Actions

Work Header

Thy Rod and Thy Staff

Work Text:

"Thank you… my friend…"

 

          "Our mission to test the new weapon against the humans failed," the female Advocate hissed as she stood in front of the bank of television sets, watching the various images flickering in the darkness of the underground cavern.  "Why are we discussing this again?"

          "It was unfortunate," the older of the two male alien leaders added.  "But we have let this wait too long.  We must see if this organism will destroy the human vermin, comrades."

          "Yes, we must retest the weapon," the third replied.  "We cannot allow the incompetence of the field units to deter us.  The lower classes are hopelessly inept. If the test is successful, we can plan the final destruction of the humans on this planet."

          "Agreed," the female said.  "We will send others to test the weapon, but they must not attempt it in a highly populated area.  The structures humans call malls are too dangerous, the chance for interference too high."

          "But we must have an adequate number of test subjects or we will not know if our scientists have finally managed to develop an effective weapon against the vermin," the older male responded.

          "An adequate site will be found," the younger male intoned.  "We will find a location in a more isolated location and send a team to monitor the test.  We will destroy the humans, and live life, immortal."

 

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

 

          Lieutenant Colonel Paul Ironhorse and Corporal Billy Orley sat in the small roadside restaurant, devouring their breakfasts at the worn Formica counter.  After two all-day meetings with representatives from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Army's Special Operations Command at Ft. Streeter, the two soldiers were more than ready to escape plastic Army food and get back to the Cottage.

          The cafe, Tolson's, was a favorite among the civilian and military members of the Blackwood Project, and Ironhorse was happy to pass up the officers club and stop at the mom and pop business on their way home.  Corporal Orley, who constantly complained about missing his mother's "down home" cooking, was quick to volunteer to ride shotgun with the Colonel in exchange for a Tolson breakfast of grits, ham, eggs and gravy-drenched biscuits.

          Bob "Pop" Tolson worked the counter while "Mom" did the cooking and a local teenager took care of the ten booths that were squeezed into the log-cabin dining room that was presently empty.  Ironhorse and the corporal shared the counter with two truckers, the four men enjoying their meals and hot coffee in companionable silence.

          Pop gave the ceiling a cranky scowl when a metal-rending noise drowned out the local country music station playing his favorite song on the radio.  "Damned exhaust fan," he grouched, filling the trucker's half-empty coffee cups.  "Gonna have to replace the whole damn ventilation system one of these days."

          "You finally gettin' that fan fixed, Pop?" one of the truckers asked with a grin to his partner.  Pop's reputation as a fix-it man was confirmed by a series of photos and newspaper articles decorating the walls at haphazard intervals – most awards and citations of recognition for helpful inventions.

          "I am," the old man countered, waving his hand in the air above his head.  "That's what all the damn noise is.  Couple guys have been up there the better part of the morning hammering on the thing and not gettin' any further than I did.  You'd think they'd finally get the damned thing fixed!  With all I'm paying 'em they better get it done."  He filled Ironhorse's cup.  "Probably would have, but one of 'em's been too busy helping himself to mother's grits to get any work done."

          The truckers chuckled and the two soldiers smiled.  Then, with a loud, echoing clang the fan started up, a cool breeze circulating through the cafe.

          "Well, it's about time," the old man grumbled, wiping his hands on a damp towel and heading outside to talk to the repairmen.  "Probably gonna cost me a day's profit, too."

          Ironhorse and Orley finished their breakfast, paid, left a generous tip, and headed out to the black Jeep and continued their trip down the coast to the Cottage.

 

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

 

          "Advocate," one of the three men in coveralls called.

          The three aliens leaders turned in unison, staring down at the field team commander.  "Was the organism released?" the female asked.

          "Yes, Advocate.  It was a simple process to introduce the organism into the ventilation system of the restaurant."

          "Very good," the older male said.  "And how many humans were exposed?"

          "We do not know, exactly, Advocate.  Many humans come and go at random."

          "But it was many humans?" the younger Advocate asked.

          "At least two hundred, Advocate," was the troubled reply.  Failure carried a high price and the commander knew it.

          "Only two hundred?" the female asked in what the military drone thought sounded like a disgusted tone to his host body's ears.

          "That will be sufficient to test the weapon.  If all goes well, we will find a method of introducing the organism on a large scale," the older male stated.  "Are you prepared to monitor the results?"

          "Yes, Advocate, although many who were exposed were truckers – humans who drive large vehicles transporting various items.  They do not live in the area.  We will not be able to monitor their reactions."

          "So long as we know the success of the organism on those we can monitor, we will have our answer," the younger male replied.

          The three Advocates turned back to the bank of television sets.

 

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

 

          Ironhorse coughed, slowing his usual run to a moderate jog.  Something was wrong.  His chest burned, he was soaked with sweat, and his vision was threatening to blur enough to make staying on the path an act of divine intervention.  The slower pace eased the symptoms, and the colonel completed his six mile trek, ending up on the patio of the government safe house.

          Bending over, he braced his hands above his knees and drew in several deep breaths, trying to chase away the vague waves of nausea that made his stomach feel heavy and his throat thick.

          Seated at the small glass table, Harrison Blackwood watched the colonel with growing concern.  He glanced down at his watch, expecting to find that the soldier had shaved several minutes off his regular time – keeping track of Ironhorse's morning times had become something of a hobby for the scientist.  Instead, he found Ironhorse was three minutes off.

          "Paul, something wrong?"

          Ironhorse sucked on one final deep breath and blew it out, straightening and leaning back to stretch his aching back.  "No, Doctor.  Just a cold developing, I think."

          "A cold?" Blackwood questioned, folding his arms across his chest.  Ironhorse had a constitution to match his name, and while the rest of them had suffered through various mundane ills over the last three years, the colonel seemed to be charmed.  Except for a case of laryngitis and one bout with the flu, he'd avoided the typical rogue bacteria and viral marauders that had attacked the rest of them.

          Ironhorse coughed, then massaged his chest through the material of his gray West Point sweat shirt.  "Maybe flu," he corrected.

          "Maybe you should have Goodson check you over," Blackwood suggested, reaching over to pour a second glass of orange juice.  "Until then, drink this, the Vitamin C will do you good."

          "What I need, Doctor, is a hot shower.  If you'll excuse me?"  He headed for the French doors.

          Harrison shrugged, making it clear that he didn't agree with the colonel's priorities.  "Then see Goodson!" he called after the retreating soldier, wondering if he should call the medic himself.

          Probably.

 

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

 

          At the knock on his office door Ironhorse looked up from the latest stack of endless paperwork and called, "Come."

          The door opened and Corporal Goodson entered, looking decidedly uncomfortable.  "Sir, Dr. Blackwood asked me to come over and see you," he explained, eying his commanding officer warily.  It was well known among the soldiers at the Cottage that Ironhorse hated hospitals and things associated with the medical profession.  The medic did not expect a friendly welcome.  Derriman, the Omega Squad's first sergeant, had promised to send out a search party if Goodson didn't return in half an hour.  Given the black glare that confronted him, he wished Derriman had changed that to fifteen minutes…  Better yet, five.

          "Shut the door, Corporal."

          Goodson pushed the door closed and carried his field kit over to the colonel's desk.  "Sir, I would have found a way out of it, but Orley's pretty sick, too.  At first I thought he'd picked up a nasty cold, but now I'm not so sure.  Maybe the flu, even if it is a little early for flu season.  I think he should see a doctor at Streeter."

          "That bad?" the colonel asked, his black eyebrows climbing.  He laid his pen aside and closed the file.

          "Yes, sir," the medic said, digging into his kit and pulling out the items he needed.  "Maybe you two picked it up last week.  In any case, I'm here, sir.  Mind if I take a look?"

          Ironhorse nodded.

          Amazed that he was meeting no resistance, Goodson proceeded to do a quick appraisal of the officer: blood pressure was low, but not abnormally so for a man in Ironhorse's physical condition; his pulse was a little quick and thready; skin slightly pale and clammy; good amount of chest congestion, but nothing dangerous; and a fever of almost 101.

          "Well?" Ironhorse asked when the man finished.

          "You've got it, sir."

          "I knew that, Corporal," he replied.  "What is it, cold or flu?"

          "I don't know.  Dr. McCullough could probably tell you quick enough, but I'd recommend that you and Orley see a doctor at Streeter so you can get on some meds.  It doesn't seem to be spreading, but if the incubation period is a week or more, we won't know how many of us are gonna catch the thing before it's over."

          The phone on the colonel's desk rang, and Ironhorse snatched it up.  "Ironhorse."  He listened for a moment, his eyes shifting to Goodson, and he nodded to the items spread across his desk, indicating that the man should gather up his equipment.  "Right…  We'll be right there."  Returning the receiver to its cradle, he pushed himself up.  "That was Coleman.  Orley's taken a turn for the worse."

          "Right behind you, sir," Goodson said, rapidly shoving the items into the kit and slinging it over his shoulder as Ironhorse headed for the door.

          "Colonel?" Blackwood called, stalking out of his office, following the two soldiers as they rushed out the front door.

          "It's okay," Ironhorse called, waving Harrison back inside.  "I'll be in the coach house."

          The astrophysicist watched the two soldiers disappear into the smaller building where a squad of the Omega troops stayed.  Something was up.  Turning back to the Cottage, he hoped it was nothing serious.

 

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

 

          Ironhorse watched while Goodson sat down on the edge of Orley's bed, reaching out to lay a hand on the man's arm.  "Hey, Billy, what's the matter with you, not eating enough of Derriman's chicken soup?"

          "Hell, Doc, I'm sprouting feathers here."

          Looking over his shoulder, Goodson caught Ironhorse's eye.  "He's burning up, sir."

          A coughing spasm contorted the southerner's face and he gripped his sides.  "You're tellin' me?" he ground out.  "Hell, Doc, I'm the freakin' Barbeque Man.  I hurt all over, too."

          "Sir, you do think Dr. McCullough could do a quick check for me?  It's starting to sound like a nasty influenza bug, and I'd rather not move him until we have to.  It's not going to be comfortable.  If it's flu, we're all going to have to take precautions."

          The colonel nodded.  "And I want Orley isolated.  We can't afford everyone coming down with this."

          "Good idea, sir," the medic concurred.  "That goes for you, too; stay away from the civilians until we can get everyone flu shots or a cache of antibiotics, Kleneex and cough drops."

          The colonel nodded.  He looked to the young soldier.  "Hang in there, Orley."

          "Yes, sir," the corporal said.  "But after this I think I'm gonna need an infusion of grits to help me regain my strength, sir."

          Ironhorse grinned.  "I'll talk to Mrs. Pennyworth."

          "Thank you, sir."

          With a nod to Goodson, the colonel headed back to the Cottage and mentally confined himself to his room and office.  Picking up the phone, he buzzed Blackwood's office, but there was no answer.  He tried the basement computer lab, finding Blackwood there with Norton.

          Explaining that he and Orley probably had the flu, he passed along the medic's request that Suzanne check the corporal and himself to see if they could determine what they were fighting.

          The microbiologist looked up from her microscope.  "I'm on my way, Paul.  I'll get Orley first."

          "Right, Suzanne.  I'll be in my room or office.  And until we know if I'm contagious, I want all of you to stay away from me, understood?"

          "Absolutely," Suzanne replied.

          Norton nodded.  "No problem."

          For once the civilian head of the Blackwood Project didn't argue with one of the colonel's orders.

          "Can I get you some juice?" Harrison asked.

          "No, but some coffee would be appreciated.  You can leave it in the hall."

          "Paul, don't you think that's taking this a little far?" Blackwood asked as Suzanne scooped up the items she needed and headed for the elevator, shaking her head.  They were at it… again.

          "Oh, let him," Norton countered.  "Gives the rest of us an opportunity to have some fun; maybe we can order some pizza delivered."

          "Very funny, Mr. Drake.  If I felt better I might take you up on that.  I could use the target practice."

          The line went dead and Harrison and Norton exchanged concerned glances.  "Sounds serious," the Jamaican hacker said.

          "I know.  Guess I better go fix that coffee and see if I can get a closer look at the patient."

          "He's not gonna like that."

          "Since when have I worried about what the colonel likes, Norton?"

          "All right, but if you get shot for trespassing, don't come crawling back to me to patch you up."

          "Faith, oh mystic-computer-hacker-genius.  You just have to have faith."

 

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

 

          "Colonel?" Harrison called, listening, but not hearing anyone moving around in the office.  "Paul?"

          "Just leave it there, Doctor."  The voice was just behind the door, and Blackwood jumped, spilling several drops of the hot liquid onto his pant-leg.  "And don't blame me if you got wet.  I told you I was off limits until we know what kind of bug this is.  We can't afford everyone getting sick."

          "I just want to make sure you're okay," Harrison argued, glowering hotly at the closed door.

          "I feel like I have the flu, Blackwood.  I look like I have the flu.  And I'd really like that coffee before it gets cold."

          Blackwood pursed his lips, but shook his head and relented.  "All right, Colonel, you win… this time."  Setting the cup down on the floor, he headed back for the basement.

          Ironhorse waited until he was sure the man was gone, opened the door and cornered the cup.  Carrying it to his desk, he sat down and sipped as he made out contingency plans for Project security if they were hit with massive bacterial or viral casualties.  A light rap on the door several minutes later interrupted his conversation with Omega Squad's executive officer, stationed at Ft. Streeter and in command of Omega's three support teams.

          Cupping his hand over the mouthpiece he called, "Who is it?"

          "It's me, Paul," Suzanne replied.  "I need a sample from you."

          "Lieutenant, give General Wilson a call and arrange for a Delta Force unit to be placed on standby at Bragg.  I want them ready to fly to Streeter in case we need replacement troops.  I'll keep you informed."  Hanging up, he quickly downed the rest of the cool coffee and headed for the door.

          "Sorry, I was on the phone," he apologized, noting she was wearing a mask over her nose and mouth.

          "Just a precaution," she explained, her eyes narrowing as she took in the colonel's pale features, a contrast to his usual tawny red-brown.  "Is your fever climbing?"

          Ironhorse's eyebrows arched slightly.  "I'm not sure.  I just had a cup of coffee."

          "We'll check that last," Suzanne said, motioning for Paul to sit down.  She ran through the same maneuvers that Goodson had preformed earlier, then produced a small plastic petri dish about the size of a quarter.  "Okay, I need a sample."

          The colonel accepted the dish, his forehead rippling in concern.  "Of what?"

          She grinned at the nearly scandalized tone of the comment.  "Sputum, Colonel."  When his expression remained blank, she pointed to the small container. "Cough, Paul, and spit in there."  Ironhorse made a face.  "You're acting worse than Debi.  Now, cough," she punctuated the command with a jabbing point of her finger.

          He complied.

          "Very good," she said, taking the sample and placing the lid over it.  "I'll have the analysis done in no time, but I have a hunch we're looking at a viral flu.  The symptoms match.  In the meantime, drink lots of liquids, rest, and stay warm."

          "Thank you, Doctor," Ironhorse said somewhat sarcastically.  "Just make sure you keep Blackwood away from his cabinet of healthy home cures.  That stuff'll kill me."

          Suzanne grinned behind the mask.  "I'll do my best, Paul, but you're going to get stuck with a few no matter what I do.  And I have to admit, it's about time you experienced the Blackwood treatment again," she added, heading for the door.  "We've all survived it enough times.  It's time you joined the ranks for the fully initiated."

          "Thanks, Suzanne," the colonel grumbled with a half-smile as she left.  "You're a real friend."

          "Go rest.  I'll call, when I have something."

 

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

 

          "You think it's time we called the big guy in on this?" Norton asked over his shoulder.

          Running an hand over his unruly brown curls.  Blackwood nodded.  "As much as I hate to, yes."

          Reaching out, Norton scooped up the phone and pressed the intercom button to connect him to the colonel's office.  Ironhorse answered and after a racking cough rasped, "What is it, Mr. Drake?"

          "Transmissions, Colonel.  A flurry of them."

          "I'm on my way."

          Harrison glanced over to the Bio-lab where Suzanne was working over her sink.  An hour after she'd returned with the samples from the two afflicted soldiers she'd hung up her 'Stay Away' sign and buried herself in work.  He checked his watch.  That had been four hours ago.  He scowled, wondering what was up, but knowing better than to interrupt her.

          The elevator opened and Ironhorse emerged, dressed casually in sweats.  Some of the paleness had left his face, but he was obviously not feeling his usual self.  "What's the situation?" he asked hoarsely, glancing briefly at Suzanne.

          "Series of transmissions," Blackwood said, motioning for the soldier to join him behind Norton's wheelchair.

          "They started about three and a half hours ago," Norton explained, typing across the keyboard.  Then, reaching for the mouse, he clicked and waited while a representation of the first wave of transmissions appeared.  He clicked again, and a map of northern California appeared with small circles marking the approximate locations of the alien broadcasts.  With a third click more of the circles appeared, scattered across the northern section of the state.

          "They've been averaging about three conversations every half hour since, but they're too short to get an exact fix on the broadcast locations," the hacker explained.

          "Any ideas?" Ironhorse asked the scientist.

          Blackwood shook his head.  "None.  We haven't had any activity that's out of the ordinary, but now this?  I think we've got a problem—"

          "Definitely a problem," Suzanne interrupted, stalking out of the Bio-lab and joining the three men.  She looked at Ironhorse, then quickly averted her gaze.  "The Colonel and Corporal Orley have been exposed to some kind of engineered flu," she said.

          "Engineered?" Paul asked, stepping away from Blackwood.

          "I'm still not sure exactly what it is we're dealing with," the microbiologist explained, venturing a look at the man's concerned black eyes.  She tapped the back of her closed notebook against her open palm.  "But I do know what it's not."

          "And?" Blackwood prompted.

          "It's not any natural bacteria or viral flu.  I want to send samples to the CDC for further analysis – right away.  It's not contagious as far as I can tell, but it could still be dangerous."

          "What are you saying, Suzanne?" the colonel asked.

          "I think," she said, folding her arms across her chest, and looking at the computer screen, "I think you've become part of an alien experiment.  I've never seen anything with the… properties this thing has."

          Ironhorse glanced at the screen, the reached for the phone.  Punching out a number, he waited, then spoke.  "General Bradley, Colonel Ironhorse…  Fine, sir.  Thank you.  Sir, has there been an outbreak of flu on the base?  Yes, sir.  I'll hold." The four Project members waited anxiously, the colonel leaning back against the edge of the work station and wiping the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand.  "Yes, sir, I'm here…  I see.  Thank you, sir.  If there's any change, please contact Lieutenant Michaud…  Thank you again, sir."  Hanging up, he looked to the three expecting faces.  "Nothing.  It's not on the base."

          "Then how?" Blackwood asked.

          Ironhorse paced several steps.  "It had to happen after Orley and I left Ft. Streeter…  After we met with the representative from the Joint Chief's.  That's the only time the two of us have been alone, together."

          "What did you do?" Suzanne asked.  "Exactly."  She pulled her pen free from where it was tucked behind her ear and flipped her notebook open.

          "We left Streeter at 0700, stopped for breakfast—"

          "At Tolson's?" Blackwood asked.

          Ironhorse nodded.  "Picked up Suzanne's chemical supplies at Adamson's, then came directly back here.  We arrived about noon."

          Suzanne nodded.  "Okay, I'll call Adamson's.  I can ask Carol if they've been hit by flu without getting her suspicious."

          "If it's not there, then Tolson's is the only source left," Norton said.  The others nodded their agreement.

          "Suzanne," Ironhorse said, reaching out to stop her with a hand on her arm.  "I'm not so sure the CDC's a good idea."

          "Paul," she argued, "we have to know what we're dealing with, and I don't have the equipment they do.  From the little I've been able do here, this thing is resistant to normal antibiotic treatments, and it's not acting completely like a virus either."  She gave the colonel a stern look.  "This could be dangerous… deadly.  We can't wait."

          Ironhorse's mouth thinned.  "All right, but let me call General Wilson and arrange for one of our people to do the work.  I don't want to risk the security of this Project on a 'could be.'"

          "Fine, so long as your people can get started today," she agreed.  "Now, come in the lab, I'm going to need some more samples from you."

          "If you get a definite location, Norton, let me know," the colonel sighed, following the microbiologist into the Bio-lab.

          "Right."

 

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

 

          "Colonel Ironhorse, doctors, please, have a seat," the major said, motioning to the large conference table nearly filling the meeting room at Ft. Streeter.  Walking around to an overhead projector positioned at one end of the oval table, he turned on the light and waited for the three to get settled.

          Suzanne studied the man covertly.  At six-one and, she guessed, about one-hundred and seventy healthy pounds, Major Mark Galloway was a very handsome man.  His thick auburn hair was slightly longer than regulation allowed, but the Major spent the majority of his time doing research for the military.  His pale green eyes met hers, and she looked away, a slight blush dusting her cheeks for getting caught staring.

          Opening a file folder, Galloway pulled out a plastic sheet and laid it on the glass plate casting the image into the screen.  "This is the little beggar we're dealing with," he began.  "I've never seen anything like it, and neither has anyone in my research group.  Dr. McCullough's initial analysis was correct.  It's a genetically constructed organism."

          "What kind of organism, exactly?" Ironhorse asked.  He was feeling reasonably good at the moment, but his reserves weren't up to a long-winded presentation.

          "That's the interesting part.  It appears to be a hybrid, exhibiting properties of several micro-organisms.  However, we've managed to nail down some of the details.  It's a virus.  On the outside, anyway.  But the genetic makeup on the inside is more bacterial.  However, there's enough viral RNA present to make me nervous."

          "Viral?" Suzanne asked.  "But the preliminary test I ran pointed to an engineered Staphylococcus."

          "I know," the major replied, pulling the plastic off and replacing it with another.  "Our work supports that as well.  That's what tipped us off that this was a recombined organism."  He switched the plates.  "This is the results of an electrophoresis we ran."

          "That matches the perimeters for a staff organism," Suzanne confirmed.

          Galloway pulled the plastic off and slid another on.  "But, this is the same sample fifteen hours later."

          "That's impossible," Suzanne argued, shaking her head.

          Blackwood gave the microbiologist an appraising look.  "Why?  I don't understand."

          "Because that's a gram-negative rod bacteria," she explained.

          "Exactly."  Galloway put up another image.  "And this indicates the presence of a retrovirus, but all of these photos came from the same sample.  The only difference is time."

          Suzanne leaned forward, resting her arms on the smooth blond tabletop.  "If the genetic structure is an unstable recombination, that might explain it."

          "Exactly," Galloway said with a nod and smile.  "This thing is completely unpredictable.  Every sample we've run progresses at a different rate of recombination, and every sample is sensitive to changes in the external environmental chemistry.  There's only one common feature."

          "I don't want to hear this," Suzanne said, frowning.

          "What?" Blackwood prompted.

          "None of the samples are susceptible to standard antibiotic regimes of treatment."

          Suzanne fell back into her chair.  "Great."

          "But what does all that mean?" Blackwood asked, casting a worried glance at Ironhorse, who had remained silent, his face damp with sweat and wheezing slightly with each breath.  "Where do we go from here?"

          "It means that we don't have an effective method of treatment," Galloway explained.  "With the information you supplied, my team has managed to track down active ninety cases, so far.  Of that group we've seen a mortality rate of about a third.  Pneumonia is the official cause of death listed on the death certificates, but I'll wager that if we got a closer look at the bodies we'd find a bunch of cousins to this fellow."  He tapped the screen.

          "So, what do we do?" Blackwood demanded again.

          "As I see it, there are two possible approaches, Dr. Blackwood," the major said, turning off the light and taking a seat at the table.  "We can try and find something that targets the external biology of the organism, something we might be able to use as an inhibitor, or vaccine, or we look for specific drugs to attack each of the variants we find."

          "Which approach do you think best overall?" Ironhorse asked.

          "Targeting the external molecular structure, that would give us the best chance at finding a way to inoculate people against this, or treat it.  The external structure is the only constant we've seen.  If this spreads and the mutations continue at the rate we've been seeing, God only knows what we could be dealing with several weeks down the road.  We have to stop this thing, now.  Before it has a chance to mutate to the extent that we see an external structural shift, or it gains a virulence."

          Ironhorse gave a curt nod.  "Then that's the way we proceed."

          "Not so fast, Colonel," Galloway interrupted.  "I agree that we have to develop this line of research immediately, but for those who are already infected, we've also got to take it case by case.  From what we've put together, it's the organism, not the individual infected, that's critical in determining mortality."

          "Translation?" Blackwood requested.

          "It doesn't matter what kind of shape the victim's in," Suzanne supplied.  "If the organism mutates in a particularly deleterious direction, they'll die."

          The major nodded.  "Of the ninety cases we've identified, thirty-two are already dead."  He glanced down at an open file folder.  "Twenty-eight seem fine, sixteen are sick but appear to be recovering.  The mutations they're dealing with are not particularly dangerous.  They essentially have a nasty case of flu.  Not fun, but not deadly.  But, we are looking at fourteen cases where I suspect we're going to see some deaths if we can't find something to target the specific mutations."

          "My God," Blackwood breathed, running a hand over his light-brown curls.  "Can it be done in time?"

          "I hope so.  We've got a large team working round the clock, and six three-man teams working on the individual cases that I think are the most critical.  The problem is, we don't really know what the hell the side effects are going to be.  We can't treat these people in hopes of heading off something, since we have no idea where the mutations will eventually lead.  We have to wait and treat what comes up, and some of these things are churning out toxins we haven't been able to identify yet.  We have no way of predicting what the results of exposure will be until it's manifested in the patients, and by then it could be too late."

          "Doctor," Ironhorse said, "you've been briefed about the aliens.  You know what we're facing.  The emphasis on this research has to be on finding a way to combat this thing across the population."

          Galloway nodded.  "As I said, Colonel, I agree.  But I don't want to sacrifice those people who've already been exposed.  There haven't been any new cases reported in the past three days.  I'd guess the aliens are running an experiment of some kind to see what the viability of the organism is… as a weapon."

          "That could explain the flurry of transmissions we've been seeing," Blackwood offered.

          Ironhorse nodded, thinking the same thing.

          "What's the extent of this… experiment?" Blackwood asked.

          "We estimate that about two hundred people total were probably exposed…  So it seems like the experiment might be a wash overall, but we do have the fourteen who are showing the more virulent forms."  Galloway met the colonel's gaze across the table.  "Including Corporal Orley and yourself, sir."

          "What?" Blackwood exploded, leaning over the table.

          "I'd like both of you to report to the base hospital as soon as possible so we can get started on a regime of treatment," the major said, ignoring Harrison.

          "Doctor, as long as I'm feeling—"

          "Colonel," Galloway interrupted, "as you've heard, we have no idea how the particular organism you're infected with will mutate.  At the moment is it producing a toxin that we can't identify.  If that toxin should trigger any kind of unexpected reaction you could be dead before they got you here."

          "Or before you get to my room, isn't that right?"

          "Yes," Galloway admitted, standing and gathering up the files and overhead sheets.  "But we'll have a lot better chance if you're close by."

          "Paul, you have to stay."

          "Suzanne—" the colonel started.

          "No.  No excuses, Colonel," Blackwood told him.  "You're staying here.  As head of this project I won't let you risk your life unnecessarily.  I'll go to Wilson if I have to.  The President!"

          The colonel's jaws twitched in frustration.  "But I will monitor this operation as long as I'm not showing any severe symptoms."

          Harrison nodded his agreement.

          "I'd like to join the team working on Paul's organism," Suzanne said.

          Galloway smiled.  "I thought you might.  The lab is just down the hall.  I'll show you.  Colonel, if you'd get yourself checked in, we've got work to do.  I'm afraid you're going to feel like a lab rat for the next few days, but we'll make it as easy as we can."

          "I understand.  Just be sure you come up with something to fight this thing."

          "We'll do our best, Colonel," the major promised, opening the door for Suzanne and exiting after her.

          Blackwood reached out, stopping the colonel with a hand on his shoulder.  "Paul," he said quietly.

          "Doctor?"

          Unable to think of a single thing to say, Harrison looked away nervously.

          "I know, Harrison.  I know."

 

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

 

          Ironhorse sat in the small office that he'd been loaned, reviewing lieutenant Michaud's arrangements in case more of the Omegans developed the infection.  It looked doubtful, but he refused to take any chances with the Project's security – besides, it helped keep him busy and passed the hours.  Rubbing absently at his tightening chest, he closed the file and opened a second.

          He read the letter again, then picked up a pen and signed it.  He'd only trust the overall safety of the Project to someone he knew and respected.  If Craig or Scott weren't available…  Well, then, Wilson would just have to pull a few strings and get one of the two reassigned.  Both would be more than willing to step in and fill his position.  The Omegans had worked with both of the officers, too, and that would ease the transition of leadership.  Closing the file, he sat it on top of Micahud's report, hoping that neither would have to be implemented.  He had no choice.

          He coughed, the shock sending a sharp tearing pain through his chest.  Galloway hadn't pulled any punches when he'd talked to Ironhorse privately.  The aliens' newest weapon was churning out some kind of toxin, and sooner or later it would kill him if they couldn't find a way to destroy the thing.  In all likelihood, he was going to die.  He reached out and tapped his fingertips on the file folders.  Everything he could do to ensure the survival and continued smooth operation of the Blackwood Project had been accomplished.  That just left the personal…

          He reached for the last folder.  There were a few remaining details to clear up, then he'd have to have a few talks before he was too sick and they forced him out of the office and into a bed.  Opening the file he read over the document, made several changes and initialed it so the unit's clerk would make the corrections and send back the final version for his signature.

          Laying the pen aside, a sudden chill wrapped Ironhorse's shoulders.  He wasn't a superstitious man, but completing a will did give one a sense of his mortality, and an old saying about ghosts walking over graves echoed in the back of his mind.

          Except for the human element, he was ready now, just in case…  And once that was done…  Ironhorse leaned back in the padded chair and let his eyes drop closed.  He was tired, more so than he let on around the civilians.  The door cracked open and the colonel's eyes opened as he sat forward again.

          "Colonel?" Galloway asked, entering and drawing the door shut behind him.  "Are you okay?"

          "Just tired."

          "I've got some news."

          "It doesn't sound good."

          The major slid into the second chair.  "No, I'm afraid it isn't.  We've got a handle on the toxin.  It's similar to what we might see from a Scorpion fish, but much more targeted."

          "Which means?"

          "That eventually that part of your brain that controls your autonomic breathing is going to fail."

          Ironhorse's eyebrows climbed slightly.  "It won't be like pneumonia then, with a fluid buildup in the lungs."

          "No," Galloway confirmed.  "There will be some fluid buildup, but it'll gradually become harder and harder to breathe as that connection between the brain and the lungs is blocked or broken down.  You'll pass out from lack of oxygen and—"

          "Die," Ironhorse finished, looking down at the closed files.  "Funny," he said softly.

          "What's that?"

          "It sounds a lot more peaceful than the majority of ways I've always imagined I'd go out."  He gave the doctor a thin smile.  "I'm sorry.  I'm still not used to the idea."

          "It's not easy, Colonel.  I understand.  There are some people here who might be able to help."

          "I know," Ironhorse said with a nod.  "I'll look them up if I need to.  It seems like I've been preparing to die for a very long time."

          Galloway sighed, folding his arms across his chest.  He didn't want to explain the details, but he didn't have a choice.  It was his job.  Still, Ironhorse and the rest of the Blackwood Project had become friends.  He ground his teeth together and steeled himself.  "At the current rate, we're looking at the toxin reaching a critical level in about seventy-two hours.  If we can come up with something that retards that rate, we'll be able to buy a little more time."

          "At what point to you think I'll be unable to carry out supervision of the Project?"

          "My best guess – and that's all it is at this point – would be that you'll need to begin supplemental oxygen sometime in the next twenty-four hours.  It'll get progressively worse from that point on."

          There was a nod.  "I'll get things wrapped up today."

          Galloway also nodded.  "I'm going to get back to the lab.  Don't give away the family fortune just yet, though.  We've got a handle on the toxin now.  All we need is a way to inhibit it or its action.  The teams have managed to come up with treatments for six of our critical cases.  And you've got the best team working for you."

          The smile was genuine as Ironhorse stood and accompanied Galloway to the door.  "I know, Major.  And tell Suzanne and Norton if they don't get enough rest they aren't doing themselves, or me, any favors."

          "I'll do that.  They're certainly dedicated."

          "Major," Ironhorse said as Galloway stepped into the hall, "that goes for you as well.  This thing is bigger than me, or any of those on your critical list."

          "I know, Colonel.  The primary team is making inroads.  And thank you for allowing some of the researchers in Tucson to help us out.  Dr. Hildabrant is amazing.  He and his daughter have already located several of the genetic splices that were used to create the recombinant."

          "Thank you, Doctor," Ironhorse said, watching the man as he headed for the elevators.

 

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

 

          Watching the elevator doors slide closed, Mark Galloway let his building frustration bubble up, slamming the edge of his fist against the wall.  It wasn't fair. He'd watched Suzanne and Norton working like maniacs the past three days – and Blackwood, who intended on wearing a rut into the floor between the colonel's borrowed office and the lab.  An entire planet's depending on these people, even if the public doesn't know it, he thought angrily.  And they're being torn apart.  Despite the brave masks they were all wearing, the spirit of the Project was dying right along with Ironhorse.

          Reaching the basement, Mark exited and headed back to lab three where Suzanne was still hunched over her microscope.  Norton tapped away on the borrowed computer that was connected to the Cottage's Cray via a secured modem line.

          Drake looked up as Galloway entered.  "Doc, great.  I'm going to go grab some coffee.  Get you something?"

          "Nothing, thanks, Norton," the major said, shaking his head.

          "Gertrude, back three, and one-eighty.  Let's go fill up."

          Galloway watched as the voice-activated wheelchair carried out Drake's instructions and the black man rolled past him and out the door.  When Norton was gone he walked up behind Suzanne and rested his hands on her shoulders.  He could feel the tension knotting the muscles under his hands and gently worked his fingers into the hard cords.

          Suzanne sat up straighter and let her eyes drop closed.  "Oh, that feels good," she said softly.  "I'm so tired."

          "I know, and I'm glad it feels good," he replied with a small smile.  He was surprised how quickly they had become friends, and cautiously allowed himself to wonder if they'd get an opportunity to get any closer than that.  Suzanne McCullough was a beautiful woman.  She was bright, caring, dedicated…  He reached around and gave her a hug, feeling her press back against him, her head cocking to the side so she could rest it against his shoulder.  "I talked with Ironhorse," he said softly.

          "And?" she whispered.

          "He understood.  He said he'd get things wrapped up today, just in case."  He let her go and stepped around to take a seat on the stool next to her.  "How's it going?"

          Straightening, she rubbed her eyes and shook her head.  "The same.  I haven't found anything that effectively inhibits the toxin.  And the growth-rates are still erratic."

          "We'll find something," he reassured her, hoping it came out as positive as he wanted it to.  The colonel's chances were slim.  Orley was already showing signs of severe deterioration.  "The Tucson group is making progress on deciphering the organisms genetic components."

          "I don't think it's going to be soon enough," Suzanne said, her eyes filling with tears.  "Oh, Mark, what are we going to do?"

          "You care a lot about him, don't you?" Mark asked softly, reaching out to take her hands in his.

          "Yes.  Yes, I do.  The last three years… we've become… family.  Debi looks at him like he's her father."

          "And you?"

          Suzanne's hazel eyes regarded Galloway.  "He's my friend, Mark, my very good friend.  And I don't want to lose him.  Not now.  Not like this."

          Galloway nodded.  "Then it's time for us to get back to work."  He stood.  "But he told me to tell you and Norton not to overdo it.  That's not going to help you, or him."

          Suzanne nodded.  "I'll get a nap after I finished this series."

          "Okay," the major said, heading for his own work space.  "But I'm going to hold you to that."

 

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

 

          Ironhorse returned to his office and sat down.  Picking up a pencil, he jotted down a list of the people he needed to talk to.  That finished, he picked up the phone and punched out the number to the Omegan's headquarters.

          "Michaud, here."

          "Lieutenant," Ironhorse said, "I have some paperwork that needs to be picked up and processed ASAP."

          "I'll send someone right over, sir," he replied.

          "Send Derriman, will you.  I need to speak with him.  And where are Stravrakos and Coleman?"

          "Sergeant Coleman is at the hospital, Colonel," the CO said.  "Alex is at the Cottage, heading up security."

          "Have the two of them report to me at 1600."

          "Yes, sir.  May I ask what this is about, sir?"

          "It's private, Lieutenant," Ironhorse replied.

          "I understand," was the quiet response.

          "Oh, and Lieutenant?"

          "Yes, sir?"

          "I'd like to see you in an hour."

          "Yes, sir."

 

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

 

          Norton rolled into the cafeteria and headed directly for the coffee pots.  After that was corralled, he pursued the offerings and settled on cereal.  Even the Army couldn't botch Fruit Loops.  Locating a bowl, spoon, and milk, Norton held the tray on his lap and directed Gertrude over to where Blackwood sat, staring dejectedly into his coffee cup.

          "Hey, Doc, this where you've been hiding?"

          Harrison looked up, started by the interruption.  "Something wrong?"

          Norton shook his head as he arranged the food and slid the empty tray onto a table next to them.  "Just needed to take a break."  Blackwood's expression hardened.  "Harrison, what's wrong?"

          "Nothing."

          "Well, that's the most serious nothing I've seen in a long time."  He poured the cereal into the bowl and then added the milk.

          The blue eyes shifted from the far wall to his friend.  Norton could always pull him out of the pits of self-pity Harrison built for himself.  "I'm sorry," he said.  "I just wish there was something, anything I could do to help.  I hate feeling useless."

          Munching on the breakfast cereal, Norton argued.  "You're not useless, Doc.  This is just a… specialized problem.  I can't do much, either, just sticking in the data as they get it, but it's all numbers to me."

          "At least you're doing something."

          "Why don't you see if the big guy needs any help?"

          Blackwood pushed the half-full coffee cup away.  "I did, but he was busy, too."

          Finishing off the cereal, Norton sipped his coffee and grimaced.  It wasn't even close to his usual special blends.  "Oh?"

          Blackwood shrugged.  "I could've stayed, but…"

          "He wanted to be alone?"

          "It hurt, Norton," Harrison said, his blue eyes searching's the hacker's for understanding.  "It hurt to be there with him, listening to it get harder for him to breathe…"  He trailed off, spinning the coffee cup around several times.  "Am I being selfish?"

          Norton's lips compressed as he thought for a moment.  "No, I don't think so. It's not easy for any of us.  Guess we all got a little attached to the big guy."  He sat his coffee next to Harrison's abandoned cup.  "It's not the way we expected he'd die."

          "And we're writing him off, aren't we."

          "Maybe that's just natural, Harrison.  I don't know.  It hurts, and no one likes pain.  But I know we're all busting our backsides to find a cure.  We're not letting him go without a fight, Harrison."

          "You're right," Blackwood said, his voice cut with determination.  "We're not." He pushed his chair back and stood.  "I'm going to go talk with Paul."

 

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

 

          Ironhorse looked up when the knock sounded.  "Come," he called.

          Derriman stepped in, closing the door behind him.  "You have some paperwork, Colonel?"

          Ironhorse nodded to the file folders, and the Omegan first sergeant reached out and took them.  "How're you feelin'?" he asked.

          "To tell you the truth, lousy.  Have a seat."

          The older man eased uncomfortably into the second chair.  "Something wrong, sir?"

          Ironhorse shook his head.  "John, we go back a long way."

          The sergeant nodded, nervous about the use of his first name.

          "Look, I don't know how to explain this—"

          "It's bad, isn't it, sir."

          Ironhorse nodded once.  "Looks like my luck's finally run out."

          Derriman glanced away, absently rubbing one thumb under his watchband.  "Never thought it'd happen, Colonel."

          "I'm counting on you to make the transition a smooth one."

          The sergeant looked up, meeting his commander's gaze.  "Who will it be, sir?"

          "Colonel Windjoy or Colonel McCoy."

          "Good men," John replied, his gaze returning to the floor.  "I'll do everything I can.  You know that, sir."

          "I know…  Damn it," the colonel said, pushing himself to his feet and walking around to lean against the front of his desk.

          Derriman looked up at the officer, the friend, he'd known for twenty years.  He'd watched Ironhorse grow from a half-scared, half-stupid green lieutenant into the best soldier he'd ever known.  It wasn't right.  A man like Ironhorse was supposed to go out in the middle of a fire-fight, saving his men and the world…

          "John, you and Omega are the best damned unit I've ever worked with.  But the war isn't over and we can't afford to let up, not for a second.  The future of the entire planet's at stake."

          Derriman's head bobbed slightly.  "We won't let you down, Colonel," he said quietly, afraid if he spoke up his voice would catch on the lump in his throat.

          Ironhorse stuck out his hand and Derriman stood, taking it in his.  They shook, and the sergeant took a step back and snapped up a smart salute.  "You're the best, Colonel.  You're gonna kick this thing.  You watch."

          Ironhorse grinned slightly, returning the salute.  "I hope so, but if not…"

          "This is goodbye," Derriman finished.  "I understand."

          "Thank you, Sergeant."  The colonel watched as the man about-faced and headed for the door, exiting without looking back, and closed the door behind him.

 

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

 

          The knock was unexpected, and Ironhorse looked up from where he'd leaned over on the desk, resting his head on his folded arms.  He'd made his peace with Derriman, Coleman, and Stravrakos, then discussed the situation and change in leadership with Michaud.  He'd even walked out and talked briefly to the Omegans as a unit.  He was tired.  His people were hurting, and there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it.

          It was getting harder and harder to breathe.  "Who is it?" he called as best he could.

          "It's me, Colonel."

          "Come in," he replied, wishing he could avoid this talk with Blackwood, but there was little reason to put it off.  He'd have to talk to all of them, and soon.  Still, this one would be particularly difficult, since he had to exact a promise from the scientist.  One he knew the man wasn't going to want to make.

          Harrison entered and closed the door behind him.  Taking the chair, he moved it closer to the Colonel's desk and sat down.  "You look terrible," he said, trying to smile.

          "I feel terrible," Ironhorse replied honestly, not finding any reason to keep up a front.

          "Maybe you should rest," Harrison suggested, feeling the palms of his hands getting moist.  He forced the fear back and added, "In bed."

          The colonel nodded.  "I already called Major Galloway.  He's having the room arranged."

          Harrison pressed back against the chair, suddenly cold all over.  If Ironhorse was willingly taking to a bed, he was faring much worse than he looked, and that was bad.  "Colonel…" he said, trailing off.

          "Look, Harrison," the colonel interrupted, "I know this isn't easy on any of you."  The astrophysicist shook his head.  "But I have to ask you… when my replacement gets here, please, give the man a chance."

          Blackwood folded his arms across his chest and scowled.  "Paul, we don't need a replacement.  You'll—"

          "In all likelihood, Doctor, I am going to die."  There, it was said.  It was out in the open.  Neither man could deny it.

          Harrison clamped his mouth shut, his jaws grinding.  Ironhorse was right.  They both knew it.  "I'll do my best," he promised.  "I've learned that the Army still has a few good men of its own."

          "Thank you," the colonel said, his mouth tipping into the rare lop-sided grin.  "I don't know who I feel sorriest for, to tell you the truth."  Blackwood's eyes twinkled slightly and a thin grin forced its way onto his face, but it faded as the soldier grew serious again.  "Harrison, I have to ask you another favor."

          "Name it," he replied softly.

          "When it gets to the point where there's no hope—"

          "Paul—"

          "Please, let me finish," Ironhorse said, his black eyes locking on Harrison's blue, the intensity of the stare silencing the scientist.  "When that happens, I want you to take me outside.  Take me someplace away from hospitals, and cities, and cars.  I don't want to die stuck in a sick room."

          Harrison paused for a moment, wondering if he could carry out the request.  To take the man out of the hospital meant he'd have to accept the fact that Paul Ironhorse was dying… that they couldn't help him… that he'd lost someone else he cared about…  "I'll try," he whispered, then drew a deep breath and said more forcefully.  "But not until we've exhausted every possible option, Paul.  I know we can beat this.  We have to."

          "I understand.  I'll know when… and so will you."

          A knock interrupted the two men and Ironhorse called, "Come."

          A nurse opened the door.  "Sir, your room's ready, 318."

          "Thank you," the colonel said, standing.  "Guess I better check out the accommodations."

          Blackwood nodded.  "Suzanne wanted me to tell you she'll be coming for some more blood samples a little later."

          "Great," the soldier growled as they followed the nurse down the corridor.  "I think she's been chewed on by a vampire."

          Blackwood patted Ironhorse sympathetically on the back.  "Could be worse, Colonel."

          "Oh?"

          "She could be asking for—"

          "Don't say it!"

 

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

 

          With a sigh Ironhorse pressed the button on the remote and scanned through the cable stations for the third time, then cut the power and slid the control on the bedside table.  He hated inactivity.  He hated hospitals.  He hated needles, and being poked, prodded, pricked, palpated, and pressed for information about how he felt.

          He felt lousy, and anyone with eyes could see that just fine all by themselves.  He was wheezing, his chest hurt, his body ached, and he was feverish when he wasn't enjoying chills.  To top it all off, a persistent nausea made it impossible to drink anything hot, which seemed to be the only thing anyone had found that helped the constriction in his chest.

          Norton had come by earlier to cheer him up, and they'd ended up talking for three hours.  It was Drake's way of saying good-bye, and Ironhorse appreciated the casual but heartfelt approach.  Suzanne had called, asking Norton to come down to the lab to run the data on their latest series of tests.  They shook hands, and the hacker rolled out, calling back, "Hang in there, big guy.  If anyone can work miracles, it's this team."

          That had been two and a half hours ago.  He expected an update, but they were no doubt busy with the latest test results.  They must be up to their armpits in tests, Ironhorse reasoned.  Still, despite his best efforts, he was annoyed.  He didn't want to be alone.

          That was a new feeling for the colonel, and it scared him.  He pulled the blanket up further, sensing a chill begin.  Closing his eyes, he tried to ignore the trembling, cold and ache that warped through his bones.  The whisk of the door opening cracked his eyes back open.

          Suzanne gave him an assessing once over and headed straight for the bed.  "Paul?"

          "I'm… okay," he said through chattering teeth.  "Just… chills…  Cold."

          Reaching to the foot of the bed, the microbiologist pulled up the cover spread, tucking it in around him.

          "Thanks."

          "No problem," she said softly, easing up to sit on the edge of the bed.  Reaching out, she laid her hand on Ironhorse's cheek.  "The fever's still up."  He nodded.  "Does it feel like it's getting worse?"

          "Yes," was the blunt, but honest reply.

          She looked away, her lips pressing together in frustration.  "We've isolated the toxin, Paul," she explained, sliding off the bed and pacing.  "And we've got several possible inhibitors we're trying out, but nothing's working well enough to try a test on you."

          "Why?"

          She stopped, shaking her head.  "We don't know.  The toxin only varies slightly as the organism mutates.  We've got the possible inhibitors, but we'll have to be very careful.  They're toxic as well in high dosages."

          Ironhorse gave her a wan smile.  "Rock and a hard spot, huh?"

          Suzanne nodded.  "We'll figure it out.  Mark's an amazing scientist, and the people in Tucson are working around the clock."

          "And handsome."

          "Excuse me?"

          "Major Galloway," the colonel teased, earning a genuine grin from the microbiologist.  "He's also handsome."

          "Yes, and handsome."  She leveled the colonel with an appraising stare.  "But I didn't think you'd be interested, Colonel," she teased.

          She was rewarded with a light blush.  "Just take care of yourself," he cautioned.

          "I will."  She glanced away, staring at the black television screen.  "Paul…  Debi's worried about you.  She'd…  She'd like to see you."

          "I don't know if that's such a good idea."

          "You're like a father to her, Paul.  Do you really think it fair that you don't?"

          Ironhorse considered that for a moment, then nodded.  "Okay, but make it today.  I want to be in relatively good shape."

          "I'll call the Cottage when I get back to the lab."

          "How's the team working on the capsid doing?"

          "Better than we are.  It looks like we'll have a reliable vaccine for that.  We could include it in standard flu shot vaccines if we need to."  She took her blood sample as she spoke.

          "Good.  And Orley?"

          The scientist's face grew taut.  "He's hanging in there, but it doesn't look good.  We're doing everything we can…"

          "I know that, and so does he."

          She looked down at her watch.  "I have to go, okay?"  Ironhorse nodded reluctantly.  "Besides, Harrison's waiting outside."  She stood.  "We're going to beat this."

          "Then you better get back to work."

          Leaning over, she kissed his cheek and hugged his shoulders, the gnawing fear that it might be for the last time haunting her.  "Hang in there with us."

          "I'll try," was the whispered reply.

 

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

 

          With Harrison there the time passed a little swifter, but the constant deep ache in his muscles and joints, coupled with an increasing difficulty in breathing chewed away at his strength and will.  He was grateful for the company.  It was hard, waiting for death, especially after having fought against it so often in the past. The battles, the missions, other injuries, and then the aliens…  The shadow of death, of his mortality, had clung to the corners of his life, always present, always visible, if just from the corner of his eye.

          He'd expected it to descend upon him quickly.  A shot, an explosion… an instant of pain and regret, and then the welcoming light he'd heard his grandfather describe.  Not this.  Not slow.  Not helpless.

          He could sense his body shutting down, and more pieces of machinery were added to perform the functions he was stripped of.  Oxygen was added, taking the harsh edge off his labored breathing, but it was only a matter of time, and he knew it.  He glanced over at Blackwood, who had dropped off to sleep sometime earlier – after he'd told Paul about Orley…  Another loss to add to the rolls.  The usually unruly brown curls were disheveled, and black smudges filled the hollows between his eyes and cheeks.  It hurt to see the man like that, but there was nothing Ironhorse could do.

          A soft knock sounded in the room, barely discernable over the din of the equipment, but the colonel had been waiting for it.  "Blackwood," he called softly.

          "Huh?" Harrison asked, jerking slightly as he catapulted awkwardly into consciousness.

          "Debi's here," Ironhorse wheezed.  "Get the door."  Harrison nodded, and pushed himself to his feet, and after running his fingers through his hair started for the door.  "And Doctor?"

          "Yes?" he asked, pausing.

          "I'd like some time alone with her."

          Blackwood nodded, then reached for the knob and pulled.  Debi waited outside, looking scared and uncertain.  "Hi," he said.  "The patient is waiting for you, Ms. McCullough.  I think you're just what the doctor ordered."

          Debi tried to smile, but she was afraid, and the attempt failed about half way through.  Harrison reached out, pulling the girl into a hug, then released her, letting her enter.  Stepping into the hall, he let the door fall closed behind him as he pressed back against the wall.  It just wasn't fair…

 

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

 

          "Hi," Debi said softly, her eyes roving over the various pieces of equipment her mother had warned her would be there.

          "Hi yourself," he whispered, motioning her closer to the bed with a weak flick of his wrist.

          "Mom said I can't stay very long."

          "Well, we'll just see about that," he told her with a conspiratorial wink, then patted the mattress.  "Have a seat."

          Debi eased onto the bed, careful not to disturb any of the various tubes.  She folded her hands in her lap and stared down at them, picking absently at the cuticles.  Ironhorse waited a moment, wondering if she was going to say anything, and when it appeared she wasn't, reached out and rested a hand on her knee.

          "How are you doing?"

          "I'm okay," she said, but the tears building in her eyes revealed the lie.

          "Me, too," he said.

          She looked up, a flash of anger crossing her face.  "Mom says you're sick… real sick," she finished in a whisper.

          He nodded.  "Yes, Debi, I'm sick."  He squeezed her knee.  "I might not get better."

          "You mean you might die," was the brutal rebuttal.

          "Yes."

          She looked away, chewing her bottom lip, her eyes filling again.  "But I don't want you to die."

          "I know, I don't want to either, but we don't usually get a choice about these kinds of things."

          "I know," she said in a half-moan.  "But—"

          "But what?"

          She shook her head, the first of the monsoon-sized tears rolling over her red cheeks.

          Pushing himself further up in the bed, Ironhorse reached out and drew the girl to him, holding her against his side, her cheek pressed tight against his shoulder.  "It's okay to cry, you know."  She nodded, rubbing the hospital gown against his shoulder.  It was getting damp.  "I just want you to know… I'm going to miss you… a lot."

          Debi sucked in a breath and nodded again.  "I'll miss you, too," she said, holding tighter to his arm.  "I…  I—"

          "What?"

          "I wish you were my dad," she choked out, the sobs breaking free on the coat-tails of her confession, and Ironhorse hugged her tighter, rocking them as best he could from side to side while she cried.

          When the sobs faded, he kissed the top of her head.  "And I couldn't want a better daughter," he told her softly as he stroked her hair.  "You're a very special young lady, Debi."

          "Why?"

          "Because you're brave, and strong, and you've understood what we're doing. It hasn't been easy for you, I know that, but you've never complained, or made it harder on your mother or the rest of us.  That's very commendable… very mature."

          She shrugged, unsure how to take the compliment.  "It's okay.  I never really liked kids my age anyway."

          "Maybe not," he said.  "But you haven't had much of an opportunity to try, and for that I'm sorry."

          She sat up and wiped her eyes.  "Are…?  Are you scared?"

          He nodded.  "Yes."

          "Me, too."  She wiped her face again.  "What'll happen to us?"

          "You?  Nothing."  He reached out and took her damp hand in his.  She sniffled.  "Someone else will come to the Cottage to take care of you and your mom… and Harrison and Norton."

          "Another colonel?"

          "Yes.  You haven't met them, but it'll be Colonel Craig Windjoy or Colonel Scott McCoy.  They're both very good friends of mine, and I think you'll like them." She looked skeptical.  "And don't give me that look.  You're picking up Blackwood's bad habits."

          That sparked a grin from the teen.  "It won't be the same," she complained.

          "No.  No, it won't, but the fight against the aliens isn't over yet, and you need someone there to make sure everything is safe."

          She squeezed his hand.  "Do you think we'll win?"

          "Absolutely.  With Harrison and your mom and Norton working on it, it's just a matter of time."

          Looking up, she met his eyes.  "I love you," she said.

          "I know," he told her with a small lopsided grin.  "And believe me, that means the world to me.  After all, you were my first friend at the Cottage."

          She smiled.  "I know, but that's because you were really grouchy then."

          "Grouchy?" he asked in mock consternation.

          "Uh-huh, grouchy.  But I knew you were nice.  You just pretended to be mean."

          "Oh?  And just how did you know that?"

          She shrugged.  "I don't know, I just did."

          "Well, I'm glad you figured it out," he told her.  "It was nice to have a friend."

          She looked away, her cheeks turning rosy.  "I guess I better go."

          He tugged her forward and gave her a hug.  "Okay, but I want you to remember something."

          "What?"

          "That I love you, too, and that I'll be keeping an eye on you – all of you – no matter what happens."

          She sat up.  "You told me the Cherokee believe that we'll all come back here and live another life."  He nodded.  "Do you think when I die I'll be able to come back and be with you and mom again?  And Harrison and Norton, too?"

          "I don't know, Debi.  It's possible."

          "I hope so."  She scooted off the bed, and stood nervously.

          "Hey," he said, and she looked back.  "It'll be okay."

          She nodded, the tears building again.  "I have to go," she said, rushing from the room.  Harrison, pacing in the hallway, caught her as she exited, scooping her into a tight hug and holding her while she cried.

 

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

 

          "Son of a bitch!"

          "What?" Suzanne asked, looking up from her microscope.  She blinked, trying to get her eyes to focus.

          Mark tossed his clipboard down on the table, and rubbed savagely at the back of his neck.  "I can't keep up with the mutations.  Every time I think we've got a handle on it, the damn thing changes, and the graphs are getting less and less predictable the longer we keep going!"

          Suzanne stood and joined the major.  He took a deep breath and looked down at her.  "Sorry," he said almost shyly.  "I shouldn't be taking this out on you."

          Reaching out, she gave the man a hug.  "You've been putting up with me, it's the least I can do."

          They stood, resting in the shared embrace until Suzanne stepped back, her face lighting up for the first time in days.  "That's it!"

          "What?"

          "The patterns are breaking down because the organism's started breaking down!  The recombination isn't stable.  It's dying, Mark.  If we can keep Paul going, that damn thing will die off on its own."

          Galloway's arms snaked around her waist and he swung her around with a whoop.  "You're right!  Norton!"

          The black man who had been watching them grinned broadly, flexing his fingers like a piano master about to give a concert.  "What can I do you for, Doc?"

          "Crank up that machine, we need to find out what the deterioration rate of this monster is."

          "You tell me the numbers, Doc, and I'll work the Drake magic."

 

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

 

          Harrison watched the second hand of the large wall clock rotate steadily.  Time had lost any particular association with the shift of shadows or the coming and going of the nurses.  Seconds were measured in the forced, ragged gasps that passed for Ironhorse's breathing, and were amplified to an eternity when the labored hiss caught, the colonel's diaphragm spasming.  When the stalled breath would tumble out in a coughing wheeze, Blackwood would allow himself to breathe and time plodded along once again.

          The full mask over Ironhorse's face now made little difference in the constant fight to move air in and out of his lungs.  The scientist ground his teeth together, noting the slightly blue pallor around the Cherokee's lips.

          Ironhorse was sitting upright in the bed, his hands pressed against his thighs, the fingers turned inward, pointing towards each other the way the nurse had shown him earlier.  Shoulders hunched forward to provide as much room as possible for the lungs to work, the colonel concentrated on breathing.  Nothing else mattered.

          As it had before, the fight grew easier for a time and the black eyes blinked open, blearily searching the room until he spotted Blackwood.  It was good to have the man near.  Good to have a friend.  He was afraid, and he did not want to be alone.

          The tightening in his chest increased.  The spasms were coming closer now.  "Doctor," he rasped.

          "Easy, Colonel," Harrison said, pushing out of his chair and walking to the foot of the bed.  "It's fine, Paul.  I'm here."

          "It's time," Ironhorse said weakly.  "Get me… outta here."

          Harrison felt the cold steel grip of fear shoot through his bones, immobilizing him where he stood.  No!  It wasn't time!  It couldn't be.  Suzanne and Galloway had to find a cure, they—

          "Harrison… you gave… your word."

          Squeezing his jaws together, Blackwood forced himself to take the three steps that brought him to Ironhorse's side.

          "Please…"

          "I'll get a wheelchair," was the only thing Harrison could think to say.  "I'll be right back.

 

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

 

          "Harrison, Paul, we—"  Suzanne pulled up short, her eyes sweeping over the empty room.  "What the—?  They're gone."

          Norton rolled away from the doorway, just avoiding Suzanne and Major Galloway as they stampeded past him and into the hall.

          "Derriman!" Suzanne called out, catching sight of the Omega first sergeant.

          The NCO stopped, waiting for the threesome to reach him.  "Something wrong, Dr. McCullough?"

          "Harrison and Colonel Ironhorse are missing," she said.  "Have you seen them?"

          He shifted uncomfortably, chewing on his lower lip.  "Yes, ma'am, I've seen them," he admitted reluctantly.

          "Sergeant," Major Galloway growled, "we have to find them – now."

          "I'm sorry, sir," Derriman apologized.  "But I gave the colonel my word, I—"

          "Sergeant," Suzanne snapped, "we think we have a way to save Paul's life, if we can get to him in time.  Where is he?"

          "Shit!" the man swore, dragging a damp palm over his thinning brown hair.  "They left."

          "Left?" Norton asked.

          "Left the hospital," Derriman said, grabbing the radio at his belt and keying it down.  "Alex, Norah, mount up, we have to find the Colonel and Dr. Blackwood ASAP.  They left here in the Bronco about three minutes ago, headed west."  An acknowledgement echoed over the radio as he turned back to the threesome.  "The Colonel didn't want to die in a hospital.  I guess he made an arrangement with Dr. Blackwood."

          "Do you know where they went?" Galloway demanded.

          "No, sir.  I helped Dr. Blackwood get the colonel in the Bronco and they left." The sergeant's face pinched slightly.  "From the way he looked, they won't have gotten far."

 

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

 

          Harrison pulled onto the dirt shoulder and cut the motor.  Bolting out of the seat, he rounded the front of the truck and jerked the passenger door open.  Ironhorse leaned back against the seat, trying to suck in a breath.  Slipping an arm behind the colonel's back, Harrison helped pull the soldier to the edge of the seat, supporting him as Ironhorse's feet dropped to the ground and he stood on shaking legs.  Together they stumbled slowly down a small incline to a clump of oaks.

          Easing Ironhorse to the ground, Blackwood collapsed next to him, fear causing his body to tremble.  The ring of blue around Ironhorse's mouth was darker, and spreading to his chin.

          Ironhorse's eyes opened, and he looked up through the leaves to the blue, cloudless sky beyond.  "Thank… you."

          Blackwood reached out and gripped the colonel's shoulder.  "Damn it, Paul, it's not supposed to work like this," he choked out.

          A small, crooked smile lifted the colonel's lips.  "Tell me… about it."  He fought through another breath, then added.  "You will… win this… Harrison… trust me."

          Blackwood's eyes slid closed, the tears he'd denied himself earlier finally falling.  Without thinking, he pulled Ironhorse into his lap, supporting the colonel against his chest.  The struggle for breath eased slightly, and Harrison could feel him relax.

          "Thank you… my friend," he whispered.

          "Shhh."

 

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

 

          "There!" Suzanne said, her hand reaching automatically for Norton's arm.

          "I see it," Drake replied, pulling off the road and parking behind the Bronco.

          "We got them!" Derriman barked into the radio as he and Suzanne climbed out of the green van.  "Two miles west on Corbett.  Report back to your duty stations."

          In their car Coleman and Stravrakos exchanged glances.

          "Well?" she asked.

          "We're real close," Alex replied.  "Can't hurt…"

          "My feelings, exactly," Coleman concurred, turning around and flooring the accelerator.

 

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

 

          Parking behind the van the two soldiers climbed out, joining Derriman and Suzanne.

          When the two soldiers had gone, Debi glanced up over the top of the seats, then carefully eased out of the car, hiding until Norton joined the others.

          They'd kill her if they knew she'd hitched a ride, but something was going on with the colonel, and she wanted to know what it was.

          After a quick check of the truck, Suzanne and Derriman scanned the surrounding area, the microbiologist spotting the two men first.  "There," she pointed.  Stravrakos started forward.  "Wait," Suzanne whispered, reaching out to stop the man.

          Harrison rocked the colonel slowly from side to side, the tears on his face, telling them more than they wanted to know.

          "Goddamn it," Derriman swore under his breath, and Coleman placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.

          Norton rolled up to join them, his face an expressionless mask as Harrison tipped his head back, an inarticulate cry tearing free of his throat and echoing over the still landscape.

          Derriman nodded and the three soldiers walked silently back to the truck, giving Norton and Suzanne their privacy.  She reached out, wrapping her arms around the black man's shoulders, watching while Harrison grieved, unwilling to interrupt.

 

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

 

          Ironhorse felt the struggle ease, the pain slipping away when the desperate, fighting need for air disappeared.  A velvet swirl of color enveloped him, blocking out the leaves and sky.  From a distance he could hear Harrison's voice, but the words were lost in a rising euphoria he couldn't explain.  He welcomed the sensations, embraced them, feeling whole and well for the first time in several days.

          How long the warm, silky rainbow held him, Ironhorse wasn't sure, but when he found himself floating near the top of an oak tree, he sucked in a breath of surprise... at least, he thought he did.  What in the world…?

          He glanced around, disorientated by the unusual aerial perspective, and felt a tug on some part of his awareness that he couldn't identify.  He looked down.

          Harrison was holding him, cradling him in his arms while tears flowed freely down the civilian's cheeks.

          What the hell's going on? he wondered, trying to reach out and touch the man.  If he could just explain that he was fine, that he could breath now, he—

          I'm not breathing.

          Ironhorse studied himself, head resting limply against Blackwood's shoulder. He'd seen death often enough to recognize it, even in himself.

          I'm dead.  The thought wasn't as frightening as he'd imagined it would be.  But this floating around is going to take some getting used to.

          Forcing his attention away from Blackwood, Ironhorse caught sight of Suzanne and Norton at the top of the hill.  They were crying, too.  And beyond them Derriman, Coleman and Stravrakos were huddled near the Bronco, looking miserable.

          Didn't you people get the message?  You weren't supposed to be here.  It was supposed to be me and Blackwood.  You didn't have to see this.  Although, he realized, that they were all there made him pulse with a warmth he could never describe.

          A movement behind the van caught his attention, and he tried to move closer, but the activity did nothing except tip him forward.  Arms flailing, he righted himself, and wondered if it was true that angels eventually earned their wings.  That would make getting around a lot easier.  He grinned to himself.  Of course, that was making some real big assumptions.

          He glanced back at the van.  Nothing.  Glancing down, he found Harrison staring up at him.  Harrison? he called.

          Instead of an answer, Ironhorse saw the man's mouth open and a single sharp cry of pain lanced out from Blackwood, slicing through Ironhorse.  Paul winced, feeling Harrison's emotional anguish.

          Harrison, it's okay, he called.  I'm okay, now.  Let go, it's okay.

          More movement interrupted Ironhorse's efforts to communicate with his friend, and he searched the hillside, finding Debi seated on the ground next to the car, her knees drawn up to her chest.  Hugging her legs, Debi buried her face in her arms and cried.  Feeling her pain as well, Ironhorse pulled back.  He could feel them all; different shades of loss, grief, and hurt.

          Ah, Deb, you weren't supposed to be here.  I don't want to hurt you.  I can't help this.

          An odd sound caught his attention, the first he'd actually heard since the colors had surrounded him, and Ironhorse spun around, but there was nothing except the tree and sky.  At the edges of his vision, a fine white mist started closing in.  He tried to back-peddle back away from the fog, but the swirling colors returned, wrapping themselves around him, buoying him along like a leaf on a slow moving river.

          No, wait! he cried silently.  I want to—

          In the distance a bright light appeared, bright and pulsing.  A comforting sound rose slowly in pitch as he moved nearer and the fear and worry fell away, shed like a second skin he no longer needed.

          Moving faster, Paul surrendered to the indescribable feelings that surged through him, opening his arms to embrace the light as it engulfed him.

 

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

 

          Wiping her eyes, Suzanne stood and started down the hill.  Breaking away from the other two Omegans, Derriman followed.

          Harrison looked up at the pair, then down at Ironhorse.  "He's gone," he whispered.

          "I'll take him, Doctor," Derriman said softly, extending his hands.

          Blackwood started to protest, but allowed the sergeant to gather up Ironhorse's body and carry it back to the van.

          Suzanne helped Harrison climb to his feet, the two of them stumbling up the hill after the sergeant.  At the top, Norton reached out, catching Blackwood's hand in his own and giving it a hard squeeze.

          Harrison climbed in the back of the van, sitting next to the colonel.  Reaching into his jacket pocket, he tossed Derriman the keys to the Bronco.  "I don't think I can drive," he said simply.

          The three soldiers waited until the van pulled away before walking over to the Bronco.  "We'll come back for the car, Sarge," Stravrakos said.  Derriman nodded, the three of them starting to climb into the truck.

          "Wait!"  Debi ran up, wiping her face.  "I— I need a ride, too."

          "Come on," Coleman said with a sympathetic smile and a short hug.  "Climb in."

          Debi watched the older sergeant as he drove, his eyes fixed determinedly on the road, but they were bright with tears.

          "The colonel's dead, isn't he," she said quietly.

          Derriman nodded.  "Never thought I'd see the day."

          "None of us did," Norah replied form the backseat.

          Debi glanced into the rearview mirror, finding Coleman wiping her eyes with a Kleneex.  Her own tears started all over again.  "He said he'd watch us," she whispered.  "Do you think he is now?"  Warm hands covered her shoulders and Debi pressed back into them, glad Stravrakos was sitting behind her where he couldn't see her crying, but she knew that he understood.

          "I wouldn't put it past him," Alex told her.

 

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

 

          Emerging from the loving embrace of the light, Ironhorse was blinded.  He blinked and rubbed his eyes.

          "It takes a moment to adjust."

          "Grandfather?"

          A reassuring hand gripped his shoulder, and Ironhorse squinted into the old man's black eyes.  He looked the same as Paul remembered him.

          "It is you."

          "Yes," John Ironhorse replied with a sly smile.

          Paul's gaze shifted from his grandfather's face to the dirt trail he was standing on next to a wide and slow-moving river.  Glancing across to the far bank, he thought he could make out the faces of his brother and sister standing in the foggy mists.  Other faces faded in and out of the swirling grey.

          "I really am dead, aren't I," Ironhorse asked quietly.

          "No, Paul."

          The gaze shifted back to his grandfather, both eyebrows arching toward his hairline.  "But—"

          "You cannot stay, nvwati uwohali."

          "Why?"  Paul reached out, his hand closing on the very real arm of the older man.

          "It's a mistake that you're here, ulisi.  It's not your time."

          Ironhorse's mouth tipped into the rare lopsided grin.  "That sounds like a line from a bad late-night movie, Eduda."

          "But it's true."  With a hand on his grandson's arm, the old man led them to a felled snarled oak and sat down, the soldier opting to pace next to the riverbank.  "You have to go back, Paul.  There's too much you've left unfinished."

          "You mean the aliens?" he asked, his hands sliding up to rest on his hips.

          "The beings you fight are just the first from the stars who will come."

          "Great," Ironhorse mumbled.  "This is not what I wanted to hear."

          The old man chuckled.  "Still stubborn, aren't you.  The victory will be yours, but the battle will be long, and you're needed.  You have the strength to survive."  He pointed across the river and out of the swirling mists Paul could see the vague outlines of a ragged people, walking slowly along.  The souls lost on the Trail of Tears.  He shivered.  "You own a legacy of survival, ulisi.  And there are others, fighting with you.  Even ones you do not know about, but who lend their spirit.  And there are those who love you…  You felt their pain."

          Ironhorse swayed slightly, a wave of dizziness washing over him as he remembered the disconcerting sensations emanating from Harrison and all the others.  "I don't want to die, grandfather.  But…"

          "I know.  Here there is no pain.  No frustration and hopelessness.  But you would not be happy here.  You'd worry and watch the riverbank for those you've come to love, and when they came, you would feel ashamed and guilty."

          Paul nodded.  "Yes.  I would.  I belong there.  I'm not ready to give up this war just yet…  I want go back, Grandfather."

          The old man stood and joined Ironhorse.  "This way," he said with a smile.

          Several steps down the trail, Paul felt the tug.  He reached out, giving his grandfather a brief hug, then felt the solid ground beneath his feet fall away, sending him tumbling though the swirling colors.  The fall didn't frighten him until a touch of cold and pain reached out, encircling him, and constricting his chest.  With a blinding flash of agony he sucked in a breath and mentally scrambled frantically for the beckoning blackness just beyond his reach.

 

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

 

          Harrison kept his eyes carefully averted from the too still form lying next to him.  Not since Clayton had died had he felt so utterly cold and numb.  He reached up, pulling his jacket tighter around his shoulders.

          "There's the hospital," Norton said, noting the three medics who were lounging against the emergency doors.  "Looks like something's up."

          "Maybe—"

          Suzanne's comment was cut off when Ironhorse sucked in a deep breath, causing all three of the Project members to jump.

          "Suzanne!" Blackwood gasped, scooting closer to Ironhorse's body, his hands reaching out to test for a pulse.  There was nothing… except…

          "Harrison," she cautioned from the passenger seat.  "Bodies do that.  It's just—"

          "He's breathing!"

          Norton braked to a stop at the curb, the orderlies swarming to the side of the van before he could cut the engine.  "Hey!"

          The door to the van was pulled open, the Army medics pushing in past Blackwood to hastily remove Ironhorse.

          "Easy with him," Harrison snapped.  "What's going on?"

          "Hurry," Galloway called, trotting up to the van.

          "Mark, what's going on?" Suzanne demanded, watching as Paul was transferred onto a gurney and wheeled inside, Harrison trailing behind.

          "No time, Suzanne, come on, we have to get him on life support."

          "Mark, he's dead!"

          "Not yet he isn't!"

 

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

 

          The three Project members stared in disbelief at the clearly registering brain activity.  While they watched, the physician administered a mild stimulus to the colonel's heart, sending the ECG back into a slow rhythmic pulse.

          "Respirator has him now," a nurse said.

          "BP is coming up," another echoed.

          "How?" Blackwood whispered.  "I saw him die."

          "Not exactly," Galloway replied, laying a hand on the scientist's shoulder.  "Come on, let's go to my office so they can work and I'll explain."

          Exiting, they found Derriman, Coleman, Stravrakos and Debi waiting anxiously for them in the hall.

          "Mom, how's the colonel?  Is he—?"

          "He's alive, Debi," she said, giving her daughter a tight hug.  "I'm not sure why, but he is.  Can you wait here with the sergeants?"  She nodded.  "Thank you.  We'll be back in a few minutes."

          "Is he going to make it?" Derriman asked.

          "I think so," Galloway said.

          The three soldiers whooped in unison, startling the staff at the nurses' station.

          "This way," Mark said, smiling slightly at the soldiers' display of enthusiasm.  Harrison nodded and followed the major, Suzanne and Norton trailing.

 

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

 

          "Find a spot," Mark told them waving his hand, and heading for the coffee pot carefully ensconced in a corner.  He poured four cups and carried them over to his desk, distributing them as he explained.

          "Okay, this is how I think it worked.  The mutation that Colonel Ironhorse was infected with was particularly unstable, and the recombination kept breaking down, which was why we were having so much trouble keeping up with the shifts.  But it wasn't breaking down fast enough to stall the effects of the toxins it was also producing.  In fact, I think the production of the toxin actually sped up its genetic breakdown."

          "And the toxins are what killed him?" Norton asked, then amended, "Or whatever that was out there that looked like dead?"

          "The toxins built up to the point where Ironhorse lost autonomic respiratory control, but at the same time, the recombination was also breaking down.  Suzanne figured that out just before we came looking for the missing colonel."

          "That's why we came looking," she explained to Harrison.  "We thought if we could get Paul on a respirator, we could keep him going until the bacteria broke down on its own, since we couldn't isolate anything to use against it."

          "But we didn't have all the data on the deterioration rates.  I got that after you left," he said to Suzanne.  "The bacteria had been breaking down for about twelve hours…"  He paused to take a breath.  "It was at the end of its life cycle.  The peak of the toxin build-up was just slightly ahead.  When the toxin peaked, and Paul stopped breathing, the bacteria was still breaking down, and when it finally self-destructed it freed up his autonomic system, but he went into ventricular fibrillation."

          "So he was never really dead?" Harrison asked.

          "I don't know.  Technically he'd stopped breathing and his heart had stopped pumping when he got here."

          "That's dead in my book," Norton supplied with a nervous laugh.

          "What now?" Blackwood asked, leaning forward.

          "The respirator will keep him breathing until he's a little stronger and the levels of the toxin fall off," Mark said, then looked nervously away.

          "What?" Suzanne asked.

          He met her eyes.  "We don't know what the reaction is going to be to the bacteriological decomposition."

          "You mean he's still in danger?"

          Galloway nodded.  "Sorry, Dr. Blackwood, but we're back to a wait and see.  I'm optimistic, but I can't make any promises."

 

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

 

          Blackwood paced through the hospital room.  Checking his watch, he was surprised to find it was nearly seven.  He'd have to get some sleep soon, or he was going to pass out where he stood.

          Shoving the hair off his forehead, Harrison walked over to the window and pulled back the curtains to let the early morning light fill the room.  He cracked the pane open, allowing in the fresh morning air.  Behind him Ironhorse lay quietly sleeping.

          A cold chill rolled down Blackwood's back.  It had been nearly twelve hours since they'd returned to the hospital.  The colonel had regained consciousness after two, only to be assaulted with body-racking spasms as he fought the toxins.  Nothing they'd tried had eased the soldier's suffering, and once he'd thought they'd lost him a second time.

          Harrison closed his eyes, trying to push the image away.  He'd been sitting behind Ironhorse, letting the colonel lean back against him and rest while he rubbed the tired and tense shoulder muscles.  They'd tried to keep the man awake throughout the ordeal, afraid that if he slept they wouldn't be able to monitor the process closely enough to intervene if there was trouble.

          They were talking about Ironhorse's exploits at West Point when he fell silent and slumped forward.  Harrison's trembling fingers had missed the pulse.  Suzanne had found them twenty minus later.  Exhaustion had forced Paul to sleep, and together they'd roused him.

          Three hours later Galloway arrived and told them the toxins were low enough not to be a threat.  Ironhorse had smiled weakly, slipping into sleep…  The memory sent a surge of raw panic through Blackwood's already frazzled nerves, and he shook like a quake-rattled window pane.  It had been so close.  So very, very close.

          Ironhorse had hung on, fighting the pain and cramping muscles, refusing to give up even when Harrison reached the point where he wanted the colonel to succumb, to spare him the continued agony.  They'd all sat with the man, urging him to not to give up, but after several hours, Harrison could no longer utter those words.  It wasn't fair.  Ironhorse had suffered enough.  If death was the only escape, then he deserved it.  But how would he have wished the man dead?  Paul was his friend.  His best friend.  Paul hadn't given up, but Harrison had…

          Guilt weighed the astrophysicist's shoulders, and he forced himself back to the edge of the bed.

          A wild, incomprehensible maelstrom of emotions spiraled through Harrison, increasing his anxiety.  He wanted to reach out and rest his hand on the lightly rising and falling chest, to assure himself that what he was seeing was real.  He wanted to ring Ironhorse's neck for putting him through the ordeal.  He wanted to stand in the circle of the colonel's strong arms and cry like a child, like he had when his parents had been killed.  He wanted to shove him away so he couldn't be hurt again.

          So many had died – his parents, Clayton, Karen…  So many, and he'd wished the same on Paul…

          With a whispered curse, Blackwood spun and fled the room.

 

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

 

          "Colonel," Debi said strictly, "Mom said you have to eat if you want to get your strength back."

          The Special Forces officer leveled the teen with his best no-nonsense glower, sure to stop anything short of a rampaging bull elephant or an irate general.

          Debi folded her arms across her chest and tilted her head slightly to one side. "You're not eating, Colonel."

          Vowing to work on the glower until it included stubborn teenagers, Ironhorse eyed his tray.  On it, what he hoped was oatmeal floated in a plastic bowl.  If it wasn't oatmeal, he'd have to file a complaint for illegal disposal of toxic waste.        Picking up his spoon, he poked the substance.  "Uhh—"

          "It's not that bad.  I had some of that when I was in the hospital once, a long time ago."

          "Probably the same batch," the colonel muttered.  "They just kept sending it out until someone's stupid enough to actually eat it."

          The door swinging open spared the soldier actually sampling the gruesome mixture.  "Blackwood, where are my pants?"

          "Don't you think you'd better tackle breakfast before you storm the nurses' station?" Harrison asked, the edge to his voice making the joke more pointed than was called for.

          "He's grouchy," Debi summed up.

          "I am not grouchy," Ironhorse argued, realizing too late that he sounded incredibly grouchy while doing so.

          "Oh, yes, you are," the girl countered.

          "Harrison, when am I getting out of here?  I feel fine.  I'm going to starve to death if I'm stuck here much longer.  Where's Galloway?"

          "Soon.  Glad to hear it.  I doubt it.  And I don't know."

          Black eyes narrowed and the soldier's lips disappeared into a thin line.

          "Try the toast, Colonel," Debi suggested, sparing Blackwood's life.  "Norton said if you fold it in half, it springs back to its original shape like rubber."

          "Fascinating," the soldier grumbled, while Blackwood moved closer for a better view of the experiment.

 

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

 

          "It's about time," Ironhorse enthused when Suzanne entered carrying a small gym bag.  "Those my clothes?" he asked hopefully.

          "Yes, but you're not going to need them just yet."

          "Damn it, Suzanne, what more do you want?  I've been bled dry!  I'm fine.  Let's go home."

          "This won't hurt a bit, Paul," she reassured as the door opened and a nurse entered, pushing a wheelchair.

          "I've heard that from everyone for three days now, Doctor, and they've been wrong – every time."

          "Colonel Ironhorse, you are the worst patient I've ever had to deal with, and I've dealt with some real brutes!" the nurse said, pointing to the chair.  "Insert rump here."

          With all the dignity he could muster in the thin hospital gown, Ironhorse took his seat.  "What is it this time?"

          "Last chest X-rays," the nurse supplied as she wheeled him out the door.  "Then a trip to neurology and then we finally get rid of you."

          "Good," the colonel grouched, not sure if he should be hurt or not.

 

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

 

          "Colonel, are you resting?"

          Ironhorse winced slightly.  "Yes, Debi, I'm resting."  He laid the pen aside and looked up from his paperwork.

          "It looks like you're working.  Mom says you should be resting.  You just got home."

          The colonel contemplated what he might do if he heard the phrase "Mom says" one more time, but decided that everything he could come up with was a punishable offense.

          "I'm just going to get started on all this paperwork," he explained, waving a hand over the stack of file folders cluttering up one corner of his desk.

          The teen crossed and slid into the leather chair the colonel kept in his office.  "That's like homework, isn't it?"

          "Yes," Ironhorse said cautiously, sensing an imminent attack.  "Yes, I guess it is."

          "Homework's work," she pronounced.  "You better wait until tomorrow, at least."

          Fighting back a smile, he decided to humor the request.  "I guess it can't hurt to let this sit for another day, or two."

          "Cool, we can watch Total Recall on HBO!"

          Ironhorse nodded in agreement.  "Now, that sounds more like resting than paperwork."

          "Yeah."  She bounded to the door.  "You want some popcorn?"

 

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

 

          He'd been home from the hospital for three days, and Ironhorse was ready to return to his regular routine, even if no one else was ready to let him.

          He was fine.

          Major Galloway had pronounced him bacteria and toxin free.

          He was a little sore, but that was fading rapidly, and his strength was almost back to normal.  It would be normal if he could just back to his regular runs and exercise.

          Enough was enough.

          He was fine, and it was time to get on with his life and the battle against the aliens.  They weren't going to wait for him forever.

          With a deep breath, he left his room and headed for the dining room and breakfast.  Even his appetite had returned, no small feat after all that hospital swill.

          He was fine, and it was time the civilians stopped treating him like an invalid.

          Now, all he had to do was convince them of that.

 

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

 

          "Morning, Paul," Suzanne said as he entered and took his seat.

          "Good morning," he replied, noting Blackwood's absence.  "Anything going on?"

          "Nada," Norton said with a smile.  "The bad guys are still on vacation."

          Ironhorse nodded.  "Good, that'll give me a few days to get back into the routine."  He waited for someone to voice an objection, but there were none.  "That's not a problem?"

          "Should it be?" Suzanne asked.

          The colonel's eyes narrowed slightly.  "For the last three days you've been watching me like I was an only-chick.  I was expecting some kind of objection."

          Suzanne shrugged.  "I figured three days was enough rest.  Three days are up.  You're free.  Enjoy, Paul."

          "I wish you would have informed me," Ironhorse grumbled.

          "And ruin all our fun?" Norton asked, then added sincerely, "Welcome back, big guy."

          Debi grinned at Paul from across the table.  "Does that mean we can go horseback riding?"

          "You bet," the colonel said with a smile.  "An excellent way to start the day."

 

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

 

          The knock on his door was light, tentative.  "Come," he called.

          Eyebrows climbing as he stood, Ironhorse met the three Omegans on his feet.  He'd asked them to stop by, but not until 1600 hours.  They were, he glanced at the clock on his desk, two hours early – he'd called no more than ten minutes ago.

          "Sir, Sergeants Derriman, Coleman and Stravrakos, reporting as ordered, sir," Norah announced.

          "You're early," the colonel said, settling back into his chair.

          "Yes, sir," Derriman said.  "We thought it might be important."

          Even they were acting like a gaggle of protective mother hens.  All he wanted to do was say thank you, but he had to put an end to this watch-dogging…

          "I see," was the cool reply.  Taking a deep breath, and hoping he could keep a straight face, Ironhorse pushed himself to his feet and paced around his desk, his hands clasped behind his back.

          The Omegans, seeing the dark glint in the colonel's eyes, pulled themselves up into three rigid attention stances.

          "I want to talk to you about discipline in the ranks," Ironhorse said, carefully enunciating each word.

          "Sir?" Coleman questioned.

          "About following orders, Sergeant.  In particular, about following the last order I gave all three of you."  Three faces paled slightly.  "I distinctly recall leaving you with orders that Blackwood and I were to be left alone."  He watched their eyes widen slightly.

          "Sir," Derriman said, clearing his throat, "permission to speak?"

          Ironhorse nodded his consent.

          "Sir, I— We don't think that's fair… sir."

          "Oh?"

          "Ya see, Colonel, most times when soldiers disobey their commander's last order before he dies, he doesn't come back to chew them out about it.  But here you are.  Now, it ain't that we're not glad you're here to do it, sir, but it don't seem quite fair…"  He trailed off.  "And if you don't mind me asking, Colonel, how the hell did you find out about that anyway?"

          Ironhorse fought back a smile.  "Call it a little Indian magic, Derriman," he said, watching the man's lips twitch into a smile.  "As for your point…"  He paced back to his chair and took a seat.  "I'll take it under consideration."

          "We appreciate that, sir."

          "I might even be willing to forget the whole thing, if things get back to normal around here.  No more shadows following me on my runs.  No more soldiers needing to work out when I do, or clean the stable when I go riding, or—"

          "Yes, sir!" the three chorused.

          "I see we have an understanding."  Ironhorse glanced down, watching the reflections of the sergeants' expressions on the desk top.  "I called you in here to say thank you.  I appreciate everything you did, for me, and for the other members of this Project."  He looked up, meeting their eyes.  "You have my gratitude…  Now, I'm fine.  It's business as usual.  Yes?"

          "Yes, sir!"

          "Good.  Inspection tomorrow at 0700.  You're dismissed."

          "Yes, sir!"  The three stepped back, about-faced and left, groaning.

          The last one out, Derriman paused in the doorway, turning back.  "Welcome back, Colonel.  I always knew you were too damned stubborn to die."

 

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

 

          Ironhorse stepped onto the back patio and stretched.  It was a beautiful, clear morning, just perfect for a run.

          "Colonel?"

          "Good morning, Doctor," Ironhorse said, beginning his warm up exercises.

          "What are you doing?"

          "I'm getting ready for my morning run, just like normal."

          "But you just got out of the hospital."

          The colonel glanced over at the scientist, sensing something was wrong, but finding no clue in the man's closed expression.  Harrison had been distant ever since they come back to the Cottage.  At first Ironhorse had chalked it up to the aftermath of a good scare, but it wasn't getting better.  "Doctor, it's been four days. Dr. Galloway said I was fine, and that I could go back to my normal routine."

          "I'm sure he didn't mean that you could go out there and run a damned marathon," Blackwood snapped.

          Ironhorse felt himself bristle, and forced a deep breath before he replied.  "I'm not running a marathon, Doctor.  I'm just taking a little run."

          "You're not Superman, you know."

          "Yes, Doctor," the colonel said, "I know."

          "Then why do you continually act like you are?"

          "Doctor, that's out of line," Ironhorse snapped.  His own anger was bubbling to the surface, and if he wasn't careful, he was going to say something he'd regret, but Blackwood was out of line.

          "No, Colonel, you're out of line.  Why can't you just admit you're human like the rest of us?"

          "Now, just a damned minute, Harrison—"

          Before he could get started, Blackwood shoved himself to his feet and stalked into the living room, slamming the French door behind him.  It opened immediately and Suzanne stepped outside.

          "What was that?" she asked.

          Ironhorse shook his head.  "I don't know, Suzanne.  I honestly don't know."