A balmy summer evening. Cool breezes drifted across the meadow, drawing scent of night-blooming jasmine and magnolia. Crickets serenaded each other, chirping a staccato counterpoint in the azalea bushes beneath the window, interrupted every five seconds by the whirr of electric servo-motors.
Cup of herb tea in hand, Colonel Paul Ironhorse stared out the bedroom window across the night landscape, acknowledging the peacefulness, the fading twilight giving way to darkness. Moonlight reflected off the stern lines of Amerind features.
No city lights or city sounds disturbed the solitude; however, the cottage was not at all an isolated hermit’s hideaway. An invisible net of high-security wires and electric eyes and infra-red sensors reticulated the area; while security guards roamed the entire estate, save for the living quarters.
He listened to the silence, listened for any aberration, any subtle hint of something amiss. He heard nothing.
Another swallow of tea.
The peacefulness was so sweetly deceptive. During the eternity of the past thirteen months, this had been the bloodiest week of fighting they’d endured. An alien ambush had taken out eighteen men on Thursday; combat Tuesday morning had cost twenty-three more. They had managed to cancel a good share of aliens, but still nobody knew where the main hideout was located nor how many more alien troops lay in waiting. It seemed that no matter how many they eliminated, more always came, came camouflaged in the bodies of human hosts to escape detection. Like Vietnam – where no one could tell the good guys from the bad guys.
He set the cup down on the nightstand, breathed in jasmine fragrance. Right now Suzanne and her daughter were downstairs in the sitting room, watching TV and eating dinner. Norton had ensconced himself back in the computer room, lost to the world in some new enhancement program. Anything to get their minds off this past week. Harrison had declined dinner for the third evening in a row, and had retreated to his room for the rest of the night.
Ironhorse listened. Normally he would have heard the quiet hum of Harrison recording the day’s thoughts and research, or soft meditation music passing through the adjoining wall. Now, for the third night in a row, there was only silence.
Something moved him, urged him to leave his own room and knock on the doctor’s door. Something more than silence was needed to help all of them through this lassitude, this utter despondency.
“Harrison," he called, and rapped on the door again. “It’s me. May I come in?”
“Come on in,” the other man’s voice responded, and nothing more.
Ironhorse entered; closed the door behind himself. Only moonlight illuminated the room. On the bed, Harrison sat with his back to the door and his visitor. He too stared out the window, seeking answers and solace in the night breeze and the flower scents.
“I thought I’d check on you,” the dark man explained his intrusion. “It didn’t sound right in here.”
Harrison looked down over his shoulder; light irony pulled the corner of his lips. “I wasn’t making any noise.”
“That’s what I mean. Too quiet. You’ve been too quiet all evening. Talk to me, Harrison.”
For a while longer, Harrison continued to look out into the night, while Ironhorse stood just inside the room. A curly head shook resignation. “I’m just tired of our war, Paul,” the seated man finally admitted. “Just plain tired. I’m not a soldier, I’m a scientist. I don’t know how to fight invading armies. It’s been over a year now, and we haven’t made any progress. The aliens are still out there… I guess I’ve finally reached a point where I don’t care to keep this up day after day.”
Paul Ironhorse watched the other man in the reflected silver light. Crickets trilled beneath the open window. Regardless of whether humans or aliens won the final conflict, the crickets would continue to sing.
He tried to think of something comforting to say.
“Yes, they’re still out there. But we’ve made progress. We’re still here, Earth is still here. The invasion hasn’t succeeded yet. I’d say that’s pretty good.”
Harrison shifted position on the bed to look at him. Discouragement creased the fair-complected face. “But we aren’t pushing them back. They’re out there roaming free, while we’re holed up here in a high-security compound. And a lot of our people have died. A lot of them.”
“And so have a lot of aliens. And a lot more on both sides are going to die before this is over,” Ironhorse agreed, and strolled a few steps closer. “Sometimes that's the way war is fought. Stalemate. But that’s a hell of a lot better than losing, if losing is the only alternative.”
Harrison’s head shook. “I think about Suzanne, about Debi. God, if anything happened to them, or to Norton… And it could, very easily. Some day, some time, one of us is going to make a mistake at the wrong time, the wrong place…”
“And it isn’t just them, or just us… It’s the entire human population in our hands.” Helplessly he gazed into the emptiness of his palms. “I don’t know if I’m capable of protecting the entire human population, Paul. I’m just one man. And I’m tired now.”
Compassionately Ironhorse watched the other man. During the past thirteen months, the two of them had fought their share of conflicts and disagreements, but out of initial wariness between military officer and peace-activist scientist had grown mutual respect and concern. “Harrison,” he urged kindly, “you can’t look at this from an absolute perspective. We’ll do what we can. Who knows what the final outcome will be? We’ll make mistakes – and yes, maybe one of them will be fatal. If it happens, it happens. It’ll be hell if it does. But we can’t let that paralyze us now. If we give up, we may as well commit suicide, and have everyone on Earth do likewise. At least that would be preferable to serving as guinea pigs for the aliens.”
Harrison smiled coolly. “So, the soldier is waxing philosophical now. I thought that was my specialty.”
An answering quirk of lips softened Indian visage. “You haven’t got the corner on it, Blackwood. Even if you are the one among us who likes to sit cross-legged on the floor, breath incense, and chant mantras.”
A soft chuckle snuffed from Harrison’s nostrils, and Ironhorse moved over to the window. Up in a cypress tree overhanging the house, the tiny roving red eye of a surveillance camera winked back at him.
“You say you’re not a soldier and I am. That’s right. Because I am a soldier, trained in combat, I have some skill and knowledge to outmaneuver this enemy we face. We aren’t helpless.” And yet the hollowness of his words echoed back at him, returning with phantom memories of last Tuesday’s fire-fight; and a pang of despair tightened inside his chest. He voice dropped to a near-whisper. “You talk about the possibility of losing Suzanne or Debi or Norton. Well, it doesn’t hurt any less when I lose men to those bastards out there – men I’ve known, I’ve worked with, some I’ve trained myself. I see them die when they shouldn’t have to… just because our planet has been targeted by some damn alien culture light-years away. And it makes me sick.”
The irony faded from Harrison’s voice. “I know, Paul.” Pale eyes looked up at the lean dark figure silhouetted against the night landscape. “And thanks for the pep-talk. I guess I needed it.”
Ironhorse looked back at the other man, and their eyes met, seriously, supportively. Then strolling two steps closer, he rested a hand on Harrison’s shoulder and moved around behind him. “It wasn’t a pep-talk. I’m just telling it like it is. It isn’t good, but it isn’t all bad either. If we don’t keep our outlook balanced, we’ll go crazy.” In the night, in the stillness, he began to massage Harrison’s shoulders.
Ever so slightly Harrison stiffened at the unexpected touch. In thirteen months of acquaintance, he could probably count on one hand the number of times Ironhorse had touched him – and then only for the briefest physical contact.
“I don’t know,” the other man breathed a yielding sigh, “maybe I am waxing philosophical. In the dark, things don’t seem as cut and dried as in the daylight. Problems seem worse. You’re right, we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I can’t promise that we’ll win this war. We don’t even know if we’ll see another day.”
Harrison nodded briefly, silently, not wanting to disturb this strange but comforting out-of-phase moment. All too soon the moment would end of its own accord, and the two of them would revert to less-intimate normality.
And then he felt the man behind him tighten ever so slightly, breathing hitch a little rough, as though on the verge of speaking yet unsure of how to say what needed to be said. Harrison kept quiet for fear of driving his friend away with well-meant over-attention.
Dark gaze touched auburn curls, fingers worked tight neck muscles, raspy voice cut words between clenched teeth. “So, I’d like to tell you, Harrison… before it’s too late… that you’re very important to me, and I don’t want to lose you.”
Harrison said nothing as he rocked gently with the warm kneading fingers. But closing his eyes, he tilted his head back and rested against the firm slender body behind, in a gesture of acknowledged intimacy. One hand raised to touch the hand on his shoulder.
Tilting his head down to see his friend’s face, Ironhorse allowed a subtle half-smile. “Are you surprised that I’d say something like that?”
Harrison’s warm fingers tightened their grip, then stroked the massaging hand easing his stress, face relaxed with the kind touches. “A little,” he admitted. “We don’t usually express feelings for each other. Male machismo, I suppose. But you know, I feel the same way, Paul If anything ever happens to you, I don’t know what we’ll do… I don’t know what I’ll do.”
No words responded, but then Ironhorse’s down-turned head lowered a few more inches, and carefully thin lips touched the other man’s, a cool dry kiss, not returned, not rebuffed. Just a moment of tasting each other’s breath, feeling warmth radiating on each other’s face; then the dark man straightened up, black eyes expressing curiosity but no shame. “How’s that for male machismo?” he queried a little wryly. “I’ll bet you never thought old Colonel Ironpants would ever do something like that. Are you going to knock me across the room now?”
“ ‘Colonel Ironpants’ ? – how did you know we call you that behind your back?”
“Yes, and probably a lot worse after we first met.”
Mild amusement flickered over Harrison’s face, succeeded by a calm serious expression. His quickened pulse rate fluttered the skin of his throat, as his head rolled briefly against the muscular torso behind. “No, I’m not going to knock you across the room.” With his free hand he reached down to hold Ironhorse’s thigh, slowly stroked the hard-muscled leg up and down. “I don’t think life is playing by the rules anymore – why should we?”
The half-Cherokee soldier didn’t answer, but moved his hands over the white man’s arms, finding bare skin beneath rolled-up shirt sleeves and letting his fingers soothe, caress, play with the tiny forearm hairs. He didn’t bother to question his motives; it seemed like the right thing to do at the time – to reassure with touches when words wouldn’t suffice. Harrison’s quiet fondling of his thigh danced electricity all through his loins, while the man’s head rested against his flat hard belly and firm chest, moving slightly with the out-of-sync rhythm of their breathing.
Another despairing shake of curly head. “Damn, this is no way to live. It isn’t fair to Debi to be holed up here with no other children for friends. And Suzanne must be going crazy with just us and Norton for company.”
“You’re probably right, although I haven’t heard her complain yet.”
“No,” Harrison agreed. “But you know she’s scared to death for Debi, scared that the aliens might take her hostage some day.”
Ironhorse nodded, gazing out into the dark. “I’m scared of that too. I’m afraid that any of us might be held hostage against the others.”
“If that ever happens,” Harrison reminded unnecessarily, “we can’t afford to give in.”
“No, we can’t,” Ironhorse allowed, and tension hardened his body against his friend’s. “God, I hope it never comes to that. I hope I never have to give the order to leave one of you behind. It’s hard enough ordering trained troops out into that hell.” One hand came to rest on Harrison’s head, fingers began carding through short springy curls. “And Harrison, if I’m ever taken, I expect you to give the same order.”
Without answering, the seated man took a deep breath, face tight, eyes squeezed shut.
Harrison just shook his head; finally spoke through tense throat. “What a hell of a decision to make. I’m just so goddamned sick of this whole craziness.”
“Paul, for all the times I’ve acted disparaging because you wear a uniform, I apologize. I do realize the responsibilities you carry… In case I never have the chance to say it again, I just wanted you to know that.”
“I already do.” Hands slid over the man’s nape and shoulders, gripping and squeezing, gripping and squeezing. Something felt very satisfactory, holding this man to him… feelings that temporarily cushioned them both from the blunt callousness of the outside world. He had originally come in here to offer comfort – he had not expected to find solace for himself as well.
A chill night breeze swirled through the room, drawing Ironhorse’s attention to the window again, and he commented, “It’s getting cold in here.”
Reaching up both hands to cover those on his shoulders, Harrison mentioned casually, intimately suggestive, “It’s warmer under the covers.” He squeezed friendly fingers, tilted his head up slightly to see his companion out of the corner of his eye. “And I could use the company tonight.”
Half-lidded dark eyes watched him hesitantly. “Are you sure you want me to stay?”
“Yes, I’m sure… if you want to.”
Ironhorse nodded briefly, slid embracing arms around his partner. “I want to.”
* * * * * FINIS * * * * *