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"Fly, big guy!  Just fly!"

"I'm trying!"

 

Friday, November 4

 

          Harrison turned in the Bronco's passenger seat, reaching through the seats to tap Ironhorse's knee.  "Colonel?"

          Paul blinked awake and sat up.  "What's wrong?"

          "Nothing," Suzanne assured.  "We're twelve miles out of Tucson."

          "Just follow the Omegans," Paul instructed, yawning.  "Hopefully this won't take long.  We can catch a flight out of Davis Monthan and be home for supper."

          Suzanne smiled.  "That would be nice.  I think Debi's going to forget what I look like."

          "Isn't she at camp?" Harrison asked.

          Her eyes widened.  "That's right!"  She sighed, then glanced in the rearview mirror.  "Are we getting hotel rooms if we have to stay?"

          "No," Ironhorse said, rubbing his temples to drive the building headache away. "Sigma Squad is quartered in a house in the foothills.  We'll stay with them if we have to."

          "Headache?" Harrison asked.

          Paul nodded.  "I'll take some aspirin when we get there.  That'll take care of it."

          Suzanne followed the Omegans off the freeway and up into the rocky foothills.  Grey and tan, the imposing hillsides were studded with cacti.  The result was both beautiful and imposing.  They continued further up, the number of houses dropping off with each mile.

 

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

 

          A house in the foothills is an understatement, Suzanne decided as she parked in the circular gravel drive.

          The main structure, a rambling two-story adobe and log home, was almost as large as the Cottage.  Natural desert landscaping surrounded it and the three smaller houses that sat at the remaining three corners of the property.  Each of the smaller, single-story homes looked large enough for a small family.  A six foot adobe brick wall connected each structure, creating a secured backyard compound.

          Ironhorse led the way to the front door of the main house, protected by a wrought-iron screen door.  The carved wooden door opened as they reached the shaded porch.

          "Colonel Ironhorse," a woman said, opening the security door and inviting them in.  Three soldiers stood just inside, radiation and heat detectors in hand.

          Stepping into the foyer Suzanne sighed in appreciation.  The house was decorated in tasteful southwestern patterns and furniture, giving it a homey, if rustic feel.  The soldiers were dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers.  The woman, who looked to be in her early thirties, had short brown hair, hazel eyes, and an easy smile.

          "Sir, if you and your people will submit to a blood test we can get down to business," Captain Trace said.

          "Lead the way, Captain," Ironhorse instructed.

          She turned, leading the way to a basement lab that mimicked the one at the Cottage.  Sigma's medic checked Goodson first, then the two medics proceeded to run tests on the rest of the Blackwood Project members and the Omegans.

          "I need a couple of aspirin," Ironhorse said after his test.

          "Sure," Goodson said.  Getting them and a glass of water.  He handed both to the colonel.  "Headache?"

          Paul nodded.

          "Sir, it might be that you're pushing a little too hard," the medic suggested.

          "Thank you, Corporal," Ironhorse replied, popping the caplets in his mouth and washing them down.

 

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

 

          They retired to the large living room where coffee sat waiting for them.  Through large sliding glass doors, Suzanne could see that the outdoor compound included a pool, some exercise equipment under a roofed shelter, and several picnic tables.

          Ironhorse leaned back into a comfortable recliner, grateful for the moment to rest.  His head pounded, the aspirin having yet to kick in.

          "Captain," he said.  "I'd like a report."

          Captain Trace smiled and nodded as she picked up a cup labeled:  The Boss.  "As soon as we received your call I checked with the university.  There are two exhibits of Native American art on campus right now.  One is in the Anthropology building, the other in the Arizona State Museum, which is on campus.  Both collections are under the auspices of the University."

          "And you located the item?" Suzanne asked, pleasantly surprised to discover this woman was in command of Sigma.

          "Yes.  It was in the collection in the Anthropology exhibit.  I put it under guard, and Airman Stokes was able to make us a facsimile.  We made the switch last night."

          "Where's the item now?" Harrison asked.  "Can we see it?"

          "Since Colonel Ironhorse did not instruct me to remove the object from the campus, it's still there, but under wraps in the genetics lab."

          Ironhorse pushed himself out of the recliner, the pain in his head erupting as he did.  "Let's go," he said, wanting to get the item and get back to the Cottage.  "Harrison, you and Suzanne stay here."

          "But—" Blackwood started.

          "No buts, Doctor," Paul snapped.  "You don't know the campus and we don't have time to babysit you."

          "And you do?" Suzanne countered.  "Paul, you don't feel well, and—"

          "I'm familiar with the layout," he interrupted.

          "Of course you are," Suzanne muttered under her breath.

          "We'll be back as quickly as we can," the colonel assured.  "Omega will stay here, just in case."

          "Fine by me," Captain Trace said.

          As they stood, a small Latino man rushed in.  "Captain, just got a call from the lab, there's a problem."

          "What?" Trace and Ironhorse asked in unison.

          The man ignored the colonel.  "An old man's in the lab, demanding the, I quote, 'damned song box.'"

          "Now, people," Ironhorse hissed.  "Move."

 

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

 

          The trip to the university campus via the small chopper was swift.  Ironhorse trailed Trace and her Sigma A-team members from the landing pad on top of the University hospital to a science building nearly all the way across the campus.

          The spector of Sara Cole haunted each step the colonel took, along with the escalating pounding in his head.  The old witch was waiting for him… calling to him…

          Reaching the Gould-Simpson building, Dana punched in a code, entering through a private side door.  An elevator carried them to the top of the building.  Exiting, the soldiers moved out, sweeping each room as they closed on the main laboratory at the far end of the pale blue hallway.

          Meeting no resistance, they paused outside the lab's double glass doors.  Inside they could see the damage.  Someone had obviously ransacked the room, looking for the object.

          Trace nodded and her people burst through the door, moving in a search and clear pattern through the room.  At the far end, they found an older man lying face down on the floor.

          "Captain!"

          She moved forward, checking the man with her Geiger counter heat sensor.  Nothing.  Bending down, she gently turned him over.  "Dr. Hildabrant?"

          The man's eyes fluttered open.  "Dana?"

          "Take it easy, Doctor.  We'll get you to the hospital.  Where's the old man?"

          "I— I don't know.  He- he took a package out of the refrigerator and left…"

          "Damn," Trace breathed.

          "That our item?" Ironhorse asked, trying very hard not to sit down on an inviting stool.  His head echoed with drumming pain.

          She nodded, then snapped, "Garcia, Cooper, get the doctor to the hospital, and secure the lab.  The rest of you with me."

          They left the building, splitting into four teams of two.

          "Colonel," Captain Trace said.  "You're with me."

          "Fine," he said, hoping he could keep up.

 

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

 

          Ironhorse's hand snapped out, his fingers snaring Trace's wrist.  "There," he said, nodding.

          Trace caught sight of the man moving through the throng of students exiting the math building as classes let out.  He was old, really old, but he moved swiftly and with purpose.

          She raised her radio and keyed the mike.  "We have him.  Math building, headed toward the science library.  Move in."

          Ironhorse wove through the students, keeping the old man in sight and fighting back the nausea.

          "How he'd manage to get past the ninth floor security?" she asked.

          "I'm not sure," Ironhorse admitted.  "He's a shaman."

          "I doubt he walks through walls," she replied, noting the grey cast to the colonel's face.  "Are you okay?"

          "Fine," Paul replied.  "And you might be surprised what he can do."

 

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

 

          The old man kept one turn ahead of them and Dana was getting damned tired of it.  She watched him disappear into the State Museum building.

          "He's in the museum," Trace said into her radio.  "I want the exits secured.  No one gets out without an R.D. check."

          Glancing at the colonel, she wondered what was really going on.  She had gotten used to weird, but this was rapidly crossing the line into the bizarre.  Ironhorse seemed to be able to predict where the old shaman was, but with each step he looked sicker and sicker.  If he stays on his feet another ten minutes I'll be surprised, she thought.

          "Exits are secured, Blue Leader," the radio announced.

          Ironhorse led the way to the main doors.

          "I take it we'll be going in?" she asked.

          He nodded.

          "You're sure?  You look—"

          "Let's move, Captain."

          Great, she thought.  If I didn't know better I'd say the good colonel was possessed…

 

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

 

          Inside the building dim lights and cool air greeted them.  The musty odor of old leather and undisturbed pages hung in the air.  The faint sound of footsteps guided them up one flight of stairs and into the museum's main library stacks.

          One of the oldest buildings on campus, the high ceilings and narrow doors made tracking the echoing sound difficult.  The addition of rows of books muffled the sound further, making it impossible.  Paul and Dana proceeded together, staying in constant visual contact as they moved down each row in turn.

          Finishing one room, they moved to the next.

 

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

 

          The rows of books here were narrower.  Ironhorse motioned for Trace to proceed to the far end of the first.  She did, then together they moved past the rows, keeping each other in sight.

          The old man appeared out of nowhere, knife in hand.  He lunged at the colonel, slashing.

          Trace sprinted down the row, calling for backup.

          She saw Ironhorse jump back, but the tip of the sharp blade caught him, opening a shallow cut across his abdomen.  He sucked in a deep breath, his eyes glazing over.  Staggering back into the stack of books, he fought for breath, his fingers grasping for some unseen anchor.  Collapsing, he writhed for several seconds before falling deathly still.

          She stopped, her Beretta trained on the old man.  Her platoon sergeant, Nathan Gill, closed on him from the opposite direction.

          The old man laughed.  "You can kill me, but I have already won.  He belongs to me now."

          Her Geiger counter snapping, Dana didn't hesitate, nor did Gill.  They fired.

          The old witch slammed back against a shelf of books, sliding down, a mass of decomposing alien and human tissue.

          Together, they pulled Ironhorse clear of the mess.  Grabbing her radio, Trace barked, "I need a medic and a clean-up, ASAP.  Lani," she continued, speaking to her chopper pilot.  "Standby, we have an immediate evac."

 

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

 

          "What happened?" Harrison demanded, stalking into the bedroom turned infirmary.

          He had woken from his nap only to find Suzanne gone, and the Sigma Squad back.  One of the soldiers led him to the room where Suzanne, Goodson, and the Sigma medic worked over Ironhorse.

          Trace gave him a blow by blow, paying careful attention to the details of the fight in the museum.

          "There's nothing wrong with him," Goodson announced as he joined the pair.  "I don't know why he's not awake.  He should be.  The injury's superficial and there are no drugs in his system.  Nothing."

          "You're sure it's not a resurfacing of the peyote concoction?" Harrison asked.

          "I don't think so, but we'd need a better facility to run those tests."

          "Our people at the university hospital can do that," Dana offered.

          "Do it," Harrison said.

          The Sigma medic brushed past.  "I'm on it."

 

 * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "Nothing," Dana said, walking in to join Suzanne and Harrison in the colonel's room.

          "We have to get him back to the Cottage," Suzanne said.  "Maybe Caitlin can help him."

          "What are you thinking?" Harrison asked.

          "That maybe this has something to do with his mind, not his body," she said.

          A brief smile lifted Blackwood's lips.  "Isn't that my line?"

          Suzanne nodded.  "Usually."

          Harrison turned to the soldier.  "Captain?"

          "The chopper's on standby whenever you're ready," she said.  "And there's a plane at DM ready to go.  They should have you at Ft. Streeter in under three hours."

          "Let's do it," Suzanne said.

          Harrison nodded.  "I'll call Norton and see if he can get in touch with Caitlin and Damion."

 

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

 

          The Omegans scrambled out of the chopper, Goodson and Stavrakos carrying the stretcher where Ironhorse lay unconscious.  Suzanne and Harrison trailed them to the plane.  Both had expected a transport, but it was a small sleek Leer that waited.

          They climbed on board and buckled up, the plane already taxiing for takeoff.  As the pilot leveled off, one of the Omegans handed Blackwood a phone.

          "Blackwood," he said.

          "Hey, Doc, it's me," Norton replied.  "I called Caitlin, but I got Damion.  She's not available.  She's up with the Nez family… some kind of ritual.  She'll be out of touch for three to seven days."

          "Great," he said, cupping his hand over the mouthpiece.  "Norton says Caitlin's not available."

          Suzanne sighed, then shook her head.  "I guess we have to wait."

          Harrison removed his hand.  "Norton, call Cedar.  Tell her what happened and ask her if she knows someone who might be able to help."

          "Will do.  When should we expect you?"

          "In four."

          "Here or Streeter?"

          "At the Cottage.  Have Sergeant Derriman see to it Cedar's picked up."

          "You got it."

 

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

 

          Ironhorse felt himself falling, but in the silver-grey fog he couldn't make out his surroundings.  When he emerged into the landscape, surprise kept him from realizing that the landing was feather-light.  He was back in the northern Arizona desert.

          Snow fell silently across the bleak landscape.  Turning, no sign of life appeared.  In fact, he realized, it's completely silent.

          He took a step, the snow crunching under his boot heel, and stopped.

          "Hello," he called, the sound echoing across the land.

          With nothing left to do, he made a guess as to the direction and headed east.

 

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

 

          With the sun hidden behind the ever-present grey clouds, there was no way to tell how long he'd been walking.  The snow continued to fall, adding to the base already accumulated.  The distant hills looked as far away as they had when he started.

          Then, without realizing it, he stepped into a clearing.  Across a small meadow a hogan sat in the snow.  Smoke rose from the roof.  No animals occupied the corrals.  No birds sang in the trees.  No wind sculpted the smoke as it twisted upwards into the grey sky.

          Paul moved in on the hogan, checking for any sign of life.  Finding none, he edged to the blanket that hung as a door.  Light from a fire played where the edge of the blanket almost brushed the ground.

          Drawing the blanket aside, he glanced into the hogan.  Empty.  Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the structure.

          The old witch looked up from where he sat across a small fire that burned in a shallow pit at the center of the hogan.  "Sit," he directed.

          Ironhorse stepped closer and sat down across from the old man.  "What do you want?"

          The witch laughed, a dry, cracking wheeze.  "I have it," he finally said.  "You."

          "You don't have me," Ironhorse argued.

          "Yes.  I do."

          The fire flared up and Paul's arms jerked up to cover his face.  When he looked, the old man was gone.  Standing, he walked to the door of the hogan and looked outside.  There was no one in sight and the snow fell harder.

 

 * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Harrison and Suzanne led the way into the Cottage.  Stavrakos and Goodson trailed them, carrying the stretcher where Ironhorse lay.

          Norton rolled back from the front door to give them room, then followed them to the basement infirmary sickroom, less than twenty minutes later, Ironhorse lay comfortably in bed, still unconscious.

          Goodson checked the colonel's blood pressure, pulse, and pupils.  That done, he looked up, stating, "Everything's normal."

          Harrison turned to Drake.  "Where's—"

          "On her way here with a friend."

          "Friend?" Suzanne asked.

          "Someone who might know what to do about the wicked witch of the southwest," Norton joked, hoping to lift sagging spirits.

          "I wish that was funny," Harrison said softly.

 

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

 

          "Doctors, they're clear," Coleman said, stepping into the living room.

          "Bring them in," Harrison said, standing.

          Cedar led the way, behind her a tall, thin Native woman with long black hair and features the astrophysicist thought reminded him of Mayan art.

          "Harrison," Cedar said.  "Where is he?"

          "Downstairs," he replied.  "We wanted to talk to you first."

          She nodded, gesturing to her companion.  "This is Leslie Greencorn.  Leslie, Harrison Blackwood, Suzanne McCullough, and Norton Drake."

          Leslie smiled thinly.  "I'm sorry we're meeting under these circumstances."

          "Me, too," Harrison said, shaking her hand.

          "Have a seat," Suzanne said.  "We'll tell you what we know."

 

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

 

          An hour later Cedar and Leslie had a clear picture of the events that had occurred in Arizona, from the discovery of William Nez's body to Paul's collapse in the Museum building on the University campus.

          Norton leaned forward in his wheelchair.  "When I called to see if I could find Caitlin, Damion told me she said that the old man wasn't a Navajo."

          Leslie shook her head.  "His techniques aren't Navajo."  She looked at Cedar.  "I'm leaning toward Tarumara, or one of the northern Mexico tribes."

          "How is that going to help us?" Suzanne asked.

          "I'm familiar with their pharmacologies.  If you have the facilities, we can run some tests for certain hallucinogenic plants that might have been part of the dust."

          "You mean this might be like a bad LSD trip coming back?" Norton asked.

          "Not exactly," Leslie said.  "The drugs open a door to the subconscious.  What the shaman do is use that to direct healing, or in this case, to create confusion."

          "The colonel is… lost in his own mind," Cedar said.  "Or is lost outside his mind."

          "Outside?" Suzanne asked.

          "Like on the astral?" Norton suggested.

          Cedar nodded.  "It's possible.  It would be like being trapped in a dream that he can't wake up from."

          Suzanne stood.  "So where do we start?"

          "Let's see if we can find out what he was using," Leslie said.

          "And I want to do a reading on him," Cedar said.  "Maybe I can find out where he is."

          "Gertrude, to work," Norton said, the motorized wheelchair carrying him toward the elevator.  "Follow me, ladies."

 

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

 

          A thorough search of the hogan turned up a sleeping pallet, several pots, some jars, and a stack of hand-woven blankets.  Nothing that shed light on where Paul was, or why.

          Outside the world seemed frozen in a perpetual grey.  Snow continued to fall, but the sun neither rose nor set.  No animals stirred.  Only the wind kept him company, whistling or sighing across the smoke hole in the roof of the hogan.

          "This isn't a real place," he said aloud, his own voice sounding hollow and far away.  "I don't know where I am, but it's not any physical place."

          "So it must be a mental place," he reasoned.

          He tried to will himself away from the hogan, to no effect.

          "Okay, so it's not that easy…"

          He sat down in front of the ever-snapping small fire and warned his hands, grateful for that verisimilitude.  Closing his eyes, he began a Cherokee song, letting the rhythm and words carry him back to the summers he lived with his grandfather.

          Opening his eyes he found the old man seated across the fire.  "Grandfather?"

          "Of course."

          Paul grinned and shook his head.  "I'm crazier than I thought."

          "Not crazy, Paul," his grandfather said.  "Just lost."

          "I figured that out already."  He studied the old man's face, enjoying the familiarity of the wrinkles and laugh lines.  "Am I dying?"

          A shake of the head.  "You're in a deep sleep."

          "Like Sleeping Beauty, huh?"

          "But you're not that cute," the old man teased.

          "What do I have to do?  Find a pretty princess to kiss me?"

          His grandfather chuckled.  "You could conjure one up.  Keep you warmer."

          Paul shook his head and laughed softly.  "You always were an old lecher."

          "Love keeps the spirit young."

          Ironhorse turned serious.  "What can I do, Grandfather?  I have to return home.  I have a war to fight."

          The old man nodded.  "I know of your fight, grandson."

          "Then how do I get back?"

          A shrug.  "Wait for them to come and get you."

          Paul's eyebrows climbed toward his hairline.  "How can they come and get me?"

          "Call them and see."

          "Why are your easy answers always so damned hard?"

          His grandfather smiled, then shimmered into nothingness.

 

 * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          The search for psychoactive herbs led nowhere.  Tired and disappointed, everyone retreated to the living room for coffee and a light meal of sandwiches.

          "Now what?" Suzanne asked.  "He's not improving."

          "But he's not getting any worse, either," Harrison said.  He swiveled in the couch to face Cedar.  "How long can he stay like that?"

          "I honestly don't know," she admitted.  "There are cases from other cultures of individuals getting lost and taking years to find their way back."

          "Unless they have help," Leslie said.  "We can use ritual to try and create a path for his soul to follow back to the here and now."

          "It's worth a try," Norton agreed.

          Harrison stood and paced to the fireplace.  The empty grate left him feeling strangely alone.  "What if someone went and got him?"

          "And how could we do that?" Suzanne challenged.  "It's not like he's on vacation somewhere."

          "I think I see what you're getting at," Cedar said, also standing and pacing behind the couch.  "If he's lost outside of himself—"

          "Norton," Harrison said, turning to fix the hacker with an excited gaze.  "You can do it."

          "Me?"

          "Yes," Blackwood said, stalking over to stand in front of the man.  Hands on hips, he smiled down at Drake.  "You're doing out of body work.  You can go out and find him if he's on the astral."

          "Harrison, I'm still having trouble finding the ceiling," Norton countered.

          Cedar joined Blackwood.  "But not alone," she said.  "We could do a guided experience."  Her excitement exploded.  "Norton, remember the guided imagery we did to establish your safe place?"

          He nodded.  "Yeah, I go there all the time now to fly, but—"

          "We could do that, but focus to get you onto the astral… then you could just will yourself to the colonel, like you do to get to the safe place."

          "And we could set up a ritually safe place here," Leslie said.  "Like a dream walking ceremony."

          "That easy?" Drake asked half-facetiously.

          "We won't know until we try," Harrison said, slapping the man's shoulder.  "What do you say, Norton?"

          Drake opened his mouth to object, but sighed.  "Why not."

          "Good," Harrison concluded.  "Let's get ready."

          "Oh no," Cedar said.  "Not tonight.  He needs a good night's sleep, and Leslie and I'll need time to get the stuff we need together."

          "Whatever it takes, it's yours," Harrison stated.

          "I don't know…" Suzanne said, looking dubious with the sudden change of events.

          Harrison turned to face her.  "What have we got to lose, Suzanne?"

          With no answer, she agreed.  "Okay, count me in."

 

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

 

Saturday, November 5

 

          Leslie and Cedar arranged crystals, candles, and plants throughout the infirmary while Harrison and Suzanne set up a cot for Norton.  For his part, Drake sat in his wheelchair, trying to relax.  It wasn't easy, but he closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, letting the fear that nibbled at his confidence wither.

          He could hear the preparations going on around him – quiet conversation, ring of crystals placed on the metal instrument trays, flutter of plant leaves as they were carried past him, and the scratching of matches as the candles were lit.

          Someone added incense, the sweet, familiar smell quickly filling the room.  He recognized it.  Cedar, pinion, and something else…

          No doubt something to aid his journey to the astral.

          Some hidden rational aspect of his personality balked at the notion, but the young Jamaican who watched his grandparents practicing magic knew he could find Paul.  He embraced that child and felt a rush of excitement.  He'd grown fond of the time he spent "flying."  This was really no different, except he'd be looking for someone to share the experience with him…

          Funny, he'd never have guessed it would be Paul I-don't-believe-it Ironhorse.

          Norton grinned.  He'd make a true believer out of the man yet.

          "Watch out, big guy,"  he said softly.  "I'm comin' to get you."  He grinned.  "Hey, you guys ready?"

          "Just about," Leslie assured.  "Hold that thought."

 

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

 

          Resting comfortably on the cot, Norton let his eyes drop closed and drew in three deep cleansing breaths.  Leslie sat between the foot of Ironhorse's bed and his cot, beating a soft, steady rhythm on a Hopi hide drum.  Harrison and Suzanne sat on the couch along the eastern wall of the room, and Cedar sat at the head of his cot.

          "Norton, I want you to go to your safe place," she instructed.  "Where you're there and comfortable, raise your right hand to let me know."

          With another deep breath, Norton slipped away to the outdoor landscape he now considered his safe place.  It was nothing he recognized from experience or television.  High mountains and deep jungle valleys created a natural rollercoaster.  Somewhere in the middle of it was a plateau covered with grass and wildflowers.  At the edge of the flatland was a drop-off that stretched deep into a green gorge where a river carved out sharp turns.

          He walked across the field of grass and flowers, marveling as he always did at the vivid colors.  Looking up, he saw deep blue sky and cotton-like white clouds that looked close enough to touch.  Birds sang happily in the trees clinging to the sides of the steep valley, and the breeze carried the smell of flowers and dew.

          He raised his hand.

          Cedar's voice spoke softly inside his head, like an invisible walkman.

          Norton, I want you to imagine a huge silver spike, one that cannot harm the place where you are, but one that is embedded deeply into the very core of the place. Can you see that?

          Norton's hand rose a second time.

          Good, very good.  Now, I want you to see the fine filament that's attached to the end of that silver spike.  It's a beautiful, rainbow filament, so fine that you can hardly see it, but so strong that nothing we know can break it.  Can you see that?

          Norton's finger twitched.

          You are part of the filament, Norton, and it is part of you.  No matter where you are, or where you go, it will be with you, anchoring you back to this safe place.  Do you understand?

          Another finger twitch.

          Good, Norton.  Now, I want you think about Paul.  Hold him in your thoughts and make him real.  Will yourself to him.

          Walking to the edge of the plateau, Norton sat down, folding his legs in an imitation of one of Blackwood's yoga positions.  He felt relaxed and at peace.  He wanted Paul there to share the moment.  He closed his eyes, seeing, but not seeing the same landscape in front of him.  Ironhorse's face flitted by.

          Norton could sense the man's presence, some essential essence that was Paul Ironhorse, but he couldn't see him.  He could, however, smell the familiar mix of soap, sage, and natural body odor.  Strangely comforted, he allowed himself to feel Ironhorse's presence, the steadfast bedrock of the colonel's resolve.

          The sound of Paul's steady breathing echoed in Norton's ears, and he couldn't tell if it was the man lying on the bed next to him in the infirmary, or the man sitting across a small fire.

          He blinked and grinned.  He wasn't at his plateau anymore.

 

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

 

          "Norton?" Ironhorse almost squeaked, scrambling to his feet.

          Where his grandfather had sat a moment before, Norton Drake now looked up at him, a huge smile on his face.

          "Too cool!" he enthused.  "I mean, it's too cool."

          "Norton, what are you talking about?  How did you—?"

          "Cedar's helping me," Norton explained, glancing around the hogan.  "She and a friend.  They sent me to bring you back."

          "Back?"

          "Yeah, you're lost."

          "Lost my mind is more like it," the colonel grumbled.

          "Where are we?" Norton asked, enjoying the confused expression on Ironhorse's face.

          "Don't you know?" Paul asked, panic replacing confusion.

          "Not exactly," Norton admitted.  "Could be somewhere in your mind, or out of your mind."

          Ironhorse glowered down at the hacker.  "And you're going to rescue me?"

          Norton grinned and shrugged.  "I didn't say it was going to be easy, big guy."

          With a heavy sigh, Paul sat back down.  "So, what do we do?"

          That got Norton's attention.  "Uh, I don't really know."  He thought for a moment, then suggested, "Maybe we can just leave."

          "Be my guest," Ironhorse said, watching in amazement as Norton stood and walked to the blanket-turned door and pushed it aside.

          "Not my idea of a great vacation location," Drake announced.

          "Mine, either.  I think it's northern Arizona."

          "Where you first ran into the old shaman?"

          Paul nodded.  "And there's nothing here we can use… no horses, no food, no—"

          "We don't need them."

          Ironhorse leveled the man with a withering glare.  "Norton, we can't cross that desert—"

          "Paul, it's not real-real."

          With no good reply, the colonel shook his head.  "Okay, what do you suggest?"

          "Leaving."

          "To go where?"

          "Back to my playground."

          With nothing better to do, Ironhorse waved the man on.

          Norton stepped out into the snow, noting that it crunched under foot.  "Spiffy sound effects, Colonel."

          "Let's just go," Paul said.

          "Okay. which way?"

          "I don't know," he said.  "I'm lost, remember?"

          Norton nodded.  "Yeah, right…" he glanced around, trying to decide where his safe place was in relation to the winter wonderland.  "Winter… winter, spring, summer, and fall," he said.

          "That is the usual pattern, at least in this hemisphere."

          "Winter, spring… let's go this way," Norton announced, heading off to what he assumed was east.

          The landscape shimmered and the pair found themselves standing in the middle of a dark, thick wood.  Several wolves howled nearby.

          "You do that?" Ironhorse asked.

          "I don't think so," Norton replied.

          "Great."

 

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

 

          The pair moved through the trees as swiftly as they could, but the trees and the wolves closed in on them.  In the growing dark, Ironhorse missed the trap until it sprang shut on his lower leg.  With a scream, he fell, clawing at his leg.

          "Paul?"

          Norton knelt next to the colonel, unsure as to his next move.  What could he do except try and free the man?

          "Hold still," he commanded.  "I'll try to open it."

          With more effort than he expected, Norton forced the steel teeth apart.  Paul pulled his bloody, mangled leg free, and rolled back onto the ground, gasping for breath.

          Panting, Ironhorse directed, "Help me… get my… shirt off…"

          Norton did so.

          "Tear it… so you can… wrap my leg…"

          Using his teeth, Drake chewed into the flannel, then ripped the material into strips that he used to bind Paul's lower leg.  The blood immediately seeped through, but at least the raw torn flesh was protected.

          "Help me up."

          Reaching under the soldier, Norton lifted him so he sat on the ground.  Around them a storm broke, dumping cold rain on them.

          Struggling to his feet, Drake helped Ironhorse to stand, then wrapped an arm around the man's back.

          Paul slipped one arm across Norton's shoulders.  "Okay, let's go."

          With the first pressure on the leg, Ironhorse cried out, his head snapping back with the pain.  "Damn," he sobbed.  "Shit."

          Glowing yellow eyes peered out at them from the trees, disappearing in the strobes of lightning.  "Now what?" Norton asked.  "I don't think they're friends."

          Ironhorse shook his head.  "Leave me here, get—"

          "No way, big guy.  You're the reason I'm here, remember?"

          "But I can't walk."

          Norton shifted position so he stood in front of Paul.  "Then I'll carry you," he said, reaching around the colonel's thighs and lifting him piggyback.

          "Damn it, Norton, you can't—"

          "This isn't real," Drake interrupted.  "I can do whatever I want."

          With that the hacker started through the woods, the wolves finally venturing out of cover to pad alongside them.  Now and then they snapped at the two men.

          Norton's lost his footing on the wet ground, slipping and falling down a rocky embankment.  Ironhorse cursed as he hit the ground, then groaned.

          Looking up from where they lay in the mud they could see the old witch standing over them, laughing.  Raising a walking stick, he used it to beat Ironhorse's leg.

          Paul writhed and screamed, but could not fight the man.

          Norton tried to climb to his feet, but the wolves lunged in, biting and snapping, forcing him to curl into a ball, his arms over his head.

          "I really don't want to be here!" Norton yelled.  "I want to be back where I know I'm safe!"

          Bright sunlight burst across Norton's squinted eyes.  They were on the plateau.  The witch's arm stopped in mid-blow, and he glanced around him in confusion.

          "Come on," Norton snapped, grabbing Paul's cotton t-shirt and the shoulder and dragging him to his feet.  "Run!"

          Despite the pain, Ironhorse hobbled after Norton as best he could.  Wolves and the old man followed.  As he chased after the hacker he recognized the drop off.

          "Norton, that's a cliff!"

          "I know!" Drake called, picking up speed.  "Jump and fly!"

          "What?!"  He watched Norton launch himself off the edge of the plateau, and glanced over his shoulder.  The wolves were gone.  The old witch stumbled and nearly fell, his hands reaching out to grasp at Paul.

          Turning back, he forced himself to take the last step, catapulting himself off the edge.  He fell.

          "Fly, big guy, fly!" Norton yelled, streaking past.

          "I'm trying!" he yelled, flapping his arms as hard as he could.

          "Not like that!  Just fly!"

          Closing his eyes, Paul imagined himself soaring and felt the lift.  Eyes springing open, he immediately closed them again as he knifed into a cloud.  He came to an abrupt stop, suspended in the silver-white mist.

          Norton joined him, floating less than an arm's length away.  "Pretty terrific, huh?"

          "Where are we?"

          "My personal playground."

          "Why'd I even bother to ask?" Ironhorse muttered.  "Where's the old man?"

          "I don't know," Drake admitted.

          Together they stuck their heads out of the cloud.  The witch lay on the plateau, cocooned in the rainbow filament attached to the silver spike.  While they watched the ground slowly opened and engulfed the shaman while he screamed and fought to no avail.

          "Wow," Norton breathed.  "I guess this really is my safe place, huh?"

          Ironhorse allowed himself a grin.  "I don't care if it's heaven right now.  How do we get out of here?"

          "We shoot the canyon, and zap, we're out."

          "Shoot the canyon?"

          "Follow me, big guy, you're going to love this!"

          Norton shot out of the cloud, Ironhorse right behind him.  With dizzying speed he dove for the river far below.

          Trusting that Norton wouldn't lead him to his death, the colonel rocketed after the man, trying not to think about what he was doing.  Just before he ran headlong into the water, Norton pulled up, skimming through the air right above the clear blue water.  Hugging the contours of the narrow canyon, Norton hooted in excitement at the speed and near misses.  Before long Paul was hooting right along with him.

          A immense waterfall came into view.  "Okay, big guy, this is it.  Shoot through the falls and stop."

          Ironhorse held his breath and extended his arms out in front of him to cut through the warm water.  Once through he thought himself stopped, and was.  Glancing around the huge cave studded with crystals, he shook his head.  "Looks like something out of Blackwood's imagination."

          Norton grinned.  "Maybe he's wearing off on me."

          Ironhorse snorted.

          "Okay, let's go," Drake said.

          "Where to next?"

 

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

 

          Paul blinked and opened his eyes.  A white ceiling, then two pair of concerned eyes.  Harrison and Suzanne.

          "Where's Norton?"

          "Right here," Drake said, supporting himself up with elbows.  "What a rush!"

          A crooked grin lifted Ironhorse's mouth.  "That, Mr. Drake, is called an understatement."

          "How do you feel?" Suzanne asked, reaching out to touch Paul's cheek.

          "A little lightheaded," he admitted.  "But okay."

          "Get some rest," Harrison suggested.  "We'll talk then."

          Paul nodded, letting his eyes close.  "Norton?"

          "Yeah?"

          "Thanks."

          "Any time, big guy.  It was kind of fun having company for the flight.  Wanna try it again?"

          "Not unless I'm in the pilot's seat," he murmured as he drifted off to sleep.

          Cedar and Leslie removed the ritual items, then met the other Project members upstairs for supper while Goodson sat with the colonel.

 

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

 

Sunday, November 6

 

          Leslie returned to her work at the Hamlin Foundation, leaving Cedar behind to catch up with the Project members.  After a late breakfast, they gathered in the living room.

          "So, this is the song box?" Cedar said, leaning forward from her seat on the couch to look the black rectangle over.  Sitting on the coffee table, it didn't look too ominous, but she could feel the power of the object, the energy confused and foreign.

          "We're sure it's an alien object, but we're not sure what they're used for," Harrison said.

          The colonel sipped his coffee.  "According to what we've been able to uncover, objects like this have been stolen from locations all over the planet."

          "And they admit some kind of low frequency wave," Norton added.  "But I can't find any possible source for the sound."

          "X-rays don't turn up anything," Suzanne added.  "And we can't chip or break it."

          Cedar rubbed her hands together, then reached out to run her palms over the top of the black box.  An almost electric tingling prickled across her skin.  She looked up at the four Project members, forgetting for a moment where she was, and why she was there.

          "This object has two functions," she said.  "One is to remember and one is to forget."

          Suzanne and Harrison exchanged confused glances.

          "Which means?" Ironhorse asked.

          Cedar lightly touched the surface of the object with her fingertips.  "These objects remember.  They record.  Weather.  Electromagnetic information."

          Norton nodded enthusiastically.  "That makes sense if you look at the distribution of the objects we know about.  They're scattered along predictable latitude and longitude coordinates."

          Cedar shook her head.  "They're recorders for those who are coming.  Points in a web of consciousness."

          "Consciousness?" Harrison echoed.  "Are you saying they're alive?"

          "No," Cedar said with a shake of her head.  "They're pitched to a consciousness.  Something far away, but it's getting closer."

          "But we have a couple of these," Ironhorse argued.  "And several others have been moved.  If they're part of a web, it's not a complete one."

          "There are enough," was the psychic's reply.  "But it is… unbalanced."

          "What does that mean for us?" Harrison asked.

          Cedar shook her head.  "I don't know.  This also… forgets…"

          "The 1953 invasion," Suzanne said.

          Blackwood scooted forward on his chair.  "Yes," he breathed, "that could explain the lack of public memory."

          "So what do we do?" Norton asked.  "Destroy them?"

          Cedar leaned back against the sofa, rubbing her hands along her jean-clad thighs.  "I don't really know.  There are other people at the Foundation who might be able to help you more."

          Blackwood looked to Ironhorse.  "I think we can arrange a loan," the colonel said.

          "We have to understand what these things are," Harrison said.  "I know it's important."

          "I'll do what I can," Cedar assured him.

 

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

 

Monday, November 7

 

          Blackwood joined Ironhorse on the patio.  For early November, it was unusually warm and clear.  Pouring himself a cup of coffee, he settled into a chair, studying the soldier as he finished off his second piece of pie.

          "Feeling better?"

          Paul glanced up, his eyebrows hiked.  "Me?"

          Harrison nodded.  "You."

          "I'm fine, Doctor," he assured.

          "Glad to hear it," Harrison said.  "Norton give you your pilot's license yet?"

          The colonel's cheeks darkened.  "I have a pilot's license," he half-growled.

          Blackwood grinned at the man's discomfort.  Norton had shared their adventures on the astral.  "Seriously, Paul, what happened?"

          Ironhorse looked up, meeting the man's sincere gaze.  "I honestly don't know. I guess when I was drugged he was able to establish some kind of connection with me.  But it's over now.  He's dead and the connection's broken."

          "I just hope he didn't tell the aliens about his… talents."

          Ironhorse filled his coffee cup.  "I don't think so."

          "Why?"

          "Ego.  He wasn't a man, and he wasn't an alien.  He was something more.  I don't think he would've bothered to report the powers he'd tapped into."

          "I hope you're right," Harrison said.  Setting his empty cup down.

          "Me, too."

          Suzanne stepped out to join them.  "Cedar called.  They're starting their work on the objects."

          "I'm looking forward to what they find out,"  Blackwood said, motioning to the microbiologist to join them.

          She slid into an empty chair.  "I'm not so sure."

          "Why?" Harrison questioned.

          She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table.  "I have a feeling those objects are… evil."

          "You're starting to sound like him," Ironhorse accused.

          She grinned at Harrison.  "Maybe, but I don't like the vibes."

          "Well, until we know what that vibe is, I suggest we get back to what we do," the colonel said.

          "Which is?" Suzanne asked.

          "Alien-busting."

          Blackwood reached for the coffee pot.  "Who are you gonna call?"

          Ironhorse asked, glancing past the pair to Norton, who was rolling out to join them.  "Something?"

          Norton stopped at the table.  "Nothing to worry about.  Debi's on the phone.  Sounds like camp isn't all it's cracked up to be."

          Suzanne shook her head.  "Why did I know that was going to happen?"  She disappeared inside.

          "So," Norton said, leveling Ironhorse with a challenging grin, "what do you say we go jump off a cliff?"

          "More astral work?" Harrison asked.

          "Nope," the hacker said.  "They're setting up a bungie jump in the Columbia gorge.

          Ironhorse's eyes widened.  "Now you're talking!"