2nd April 2009, afternoon
"They could be better." The man frowned, the others shaking their head in agreement. "These are bad times, Father."
Daniel couldn't disagree. "That they are."
"What's up?" Mick asked as he approached Stevie.
"I figured the town was just around the corner so I suggested we stopped and check what was the state of things," Stevie replied, her eyes barely leaving Daniel as he started chatting with the locals.
Mick nodded in agreement. "You know, it's weird to see that many people around after what we've seen so far..."
"I know," Stevie agreed. "It reminds of back in the day, you know, occupied territory..."
Mick straightened up at that, automatically scanning around. A sinking feeling in his stomach, he asked, "You think?"
"How else would you explain it?" People not afraid to go about in the daytime had to be people already caught.
Meanwhile Daniel continued his conversation with Bob and learned that the community at Pismo Beach were more than accustomed to a Visitor presence. While there had been disappearances initially when the alien invaders had arrived, now the Visitors were content establishing a presence. Whatever their agenda was in this community, it had yet to unfold.
However, Daniel did come away from the conversation to know that the Visitors were cautious of anyone owning a vehicle because a car was a chance at escape. Leaving Bob and his friends, he returned to Mia and Mick, who were at the jeep.
"Hey, so what's the low-down?" Mick asked as Daniel joined them.
Stevie kept her eyes on the locals, observing them without being obvious, but she was anxious to hear what Daniel had found out.
"Pismo Beach is occupied," Daniel said without mincing words. "However, the Visitors aren't detaining anyone just yet. I have a feeling they may be keeping the coastal communities intact to use them as labour for the water reclamation." Daniel was guessing but judging by what Bob had told him, it made sense. "They are paying attention to who is coming into town so if we drive in there, we'll draw attention. I think it's safer if we plan on going there to be on foot, that way we can look like any other resident. It's not a bad place for us to go in and get some rest without having to keep watch. We can head out again at night fall."
Occupied. Stevie had to clamp down on her reflex to bolt. But Daniel's suggestion made sense.
Mick looked at Stevie, watching her reaction closely. "You gonna be alright?" He didn't like it but it would be nice to just mingle for a day, without the pressure of constantly looking over their shoulders.
"What if they choose today to come and pick more people for their workforce?" Stevie asked. There was a knot in her gut she couldn't shake. "But we do need some warmer clothes," she added.
Mick squeezed her shoulder. "I'm gonna go tell Noah, see what he thinks..."
"I don't get the feeling from Bob and the others that the Visitors are there yet. Right now, they've just been moving through the town, making themselves known. It's martial law of course but the locals are anxious, not terrified. I think we should risk it. We need supplies and we can't keep driving until we find a place that suits. It's going to get cold before we reach San Francisco," Daniel said, trying to allay her fears.
"I know," Stevie nodded, having already mentioned their need for clothes. And it was obvious the people were left to their own devices... had some freedom, just by the fact they were hanging out here or going about on bicycles.
Mick nodded and left the pair to go bring Noah up to speed and see what he wanted to do.
"Just feels like we're walking in one of their nests..." Stevie added, looking at Daniel. It was hard to explain but having lived in occupied LA as a kid, it was like she was now reliving those nightmares that had taken years for her to get over.
"I know," Daniel said, squeezing her shoulder. He couldn't risk more in public now that he was in the collar. "But we were going to have to do this sometime, better now than later."
Walking down the main street, it was easy to forget the Visitors were back. You didn't see them yet on every corner and there wasn't propaganda posters everywhere like last time, though Stevie figured that would come soon enough. People went about their business, they had electricity, water, but it wasn't clear how they got their supplies in or how anyone, whose work relied on services or customers from the big cities that were no longer there, managed to carry on. She suspected they didn't.
Still, despite herself, Stevie had to admit that it was nice, almost comforting, that for a couple of seconds at a time, you could lose yourself into thinking all was well...
Daniel tried to relax as they walked down the main street, eyeing the residents of this community. Yes, it was all very normal and yet there was something in their eyes, a resignation of defeat. People were going through the motions of life but resigned to their fate. It was an uneasy feeling. Suddenly the rumble of an engine was heard and, rounding the corner of the street they were presently on, a white jeep rumbled forward, coming to a pause, at a pet store.
Daniel gripped Mia's hand almost instinctively, trying to steady her. He knew she had seen the worst of the occupation and this would undoubtedly be a nightmare revisited. Three Visitors emerged, two were shock troopers with the dark helmets and the laser rifles. The shock troopers went into the pet store while the third, who had an officer insignia, took his time emerging. He swept his gaze across the road and fixated on Daniel.
"You," the Visitor said promptly. "Halt."
Stevie's fingers tightened around Daniel's for a second, once again the reflex to run so strong she couldn't breathe. She felt like the little girl all those years ago and just couldn't shake it. And it made her long for her family a thousand fold. It was bad enough to see them in front of her, when one of them singled them out - Daniel, more specifically - she wanted to find a hole and crawl in it. They were going to take him. Take him like they had Dean.
Daniel almost cursed but maintained his calm, sweeping his gaze over the faces of the others to do the same. Unfortunately, he had to let go of Mia's hand or risk questions if the Visitor knew anything about human religion at all.
The Visitor crossed the street to them and looked at Daniel. "You are a priest."
Daniel nodded. "Yes, I am."
The Visitor, a male who was roughly the same age as Daniel, at least by his human covering, took a moment to study him from behind the dark sunglasses. "I have read your bible."
"Oh?" Daniel feigned interest. "How did you find it?"
"Interesting," the Visitor replied. "We do not have religion and it is curious how a book hold so much sway over your society."
What a time for a theological debate, Daniel thought. However, if the Visitor's interest was merely curiosity than it was best to indulge him. "It is not just the book but the message."
"The message is flawed," the Visitor pointed out. "It is contradictory."
"It's an old argument," Daniel explained, "and subject to discussion over many years."
Noah looked amazingly cool as he watched Daniel answer the Visitor's questions but Mick was sensing Stevie's anxiety and took her hand when Daniel had to let her go.
He might have added to the discussion, mentioning the wars they waged on each other in the name of religion but he didn't trust his voice... didn't trust not to come across as antagonising.
The Visitor took Daniel's comment with a nod and, for a moment, the priest in him was tempted to discuss the subject further. "We do not have religion as you know it," the Visitor replied. "We do have the Book of Zon, which is a series of truths that some follow."
"Was your Zon a religious leader?" Daniel asked.
The Visitor considered the question a moment and for a moment Daniel wondered if there was something more to the discussion. "Zon is an enemy of our leader..." he started to say when the two shock troopers appeared out of the store.
"Captain Thomas," one of them called, both were carrying cages.
From where Daniel was, he could see the cages filled with what appeared to be hamsters and guinea pigs. Daniel did not envy the poor creatures their fate.
"A discussion for another time, Priest," Captain Thomas replied and walked back to the jeep. A second later, all three Visitors were driving away.
"Fuck..." Stevie let out quietly, suddenly trembling. It was the first time she had to face them since the first occupation.
"They're gone," Mick said, his arm going around her shoulders for a comforting squeeze, sensing she needed one and Daniel couldn't offer her that right now.
Noah shook his head, his stormy blue eyes glancing at his three companions in turn. "It's how they just go about, striking up conversations like it's the most natural thing, like they aren't here to kill us all." It made his blood boil.
Daniel stared after the jeep. "I've never heard of this Zon before," he mused, knowing it was unimportant but it felt it should be for some reason.
"Neither have I," Noah said, shaking his head. "For a moment there I thought he was going to say Zod..."
Daniel stared at him. "At least he didn't ask us to kneel." He offered the other man a small smile. "We were lucky there, let's not press our luck. We should grab what we need and go. I don't really think it would be helpful if he decides to come back and a further theological debate."
All three looked at Daniel in surprise.
"Yeah," Mick agreed. "But tell me something, you've never heard of the Chili Peppers but you know Zod?"
"Aw, come on," Noah said. Every kid gets into comic books and Superman is one the popular ones.
"I didn't," Mick countered. "Not until later..."
"It's not like you're benchmark, Mick," Stevie said with a smirk. "I preferred Batman."
"He has issues," Daniel quipped. "I prefer Superman. I guess they stopped at the store for a snack," he remarked as they continued walking down the sidewalk, leaving the pet shop behind them. Searching the shops, Daniel sought out a clothing store to get what they needed.
"I was wondering when one of you was going to state the obvious," Stevie said, wrinkling her nose.
"Like you're above that," Noah returned, an affectionate smile on his face despite everything. "How are we planning to pay?" he asked when they stopped in front of a store. "Money's still good?" Of course it would have to be cash as surely plastic would be of no help with the networks down.
"I've got this," Daniel reached into his pocket. There hadn't been opportunity to mention this before because money hadn't been an issue and until Noah mentioned it, Daniel had all but forgotten. "It's not much but in this day and age..." The rosary in his hand was gold. He had been given it by the priest in Guadalupe in the event that bartering was necessary. "Who knows?"
"No," Stevie said with a big shake of her head. "You can't." She turned to Mick as if to tell him to say no too.
Catching her look, Mick cleared his throat, pulling his eyes from the solid gold rosary in the priest's hand. "We're not there yet. I mean I have money... we all do."
"Yeah," Noah piped in. "I just wasn't sure if it still meant shit... does it?" If Daniel thought gold did, then maybe Ben Franklyn still did too.
"Gold as currency has always been valuable to someone," Daniel explained. "It never makes sense even in these times but you never know."
That wasn't what Stevie had been questioning though. "But doesn't it hold some sentimental value to you?" she asked, thinking this had been a present from his father when he was ordained or from Father Frank even...
Daniel's eyes widened. "Actually, no," he said, looking at her with a fond smile. "When I began on this journey, it was given to me for trade. We weren't sure whether money was still used but people have been fascinated with gold since the beginning of time."
"Oh..." Stevie looked down at her feet, feeling foolish.
Mick and Noah exchanged a look before they both broke into a smile. Aw, she had it bad.
Wanting to propel them past the moment, Daniel indicated what looked like a JC Penny's. "We can get warm clothes over there," he indicated a store further down the sidewalk.
"And look like our uncles at the same time," Noah cracked, meeting Daniel's gaze to let him know he was just poking fun. It wasn't like there was much choice. There was a surf shop across the road but there probably wouldn't be for colder climates.
"Let's go see what we can find," Stevie said, grabbing Noah's arm to pull him forward.
"I wouldn't know," Daniel remarked, following them. "The priesthood isn't known for our fashion sense," he said with a perfectly straight face even though he was joking.
"Don't know about that," Mick said. "Look at Stevie... black, black and black. Like your shirt." He looked at Daniel's black shirt he wore with the white collar. "Or however you call it..."
"Rabat," Daniel answered helpfully as they walked into the store.
"Rabat." Mick nodded, trying out the word.
The place was half deserted and while there were shop assistants about and people shopping, everyone seemed to be on auto pilot as if they were just going through the motions. Daniel suddenly remembered the rabbits in Watership Down, the ones whom the main characters encountered in their seemingly safe environments, only to learn that they were being bred for the slaughter.
Stevie moved around, staying close to both Noah and Daniel while Mick beelined for the long sleeve tops he saw all racked up on the right. "It's worst than death," she let out under her breath after studying the folks around them. And she wasn't talking about their or the shop's fashion sense.
"They're just frightened, Mia," he said quietly in her ear. "They know what's going on but they just don't want to face it."
"That's what I mean. They're all here waiting..." She couldn't even finish the thought, a shudder running through her, the notion of being herded like cattle freezing her blood. Her eyes sought Daniel's, not knowing he had been thinking the same, and she tried to calm herself down, ashamed it was affecting her so. She had never expected it... not like that. She remembered her parents strong and she had always entertained the idea she would be the same if faced with the same circumstances.
Daniel reached for her, squeezing her arm gently, just to steady her a bit but with the collar, he drew notice if he paid her too much attention. The best he could do was to offer her supportive words. "And we're not going to be," he said firmly.
He noticed a woman with a baby stroller watching them closely. "Let's do this fast," Daniel said to Noah. "I think they know we're new in town and one thing places like these breed better than anywhere else, are collaborators."
"I hear you," Noah said, starting to pay attention more to the store's inventory rather than the people in it.
"I'll go check the women's clothing," Stevie said, pulling away.
Daniel watched her go and then split up to do the same. Aside from clothes, he grabbed a few travel blankets and other items that might make their journey easier. Something caught his eye while he was making his way to the counter. Taking it, he went to the cashier and put his haul on the counter.
"You still take cash?" he asked.
"For now," the girl behind the counter said. "The Visitors say we should keep doing business as usual. Whatever that means..."
She was only a teenager but he could see that, like the others, she was resigned. "I understand," he nodded and reached into his pocket to retrieve the cash he had. Was a sense of normalcy what the Visitors were using to keep the population in line? He supposed he could see its trappings.
"I want to pay for this first," he handed her a few bills while the others were still doing their own shopping.
"Sure." She rung it up and he pocketed the thing inside his coat before waiting for Mia, Mick and Noah to join him.
Mick and Noah soon emerged from the rows of racks with plenty in their arms. Jeans, long-sleeve tops, a coat for Noah, boots, a couple of tees, blankets and cheap raincoats.
"Y-fronts?" Noah looked at Mick's pile.
"Piss off," Mick grumbled. "That's all they've got left."
"They're definitely you," Daniel couldn't resist remarking. And they said priests had no sense of humour. "They're still taking cash. I've got enough, what about you?" he asked, unable to remember if they had mentioned having cash or plastic earlier.
"Ah-ah. Very funny," Mick returned, not even able to bring himself to look down at the offending garment. But it was either that or going commando and since they couldn't shower often, that wasn't even an option really.
Still grinning, Noah turned to Daniel. "We have enough. Our bender got interrupted before we could drink all our travel money," he quipped. And that was kind of true.
Stevie took more time than she had planned on, but the clothes were so horrible. She managed to find some jeans and a couple of tops but had to go back in the men's section for more stuff and was glad to find a hoodie and a jean coat. Spotting a display full of flashlights near the homewares section, she grabbed a few and went to look for batteries. There were a couple more things she'd need but JC Penny didn't stock those.
She found the three musketeers waiting for her and went to join them. "You guys got blankets?"
"Here," Daniel said, gesturing to the collection he had on the counter. "Do you have everything you need?" he asked her.
"Oh, you got some too?" Noah looked at the pile and at what he still held.
Stevie smiled, rolling her eyes. Guys shopping. It was like they left their brains at the door or something. "We won't need ten of them... but then again, if they're cheap, they might come in useful to someone else."
Looking at Daniel, she said, "Not quite... if they have a pharmacy in town, that would be great."
Glancing at the girl behind the counter, he asked. "Do you know where the pharmacy is?" Obviously she did but he had had to ask anyway.
"Yeah." She nodded. "There's one around the corner. O'Gradys." The girl shrugged. "Stocks getting low but you can still get most things. Visitors tell us there'll be a supply run coming in the next week."
"Thank you," Daniel replied and looked at the others. "If you're ready let's pay and go find this place."
Noah started counting the blankets while Stevie put her pile on the counter.
"Sure," Mick said, taking his wallet out and setting up to pay for the lot. "You get lunch?" he suggested to Daniel.
Daniel was going to protest but he had no desire to bring any more attention to themselves than necessary. "Of course," he answered Mick and added, "it would save time if Mia and I went to find this pharmacy while she's ringing that up. We'll meet you out front?"
"Okay." Mick nodded before nudging Noah.
"You need anything at the pharmacy? Tell them, they're heading there now."
"Oh, err..." Noah turned to Stevie and Daniel. "Some shampoo and a new toothbrush... lost mine somewhere in the van," he said, scratching his head. "Before Mick notices I've been using his, I better-"
"You what?" Mick asked, pulling a face, disgusted. "Better make that two then." He gave Noah the evil eye. "Some antiperspirant wouldn't go astray either." He elbowed him.
"Okay, guys." Stevie smiled at their antics. "A bit of everything then."
Daniel chuckled and started out of the store, expecting that Mia wouldn't be far behind. His eyes studied the other patrons at the store and still had a bad feeling about things. They needed to get out of town soon, he suspected. "If we get lunch, I think we should get it to go," he said to her.
"Why?" she asked, catching up to him. She kind of was looking forward to sitting down at a diner and enjoy a cheeseburger but she noticed how he was eyeballing everyone and wondered why. "What do you see?"
"They don't recognise us," Daniel remarked quietly. "Which means we've just come into town from outside of it."
"And what?" Stevie started paying better attention. "You think they'd go tell on us?" She suddenly remembered what he had mentioned about collaborators earlier in JC Penny. "If the Visitors are expecting to be told when newcomers arrive, why weren't we flag down first thing at the gas station?" she wondered out loud, but still speaking quietly.
They turned the street corner and spotted the O'Grady's sign.
"Not everyone is a collaborator," Daniel explained as they walked towards the pharmacy. "However, people when they're afraid will make questionable choices. It only takes one of them to inform on us and it might not amount to anything and then again, it might."
Stevie nodded slowly, stopping to open the door of the store. "You seem to speak of experience..." She looked up to his face as he approached. "Those countries where you did your missionary work?"
She knew it wasn't from the first occupation. He hadn't been around for that, his father quick to recognise what was coming and getting out of Dodge in time, so to speak. For Stevie, she had been a bit too young to have grasped all the going-ons back then. What the illusion of power had made some people do, or fear, coercion or plain blackmail. But by the time the Visitors had been driven out, she had caught on a lot. So she finally understood what Daniel was seeing in the face of people... the temptation to dob on them to make sure their family remained safe, or fed, or whatever else. She swallowed, moving into the pharmacy.
"I saw it the first time around," Daniel explained. "When people thought that scientists were responsible for terrorist acts against the Visitors. I've seen it since in some of the countries I've been in. When you have nothing and you're terrified about the people you care about, its not hard to become an informant. People make small compromises that always end becoming big ones in the end."
"I know." She nodded. "I just thought you'd gone to Quebec by then..." Stevie let out, glancing at him as they headed down the shampoo aisle. Scientists and their families had been hunted down like rats. She grabbed the brand she knew Noah used. You didn't play and travel with a band for seven years and not become accustomed to everyone else's habits.
Next on the list were toothbrushes but she stopped when they passed the shaving stuff. Noah liked his unkempt face but Mick usually shaved. He hadn't asked for it but she figured he had just forgotten. She grabbed some gel and a razor that came with a few spare blades.
"We saw enough of it," Daniel explained, walking along with her. "And when my family started to help out Father Cleary with the network, we ran into people who were forced into that position because of neighbours informing on them or giving them as possible terrorists sympathisers. It wasn't pretty."
No, it hadn't been, Stevie agreed silently. Right next to the razors were the antiperspirants and deodorants. "You think Mick was joking about needing this?" she asked, smiling a little as she remembered the pair bickering like a married couple.
The preacher chuckled. "I don't know but I wouldn't risk it. Get it anyway. If it's true, they'll kill each other before they get to San Francisco."
She grabbed a couple after giving him a smile. This was so... so mundane. "I... I need to go get some girly stuff," she tried to explain, trying to spare him the details and let him know he didn't need to tag along for the next few minutes. "Meet you back up front?"
Like most males, nothing made him retreat faster than the combination of those two words. "Yes," he said, reminding himself that this was the time to pick up some aspirin as well as caffeine tablets. With the amount of driving they were doing, particularly at night, it wasn't a bad thing to have to keep them awake in an emergency. "I'll see you at the front."
Too funny, she thought, amused at his reaction. Most men had that instant panic look on their face and, priest or not, Daniel had just displayed the same. She hit the toothbrushes and toothpastes stands first and then went further into the shop in search of tampons. Turning to go into the next aisle, Stevie saw the prescriptions desk and while that caught her attention, because there was a stack of boxes being brought in with the Visitors' logo stamped on the side of them, she forgot to look where she was going.
The inhuman voice brought her back, her head turning to face front so fast she heard her neck crack. Like a deer caught in the headlights, she stared at the red uniform before her and then the face of a Visitor shock trooper standing not even two inches in front of her. Obviously, she had nearly walked into him. Swallowing thickly, she clamped down on that insidious fear that was spreading all over. Once again, she felt like that little girl who had held onto her father's hand when such encounters had happened. She felt just as small, just as exposed and frightened.
The only difference was that her dad wasn't standing next to her.
To be continued in The Gift