."
Tom flopped over onto his back, too exhausted to do anything else at the moment, and gave the other man a wan smile. "You have figured me out," he said dryly, then wiped a hand free of mud on his thigh and held it up in surrender.
"Thought sharing campfire stories didn't make us blood brothers," Pope raised an eyebrow at him, his tone faintly mocking, letting Tom's hand hang unsupported in the air.
Tom stared at Pope for a moment, then sighed. He wasn't the only one that had exposed a truth the night before that they'd told few others, was he? He'd forgotten that, earlier. Truthfully, Pope's past did give him pause; but in the end, it was just one factor among many. Now that his mind had cleared a little, he was reminded of the day Pope had taken a bullet defending his sons from Clayton's group of collaborators, more than a year before; of his oddly mentoring relationship with Matt; of the loyalty the Berserkers showed him; and of all the other little marks of humanity hidden under a loud and relentlessly abrasive exterior.
"Your judgment was off, but you thought you were defending your son. You didn't intend to kill that man. So I doubt, after Clayton and everything else the last few years, that I have any business throwing it in your face."
"You do have a point," Pope replied, then laughed abruptly and took Tom's hand. "Ah, what the hell."
They shook, a damp, exhausted handshake without much warmth; though Tom was struck by the unbidden thought that Pope's eyes made up for the lack, for once in their long, troubled acquaintance lit with something other than suspicion or disdain. Then Pope shifted his grip and stood, leveraging his weight to pull Tom to his feet after him. "C'mon. Let's go get dry."
That was where the moment of uncomplicated camaraderie ended, though; as soon as his weight was squarely on his feet, Tom shouted and would have collapsed if Pope hadn't grabbed his elbows. Somewhere between hitting the water and crawling back out, he'd done his right ankle some kind of serious damage; compared to the blinding agony shooting up from the joint, all his other aches and pains were mere background noise.
"It's my ankle," he hissed, trying to avoid shouting in pain as he shifted his stance. He'd hoped he was just standing exactly wrong, but it was clear there was no way he was going to put much weight on that foot without continuing to use Pope as a prop. And for all that they seemed to have finally called a truce, Tom still wasn't keen to show that much weakness in front of him.
"I can see that," Pope replied, voice thick with sarcasm as he tightened his grip on Tom's arms. "You know, if it was anybody but you, I'd have said we were doomed already. But it's you. If I walked off at this point you'd probably stagger out of the woods on a home-made crutch eight days from now, and I'd end up falling into a Skitter trap and dying in some ironically pointless fashion. So stop cringing like I'm going to abandon you now. I know which side my bread's buttered on, believe you me."
Tom tried not to show it, but he couldn't help but feel relieved; strange how Pope's words seemed to take the sting out of leaning on the man, without ever being anything Tom might have called kind. But then, that was Pope all over. No wonder Matt was so inexplicably fond of him.
After a little more do-si-do'ing in the heavy mud, they managed to turn themselves so Tom's arm was slung over Pope's shoulders, his weak ankle on the side nearest the other man, and they began their slow staggering way up the slope of the stream and back into the woods. There had to be somewhere they could find a little shelter and start another fire; it might attract Skitters again – but it might not, and getting warm wasn't really optional at the moment. Exposure would kill them if they didn't dry out fast, and he'd choose potential, later death over guaranteed doom every time, given the choice.
Tom tried to let those worries go as his focus narrowed down to putting one foot in front of the other. He was much more aware of Pope than usual, the way their arms and torsos were braced together; of the wiry strength the man hid under the worn jeans and leather jacket. He wasn't really a big guy, a couple of inches shorter than Tom, but there was a lot of presence to him, both physically and ... otherwise.
Larger than life: that was the word for John Pope, deliberately provocative, where Tom had always sought to blend in. Long hair, leather bracelet, eye-catching rings, curling lines of tattoos; you couldn't help but notice Pope, whereas even after scissors had become scarce Tom still neatly trimmed his hair and wore sober, respectable-looking clothes. But underneath the protective coloration, Tom was beginning to get the impression that they both did it for the same reason: to be heard. Before college, no one would have ever called Tom a trust fund kid; they'd have laughed in his face if he'd told them his dreams. But later, no one had ever questioned that he'd always been destined for the life he chose. It was no wonder Pope had bought the camouflage; even Tom's kids did. The only question was, why he hadn't seen through Pope's sooner.
After a few minutes, Pope cleared his throat, either guessing his line of thought with his usual brutal aim or just trying to distract him from his worsening condition. "You know, Professor, I did use to wonder what might've happened if we hadn't got off on the wrong foot. Ah, as it were."
"You mean if you hadn't seen the Second Mass pull into Acton and decided to set up an ambush for us with your gang?" Tom managed a reply. That discovery had been his first clue that he was dealing with more than the ordinary sort of human locust, bent on stripping the bones of the old world.
"Nah, like that would've happened," Pope scoffed, shuffling another step. He glanced up through the trees, frowning, then turned to steer them a little further upslope. "I hadn't run into your particular brand of contagiously aggressive optimism yet, remember? And you saw what I had to work with. I mean, if Billy hadn't decided it would be fun to shoot your friend before I had the chance to negotiate. What then? It wasn't my intention to kill anyone that night."
"Nah, wasn't really your style back then, was it?" Tom grunted. He'd almost forgotten about Click's death; it hadn't been more than eighteen months since that night at the Acton armory, but every month he'd lived since the invasion weighed on him like a year. "You let your guys get their hands dirty for you. Maggie wasn't exactly quiet about what life in your camp was like, back when she was on probation with us."
"Like she didn't do her share," Pope frowned. "I know she's like your daughter-in-law these days, and you've got this bad habit of wishful-thinking everyone into being the best they can be and all, but don't let that give you the wrong impression. Not saying we were saints or anything, far from it, but she was trying to make sure your sympathies were with her. Seriously, though. If we'd brought you in all quiet-like from the start, had ourselves an honest conversation, without your guy down and my brother bleeding out on the stage ...."
Tom's thoughts caught briefly on the word daughter-in-law; it threw him a little, bringing up old knee-jerk reflexes of Hal's just a kid, juxtaposed with memories of how supportive Maggie had been while Hal slowly recovered from whatever Karen had done to him. Whatever her past might have been, she'd been more than a helpmate to Tom's eldest son; they were both more than old enough to make their own choices.
Like the one that had led Maggie to shoot Billy and free Tom, Hal, and the others from Pope, back at the beginning. A lot of men had died that day that shouldn't have had to, true. But weighing all the factors together ... she'd had cause, not to mention that given the way the ethnic slurs had all but fallen out of Pope's vocabulary with lightning speed after his brother's death, Tom had a rather dim view of how things would've gone with Pope's gang still intact. As it was, it had taken them how long to even have a civil conversation, even after saving each other's lives several times?
"I think it would've turned out pretty much the same," he replied thoughtfully, staggering again as his leading foot caught on a rock. "Like you said, I saw what you had to work with. And you were pretty bitter then; seemed to think our cause was doomed from the start."
"Like I don't have anything to be bitter about now?" Pope asked, incredulously. "Pull the other one, Professor. I do have to admit, though ... the improvement in the ride's been worth it. Even if we do die out here."
"It's not over 'til it's over," Tom reminded him, glancing up again and catching sight of what looked like a rocky overhang over to the left. There: where the slope grew steeper again and stone slabs poked out of the hillside. He jerked his chin in that direction. "There are always options, if you look hard enough."
"Well, would you look at that. Cave might even shield us from the Beamers' infrared."
"That's the idea," Tom chuckled, then groaned and said nothing more as Pope ushered him into the dry space beneath the overhang and helped him ease off his coat. His shoulders were nearly as stiff as his ankle, though not so swollen; Anne was going to be furious with him when he got back to Charleston.
Anne. It struck him, as Pope hung the coat up and scrounged up a meager pile of dried sticks and other debris from the back corners of the overhang, that it was the first time he'd thought of her in hours. He shivered again, rubbing at his arms, and tried to steer his thoughts back in more productive directions; guilt could kill, if he let it affect his decision-making. This wasn't the time to berate himself for the way their relationship had fallen apart over the last half-year, strained by everything else they put in front of their love for each other.
The most frustrating part was, he didn't see how he could have made any different decisions ... and he didn't think Anne did, either.
"If you had, though," he doggedly dredged up the conversation again, letting the problem of the tinder consume the rest of his attention. A flat piece of wood, peeled to show dry surface; a twig to scrape against it; mossy splinters to catch any sparks. "Talked first, I mean. I guess ... I might've cut you a little more slack when we took you prisoner."
"Ah, probably better you didn't," Pope mused, magnanimous in victory, shrugging out of his own jacket. "Give me an inch, I'm gonna take a mile."
"I've noticed that about you," Tom agreed, wryly.
"Too bad I can't give 'em all back now, huh? How many more you figure we're gonna need to make it out of here?"
"However many it takes. One step at a time."
It was how he'd done everything, since he'd lost Rebecca.
"Ain't that the truth." Pope took a deep breath, then let it out in a sigh, running a hand through his long, damp mane, which was taking on a distinct wave as it dried. "All right, then; I'll get some more wood. You'll need those boots dry before we try and strap your foot up. Don't go anywhere."
"Don't think that's going to be a problem," Tom muttered, then bent over to blow a coaxing breath on the first ember of the nascent fire.
They scraped along almost amiably for the next couple of hours, drying off, turning out their pockets to see what they had left, and speculating about what the existence of President Hathaway's administration meant for the residents of the New United States. All twelve blocks or so of it. Charleston had lasted nearly two years, two-thirds of that before the arrival of the Second Massachusetts, without word one from Hathaway's people; if Tom hadn't made the alliance with the second group of aliens, the Volm, and made the city a little more visible, they still might not know there were scattered pockets of the old United States still clinging to its bones.
Did it count as secession if they had no way to keep up consistent lines of communication, or was it more like the relationship between America and Great Britain back in colonial times? And either way, how would it affect the revolution mentality the survivors clung to? John was all for adopting a one-star republic's flag the way Louisiana and Texas had done in ages past, regardless of what Hathaway's people thought; no surprise there. Tom could see good and bad points to that approach, mostly in how it would affect fostering a sense of unity among all human survivors against the Espheni; that didn't seem to surprise John, either. They spent a while at it in energetic debate, until enough time had passed to try to splint his ankle.
Tom grimaced as John stripped off his belt and knelt to strap a sturdy branch against his leg. Resting a couple of hours might have been the only thing they could do given how wet they'd been and how cold the air was, but without blood moving and adrenaline flowing, all he'd been doing since he'd sat down was stiffening up further. He doubted he'd be able to walk very far, no matter how tightly they splinted the injury.
He cast around for something else to distract himself with, musing about how stupid it would be to survive being shot down by an Espheni ship and throwing himself off a cliff only to die of thirst and exposure, possibly even in company if he couldn't convince John to leave him behind ... and frowned as something suddenly occurred to him.
"There had to have been a tracking device on the airplane. That's the only explanation."
John grunted, tightening the belt. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Tom grimaced at the spike of pain. "You know. Earlier. You said they must've followed us to Keystone. Or spotted us in the air – which would have taken a wild stroke of luck on their part; Bressler was the one who taught Avery Churchill how to get a plane up and down the seaboard without attracting the Espheni's attention. But the timing doesn't work for either theory. If they were following us, either from the beginning or from crossing flight paths, they should have hit us the moment we landed."
"So your answer is – a tracking device? The hell you say." John growled. "Not even most of my Berserkers were ever on that plane. Just me and Lyle and Crazy Lee, and we went over the whole damn thing, every inch, to make sure she was in shape to fly if we needed her."
"It's the only explanation," he insisted.
"Look, Tom, you gotta let that go. It doesn't matter right now; the only thing that matters is getting our asses back to civilization. Now brace yourself. This is gonna get tight."
Pain whited his vision out again; Tom threw back his head, groaning as pressure bore down on the swollen joint. He tried to remind himself that it was nothing against Espheni torture, or the worm probe being dragged out of his eye still squirming, but that didn't help much; the memory of pain never seemed to stack up to the tooth-grinding immediacy of fresh agony.
"But it does matter," he panted, as John let go of his foot again. He didn't think John was trying to protect either of his Berserker buddies from suspicion; or himself for that matter. Too many things had gone wrong at the mole's hands that his unit had been excluded from. Not to mention, Lee Tedeschi had died before anyone from the government even found out Pope had a plane. "If we know how the tracker got aboard ... might be able to figure out who the mole is before we get back."
"I don't suppose we can hope it was Bressler? Or the bubblehead?" John snorted. "C'mon, if you've gotta keep talking, at least do it while you walk; we gotta get moving."
"Yeah, no; I think we can probably cross them off the list," Tom chuckled weakly as he reached for John's hand again. Funny how it was getting easier each time to take it without flinching. Except maybe this time: he cautiously shifted his weight to his bad foot as John levered him upward ... then went down again, shouting, the way he'd suspected he would.
He heard John pace back and forth across the small sheltered space as he caught his breath, curled around the pain. "Damn it, Tom. We don't have a choice here."
"You think I don't know that?" He sighed, leaning back against the rocks. "All I have is the stick of gum I was saving for a peace offering, and you have a pocketful of dead snake, and that's it. The spool of line I keep in my pocket washed away in the river with the shotgun, your pocket canteen, and the medkit ...."
Something caught at his mind about that thought, and he paused, frowning as he tried to pin it down.
"Which means we're gonna die out here, if we don't go, and go now," John reminded him.
The nagging thought wouldn't come; Tom left it to drift to the back of his mind as he studied John's stubborn expression. The man's jacket was still off, his arms bare to the shoulder in a black muscle shirt, toned and strong under the wings and curling swirls of his tattoos ... but as tough as he was, there was no way he'd be able to carry Tom all the way to Charleston if he couldn't be persuaded to go it solo.
He shook his head at that thought and gave John a wry look. "You know. I'm very tempted right now to try to piss you off, make you storm out of these woods alone. King of chaos or no, we both know you probably have better odds of making it out of here without me and sending someone back when you hit civilization. But if you wouldn't punch me earlier today when I was taking my best shot at it ...."
"Like hell I'm going to leave you behind now," John concluded, folding his arms over his chest and looking insulted at the very thought. "So don't even try it, Mr. President. Remember, you owe me a damn plane, and you can't pay me back if you're out here rotting in the woods."
"I see how this friendship is going to work. Quid pro quo, huh?"
"You bet your ass. So are you going to try again, or are you going to carry on crying 'woe is me' and doom us both? We can't just wait a couple of days for you to heal; we'll be hungry enough by that time to be stupid and weak with it, even if we keep hydrated and catch a couple more frogs, and I don't know about you but I've never tried hunting with just a pistol and knife before."
"Can I at least talk you into a scout? Climb up over that point of rock above us, see if you spot any breaks in the trees where there might be a town nearby, or maybe a cabin? If I knew I only had to make it far enough to get to a vehicle ...." Tom let the thought trail off suggestively.
Was it only a couple of hours ago that he'd been determined not to show weakness in front of the man? Necessity, they said, made strange bedfellows; and didn't he know it.
John studied him a minute more, drumming his fingers thoughtfully against his biceps, then gave a sharp nod. "All right. Have it your way. But if you're not here when I get back, I will make you pay."
"Like I said earlier ... don't think that's gonna be a problem," Tom said ruefully, gesturing to his wrecked ankle.
John's expression telegraphed, Right, and you expect me to believe that, you wily son of a bitch? But he kept his mouth shut as he shrugged his jacket back on with tight, economical movements, then stormed out of the shelter, to all appearances as furious as if Tom had called him a coward.
Go figure, Tom thought, bemused, then propped himself up a little better against the rock wall, making another attempt at flexing his wounded foot. How he'd ever be able to explain any of the day's adventure to Dan, or his sons, or Anne, or Maggie....
The earlier thought about the medpack drifted back into his thoughts, then; the last time he'd seen the mother of his daughter, she'd been handing it to him. He'd almost forgotten that, under the looming dread about her insistence that they needed to talk when he got back. Lourdes had told him Anne was suffering from some sort of post-partum psychosis, and he had found it difficult to credit that Anne could claim such crazy things about Alexis without proof if she wasn't going through something more than ordinary motherhood woes, so the idea of a heart-to-heart with her had sounded much more ominous than it normally would have. She'd been so off, she hadn't even packed his medpack herself, just passed it on from Lourdes....
The thought finally crystallized, and Tom swallowed as an ugly picture began to form. He refused to let himself panic, though, immediately shunting the fear aside to put the idea through the sniff test. Had Lourdes been present, or otherwise had access to, every piece of information or technology that had been leaked? Well, yes; she was Dr. Delgado, Anne's apprentice, Hal's friend, the healer the Second Mass and most of the younger inhabitants of Charleston wanted when Anne wasn't available, even over the experienced surgeon the city had already had. Her position and her connections would have given her unquestioned passage even to areas she couldn't access alone ... and with Anne on a reduced schedule since the baby's birth, even moreso since she'd started claiming Alexis was unnatural, Lourdes' position had become even more central to the city's well-being.
She'd been the one looking after Anne and Alexis, and telling everyone that Anne was imagining things. What if she was the one lying? What if Anne wasn't crazy? And he'd told her to stay with Anne. Pope was right; they had to get back immediately.
He gritted his teeth again, bracing himself against the wall, then began very gingerly pushing himself upward, determined to at least appear ready when John came back, good news or no.
Several long minutes later, he made it: only just. He was sweating, pale under the grime of the day's misfortunes, and propped nonchalantly against the rock next to the cave's entrance when John stalked back in, a little less nettled. John's expression cleared even more as he caught sight of Tom, approval flashing across his face ... and Tom felt the warmth of his own reaction to that look with more than a little surprise.
It really was like finally making friends with Dan had been, he reflected, only more volatile; as if the respect meant more for how hard it was to earn. These days, Dan Weaver, former tyrannical leader of the Second Mass, was like a brother to Tom, and vice versa. But what that meant for the future of his friendship with Pope....
"There's that indomitable spirit," John said wryly, holding out a long, stripped branch half as big around as his wrist and tall enough for Tom to lean on. "How long've you been standing there?"
"Not long," Tom shook his head, accepting the staff with relief. "Gotta get moving. You find a place?"
"Spotted a cabin, just a little ways from here. Hoping there might be a vehicle; it's hard to tell for sure between the distance and the trees, but there's a couple of outbuildings, so I doubt it was just a summer place. With any luck the folk who owned it were some of the ones who got rounded up for the camps. Well, not lucky for them; but there'll be a chance of decent pickings if they had to leave their shit behind."
Tom nodded, remembering Sonya Rankin with a pang. So many people had never had the chance to fight back. "Even if there isn't a vehicle, there'll be shelter. Better than here, anyway."
"That was my thought. Though you seemed pretty pessimistic before I went up the hill ... mind telling me what changed your mind?" John slid an arm around Tom's back, easily adjusting his grip this time.
"It's pretty simple, actually," Tom shrugged, testing a slightly longer stride with the help of the walking stick. Quick thinking there on John's part; Tom should have made one himself while he was waiting, but he'd been just a little distracted. "I just realized I have to get back before Lourdes does something to Anne and Alexis."
John stopped in his tracks, nearly sending them tumbling down the slope. "Lourdes? Jamil's girl, the Second's junior doc, one of the few people who can go anywhere in Charleston without question, that Lourdes?" he demanded, a rising note of anger in his voice.
"One and the same."
"Fuck me," John spat. "I would never have picked her for the mole, not in a million years. How the hell do you figure?"
Clutching awkwardly at John's jacket, staring at his bearded jaw line from a closer perspective than he'd ever expected to have, the profanity struck Tom a little differently than usual. "Flattered, but taken," he snorted in wry amusement. "So maybe we should try out that walking and talking thing you were griping about earlier?"
John's eyebrows shot up, but he did step back to let Tom regain his balance. "Yeah. Yeah, whatever, but you talk. If it's her ... damn it. Tell me everything."
Tom didn't quite tell John everything – there were a few things about the alliance with the Volm that he still hadn't told anyone, not even Dan, so they weren't relevant to the discussion – but he did cover a lot more than he might have before their little jaunt north. No reason to keep things quiet anymore, either out of fear that the mole might overhear or that Pope would abuse the information out of spite; and regardless, Tom had often depended on Pope to point out the bluntly obvious even when things were at their worst between them. Why else had he caved so easily to his demand to come along on the trip, regardless of his ownership of the plane?
They'd reached the cabin by the time he finished running through all he knew and guessed, and John was steadily swearing under his breath as he eased Tom down on the steps and elbowed out a window to get in through the locked front door.
"You realize there has to be at least one more, right?" John said, reemerging from the cabin with a ring of keys to try out on the corrugated metal shed next to the cabin. There was a garage sized door in the outbuilding, padlocked shut; they hadn't seen any vehicles in the open, but Tom was hoping that was because the owner had parked out of the wet. "If not an active mole, at least a sleeper agent. She hasn't been near any fishhead forces since the hospital, unless you count the rebel Skitters. And we didn't see any sign of the mole until we got to Charleston. So where'd she pick up an eyeworm?"
"I haven't quite worked that part out yet," Tom grimaced. "It's an ugly thought."
"Yeah," John nodded as he tested a few of the keys, one after the other, clicking against each other like Skitter claws. "Someone else who was in contact with the Espheni had to've brought it to her. And if I was Karen, I'd have sent more than one, so she'd still have a sleeper agent even if the main mole got exposed."
"You know, you have a habit of delivering uncomfortable truths when people least want to hear them," Tom sighed. The longer the mole situation stretched on, the weaker Charleston's position became, particularly when dealing with other leaders in a position of power; he didn't even want to think about what Hathaway's administration must be thinking of Tom's people at the moment.
"Just call 'em like I see 'em," John grunted, then finally got the padlock loose, throwing it carelessly to the ground. The door ran on a track rather than a hinge or any kind of rolling assembly; it creaked with rust as he shoved it to one side, but still moved easily enough, a good sign since Tom didn't think he was up to lending any elbow grease at the moment.
"Yeah, I've noticed that, too," he replied, then narrowed his eyes and decided it was time to air something else he'd wanted to call Pope on for a while. "Why'd you think I supported your bar scheme."
"Scheme? What exactly are you accusing me of now?" John threw him a disbelieving look, then disappeared into the shed, raising his voice as he continued. "People need a place to burn off steam, get a little downtime. Figured I'd rather run the place myself than drink whatever someone else scrounged up for swill."
"Yeah, and if a bar run by a very vocal critic of the regime just so happens to attract the majority of the dissidents, and if they just so happen to talk up their plans in your presence, and you just so happen to mention them around Anthony, or tell Tector to put a word in Weaver's ear ...." Tom called after him.
He'd doubted his own conclusions on that subject a time or two, but never enough to send someone in to take over The Nest, and he was pretty sure now that he'd been right all along.
"Hah!" John called back. "I'd wondered if you'd worked that out. Just 'cause I don't particularly care for your idea of order, don't mean I like the idea of anyone else running the place any better."
More creaking sounds followed, followed by more fumbling with keys, and finally the strained noise of an engine that had been sitting in silence far too long trying valiantly to turn over. It caught after a few long minutes, putting out the roar of a sturdily made old truck, and Tom grinned in relief as its headlights came on.
John drove the thing out in low gear, jouncing on obviously ancient shocks, and left it running in park as he got out again. "Not much gas in her, but enough to get us most of the way, I think; and there's plenty of twelve gauge shells in the glove box to go with the gun in the rack. Let me just check inside for hors d'oeuvres, and we'll haul ass back to Charleston before the Skitters catch up with us. Even with your supposed tracker gone we left a pretty clear trail up from the stream, and it's gonna get dark before long."
"I hear you." Tom let John help him into the truck, then smiled tiredly as the man strode back over to the cabin, disappearing inside its rustic walls.
How the hell Pope still had any energy left, Tom had no idea. He had to be running on adrenaline and willpower. But wherever it came from, Tom was grateful. He'd never have made it so far on his own, and he knew it.
John emerged again after a moment, looking smug, with a sack full of tuna-sized cans, a couple of bottles of alcohol, and a few other odds and ends. "Here, for the pain; and get some protein in you, we've still got a ways to go," he said, handing the sack over as he slid back in behind the wheel.
Tom eyed a bottle dubiously; as tired as he already was, the liquor was going to go straight to his head, and he wasn't sure it would be wise to let himself pass out before they were even sure they were headed the right way. "Think I'd have preferred aspirin. But I guess I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth."
He wearily unscrewed the lid, then tossed back a solid slug, hissing as it went down. "Don't suppose you picked up a can opener with those?" he added after a moment, still eyeing the sack.
"What, you need me to hold your hand and look both ways while you cross the road, too?" John snorted, then reached for the bottle. "Here, hand it over while you open a couple of those up; it's startin' to feel like I surfed those rapids on my spine. And don't even give me any crap about DUI or open bottle laws – I'm declaring this an amnesty zone. No getting all official on me now."
"Wasn't going to say anything," Tom snorted, handing it over. Then he rearranged the bag of supplies to prop his ankle up somewhat – the shocks might be bad, but the rough, unmaintained road was an even worse hazard – and took a couple of cans out, prying away at them with his knife.
John's latest poor joke rubbed shoulders with his touchy sense of humor as he worked at them, taking his time to avoid nicking anything else he couldn't spare. He did feel like a clumsy child at the moment; hardly dignified at all, and it brought a familiar old rhyme to mind. One from the many kid's books Ben had loved that Alexis might never see.
"I do not like fish in a can; I'm sick and tired of it, Sam I am."
It didn't occur to him until after he'd said it that John might take it as a criticism of his scrounging abilities. But it didn't even seem to strike the other man that way. John snorted, throwing him a wry look, and took another pull at the whiskey.
"You're tellin' me. Cans and cans and cans of it we ate on the road; you'd think if we were going to find stashes of overlooked food like that there'd at least be some Spam or green beans mixed in for a change. Best thing about Charleston by far's the fact I don't have to find new ways to cook that shit for three hundred anymore – well, that and the running water."
Tom traded the bottle for a can, then tossed back his own few ounces' worth of fish, washing it down with a little more alcohol. "Well, at least my administration's getting one thing right, huh?"
"Hey. What'd I just say about keeping politics out of my truck?"
Tom chuckled, then laid his head back on the seat, feeling false warmth start to spread through his veins as the drink kicked in. "Sure about that? Thought we could, I dunno. Continue the debate from earlier? Don't think it's a good idea for me to nod off just yet."
"Hey, if you can fall asleep through all this bouncing, more power to you. We've about talked that subject out, anyway – or else I'm too tired to come up with a fresh angle, take your pick. Anything else you been burning to talk about, but no one's sat still long enough to chew it over with you yet?"
"You mock, but you're more right than you know," Tom sighed. "'Bout four people outside the military in the whole of Charleston know enough about running the government to have an intelligent conversation about my job, and my entire life practically is the job at the moment. Thank God I made 'em write in a loophole that I still get to join the occasional mission, or I'd never get out of the office."
"And let me guess; one of the four's your new Vee-Pee, so that really only leaves three prospects. And none of 'em's Manchester, who was your real go-to guy even after that self-important jackass did his best to run you out of Charleston on a rail."
There was something in John's tone at that remark that caught Tom's attention; he turned his cheek against the back of the seat to take in the other man's expression, defiant and yet somehow self-satisfied under the day's marks of wear and tear. "I didn't hold it against him, you know. Arthur. No more'n I did you, when I came back that time with the eyebug. I was disappointed, sure; thought he was being short-sighted. Didn't have near the excuse you did, either. But I knew he was a good man at heart. You seem to have taken it personal, though."
"Huh," John said, eyeing him sidelong. Then he cleared his throat, easing the gas pedal down a little more.
"Yeah, that's right, I never told you, did I? Not like I had reason to. You remember when me and a few of the Berserkers got ourselves locked up trying to reclaim our weapons? Seemed like all my worst fears were coming true: you bein' a naïve sack of shit getting the rest of us led to slaughter like a bunch of lambs, worse off than if I was still king of that school up in Acton. That old mentor of yours, he had his bully-boys free me, bring me up to his office; waved a nice fat steak and a glass of wine under my nose. Promised me the moon, if only I'd spill all the dirt on you I had."
"He never said a thing to me about that," Tom objected. Seven months of working with Charleston's first leader to ensure a smooth transfer of power, and that hadn't come up? "What did you tell him?"
"Not a damn thing," John said, baring his teeth at the memory.
Somehow, Tom didn't think that was all there was to it. But ... he didn't doubt him, either.
"Good man," he repeated tiredly, his eyes drifting shut against the movement of the truck.
But this time ... he wasn't referring to Manchester.
Chapter 2: Xbalanqué
The professor finally went quiet after dropping the latest in a long series of bombshells, and John glanced across the truck at him in disbelief. Had Mason really just called John a good man? Ever since he'd woken up on the wrong side of the log that morning, John had finally been getting a glimpse of the real man under the ever-earnest façade, and he wasn't what he'd been expecting at all.
He'd spent so long needling the guy, trying to get him to wake up and smell the nightshade, that it left him a little at a loss to realize that Mason had never been as blithe as he seemed: he just didn't wear it all on his sleeve like John did. All those anecdotes he pulled out of his history books, all earnest and bright-eyed and so sure what path they should be taking; John had always assumed from his diction and idealism that he was the trust fund type, trained from toddlerhood to believe his opinions were always in the right. Liable to get the rest of them killed when his pretty words finally came up short of reality. But John was the one who'd been proved wrong, every time so far. And now he knew why: he'd been reasoning from a faulty premise from the start.
Mason only acted like he'd been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His own father had never even had a high school education. He'd just ... made a lot more bricks with the straw he'd been given than John had. A tenured professorship, a wife and three sons before the invasion, the good opinion of almost every authority figure he met: it might sound boring to John now, but there'd been a time that he'd craved that kind of life, too. He hadn't been cut out for it; hadn't had what it took to choose that course and follow it through without getting blown off course. But Mason apparently had. It was disordering John's entire view of him.
Not that it seemed to bother Mason much. Asleep, he looked a good ten years younger than usual: slumped in the angle between the seat and the passenger door, the lines of pain creasing his face finally relaxed under the joint influence of exhaustion and alcohol. He was such an intense guy when he was awake, always talking, always thinking; John rarely had the chance to just look at him, to linger over the mobile mouth framed by a well-trimmed beard and smile lines carved as deep as the stress marks around his eyes.
Did Weaver ever get to see Mason like that? Had Manchester known the origins of the other man's driving passions? John frowned at that line of thought, an unwelcome twang of jealousy stirring his gut, and turned his attention back to the road.
Mason had got in under his armor at long last, despite every attempt John had made to hold him off. What the hell was he going to do when they got back to Charleston? Laying aside the whole issue of the mole ... did he want to get further involved in the professor's life, or write the whole adventure off as some kind of one-time truce? Mason had seemed to hint that he'd value some kind of honest attempt at friendship ... but no matter how much he disparaged the title, he was the no-shit President of the New United States, and John Pope, ex-con turned chef and guerilla fighter, was so far outside the circle of trust it wasn't funny.
Weaver would choke on his own tongue, if John tried to take advantage of the offer. And his Berserkers would probably think he'd lost it. On the other hand, it might be worth it for the looks on the kids' faces ... at least, until Maggie opened her mouth. She knew another secret or two of his that Mason still hadn't heard, and depending on how much of the Kool-Aid she'd drunk, mutually assured destruction might fall apart in the face of a perceived threat to her boyfriend's so-noble father.
John shook his head, then eyed the gas gauge and sighed. Looked like he still had plenty of time to decide, at least. The needle was hovering just over the E, and there were a lot of miles left to go.
They finally crossed into familiar territory just before the gas tank ran dry. John's shoulders slumped in relief as they passed a sign he remembered from their original trek down to Charleston, and he reached across to nudge Mason's elbow.
"Hey. Hey, Professor. You awake?"
Mason groaned, then brought a hand up to his forehead. "Ugh. More than I want to be. We getting close?"
"Sort of; we're pretty much running on fumes at this point, but we're still a bit more than ten miles out. Want to crack us another can of tuna? We're going to need it before long, and I doubt you want to try and carry the bag with us."
Mason blinked his eyes open, then swiped at them with the back of one gloved hand. "Um. Sure. Going to need a second, though. What I wouldn't give for some coffee."
"Sorry; didn't see any in the cabin. Wouldn't even mind chewing it dry at this point, myself."
Mason shuddered, straightening up again as he visibly drew himself back together, and carefully shifted his awkwardly splinted ankle off the bag of salvaged goodies. He retrieved a couple of cans, then poked a pair of holes in each with his knife and passed one over for John to toss back. Unfortunately, they were the kind of tuna packaged in water; the oily kind probably would have tasted worse, but they'd also have packed more energy. John was more or less running on fumes by that point himself.
He sucked it down, washed it back with another slug of whiskey, then passed the bottle back to Mason as the engine finally started to choke. "You know, it didn't even occur to me to try insulating this thing before we left? Guess we really are starving the fishheads for fuel; after they scanned the crash, I haven't seen hide nor hair of anything else of theirs runs on engines, and we had to've made a nice hot target."
"Also means we can cross our own names off the list of potential sleeper agents," Mason pointed out. Seeking the silver lining, as usual. "If Karen'd had any idea where we were after we lost the tracker, we'd have seen something by now. Thank God for small favors, I suppose."
"Yeah, well, it's probably going to be the last we see for a while." He coasted the truck onto the overgrown verge, killing the ignition while he still had a little control, then carefully set the parking brake. Not that it had anywhere much to roll, but they might be able to send scouts out later with a jerry can; salvage her and the last of her supplies for the city fleet. "Sure you don't want to try and catch a little more rest before we hike it out? 'Cause these last few miles, even on a flat road, are going to be a stone bitch on that ankle."
Mason gave him a wry, unamused look. "When have you ever known me to volunteer to sit on my ass when there was something more productive I could be doing?"
John held up his hands. "Right, right; forgot who I was talking to. Forgive me for trying to 'look outside myself' for once," he replied, unable to fully suppress the curl at the corner of his mouth. "Don't move; I'll get the stick out of the bed. You fall on your ass, I'm not going to be able to pick you up this time."
"Don't make me any promises you can't keep, or anything," came the dry reply.
Goddamn Mason. John shook his head as he got out and circled the truck. Forget the 'if'; he might as well go ahead and write himself off now. He'd drunk the Kool-Aid, too; he'd fallen into the professor's cult of personality, and it was probably going to be the end of him.
At least it was pretty much guaranteed to be an interesting way to go. Part of the last myth of humanity; or maybe the first of a new world, if they were luckier than they deserved.
He got a good grip around Mason's back, made sure he had a hold of the walking stick with his other hand, then started off down the road, a shambling four-and-a-half legged knot of exhaustion and ragged pragmatism.
They didn't talk much, the first hour or so of that nightmare slog; for once, John felt no burning need to fill up the silence between him and another person, and Mason seemed pretty deep in his own thoughts. Probably wondering if anyone out of Keystone had contacted Charleston yet, or daydreaming about his little daughter, or something else suitably heroic or wholesome.
Or ... maybe not. John should probably get out of the habit of automatically disparaging him at some point.
"Credit for your thoughts?" he rasped, thinking of all the useless piles of paper piling up back at his bar. Really, why did the rest of Charleston think he ran The Nest, if not to keep tabs on his sort of people? Sure as hell wasn't for the 'profit' in it. Where, exactly, was he supposed to spend all that theoretical dough?
Mason gave him a sidewise glance. "Not sure they're worth that much. Was just thinking it felt good to lose my temper today. Not my proudest moment. But ...."
John smirked. "Just don't go lettin' off steam all the time, people would think you'd got yourself eyebugged again. That's my designated role in the community, not yours."
Mason chuckled, then cut himself off with a quiet groan. "Damn. Don't make me laugh. Speaking of cutting loose, though ... something you said earlier just came back to me. 'Add it to the list'? Didn't strike me as the kind of guy into self-denial."
The question was more implied than stated; John probably could have ignored it if he wanted. But Maggie probably really would spill the beans, if he let things drag on without saying something. No point in putting the conversation off. And really, how much longer could it have stayed a secret, anyway? His balls were getting pretty damn blue, and people in as small a community as Charleston always talked.
"Yeah, and I've put a lot of effort into that, too. Pretty sure most people think I'm some other woman's dirty little secret; not like anyone'd want to be seen with the local bad-boy with such shining examples of virtue leading the way." He eyed Mason pointedly, smirking. "Just as well. For a supposedly random sampling of humanity, Charleston's pretty much the straightest, most God-fearing bunch a Hollywood producer could dream up. Not much room there for differences."
"Not like you've been the poster child for inclusion, either," Mason said carefully, staring at him again with a little frown between his eyes. "I remember your ... colorful introductions ... the day we met. And if anyone's spoken up louder about the harnessed kids, or the Volm, I sure can't remember it."
"Yeah, you just think about that for a minute," John rolled his eyes. Really, he'd thought the man was quicker on the uptake than that. "Not that the one really has all that much to do with the other."
Mason blinked at that – then looked again, long and startled this time. "...No."
"And the penny drops."
"...You can't be serious."
"Didn't take you for a homophobe, Mason," John replied, matching the other man's surprised tone.
Not that he thought he was; Tom hadn't stiffened or tried to pull away, and injury or not, most of the folks who'd put that at the top of the list of reasons John was going to hell would have flinched at the very idea. But lack of hatred didn't mean a positive reaction.
"Give me a little credit, Pope. It just ... runs counter to everything I thought I knew about you. Your wife...? I know your kids are real; a man doesn't make up a story like that out of whole cloth."
He didn't need to specify which story. Yeah; that had probably been the beginning of the end of holding Tom Mason at arm's length, and it was his own damn fault.
"Yeah, I had a wife," John admitted. "People I ran with, family like mine – you bet I did. Not a bad-looking woman, either; I'm not completely blind to the charms of the female form. But I made sure to snare one smart enough to kick me to the curb as soon as the shine wore off; gave me the perfect excuse to opt out of the meat market. Long as I didn't flaunt it, long as I still showed up for my kids when I could, people just assumed that what they saw was what they got."
He grimaced at that; he hadn't been able to show up for his kids the last five years before the invasion, and it was one of the few things he truly regretted.
"I'd say it worked pretty well," Mason mused.
"Yeah. Maggie knows, and ... well, a couple others. Kind of surprised it hasn't got out yet, actually," he added, shading things a little. "I'm hardly a monk, and I'd have expected Mags to bring it up sooner or later."
Something about that perturbed Mason, too. "Why did you leave her guarding us that day if you knew she had a grudge, by the way? I've wondered, but I didn't want to bring it up, given the ... circumstances."
"Given that she murdered my brother, you mean." Ah, hell; might as well unpack the whole mess. "You don't need to sugarcoat it; he was an asshole. But he was blood; the only family I still had after the invasion. As for Maggie ...."
He sighed. "I knew it was a bad idea to leave her watchin' you with that pair, but I couldn't take Cueball on the raid and have a hope in hell of everything not turning to shit before I even ran up the white flag, and damn if I was going to expect her to hold a gun on women and babies. She's a survivor, our Mags, but she's got some brittle spots that I expect your son knows all about by now. So I took a roll of the dice. Suppose it's arguable whether or not it came up sixes."
"So you never ...." Mason's eyebrows arched skeptically.
"Not that it's really any of your damn business, but no."
"Didn't stop the others, though," Mason prodded further.
John scowled at him. "Didn't try to stop her from leaving once we found a place, either. Gave her a gun, even taught her to ride. She stayed, and didn't bother putting the others 'straight' about us, so I figured unless she brought it up, the details were her business. Maybe that falls a little short of your precious moral code, but I wasn't exactly eager to draw attention to the fact that I couldn't have cared less about checking pussy off the post-apocalyptic shopping list. All I cared about at that point was getting my revenge on, and the best way to do that was not to give 'em any reason to stop following my orders."
"That's a ... calculating way to look at it."
"It worked, though, didn't it?" John shrugged; at least, as much as he could with the professor half-draped over him. "I'm still alive; so's Maggie; and we've made a pretty serious dent in the ranks of our alien oppressors. You can talk about reestablishing democracy all you want; enthusiasm looks damn good on you, even if it is still mostly a bunch of ceremonial bullshit pasted over martial law. But personally, every day my kill count goes up, that's what I call a win. Haven't had much cause to celebrate anything else in a real long time."
"Hard to argue with that. Though I doubt Maggie would say the same." The professor went silent again after that, finally letting the subject lie.
For his own peace of mind, John decided that meant the topic was closed.
But then Mason threw John another one of his little sidelong looks, crinkles developing around his eyes, and flipped expectations yet again. "...Ceremonial bullshit, you say?" he repeated, amusement warming his tone.
"Have I mentioned how fucking ugly that 'Liberty Tree' is, yet?" John replied, lightly.
"...As opposed to me, apparently?" The crinkles deepened.
As opposed...? John ran his little speech back in his mind and winced as he realized what he'd just admitted. Jesus; how punch drunk was he? "Yeah, you can just forget I said that," he grumbled, and cast around for something else to deflect Mason's attention. "Though I've wondered a time or two if Weaver might not think the same; your guys' bromance has been kinda sickening of late. I about choked the last time he called you sir in front of me, in that oh-so-respectful tone of voice."
Mason coughed out a laugh. "Ow. No; no. Not Dan. For all he fought with his wife like cats and dogs, from what Jeanne says, I think she was pretty much it for him. Though ... well." He gave another searching, sidelong look.
"Well?" Now John was curious; he hadn't really expected to stir anything up with that one.
"You said quid pro quo, right?" Mason mused, then continued, measuring his words as if tiptoeing through a minefield. "I won't deny there was a ... pull, after I came back from the Espheni ship. Especially after he found his daughter, and finally had something more to live for than hate; and made a point of trusting me, even when he had every reason not to. He's a very ... deeply feeling person, underneath the hardliner attitude. But I was with Anne by then; and now, he's the closest thing to a brother I've ever had."
"Huh." John whistled softly, trying to imagine what that development might have done to the Second Mass. He might not've appreciated it much himself at the time, but the fallout would have been ... memorable. "Goes to show. Never really know anyone, do you?"
A weary smile tugged at the corner of Mason's mouth. "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."
"You're quoting the Bible at me now?" John pulled a face.
"Thought it was appropriate." Mason grunted, staggering a little as his walking staff caught on something. The section of road they'd hit had been razed by mechs at some point, pot-holey as hell – but at least it meant they were getting close. "Since, apparently, I've got this 'bad habit of wishful-thinking everyone into being the best they can be and all', and here we are, getting to know each other ...."
"You little shit," John blurted, recognizing his own words quoted ironically back at him. "You better not think you're reforming me with the power of your resolute charm and self-evident truths, or anything. It was losing your temper that made me decide you were still human after all, not that pious presidential persona."
Mason chuckled, steps slowing further as the ragged edge of Charleston finally started appearing on the horizon. "And there's my carefully cultivated reputation, ruined."
"Oh, no, no, my friend; I'm keeping this side of you all to myself. Not that I think anyone would believe me."
"Mutual, there," Mason agreed. "Though ... Dan would. Or don't you remember me getting myself assigned to the Berserkers to keep him from running you off? Not that that lasted long."
John snorted at that; it was a fair point.
"I've always thought you had a valuable perspective," Mason continued, slowly. "No damn impulse control or respect for chain of command ... but you say and do the things most people won't. Sometimes it's the wrong thing; but sometimes it keeps us alive when hope can't do the job alone." He paused again, grasping for words. "Keeps us balanced ... keeps me balanced."
John thought about that, mulling the past few minutes over, measuring Mason's collection of half-veiled accusations, admissions, and compliments against his little confession. Verify, then trust, huh? Made him wonder what layers he'd been missing in past conversations with the man.
"So ... we're good, then," he concluded.
"Yeah," Mason murmured back, half-smiling again. "We're good."
Arms locked around each other, they staggered on.
The last stage of the trip would feature in John's nightmares for years to come; he barely had the wherewithal to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and Mason was wilting like a plant cut off at the root. At some point, they must have finally run into the sentries, because he had a vague impression of collapsing onto the road at Tom's side; by the time he found himself thinking clearly again after that, he was on an infirmary bed somewhere under Charleston.
Well, what do you know; he was actually still alive. Three cheers for Mason's ever improbable luck. John blinked his eyes open slowly, vaguely aware of the blur of a doctorish uniform next to him; he felt like six shades of warmed over crap, so that wasn't much of a surprise. Except that ... wasn't there was something Tom had been all paranoid about, regarding a doctor...?
Lourdes. The mole. What if he'd been right...?
John came awake all at a jolt, reaching out snake-quick to snag the doctor's wrist before it could reach the bag of saline hanging on the pole by his bed. "Who ...?" he growled, squinting up at a blurry face.
"Easy; it's just Doc Sumner," someone said; not the blurry doctor-form themselves, but the distinctly gravelly tones of Colonel Weaver.
But that made no more sense than anything else had in the last forty-eight hours. John forced himself to slowly let go of the doctor, watching him suspiciously as he threw his hands up and backed away.
"He's all yours, Colonel; just some bruises, abrasions, and dehydration. I'll come back later."
Colonel, again. John frowned and turned his head, creaky as hell but a little more human after the jolt of adrenaline. Sure enough, there was Dan Weaver's scowling, ugly mug. John stared at him for a second, thinking about what Mason had said – really? Weaver? He couldn't see it, but whatever – then cleared his throat.
"Tom. ...?" he rasped.
Craggy, graying eyebrows shot for the sky at his choice of greeting. "Tom, is it?"
John rolled his eyes, painfully. "You know what I mean. Where ...?"
"Down the hall, in another bed. In considerably worse shape than you. What the hell happened out there, Pope?"
So, that was it; it was debriefing time. John picked the IV line out of his arm, not exactly in the mood to be tied down for that discussion, then sat slowly up on the bed. "First things first. Who's in there with him? Please tell me it's Dr. Glass, and not that apprentice of hers."
Something ... strange passed over Weaver's face at that; something more pained than his usual default scowl that set the hairs on the backs of John's arms standing up. But his first answer was all bark, right according to pattern. "And what possible business is that of yours?"
"The same as yours, if you want to keep your bestie alive and in one piece," John replied, impatiently. "Has he woken up yet?"
"No; and if that was a threat ...." Weaver moved to stand up out of his chair, expression darkening considerably.
"Hardly," John tried again. "You'd probably take this better from him ... but we figured out who the mole had to be while we were away. After the plane was shot down ...."
"It what?" Weaver's voice rose further; then he quieted himself, looking around, and stepped closer to the bed. "How about we back this up and take it from the top, Pope. Because all anyone around here knows is that you went off to meet someone who was supposed to be President Hathaway, and came back minus General Bressler, our Volm ally, and that lieutenant you took along as a guide."
"Sure, but not here. Drag your chair along; I assume there's one in there already?" John struggled to get his feet over the bed; all they'd taken off were his boots, and those were still sitting where he could get to them, thank fuck.
"Pope, so help me, if you're trying to run out of here without telling me what's going on ...."
John shoved his feet into the boots without any attempt at tying the laces, then turned the fiercest look he could muster on Weaver. "Keep up, man. Mason thinks Lourdes is the mole. The whole thing's a long fucking story and I'll gladly tell it, but not while he's lying there alone. I'll stand guard by my own damn self if I have to, but I'm pretty sure we'd both be better off if you came along."
Weaver's lips thinned, but he finally seemed to have reached a similar conclusion. "Fine," he said, dropping one hand to his holster and gesturing John out of his own little sheet-walled cubby with the other. "This way. And Pope? The story better be good."
"Oh, it will be," he promised, darkly.
The cubicle Weaver ushered him to was empty of Lourdes, fortunately; there was no Dr. Glass in evidence either, though, nor any of the kidlets. That hinted that something else was going on, more drama in Masonville that would undoubtedly splash all over the rest of them sooner or later. The man himself appeared much as John had left him: his ankle had been wrapped and elevated, and it looked like someone had at least given him a sponge bath, but he was still deeply unconscious, battered and bruised and hooked up to an IV of his own.
"All right, then," he said, grimly pulling the curtain to at least given them the illusion of privacy. "It all started when a flock of Beamers came down on us ...."
He told the story as succinctly as he could, making sure to mention Bressler's attempts to get them down safely – military types always appreciated that kind of thing – and glossing over a few unimportant details. Like, say, one party dropping a reptile on the other's face, and a little mutual admission of some uneasy truths. The crash, the Skitters, the fall into the river, the hike, the truck: he made sure to cover those. Plus one conversation in full detail: the one where Mason had convinced him of his suspicions about the mole.
Weaver grew paler and paler as the story continued, interrupting only for clarification and a few sharp, incredulous questions. By the time John had brought the tale full-circle back to Charleston, he seemed to have forgotten most of his suspicions. All in all, it had gone much easier than John had been expecting; something was definitely wrong, if Weaver wasn't even waiting on Mason's corroboration to trust him.
"I wish I could say I didn't believe it," Weaver finally commented, "but it makes all too much sense. All the tests she was doing, all the things she said about Anne ... and God only knows what she said to Anne. This is going to kill Tom."
"What? She did something to Dr. Glass ...?" John blurted, growing alarmed at Weaver's choice of words. "What the hell happened here while we were gone?"
Weaver threw a worried glance toward the bed, then gave John a long, considering look. "You know, he's stuck up for you more than once when the rest of us would have seen you in a cell without a qualm. You up for repaying the favor, or are you gonna turn around and sell this information in your bar the next chance you got?"
John tipped his chin up. "We just spent the better part of forty-eight hours cheek-by-jowl, Colonel. Not much room left for false impressions of each other. And let's just say ... I appreciate the man under all the sound and thunder a hell of a lot more than I do the title he's let himself get shoehorned into. If something's happened to the good doc, it's not gossip he'll need, it's vengeance, and I'm always up for a little evening of the scales."
Weaver thought that over, then inclined his head. "No much vengeance to be had, I'm afraid. Anne's ... gone. Her and Alexis both. She found out the baby had alien DNA, and next thing we knew, she'd knocked out Dr. Kadar and Lourdes and disappeared. There's some evidence she might've been taken by Skitters out beyond the perimeter, but from there ...." He shrugged. "My first assumption – and it's going to do a number on Tom, if it's true – was that she ran to keep Alexis safe. But if Lourdes was involved ...."
"Mother of God," John hissed, aghast. A part-alien baby? Drama was an understatement. "You've got to put her under guard now. If not actually in a cell, watching her at the very least. Every move. If she's got a backup, or if she sends a message ...."
"You don't need to tell me how to do my job, Pope," Weaver cut him off, sternly. "I was going to wait with Tom ... but if you think you can handle Dr. Sumner hooking you up again in here ...?"
"Skip the IV; get me some water and something not either tuna or charred frog to eat, and I'll manage," John assured him.
"Good. Good. Then I'll just ...." Weaver gestured out to the hallway. "Make sure someone gets a message the minute he wakes, all right? Lourdes said ... and Sumner agreed ... it should be sometime tomorrow. But ...." He made a frustrated gesture.
"I'll make sure he does wake up, don't worry. Now go find the bitch," John waved him out of the room.
A part-alien baby. What the fuck? Weren't harnessed kids violation enough?
John shuddered, trying not to think of the ever-present specter of Brandon and Tanya's fates, and turned his chair until he had a better look at Tom's sleeping mug.
Who would have guessed John Pope still had a soul left to search? Not he. But over the next couple of days, while Weaver ducked in and out of Tom's infirmary room setting up a watch on Lourdes and trying to keep everything running smoothly, he found himself with a lot of time on his hands and not much else to do with it.
The whole time they'd known each other, Tom Mason had been a hard man to ignore. Even when he'd thought the guy was insane, talking about the future like they actually had one; even when he'd believed Mason was a danger to the whole group, after the professor had volunteered himself onto an Espheni ship only to turn up alone several months later. Probably had even made things worse, looking back: he'd almost been angrier at himself than Tom for still being drawn to the man, despite everything. And just look where they were now.
The princes trooped in and out several times while he sat there, every last one of them grim-faced and all too practiced at mourning, even the littlest. Matt clung to his daddy's still hand desperately for a couple of hours that first day, staring at the vivid scrapes and bruises littering Tom's pale skin, and barely smiled when the nurse tried to reassure him that nothing was seriously wrong with Mason Senior apart from the ankle.
"Cheer up, kiddo," John told him when the woman left. "They broke the mold when they made your dad, and you know it. He's going to be just fine. I know it sucks that Anne and your sister are gone, but he's not going to leave any stone unturned 'til he finds 'em. And you can take that to the bank."
"I know," Matt said, still looking miserable. "But that didn't save Mom. And it hasn't been all that long since ...." He trailed off, looking as conflicted as an eleven-year-old carrying a rifle could.
"What, kid? C'mon, you can tell me." He lowered his voice conspiratorially, leaning forward in the stiff mall-discard chair, elbows braced on his knees.
"I ... I asked Anne if I could call her Mom, too," Matt replied, ducking his head like the weight of the world had suddenly fallen on his narrow little shoulders. Craze's necklace caught the light as he moved, reminding John that he'd already suffered an up-close loss that month, more than any kid his age should have to deal with.
"Aw, kid." John fought with himself a moment, then figured to hell with it and opened his arms to the boy. Matt reminded John of Brandon sometimes; he'd always been amused by his pluck, even when the rest of the Mason clan was driving him up a wall. "It's not your fault. Trust me; that probably made her feel like a million bucks. Hate the fishheads all you want, but never believe you had anything to do with her leaving."
Matt took a shaky breath, standing still for a stiff, awkward hug for a few seconds, then collected himself and nodded. "That's what Ben said. But ...."
"It's not the same as an adult saying it, huh? There's no shame in that; soldier or not, you're still more'n half kid. Nothing wrong with wanting a comforting word from your dad. Give it a few days, and he'll tell you so himself."
"Really, really." He drew an exaggerated X across his chest, feeling like a dork; but it seemed to help. Masons. If he went soft, it would be all their fault.
"Thanks, Pope," Matt replied, finally looking a little cheered.
Ben was the next of them to actually talk to John; he walked back in just after Matt left to track down some sustenance, brow furrowed at John in suspicion.
Fair enough; John was suspicious of him right back. He could never forget that Ben had chosen the rebel Skitters over other human beings, more than once. The thing they could do, where they reached straight into Ben's mind through those spikes on his back and used him like a mouthpiece: that creeped John right the fuck out. Who knew what other hooks they had in him? If anything ever went badly wrong with the alliance, Ben and his other spiked buddies were going to be first on the firing line between the two groups, and he had to know it.
He had that ironclad Mason belief in his cause, though: had it in spades. It wasn't the pie in the sky wishes and hot air that you'd normally expect to find in a teenager, or all too many adults for that matter, like – just for example – the late General Bressler. But John didn't know whether that made it better or worse.
"Ben," he said, neutrally, biting his tongue on his usual greeting. Would be just his luck to call the kid 'spike boy' and have that be the first thing Tom heard, waking up.
The kid eyed him, then walked over and checked on his father, a pained, fond look crossing his face. As though he'd seen the like too often to be surprised that Mason Senior had found his way into an infirmary bed yet again. He did the same little bonding by touch ritual Matt had done before him, then drew himself up and turned back to John.
"What do you want, Pope?" he asked, face screwed up in a ferocious scowl.
"Want?" John shrugged, more amused than anything; it felt like being taunted by a half-grown lion cub. The harness studs still rooted in his back might give Ben more strength and speed than the average human being, but even with all his alien advantages he wasn't the Masonet John was wariest of. "No more fishheads. No more bubbleheads, either. Something decent in the mess. Oh – and a new Harley; I miss my old one."
Ben stared back, nonplussed, then shook his head. "You know what I mean. Why are you here? Colonel Weaver told us what happened – but it doesn't make any sense to me. It's only been what, a year, since I caught you trying to run my dad off into the woods? What'd you make him promise for bringing him back this time?"
Well, that answered one question; Weaver hadn't actually told the boys jack squat. No mention of Lourdes, or John's half-implied deal with the colonel. Interesting.
"Lot of road under those tires, kid," he said neutrally, figuring up a story on the fly. No doubt the rough details would get around to the mole's ears, too; might make her less suspicious about his presence there, which was all to the good. And the best part was, timing aside, it was mostly even the truth. "Me and your dad, we came to an understanding a while back. Granted, it's usually a little more clandestine than this, but sometimes you gotta use the tool to hand."
"Clandestine?" Ben glanced between his father and John again, still frowning. "You mean like spy stuff? Why would he go to you for that? It's not like anyone trusts you."
"Anyone in your rarefied sphere, you mean," John shrugged. "Ask Weaver where most of the tips about unrest in the civvie sector come from. You honestly think I got enough people pried loose of the vital occupation list to staff a bar and run a microbrewery without a little help from the administration?" He wagged his brows. "Or that it's a coincidence half my Berserkers are up under Volm hill and the rest out watching the front door?"
He'd sort of thrown that in Tom's face while Crazy Lee was dying, actually; but he'd figured out since that it was more a back-handed expression of trust than the exile he'd taken it for at the time. He'd pushed pretty damn hard trying to get a reaction from Tom that day, figuring him for a cold-hearted bastard; probably a good thing he hadn't, in hindsight. Would've been an ugly scene if the President actually had lost his temper in front of Weaver, Matt, the docs, and all the mourning Berserkers.
John tended to forget that Tom had been a Berserker himself, there for a little while. Maybe if he'd remembered their punch-up over Jimmy's compass sooner, he wouldn't have taken the man's slick statesman's mask at face value for so long. But then again ... he'd just taken it for the usual upper-class bully's resort to physical intimidation when rhetoric failed, at the time. Plus, he would have missed out on this entertaining little myth he was weaving about playing the President's agent provocateur. That would have been a pity.
He smirked at the wide-eyed, constipated look the kid was giving him now. As if he was trying to reevaluate the conflicts of the last year or so with the idea of John Pope, Loyal Citizen, in mind and failing.
"Keep it quiet, though, all right? It'll stop working if people figure out I'm here because I actually care rather than waiting around to make sure he ain't going to welsh on our deal," he hinted further, laying a shushing finger across his lips.
Ben still looked stunned; but he lowered his voice obediently, and John knew he had him. "You're worried. Why? Because of Anne? Or has something else happened?"
"Like I said, ask Weaver; I'm not sure what op-sec applies when we know the rebs'll be trooping in and out of your skull every other week," he shrugged.
He was more than a little entertained by the complicated mix of worry and offense that went flying across the kid's face at that. Mason-baiting: still the sport that kept on giving, even if he had to watch his language a little more than he was used to. Pity it probably wouldn't work on his elder brother.
Ben swallowed, jaw tight, but didn't object any further. "I'll ... I'll do that," he said, turning back to his dad to squeeze the man's hand one more time. Then he walked out of the room, pausing as he passed John for one more comment. "And Pope ... thanks. I heard what you said to Matt."
"Little man's a good kid," he shrugged it off; but reluctantly found himself pleased by that, too.
Goddamn Masons. Couldn't even trust his own instincts anymore.
And, of course, there was still one hoop left to jump through. John got up to take a piss during one of Weaver's visits – he'd learned not to try leaving the room when anyone else was there, as the last time he'd done so he'd come back to find Lourdes reading the man's chart, despite Weaver arranging for Doc Sumner to pull seniority over her on the President's case – and returned to find the tall, dark-haired form of Tom's eldest snooping from the curtained doorway.
He was staring at his father with a flat, blank-faced intensity that seemed a little ... out of character for Hal Mason, his voice low and indecipherable as he delivered some kind of report to Weaver. John stopped a ways down the hall, stepping out of the flow of foot traffic, and wished for a moment he'd thought to summon Lyle to spell him. Then he could have sent the other Berserker to follow Hal when he left without either drawing attention to himself, or abandoning Tom unguarded in a security nightmare.
John hadn't forgotten the fact that Hal was head and shoulders above even his father in terms of unwanted contact with the Espheni. The young man had only just started walking again after his last encounter with Karen had left him paralyzed; she'd been his girlfriend until just the year before, when after getting caught and harnessed she'd decided she loved the Espheni so much they transformed her into the new overlord of the East Coast. Unfortunately, that hadn't overwritten her fixation on Hal and his family. The timing didn't work for Hal to've been the one who killed Manchester; he'd still been in the wheelchair then, and that had been the night his baby sister was born. But he could easily have unknowingly passed a bug to the active mole.
Well, he wasn't going to bring that possibility up to either Weaver or Tom himself without a little more than his gut feeling to go on, after Tom's blatant ducking of the subject earlier. But he wasn't going to let Weaver leave Hal alone with his unconscious father, either. Karen had been doing her best to decapitate the administration of Charleston for a while now, between orchestrating Manchester's death, Anne's abduction, and the plane crash, and John didn't want to take the risk that Tom's current vulnerability would prove tempting enough for her to take advantage of.
That would leave Peralta in charge, after all. A career penpusher, that one. John was still learning to trust Mason farther than he could throw him; it would take a hell of a lot more for him to buy into Marina Peralta's calculated smiles.
He sighed, stretched deliberately as if he'd only stopped to work a little of the lingering stiffness out of his limbs, then brushed on past Hal into the room. Weaver was in the second chair, up near the head of Tom's bed; he exchanged nods with John, then went back to his conversation with Hal as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. John smirked, then took his own seat and pulled out the latest paperback he'd bartered Anthony for.
Normally, he didn't let anyone catch him reading, but that made it even more perfect for his immediate purposes. John cracked open the battered Clancy novel, licking his finger to turn the page to where he'd left off, then glanced up covertly to see what Mason Junior was making of the scene.
"Are you kidding me with this?" Hal blurted, gesturing in John's direction as he stared at Weaver. "I just had to calm Lourdes down because she's upset Dr. Sumner won't let her look after Dad anymore, and now I find out Pope of all people makes the cut? What's going on, Colonel?"
John could have had a few choice words for him; but he was curious what Weaver would say. He ostentatiously turned another page instead, idly wondering what Mason Senior would make of the unlikely shenanigans of the book's fictional hero-President.
"What's going on," Weaver replied, irritation thick under the words, "is a soldier still on medical leave, however irregular he may be, freeing up a spot for an able-bodied man out on the front lines. Just as a precaution. I might not have much say in the civilian side of the administration – though don't worry, I'll be having a word with the doc – but trust me when I say I have your father's safety foremost in mind."
Well; so Weaver wasn't entirely the blunt instrument of the Second Mass leadership pair after all. John should have gone to the Mason side of things a long time ago, if it was all going to be this enlightening. He bit back another smirk, doing his best to give off an air of irritated boredom, and tuned out of the rest of Hal's blunt whining. He looked up just in time to nod tersely to the nettled young man as he stalked back out again, then folded the book up and raised his eyebrows at the colonel.
"So. You're worried about Hal, too," he pointed out.
"So. What's this I hear about you being Tom's spy all along?" Weaver replied, shrewdly.
"Touché." John lifted the book to his forehead in a sloppy salute. "Hopefully the mole thinks our 'secret friendship' is the only reason I'm in here, too."
"Quick thinking." Weaver stared at him a moment more, then got up out of the chair. He leaned over to pat at Tom's shoulder – same damn grounding type gesture as the kids; Mason hadn't been exaggerating about the brother thing, had he? – then took a ragged breath and gave a sharp nod.
"I'll give you the benefit of the doubt for now, 'cause so far your information's proved good. I can't actually arrest her 'til we find more evidence than a Volm-modified gun we can't even prove's hers tucked away under a spare mattress, but it's enough for me to be willing to go along with this latest scheme of yours. For now. But if Tom wakes up and tells me something different ...." The glare he directed at John promised fire and brimstone.
John repeated the crossing gesture over his heart that he'd given Matt, but with an expression as deadly serious as the colonel's. "I hear you. Sir."
"Good," Weaver nodded again, then left without another word.
It was coming up on two days after their not-so-triumphal return, according to Sumner, when Tom finally showed signs of waking. Two long, uncomfortable days mostly spent in the chair or catching cat-naps on a gurney in the next room while one of the others from the Second Mass sat watch. It reminded John a little of the night he'd spent in the emergency room with his daughter when she was small, so sick she could hardly breathe; the same waiting-room tension, complete with concerned other parties hovering.
He made sure Weaver got the word, then tucked his book away again and listened to Tom's breathing change, watching the flutter of eyelids and the lines of tension reappearing between his brows. Waiting for those few moments when he'd see the man again, before the presidential mantle descended. He had to know, before anyone else stormed in on them; he had to be sure it hadn't all been some hallucination.
The first sign that full consciousness had returned was a pained, indrawn breath; yeah, he'd just bet Mason had a nasty headache. John's hadn't entirely disappeared yet, either. Tom shifted a little on the bed, reaching one hand up to rub at his temple, then turned his head toward the visitor chairs – and finally opened his eyes.
There was always a certain honesty in that moment between sleeping and waking: between the dreaming mind and the iron bars of consciousness descending. John saw an old, dull pain in Mason's brown eyes, layered underneath the fresh physical aches, and an instinctive, tensing readiness in his posture. But then his gaze lit on John, and ... he smiled.
Sort of. Not much; just that slight relaxation around the eyes and mouth that meant you being here makes this morning not quite so hellish, after all. John knew it well, though he hadn't recognized it before; probably because it had never before been directed at him.
He found himself swallowing past a lump in his throat, feeling all kinds of things he'd never expected to associate with a card-carrying representative of law and order.
"How long have I been out?" Tom rasped, hitching himself up a little on the bed.
"Two days," John shrugged, wondering what his expression looked like to Tom.
"And how long have you been sitting there?" Tom asked, wasting his second question on John's condition.
"Two days," John repeated, spreading his hands in front of him: of course.
A slow smile grew on Tom's face at that. "We lived."
"That we did."
"Hmm. You get the word to Weaver?"
"What do you think? And don't you ever turn off that brain of yours?" Third question, straight from self, to immediate visitor, to the protection of the extended clan. How very Mason.
"Only when someone wakes me up with a snake to the face," Tom actually chuckled in response.
"Now, that part I didn't tell Weaver. But all the rest – so far as I've heard, it's all under control. Though I'm pretty sure he'd appreciate you confirming it."
"Good," Tom replied with a faint, satisfied nod. "Good."
Rapid footfalls sounded in the corridor then, signaling the success of John's messenger; a callused hand swept the curtain back, and Weaver's tightly contained presence entered the room. He took all of two steps in, then paused, wearing that same damn constipated expression he always did; but then Tom's gaze shifted to meet the colonel's, and John could practically see the solid cable of their friendship snapping back into place as he watched. Like an anchor, taking some of the strain off Weaver's shoulders, and vice versa. He felt the loss of Tom's attention like the chill after taking a step away from the night's fire, but for once, felt no urge to draw all eyes back to him; the pleasure in Tom's smile at seeing Weaver was compensation enough for the pang.
...Damn, he was even worse off than he'd thought, wasn't he? Full fathom five, and sinking fast.
"Hey. Now there's a sight for sore eyes," Mason said, happily.
"I'm happy to be seen," Weaver bit out, restrained to the last, but his eyes said the rest for him. And then he did something unexpected; he gestured over to John, raising his voice and reincluding him in the conversation. "Pope's filled me in on what happened. General Bressler; I hear that his flying saved your lives."
"It's true," Tom nodded, pushing himself up farther on his elbows. "Any word from Cochise and the President?"
"Radio silence," Weaver shook his head.
"I assume you've contacted the Volm?"
"They're out looking for him."
"And ... the rest?" Tom glanced back to John, rubbing at the back of his neck; the words were vague, owing no doubt to awareness of the public venue, but the meaning was clear.
"Pending," Weaver replied, "but under control. That is ... assuming you're referring to what I think you're referring to?" He echoed the glance at John again.
"Whatever Pope said; consider his word as good as mine on the subject," came Tom's quick response.
"I am going to have to hear more about this camping trip of yours later," Weaver replied, but offered no more objection. "In the meantime, there's something else you need to know ...."
His attempt to break the news got cut short, though, as a chatter of younger voices burst into the room, filling up the space between John and the bed. Little Matt dove right for his father's chest, hugging him as best he could with his rifle sticking up over his shoulder, and the others weren't far behind him.
"Dad," Matt said happily, as Tom pressed a kiss into his unruly curls.
"Good to see you again, Dad," Ben smiled, looking almost his actual sixteen years for once.
"Glad you made it," was Hal's attempt at a slightly more adult greeting.
All three of them had glanced at John at some point during their entry; Margaret, tucked in against Hal's side as she usually was of late, added her narrow-eyed contribution as Tom replied. John was tempted to stick his tongue out at her, but refrained, as caught up in the scene as everyone else.
"Yeah, I'm glad we made it, too," Tom smiled.
If it hadn't been for the weighty news John knew was coming, he would have left then, leaving them all to their saccharine little family reunion. But some imp of the perverse, whatever corner of his shriveled soul had leapt at the notion that the woman who had got to Tom first was conveniently out of the picture, kept him pinned in place as Tom's gaze suddenly roamed the room again, realizing something was wrong.
"Where's Anne? Where's Alexis?" Tom asked, the extra weight of carriage that had landed him as President vanishing again in favor of the all-too-rarely-visible human being beneath.
The kids shuffled, but said nothing; not even the little man, whose face said plenty enough all on its own. Tom glanced at each of them, from Matt to Ben to Maggie and Hal, then John in the corner, and finally Weaver; he paused there, the joy of being greeted by his nearest and dearest wiped off his face like someone had taken an eraser to him.
"Dan. Where's Anne?"
Weaver heaved a breath at that; John had overheard the scout reports, and knew he had no good news to give. "There's no easy way to say this, Tom, so I'm just going to say it. Anne and Alexis are missing. Gone."
The expression that crossed Tom's face then, John couldn't have named, but he knew it all the same: the silent aftershock of a world cracking down to its foundations. It triggered the expected wash of self-directed anger, garnished with shame – that he'd failed in his own tests; that he'd been basking in the man's attention despite knowing this was coming – but something else, too. Something he'd actually forgotten he'd promised Weaver: the desire to take revenge on Tom's behalf.
Conflicted, angry, weary, and surer of himself than he'd been in years, John turned and slipped out of the room. Time to put a few feelers out, check up on his men ... and wait. Mason would need him again soon; he'd have something stupidly suicidal in mind, and he'd need someone to do it. In the meantime, John had a business to run.
It wasn't an end; nor was it a beginning. But it was more purpose than he'd had in quite some time.
Screw the fell clutch of circumstance; he'd been running long enough. It was time to finally commit to Mason's grand vision, and let the chips fall where they may.
Chapter 3: The Black Road
The days that immediately followed Tom's awakening in the infirmary passed as more of a long blur for him than a series of distinct events. Between the dehydration and badly sprained ankle, he was under orders not to leave the infirmary for a few days – it had been injured enough to keep him down for a while even before he'd walked several miles on it, according to Doc Sumner, and as it was he'd still need a cane for a while – and every twinge of pain reminded him all over again that Anne and Alexis were out there, in danger, and he couldn't go to them.
It had been bad enough when Ben had been the one missing; when all they'd known was that he was out there somewhere, bearing one of the harnesses the Skitters used to turn human children into mindless slaves. He'd already been old enough to look out for himself a little, and Tom had seen that the Skitters did at least physically care for their slaves, even if he hadn't then known why. But the Espheni and their Skitter minions had never bothered with infants before; kids too small to work were useless to them. And that was even without taking into account Alexis' alien-influenced DNA. He couldn't imagine what they wanted with her.
Whenever he got too far down that line of thought, he'd drop his pen and rub his hands over his eyes; no need to broadcast his distress to every citizen who walked by. On the one hand: Anne had been right. She hadn't been crazy. All the things he'd said to her when he'd finally prodded her into bringing up her concerns ... he must have sounded pretty damned patronizing, in hindsight. It was no wonder she'd been so defensive about it, her body language as closed and challenging as her words. If only Lourdes hadn't spoken to him first, poisoning him against Anne's very justified panic with all her alarmist talk of post-partum psychosis....
But no; that was a road he wasn't willing to walk down. He wasn't going to blame others for his own mistakes. He should have given the concerns of the woman he loved, the battle-trained doctor who had helped hold the Second Massachusetts Militia Regiment together with little more than her two hands and the strength of her will for nearly two years, a little more credit. He'd screwed up. But by the same token, he couldn't entirely blame Lourdes for Anne's actions, either. He still couldn't believe Anne had just taken Alexis and run without so much as leaving a note for him.
He'd asked her, he'd begged her not to let the aliens take their beautiful daughter from them the way they had so much else. Even if the Skitters hadn't found Anne and Alexis immediately, even if she'd escaped clean and found refuge somewhere ... the result would have been much the same from Tom's perspective. And for his sons, who'd barely begun to get used to having a little sister.
Tom had missed the signs for that, too, so absorbed in his job. He'd tried, but ... well, it wasn't exactly unusual for him to get all caught up in yet one more important aspect of his work even before the invasion. He'd never quite broken the habit, probably partially because Rebecca always gave him a swift kick in the ass when he needed it, and he'd been unconsciously waiting for Anne to do the same. And now that he had all the time in the world to think about it, she had: only her cues were different enough that he'd completely missed them.
'You knew what you were getting into when you took this job', she'd said, when he'd tried to apologize for his twenty-five hour a day, eight day a week schedule. And when he'd caught her on the radio that last time, to try to explain that President Hathaway wanted he and Cochise to explain the Volm's plan to save humanity to the rest of the scattered communities still answering to the American flag, she'd told him, 'No, I don't understand; but I know you have to do what you think is right.' He'd paid more attention to the 'I love yous' than the content of her concerns, always thinking he'd be able to make it up to her.
No wonder she'd never responded positively to his occasional hints about reinstituting the office of marriage by example in their new community. It had been about more than respecting their previous partners who'd died in the initial attacks, or keeping her name for professional purposes, hadn't it? Even if they did manage to get her back from the Espheni, he wasn't sure they could ever go back to the way things had been.
Unbidden, he recalled the day the Liberty Tree had been christened: writing Rebecca's name in permanent marker on a shiny metal leaf and hanging it on the scrap sculpture Jeanne Weaver had created among all the candles and mementoes of others' deepest loss. Anne's leaf had borne only one word: Sammy, the name of her lost son. Had she ever put up another for her husband, the artist? Tom was ashamed to admit he'd never asked.
He loved Anne. Even amid all his doubts and fears, that hadn't changed, and he doubted it would any time soon. He was pretty sure he'd loved her since the early days of the Second Mass, when he'd come back from a scouting party with a single hard-won can of tuna in his pocket and in return she'd tell him about Matt's latest drawings and joke about losing widget accounts at work. They'd been a source of light to each other in those days. But somewhere along the line, the light had been snuffed out, and he hadn't noticed. Love wasn't always enough, was it?
Tom tried to keep focused on other concerns as much as he could; a President sick with anger and grief would do the people of Charleston little good. There was paperwork piled up from his sudden departure for the secret summit at Keystone, for one thing; Dan, as his closest military aide, and Vice President Peralta had taken care of some of it, but a lot of things still required his signature. And there was more he'd been planning to take care of over the coming weeks: projects awaiting authorization, disputes from separate groups who wanted or needed the same limited resources, and the thousand and one other minutiae of his hybrid, makeshift, all-consuming job. The minute he had a clue where Anne and Alexis were – the very second he could go after them, on a horse if not his own feet – he was going, come hell or high water. Making sure he wouldn't have to turn the office over in disarray was only the responsible thing to do.
He barely noticed the others that came in and out during those days, beyond taking reports and sharing the occasional meal with Dan or his sons. But he did notice that John wasn't one of them; there was always a Berserker in the chair at the foot of his bed playing guard, but after that first evening it was never their leader.
He wasn't sure how he felt about that, either; he'd thought they'd actually managed to find common ground at last. Tom had been nearly as pleased to see him there when he woke as he had been to see Dan before the latter gave him the news about Anne. But as long as Pope remained a vital cog in the functioning of Charleston after Tom was gone ... well, that was all he could allow himself to be concerned with at the moment.
The afternoon before Doc Sumner informed him he'd finally be free to go, Ben finally came in with word that the rebel Skitters had news, and that their leader would be arriving for a meeting the following day. Tom closed his eyes for a moment in relief – at least they'd know something, whichever way it went – then gave his son a wan smile. "Thank you, Ben. I know it's been hard on you too, these last few days; Dan tells me you and Denny have taken over virtually all of the burden of our alliance with the rebels, since so many of the other kids had their spikes removed."
There was a part of him that would always mourn the loss of Ben's childhood; before the spikes, the legacy of a harness imperfectly removed via makeshift human methods, he'd been short-sighted, prone to asthma, and very much the bookish one of Tom and Rebecca's three sons. But there was a part of him that was very proud of Ben as well; for taking what the Espheni had done to him and using it as a weapon against them. It sometimes took him down paths Tom would prefer he never had to walk, but it had also given him confidence, maturity, and a sense of responsibility beyond his years. He wouldn't grudge Ben the right to make his own decision.
"Yeah," Ben made a face. "I can't blame them, really; after they told us about the negative side effects, a lot of the kids thought they outweighed the benefits. But I couldn't just give up because the going got a little rough, you know? I couldn't just sit on the sidelines when I could be doing something; that's not who I am anymore. And it's not like our lifespans are likely to be all that long anyway."
"You know what they say about when the going gets tough ...." Tom smiled at the sentiment.
"Yeah, yeah; the tough get going, I know, Dad," Ben grinned back. "Good to hear one of your anecdotes again, by the way; I've been missing them."
"Really? Never thought I'd hear one of you boys say that," Tom snorted. But then something else about what Ben had said hit him, and his mood faded into a thoughtful frown. "What's this you're saying about side effects, though? I thought Anne had said they still didn't have enough information on long-term mutagenic consequences of partial deharnessing to speculate about them."
Ben blinked at that, looking startled. "But ... when Lourdes explained the deharnessing process to us, she said ...."
A sudden chill washed through Tom at Lourdes' name, bringing him fully alert. The mole. Dan had had people covertly watching their junior doctor ever since his and Pope's return, but hadn't yet gathered any conclusive evidence one way or another for their suspicions; hence the constant guard. He snapped up a hand, gesturing to Ben to stop there, and cast a glance at Sergeant Murphy, currently occupying the visitor's chair.
"Just a minute, Ben. Tector? Could you go find Colonel Weaver for me? And ask him to bring Dr. Sumner along? Quickly, but on the quiet."
Tector came immediately to attention, dropping the unevenly printed newszine he'd been reading in the chair. "Yes, sir. You'll be all right here 'til I get back?"
"Ben's here; I'll be fine," Tom nodded back at him.
Ben watched the Berserkers' sniper hurry out of the room with a curious expression, then raised his eyebrows at Tom. "What's going on? Is it something to do with the mole? Pope kind of hinted that he and the Colonel were worried something would happen to you while you were in here, but he wouldn't give me any details, either."
Tom hitched himself up a little further on the bed, as close to formal bearing as he could get while his ankle still refused to bear much weight, and gave his son a searching look. For once, Ben seemed ... surprisingly non-hostile about Pope, a rare circumstance outside the battlefield, and it sounded like Pope had been civil to him as well. A fierce surge of ... something, vindication maybe, went through him at that realization; he pushed it aside as irrelevant at the moment and tried to decide how much would be safe to share.
"They have their reasons," he said, soberly. It stung to have to evaluate his own son as a risk, but he couldn't afford to let emotion interfere; this was too important. "Can I ask you to keep it secret for now, even from your brothers? Or will I have to worry about the rebel leader finding out when you meet with him tomorrow?"
Ben swallowed, his eyes going huge in his face, but he seemed to grasp the seriousness of the issue. "You remember how I said when that Espheni looked into my head, I might not be able to stop him, but he couldn't stop me from looking back? It's the same with the Skitters. They know it, and they know we know it. They can't afford to lose our alliance, so they don't try, and we return the favor. They only connect deeply enough to speak through us. The leader might overhear a few surface thoughts, but nothing I'm actively trying to keep a secret."
Still not a guarantee; but better than Tom had feared he'd get. He nodded. "Then I'll trust you with it, as soon as Colonel Weaver and the doc arrive. Is anyone else in listening range?"
He watched his son tilt his head, in that eerie way that meant he was using his harness-supplied sensory enhancements to listen in on the surrounding rooms; then he shook his head. "No. Just Tector, I think. They've been keeping the rooms on either side of you empty. I guess now I know why ...?"
Tom nodded wearily. By now, he could hear the tromp of approaching boots himself, and soon enough Dan was ducking through the curtain again, the doc behind him, wearing a pinched, irritated expression. Tector glanced in after them, then let the curtain fall closed again, remaining on the other side; Tom guessed he'd appointed himself external guard for the moment. Good man; he'd anticipated Tom's next order.
"Gentlemen, thank you for coming," he nodded at his friend and Charleston's most experienced surgeon. "Dr. Sumner, is there a problem?"
Prior to the arrival of the Second Mass in the camouflaged city, Sumner had been the new administration's unquestioned chief of medicine. But he'd never faced active combat, and still had the titanium ego and dismissiveness toward patients of a pre-invasion surgical diva; Tom hadn't bothered to interfere when Anne had challenged the man for supremacy on his own turf. For all that she'd been primarily a pediatrician before the first Espheni attacks, Anne had quickly refreshed her more generally applicable medical skills, and had the fierce loyalty of everyone she'd ever treated. Lourdes, as her apprentice, had ridden easily and almost invisibly on her coattails, making herself as indispensable there as she had been on the Second Mass' much smaller med bus.
"Dr. Delgado is beginning to get suspicious," the man replied, indignantly. "But it goes beyond her attempt to play on friendship in your case, regardless of my hints about conflicts of interest; she seems to think she should be chief of the infirmary entirely with Dr. Glass ... absent. I've had to correct half a dozen of her attempts to order my nurses around just today. I grant that she may have a great deal of practical knowledge, and she's the only one capable of using the Volm equipment at the moment, but she never even earned a bachelor's degree. What does she know of hospital administration? At least Dr. Glass was willing to listen."
"And on that note," Tom interrupted the man's diatribe, gesturing to his son. "Ben tells me that she took charge of arranging the spike-removal surgeries for the externally deharnessed kids?"
Sumner nodded. "The Volm machine's not used for much else, and she didn't seem likely to be able to do any harm there, so I didn't try to stop her. And the kids came through it just fine; more than fine, if the tests Dr. Glass had Dr. Kadar do to hide her investigations into ... well, if the DNA tests are any indication."
He cringed slightly at the almost-mention of Alexis; Tom swallowed hard and forced himself to ignore it. "But he also says that she manipulated as many of them into doing so as she could," he pointed out.
"And why wouldn't they want to anyway?" The doctor seemed puzzled.
Dan cleared his throat. "Ben? What exactly did she say?"
"Uh ... that the nucleus of the harness was constantly regenerating the spikes and putting stress on our skeletal structure? And that ... they thought, the doctors thought, that it was interfering with stem cell production and probably shortening our lives. How significantly, she couldn't say. But ... but it wasn't what she said, so much as how she said it," he added, thoughtfully. "She kept adding things like, she knew it was scary, and that it was okay if we weren't ready for it. I guess I didn't see it at the time, but it was like, you know how parents tell their kids the exact opposite of what they mean sometimes, to goad them into doing what they want?"
When facing a bunch of middle- and high-school aged kids, most of whom had become used to thinking of themselves as stronger, faster, and better during their service with the rebellion, but still faced fear and distaste from other human beings as often as not due to their difference? Tom couldn't even say he'd have disapproved of the gently manipulative tactic if he hadn't had his reasons to suspect Lourdes' motives, even given his pride in Ben's decision not to have his spikes removed. They just weren't normal.
It would take a long time to truly internalize the new definition of 'normal' in this world, he suspected.
"Doc?" he raised an eyebrow at Sumner. "The thing about the stem cells; is that true?"
Sumner frowned. "It ... was a theory Dr. Glass and I discussed, looking at the x-rays of the way the harness nucleus nestles against the spine; but the backbone is hardly the only source of stem cells in the body. It seems more likely than not that the harness will have a reductive impact on a human lifespan, but to single that out as the cause...? We simply don't know enough to say," he shrugged. "Neither the Skitters nor the Volm have been able to tell us, either; according to Dr. Glass, they've never encountered a race that figured out how to even partially remove a harness on their own before without killing the being it was attached to."
Tom took a deep breath, then let it out, glancing at Ben and then Dan. Ben looked as confused by the conversation as Dr. Sumner did, but there was a dawning awareness in the colonel's eyes.
"And what would have happened to our alliance with the rebel Skitters if all of you had chosen to have your spikes removed?" he asked his son softly.
Ben took a sharp breath. "They'd have had no way to communicate with us anymore," he said, aghast. "I – I wasn't thinking about it that way, and neither was Denny. We just thought ... we could still do some good."
Dan growled, low in his throat. "Decapitatin' us didn't work, so Karen decided to try the divide and conquer method. Damn near managed it, too. And we never saw it comin'."
"And worst of all, it's still not anything we can present as proof that she's the mole," Tom pointed out.
"You think the mole is ...." Ben blurted, then stopped himself and reduced his voice to a whisper, rough with betrayal. "Lourdes? Are you crazy? She's been with us since the beginning!"
"I'm not saying she's doing it willingly," Tom replied. "And that reaction is exactly why we wanted to make certain before moving to act; the last thing I want to do is get it wrong, or inspire the population of Charleston to a witch hunt if we can't provide conclusive proof. But the circumstantial evidence is piling up. Do you understand why I want you to keep this a secret for now?"
Ben swallowed hard, but finally nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I get it. This is going to upset Hal. They've been friends since ...."
"You can't even tell Hal," Tom reminded him, sharply. "Not yet. I mean it, Ben."
Ben nodded jerkily, looking even more shell-shocked than before. "I understand," he said, subdued.
The impromptu meeting broke up swiftly after that. He realized only after Ben left that he'd failed to clarify anything about Ben's conversation with Pope; but in light of the other news, he dismissed that as unimportant.
Dan was last to leave, after an admonition that Tom was supposed to be resting after his ordeal, not subjecting himself to more stress. Then Anthony came in; whatever shift schedule had been cobbled together had changed, and it was his turn to take over from Tector.
Tom filled him in briefly – Anthony's previous undercover police work made him a good sounding board for certain strategies, as Manchester had realized before him – then turned back to his paperwork with a sigh. For every two steps they took forward, they were taking an equal number back, it seemed. How long before Karen found a weak spot and pushed through? What if that was why she'd taken Anne and Alexis?
He couldn't think about that right now. There were only a few weeks left until Project Orange was completed, and the Espheni dealt a serious blow; until then, the people of Charleston would just have to endure.
The doc finally bid good riddance to him that evening. He couldn't completely stop Lourdes from interacting with Tom; she made sure to be the one to bring him his cane and give him his discharge instructions, full of sympathetic smiles and sensible advice about accepting his limitations. Tom was hard put not to shudder or cut her off too quickly; in that one thing, at least, the numbed affect of his already-ravaged emotions helped more than hurt his efforts.
It didn't make the empty bed in the presidential suite feel any smaller, or keep the empty bassinet in the corner from clawing fresh wounds in his heart. He refused to pack it away, though, even knowing how small the chances were that Alexis would lie in it again. Doing so would be ... giving up, in a more profound way than he was willing to accept.
Fortunately, he wasn't left in limbo very long. The rebel Skitters came through; when word came late the next evening that their leader had joined Ben in one of the converted underground mall's meeting rooms, he hastily collected Dan, Marina, and Hal and made his way there, barely even slowed by the hitch in his stride.
"Are they alive?" he barked, bursting through the opaque glass door.
The rebel leader was in full face paint that day, a red swath drawn across his face in place of the naturally red eye that had distinguished his predecessor. "Yes. Your mate and child are being held by Karen," he replied through Ben.
"Where?" Tom demanded.
He felt Dan's hand come down on his shoulder in an attempt to comfort; he was hard pressed not to shrug it off in frustration as the Skitter replied.
"Unfortunately, we do not have that information."
"She's probably planning on using them as bargaining chips," Dan said grimly, voicing Tom's fear.
"Quite possible," the Skitter agreed, head bobbing in an approximation of a nod in concert with Ben's voice.
"Possible?" Tom objected. He was in no mood to discuss the darker options presented by Alexis' unique heritage; but he didn't think the rebels knew about that particular twist. So what did they mean by that?
"Our operatives are trying to learn more, and should have further information in a few days," the Skitter assured him, its platitudes falling even flatter with Ben's lack of intonation.
"A few days?" Tom had expected this to be the meeting that decided his next actions, one way or another; he couldn't take much more waiting. "They could be dead in a few days."
He stormed back out of the meeting then, unable to stand still for Marina's cautionary words or Dan's sensible advice ... or think too much about the suddenly eager note in Hal's voice encouraging Tom's impulse to immediate action, regardless of their complete lack of information.
None of it mattered. Not one thing mattered at the moment apart from his complete inability to live with himself if he didn't do something. He understood why Marina was worried about him going off half-cocked, and why Dan was so concerned; but he'd made provisions for the continuation of the administration and the war effort, and Dan would still have Jeanne to anchor him. Charleston and Project Orange would survive without him; he'd made sure of it.
But he was the only one who could save Anne and Alexis. He'd made all the wrong choices between his job and his family time and again; this time, he would do the right thing for once. Even if it did seem crazy. After all, as he told Dan: crazy was where he lived right now.
Twenty-four hours was the most he would agree to; and even that admission was like pulling teeth. Combined with Marina pulling him aside afterward and questioning the alliance with the Volm yet again – this time, with information stolen out of his desk and apparently shown to Dr. Kadar of all people, yet more potential leaks for the mole to pass to Karen – he was already in a toweringly foul mood when Hal tracked him down again, a defiant expression on his face.
Couldn't anyone in the entire city see the forest for the trees? Even without knowing the details, his reasons for going along with the Volm should have been obvious. Briefly, intensely, he longed for Pope's presence. Not that John approved either; but he would have understood what a stupid stunt that was to pull.
He barely had time enough to marvel at himself for that thought, and wonder where Hal fell in the rotation of Presidential guards, when his son unexpectedly pulled a gun on him, clubbed Marina to the ground, and bullied him into a vehicle.
The less recalled about the long hours that followed, the better. Only Maggie's quick hand with a 50-cal to wreck the stolen Humvee, Dan's swift mobilization of Second Mass veterans to surround the building Hal dragged him into, and his younger sons' knowledge of Charleston's tunnels kept Tom from being taken immediately to Karen or tortured into spilling his guts about the planned deployment of the Volm weapon.
He didn't think he'd ever forget the strained note in Hal's voice as he fought against Karen's control, or the anguish on Maggie's face when she, Matt, and Ben had snuck into the room to try to talk him down. Or the blunt ugliness of his own pistol, muzzle pressed against the underside of Hal's chin, when whatever force had been in charge of Hal's actions had realized that there was no further way to salvage the plan.
Tom had thought there was no way for him to hurt worse, with Anne and Lexie gone. Now he knew better.
He leaned heavily on Dan as he made his way back to the infirmary less than forty-eight hours after leaving it, cane lost, ankle reinjured, and one of his sons strapped down with a bullet burn across his temple, and felt his fragile grip on his emotional state loosen even further. The sight of Lyle, Pope's right hand in the Berserkers, skulking in a chair outside the room next to Hal's only made things worse.
Of course Hal hadn't been part of Pope's detail. John had hinted about the source of Lourdes' infection on their trip, and Tom hadn't wanted to hear it. Was he even right about Lourdes being the primary mole? Could it have been Hal the whole time? Tom gritted his teeth and ducked his head as he passed Lyle, ignoring the man's nod.
Several people came in and out of the infirmary room after that, muttering platitudes or advice; Tom paid attention to none of them. So much for his decision to put his family first for once. Which family was he supposed to choose? Should he have gone along with Hal, and hoped Karen would remove the eyeworm if he gave her the information he wanted? For once, he was out of answers; all he had were questions.
Finally, Matt came and pulled a chair up to his side, curling up against him as best he could. Tom lifted out of his misery long enough to run a hand through Matt's hair, smiling wanly down at his youngest son.
"Hey, I'm okay," he said. Physically, aside from a few fresh bruises from the Humvee flipping and a reinjured ankle from Hal's not-so-tender attentions, it was even true. "And your brother will be, too. Ben thinks the rebels might have a way to remove the thing that's been controlling him."
"Is it true that Hal's the mole? That he killed the old Vice President?" Matt replied in a very small voice, face buried in his shoulder.
"No. No, Matt; I don't think he was," he replied, tugging his son closer.
"That's what Pope said. But my friends didn't believe me. They said he should be arrested. Or even shot," he continued, plaintively.
"Hush; that's not gonna happen," Tom tried to comfort him. "And even if it had been him, he wasn't in control of his actions; it's Karen's fault, not his. But when did Pope say something about it?" It seemed he couldn't turn around without the man getting tangled up in his business, these days, physically present or not.
"When we were all outside, guarding the building. Right before Colonel Weaver went up and tried to talk to Hal. Miz Peralta was wondering what was going on, and Maggie said he'd been having nightmares about Karen. That he thought he was the mole. Pope got pretty mad; he yelled at her for keeping it a secret. But then he said that the real mole must have been feeling the pressure, if Karen was activating her sleeper agent already. I wanted to ask what he meant by that, but Colonel Weaver told him there was no place on the line for hotheads and sent him away before I could. Then Hal shot at him, and the other Berserkers shot at Hal, and the colonel sent them away, too. That's when me and Ben and Maggie came up with our plan."
Tom looked up, and caught sight of Hal's girlfriend seated across the bed, curled up on herself in another chair; she nodded despondently as he met her gaze.
"This is what he wanted to talk to me about before I left for Keystone," he said, flatly.
Maggie nodded again. "I'm so sorry, Tom."
He swallowed, thickly. "Don't. Don't be. If he had, I might never have thought it all through, and realized ...." He cast a glance at the curtain where Lyle sat, and suddenly found himself drawing very different conclusions about the man's presence. "Wait. Is Pope. ...?"
"He's fine, too." She wrinkled her nose. "I guess he thought the real mole might take advantage of the distraction Hal provided; Weaver's order gave him an excuse to go and confront her. None of the rest of us had any idea, except Lyle, who covered for him; we all thought he'd gone back to The Nest to open up a betting pool. But if someone hadn't found that Volm-modified weapon in the storeroom and replaced it with a dud a long time ago, Lourdes would have got away clean. Have you really known all this time?"
A wash of relief burst over him; Tom leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes briefly, and took a deep, shaky breath. Lourdes had condemned herself, partially cleared Hal, and inadvertently made everyone in Charleston safer. Triggering her had been a risky move on John's part, and not one that Tom would have expected of him. Nor anyone else, judging by the note of betrayal in Maggie's voice.
"We ... suspected," he said. "But we had no proof, and no real idea how she might have been infected in the first place." He let his gaze fall to Hal's unconscious form then, pained by the sight of the fresh scar across his right cheek. "I guess now we do."
"You told Pope, but you couldn't tell us?"
"And risk Karen finding out?" He shrugged, helplessly. "There are no simple answers here, Maggie."
She looked away. "I'm just glad Dr. Sumner's x-rays prove it was an eyebug," she said, grudgingly. "One's bad enough; I don't even want to know how long Lourdes has been living with a whole swarm of them."
"A swarm?" Tom replied, aghast. No wonder Karen had been so responsive to the slightest change of plans in Charleston; she could keep Lourdes under the heavy hand of her programming and have messengers flying back and forth, carrying updates, at the same time. "Probably ever since she treated Hal after Karen knocked him out, all those months ago. Everything that's happened since – we have to assume Karen knows."
"And on that cheerful note," Dan said, poking his head through the curtains. "The rebels are here again; Ben says they do have a way to remove the eyebugs. But it's risky."
"Do we have a choice?" Tom sighed, rubbing a hand over his eyes. Then he chivvied Matt out of his chair. "C'mon, Matt; why don't you go with Maggie for a minute? You won't want to be in here when Hal wakes up."
"But Dad ...."
"It'll all be over soon, Matt, don't worry. Then we'll go after Anne and Lexie. It'll all be fine." He nodded to Maggie; she nodded back, biting her lip, and put a hand on Matt's shoulder to guide him out.
"I don't think I can take much more of this, Dan," he murmured to his friend as he climbed to his own feet, balancing painfully with the help of his new cane.
Dan gripped his shoulder, sympathy etched deep in the lines around his mouth. "I can't think of anyone else who could have held up under all this half so well as you. Don't give up on me now."
A pang of guilt went through him; if Dan knew what he was planning ... well, that was why he hadn't brought it up with him. He'd understand, though; he had his own daughter to think about now, and Tom knew the trials they'd gone through rebuilding their relationship. He'd stay, and see through what Tom couldn't.
It really would be for the best. For everyone.
Tom nodded in wordless reply, then followed Dan to the meeting room.
By the time their Skitter allies came through with bionanite hunter-killers to eliminate the eyebugs, and Hal and Lourdes recovered from the trauma of the removal process, it was late into another night. The Skitters had also finally received word of Anne and Alexis' location, in an Espheni camp near Mechanicsville, halfway to Boston: a good four hundred thirty miles or so as the highway drove. In a car, it might have taken them six or seven hours. On horses? There was no telling.
Tom went back to his room to think the news over, running his hands through his hair and staring at Lexie's bassinet. Then he talked to each of his sons, and went to his office to finalize his preparations.
He expected Marina to come looking for him at some point. Hoped for it, really; it would make it easier to turn over the reins. Or General Porter, perhaps; it was probably time to read him in on the Volm plan to bring down the Espheni defense grid, and it would be better coming from him. Captain Weaver might have been subordinate to Colonel Porter when the Massachusetts Militia Regiments first formed – Porter had been the one who'd originally assigned Tom as Dan's second in command, in fact – but ever since their arrival in Charleston, Porter had been content to remain in more of an advisory role. Dan would need him, though, with General Bressler dead and Tom ... gone. So Tom didn't look up when he heard the door of the office open behind him.
It wasn't his Vice President or any of the military staff who was there to challenge him, though; it was a rougher, more familiar voice that interrupted as he tucked his resignation letter into the Project Orange file.
"So. After all that. You're the one who's giving up," Pope drawled, closing the door behind him.
Tom swallowed, then looked up, meeting the other man's dark, serious gaze. A fresh bruise marred one cheek, but he otherwise looked much the same as he had the last time Tom had seen him, several days before. "You don't know what you're talking about, John."
"Oh, I think I do," the other man said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Karen took your little alien daughter to draw you out of Charleston. When you didn't take the bait immediately, she tried to use your son to force it. So now you're just gonna give her what she wants?"
"I'm going to rescue Alexis. And Anne," Tom shook his head. "I can't leave them out there. Not when I know where they are. Not while I have breath left in my body."
"Never mind the fact that your Anne ran in the first place because she was afraid of what people would think. Or that Mason Junior's probably worried people are gonna paint him with the same brush as Lourdes and blame him for everything that's gone wrong around here, never mind who's actually responsible. Or that your next youngest son's now one of two kids in the whole of Charleston still able to connect to the Skitters, and that leaves him a pretty limited pool of friends. So why not take your whole alien-loving family on the road, huh? I can see the desperation written all over you, Professor. You're not planning on coming back."
Tom glanced down at the resignation letter still in his hand, and set his jaw. "And what if I'm not?"
John chuckled, low in the back of his throat, as he circled through the office. He trailed fingertips over Manchester's row of liquor bottles, still standing on a cabinet in the corner, then over the stained painting on the wall behind the desk. He paused there, staring at the painted figures of Revolutionary War heroes, then turned to Tom with a narrow, heavy-lidded stare.
"How about I try this again in your language," he said. He pushed away from the painting, then gripped the back of the swivel chair – the chair Arthur Manchester had died in, pursuing the investigation into the mole – and began to quote, in the sonorous tones of one used to speaking in front of others.
"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."
A lump formed in Tom's throat; he wavered, then leaned heavily against the desk as the familiar words from the Gettysburg Address rolled off John's tongue. "Pope ...."
"I'm not finished; this should be your favorite part," John waved him off. "That this nation shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
"It won't perish," Tom insisted, suddenly furious. "I'm leaving it to Marina, and Dan. I've done what I needed to do. All the months of deal-making, diplomacy, construction, and struggle – I'm tired, John. They can see it through without me. It's time I put my family first."
"Do you really think this place will last six months with Marina Peralta at the helm? Hell, three weeks?" John snorted. "She might know her way around a legal document and a meeting schedule, I'm not arguing that. But she wasn't the one who won a popular election around here, and you damned well know it."
"Since when do you care?" Tom glared at him. "You're out for yourself first; you always have been."
"Shit, this argument again? I thought we buried that out in those damn woods," John scowled at him. "What the hell did I even bother to go and confront your mole for, anyway, if this is the thanks I get? Quid pro quo, Professor. You owe me an honest answer, at the very least."
"I am giving you an honest answer!" Tom replied, the words almost torn from him as John – as usual – rubbed his face in what he was trying his hardest to ignore. "Why is all this my responsibility, anyway? Maybe it just finally occurred to me to ask myself, how the hell did a history professor from Boston U with no desire to play politics end up the civic leader of a whole new nation? Of all people, why me? And why am I letting it control my life, when it keeps putting the people I care about in the crosshairs?"
John's scowl faded as what looked like surprise, then sharp-edged sympathy tempered his anger. "Wait. Wait, you're tellin' me you haven't figured that out yet? What the hell have you been doin' all this time?"
"What needed to be done. What else could I do?" Tom threw up his hands. "You're telling me you've figured it out? Enlighten me, then."
"Just ... just give me a second here. This is seriously winding you up?" John stalked closer, until they were well into each other's personal space.
"I'm just one man," Tom replied, lowering his voice as he abruptly recalled where they were. The whole of Charleston didn't need to hear this.
"I guess you're too close to see it," John cocked his head. "The fishheads, the Espheni – they're supposed to be these giant mega-brains, right? Whole computers in their heads. Conquered one world after another by predicting every move their opponents made before it happened and manipulating the outcome."
Tom nodded. "Both Karen and the rebel Skitters said as much. And considering how much they hate each other, I'm inclined to take that as gospel. What difference does that make?"
"Obviously they took one look at the way the situation was unfolding, saw one Tom Mason cropping up again and again, and realized the same thing the rest of us did," John replied, poking a finger at Tom's chest.
"Porter hung you around Weaver's neck like a lead weight, and look at you now, pulling in harness like a matched pair. Two days in Charleston and you upended the existing government twice over. You believe there is a right thing, and you're determined to stick to it, come hell or high water; and your sons are all chips off the old block. Me, I'm all about revenge and survival, screw the consequences, but those boys of yours? They don't follow patterns, they make 'em. Just like their daddy. You've been forming a cult of personality around you since the day you walked into that school in Acton dragging a captured Skitter, and it just keeps growing. The question isn't why you, Professor; the question is, how could it be anybody else?"
Tom looked away, a tremor shaking through his hands as he fought to steady his emotions. "So how does any of that translate into saying I shouldn't go after my daughter and Anne?" he demanded.
John snorted. "You're missing the point, Tom. Again. I'm not saying you shouldn't go after 'em at all. I'm just saying, don't abandon the rest of us – and what you built here – while you're at it. Manchester might have set this place up, but it took you to forge it into a nation. Dump it on Peralta, and there'll be riots in the streets. Hell, I might even lead one myself." He punctuated the last statement with a wolf's smile.
Tom scrubbed his hands over his face, caught between conflicting desires. John had a point. He always had a point, as unpalatable as it often was. But ... he was just so exhausted.
"You missed something, you know," he said, quietly. "In that little recitation of yours."
"Go ahead. Fill me in, Professor," John stared at him expectantly, probably anticipating another argument he could poke a hole through. And maybe he would. But Tom felt compelled to say it, anyway.
"You want to know the real reason why the Espheni let me go last year, after I walked willingly onto their ship? Why the rebel Skitters picked us, of all the remaining human settlements, to approach? Why the Volm landed in Charleston, even?"
John's eyes glittered avidly at that. "I've only been wanting the answer to that question since the day you turned back up like a bad penny," he said. "Ridiculous Mason luck, I've always figured."
"More like reckless," Tom shook his head. "I thought I was going aboard that ship to negotiate. But all the Espheni wanted from me was a promise to lead my people to a place of their choosing, where we could live in peace and not cause them any further trouble, and vice versa."
"The hell you say," John snorted.
"Yeah, that's what I said. So I grabbed the torture stick from his guard, the one they'd been using on me for days, and turned it on him. It was a futile gesture, and I knew that before I did it; I had no way of escaping, or even any hope of really hurting him. But as it turned out ... that guard was Red Eye, the first leader of the rebel Skitters. And when the Espheni put him in charge of getting rid of all their captives ... he killed all of them, except me, then put an eyebug in me, let me go, and tracked me back to the Second Mass."
Tom turned and started pacing the office as he continued, cane tapping against the floor, venting things he hadn't allowed himself to speak of to anyone else. "He was impressed with me because of my essential barbarity, Pope. Not my knowledge, diplomatic abilities, or any of the rest of it. And the Volm might pretend to be more civilized, but that's the only reason they're here, too. The Espheni are planning to raise a defense grid that will ward the entire planet from space; you know that much. What you don't know is that it will also fatally irradiate all non-Espheni life on Earth within three months. The Volm scouts knew they wouldn't be able to take it down alone before then; I was just the first human leader they thought might be crazy enough to agree that helping them build their experimental weapon might be a good idea.
"So maybe I got the ball rolling. Maybe I've made a few inspiring speeches and had a few lucky breaks. But that doesn't make me the right person to sit in that chair long-term. Others can pick up and carry what I started."
John made a considering noise. "You know, if you meant that little speech to be discouraging, you've forgotten who you're talking to, Professor," he mused aloud.
The tone of John's voice curled up Tom's spine like the touch of heated fingers; he stopped in his limping tracks and turned to look at him with an incredulous expression. "What?"
"I said, I think you're being a little hard on yourself, Tom," he replied, now faintly mocking. "Me? I wouldn't have admitted it if you'd asked me two weeks ago, but I think you're exactly what this place needs, as long as you don't let the power go to your head. But you're kind of going to the opposite extreme at the moment – seriously, you really think your nearest and dearest aren't going to understand your concerns? If you really believe I'm the one that keeps you balanced ... then get over yourself and let me do it." He reached for the folder on the desk and, before Tom could move to stop him, removed the resignation letter and tore it in half.
"Take Hal along for a breather, sure," he continued. "Take Ben; you'll need him to talk to the rebels when you meet up with 'em. But leave Matt here, so the people have hope you'll be coming back. And maybe take along a volunteer or two a little more seasoned than an eleven year old with a gun."
Tom stared at the crumpled scraps of paper as John let them flutter to the floor. "Where was all this concern when you were avoiding me the last few days?" he finally asked, softly.
He half expected some other sneering answer – but John paused instead, looking away. "Chalk it up to a rare attack of conscience. Don't worry, it won't happen again."
"So who are you expecting to volunteer, then? You?" He limped back over to the desk, stooping carefully to pick up the paper scraps, then turning to drop them in a waste can under John's lingering gaze.
"Was actually thinking you might talk Junior into letting Mags come with. She won't thank him if he treats her like she can't make her own decisions. But I wouldn't rule the idea out, either." He glanced down at Tom's wounded ankle, and for a moment Tom felt the pressure of the man's hands against his skin again like a sensory ghost, both supporting him and demanding everything he had to give.
The contrast with his last argument with Anne was like a slap in the face; he'd been trying not to draw comparisons for the better part of a week, and the failure curdled in his stomach like sour milk. What was wrong with him, that a part of him thrilled to the challenge John represented, so soon after such a loss?
"You need me, Professor," John concluded, in a tone a lot softer than the rest of his needling diatribe ... almost a question.
Tom couldn't find it in himself to respond. The words stuck in his throat, and he was forced to look away, breaking the intensity of the moment; a few seconds later, he heard Pope turn to walk out of the room, making his own retreat without further comment. The door opened, then shut again, and he sighed, closing his eyes in frustration.
"Is everything all right, Tom?" a new voice broke in on his thoughts. "I thought I saw Pope in the hall."
Tom blinked, startled, and looked up to meet Marina's gaze. So she had come to him upon hearing that he had further news, just as he'd expected ... for a meeting that was now going to go much differently than he'd planned.
Yeah, I think I do, he finally answered John, silently. God help me; I do.
Then he picked up the file, and began briefing the Vice President on the details of Project Orange that she'd need to know to keep the war effort on track while he was gone.
Tom made one more, previously unplanned stop before leaving the city. He took the stairwells down to the power plant beneath the city center, a copy of all the documentation he'd gathered on the Volm over the last several months in hand.
He'd worried about the true motivations of the supposedly kinder, gentler alien race ever since they'd landed. Of course he had; he hadn't forgotten about the other consequences of the American Revolution, whatever John may have once assumed. The people with flint knives and deerskins very rarely came out ahead when facing visitors with gunpowder and uniforms, no matter how benevolent those newcomers might purport to be. He'd simply seen no other way to defeat the Espheni; until the grid went down, the Volm were necessary.
Dead was dead, while life meant hope, he'd always believed. But Marina had reminded him that day while discussing Hal's troubles that death wasn't the worst of all evils; and the reports he'd read on the full scope of what Lourdes had been up to had made him question a conviction he should have examined more deeply from the start. That in turn had made him reconsider John's comments about survival and wishful thinking ... perhaps too little, too late, but maybe just enough to ward off disaster if the Volm did turn on them.
He'd been taking reports all along from the men and women helping build the Volm weapon – none of them had been allowed to see the full schematics, or work on the most sensitive parts of its control systems, but they knew what materials went into it, how each part went together, and some useful speculation about how it related to other equipment the Volm had loaned them – and filing them away, in case disaster struck and they needed to rebuild it on their own. And he also had access to the safe where Cochise had secured his personal weapons before their flight to Keystone, in both handgun and rifle sizes. He carried them down to Dr. Kadar's lair with the file, then explained very carefully what he had in mind.
It was a five-person party that rode out before dawn the next morning: the President of the New United States; two boys that had been enslaved by the Espheni in different ways, seeking their revenge; the elder's fierce fighter of a girlfriend; and the ex-con who'd defined his existence by Tom's, one way or another, since the day they'd met.
They rode to rescue a daughter, a sister, a lover, a mother figure, a doctor; stand-ins for all the family members the people of Charleston had lost to the aliens since the initial invasion. The crowd that came to see them off was ... not small. Tom nodded to or shook hands with several people as the boys finished packing the horses, and knew John had been right when he'd said many of them hung their hopes on his return.
His parting hug with Dan was heartfelt. Denny seemed cheerful as she waved to Ben. And Matt's teary farewell from Dan's side would have been all that was needed to light the fire in Tom's heart again, if he'd still needed it.
He wasn't giving up. Not now, and not ever.
So Karen had summoned him, had she? She might be fighting from a position of strength, but he would be fighting for people he loved, with people he loved.
It was finally time to play ball.
Chapter 4: The Place of Fear
Hours after the confrontation in Mason's office, standing behind the scouts' stables in the grey light of pre-dawn, John was half-convinced he'd finally pushed the other man too far. He'd never been good at respecting the lines people drew around themselves, and Tom had been tetchy as hell since Weaver had dropped the bomb about Dr. Glass. It was as though he'd become a different person yet again, with all the stiff, commanding reserve of the professor turned President but the temper of the guy from out in the woods, minus the confidence and sly sense of humor that would have made either of those versions of Mason more tolerable. John hadn't seen much of it in person, but he'd heard plenty.
Getting caught up on business at The Nest hadn't taken long, but coming to terms with everything that had come to light in the previous week had taken a little longer. For one thing, if he really was – hell, he couldn't even think the words without wondering if he'd gone completely insane – there were decisions to be made, stories to be straightened out, and contingency plans to be altered, lest they backfire on him later. And for another ... he still wasn't even sure getting further involved would do Mason any good, never mind himself.
Which was proof positive, of course, that there was no going back for him: he'd never been known for putting anyone else first, except for his own long-lost brats, and sometimes – to his regret – not even them.
The fuckup with Hal taking Tom hostage had finally shaken him out of his fit of brooding; a clearer opportunity for the actual mole to get into places she might not otherwise access unnoticed could not have been imagined. Except by him, apparently; even Five-Oh had a one track mind on the subject, laser focused on the latest Mason drama. With everyone that was everyone either gawking at the spectacle or over at The Nest gossiping about it, he'd hastily nudged Weaver into kicking him publicly off the line, got Lyle to cover for him, then snuck down to the infirmary to take care of business. Sure enough, he'd found Lourdes there in all her eyebugged glory, face crawling with the things; there was a vent in the chapel she apparently used to sneak them in and out of Charleston. He'd seen one lift off her cheek, and shot at it automatically, lip curling in revulsion.
She'd nearly taken him out in turn with that Volm pistol she'd stolen. If Weaver's other spies hadn't got to the gun first and replaced it with a defective model, he'd have been so much fried Skitter-bait. Perfect example why he didn't usually commit the idiocy of volunteering; it seemed to turn off the part of his brain devoted to self-preservation. The bruise on his cheek from when she'd realized it didn't work made a nice souvenir, though; not to mention the incredulous reaction he'd got from Weaver and later Maggie when they'd heard the news.
After that, he'd known he'd have to man up and stop sulking. Time to call it what it was, if only to himself, and make the most of it. So what if it made him feel like the cat that'd finally caught the mouse, meowing for its human's attention? But when he'd finally tracked Mason down and realized what he was planning ... he'd taken it like a slap to the face, and let his mouth write checks he'd have a hard time cashing. Again.
Tom's silence had felt like a kick in the teeth as he'd walked out that door.
He sighed, listening to the murmur of voices as people started collecting in the street out front, and made a disgusted face at himself. Then he headed for the alley to circle around to the other side, and nearly ran into the rough planking of the side door as Weaver opened it to step out.
Weaver checked himself at the sight of John, blinking at him with tired, bloodshot eyes. "Oh. It's you."
John cleared his throat. "Cap," he nodded to him, hitching his pack on his shoulder, then jerked his head toward the side of the building. "Himself in there?"
"Yeah. He said you might come, but I didn't believe it," Weaver replied. He studied John again from head to toe, lingering on the heavy boots, the holster at his waist, the rifle slung over his shoulder with his pack, and the trophy necklace around his throat. "He also said you're the one convinced him to leave Matt behind."
"Little man's a good soldier, but he's a little young for a mission like this, don't you think?" John replied in a carefully matter-of-fact drawl.
"Call it what it is: a damn suicide mission," Weaver scowled, then shook his head. "Don't know what the hell's gotten into you lately, Pope, but I don't trust it. It should be me out there watching his back."
He sounded as irascible as ever, but John could see the wet shine in his eyes, and marveled again at what a year and a half could do to a pair of as stubborn cusses as he'd ever met. And he wasn't counting himself in that number. "Two years ago, you'd have laughed in my face if I'd told you you'd ever say that," he replied, dryly. "Think of it this way: it just took me a little longer than most to succumb to the Mason charm. I held out as long as I could, but it's like catching the plague. Once the symptoms start showing up, you're screwed."
Weaver's jaw worked, but he didn't curse John down; the shine in his eyes worsened for a moment, then he chuckled sourly and punched John in the arm. "Ain't that the truth," he said. "Go on, then. You bring him back in one piece this time, you hear? Then maybe we'll talk about letting bygones be bygones."
Bemused, he followed orders, and found Hal and Ben busy saddling the horses inside. There were five being prepped to go, nickering softly in their stalls; John wondered what they'd have done with the fifth if he hadn't showed. Maggie was sorting gear, and Tom was leaning against the front wall, cane clasped between his hands and exhaustion deepening the lines on his face. But there was a spark in his eyes that John hadn't seen since before Keystone, and when he caught sight of John he tipped his head in unspoken acknowledgement. Whatever he'd been up to since John had seen him last, he'd plainly struck some kind of peace with himself.
"Good. You're here," was all he said aloud.
"Think I could really let you go on a fishhead hunt without me?" John rallied in response. "You make pretty damn good bait, in case you haven't noticed."
"Of course," Tom smiled benevolently back, patting a pocket. "Even restocked my line this time."
Maggie snorted, and the boys exchanged a look; but Tom seemed amused, and that's what he'd been going for. "Brought something a little more useful myself," he smirked, thinking of the insurance he'd secured.
The others held their peace while they finished prepping; the awkwardness he'd been braced for seemed put on hold as he joined in. And when they led the horses out a few minutes later, John found that it wasn't only Mason fans come to bid the small party farewell, either. A cluster of Berserkers and Nest regulars were there as well, with plenty of backslaps to go around, and Matt Mason's pointed scowl was next best thing to a hug.
Carpeing his Diem didn't usually pay out in those sorts of dividends, but John surely wasn't going to turn them down.
Then it was time. Out into the dark they went: down the black road to whatever destiny awaited.
They kept to the main roads only long enough to meet up with the rebel skitters; surprise, surprise, the only help they ended up gaining from that source was word that Karen had set up an ambush. John could have predicted that; the last word she'd probably had from her spy was that Hal had taken his father hostage, which would have left her waiting either for her prize, or a news update to prompt her to redeploy.
The back roads were ... quieter. They also took longer to navigate, leaving a lot of time for idle conversation as they pitched camp for a nap or picked their way through the countryside of a gray, drizzly morning. John found himself riding in company with Tom about half the time, keeping the conversation fairly light in deference to the not-so-little pitchers' ears. At one point, they detoured through a discussion of the sparse amenities of Charleston's chickenwire jail to a debate about whether it would be better to keep Anthony on as the makeshift chief of police while he still held rank in the Berserkers, or whether Tom should draft orders to differentiate the armed forces between foreign and domestic again. That in turn led to a conversation about civilians carrying weapons, Tom's own mishmash of experience, and a quizzing match about military terminology.
Hilariously, Hal knew more than his dad on that subject, despite the fact that Tom had supposedly lived and breathed military history back at Boston U, and practically slept with a rifle in his hand even in safe quarters in Charleston. But John had them both beat. He'd learned most of what he knew around the watercooler, true; but around that particular watercooler, it had been next best thing to personal experience.
And some things, of course, he did have personal experience in. He would have called Farmer Pickett and his boys rank amateurs for the ambush they tried to spring on 'em a few days into the trip, except for the obvious clues that the clan of half-starved hill folk had been practicing for quite some time. Stringing a semi up to pull across the road on cue must have taken no small amount of work; would have burned another day off their trip to retrieve their supplies, if he hadn't been paying attention. As it was, they still lost an hour in wrangling while Tom tried to convince Pickett Senior to head for Charleston, and the man all but called Tom crazy in response. John couldn't blame the man for not wanting to draw the aliens' attention, but he also thought he was being an idiot to assume their isolation would protect them indefinitely. In the end, it wasn't up to him or Tom, though; Tom had to concede it was still a democracy, and therefore Pickett's decision to make.
Afterward, riding on up the road on the last approach to Mechanicsville, Maggie dropped back to the end of the line with him, striking up a private conversation for the first time since they'd left the city.
"This ... whatever it is you're doing ... it needs to stop," she hissed, pitching her voice low so as not to carry.
"And just what is it you think I'm doing, Margaret?" He gave her a tight smile, nothing for Mason Junior to spike his blood pressure over if he looked over his shoulder and saw them.
"Cozying up to them like this," she continued, irritably. "I don't know how you've managed to convince even Weaver that your intentions are suddenly wholesome, but Hal's not buying it, and you know I know better. When Tom figures out what you're up to ...."
"Come on, Mags. What about any of this gives you the idea I'm up to anything in particular?" he smirked. "I gotta say, I am never going to get tired of watching the Professor go red in the face when I introduce him as the 'no-shit President of the New United States', but I'd hardly call that 'cozying up to' the man."
Maggie narrowed her eyes, growing a little red in the face herself. "Joking with him. Talking politics. Pouring him the last cup of cowboy coffee. Even making up to his kids, for fuck's sake. You think I don't remember what flirting looks like on you?"
The smirk slid off John's face. "Because he's so much better than me? Is that it? Well, before you start slinging mud around, best remember you're no different, darlin'. You and me, we do what's best for ourselves. We survive. And if that happens to include me finally hitching my wagon to the Mason star? Well, there's plenty to go around. I promise not to poach yours; Scout's honor." He held up a mocking version of the familiar three-fingered gesture.
"You were never a Scout," she spat at him. "And I'm not just – hitching my wagon. Hal chose me. I told him everything, and he still wanted me. So no, I will not stand by and let you take advantage of his family."
"Whither he goest, thou wilt go, huh?" He raised his eyebrows at her. "Well, this may come as a surprise to you, Mags, but if you think slanging me to Mason Senior's going to win you any brownie points? You've forgotten just how dedicated I am to watching my own back."
That finally seemed to get through to her; her eyes widened a little, and she threw a sharp glance ahead where Tom and his sons were having a quiet conversation. "What did you tell him?"
"So sure you told Hal everything, are you? Or that he'll keep your secrets from his dad?" He grinned nastily at her. "Feel free to jump into that briar patch if you want to find out."
That did the trick; she zipped her lip, still looking angry but a little less liable to boil over at least, and rode back ahead to catch up to her man. Threats always worked so much better half left up to the recipient's imagination.
Maggie was never going to be easy around him; that ship had sailed a hell of a long time ago. And he knew it was entirely his fault. But he respected the steel in her, if not the bleeding heart under all her thorns, and they'd managed to establish a prickly détente since he'd won a place of his own in the Second Mass. She wouldn't buy pretty words about a change of heart; not from him. But if he could just keep her from rocking the boat, she'd eventually realize there was no percentage for him now in endangering the things she'd come to hold dear.
The others slowed as Maggie approached, then stopped; Tom held up a hand in a fist, and John pulled back on his reins as he caught up to them, dismounting to lead the horses to one side of the trail. "Something wrong?"
Ben pointed down to the road below, where their path would have rejoined the most direct paved route. "Mega-mechs. Two of them, and half a dozen Skitters," he said, grimly.
"Scouting in front of that bunch the rebels warned us about, I bet." Maggie made a frustrated noise. "They just keep circling around and cutting us off."
"Gee, it's like they know where we're going," John drawled. "I wonder how they guessed."
"We've managed to dodge them so far," Hal shook his head. "We can keep doing it; we'll just have to wait for them to pass, and find a way through."
"The Picketts won't be able to, though," Ben frowned. "It looks like they're headed straight for them."
Tom pursed his mouth, looking pained. "You're right. They won't have a chance."
John recognized that look from a certain cliff in the middle of a forest, and felt a swoop of foreboding in his gut. "You are not thinking of going back to warn them. Those people would have shot us over a handful of horses and a few days' worth of food!"
"You don't know that," Tom replied, shaking his head, giving him a piercing look. "As it is, they didn't. And if all we care about is our own family, then we're no better than them – wasn't that your argument, more or less, when you talked me out of resigning my job?"
Maggie gave John another sharp look at that, but the boys were still staring at their father, distressed.
"We're with you, Dad," Ben said.
"But what about Anne and Lexie?" Hal put in. "We've already burned a lot of time. Maybe too much."
"Then we'll just have to do both," Tom decided. "Ride on to Mechanicsville. Scout it out for me; you've got sharper eyes and ears anyway. Get an idea of what we'll need to do to break in and find them. And by the time you're done with that, I should be back; it'll only take me a couple of hours to retrace our path."
"Us," John corrected him, rolling his eyes hard. More Mason nobility. Well; he'd known what he was signing on for. "It'll only take us a couple of hours."
"This isn't a job that requires two people," Tom shook his head.
"Unless they get there before you do. You gonna bet your life on that, with Karen desperate to get you in her hot little hands?" John tugged at the reins again, leading his horse to face back the way they'd come. "I know which way I'd hedge my bets."
Maggie glanced between them, then gave a terse sigh. "If you're determined to do this, then go. The three of us will be fine; it'll make it easier for us to slip through the lines, anyway. But we're not going to wait in Mechanicsville longer than a day. If you don't show up, we're coming for you."
"I'd expect no less," Tom nodded to Maggie, then his sons. "Boys, be careful."
They replied with a jumbled chorus of "You too, Dad," and "Good luck." Then Tom was turning to him, expectant look written all over his face.
"If you're coming, then let's go, Pope," he said, mounting up again, the grim image of an Old West Marshal.
John replied by swinging back into his saddle, and letting the dust struck up from his horse's hooves speak for him.
There'd been more riding after that, he was pretty sure; an empty house lit up as though they'd just missed its residents, and the stomping, humming noises of mega-mechs. But none of it stuck in his mind in any kind of coherent way; between the adrenaline and the stun shot and the look on Tom's face just before he went down, John recalled only jumbled fragments out of sequence. He had no idea if there'd been any sign of the Picketts' fate, or if they'd managed to fall into Karen's trap for no good reason.
The next memory whole enough for him to piece together was the sound of someone screaming: a hoarse, anguished noise ringing through his head while a strange, pulsing light shone through his eyelids. Somewhere in there, he got the impression there'd been a pain stick; maybe even several. His chest hurt like he'd been sat on by an elephant, then hung up to tenderize a little while the torturer was busy elsewhere.
The architecture, when he pried his eyes open to see just how screwed he was, was typical Espheni industrial drag: all scrap metal salvage of various sizes and angles. He was penned in some kind of narrow lattice-walled cell, heated warmly enough that he would have been sweating in his layered shirts and jacket even without the add-on effects of stun shock and torture. The pain didn't mean much to him, though, once he had a chance to orient himself; he'd had worse. But the fucking noise, all hisses and skittering and humming; now that the screams had died down again, it was making the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Plus, there were cables all over him: snaking through the narrow space, tangling his legs, pinning his arms, dangling in his face....
John thrashed, panic abruptly overloading all the pain signals going to his brain. The cables were narrower and less slimy than the harnesses, but nothing he wanted anywhere near him in a structure built by a culture that dealt heavily in biotech. No fucking wonder Tom had woken up swinging when he'd thrown that snake in his face, if he'd experienced anything like that. Hadn't he said he'd been in one of their ships for days?
The screaming started up again, somewhere nearby, as if summoned by the thought; not near enough for a look, but maybe one room over. When he twisted far enough to press an eye to one of the gaps in the lattice of metal penning him in, John could just see the lizardy scalp of a Skitter at the edge of his field of view. Beyond it echoed the voice of someone in more than physical pain – and it was unmistakably familiar. Tom.
Oldest trick in the book for catching someone with a hero complex: give him someone to save. The idiot had stuck his neck out, and even with John watching his back, Karen had obliged. Damn. He'd called it, hadn't he?
The screams tapered off into half-crazed laughter, and John thrashed harder, working his fingers to find purchase on the cables pinning his arms to his sides. Maybe they were doomed, but hell if he was going to go out like a rabbit in a noose. John Pope had never been anyone's prey, and never would be; and Mason deserved more than to go down like that, either. He'd brought that little something along just in case, and from what he could tell the bastards hadn't even searched beyond the external pockets of his clothes.
....Or should that be bitch? Was little blonde Karen a prude? Maybe that was why she had such a hard-on for Hal. If he'd had his betting board in front of him, John would've put serious money down on Hal being the 'one who got away'. Almost made him feel sorry for her. But not quite: collaborators deserved everything they got.
He managed to get one arm freed up enough to move, then worked his hand into the waistband of his jeans where he'd tucked the special holster. Shooting through clothes would be no barrier, not with this gun, but he'd only get to pop one or two shots off before Karen realized she'd picked up an unexpected thorn in her paw. He'd have to be real careful what he aimed at. Preferably her, and not himself or the Professor.
The laughter died down after a minute, and then the overlord herself spoke up. "You find this funny?" Karen said, in the same creepily serene voice the spiked kids always seemed to default to when they hooked up to their Skitter pals. There was something just wrong about alien enslavement tech designed to give its victims a happy buzz whenever it was in use.
"I do," Tom replied, sounding desperate and rough by comparison, panting just from the effort it took to talk. "'Cause you must be so scared, Karen. How's that feel? To be scared?"
The balls on that man. In the old alien invasion movies it seemed like it was always the grunt soldier who went down swinging, the politician who wept like a baby, the sexy woman who stood in for vulnerable humanity, and the egotistic scientist who ended up saving the day; who would have ever predicted that a history professor from Cambridge would be the one who actually embodied the human struggle for the fate of the planet? And not do a half-bad job at it, either, from what John was hearing.
"You will tell me what I want to know," Karen intoned, a little stress finally disturbing the equilibrium of her voice ... and for a long few seconds, the sound of Tom's breathing was interrupted by choking sounds.
John gritted his teeth, carefully easing the Volm-modified pistol further out of its holster. He'd confiscated Lourdes' busted one after she'd clobbered him with it, then carefully swapped it out for a working one later; even Weaver probably didn't know it was missing from the armory. They'd never have let him take it out of the city if they did, but he was damn glad he had it, now. Sounded like he'd woken up just in time.
"So what's next? Pain stick?" Tom demanded hoarsely, after a long, worrying minute.
The sounds of pacing echoed from the same room as the voice; hopefully close enough to kill, before his breakout attempt ran aground. "I think we both know you're beyond manipulating through that kind of pain, Tom," she replied. "Though I suppose I could try it on the companion you brought along, again; perhaps it'll work better if you're not the one suffering? I knew you had a wandering eye, for all your talk when we first met about poor dead Rebecca being the love of your life, but I don't understand what you could possibly see in him."
And then she really got cruel, and brought up Anne and Lexie, and what might happen to an infant touched with a pain stick. John did his best to block out the ache and increased desperation in Tom's voice as he writhed further in his little prison. He'd finally got himself and his weapon mostly turned straight on to the cell door, ready to either shoot out the lock or nail whoever came into the larger room beyond. He'd go as far as he could, try to get to Tom, and if he did get caught, set the thing to overload. Whatever happened, going out in a flash of blue light would have to be better than anything the Espheni might have in mind.
He started to squeeze his finger on the trigger – then paused again as Karen's footsteps moved closer. He froze, holding his breath, as she walked past his cell followed by a Skitter ... and then Tom Mason, upright and looking a little less like hell warmed over than he sounded. Thank fuck.
"Things could have been different, Tom," Karen tsk'ed at him, for all the world like a disapproving mother. "We want you to know you only have yourself to blame."
A humming, crackling noise started up, and a heap of what had looked like metal scrap on the floor beyond John's cell shifted, opening like a box. It wasn't all that large; he'd ignored it as irrelevant before because it wasn't large enough to hide a mech. But whatever it held inside, Tom flinched back like he'd been struck.
"Anne. Lexie. You murdered them?"
"I'm sorry, Tom," she continued in that damnably reasonable tone. "You left me no choice."
Tom lost it then, lurching in Karen's direction. "I'm gonna kill you!" He screamed, trying to get to her. The Skitter that had been standing with him grabbed him around the waist, holding him back ... and John bared his teeth, knowing that if ever there was going to be a perfect moment to shoot, it had arrived.
He aimed carefully, then fired, flinching hard as the energy burst punched through the lock and the stomach of the evil blonde beyond.
"Not if I get her first!" he snarled triumphantly, firing again to try to clip the Skitter's legs for good measure. It wasn't easy; the first gunshot had definitely cored the lock, but the scrapwork door still wasn't giving way, and he was still wrapped in cabling, fouling his ability to quickly shift his aim.
The Skitter let go in a hurry, backing erratically away, and for a second John thought it would bolt. But then it jerked and scooted closer to the sprawled human overlord instead, one upper limb hovering uncertainly over its wounded master, making distressed-sounding chittering noises.
John thrashed again, finally freeing one of his arms, then lurched forward as the cell door abruptly released, sending him sprawling on the rough metal outside. He reached to catch himself, but lost his grip on the gun in doing so; it went clattering across the floor somewhere he couldn't see while he was kicking free of the last cables. Tom hit the floor at about the same time, released by the Skitter when it went to Karen; wild eyes met John's very briefly before Tom started dragging himself toward the boxlike structure Karen had opened.
John hissed through his teeth as he followed Tom's gaze. The bodies of Anne and a smaller form beside her were an expected but still nasty shock, webbed up in some kind of organic fabric, unmoving.
"She killed them," Tom moaned again, a tremor passing through his body. Then he snatched up the gun John had dropped, pointing it straight at Karen's head.
She tried one last time to influence him, blood trickling out of the corner of her mouth. "The defense grid goes operational in a matter of minutes, Tom. You can't stop it by killing me. It's hopeless. Why do you still fight?"
Tom curled his lip. "Why did you stop?" he snarled, then put an end to all further conversation.
The Skitter burst into shrieks at the shot, rearing back. But instead of charging either of them, it rushed out of the room, probably going for reinforcements. Almost as if in answer, the whole structure around them began to brighten and made a humming noise, like nothing they'd ever seen from Espheni tech before.
That could only mean one thing. "Professor. Tom. Tom!" John shouted, stumbling to his feet and shaking the man's shoulder. "Come on! We gotta get out of here before that six-legged bastard brings all his buddies down on us!"
Karen's blood was pooling thickly around Tom's knees; he stared down into it almost blankly, long enough that John started to seriously worry about his sanity. And when he finally rolled his head back and met John's eyes ... the worry grew legs and started walking.
"She killed them," Tom repeated, bleakly.
"And you killed her right back," John said, shaking him one more time. "But you still got three other kids waiting for you. Remember? Somehow, I don't think we're in Mechanicsville. So what do you think she left there waiting for Ben and Hal, huh? For Maggie? You really gonna lie down and die on them now?"
Tom huffed a breath, then tore his gaze away from Karen's cooling body long enough to throw another wild glance at the bodies of his daughter and her mother. "Anne and Lexie ...."
"Wouldn't want you to get yourself killed trying to rescue their corpses," John hissed at him. "Up, Mason! Get your ass in gear! We'll bring this place down later and write their names in the ruins if you want, but for that to happen we have to get out of here and make sure the Volm shut down the fucking grid!"
The sound of distant, roused Skitters echoed through the corridors; Tom swallowed hard, then finally made an effort to stand, free hand snagging at the wall to compensate for his still-weak ankle. "Grid – we are in Boston, then. Or New York. Or Chicago. Or Jacksonville ...." He trailed off on a half-chuckled gasp.
John rolled his eyes, setting his shoulder under Tom's one more time. He was still coming short of breath from the pain in his chest and his knees felt like they'd been stabbed with broken glass, but he was apparently still the most functional one of the pair of them, which had to be a serious strain on the fabric of reality.
He steered them toward the far archway of the room, the one the Skitter hadn't left through, and drew a deep breath as he caught a whiff of moving air: a chilly, salty, dust-heavy, industrial scent that meant out of doors and underscored Karen's choice of towers as a base. "Boston, definitely," he said, then dragged Mason around a couple more turns, where he spotted an unrailed balcony, maybe twenty or thirty feet above the nearest rooftop. From the view, it apparently opened out of the side of one of the legs of the tower they'd spent so many lives trying to blow up a little more than a year before.
In fact, he mused, squinting at its base: maybe even the leg he'd personally tried to light the fuse on. Go figure.
"I think that's the first beautiful thing of theirs I've seen," Tom rasped at his side – head tipped backward, not down. Of course he was looking up. "Makes sense it's also the deadliest."
John cast one glance at the spiderweb of light building swiftly overhead – then turned back to the hallway behind them toward where they'd left Karen. More Skitters were filling the area, now; a couple with pain sticks lifted them and charged as they caught sight of John and Tom.
"Now this is a reversal, ain't it? Brace yourself," he said, snagging the Volm pistol back out of Tom's hand.
The Skitters rushed, and John fired, felling two in quick succession. Then he snagged up one of the bodies, pushed it at Tom, turned the unbalanced pair around, and shoved them toward the edge. He didn't bother to watch as Tom either went over or didn't; he was too busy dragging his own Skitter cushion to the brink.
Twenty, thirty feet; that was survivable, right? They'd fallen farther into that river. He heaved the body up in his arms, staring out over the wrecked city, and tasted bile in his throat. Then another rush of Skitters began, and Tom's voice rose from below, calling his name.
"Talk about trust falls," John muttered, well aware of the irony in having made his President go first. Then he took a deep breath, bared his teeth at the world, and stepped out into the open air.
Boston was even more of a deserted ruin two years after the apocalypse than it had been when they'd left it. No bodies in the streets; no fires burning anywhere. Debris lay thick on the ground, moldy and rotten from weather; most of the salvageable metal was gone, stripped to build the monstrosity they'd just escaped. John had very little idea where they were going, exerting himself to direct their forward progress only enough to dodge the statue-like mechs conserving fuel in stationary positions here and there around the city. He was more concerned about the professor's state of mind.
Because Tom wasn't talking. Not pausing for thought; not simmering in frustration; just – not talking. He clutched his jacket closed over his heart with the hand not wound into John's coat and simply stared, zombielike, in front of them. He had some purpose in the direction his feet were going, so there was some evidence he hadn't just retreated wholly into his head, but whatever was going on in there, he wasn't letting John in on it.
"Tom. Tom," he spoke up again, as they approached a residential street that seemed to make Tom's steps slow even further. "Asshole, talk to me. Tell me where we are."
Tom swallowed, glancing toward one particular house halfway down the block, some kind of muted blue color in the unlit night. "Home," he finally rasped. "I just ... have to see it."
That was where the idyllic prewar Mason family had lived? John took a glance around, and felt his lip curl at the utter ordinariness. He'd never have fit in there, not in a million years, not even if he hadn't ended up in prison. But he could see the stamp of it all over the Masonets Three, definitely.
"See what?" he prompted.
"Where Rebecca ... where she ...." Tom's breath hitched, and he shook his grip free of John's jacket to stagger toward the narrow front walk. It wound between once-pruned trees now liberally festooned with trash, like someone's drunken teepee party gone badly wrong, leading up to a narrow, covered porch.
Rebecca. Wasn't that the dead wife's name? "Tom. You know – you know it wasn't her back on that thing?" he said, cautiously. "That was Anne."
"And Lexie." Tom's breath hitched again. "Yeah. I know. But Karen ... she had this ...." He gestured vaguely toward his face, and his voice cracked as he continued. "I saw her again. Here. Rebecca. Made it feel like I'd never left."
Well, fuck. He wasn't just in fresh mourning for one dead ex, then. John was suddenly, viciously glad Karen hadn't tried whatever it was on him; if she'd made him see his kids again and then snatched them away, he'd have made her pray for death and not cared whether or not he and Tom got away with it. But how the hell was he supposed to dig Tom out of that hole? He needed his boys, not John.
Tom kept walking up toward the porch as he spoke, the foggy night air forming visible, ghostly eddies behind him. They might as well have been in another world, some grey veiled place between life and death; John shuddered, caught for half a second by the impulse to just leave the man to his shades and get the fuck out of there while the getting was still good, then cursed silently at himself. Whither thou goest, he thought sourly, remembering his words to Maggie, then picked up his feet again and followed after him.
The door stood half-open, waiting. Tom went in, drifting hollow-eyed through the house, and tucked a single sheet of paper from the silent fridge into his coat. The rooms were dirty, strewn with discarded clothes and other belongings, probably picked over at least twice between the initial evac and the first wave of looters afterward. Nonetheless, John could see the bones of a happy, healthy life in the picture hooks on the walls and the high quality, well-worn furniture. Mason may have lived soft in those years, but he'd lived, and he'd known what he had. More than John had ever managed.
They ended up in one of the upstairs bedrooms; John felt even more uncomfortable when he realized whose it had been. The silence was sepulchral, apart from the fluttering of a curtain in a half-open window. Tom stood there a long moment in the quiet, staring at the bed, then sat abruptly, face crumpling with anguish. He didn't bother to shield his face from John, or turn away; had probably even forgotten he was there.
If John had thought there was a raw honesty to Tom's face when he woke up in the infirmary, it was nothing to this. He felt scourged, inside more than out, as Tom sprawled backward on the bed, gasping through cries too deep to come to tears. People weren't meant to see each other that nakedly; it was an almost unbearable intimacy, leaving John torn between trying to offer whatever inadequate comfort he could or ducking out of the room to let the man suffer in peace.
Comfort ultimately won out. He was still human, whatever list of sins he had trailing behind him. And he had a gut feeling that if he walked away now, he might as well never have come on the trip at all. He sat down next to the man, near enough to reach out and grip his shoulder, and said his name very quietly. "Tom."
Tom wheezed like he'd just been struck, then curled suddenly into him, ragged breathing worsening into sobs. John found himself with half a lapful of Mason before he could do more than scoot awkwardly back toward the headboard to make room, and froze like he'd just been hit with another stun-shot.
"Rebecca," Tom said again, in the tones of someone whose soul had been thoroughly shattered, then shuddered, damp spots growing where his face pressed against John's shirt. The shaking went on for a while; John patted awkwardly at his shoulder until it stopped, not knowing what else to do. But the other man still refused to let go afterward, and John found himself unwilling to break the spell, either.
He was exhausted, anyway; a long day's ride followed by some nice extended tenderizing by the Skitters, a leap of faith onto an all-too-sturdy rooftop, and a slog down Mason's memory lane had wiped him out. Besides, no one would know to look for them there, right? That made as good an excuse as any. He closed his eyes, just for a moment, feeling Tom's grief washing away at him like a second-hand storm.
They'd finally killed Karen, sure. But had it been worth the trade-off?
A month ago, John suspected, he would have known the answer to that without a second thought.
He jerked awake again without any clear awareness of ever having gone to sleep, Volm pistol in his hand swinging unerringly to cover the noise that had startled him. It wasn't a Skitter, though, or any other threat: just a cat, a sadly bedraggled example of a formerly pampered breed, blinking accusingly at him from the windowsill. The skies outside were still dark, the deep blackness that came after the moon had set and before the sun sent the first faint streaks of color up over the horizon.
"Shit," he muttered, then lowered the pistol again and leaned back.
His other hand had gone sort of cramped and half-numb while he was resting, and his back ached where he'd been propped up against the headboard for who knew how long. John tried to shift to get some feeling back in his fingers, then froze as he the rest of his surreal situation fully registered.
He'd fallen asleep sitting up in Tom Mason's matrimonial bed, with the man himself wrapped around him like a jungle vine. John had managed to keep his pistol arm free somehow, but the rest of him was trapped under encroaching Mason.
Worse: he could feel the dried tracks of tears on his own cheeks. He didn't like to think too often on the reasons behind his oft-stated all-consuming hatred for Skitters, his chief driving cause in the post-apocalyptic universe, but he'd been reminded all too often in recent weeks. He'd dreamed of his kids, and the father he hadn't been to them when it counted. All he could do for them now was kill as many of the invading bastards as he could.
Tom stirred in his lap, probably disturbed more by his voice than the cat, and then froze in the act of rubbing his cheek against John's stomach.
An unbidden smile tucked in the corners of John's mouth; bemused, he set the pistol on the pillow beside him and stroked his fingers over Tom's dirty hair. "Shhhh."
That went on for a minute or so as Tom relaxed again, just a fraction. Then he finally spoke, his voice calmer and more present than John had been expecting. "We have to leave."
"Yep. Give it a second, though; my back's all out of joint. Which reminds me – do you think you left any coffee in the cupboards when you bugged out of here? Might be a good time to try that chewing it dry trick."
Tom huffed a ghostly attempt at a laugh, then stirred again, turning far enough to brace his hands on the bed and lever himself upright. "Always practical."
"You know it," John said, shaking his formerly trapped hand as it started coming over all pins and needles.
Mason looked like a thousand miles of rough road, grime and blood streaked across his cheeks and bags under his eyes the whole Second Mass could have stowed their luggage in. But his eyes were clear; he hadn't gone totally bug nuts like all too many survivors when faced with one loss too many.
"You stole that weapon from the armory," he accused John next, in a conversational tone, watching as John sat up further to reholster the weapon.
"Mmm. Seemed the thing to do at the time," John shrugged. "And I'll take my lumps for it, if I have to. But I've never been easy about the way the Volm keep tabs on their tech; not too keen to play Prometheus, are they? I'd just as soon they gave us the tools to defend ourselves."
"I wasn't criticizing." Tom rubbed both hands over his face. "You and Dan are on the same page there. I weighed the risks as best I could, but ... I suppose we know what happens when I make decisions alone." One corner of his mouth turned up in a wry grimace. "We'll see what their alliance is really worth soon enough."
"When the grid comes down," John nodded, slowly. Then he reached out cautiously to lay a hand on Tom's shoulder. "Hey, man, you all right? I mean, for the trek back? You were a little ... out of it, when we got here."
Tom gave him a troubled look. "All right? No. But I have to be, don't I? If I break now, she's still won."
"You're allowed to be a little fucked up. I just wanted to say, you go throwin' yourself under the feet of any Skitters along the way, I'm gonna leave you to 'em. I'm not gonna miss the final assault, and that's a fact."
Tom snorted, glancing at the hand on his shoulder and then up to John's face. "No, you won't."
"Sure I will," John objected, snatching the hand back. "Or don't you remember the bridge over the Housatonic? That was me with my thumb on the button when Dan kept telling Jamil to hold, no matter how many mechs and Skitters were on your heels. Pretty sure your eldest's never forgiven me for nearly blowing you up that day."
"I didn't exactly disagree with you; or didn't you hear me yelling for Dan to hit it? You waited longer than I would've, as it was." Tom shrugged that off.
"Now that's a damn lie." John shook his head. "You never take a life when you can help it; and you give out second chances like they're goin' out of style. If you'd thought there was any chance Karen might come back to us, I'm sure you'd have shook her hand, too. One of these days that's going to bite you in the ass, Professor."
A wry expression crossed Tom's face. "Oh, I think it probably already has."
John cleared his throat, uncomfortable again. "Well, I did say if you gave me an inch, I'd take a mile."
Tom nodded, then glanced away and changed the subject. "You know, it wasn't so much being here that made that ... virtual reality thing Karen did ... so painful. She said it exploited my subconscious, so she could use embedded cues to get me to spill the Volm deployment plan without me being aware that's what she was doing. That meant that the world in there was all constructed from my prewar memories, but with all my hopes and friendships and attitudes about this world mixed in with them, too."
"And you were there, and you, and you ...." John quoted.
"Yep. Even you," Tom said, with a tired, faded smile.
"And just where the hell did I fit into your picket fence world?" he asked warily, not sure he wanted the answer.
"Why, as the philosophy professor across the hall, of course."
The statement hung in the air for a second; then John barked a surprised laugh. He remembered hurling that in Mason's face right after Keystone. "Good one, Professor."
"I'm not making it up!" he shook his head. "Though I'm fairly certain you still spent a lot of time in a bar; the first time I saw you in the hall you'd forgotten your keys, and Lyle had to bring them to you."
"Damn. Was I any good at it, at least?" He scrubbed at his face, brushing away hair that had stuck to his cheek in his sleep. He wasn't the most fastidious guy, but he really needed a shower, and soon.
"A bit hit or miss. As usual, I suppose." The lines around Tom's eyes crinkled faintly at him. "When I went to you for advice about things feeling off, you tried to tell me to stop trying to find meaning in it all and blow my meticulously constructed little suburban prison to smithereens."
That surprised another chuckle out of him. "That does sound like me. And just who was Weaver, in this simulacrum of yours? The dean of your college?"
He wasn't idiotic enough to ask about Anne. If the wife had still been in the picture, the girlfriend's role in the scenario would have to have been problematic, to say the least. The last thing he wanted to do was remind Tom of that now, given ... everything else that had happened.
"No, that was Anthony. Dan was the homeless guy who kept showing up everywhere I went, wearing placards warning that the End was Nigh. I think he was meant to be the avatar of my conscience, warning me that something was wrong; a blond cop with Karen's face kept showing up to arrest him."
"The hell you say," John shook his head.
"That's what he'd say," Tom replied. Then he fell serious again, staring at John. "Thank you."
"For what?" John replied, surprised. "I'm just ... doing what I do."
Tom reached out abruptly, collaring a hand around John's neck, pulling him in until their foreheads bumped together. "Exactly. You're going to have to be patient with me, John. There's ... not a lot of me left to hold things together right now. But if you weren't here, if you weren't ... you, all I'd have to keep me going was hate."
John swallowed, feeling the warmth of Tom's forehead against his. "Uh, good; 'cause I think you're pretty well stuck with me now, regardless. By now, half of Charleston probably thinks I've been your secret weapon all along, so the usual hostility's not gonna get me much mileage anymore."
"My what?" Tom pulled back far enough to blink at him. "Oh, so that's what's up with Ben. I'm used to Matt drafting you into his little preteen rebellions, but Ben usually doesn't try to defend you."
John screwed up his face. "Yeah, I've might've been a little hard on the kid, before. The spikes still bother the hell out of me, but at least he puts 'em to good use. Didn't think he'd forgiven me, though, for how hostile I was after that first eyebug incident."
"Yeah, well. You did have reason to be," Tom said. The animation in his face faded again, and he stared out toward the still-dark window. "Just like a lot of people would have been suspicious of Lexie. And I couldn't have told them they weren't right to worry. Especially since I don't think Karen was responsible for her, after all."
"What do you mean? Karen was the one who took her – "
" – And also the one who killed her," Tom pointed out. "And just before we left Charleston, Dr. Kadar told me Lourdes had asked for tests on all the other recent newborns as well. I buy her wanting to coopt whatever was done to Lexie, but if she'd made the alterations in the first place, why bother to check the others?"
"Well, that ain't good. Because the alternative doesn't exactly inspire confidence." John replied, brows drawing together. "Why would the bubbleheads want to mess with your kid?"
"They're genetically engineered fighters; maybe they're trying to create an even better model?" Tom shrugged. "I don't know. But at least that option worries me less than the third alternative. Ben said the rebel Skitters think of Red Eye, the one who tagged me, almost as a god. What if he thought the same? I mean, we have no idea what his species was originally like, or any of the Skitters on Earth, before they were harnessed. Maybe he wanted to preserve part of his original species' DNA, or even create some kind of hybrid the Espheni can't control, and infected me with another nanomachine to test the concept while I was their prisoner."
"And why is that worse?" John wrinkled his nose. "Because if the Volm aren't what they say they are, taking the grid down basically equates to bending over and grabbing our ankles. Might be better to just let the radiation kill us."
"I suppose that would take care of my concerns about whether it'll affect any other children I might have," Tom replied dryly.
"Now there's a thought," John shuddered. Then he threw a glance toward the window, and realized with a start that the darkness was starting to fade, the blackest part of the night lightening toward morning at last. "Speaking of kids, though, we probably oughtta get moving. Mags and your boys have probably left Mechanicsville already; there's no telling how long Karen had us."
Tom nodded tiredly, then winced as he climbed to his feet. Jumping from the Skitter palace really hadn't done his healing ankle any good. He limped over to a closet, then rummaged in the back of it amid fallen dress shirts and other urbanite discards, and came out with one of those trendy hiking sticks with a compass worked into its top. "Maybe try the harbor? Without the horses, supplies, or easy access to a working vehicle, Charleston's probably at least three weeks from Boston on foot, and we don't have that kind of time if you were serious about joining the final assault."
"Of course you know how to sail a boat," John rolled his eyes, then got to his own feet, stretching until his spine crackled like Rice Krispies. "Anything else you need here before you go?"
Tom cast a last, lingering glance around the room, then sighed and shook his head, that faint smile back at the corners of his mouth. "She would have told me there was nothing here for me anymore; that I've taken everything worth living for away with me already."
"Mmm." A pang of something sharp and bittersweet went through John at that, and he ducked out of the room hurriedly to head for the stairs. Better make sure the street was still clear before the Professor limped his way out and made himself a target again.
The front door was still half-open, as they'd left it; and because Mason really was the king of chaos, John could hear a shuffling noise of some kind out in the yard. Maybe the cat he'd seen in the window, but maybe not. Nothing to risk getting shot over, anyway. He turned and laid a finger over his lips, casting a warning glance at Tom as he descended the stairs behind him, then edged just far enough around the door to get a look.
At first, it looked like nothing was moving apart from the fluttering debris in the trees ... but then John caught sight of a frozen form, tall and lean with youth, bending over to touch something on the weedy lawn.
"...Hal?" he rasped, calling to the young man in a harsh whisper.
"...Pope?" he replied in disbelief, straightening. "What the hell are you doing here? Hey, is Dad ...?"
"Is that ...?" Tom limped hurriedly around him and down the steps. "Hal!"
"Dad!" The eighteen-year-old threw his arms around his father, hugging him tight. "I'm so glad to see you! By the time we got to Mechanicsville we knew something had gone wrong; there was nothing there, and when Maggie went back to link up at the Picketts and see what you wanted to do, all she found was the horses."
"Yeah, Skitters were there for us, waiting."
"We figured; we saw a Beamer go over. But when we followed it, to see if maybe the outpost had been moved, we ran into a whole mess of rebel Skitters. Ben said they were running from the structure in Boston, that control had collapsed here, but that at least one of them had seen you with Karen before it happened."
"So you came to rescue us," Tom said, tightly emotional.
"Yeah. That was the plan," Hal nodded. "Might have known you'd rescue yourself; you walked out of Michigan and Keystone, why not Boston?"
"So if that was the plan – what brought you by this place?" John pointed out the obvious. "It's not exactly on the way to the tower."
Hal glanced at him, but addressed his answer to his father. "I wouldn't have thought to look here, except – you remember we had to leave Matt's new Ripstik behind in Acton? Or I guess you don't; you were with the Espheni then, too. But I thought, because he didn't get to come along, I'd pick up his old one while we were here. The others are waiting a few streets back.
"Which reminds me – Anne and Lexie!" Hal lit up at that; a painful thing to see, in comparison with Tom's grimace.
"Hal – about that, there's something you need to know ...."
Hal continued right over him, oblivious, breaking into a huge grin. "The Skitters had them! Something about them being in suspended animation, but that they'd wake soon without Karen keeping them plugged in. They wanted to hand them over to the rebel leader, but had we a little bit of an objection to that."
"Wait, wait," John objected sharply, automatically reaching out to grip Tom's shoulder; damn, now he was doing the grounding by touch thing, too. "Suspended animation? They're not dead?"
"Not even injured," Hal enthused. "Though Lexie's ... well, let's just say you're going to be surprised to see her."
Tom swallowed hard. "I thought – never mind what I thought. Take me to them. Now."
Hal obliged, grinning, tucking the toy he'd come to retrieve under his arm as he unshipped his rifle again and trotted slowly down the street away from the house.
"King of chaos," John muttered under his breath, feeling as if the universe had punched him in the nuts. He ought to have known something like that would happen. And that just made it worse: that he'd have been happier if Anne had stayed dead. Poetic justice, he supposed, for the way he'd carried on at the beginning, claiming that the end of the world was the best thing that'd ever happened to him.
True to Hal's word, five horses were waiting a couple of streets away, tethered in the lee of a half-collapsed building. Three people turned to look as Hal hurried toward them, one holding a much smaller figure. Maggie was in front; she smiled in relief as she saw Hal, then covered her mouth in a gasp as Tom limped into view.
"Tom! We thought you were at the tower!"
Ben ran to the Professor, wrapping relieved arms around him as Tom nodded back to Maggie. "And I thought you were supposed to take the boys back to Charleston."
"That means thank you, by the way," John said sourly. Then he nodded carefully at the third waiting figure. "You look a hell of a lot better than you did a couple hours ago."
Anne looked much paler than her usual tan complexion; she'd been staring at Tom, but refocused on him when he spoke. "I wish I could say the same, but I don't remember it," she replied, stiffly.
"Anne. You're alive," Tom finally greeted his woman, sounding more cautious than John had expected given how torn up he'd been. He reached out to touch her face, brushing long dark strands of hair away from her cheek, then pulled her in to touch foreheads like he'd done with John that morning.
"I am," she said, softly.
John couldn't watch that part; he looked down, focusing on the small form in her arms. It was squirming the way all babies did when they wanted loose – except she was too big to be two months old.
"Down. Down!" the little girl complained. Her voice was human at least; just like any ordinary toddler.
Tom pulled away from Anne at the sound, looking down. "Is this ...?" he asked, hesitantly.
"Lexie," Anne said, with a tense nod. Then she set the girl down, turning her towards Tom, obviously anticipating what the kid wanted. But it wasn't Tom the girl tackled; she ran straight around him to John, throwing her tiny little arms as far as they would go around his legs.
"Unca John!" Alexis said happily. "Up!"
John stared wide-eyed down at the kidlet, then glanced over at an equally startled-looking Tom. "Uh, slow down there, princess ...." he said, carefully holding his arms up and away from her.
But she just tugged on his jeans again, adding another insistent, "Up!"
Tentatively, when neither Mason nor Anne said anything, John caved and lifted her with reflexes last used when Tanya had been that size. Whatever she was, she was cute; a tiny, adorable, utterly eerie critter that resembled her mama much more than her papa, except in the intensity of her stare.
"You don't hafta worry," she said, utterly serious in her childish lisp, beaming widely as she patted at his cheeks. "It'll all be okay soon. I can't wait to meet your other daughter!"
John flinched hard at that, fighting to suppress the urge to drop her. Anne made an abortive move to grab her from his arms, looking alarmed; but Alexis just giggled, patting his cheeks again. Then she turned and leaned half out of his arms, making grabby little hands in Tom's direction. "Daddy! I missed you!"
Tom dropped his walking stick and caught her, looking as staggered as John felt. "I missed you, too, sweetheart. But how did you ...?" He glanced back at Anne, the smile dropping off his face in concern. "Where did you hear we might be going to Florida?"
"Florida? I don't understand," Anne shook her head.
Florida? John thought in echo. Then he abruptly remembered the muttered recitation of cities the night before, and drew a sharp breath.
"Jacksonville," he said, staring at Tom. There was a tower there, not fifty miles from where his ex lived. Was that the structure the Volm planned to hit?
Tom tipped his head in a nod of acknowledgement. "It's – one option. We've been calling it Project Orange."
"Then we are definitely not gonna miss the final assault," he said.
He didn't know if it was sane to hope that the creepy fruit of Mason's loins knew what she was talking about, when that should scare him shitless; or that Tom's mind had leapt from John's daughter to Florida without missing a beat; but – it would be the closest he'd been to Tanya and Brandon since the damn war started. Like hell he'd pass that up.
"Then we'd better get going," Maggie said. "Five horses, seven people, limited supplies; at least we won't have to duck Karen's defenses for a while."
"Anne can ride with me for a bit, if one of you boys'll carry Lexie? We'll swap again later."
"Sure. I'll take her, Dad," Ben said, holding his arms out for his little sister. Lexie smiled and went to him willingly, laying her head on his shoulder.
"And Pope ...." Tom finally looked away from his family again, focusing on him again with a strangely intent expression. "John ... remember what I said about patience, all right?"
John had heard someone say once that hope was stronger than loss. He'd laughed at the time, but ... hope was the only reason he was there, with the mole and the Espheni bitch to his credit.
Nowhere to go but up, then, huh?
Chapter 5: The Greening Path
"When it comes to the sowing, the dawning,
will it be a greening road, a greening path?
Give us a steady light, a level place,
a good light, a good place,
a good life and beginning."
- Popol Vuh
Tom took a deep breath as Anne swung up into the saddle behind him, closing his eyes briefly as she linked her arms around him and pressed her cheek to the back of his jacket.
God, he loved her. He was so glad she wasn't dead. But ... there was still a but there, weightier than it might otherwise have been for the last few weeks' worth of devastating emotional blows. Not everything that was broken could be fixed. Mended, perhaps even beautiful in its new shape: but not the same as before.
"Hal, you and Maggie want to lead off?" he asked.
"Sure, Dad. Charleston, here we come," Hal said, looking more cheerful than Tom had seen him in ... well, since before he'd ended up in the wheelchair. Nearly a year, now. With his family all safe, the mole taken out, Karen gone, and the plan to move on the Espheni grid nearly ready, it probably felt like they were almost at the end of things, to him; that he'd finally be able to focus on building a life with Maggie and figuring out what came next.
Tom remembered being eighteen, and feeling invincible. But he wasn't eighteen anymore.
He watched as his children moved out in Maggie's wake, little Lexie now napping in Ben's lap. The sight brought a lump to his throat; he loved her as well, with the helpless love he'd felt for all his children when they were born, but he was terrified for her, too. Whether they won the war in the next weeks or not, her future was yet to be written, and he had a feeling it would be beyond any of their ability to understand or control.
One step at a time, though. He glanced a question at Pope; John nodded grimly, then held his own horse back until Tom and Anne passed, silently acknowledging that he'd take the trailing position.
There were things he hadn't planned for and didn't fully understand happening there, too. But there were other things that needed to be dealt with first.
"I missed you," he said softly, opening the conversation.
"I missed you too," Anne replied, hesitantly. "Tom ...."
He took a shaky breath. "I ... let me just open by saying that I'm sorry."
He winced, reminded of the first conversation he'd had with her after Lourdes came to him, with all her talk of psychosis. "For being an ass – again. I was ... more dismissive about your concerns than I should have been. And as it turned out, you were one hundred percent right."
"I was," Anne said, a tremulous note in her voice. Then she cleared her throat and continued more strongly. "But ... I don't really blame you either. I hoped I was crazy, because the alternative ... it scared me, Tom. And it still does."
"It ... ah. It scares me, too. But ... you know, I still have to ask," he said.
Her hair brushed against the back of his neck as she nodded. "I'm sorry; I realized later that I should at least have left a note. I wasn't thinking straight, at the time. Dr. Kadar was insistent that I go tell someone in authority immediately, but you were gone, and all I could think of was Alexis ending up under someone's microscope, or thrown out of the city, or any one of a hundred other horrible things. I'd heard the way General Bressler still talked about the 'alien children', and I knew any number of people felt the same way."
Tom closed his eyes briefly. The explanation made sense; and in an objective way, it was understandable. But it hinted at something he'd been afraid to hear, that crossed a pretty firm line in his definition of a relationship.
"Would you still have run, if I'd been there? Would you have come back, if Karen hadn't caught you?"
Her hesitation told him all he needed to know.
"That's ... it's all right. Alexis comes first with you; you know I understand that."
"But ...? I can hear the hesitation in your voice, Tom."
He bit his lip, pained; but it had to be asked. Given everything ... he didn't think this was a question it would be fair to put off. "There'll be a lot of interest when we get back to Charleston; a lot going on. I'll be involved with the mission; and with everything that's gone on with Lourdes, the infirmary will be desperate for your help. So I need to know ... are you planning on staying now? Or do I need to warn everyone not to get their hopes up?"
She stiffened against his back. "I ... suppose that's fair. I can't tell you what I don't know, Tom. I don't plan to leave again. But I don't know what'll happen with Alexis. If it becomes dangerous for her ...."
He sighed, remembering the desolation he'd felt when he woke from Karen's virtual reality to mourn Rebecca all over again; the pain that had slashed through him when he'd seen what he'd thought was Anne's body; the numbness that had wrecked him when Dan had told him she'd left, weeks before. The realizations he'd had on his trek through the forest with Pope. And ... waking up, an hour before, with John's fingers in his hair. He wished he had a sword to slice through the Gordian tangle they'd all spent the last many months knotting into place, but human problems were seldom that easy to solve. And ... he'd grown up with the results of what happened when someone committed to a relationship while still keeping one foot out the door. Maybe it worked for some; but he couldn't imagine himself choosing to live that way.
"You told me once," he said softly, "that we don't have the luxury of having a lover's spat in this world. We have to keep a clear head. The thing is – I don't think we can do that with each other anymore. No; I don't think I can do that, with you. When I failed you, you left rather than try to work things out. The situation was extreme ... but I don't think that makes the issue less relevant. I love you. I'm so glad you're alive. But if you can't promise to be there, and I'm not meeting your needs, it's not fair to either of us to continue. And not just for me. Matt was devastated when you disappeared, and the boys – rescuing you and Lexie has been all they've thought about for weeks. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
She took a moment to answer. "I don't suppose you would agree to another chance," she suggested.
"Not unless you really believe the results would be any different," he had to admit.
"On my part? Or on yours? When I needed you, you gave me promises that you would do better. But the job came first, again. So yes." She cleared her throat, her voice strengthening again. "I do understand."
"And ... I am sorry," he felt the need to repeat himself, glancing back over his shoulder at her. "I still want to be there for you, and for Lexie."
"As much as the job lets you," she said; her expression was sad, but as resolute as his, which helped convince him he'd made the right decision. "And ... mine too, I suppose."
Tom nodded, staring at her; taking in the beautiful face he'd woken up to for so many months, remembering the haven they'd made of the first room they'd shared together, back when the Second Mass had still been on the road. Maybe things would be different, if the only concern they had was still the fate of those few hundred souls. But the scope of their world had changed; and their relationship hadn't made the transition with it.
He reached up to cup her cheek, and pulled her in for one last, gentle kiss. "I'm going to miss us, though."
"I will too," she said, a wobbly smile breaking through her emotional shield. "I did love you, Tom Mason."
They rode silently after that for a while; then, at the next break, he dismounted, transferred the dozing Lexie back to her, and walked over to John's horse.
"Hey," he said, squinting up at the scruffy figure looming over him.
"Hey," John repeated, scowling down at him. "So how's things with the missus? All's well that ends well in Mason land?"
Now that he knew what he was listening to, he could hear the ache in John's voice. No; he didn't trust himself to be able to meet Anne's needs anymore, nor her to meet his, and it had been that way for a while, if he was being completely honest. He didn't know if reaching out again would do anything but cause more pain. But he could always trust John Pope to be John Pope, at least; and while John might vigorously disagree with him at times, he also had more ability to cut through Tom's shields than anyone else since Rebecca. When John had a problem with him, he'd always know it; and probably half the community with him. Funny, the things that seemed important, now that the last of the softness of the civilized world had been burned out of him.
He almost wished he'd got to see John and Rebecca meet in Karen's virtual world; he liked to think they would have got along, in a sort of affectionately vicious way, bonding over disparaging his faults. Probably no one else in his life would understand this thing with John, but ... he was pretty sure Rebecca would have laughed.
"Not that the one really has much to do with the other," he said, wryly. "They aren't. And ... situation pending."
John sat up a little straighter at that, glancing back over toward Anne. "Aren't what?"
"Think your horse has enough left to ride double for a while?" he replied, answering by way of ducking the question.
John pursed his mouth, studying him, then relented and held down a hand.
Musical horses grew into something of a game over the next several days; they couldn't double up on the same ones every day, but everyone also had their favorites. And some combinations just wouldn't work at all. No one would willingly ride with John, except himself or Alexis, for example; Maggie would only share with Hal or Anne; Anne and Tom avoided riding with one another again after that initial conversation; and Ben found riding with anyone except his little sister or Hal extremely awkward.
Tom found it hard to care; he was still, he suspected, a little in shock from the whiplash of fury and grief he'd been dealing with for weeks, even after the cause had been wiped away. But he did find a moment for one more careful conversation before they reached Charleston, mindful of that careless daughter-in-law remark John had made weeks before. He would hesitate to put a label on anyone's relationship, these days, but he didn't think he was going out on a limb to believe she could be, if Hal didn't manage to screw things up.
"Maggie ... I know you're Anne's friend; and I know you and Pope don't get along," he began, seizing an opportunity when they were breaking camp on the last day.
She snorted, one corner of her mouth curling in a wry smile. "Look, it's none of my business what's between you and Anne. Or you and Pope."
"It is when you're a part of this family," he said. Enough that he thought he should at least hear her concerns; no relationship existed in isolation, really. One of the reasons Anne's decision to leave had hurt so much, not only for his sake, but for all the other bonds that had been strained when she'd snapped that one.
She shook her head, tucking a strand of long blonde hair back over her shoulder. "But I'm not," she said.
"Yes, you are," he insisted. "Regardless of where things end up with you and Hal, you're at least as much family now as Dan is. You matter to us, Maggie. And if ... well, I thought I should say ...."
She sighed, managing to sound simultaneously touched and irritated, somehow. "Look. It's ... complicated with me and Pope, you know that. I can't say I'll ever really forgive him. He'd say he rescued me from near death; I'd say he kidnapped me and fed me to his gang. He'd say I should have told him what was going on; I'd say he damned well knew, and the fact that I stayed so long just meant I saw no other options, not that I consented to what they wanted from me. But there were times, when it was just him and me ...."
She stared off into the distance then, a pained sort of wistful expression crossing her face, like a high cloud passing over the sun. "I loved him a little; I hated him more. I still do. Probably always will. But I also think he was a very bitter, damaged man before he met you. And you ... and your sons ... have this habit of making the people around you want to be their best selves." She shrugged.
It was his turn to feel touched. "Funny," he said, swallowing. "He said something similar once. About me wishful-thinking people into being all they could be. He was fairly accusatory about it, actually."
"Yeah, I'm not surprised," Maggie replied, wryly. "You're both kind of high maintenance guys. So – enough said about it, all right? I'll just wish you all the luck; because with Pope, you're definitely going to need it."
Surprised into a chuckle, he held out his arms in spontaneous invitation. "Thank you, Maggie."
She stared at him for a moment, then took the hug, a careful, quick clasp of arms. "Thank you. For asking. You're good people, Tom Mason, no matter how poor your taste might be."
"I appreciate that," he replied, smiling. "...I think."
Charleston was a welcome sight after the long trek: the orderly center around the underground shopping mall, the Liberty Tree glittering in the square, the strings of lights marking out Popetown, the barricade lines of sentries squaring it all off, and the domed bluish glow of the Volm compound up on the hill beyond. It all seemed intact at first glance, everyone moving around in orderly fashion.
Up close, there were a few more signs of wear. There were many incredulous, happy greetings for Anne and startled but welcoming smiles for Alexis; Matt ran up before they got very far, exclaiming over the Ripstik and staring wide-eyed at his half-sister; and Dan greeted him with a brief but very heart-felt clasp of arms. But Marina looked grimly worried as she passed on a request for an immediate meeting with President Hathaway of all people, and he saw distinct clusters in the crowd that gathered that kept well apart from one another.
"First things first," Tom said, walking into the meeting room after seeing Anne and the kids off to a variety of other immediate duties, and fielding a surprising number of "so glad to see you, but ...." complaints from members of the Second Mass. "Cochise, it's good to see you, my friend; and President Hathaway, I'm pleased to see you survived the crash. It would have been quite the blow to lose you."
"From what I hear, it would have been quite the blow to lose you as well, Professor," Hathaway acknowledged, tipping his head. He was seated behind the meeting table, still not quite in full health; but better, Tom gathered, than he'd been on his arrival. Cochise had saved his life, but it had been close. Marina, Dan, General Porter, Anthony, and Pope rounded out the participants.
"Yes, and let's talk about that for a minute," he said, cutting the niceties short as he advanced to the foot of the table opposite Hathaway, John following right behind him. He didn't intend to give up the high ground in the conversation by actually sitting, though; instead, he gripped the back of a chair and continued.
"I know I haven't insisted on my title much, here in Charleston. And I don't have the same pre-invasion right of authority that you do. But what I do have is a majority of people in this city who know me, who have confidence in me and my vision for our community, and who have expressed distress over the way events diverged from that vision in the short time I was gone."
Hathaway narrowed his eyes slightly; and something in Tom's gut tightened. This was the actual President of the United States. Two years before, he'd never have dared to speak to the man in such a way. But the educator he'd been then hadn't carried the fate of the world on his shoulders. And as much as he still thought he might not be the best man for the job, long term ... there was a reason Charleston was three thousand strong and thriving, while Hathaway's administration still cowered in small communities linked by the equivalent of Pony Express, fearing to draw the attention of the Espheni.
"What are you saying, Professor?" Hathaway said, a disapproving note in his voice.
"I'm saying, that perhaps you should respect my position enough to at least call me Governor, because that is what I essentially am here as long as our governments remained linked, and treat my administration accordingly," he said. "I realize that under the old structure, declaring war and making treaties is an exclusive power of the federal government; but given the imminent danger and lack of prior contact, and as you yourself have lately approved those actions, that is not the issue here. What is the issue is that I expected to return to find the Volm weapon ready to deploy, in concert with a contingency plan I developed to provide for the future health and safety of my people. But instead I've been met with tales of work stoppages; of my careful and considered resource allocations disordered; of units redeployed – "
"If you're talking about Dr. Kadar and those Berserkers ...." Hathaway frowned; and over his head, Tom saw Dan exchange a pointed glance with a rueful Marina Peralta.
"I'm talking about a classified project vitally important to the war effort; and a group of men and women that I trust with my life, for whom I left very specific instructions," Tom lifted his chin.
Hathaway's frown deepened at that. "Instructions that no one but Dr. Kadar appeared to understand; and which seemed irrelevant when no one even knew whether you would be returning to use them. Besides, Cochise assured me that whatever it was, was not a part of Project Orange, and thus would only slow our progress in striking the final blow to end this war."
Tom looked down at that, then nodded. It was late in the game, but there was still a little room to maneuver. Not enough to stop the inevitable; but perhaps enough to soften the sting of what he'd done, if he'd been wrong. Or ... the other way around, if Dan's and Pope's concerns proved the more relevant.
"Cochise is my friend; and the Volm have been, and continue to be, valuable allies." He smiled tightly at the alien he knew best, who'd shared so many personal stories with him; and yet, conveyed so little of value regarding the larger picture of the war beyond the need to take down the grid. The Volm were so much more relatable than the Espheni ... but he'd occasionally wondered if that might make them more dangerous should their joint aims ever diverge, because people would want to empathize with them. He certainly did.
"Yet many of our citizens have also expressed valid concerns that we cannot simply expect the Volm to win this war for us, and then turn around and expect them to respect our sovereignty afterward. Even the most benevolent power imbalance, in human history, has not remained that way for long; and as we all know, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Cochise, I've refrained from pressing this point before: but I'm afraid the time has come for a clear answer. What are your people's plans for us, for the human resistance, after the grid is destroyed?"
Cochise blinked at him, wide-eyed; and even Hathaway seemed to be holding his breath for the answer. "I am afraid I have not the authority to answer for my Commander ...." he began.
Tom shook his head. "I'm not asking what you have the authority to promise, Cochise. I'm asking ... based on past examples of what happened when the Volm landed on a world previously enslaved by the Espheni. What is the usual manner in which the Volm treat with indigenous species?"
"I ... I assure you, Professor, I will make every recommendation to the Commander that your species be treated with the respect you so clearly deserve," Cochise replied, inclining his head in one of his polite nods.
"Weasel-wording at its finest," John drawled from behind him. "I imagine the fishheads thought they were showing plenty of respect when they invited Mason here to share their hospitality. Twice. And we all know what came of those meetings."
"Mister, ah, Pope, is it? This is neither the time nor the place ...." Hathaway began.
"Oh, but I think it is the time. And the place," Tom interrupted him coolly. "Though I think I can get to the heart of the problem a little quicker. I just wanted to give Cochise the opportunity to come clean with us, first. But I think we'd all forgotten we were dealing with a being who told us straight-out that his species was engineered for war. You have orders not to tell us anything else, don't you, Cochise?"
"I, ah. Yes, I'm afraid so." His alien friend blinked in distress.
Tom took a deep breath, then let it out through his nose, and held up his hand again as several voices rang out at once, Dan's most prominent among them, demanding further answers.
"And fear of that being the case, and ... some very reasonable advice ...." He nodded to Dan, then over his shoulder to John, "is what led me to institute my contingency plan. The Espheni grid can only be destroyed with the greater Volm weapon; I do believe that. But there is no reason for us to remain at a disadvantage in other areas, other than the desire to keep us under someone's heel. We had no weapons to rival Volm-modified pistols and rifles; but we do have a genius scientist with an affinity for such technology, and a number of people who've already spent considerable time helping the Volm with their own construction."
Dan took a sharp breath then, his eyes lighting up. "How many?" he asked, immediately skipping past the rest of the explanation to hit the mark.
Tom smiled back at him, shared satisfaction cutting through the disappointment of having to use the plan at all. "Enough to equip a third of our active fighters," he said. "It'll take a while longer to convert enough to arm every adult who can fire a weapon in the city, but Dr. Kadar tells me that can be managed within the month."
"But this is unacceptable!" Cochise interjected. "It is not permitted!"
"Yeah, well, we don't take too kindly to people who condescend to permit us anything. Thought you knew us at least that well by now," John drawled.
"I'm sure you could take them away from us, if you really tried," Tom nodded to Cochise. "But only at the expense of completely ruining everything you've managed to build here over the last nine months. I can't imagine that would make your Commander any happier. So ... shall we table the matter to reevaluate when he arrives? And in the meantime, we'll continue to take what measures we see fit."
Cochise looked around at all of them, then inclined his head again. "I can see ... that I will have no further input here today. We will continue to ready the weapon for the planned deployment in two days. Please inform us if that plan should change."
"Now there goes one displeased bubblehead," John snarked as the Volm turned and left the room. "Always knew they were too good to be true."
"I still think there's a friendship there worth preserving," Tom said wistfully, shaking his head, "but not at the expense of human lives and freedom."
"On that, at least, I think we can agree," Hathaway finally spoke up again, from the beginning of the table. "Professor ... excuse me, Governor Mason ... perhaps this meeting would be better reconvened tomorrow, when all parties have had more of a chance to digest the situation as it stands?"
"That would be ... acceptable. Colonel Weaver? General Porter? Marina?" He made a point of nodding to the other official members of his administration.
"We'll be ready at that time, Governor," Marina tipped her chin up, taking the line he'd given her and running with it.
Porter also agreed, exiting the room with Hathaway and a "by the way, good to see you again, Tom"; Marina exited after a likewise subdued but sincere greeting, in company with Anthony, murmuring about all the paperwork he'd just arranged to inundate them with.
"You squirrely bastard," Dan laughed, pounding him on the back on his own way out.
"Miles to go, Dan," Tom nodded to him. "Miles to go."
Finally, there were just two of them left: he and the one man who hadn't had elsewhere to be when the meeting shattered like a river rock in a campfire. He smiled to himself at the thought, and met Pope's gaze.
"Well?" he said, raising an eyebrow.
"There you were, bitching at me for stealing a pistol," John shook his head, admiringly. "When you stole a whole damn armory."
"Built one, technically. And it's technically your fault, too."
"How do you figure?"
"When you talked me out of retiring, it made me reexamine ... a lot more than just my job." A lot more than just the state of the Volm alliance as well; but he didn't think he had to spell that out.
"So you're telling me – you stole that armory for me," John's grin grew to insufferably smug proportions.
"I'm not sure whether I should confirm that; if I do, your ego might not fit through the door when you leave," Tom replied in kind.
John laughed out loud, then reached out, grabbing Tom's face in both hands, and pulled him in for a brief, bristly, and very enthusiastic kiss.
"Now I've really got somewhere to be; but put a pin in that for later, Professor," he smirked he let go.
"Don't think that's going to be a problem," he chuckled, heart lightened, as John practically skipped out of the room in the direction of Dr. Kadar's lab.
The assault on Jacksonville, two days later, was almost anticlimactic compared to all that had come before. The Volm fired their weapon, drawing in a strand of the grid and overcharging it to backfire on the local tower; moments later, the structure collapsed into rubble, taking the grid down with it.
There were few mechs and Skitters on scene, and those that were there were ineffective in the extreme, still disoriented by diminished resources and transitioning to a new overlord. The massive Volm ship that landed on the ruins was more imposing; but, wary in advance of what it portended, Tom had set his men to an orderly withdrawal the moment the weapon was fired, drawing back toward the haven of Charleston. A number of hardy local survivors had gone with them; scouts had been sent through the city and surrounds in advance of the attack to reduce the risk of collateral damage.
Tom met with the Volm Commander with only Cochise, Dan, and John at his side, and made plain his willingness to make the Volm most sincerely regret it if he tried to go ahead with his half-baked "relocate the natives to Brazil" proposal. Without more hostages onsite, and professing to wish only for the safety of the indigenes – which did not include killing them to save them – there wasn't much for the Commander to do but let Tom's party go.
He shook Cochise's hand in farewell, and very deliberately did not refer to Alexis. She was still growing at an unnaturally fast rate, going on eight already; but whatever her fate, he hoped she'd be able to make her own way without further taint by whichever advanced species meddled with her genetics.
Then they returned to Charleston, to general acclaim.
"You know Mason, there was a time I would have never admitted it ... but you done good," John said, standing once again in the familiar space of Liberty Square, spreading his arms to embrace the revelry around them.
"There was a time I never thought I'd say the same," Tom grinned in response; and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to lean into him for a second kiss. Catcalls rose around them; he knew he'd be facing several interrogations later. But it seemed the perfect time to start something new, there at the end of the beginning of the war.
"We did it," he breathed after a moment, seeing the same incredulous elation in John's face.
It not such a perfect time for a slight young woman, about halfway between Ben's and Matt's ages, to drop the plate she was carrying in front of them – but when he heard what she said, Tom couldn't find it in himself to object.
"Dad ...?" the girl said, staring at John in disbelief.
"...Tanya? Oh my God." John went instantly pale, collapsing to his knees on the rough courtyard stone.
A ripple spread through the crowd, word spreading to those further out. Then Matt came forward; and Ben; Hal; Maggie; Dan and Jeanne; and Anne with Alexis.
"You're here!" Alexis said, smiling beatifically, and threw her arms around the awkwardly embracing pair.
The crowd went on around partying them, music playing, voices raised in conversation and laughter; but in the center, Tom linked arms with his makeshift family, circling their newest member.
They'd been through a terrible ordeal, and there would undoubtedly be more before the war was fully over for their people. But in that moment of celebration, in the place they'd won together: there was only light, enough to cast shadows for generations yet to come.