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Sorcerer's Appretice

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"You might want to die, but I don't!"

Saturday, October 29

The Blackwood Project members, minus Norton, sat outside a small adobe house near the center of downtown Window Rock, Arizona. The carved wooden sign bolted to the wall next to the front door read: Peter Greencorn, Attorney at Law.
"Norton, are you sure the object's here?" Blackwood asked into the mobile phone.
"Not exactly."
Blackwood pulled the phone away from his ear and scowled at it.
"What?" Ironhorse asked.
"He said he's not sure it's actually here… exactly," the astrophysicist relayed.
"You mean I'm missing my morning coffee to go on a wild computer chase?" Suzanne grumbled in the back seat of the Bronco.
"I heard that," Norton said, his amusement clear. "Tell Suzanne I can't read the computer's mind. I simply tell it what to look for and relay the results."
Blackwood hung up and passed the message along.
"Hrumph," was all Suzanne said.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

After six weeks of knowing that the aliens had located another warship somewhere in northern Arizona or New Mexico, they finally had a specific location – the Chuska Mountains. With Cedar safely under guard in the Fort Streeter hospital, the team left for Arizona the following day.
Ironhorse sent Omega A and B directly to Gallup, New Mexico to establish a staging area, while he and the two scientists stopped in Holbrook for the night so the colonel could check-in with the Delta personnel he'd stationed in the area. At 0400 on Saturday they'd received a wake-up call from Norton.
"What's up?" Ironhorse asked.
"You know that search I've been running for other black, 3-D objects like the one that disappeared when Gabriel Morales was killed in Peru?"
"Yeah?" Ironhorse said, fighting back a yawn, as familiar with the information connecting the strange alien objects to a total of seven deaths as Drake was.
"I found another one and you know where it is?"
"Why don't you tell us, Mr. Drake," Ironhorse grumbled.
Blackwood and Suzanne were already moving, the astrophysicist grabbing a change of clothes out of his suitcase.
"Window Rock, Arizona," Norton replied. "Less than two hours from where you are right now, and too close to the Chuska Mountains to make me comfortable."
Ironhorse broke the news to the others, Blackwood agreeing with the computer expert's assessment. "Too close to call it a coincidence, I'd say."
"Harrison, our mission is to stop the aliens from getting that warship – if it isn't already too late."
"Colonel, need I remind you that several people have died over objects just like this one? For the first time we might have a head start on the aliens. Omega will contact us if there's any activity. If we could get our hands on one of these things, maybe we could find out what they are, and why the aliens are killing for them."
"What if the object and the warship are connected?" Suzanne asked.
Ironhorse considered the comment, his lips disappearing into a thin line of concern.
Leaning close enough to the colonel so he could speak into the receiver, Blackwood asked, "Norton, how close are the transmissions to the location of the object?"
"The transmissions have been too short to get an accurate fix, but they're within a hundred mile radius. If the aliens found their warship already, they're sure not telling anyone about it."
"Thanks, Norton."
"Don't mention it, and be careful, huh? Deb and I are standing by."
Suzanne rummaged in her suitcase. "Do you think they need the objects to get the ships operational?" she asked Blackwood. "Like the head-dress piece?"
"It's possible. I hope they haven't actually found the ship yet, or that they're having trouble with the excavation."
"This is rugged country," Ironhorse stated. "Terrain and weather'll slow them down."
"Who and where in Window Rock?" Blackwood asked.
"Mama Cray says a Mr. Peter Greencorn is the trustee of a, I quote: 'black rectangle of unknown composition, six by six by nine inches, of possible Anasazi origin.'"
"You have an address?" Ironhorse asked.
"Of course."
The colonel wrote down the information, then hung up and headed for the shower.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Window Rock was a small, quiet community; the Navajo reservation capitol. The town's population was primarily native, but several other southwestern peoples lived and worked there as well. The whites, who owned some of the businesses in town, were, for the most part, open and accepting of the Indian way of life.
In the Bronco, Blackwood shifted and arched his back, trying to relieve some of the tension that had settled there in an irritating knot. They had arrived at the address Norton gave them a little after six that morning and it was nearing eight. Glancing over at the colonel, he wondered how the man could look so damned calm and relaxed.
"Technically, the object itself could be anywhere," Harrison said. "Greencorn's just a trustee."
"Maybe we should ask him," Suzanne said, nodding to an approaching figure. "Wanna bet that's our guy?"
About six feet tall, the assumed Peter Greencorn was a distinguished, if not exactly handsome man in his mid to late thirties. Dressed in blue jeans and a plain white pearl-button shirt with bolo tie, he looked the prosperous professional he was. His hair was up in a traditional bun.
The three Project members climbed out of the Bronco and approached the house while Greencorn fished keys out of a pocket. He opened the door, but paused when they joined him on the porch. Turning at the sound of visitors so early in the morning, black eyes flashed over each of them, resting longest on Suzanne.
"Can I help you?" he asked, his tone friendly but reserved.
"Mr. Peter Greencorn?" Blackwood asked.
The man nodded.
"Good morning," the scientist continued, extending his hand. "My name's Harrison Blackwood. This is my associate Suzanne McCullough, and my assistant, Paul Ironhorse."
A pair of black eyebrows rose to angry peaks, then plunged. Blackwood was at it again. Suzanne cleared her throat to hide a giggle.
Greencorn accepted Blackwood's proffered hand and shook it. "What can I do for you, Mr. Blackwood?"
"Please, it's Harrison. We're from the National Museum of the Native American, and we'd like to talk to you about a certain artifact you're trustee for."
The almond-shaped eyes narrowed. The threesome didn't resemble the museum people he'd met in the past. "I usually drop my briefcase off and go for breakfast. If you don't mind coming along, we can talk over a cup of coffee."
"Good," Suzanne said with a grateful smile. "We missed ours this morning, and I don't think I'm going to last much longer without it."
Greencorn smiled, leaning in to set his briefcase inside the door, then pulled it shut. "Well, then, follow me."
The four walked to a small diner two blocks from Greencorn's office and slid into a faded plastic booth. A teenaged waitress smiled shyly at them as she took their orders.
"Coffee all around?" Peter asked.
Three heads nodded in agreement.
"I'll have the bacon and eggs special, scrambled," he added.
"I'll have the same," Ironhorse told the girl. "Over medium."
"I'll take one of your garden salads," Blackwood said.
"Lunch?" Suzanne asked.
"Between my sleeping patterns and the hours we keep, my stomach doesn't recognize standard mealtimes anymore. It's more flexible, Suzanne. You should try it."
She glanced at Ironhorse, who rolled his eyes, then back at Harrison. "You're just weird," she told him, then smiled up at the young woman. "I'll have the breakfast fruit and wheat toast, dry."
The girl nodded and left to get their coffees.
After waiting long enough for Greencorn to hang a sign announcing the day's lunch special – the waitress being too short to slip the string onto the nail waiting for it – they settled into pleasant small-talk while they ate.
Once the dishes were cleared and their cups refilled, Greencorn asked, "So, what exactly can I help you with?"
"We understand you have an object that's registered with the National Historical Society," Blackwood explained. "It's a solid black rectangle, six by six by nine inches."
Peter nodded. "It belongs to Bill Nez. He made me trustee three years ago when he was hospitalized and it looked like he might not live. I had it registered as an historic artifact per his request. It belongs to the Navajo people now. It was one of several objects he gave me power of attorney for. What's your interest in that particular piece?"
"Do you have the object?" Blackwood asked, side-stepping the question.
"No. I'm just the legal trustee, should anything happen to Bill. As far as I know, he still has it."
"Does he live in Window Rock?" Ironhorse asked.
"No. He's got a place up near Greasewood Springs. In the Chuska Mountains."
The three Project members exchanged stricken looks. "We need to get out there," Harrison said, setting his empty cup down hard enough to rattle the table.
Greencorn shook his head. "It's not that easy, Mr. Blackwood. Unless you're familiar with this area, you'll need a guide. Bill's place is isolated. There aren't even roads out that far, just trails and a few truck tracks, most of which belong to hunters. What's this all about?"
"I'm afraid we're not at liberty to talk about it, Mr. Greencorn," Ironhorse said, removing his wallet to pay for the meal. "Where would you recommend we hire a guide?"
Peter stood with the others. "Let me see if I can catch Caitlin at home. She's been working with Bill. She'd be your best bet unless Damion's back in town. I don't understand, though. Bill's not going to give up that box."
"We just want to talk to him," Harrison reassured. "It's very important."
Peter nodded. "I'll call." He walked over to a pay phone mounted on the wall near the register.
"What do you think?" Harrison asked softly.
"I think they might be after the object and not the warship," Suzanne replied quietly. "Or they do need both."
"Kevin and Cedar both said it's a warship," Blackwood reminded.
"I think Suzanne might be right. It's both," Ironhorse ventured. "Maybe the object's part of the war machine, like the piece from the Westeskiwin headpiece." His raised eyebrows silenced any further comments.
Peter rejoined them, smiling. "You're in luck. Caitlin's home and Damion's with her. They'll meet you at the Community College building. Here, I'll sketch the directions…"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Norton, find out what you can about a Dr. Caitlin Breedlove and a Damion Carpenter," Ironhorse instructed over the mobile phone as they rode toward the Community College outreach building near the edge of town.
"I'm on it," Drake said. "And Debi says to say hello. She wants to know if you'll be home for Halloween."
The colonel smiled. "Tell her 'hi' from all of us, and that we'll be home before she knows it, but I doubt we'll make by Monday. Call as soon as you have anything."
"Right."
Ironhorse pressed the release button and returned the mobile phone to its recharger on the seat.
"I think this is it," Blackwood said, nodding at the sprawling single story structure that looked more like a warehouse than a college. The colonel parked near what looked like the main entrance.
Three wrong turns and a friendly student later they found the administrative annex hidden behind a maze of partition- created cubicles.
"Excuse me, we're looking for a Dr. Caitlin Breedlove," Blackwood said, walking up to a counter clearly labeled: Information.
Suzanne and Ironhorse hung back, willing to let the astrophysicist work his charm.
"That's me," the young woman behind the counter said. "You must be Dr. Blackwood, of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the Native American?"
Harrison smiled, re-evaluating the woman. Her long black hair, red-bronze completion and high cheek bones told him she was at least part-Native American herself. However, the pale green eyes spoke of some Anglo influences as well. She was very pretty. Athletic and confident.
He smiled his most charming smile. "That's right, Dr. Breedlove, and we're very glad you're going to help us see Mr. Nez."
"Happy to help, Dr. Blackwood. How's Nancy Shimley these days? I took classes when she was still teaching down at the University of Arizona."
"Nancy Shimley?" Harrison said, shifting nervously. He hated it when a cover blew up in his face. It figured that a woman with degrees in cultural anthropology and archeology would know people at the Smithsonian. "I don't recognize the name, but I'm new, and—"
"That's odd, Dr. Blackwood, since Nancy's the head of the National Museum of the Native American, or she will be, once they get their final sanction and funding. Who are you people?"
"Look, Dr. Breedlove," Ironhorse said, stepping up to join Blackwood. "We have the proper credentials—"
"And I can order papers that say I'm a Russian KGB agent, too," she interrupted with a smile.
"In other words, paper don't mean squat," added a newcomer, in a resonate bass.
Ironhorse turned slowly, sizing up the large black man blocking the entryway. Three things were immediately obvious to the soldier. The man was ex-military, Special Forces. He cared about Dr. Breedlove and wouldn't hesitate to take them on if he thought she was in danger, and he hadn't recognized the colonel… yet.
"I realize this might seem a little unorthodox," Suzanne started, hoping to sooth the growing tension. "But it's very important that we see Mr. Nez."
"His life could be in danger," Blackwood added.
"His life?" Caitlin asked, her eyes narrowing. "What the hell's this all about?"
The black man's brow furrowed. "Ironhorse?" he questioned.
The two soldiers became the immediate focus of attention for the others.
"Sergeant," the colonel said with a slight nod. "I wasn't sure you'd remember me."
"Damned hard to forget the man who pulled your chestnuts out of a POW camp… Captain?"
"Colonel."
Damion grinned. "Colonel Ironhorse. Yeah, it's got a certain ring to it." He looked over the heads of the others to catch the woman's gaze. "I don't know what they're up to, Cait, but you can bet it's legal and classified as hell."
"You two know each other?" Suzanne asked Ironhorse.
The colonel nodded slightly, but Damion laughed, a roaring drum-like sound. "You could say that. You see, I was a Special Forces medic, and a stupid one at that – got myself caught by Charlie. The camp commander figured on cuttin' my heart out for all those American boys I was savin', but the colonel here, he and his boys flew into the camp and pulled every damned one of us out."
He walked over to the counter and leaned against it. Caitlin laid a hand on the large man's arm and grinned. She'd heard the tale before, but it was clear that the officer would prefer to pass on the trip down memory lane. Modesty was such a nice trait in a man.
"I was beat up pretty bad, and I kept tellin' this Indian tryin' to help me to get his own skinny ass out of there before Charlie blew it off. Well, this guy lands one on my chin, humps me over his shoulder, and trots me back to the chopper as easy as you please." The man grinned and shook his head. "When I got to seein' straight again, I found out that skinny-assed kid was a captain. The freakin' mission commander!"
"And you haven't lost a pound since then, either, Carpenter," Ironhorse added, his ears burning slightly in embarrassment. "To make a long story short, the Army saw fit to assign Sgt. Damion Carpenter to my unit six months later."
Harrison and Suzanne exchanged a pair of conspiratorial grins – they could use this later. Ironhorse sighed.
Willing to accept Damion's appraisal of their trustworthiness, Caitlin asked, "Why's Bill in danger?"
"If you'll take us to see him, we'll tell you as much as we can," Blackwood negotiated.
Caitlin looked at the ex-medic. "We'll probably have to take the horses once we get to your place."
"No probably about it. The washes were running two days ago. Storm's headed this way, too, but we should be all right. Think I'll tag along, too, if ya don't mind."
"Fine," the colonel said. "But we should be moving."
"Mr. Carpenter," Harrison said. "If you'll ride with Colonel Ironhorse and Dr. McCullough, I'll ride with Dr. Breedlove so I can explain."
"Fine by me, so long as the colonel explains it to me."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The drive from Window Rock to Carpenter's home in an isolated area not far from Lukachukai, took several hours, but put the Project closer to their planned destination. A fact that made all of them uncomfortable.
Blackwood had talked for over an hour, explaining about the 'terrorists' he and the others had fought for over three years.
Dr. Breedlove listened to the entire story before responding. "I'm not buying it, Dr. Blackwood."
"Why? It's the truth."
"A half truth, maybe. How would terrorists know about the song box?"
"The same way we did. Computers."
"Then why hasn't Peter had a visit from them?"
"I don't know."
"The real flaw in your story is this. These terrorists must be smarter than all the scientists I know, because no one's been able to figure out what the damn thing is. Either you level with me or you won't be going any further than Damion's."
Blackwood considered, and after a deep breath began to speak. At first Caitlin resisted, but the weight of the evidence the astrophysicist cited, along with his earnest sincerity finally convinced her.
"I don't know if Bill will give you the song box," she said after running out of questions.
"Song box?"
"He uses it when he sings... conducts rituals for the people out here. Blessings, namings, healings. He's a medicine man."
"And you're studying to be one, too?"
She nodded. "Something like that. I'm something of an eclectic." She noted the smile on the scientist's face. "What? Are you thinking that as a scientist myself I should know better?"
"Far from it," Harrison said. "This whole situation started when a young psychic was able to resist an alien blending."
"I thought you said that was impossible."
"We thought it was, until another psychic, and scientist, came up with a theory that made it plausible. And that theory wasn't all biology." He folded his arms across his chest and regarded the woman. "I was smiling because all this has encouraged the colonel to begin studying his own shamanistic heritage, and I was wondering what he'd say if he knew you were a shaman yourself."
"I'm a student. There's a substantial difference. The colonel's Cherokee, isn't he?"
"Yes. How did you know?"
"So am I. Besides, he's got the ears."
Harrison looked confused. "If you're Cherokee, why are you studying with a Navajo?"
"I'm an anthropologist, Dr. Blackwood. And it's pretty foolish to ignore wisdom and learning wherever you find it. I'm not exactly studying with Bill. He's forbidden to teach a non-Navajo. We talk about healing and ritual in more philosophical than practical terms."
"I see. And call me Harrison, please. As for Mr. Nez, we'll just have to make him understand how important this is. If we could study the object for a short time, maybe we can find out what they are and what the aliens use them for."
"I'll lend you my voice, but I don't think it'll help if he doesn't want to let it go."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Watching Blackwood talking to Dr. Breedlove in the Bronc's rearview mirror, Ironhorse realized she wasn't what he'd expected. Breedlove was a common name in the community of his youth. What was a part-Cherokee doing on the Navajo reservation?
He guessed she was also Scots-Irish, the European blood rounding the green eyes and lightening her completion. Still, the long black hair and facial planes reminded him of people he'd grown up with. Among the Cherokee there was a strong Scots-Irish influence, stretching back to before the Trail of Tears.
She was a beautiful woman, though not in the standard media sense. Her beauty was rugged, natural. She was also very much in love with the large black man riding next to him.
Damion listened to his 'terrorist' cover story, then nodded, unsmiling. "Whatever you say, Colonel. Just give me a real clue before the shit hits the fan."
After a short conversation with Blackwood via the mobile phones, Ironhorse told Damion the truth.
The black man sat in stunned silence for several minutes before responding. "Fuckin'-A."
"Yeah. How much further?" Ironhorse asked.
"Less than an hour. Then it's another three to four hour to go on horseback to get to old man Nez's place, and that's providin' he hasn't gone south already. Then we're talkin' an overnight trip."
"Harrison's going to love that," Suzanne mumbled from the back seat where she dozed. "He's not much of an equestrian."
The two men grinned.
"So, Colonel, how'd you end up in the alien bustin' business?"
"Just lucky, I guess."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Carpenter's home consisted of a small cabin, corral, barn, and storage shed, all weathered but tidy. The buildings sat scattered among trees planted by settlers long before the ex-Army medic took up residence.
While Damion and Caitlin prepared for what looked like an extended trip, Ironhorse contacted Omega Squad and Norton, filling them in on the latest turn of events.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The ride took them through breathtaking landscape, both rugged and subtle in its beauty. Narrow ridgelines kept the two scientists white-knuckling their saddle horns, distracting them from the view.
Watching Ironhorse, Harrison allowed himself to indulge in a case of envy at the easy way the colonel handled the animal, moving with its motions instead of reacting to them.
When they finally reached the last hilltop at the edge of a shallow valley where Nez lived, Damion called for a short rest.
Blackwood called Norton to let him know they'd reached their destination, while the colonel swept the area as a precaution.
"It's about time," Drake grumbled.
"Sorry, but it was an… interesting ride," Harrison replied sheepishly.
"I'll bet," Norton responded. Blackwood was no cowboy. "The big news is, I caught another transmission."
"Where?"
"Too short to be sure, but it's the same area as the others, so watch your backs."
"Tell the colonel," Harrison said, handing the unit to the soldier, who reigned up alongside the dismounted scientist.
"What is it, Mr. Drake?"
"Transmission in the same area as before, which now includes your location."
"Nothing exact?"
"No. I think part of it might be interference from the broadcasting location. The signal's breaking up before I get a fix on it."
"Keep on it, Norton. We're about half an hour from Mr. Nez's. If you don't hear from us in four hours, call Derriman."
"Right. Oh, and no info on Caitlin Breedlove, yet. Lots on Damion Carpenter. Seems he's a real hero, Colonel. Your kind of guy."
"You're absolutely right, Norton. Keep on the first. I have a hunch there's more there than meets the eye."
"Will do. Stay alert."
Ironhorse terminated the conversation and handed the phone back to Blackwood.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Bill?" Caitlin called as they rode up to the log and stick octagon covered with adobe. "Bill?"
Dismounting, Harrison stretched, realizing that he was going to be sore in several uncomfortable places. Damion examined the horses, looking for cracks and chips in the hooves that might lame the animals. Patting each affectionately on the neck, he scratched their chins before moving to the next.
Ironhorse ran a sweep on the outside of the building before Caitlin disappeared inside. He scanned the landscape, his eyes taking in the contours, washes, and paths, placing each on a mental map in case they ran into trouble.
The sheep pens, worn foot paths, and small lean-to that housed a sleepy bay gelding were the only structures besides the hogan. It was a peaceful, beautiful place.
Caitlin emerged, pale and shaking.
"Cait, what is it?" Carpenter asked, moving to the woman, one arm snaking protectively around her shoulders.
"He's dead," she whispered. "Looks recent."
"Dead?" Harrison echoed.
She nodded, but looked at Damion. "It was a witch."
"Witch?" Ironhorse questioned.
"Come inside."
She turned to enter, but Ironhorse stopped her. He removed the Baretta and handed Harrison the Geiger counter.
Pushing past the handwoven blanket that served as a door, Ironhorse entered the dark interior. The smell of sage and cedar hung strong in the air. The wrinkled old man lay on a blanket-covered sleeping pallet on the earthen floor.
Ironhorse knelt, turning the man's head to one side. The digit-sized hole in the man's temple spoke clearly that he was dead.
"That was no witch," Harrison said softly.
"Look," Caitlin said, squatting down next to the colonel. "See what he's holding?"
"It's a small carving," Paul acknowledged.
"That's to ward off witches."
"Are we talking real witches here, or a belief in their existence?" Suzanne asked.
"Both," Damion said, helping Caitlin up and hugging her.
"Most Native traditions include a belief in individuals who use ritual, power, whatever for evil purposes. They do bad magic, and others are harmed. For the Navajo they're called witches and skinwalkers."
"You thinkin' it's that old man across the valley?" Damion asked her.
"Might be," Caitlin said, stepping back. "You say these aliens can take over people's bodies. What if they took over that Wolf? He knew about the song box."
"Wolf?" Blackwood asked.
"Another name for witch," Ironhorse supplied.
"Is the object gone?" Harrison asked, his gaze wandering over the interior of the structure.
"Yes," Dr. Breedlove said, placing her hand on a small wooden shelf molded into the adobe. "He kept it here."
"Let's go see this other man," Ironhorse said.
"We won't make it before dark, Colonel," Damion said. "But we can leave at first light."
Ironhorse nodded. "I'll set watch tonight. Just in case."
"I'll get Bill ready," Caitlin said. "We can't just leave him like this."
Stepping outside, Ironhorse called the Omegans. Despite the static and breaking communications, they pinpointed the location of the Witch's cabin with Damion's help.
"We'll get a chopper up as soon as the weather lifts," Derriman said.
"Pass this along to Mr. Drake," Ironhorse said.
"Roger that, Colonel. You watch your backside."
"Thank you, Sergeant."
Damion chewed his lip, then shook his head. "They might not be able to get up there. The weather here's freakish. If they've got snow, we'll get it tomorrow, but the storms usually circle back around. It'll probably keep 'em on the ground."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Sunday, October 30

The group left the following morning before the first hint of sunrise. The man's camp was two hours away, and he was Nez's closest neighbor. Ironhorse rode next to the ex-medic, the pair exchanging information on the layout of the area and possible methods of approaching the man's camp without being seen.
Harrison rode beside Caitlin, offering her what support he could through his presence. Suzanne followed, uneasiness gathering across her shoulders.
"Colonel, it might be best if you and I go in first. If that old witch is an alien…" Damion trailed off.
"I agree. If he is, it's a good bet there'll be others, especially if this is tied to the warship. We know it takes three of them to operate it."
"First the 'Nam, and now this? Man, how do you keep doin' it?"
Ironhorse watched the trail. "Someone has to."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Damion held up his hand to stop the others. "The cabin's just on the other side of this rise."
Ironhorse nodded, turning in his saddle to address the others. "Damion and I will go in to take a look. Stay here. If we're not back in an hour, get the hell out of here and contact Omega."
"No can do, Colonel," Blackwood argued. "If you're not back in an hour, we're coming in after you. We have to know what we're up against."
The soldier ground his teeth together. Blackwood was right, but he didn't relish the thought of the threesome being placed in jeopardy if he failed. "All right, but if it looks like you're outnumbered, get the hell out of here and get help."
Blackwood nodded. "We will."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The two men moved closer to the camp. Unlike Nez's home, there were no sheep pens or corrals, only a small ramshackle hogan sitting under several trees. Ironhorse motioned for Damion to circle behind the foliage while he approached through the trees from the side.
The black man headed off silently.
Ironhorse gave him two minutes, then moved forward in a slow crouch, his eyes scanning the area in a constant vigil. He could smell the fire burning inside, sending grey smoke curling into the cold October morning. An occasional snowflake drifted down.
Listening, the soldier heard no sounds to give away someone inside the hogan. Easing his M-9 from its belt holster, he waited, checking his watch for the mark when Damion reached the other side of the building.
Looking up he saw the black man shake his head. He'd seen nothing.
Ironhorse held up his hand, signaling that Damion should wait outside. He checked the Geiger counter, frowning slightly when it failed to register even normal ambient background radiation. Another check proved that the battery was still good. The heat detector was equally uncooperative.
What the hell?
It felt wrong, but there was nothing left to do. He started forward.
Inside, the old witch waited.
Ironhorse slipped silently past the blanket serving as a door.
Uncurling gnarled brown fingers, the witch blew powder into the soldier's face as Ironhorse swung the weapon around to fire.
Paul's mind raced. He wasn't there! The gun dropped from his suddenly slack fingers.
"Come for me, human?" the alien/witch asked, a feral smile curling his lips off stained teeth.
Ironhorse's eyes went wide. He was in trouble – serious trouble.
The old man reached for a wooden box on a nearby shelf. "No song box for either of us," he said. "Already gone. Damned art show at the university. You die for nothing."
Staring at the carved wooden box the alien was holding, Ironhorse fought the irrational and overwhelming urge to reach out and touch the closed lid. The design on the surface seemed to move, beckoning to be caressed.
"You want what is inside," the old man stated firmly.
Ironhorse nodded. "Inside," he whispered, his hand twitching closer.
"Reach in. You have to have it."
The alien/witch raised the lid a few inches and Ironhorse felt his fingers slide over the smooth wood and into the blackness even as he fought frantically to stop himself. He jumped back sluggishly after what felt like a pin pricked his finger.
The old man laughed.
With great effort, the colonel reached for the battle baton strapped between his shoulder blades, but his hand refused to close around the hilt. He sank to his knees on the dirt floor, his empty hands coming up to his head in an effort to stop the wild rush of the room as it spun around him, out of control. When strong hands gripped his shoulders, Ironhorse pitched forward, unconscious.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Damion heard a soft grunt, and made his way to the door of the hogan as quickly as he could. Bursting past the fluttering blanket, he rapidly surveyed the room.
Ironhorse was on his knees, straining fingers tangled in his short black hair. With another groan, the colonel teetered forward dangerously.
Carpenter stepped up to steady the soldier, only to have Paul pitch forward and collapse. Lowering Ironhorse to the dirt floor, he checked the room a second time, but there was no one there and no place to hide.
On the ground near the fallen soldier was a small wooden box and the colonel's weapon.
His heart beating rapidly, Damion fought back his immediate reaction: it was a booby-trap. Using the barrel of the gun, he raised the lid, letting it fall closed when the contents made to escape.
Black widow spiders.
He shivered. "Little fuckin' devils."
With no sign of the old witch, Damion stepped outside and fired off a single shot, waited a moment, then fired again.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"That's our cue," Caitlin said. "But something's wrong. One shot's all clear, two's trouble. Do you have weapons?"
Suzanne nodded, removing her nine millimeter from the satchel she carried.
"Dr. Blackwood?"
"I don't use guns," he said simply.
"Follow me, then. Dr. McCullough, if you'd guard our collective rear?"
"Absolutely."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A more detailed inspection of Ironhorse turned up the powder on his face and hair. Licking the tip of his finger, Damion captured a tiny sample and tasted it. It was familiar, but unrecognizable.
At the sound of horses approaching, the ex-medic left the colonel to make sure it was Caitlin with the others.
"What's wrong?" the anthropologist asked, sliding off her mount.
"Don't know exactly. Ironhorse went in first. I heard a groan and walked in on him passin' out. I think he might've tangled with a black widow, and there's some sort of powder on his face—"
A half-strangled scream ripped out of the adobe structure a moment before the blanket was torn off the door and Ironhorse emerged, shoulders hunched and eyes wide.
"Paul?"
The soldier dived for the cover of the wood pile just outside the hogan.
"Get down!" Damion yelled as Ironhorse rose behind the barricade, firing randomly as the group scattered for cover.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"What the hell do we do now?" Caitlin asked, lying on her back in a shallow wash.
"Stay under cover," Damion told her. "I'm goin' to work my way around behind him."
"Be careful," Blackwood said. "He's the best."
"Tell me about it," the large black man muttered, wiggling off on his belly and elbows.
After Carpenter reached the cover of the trees, Harrison yelled. "Colonel? Paul. Can you hear me?"
"Craig?" Ironhorse called back, his voice anxious and high. "Craig, where are you? The slick saw us, man, they'll call for a dust off. We gotta move. Now."
Blackwood started to move, but Suzanne and Caitlin both reached out to stop him.
"Harrison, he might shoot you," Suzanne said.
"Or he might listen to me," the astrophysicist argued. "If I don't try, he could end up shooting one of us."
"Could he be an alien?" Caitlin asked. "Damion said he was in there alone. If they take over bodies couldn't there be one inside of him?"
"She has a point, Harrison," Suzanne said, her eyes stinging.
Blackwood nodded. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he removed the hand held Geiger counter. "I'll be sure to check."
"Harrison, here," Suzanne said, holding out her gun. "If he is…"
Blackwood stared at the weapon, his teeth grinding in indecision. He reached out and pushed it back at her. "I know he isn't."
"Craig!" Ironhorse yelled again. "What the hell are you doin'?"
"I'm right here," Blackwood called back, rising above the wash just far enough to see Paul crouched behind the wood pile, scanning the area. The scientist waved slowly to get the soldier's attention.
"Come on, man, they're movin' in."
Standing, Harrison caught a glimpse of Carpenter moving through the trees while Ironhorse was distracted. "Okay, here I come."
"Move," the colonel hissed, waving at him to hurry.
Harrison jogged over to the pile of wood, his gaze flickering to the R.D. before he slid in beside the soldier.
"You're crazy, man. We've gotta get out of here. The dust off's will go for LZ tango."
"Where are we?" Harrison asked, unable to follow the conversation.
Ironhorse gave Blackwood a quick once over. "You okay?"
"I'm fine. I just— I just don't know what you're so upset about."
The colonel snorted. "Man, we're right in the middle of a freakin' NVA maneuver, and you don't know what the hell's going on? Get real, C."
Blackwood's mind raced. Ironhorse was flashing back to Vietnam. He thought he was someone named Craig and they were in serious danger.
"Paul, there are more of our people out there," he said softly, hoping he could insure no one was hurt.
"More? Where?"
"They're hiding below that wash where I was."
"Get them over here. We've got to get moving. They'll start walking mortars in on us anytime now."
"Okay," Blackwood soothed, watching as Ironhorse maintained a constant vigil. "I agree." There was no way Carpenter was going to sneak up on the man unless he was distracted. "But you've got to know. They're women."
"Women?" the colonel said, turning back to stare at Blackwood.
"Huh, nurses," Harrison responded, hoping that would make some kind of sense in the situation.
"Oh, man," Ironhorse said, the palm of one hand slapping silently against his leg. "Okay, okay, I'll keep watch, you call 'em over." The soldier returned to his frantic scanning. "Do it, now, man."
"Caitlin. Suzanne. I want you to stand up, nice and slow, and walk over here."
The pair peeked over the edge of the embankment.
"It's okay," Harrison called. "You're in danger there. Come over here where it's safe."
Suzanne stood first and started over the lip of the wash, only to freeze halfway when Ironhorse sprang up behind the barricade with a battle cry.
Eyes wide, he leveled the M-9 on the microbiologist, hissing "What are you doing?"
"What's wrong?" Blackwood asked, genuinely confused.
"She's VC, man. Can't you see that pack?"
Harrison looked back at his frightened colleague, noting the satchel slung over her shoulder. The bag contained the equipment Suzanne needed to collect specimens and make blood tests. "That's her first aid kit," he assured.
Ironhorse shook his head, barking out something in Vietnamese. Reaching up, he pushed imaginary sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand.
Suzanne was scared, but stood her ground.
The order was repeated, then with a sudden convulsion, Ironhorse dropped to the ground, one arm coming up to cover his face. He was immediately back up on his knees, yelling, "Incoming! Watch her, watch her!"
He spun in the crouch, firing first in Suzanne's direction, then into the trees where Blackwood had last seen Carpenter.
"Paul, it's all right!" Harrison yelled, making a grab for the gun.
Ironhorse twisted expertly away, his head tilting back a split second before he dove for cover. "They're walking 'em in! She's got a radio in that pack!"
The soldier rolled, coming up on his knees and snapping the weapon back up to point at Suzanne. His finger began to squeeze.
"Ironhorse, no!" Blackwood yelled, making a lunge for the man.
The colonel's reflexes were too fast for Harrison to grab the weapon, but the movement did spoil his aim, the bullet passing harmlessly over the microbiologist's head. Suzanne dove for the cover of the wash.
Caitlin stood up several yards further down from where Blackwood had left her, and yelled, capturing the soldier's attention long enough for McCullough to reach safety.
"You might want to die," Ironhorse snarled at Blackwood. "But I don't!"
"She wasn't a threat to you!"
"We'll circle around and make for the LZ."
"Colonel, wait!"
Ironhorse spun. "Now, damn it!"
A rope snaked out from some direction Blackwood couldn't fathom, encircling Ironhorse's upper arms and cinching tight. With a animal-like cry the colonel spun, only to have the M-9 kicked from his hand.
In Ironhorse's mind the scene shifted from the jungles of Vietnam to an abandoned tourist attraction in the Toiyabe mountains. "Run, Blackwood!" he yelled. "They're aliens!"
Damion looped a second coil around the fighting man, securing his arms to his sides.
"Harrison, run!"
Ironhorse fought frantically, Blackwood finally daring to edge closer. He grabbed hold of the rope, helping Carpenter while Suzanne and Caitlin scrambled to join them.
A third toss of the rope and Ironhorse fell. Once on the ground, Carpenter used his size and strength to finishing tying him off.
"Harrison!" Paul nearly screamed when the scientist took a step closer to Damion, then blackness rushing in from the edges of his vision robbed the soldier of consciousness.
Harrison searched for a pulse as Suzanne checked Paul's eyes. "Something's wrong," she stated. "His pupils are dilated like he's been drugged."
"His pulse is racing, too," Blackwood added. Looking up at Damion, he asked, "You said there was some sort of powder on him?"
Carpenter nodded. "Brownish. I tasted it, but I didn't know what it was."
Caitlin reached out and rubbed her finger over Ironhorse's cheek, then touched it to her tongue. "Peyote dust," she announced.
"Peyote?"
"And something else," Caitlin added. "But I'm sure it'd act as a hallucinogen."
"Great," Blackwood said. "Now what?"
"If he's high on peyote, he'll come down in an hour or so, but if that Wolf used a box of widows on him, we're gonna have to get him some help," Damion said.
"Widows?" Suzanne asked.
"Black widow spiders. There's a box of them in there."
The microbiologist's face wrinkled in revulsion. "How fast can we get him to a hospital?"
"Will that phone work here?" Damion asked, nodding at the mobile unit on Blackwood's belt.
Harrison pulled it free and dialed the Cottage.
Norton's voice sounded behind a burst of static. "Doc?"
"Norton?"
"Yeah, Harrison. You're fading on me. Speak loud."
"Norton, we've got a situation here."
Damion grabbed Harrison's arm. "Tell him to call the Window Rock police, and—"
Blackwood handed the phone to the ex-medic.
"Hi, Damion Carpenter," Damion said, immediately continuing, "look, Ironhorse is in trouble here. Call the Window Rock police station. Tell them we need a medevac chopper to meet us at—"
"His Squad's closer, but the weather's got them on the ground," Drake said over the static. "You've got a pretty nasty storm cell headed your way."
"Shit," Carpenter swore. "Okay, but as soon as they can get airborne, they've gotta be in the air."
"Understood. Where are you?"
"Have them meet us at the William Nez ranch. Old man Nez."
"The old man Nez ranch. Okay, I've got the coordinates for that one, no problem. What's going on?"
Carpenter handed the phone back to Blackwood. "He wants to know what's going on."
"Norton?"
"Doc, what's happening? You and Suzanne okay?"
"We're fine. The colonel had a run in with a local witch we think's an alien. If you pick up any more transmissions, call. Immediately."
"I'll contact Omega Squad. They'll meet you ASAP."
"Thanks, Norton."
Returning the phone to his belt, Blackwood stared down at the soldier, who was just beginning to struggle weakly in the ropes. "How are we going to get him back to Nez's place?"
"The horses," Carpenter said. "Someone's going to have to ride with him."
"I will," Blackwood said.
"Sorry, doctor, but if anything spooks the animals, you couldn't handle both. Cait, can you take him until we get to Blackbird Ridge? I can take over there and get him back to Nez's."
She nodded. "It's going to get tricky in the dark."
"Yeah, I know."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Monday, October 31

They arrived at William Nez's hogan, accompanied by a light snowfall. The determined look on Carpenter's face as he carried Ironhorse inside told Blackwood that the situation was not good.
"Can the chopper make it out here in this?" he asked the ex-medic as he followed him into the shelter.
Damion shook his head. "If it's the usual winter storm, they just got hit, but they can't fly into this. We're going to have to wait until it clears here and hope it doesn't move back their direction."
"Can he wait?" Suzanne asked, stopping just inside the door to stomp the snow off her shoes. "We don't have any way of knowing how much venom he's been exposed to."
Caitlin left the threesome to arrange the man on the pallet that served as a bed while she built a fire in the old potbelly stove to warm up the place.
"A widow bite won't usually kill a grown man," Damion explained as he helped remove the rest of the colonel's weapons. "But it will make his life hell for eight to forty-eight hours, depending on the amount of venom."
"And the peyote?" Suzanne asked, pulling off her jacket and then starting to work on Ironhorse's jacket, shirt, and wet jeans.
"That should be out of his system by now," Caitlin said. "Even if that Wolf cut it with other hallucinogens."
Suzanne accepted a bowl of water and a cloth from Caitlin, then washed Ironhorse's face to be sure the powder was gone.
"Why hasn't he regained consciousness?" Blackwood asked, watching Carpenter secure Ironhorse's wrists to the outer rungs of the wooden pallet. "Is that necessary?"
"Until he wakes up and proves he knows who he is and where he is, I gotta play it safe. The man's a trained weapon, and I don't want to leave it lying around with the safety off."
"Point taken," Harrison said.
With Suzanne's help Damion covered Paul with several hand-woven blankets. "A widow bite isn't good," he explained while he worked. "It causes cramps, abdominal and back mostly, and there's a hell of a lot of pain, muscle aches, headache, fever, and throwin' up."
"You sound like you've done this before," Blackwood noted.
"I did." Carpenter grinned. "Thirteen hours of hell at the bottom of a ravine in mid-July. I damned near died from the heat and dehydration. Probably would've if a certain Dr. Breedlove hadn't stumbled across my sorry ass."
Caitlin smiled at the man. "And what a cute ass it was, too – even if it was dog sick at the time. I haven't been able to get rid of it since."
The teasing relaxed the two Project members for a moment, then a groan from the pallet drew their attention. Blackwood scooted closer when he saw that Ironhorse was awake. "Paul, how do you feel?"
"Like hell. What's going on? Where's the old man?"
"What old man?" Harrison asked.
"The old man in the Hogan…" Ironhorse trailed off as he realized he was back at the Nez ranch. "How'd I get here? What's going on, Blackwood?"
Harrison hesitated long enough for Carpenter to pick up the explanation. "That old Wolf must've been waitin' for us. He dosed you with peyote and let a few spiders invite you to lunch."
At the word spider, Ironhorse flinched, trying to jerk his right hand away from some unseen threat. "I— I remember… vaguely. He said the song box was gone, but he doesn't have it either. It's at the university."
"Whoa, that dust sent you orbital, Paul. Are you sure about all this?"
Ironhorse nodded, his breath catching, then coming in short gasps. "Call the squad in Tucson," he instructed Blackwood.
When Harrison looked skeptical, he reached for the phone hanging on the scientist's belt. "Wh— Why am I tied down? What did I do?" he demanded, fixing Blackwood with a dark glare.
"It's nothing," Harrison reassured him.
The expression on the colonel's face spoke clearly of his lack of trust, but he didn't push.
Damion reached out and took the man's pulse. "How do you feel, Colonel? Headache?"
"Like a mule kicked me."
"Muscles a little sore?"
"An understatement."
"Anyplace in particular?"
"Stomach and my back. The spider venom?"
Damion nodded. "Any idea how many bites you took?"
Ironhorse thought for a moment, then shook his head. "Don't know. It felt like a pin prick."
"Nauseous?"
"A little. Thirsty."
"I'll get some water," Caitlin said, pushing past the blanket-draped door.
"Okay, Colonel, one last question. How do your feet feel?"
"His feet?" Blackwood asked.
Ironhorse closed his eyes. "I— I don't know. Can't feel anything."
Carpenter nodded. "Numb feet's a sign the venom's systemic. We got a call in to your medevac chopper, but there's a storm moving over us. The chopper's not gettin' out here until it's passes. Think you can tough it out? It's hell, man, but it beats dead."
"It'll do," Paul said, his eyes closing against the pain and swallowing to push back the nausea.
Damion looked across the pallet to catch Blackwood's attention. "Grab some wood. It's gonna get cold."
"Sure," Harrison replied.
"I'll help," Suzanne offered.
When they were alone, Ironhorse's eyes opened and he focused on the black man. "What happened out there?"
"Flashback. To the 'Nam. Something about a guy named Craig and a local woman. Sounded like she had a backpack full of bomb."
Ironhorse's eyes squeezed shut again, this time against the memories flooding through his mind. The young VC woman, her sacrifice. Other bodies… Sara Cole… and now almost Suzanne…
"What'd I do?" he asked in a whisper.
"Took a few shots at anything movin', like this black butt."
The colonel's eyes opened, his gaze locking on Damion.
"You thought your Dr. McCullough was VC, took a pop at her, but Blackwood and Caitlin stopped you. That's when I got the rope around you."
The soldier's jaws ground together. "Why?"
"Some kind of magic powder," Damion explained. "Cait said it's peyote plus."
"Is that shit worked through my system?"
"No way to know. Peyote's strange shit. Sometimes you think it's all gone, then pop, you're right back in the middle of another reality."
"Until you're sure leave me tied up. Understood?"
"I planned on it, Chief. Like I told Blackwood. You're too damned dangerous to leave lying around."
"Good," Ironhorse slurred. "And don't call me Chief."
"Right… Shirley," Carpenter told him, patting his arm and watching as the soldier slipped off again.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

On the pallet, Ironhorse writhed as the cramps folded over his abdomen like burning fingers clawing their way inside, while across his lower back the same fingers dug in from the other direction, both straining to meet somewhere in his gut. His head rolled fitfully, sweat leaving the pillow and bedding wet.
A half-scream strangled in his throat as he fought it back, his legs beginning to cramp, twitching against the restraints.
"Get the blankets out of the way," Damion instructed, tossing the hand-woven covers off the man's chest. Harrison pulled it off the rest of the way.
"Rub his legs," Damion instructed Blackwood. "I'll work on the back. It'll help ease the cramps a little."
Harrison felt the muscles tremble as he rubbed, soft at first, then with more force as the tissue knotted under his fingers. He ached to untie the man, but knew he might hurt himself if he did.
Ironhorse swallowed convulsively, trying to speak.
Harrison shook his head, unable to understand the unspoken request, but Carpenter moved, a knife flashing into his hand. He freed one of Paul's wrists, then reached for a large wooden bowl he'd set near the pallet earlier.
Grabbing Ironhorse's shoulder, the ex-medic just managed to get the man onto his side before the heaves shook through his body.
Suzanne moved closer, but the panicked expression that flashed across Ironhorse's face when he saw her forced her back.
"Can I do anything?" she asked Caitlin, who was digging through a wooden chest.
"I'm going to try and come up with some home remedies that will help the symptoms. Care to help boil water?"
"Anything," McCullough said, trying to block out the sounds of the next round of vomiting.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Dawn came with no respite from the snow. Several inches dusted the desert, but Blackwood was immune to the beauty. It had been several long hours since the first symptoms had started and they were only now beginning to ease. There had been times during the night when he thought the darkness would never lift.
He checked his watch… they'd reached the Nez ranch just after midnight and it was almost seven now…
If the venom didn't run its course soon, or the chopper arrive with an anti-venom, Paul Ironhorse would die. Damion and Caitlin had tried everything they could think of over the course of the night, but nothing seemed to ease the suffering. The vomiting had finally settled into on-again off-again dry heaves, although the cramping never abated. Exhaustion forced the soldier to sleep, but before he could get enough to do him any good, the knotting muscles dragged him back to the torment.
Blackwood found a secluded spot behind the corral where he was under the shelter of a rook overhang and leaned back against the rough wood, allowing himself to rest. The soldier's strength was amazing, his courage and stubborn determination to fight and survive almost frightening in its intensity.
In the pit of his stomach, Blackwood allowed another fear he'd hidden away to slip free. They had never found the old man, the alien, who had done this to Ironhorse. He was still out there, and heaven help them, they had no idea what sort of hell the invaders were plotting. At least none of the Omega teams had called to report activity. Not that they even be able to reach them with the weather, but it was a slim hope to cling to.
Suzanne's voice, calling for him, shook the scientist from his melancholy, and he walked back to the hogan to join her outside the door. "What is it?"
Suzanne beamed him a smile just before landing a snowball on his chest. "The fever's broken!"
Blackwood smiled, a wave of relief washing through him.
"And the nausea's letting up, along with the cramps. Damion says it looks like we've crested the mountain. Now we just have to get him down the other side."
Harrison scooped the woman up and gave her a tight hug.
"He's so weak, Harrison," she whispered against his shoulder.
"He'll make it, Suzanne. We can't lose him now. There's still a war to fight."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Ironhorse lay, staring at the ceiling. He finally had a true appreciation for the phrase "weak as a kitten." Across the room Harrison and Suzanne slept. Damion was tending the fire and Caitlin was gone. Shifting slightly, the soldier pushed himself up and leaned back against the adobe wall.
Carpenter looked up from the flames. "'Mornin'," he said softly.
"I appreciate the fact you didn't tag a good on that," Paul said.
The ex-medic grinned. "You're over the worst of it now, Colonel. You just need a few days to get your strength back."
"Did Blackwood call the unit in Tucson?"
Damion shrugged. "I don't know. We were a little distracted."
"Hand me the phone."
Carpenter carried it over and handed it to the man. "Why do I get the feelin' you're plannin' something most people would call stupid?"
"You've been around Blackwood too long," Ironhorse grumbled, pressing out the number to the unit providing security for two groups of University scientists engaged in alien research. "Captain Trace? This is Ironhorse."
"Yes, sir, what can I do for you?" replied the commander on the other end.
Ironhorse had to remind himself that he was well aware that the Sigma Squad captain was a woman. "Captain, I need you to check the University to see if there is some sort of Native American art show there. If so, see if you can locate a solid black rectangle, six by six by nine inches."
"And if I find it, sir?"
"Isolate it and keep it under guard until I get there."
"Yes, sir."
"Thank you, Captain," the colonel said, his intentions of telling her to be careful cut off when a beep announced that there was another call. "I'll check in later."
"Yes, sir," Captain Trace said.
"Ironhorse," he said, his voice catching as a series of milder cramps worked their way down his back.
"Colonel, this is Derriman. We have activity."
The soldier's eyes closed. "Where?"
"Just shy of the New Mexico border on the southeast side of Roof Butte. Mr. Drake pin-pointed the location and called us last night. We arrived at dawn and sure enough, there's twenty-one of 'em digging up something."
"Monitor their progress, but do not engage unless absolutely necessary. We'll join you as soon as we can."
"Yes, sir," Derriman replied. "Are you all right?"
"I'll be fine, Sergeant."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Paul, are you crazy or just plain stupid?" Suzanne asked.
"Look, if they get their hands on that warship we'll lose this war, people," Ironhorse argued.
"And if you try riding three hours in your condition you'll be dead," Blackwood countered angrily.
"Doctor—"
"The Omega Squad's quite capable of dealing with this without your help!" Harrison fumed.
The distant wop of chopper blades stilled the argument. Damion grinned at Caitlin. It was just getting interesting.
Ironhorse nodded. "Well, Doctor, that should solve the problem."
Blackwood nodded. "Damned right. You're going to the hospital."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Ironhorse ordered the chopper to set down far enough away from the site that he was sure the aliens would not know of their arrival. The medics weren't happy about their patient jumping ship, but there was little they could do about it.
The hike to join the Squad used up what reserves the colonel had and he entered the staging area on trembling legs.
"Sit down before you fall down, Colonel," Damion said, his gaze sweeping across Ironhorse's men. They were good. Scary good.
A very pretty blonde sergeant reported with a sharp salute, her eyes full of concern. "Colonel."
"Coleman, what's the situation?"
"They've got the warship about half uncovered. Three more aliens arrived on horseback about an hour ago. Total of twenty-four. The ship looks damaged."
"Well, that's something," Blackwood said.
"I want to take a look at the site," the colonel said, trying to stand.
"Damn it, Paul, can't you just sit—"
"Blackwood, let me do my job."
The astrophysicist bit back a nasty reply.
"Help me over," Paul ordered, and Coleman and Damion moved to either side of the man, supporting most of his weight as they maneuvered to a location where he could study the aliens with the high powered binoculars Derriman provided.
"The army's sure changed," the black man said under his breath.
"You haven't seen the half of it," the colonel replied.
The falling snow made Ironhorse more uncomfortable, and he tried to still the shakes that made it difficult to hold the field glasses. After a survey of the terrain, he made his decision, and turning found his three sergeants waiting for him. "Stavrakos, take three and flank to the right. Use the wash for cover. Derriman, take two to the left down past the rise." The two men nodded, moving off to gather their gear and troops.
Coleman shifted. "And me, sir?"
Ironhorse waited for the rising nausea to abate before he responded. "Sergeant, you and the rest are going to provide a distraction once the others are in position."
"Sir, you and the doctors will be vulnerable if we're out there."
"I think we have enough protection to hold our own, Sergeant."
"You got that right," Damion muttered. "You got a couple of extra weapons lyin' around?"
Coleman nodded, gesturing for him to follow her.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Leaning against the rough rock face, Ironhorse wiped the sweat off his face and watched the progress of his men.
Next to him Suzanne split her time watching the Omega Squad and the colonel. Blackwood was farther back where he had a better view of the aliens. Caitlin waited with the astrophysicist while Damion squatted not far away, covering all of them.
A chill caused Ironhorse's teeth to chatter.
"Cold?" Suzanne asked.
"Yes and no," he said honestly.
He still had enough of a fever to create the contradiction. When this was over he was going to have to talk to her about what happened. The idea that he had fired on the woman was still physically painful. But now was not the time to deal with it.
The radio lying on Ironhorse's thigh clicked once. Stavrakos was in position. A minute later two clicks sounded in the still air. Derriman was also set.
Taking a tight hold of the radio, he raised it, saying softly, "Go."
Coleman's unit opened fire, the Mor'taxans scattering for what cover they could find. As they veered off to the left and right, the other two groups sprang up from the washes to catch them in the open. The battle lasted several minutes, but the aliens were no match for the highly trained army unit. The Omega Squad had bided their time, and executed their duty with a swift and violent precision.
When the gunfire stopped, Ironhorse keyed the radio. "I want a body count. We can't afford to let any of them escape."
"Damn fine maneuver, Colonel," Carpenter said.
Ironhorse nodded, allowing his eyes to close as he rested his head against the rock.
"Sir, we have twenty-three sets of remains," Coleman announced over the radio.
"Damn," Paul breathed. Without opening his eyes, he said, "Establish a perimeter and search in. Find that alien, Sergeant. Teams of two, everyone using their R.D.'s."
"Yes, sir," was the reply.
"Paul, we should get you back to the chopper," Suzanne said.
"Not until that—"
"Colonel, it's over. You did it. Now, let the Squad finish their clean up," Blackwood said.
"They're right, Ironhorse," Damion added. "You're losin' it. Time to let someone else fight for a while, my man."
Ironhorse nodded as a cramp settled in his lower back. With Blackwood and Carpenter's help, he managed to get to his feet, Caitlin continuing to scan the area as the group started down from the staging area. Using the radio, Suzanne called the chopper.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

They heard the chanting as they reached the level ground of the desert. The group came to an abrupt halt, Ironhorse stiffening.
"Paul?" Harrison questioned. "What's wrong?"
The singing became louder.
"It's that Wolf," Caitlin said, looking around the rocky slopes. "He's trying to control him."
The gurgling sound coming from the back of the colonel's throat was enough to convince Blackwood something was wrong.
Damion stepped away, the Uzi Coleman had provided him earlier coming up in his hands as he scanned the area for the old man. "Cait, take over for me."
Dr. Breedlove took the ex-medic's place, fishing in her pocket for something.
Suzanne removed her own revolver and stepped in closer to the astrophysicist. "I don't like this," she said.
"Me either," Harrison whispered.
Tugging free the small carving that William Nez had been holding when he died, Caitlin forced it into Ironhorse's hand. "Come on, Colonel, we have to go," she said sternly. "Now."
The sound of the chopper approaching dulled the chanting, but they were fifty yards shy of the waiting craft.
A growl broke through Ironhorse's lips and he hurled the small stone turtle to the ground, fracturing it into several shards.
"Grab him!" Caitlin yelled, but the soldier was already moving, rushing Carpenter. "Damion!"
Colliding with the large black man, they fell, Ironhorse's hand snaking out to wrap around the gun, but Carpenter refused to let go.
Blackwood scrambled back, helping Suzanne to cover. He reached out for Caitlin, but she jerked out of his grip. Raising her arms over her head, she cried out a single syllable that echoed over the broken landscape and silenced the chant for a moment. When it began again it was weaker. Caitlin began a song of her own.
Damion wrestled with Ironhorse for control of the Uzi, feeling Ironhorse's rapidly weakening grip. "Ironhorse, it's me, damn it!" he yelled. "Stop it!"
"Harrison!" Suzanne said, pointing at the old man standing on a small outcropping above them. To either side of the man was a sheer drop-off. How the alien had reached the location was a mystery. Pressing the safety off, Suzanne aimed with shaking hands and fired.
Caitlin spun around, her eyes locking on the blended alien-witch. Raising a fist, he shook it at the group, then turned and stepped off the side of the precipice.
Blackwood scrambled from cover, looking over the edge of the bluff, frantically searching the rocks below for a body, but there was none.
A groan snapped his attention back to Paul, who lay sprawled in the snow next to Carpenter, his chest heaving. "Let's get the hell out of here," Paul wheezed.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Thursday, November 3

The muted beat of rain beat a peaceful cadence that Ironhorse followed on his path back to consciousness. Images and feelings flowed past him, distant and half visible. The smell of cedar and a soft voice penetrated the fog and he opened his eyes.
He was in a sweat lodge. A fire snapped nearby and a woman sang a song of power and thanksgiving. She sang in Cherokee. Rolling his head to the side, he found Caitlin.
She smiled and ended her song with a heartfelt, "Ho."
"Hey," the soldier replied, grinning at the addition of the plains emphasis. "Where am I?"
"My lodge," she told him. "We had to cut the ties the old Wolf bound you with."
"The others?"
"Safe. And your soldiers are finished out at Roof Butte. I saw the ship. It was… beautiful, but horrible, if that makes sense."
"More than you can imagine. How long—"
"Three days," she told him. "They kept you in the hospital for two, and we brought you here last night."
"You've been singing all night?"
She shrugged. "Not all night. Part of the time I was casting circles and cleaning your chakra points."
Ironhorse groaned.
"Don't dismiss it so quick. Harrison tells me you're on your own path of power."
"Dr. Breedlove, I groaned because I'm sore, damned sore, all over," he told her, shifting for a more comfortable position and not finding one. "I've given up dismissing anything over the past few years."
She smiled, using a bundle of eagle feathers to brush lightly over his arms and legs. The pain subsided. "You'll be fine. Even the doctors said you'd be back to a hundred present in a week. I'd guess more like three days."
Ironhorse nodded.
"Up for some company?"
He nodded again. "Before you leave, I want to apologize," he said softly. "I shouldn't have—"
"Colonel, you're a soldier, not Superman."
He chuckled. "I've heard that line before."
"I'll just bet you have. But in any case, what happened was outside your control. I'm just glad everyone's okay."
"Thank you."
She patted his shoulder. "I'll be back… just rest."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Paul?"
"I'm awake, Doctor."
Blackwood ducked into the lodge and sat down next to the resting man. The near-silly grin on his face said more about the scientist's feelings than words could.
"Welcome back. Omega squad wrapped up yesterday. The warship's safely on its way to the research facility in Texas. It was damaged, but we were able to look around inside and came up with what I think are a couple of new alien weapons."
"And the old man?"
Blackwood glanced down at his hands. "Nothing."
"We have to get down to Tucson."
"Not until you're fully recovered."
The colonel sighed. "Today."
"You are the most stubborn—"
"I learned it from you, Doctor."
Blackwood smiled in spite of himself. "Norton's keeping tabs on the Sigma Squad. They have the artifact. Oh, and he finally found some information on our Dr. Breedlove. It seems she might be more than just an anthropologist and archeologist."
"Oh?"
"There are an amazing number of correlations between her visits to foreign countries for conferences and digs, and what can only be described as incidents of political intrigue."
"Why am I not surprised?"
"Before we go storming off to Tucson, Suzanne would like to see you."
Ironhorse nodded, watching as Blackwood stood and started out. "Harrison."
"Yeah?"
"Thank you. I appreciate everything you did."
The scientist fought the grin for a moment. "You're welcome, Paul."
"Get out of here," the soldier growled in mock annoyance.
Blackwood wagged his eyebrows and eased past the blanket. A moment later Suzanne entered, carrying an armload of clothes. "Harrison tells me you're at it again."
"This isn't over yet."
She nodded. "I know. How do you feel?"
"A little weak, a lot sore, but I'll be fine." He sat up, taking the clothes from the microbiologist. "Suzanne, I wanted to talk to you. I'm—"
"Paul," she interrupted. When he had trouble meeting her eyes, she smiled. It was very much like Debi when she was feeling guilty. "What happened scared me. I won't say it didn't, but it wasn't your fault."
Looking up, Ironhorse regarded the woman. Suzanne McCullough was pretty damned amazing. Reaching up, he squeezed her shoulder. She didn't move away or flinch, and he wondered if he would have the same trust if the situation was reversed. In fact, she leaned into him, giving him a warm, heartfelt hug.
"Thanks," he said softly.
"You're welcome. Now, you better get dressed if we're heading to Tucson. It's a long drive. You can rest on the way. Harrison and I can drive."
"Harrison?"
"Okay, so maybe I better do the driving."
"I feel better already."