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Thin Ice

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"Quit staring at me.  I'm not gonna disappear."

 

          It was like running on marbles while a cap gun sounded, and it was the first sensation to cut through the soldier's battle-focused attention; the second the overwhelming shock of cold water wrapping around his legs, sucking him down, and squeezing the breath out of his lungs.

          Fighting to stop the gasp that choked his throat, he kicked out, watching helplessly while the ice closed over his head.  Driving a hand into the glistening crystal trap, he found it gave easily.

          Popcorn ice.

          He kicked out, forcing himself into the floating mass of broken water, his lungs already burning, demanding that he find oxygen.

          Fingers led the way, clawing through the nickel-sized nuggets as he forced himself to the surface.  His face pressed into the cold Sierra Nevada air, huge involuntary breaths sucking into his desperate lungs while his hands frantically sought a section that could hold his weight.

          He found the edge of the circle he had pierced into the surface of the frozen pond and tried to pull himself free of the numbing cold, but it crumbled nd dropped him back into the icy water.  He paused, treading and concentrating on slowing his rapid pants to forestall hyperventilation.

          He scanned the tree line nearby.  Movement?  Aliens?

          He kicked sluggishly, the cold water already weakening his arms and legs as he worked his way around the ice shelf only to have it disintegrate under every touch.

          Damn, damn, damn…  He was in trouble – serious trouble.  Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes was all it would take…

          His legs locked in a vice-like cramp and he slipped back into the loose ice and then fumbled for the surface.  Righting himself in the water, he paddled with his arms, pistoning his legs, the last twinges of the inevitable cramps still sparking through his calves.

          Breathing deeply and slowly, he eased forward again, pounding on the ice until it refused to crumble.  Easing his arms out onto the denser surface, he pressed.  There were several sharp cracks, but it held.

          "Paul!"

          Ironhorse's head snapped up.  "Stay back!" he growled as best he could.

          Harrison Blackwood fumbled to a halt in the knee-deep snow.  "Hold on, Colonel, I'll—"

          "You'll stay right where you are, mister!" Ironhorse said.

          "But—"

          "Harrison, listen to me.  I can't see where the shore is.  This is popcorn ice."  He pressed again and the section fractured, bubbling and bobbing like ice chips in a glass of Pepsi.  "Move back to the trees."

          "Damn it, Paul, you'll freeze to death!" Blackwood argued, but eased closer to the tall snow-weighted pines.

          "Not if I can help it," he breathed, moving forward again, testing.  It was getting downright difficult and painful to keep kicking, but he didn't have a choice.  He'd be helpless in a few minutes – the cramps were already getting worse.

          He tested again, the ice creaking, holding.  The colonel allowed himself to sink slightly, testing for a bottom.  He heard the yell as he surfaced.

          "Paul!"

          "Stay back!"

          He watched Blackwood stumble away, then, reaching out again, he extended his arms forward onto the stronger ice and kicked to bring his body almost parallel to the surface.  Taking a deep breath, Ironhorse kicked out again with the strength he had left, driving his body forward onto the top of the ice.

          Wiggling toward the trees, he rolled away as the ice began to fracture and splinter under him.  He felt Blackwood's hands grabbing his jacket sleeve, pulling him off the ice as it fell away from him with a growl.

          Within a few moments the muted silence of the snow-blanketed high Sierras returned.

          "God, Paul, you're soaking wet," Harrison said, helping Ironhorse to his feet.

          The colonel swayed, shivering while he checked his Baretta.  A flash of hunter's orange in the trees stalled the activity and he reached out clumsily, grabbing Blackwood's shoulder and shoving him into the cover offered by the trees.

          "What?" Harrison asked after they stumbled forward into the shadows.  Paul pulled him into a crouch inside a ring of low hanging, snow-coated pine boughs.

          "I saw one."

          Harrison swore softly, his gaze sweeping the forest as best he could.  Damn the aliens.  What the hell were they doing at an abandoned mine in the middle of nowhere anyway?  And why weren't they smart enough to find shelter when the storm hit?  Unless whatever it was they were doing was so important that they were willing to sacrifice the lives of the aliens doing the work.

          Blackwood watched Ironhorse pull out his radio and try to contact the Omega Squad.  Nothing.

          "Waterlogged?" he asked in a whisper.

          The colonel shook his head.  "Waterproof.  The storm's causing interference." His hand rose, commanding Harrison to silence.

          Three of the human-blended aliens in hooded orange jackets passed by the trees where the two men huddled in wet darkness.  Ironhorse gripped his battle baton tightly in one trembling hand and ground his teeth together to stop them from chattering, but his body still shook from the cold that was slowly melting into his muscles and bones like acid.  With a silent prayer to his Grandfather, Paul stifled a moan as a wave of pain rattled beneath his ribs.  Three more aliens in their human hosts passed by on the other side of the trees, each carrying small wooden crates, and apparently following the others.

          Were they looking for them, or carrying out orders they'd been given? the colonel wondered.

          When the six were gone, Blackwood pulled Ironhorse to his feet, the colonel fumbling with the pocket on his parka.  "Can I help?" he offered.

          "N-need the c-compass," Ironhorse said, allowing Blackwood to reach into the bulky pocket and pull out the device.

          Handing it to the soldier, Harrison scrutinized Ironhorse's floundering actions for a moment before he took stock of the whole picture.  Paul was flushed, shivering, breathing hard, and his coordination was impaired.  Not good signs.  How long should he stay in those wet clothes?  Where could they find shelter?

          The colonel pressed the lid on the compass closed and shoved it back in his pocket.

          Harrison pulled off his glove and reached out, his fingers searching for a pulse at the colonel's neck.

          "Blackwood, w-what are y-you d-d-doing?"

          "Paul, you're—"

          "Not n-now, Harrison.  We gotta p-put some distance between us and t-t-those aliens.  See if we can f-find Omega, or some k-kind of shelter."

          "Damn it, Paul.  I—"

          "I know," Ironhorse said, then gave the scientist a thin smile.  "Now, l-let's get the hell outta Dodge, Doctor."  He faded into the trees, and Blackwood had no choice but to follow.

 

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

 

          "No sign of the Colonel or Dr. Blackwood," Stravrakos panted as he slogged through the snow to join Coleman and the rest of Omega Squad A and B at their landing zone.

          "Damn it," the female non-com hissed.  Reaching out, she grabbed the field phone from Stein's waiting hand.  "Sarge, we can't find them.  All sweeps are negative.  Over?"

          On the other end Derriman cursed softly.  "Affirmative, Norah.  Saddle up and bring 'em home.  There's another storm comin' in, and you're already pushin' your luck.  Over?"

          "We can't just leave them out here, John," she argued.

          "We don't have a choice…" he trailed off.  There were procedures.  "You know what we have to do, well as I do."

          "I don't like it."

          "Me either," the older sergeant sighed.  "As of now, the situation is an attack condition, Alpha.  Repeat, attack condition, Alpha.  I'll inform Dr. McCullough and we'll meet you at location Victor Three.  Over?"

          Norah's gaze locked on Stravrakos' as she replied, "Affirmative.  Attack condition, Alpha.  We'll meet you at Victor Three."

          "You did your best, Norah," Derriman said softly.

          "It wasn't enough.  Apple Six out," Coleman replied, then handed the radio back to Stein.

          "They haven't been captured," Stravrakos insisted softly.

          Coleman's blue eyes flashed.  "We don't know that."  She looked away.  He was probably right.  She couldn't see the Colonel letting the aliens take Dr. Blackwood or himself alive, and there were no reports of gunfire.  "I'm sorry, Alex.  I don't want to believe it either, but we have to, just in case."

          Goodson stomped his way through the knee-deep snow to join the three.  "Franklin said we have to go.  The storm's just about here."

          Norah nodded.  "All right.  Let's move, people."

          "The Colonel'll be fine," Stein told her as they headed for the waiting chopper.  "He knows what to do out here."

          "I know," Coleman said, but she was still worried.  They hadn't killed all the aliens at the old mine.  Some of them were still out there, and the weather reports were calling for on and off blizzard conditions over the next few days…

 

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

 

          Harrison pushed himself to stay even with Ironhorse, the exertion causing his chest to burn.  Occasionally he reached out, steadying the colonel when he tripped over some unseen obstacle in the snow.  How the soldier managed the pace in his condition was a complete mystery.

          Hypothermia was the real danger, Blackwood decided, wishing he knew more about the symptoms and the treatment.  And what about frostbite?  Wouldn't that be a danger, too?  How long do we have?  What can I do?  What if—?

          Harrison squinted through the thin white wall falling around them, refusing to pursue the rapidly depressing train of thought.

          More and more of the thick wet precipitation pummeled them, soaking through their clothes, and obscuring their direction of travel.  Ironhorse stopped and checked their progress with the compass and trembling hands.  Blackwood knew that it would be impossible to continue before long.  They wouldn't be able to see where the hell they were going.

          Then what am I going to do? he wondered.  How much longer can we go on? My chest and my feet are killing me.

          He looked across at his friend.  The colonel's stumbling gait was growing more uncoordinated, and that frightened the astrophysicist.  What can I do for Paul even if we do find shelter?  I won't know how to help him unless he's conscious to tell me.  Can I find shelter for us if I have to?

          "This way," Ironhorse said thickly, heading off again.

          Harrison jogged through the calf-deep snow to catch the soldier.  "Paul, where are we going?"

          "There were some r-rock outcrops along the western edge of this depression. There should be c-crags or c-caves there.  Some kind of s-s-s-shelter."

          Blackwood nodded, then came to a stop, his hand snaring Ironhorse's arm.  "Colonel," he whispered, nodding.

          Ironhorse peered through the snow; more of the aliens.  They were moving steadily, the cold seemingly not affecting them as much as it did the two Blackwood Project members.

          "Come on," he said, pulling Harrison toward the cover of a small stand of thick pines.  They pushed into the boughs, disappearing from sight.

 

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

 

          "We can't just leave them out there," Suzanne argued, her hands coming up to rest defiantly on her hips.

          Derriman shifted uncomfortably under her dark glare – it bore an uncanny resemblance to the colonel's when he was severely pissed.  "I'm sorry, Dr. McCullough, but that's the way it has to be.  We can't fly in this weather and I can't risk troops on the ground.  We know there were aliens in the area with the Colonel and Dr. Blackwood.  We have to assume they've been taken over—"

          "You aren't going back to look?"

          Derriman's head came up.  "Yes, ma'am, just as soon as I can get someone safely back out there."  His gaze dropped to the ground, then rose slowly to meet hers.  "We won't abandon them."

          Suzanne felt her anger slip away.  From the look on his face Derriman was as scared and frustrated as she was.  "I know, Sergeant.  I'm sorry."  She took a deep breath.  "How long before we can get back out there?"

          "Six hours, ma'am.  And it'll take us about an hour and a half to get you and the others to the new location."

          "And then?"

          "We wait for the storm to break."

          She nodded and Derriman turned, heading out of the Cottage living room with a stiff, clipped stalk.  Walking over to the fireplace, she shivered, wishing the warmth would penetrate and melt the icy grip wrapped around her heart.

          "I'll get the packing started," Mrs. Pennyworth said sadly from the doorway.

          Suzanne nodded, wondering how long the older woman had been standing there.  Why did the drought have to end this season?  Why couldn't it have held off until next year?  She'd have to go talk to Debi, too.

          "Suzanne?"

          She looked over her shoulder, meeting Norton's concerned gaze.  He'd sat silently through the whole exchange.  Why was she the Blackwood Project's third in command?  It would be so much easier if Norton took over.  "Yeah?"

          "That's not a lot of time."

          She sighed.  "I'll go talk to Debi.  Why don't you get started in the lab.  I'll meet you down there in a few minutes."

          "Right," he said, rolling up beside her and reaching out to give her arm a light squeeze.  "Don't worry.  The Colonel's the best, and Harrison always bounces back."

          A thin smile parted the shadows in her eyes, but couldn't lift them.  "I know. But sometimes I wonder how long their luck can hold.  You know?"

          Norton shrugged slightly, then pulled his wheelchair around and rolled out.  With a concentrated effort Suzanne forced herself to follow him.

 

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

 

          "Are they looking for us?" Harrison whispered next to the colonel's ear.

          "D-don't know," was the succinct reply.  "C-can't tell."

          Several minutes passed before the aliens headed off, and the two men waited several more before easing out of the trees and continuing on, the snow swirling around them like blown cotton.  How Ironhorse knew they were still heading toward the western edge of the area, Harrison wasn't sure, but he did know he had to trust the soldier.  He didn't have another choice.

          Ironhorse's steps grew increasingly stiff and uncoordinated.  "How much further?" Blackwood asked, praying for the answer he wanted to hear.

          "N-not much…  I t-think," was the slurred, laborious reply.

          "Good," Harrison muttered to himself, then watched the colonel stride oblivious into the boughs of a large pine.

          Ironhorse stumbled back and dropped to his knees.

          "Paul?" he said, moving to the man's side to help him up.  "What's wrong?"

          "I… d-didn't… s-s-see it."

          "Easy, let's keep going."  He hooked an arm under the colonel's and pulled him to his feet.

          Ironhorse yanked his captured arm away.  "Leave m-me 'lone, Blackwood," he slurred, "'m f-fine."

          Harrison watched with growing concern as Paul's eyelids dropped closed, his chin bobbing toward his chest.  "Colonel?  Paul?  Wake up!"  He reached out and gave the soldier a solid shake.

          "Huh?" Ironhorse reacted, his hand dropping for the battle baton.  "Where are they?"

          "Who?"

          "Aliens," he said, looking around.  "Where, w-where's the m-mine?"

          Blackwood grabbed hold of the soaked parka and started off, dragging Ironhorse along with him.  "We're not at the mine, Paul.  We're out here, lost, someplace.  You said there was shelter along the western rim.  Where is the western rim?"

          "Western?" Ironhorse murmured.  "We're not at the m-mine?  We should be at the m-mine… Omega…"  The words stalled when a severe shiver rattled through his body, forcing him back to his knees.

          "No, Paul, get up."  Harrison pulled Ironhorse to his feet.  "Come on, the aliens are out here.  We have to find shelter.  Show me where to go."

          Another shiver passed through the colonel before he could respond.  "'m tired, H-Harrison."

          Ironhorse tried to fall back into the snow, but Blackwood caught him, giving him another shake.  "Paul, stop it.  You're acting crazy.  We have keep moving, find shelter – now."

          "D-don't give me orders, B-Blackwood," Paul replied, pulling free and stumbling off several steps.

          Harrison fell into step at his side.  "You're right, Colonel.  I'm sorry.  Where's the western rim?"

          Ironhorse stopped, groping for the compass.  He checked it, squinting at the face for several seconds before closing the cover and returning it to his pocket.  "This way," he said and started again.

          "I'm right behind you."

 

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

 

          Crowding into the large, Spartan living room of the new safe house, the soldiers and civilians tried to ignore the anxious aura that clung to all of them.

          "Let's get this in gear," Derriman called.  "Norah?"

          "Everyone's present, cleared and in position," Coleman said.

          "Alex?"

          "Security system's up and checked out.  Everything's A-okay," Stravrakos reported.

          "All right, people, listen up," Derriman said, and the Omegans crowded in closer.  Off to the side, Suzanne and Norton listened.

          "Carson, Mayhew, I want a search grid laid out for a thorough 360-sweep from the Colonel and Dr. Blackwood's last known position.  Stein, get on the horn with the weather bureau.  I want to know when this storm's gonna break, and when the next one's due in."

          "Right, Sarge," Stein said, moving off, Carson and Mayhew behind him, already deep in discussion.

          "Alverez, you and Goodson get a complete cold weather aid station ready to go."

          "Got it, Sarge," the pair chorused.

          "The rest of you load up all the cold weather gear for the unit.  We're goin' back up there and we're stayin' until we find 'em."

          The solders nodded, moving off to prepare their equipment, Stravrakos and Coleman hanging back.

          Derriman sighed heavily, leaning back against the long dining room table.  "Norah, you find us a town?"

          She nodded.  "Colfax.  It's small, but there's a medical chopper-pad we can use.  There's also a small hotel across from the pad.  We're cleared to take control of that as a command post.  I'll get it started as soon as we can get the first bird up."

          "Good work."  He turned to Stravrakos.  "The D-unit from Streeter'll be here in about twenty minutes.  Brief 'em on the situation and get 'em ready to insert at the mine site for a search and destroy.  Make sure they understand they're supposed to salvage any equipment they come across, if they can."

          "Got it," the junior sergeant said, scooping up a map and heading out, Coleman at his side.

          Suzanne and Norton moved closer.  "You sound a lot like Paul," she told him.

          Derriman grinned.  "Guess that's not much of a surprise, ma'am.  He'll wear off on just about anyone after a while."

          "Don't let Harrison hear that," Norton replied dryly.

          "Is there anything we can do?" Suzanne asked.

          Derriman shook his head.  "Not now… 'cept  wait, like me."

 

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

 

          The snow seemed to hang in the air like thick white drapes, closing off their vision and soaking both men.  Ironhorse stumbled along next to Blackwood, gate stiff and mechanical, eyes focused on some vision playing itself out a few inches in front of his nose.  Harrison kept him moving, but his own fear and panic threatened to overwhelm his common sense.  He was cold and miserable, and knew that Ironhorse must feel it more with his soaked clothing.  They hadn't seen any more of the aliens, but he was sure they were out there, watching them, waiting until they succumbed.  They weren't going to make it this time – their luck had run out – they were going to freeze to death, or the aliens were finally going to find them and they would die.

          No!  Stop it.  He looked at Paul.  The soldier had stopped shivering, and that frightened Blackwood more than his mental flights of disaster.

          "Colonel?" he said.  "Paul, are you all right?"

          "'M too tired, Harrison," the soldier said, slowing.  He sank down on a large rock sticking halfway out of the snow.  "I'll wait here, you go on."

          Harrison's eyes grew wide.  "Paul, you'll f-freeze to death out here."  His teeth chattered noisily.  "C-come on, we have to k-keep moving."

          "I told you… I don't take orders… from civilians."

          "D-damn it, Ironhorse, get on your f-feet," Harrison demanded, grabbing hold of the colonel's jacket and yanking him up.

          "Leave me alone," Paul grumbled, brushing Blackwood's hand away.

          "No!  Now, m-move, m-mister, or I'll k-kick your b-butt all the way down this m-m-m-mountain."

          Paul chuckled.  "Startin' to sound like me."

          Harrison smiled, trying to force the sudden wave of fear back.  He couldn't give in.  He couldn't let them just sit down and die.  "G-guess you're finally rubbing off on m-me, Colonel.  So, let's get the h-hell outta D-dodge?"

          Ironhorse nodded and started off again, Blackwood falling into step alongside for several agonizing steps before Paul pulled up and stopped.

          "W-what?" Harrison asked.

          "Seein' something… aliens," he slurred.

          Harrison peered through the snow in the direction that held Ironhorse's attention.

          "Gotta find cover."

          Relief flooded through him like a hot shower.  "No.  That's n-not aliens, Paul. That's a c-cabin!"

          "Cabin?"

          "Come on."  Harrison grabbed the soldier's arm and dragged him toward the structure.  Ironhorse went rigid, his weight acting like an anchor and stopping Blackwood's forward march.

          "Wait."

          Forcing a hand into his pocket, the colonel pulled out his Geiger counter and turned it on.

          My God, Harrison thought, I could've gotten us killed.  I would've just walked right up, and—

          "Let's go."

          Blackwood nodded and the pair stumbled forward together.

 

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

 

          "Kevin, come here, quick!"

          The wheelchair-bound man looked up from his drafting table and across the large living room.  "What is it?"

          "I think someone's out there."

          "What?"  His hazel eyes flew open, and he maneuvered the chair over to join the woman at the huge double-paned window.  "Where?"

          "That way," she nodded, pushing shoulder-length light brown hair off her face.  "There!"

          "I see them, I just don't believe it," Kevin said, rolling toward the front door. "What in the world are they doing out there?  Kristin, get my gun and wait in the bedroom until I find out who they are, just in case."

          She nodded and headed across the room, disappearing behind a carved door. He waited until she was safely out of sight, then pulled the front door open a foot and called.  "Hey!  Over here!"

          One of the approaching men waved.  "Hello?"

          "Yeah, over here!"  Kevin couldn't tell anything about them until the pair reached the porch.  Two men.  One wearing a soaked Army uniform and suffering from exposure; the other was in heavy camping clothes, taller and apparently in better shape.

          "I'm Harrison Blackwood," the second announced.  "This is my friend, Paul Ironhorse, we were—"

          "Major Paul Ironhorse?"  Harrison's surprised expression told Kevin it was the same Ironhorse.  "For Christ's sake, come in.  Hurry."  He rolled back, pulling the door open further as he did.  Once the two were inside, he slammed the door shut and headed toward the bedroom.  "Kristin!"  The door opened and the woman stepped out holding the revolver along her leg.  "We won't need that," he said.

          She laid the weapon on Kevin's drafting table and then stepped forward to get a closer look at Ironhorse, who was starting to sag against Blackwood. 

          Harrison gave her a small smile.  "I'm Harrison B-Blackwood, this is C-Colonel Paul Ironhorse.  We were lost—"

          She flashed Kevin a surprised look and he nodded as she headed purposefully to one of the many shelves filling the walls, and pulled out a thick book.  She'd heard stories about Paul Ironhorse, but this was not the way she'd imagined meeting him.

          "I need to—"

          "Get him in the bedroom," she interrupted, reading.  "Both of you need to get out of those wet clothes – right now."

          Relieved that someone had taken control of the situation, Harrison followed the pair into a large, rustic bedroom, complete with fireplace and an attached patio deck enclosed with glass and housing a good-sized Jacuzzi.

          "Kevin and I will get him out of these," she told Harrison, then pointed to a closed door.  "The bathroom's there.  Get out of those clothes and into the shower. Make it nice and hot, and soak."

          Harrison hesitated, a chill shaking him enough to send water drops all over the floor.

          "Don't worry, Mr. Blackwood," Kevin said.  "Paul's an old friend.  We'll take good care of him."

          "Hurry up," she said, opening the bathroom door and stepping inside only to exit a moment later, pushing Harrison in as she passed.

          Kevin looked up at his wife.  "Okay, what do we do?"

          She walked up to Paul, and inserted a thermometer into his mouth before she started to unzip his parka.  That roused the soldier.

          "Wha—?  Who—?" he said sputtered around the obstacle, his hands coming up to fend her off.  Were they aliens?  He clamped down on the fear.  No, the Geiger counter had been in the green.  He swayed.

          Kevin rolled closer.  "Colonel?"

          Ironhorse looked down at the handsome dark-haired man, his mind working furiously to identify the beard-shrouded face.

          "Colonel, do you remember me?  I'm Kevin Grigsby.  Craig Holt's cousin.  We went to the dedication of the Wall together back in '82, remember?"

          "K-Kevin?" he said around the thermometer.

          "That's right.  We're just going to help get you out of these wet clothes and get you warmed up."

          Ironhorse nodded.  "C-cold…"

          "Don't talk," Kristin said, reaching out to unzip the parka and draw it off his arms.  Field jacket, kelvar vest and uniform shirt followed.  Kevin worked on unlacing the man's combat boots, the wet leather laces refusing to cooperate.  Paul reached out, using Kevin's shoulder for balance.

          When she was done with the shirts, Kristin blushed slightly but reached out and unhooked Paul's belt and unfastened his fatigue pants, easing them over his hips.

          "Sit down," she directed, guiding him around so he could sit on the end of the bed.

          The colonel sank down and the pair pulled off his shoes, socks, and pants, leaving only a wet tee-shirt and briefs clinging to his mottled skin.  She removed the thermometer and laid it on the bedspread when Ironhorse began to lean dangerously.  She braced him with her shoulder.

          "C-cold…" he mumbled again, his black eyes slipping closed.

          "Colonel?" Kevin said, giving the man a shake.

          "Kevin, don't," Kristin said, pushing her husband's hands away.

          Ironhorse's eyes popped open and he sucked in a gasp as a shot of tingling fire rocketed through his arms.

          "The book says you're not supposed to handle a hypothermia victim roughly," she explained.

          "Hypo-therma…" Ironhorse slurred.  "Maybe… frostbite."

          "He does feel like ice," Kevin said, pulling the man's weight off his wife and holding him in place.  "What next, Doc?"

          She reached out and took the colonel's pulse.  "His heartbeat's slow, and irregular, I think."  Reaching out, she picked the thermometer up.  Her eyes widened.  "It's all the way at the bottom," she said.  "Ninety-four degrees."

          "What if it's really lower than that?" Kevin asked.

          Kristin met her husband's hazel gaze and shrugged.  "Hmmm, how about the Jacuzzi?  It's warmer than the shower and we can get all of him submerged at once. It says to warm the victim in water that's over a hundred degrees."

          "Sounds like a good idea," Harrison said, padding out from the bathroom wrapped in a dark blue terry robe.

          "You should've soaked longer," Kristin admonished, but she looked grateful to have the help.

          "I'm fine," Harrison assured her.  "Besides, I'll need to get in there with him or he'll sink."  He sat down on the bed next to Ironhorse, an arm snaking out over the soldier's shoulders.  "Paul, can you walk?"

          "Think so."

          Blackwood slipped one hand under the Ironhorse's arm and helped him up, noting that the soldier's skin was not only cold, but stiff.  Paul moaned softly.

          "What hurts?"

          "Prickles… hot," Ironhorse slurred as they staggered toward the enclosed porch.  "Feel numb…"

          "Just take it easy," Harrison soothed as he eased the colonel into the oversized tub with Kristin's help.  Contact with the over-warm water was obviously painful, and Ironhorse was reluctant.  He took a step back and tried to pull free.

          "Come on, Colonel, I know it's not comfortable," Harrison coaxed, remembering clearly the burning, pricking sensation he'd just experienced in the shower.  "But it feels a lot better in a little while."

          The colonel gasped as he sank lower, tears welling up in his eyes, but not falling.  "Shit," he hissed.  "Ahhh…"

          "Kevin, turn it on, so the water'll circulate," Kristin called.

          He rolled over and clicked the pump on, a froth of bubbles churning immediately to the placid surface.

          Harrison waded next to Ironhorse, then pulled off the soaked robe and laid it on the deck.  "Sorry," he said.

          "It's okay.  Get the rest of his clothes off, too," she instructed, ignoring the scientist's modesty, then headed back into the bedroom and scooped up the first aid book again.

          After Blackwood pulled the tee-shirt off, Paul sank down into the spa, and for the first time Harrison noticed the discoloration and swelling on the soldier's face.  As the bubbles began to move the water Paul shivered violently and groaned.

          "Do you have him?" Kevin asked.  Harrison nodded.  "I'm gonna get the fire built up in the bedroom," he said, rolling down the ramp leading to the deck and over to the already snapping fire, adding more wood.

          It had been so close, Harrison thought.  Again.  How many times had Paul skirted death?  How many times could he keep doing it before it was once too many?  He'd nearly lost him – had lost him six months earlier, and here they were again…

          Ironhorse groaned, then whimpered softly, his eyes grinding shut.  Harrison moved closer, slipping an arm around Paul's shoulders to help support him.  The position was too familiar, and he fought back a wave of nausea.  It was just like when Paul had died.

          How could he do that?  How could he ask me to just sit there and watch him die?  What if he does it again?

          I'll kill him!

          Kristin sank down on the smooth wooden deck, breaking through the scientist's mental rantings, her finger roaming down the page as she read aloud.  "It says to keep the afflicted portion in warm, circulating water for twenty to thirty minutes, or until the color and sensation return."  She looked up.  "I guess that means all of him."

          Ironhorse sucked in a hissing breath.  "Hurtin' l-like h-h-h-hell," he managed through chattering teeth.

          "I'm afraid so," she said.  "Kevin?" she called.

          "Yeah?"

          "Make some coffee, sweetheart?  And bring it in with some sugar."

          "On the way."

          Ironhorse allowed himself to relax slightly as the water did its work, unknotting his muscles and starting to force some warmth into his bones.  It hurt like hell, but he'd faced worse.  "I… take it… black," he argued, trying to get his mind off the red-hot needle pricks that seemed to be attacking his skin.

          "The books says warm, sweetened liquids, Colonel."

          "Listen to the lady, Paul."

          Ironhorse moaned as another wave of shivering made speech impossible.  Harrison moved closer, noticing the development of several reddish blotches across Paul's neck and face.  "Easy, it won't be much longer."

          "That's normal, I think," Kristin said, noticing Blackwood's concern.  "The books says the skin might look mottled or discolored as it warms up."

          Ironhorse moaned.  "Burns," he panted.

          "I know, and you must be worse than I was," Harrison said, adding silently, just like always.  "Just try and relax, Paul.  Let the water do the work."

          "C-cold… b-burns… 's weird."  His eyes slid closed.  It was easier to avoid the desperate, pleading expression in Blackwood's eyes from behind the veil of darkness.  Harrison was scared, on the edge of panic, and Paul didn't want to do anything to push him over.

          "I know," Blackwood said, moving closer and helping the soldier ease back further into the water.  Taking the already soaked T-shirt, he let it warm in the water and then draped it over Ironhorse's head.

          "Hey," the soldier sputtered, trying to rise.

          "Sit still," Harrison said, pushing him back into the water.

          "You tryin' t' drown me?"

          Blackwood grinned.  "Guess this would be the perfect opportunity, wouldn't it."

          Paul grunted and then ground his teeth as another bout of shivering took over.

          Looking up from the book, Kristin told the pair, "I'm going to go pre-warm the bed.  When his skin's pliable and the color and sensation's back, help him out, dry him off and let's get him under the covers."

          "Okay," Harrison said.

          Kevin rolled back into the room and slid a tray with a coffee carafe and four cups onto the nightstand, watching with interest as Kristin slid into the bed fully clothed.  "Taking a nap?"

          "Warming the bed, you pest," she explained.  "Can you grab some of your heavy pajamas for the Colonel and Mr. Blackwood?"

          "Sure," he replied heading for the dresser.  "How's it going?" he called to Harrison.

          "Fine, I think the shivering has eased up."

          "Good, I'll bring you some towels in just a minute."  Laying the bedclothes across his lap, Kevin swung by the bathroom and snagged several towels before heading up the ramp to join the pair.  "How is it?"

          "Better, but he's still numb and a little stiff."

          Ironhorse's eyes drifted shut and Harrison decided to let him drift off, hoping it would spare him some of the pain.

 

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

 

          Forty-five minutes after he was first submerged, Harrison helped Paul climb out of the Jacuzzi, hurriedly dried him, then coaxed him into the thick flannel pajamas before doing the same himself.  The colonel made no effort to object to the administrations, and that worried Harrison, but for the moment it made the situation easier.

          A chill shook Paul as he staggered down the ramp toward the bed.  Half-collapsing there, he rolled into the waiting warmth.  But before he could get comfortable Kristin reached up under the covers and worked two pairs of socks onto his feet.

          Kevin disappeared, then returned with a colorful quilt that he draped around the colonel's shoulders.

          Once she finished with the socks, Kristin headed to the dresser, rummaged for a moment before tugging a knitted cap free, then carried it back and pulled it over Paul's head and ears.  She stepped back to survey their work, then moved forward to rearrange the quilt, covering Paul's head with that as well.  He grunted in annoyance, having reached the end of his patient patience.

          Satisfied, she looked pointedly at Blackwood.  "Get some coffee, with sugar, and get over there by the fireplace.  There's a couple of afghans you can wrap up with.  Kevin, get him some socks, hon?"

          "Gotcha, Doc," he said, handing Harrison two pairs as the scientist sank down on the warm stone hearth with his sweetened coffee.

          Kristin poured a cup and dumped several teaspoons of sugar into it, stirred and handed it to Paul, who looked like an unhappy Eskimo.

          "Th-Thanks," he said, cupping his hands, the only exposed skin besides his face around the cup.  He sipped and made a face.

          "Drink," she ordered, watching Kevin roll out of the room.

          A thin, lopsided smile cracked an otherwise dour expression.  "Yes, ma'am.  Spend any times in the Marines?"

          She grinned back at him.  "Maybe."

          "Here we go," Kevin said, returning with three hot water bottles.  He waggled his eyebrows at Kristin.  "These are the only ones that didn't leak."

          "Great idea!" she said, consulting the book before launching into action.  It only took a moment to arrange the pillows so Paul was cradled in a seated position by them.  Then she slid one of the bottles behind his neck, a second under the blankets covering his chest.  She paused, still holding the third.

          "Huh, one more, Colonel," she said, her gaze dropping to the colorful quilt.  "But I think I'll let you do it."  She took his coffee and held the bottle out.

          "Where?" he asked.

          "The groin."

          The warm blush that colored the colonel's cheeks was visible even to Harrison, and the scientist chuckled.  "Looks like his circulation is definitely coming back."

          Paul accepted the hot water bottle and shoved it under the covers, positioning it where she'd directed.  He remembered enough of his cold weather first aid to know why it was supposed to go there, but it did little to relieve his embarrassment.  When he was done she handed back the coffee.

          "Thanks," he mumbled.  Freezing to death might have been easier.

          "You're quite welcome.  Now, since you're awake, the book says to check your state of mind," Kristin told the two men.  "Guess we'll start with you, Mr. Blackwood."

          "That's easy," Paul muttered from the beneath the covers.  "It's weird."

 

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

 

          "I hate waiting," Suzanne grouched, pacing the length of the living room twice before sinking into one of the chairs.  Across from her Norton nodded sympathetically.  "When is this snow going to stop?"

          "You've got me," Norton said.  "The weather service is as confused as we are.  They're saying that this'll definitely break the drought."

          "Great."

          Norton looked across at her, trying to find something to get her mind off their long wait.  "How's Debi holding up?"

          Suzanne shrugged.  "What you'd expect – scared, upset, mad."

          "I know the feeling," was the sardonic reply.

          A heavy sigh was hers.  "At least the Omega Squad made it up there before this one hit, but they can't go out until it stops snowing.  At this rate it could be days."

          "They'll be fine."

          Her head came up sharply.  "What if they're stuck out in the woods with this weather?  How could they possibly survive?"

          "Look, Suzanne, there're cabins up there, little towns.  The big guy had a map and a compass.  He knows how to survive in cold weather.  He'll take care of Harrison."

          "I know, but there are so many things that could go wrong.  And if the aliens were out there looking for them…"

          "You just gotta have faith, Suzanne."

          "I'm trying."

 

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

 

          Sergeant Derriman stalked into the library of the safe house.  It was their command center now, with maps and equipment scattered over the furniture.  "Anything?" he asked, leaning over Stein's shoulder.

          "Nothing, Sarge," the Squad's primary communications man said, pulling the receiver away from his ear.  "Weather service says this is gonna sit on us for at least another eight to ten hours."

          "Well, shit," Derriman sighed in his thick Kentucky drawl.  "Ol' momma nature isn't takin' too kindly to us."

          "What do we do?"

          "We wait, Corporal, we wait until she'll let us go out and play."

 

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

 

          Ironhorse wasn't exactly sure when he'd fallen asleep, but he was definitely awake now – sore, stiff, and tired, but awake, and buried under a heavy pile of blankets.  He pushed enough off so he could reconnoiter the room.

          Nice place, he concluded.  Wood walls, thick carpet, tasteful oil paintings.  Bookshelves and an entertainment center, too.  Definitely not a winter or summer cabin, this was a home.  A light snore captured his attention.

          Harrison was sleeping soundly, buried under a similar mound of blankets next to him in the king-sized bed.

          The door creaked open softly and Kevin rolled in.  Ironhorse watched the man as he banked the fire and added more wood.  It had been nearly a decade since he'd attended the dedication of the Wall with Kevin and his family, and Paul's friends.  It had been hard, and at the time he'd been grateful for the company.  It looked like Kevin had done well for himself since then, and that made him happy.  He needed to know that there were still people in the world leading normal lives, even as he and the others fought aliens.

          "Good morning," Paul said softly when Kevin was through.

          The wheelchair-bound man turned, a smile lighting his face.  "Well, good to see you awake again, Colonel.  How do you feel?"

          "Pretty good.  A little stiff and sore, but at least I'm warm, which is a definite improvement.  Thank you."

          "No problem.  You were out for a day.  We were getting worried.  I'm just glad you found the place when you did.  It was looking pretty bad there for a while."

          Ironhorse nodded.  "How's Harrison?"

          "Harrison's fine," Blackwood yawned from his burrow, then stretched and pushed himself up.  "What's up?"

          "Nothing," Kevin said, rolling closer to the bed.  "I did manage to get the radio cranked up.  That last storm shut the roads down for at least a day, maybe two if the next front passes through like they're predicting.  The electricity's off, but we've got our own generator – the pipes nearly froze before we would get it up and running, though.  Nasty weather.  Oh, and the phones are down."

          "Great," Ironhorse muttered.  "Do you have any way of contacting someone?"

          "Smoke signals would be the only thing right now, and nothing's dry enough for that either.  I'm afraid you're stuck with us."

          "What're you thinking, Paul?" Harrison asked.

          "Trying to find a way to contact Omega."

          Blackwood's blue eyes widened in understanding.  They'd been out of contact for over twenty-four hours, close to forty-eight, in fact.  The soldiers would have to assume they'd been taken over by aliens.  The Cottage would have been evacuated…  Suzanne and Norton…  He sighed heavily.

          "What's the forecast?" Ironhorse asked, a cough breaking free deep in his chest.  He grimaced, settling back against his pillows and the pleasant soft warmth.

          "More of the same," Kristin said, coming in with an armload of clean clothes.  "I thought I heard voices.  Here you go.  I'm sure you'll be more comfortable in these until yours are washed and dried," she said, setting the stacks down on the bed.  "They'll fit Mr. Blackwood better, I'm afraid."

          "It's Harrison," he corrected, digging his way out from under the covers and reaching for the nearer of the two piles.

          She picked up with the forecast.  "Another front is supposed to be here by noon, and there's another one right on the heels of that one, but they're saying late evening before it hits.  We might get another three to five feet of snow."

          "Damn," the colonel breathed.  "Maybe I can salvage the radio."

          Kevin shook his head.  "Good luck; our shortwave set isn't even getting through this."  He watched Ironhorse's eyebrows climb.  "I took a look at your equipment last night, Colonel.  The radio's dead, but I did clean the Baretta and the blades up."

          "Thank you again."

          "Come on, hon," Kristin said, tapping her husband's shoulder.  "Let's let them get dressed."  She looked back at the pair.  "I have breakfast cooking, so come on out when you're decent."

          They left and Harrison reluctantly slipped from the warm bed.  "Where do you know Kevin from?"

          "His cousin served in one of my units in Vietnam.  In '82 Kevin contacted me, wanting me to convince Craig to go to the dedication of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington DC."

          "The Wall?"

          Ironhorse nodded.  "I talked to Craig and eventually met Kevin and Craig in Washington, along with another one of their cousins, her husband and a group of vets they was working wit… and a couple of my old friends."

          "Sounds like you had quite a time.  Have you stayed in touch?"

          "No.  No time."  Paul pushed the covers back, coughing again.

          "Sounds like you're going to get a nasty cold from all this, Colonel," Harrison said, a slight smile on his face.  It was a well known fact that Lt. Colonel Paul Ironhorse wasn't bothered by such trivial things as a cold or the flu, unlike the rest of them.

          Ironhorse ignored the barb as he disentangled himself from the blankets, hot water bottles and extra clothing.  At least he was clean.  First things first, he thought, heading for the bathroom.

          When he returned, he pulled on the too-large jeans, tee-shirt, thermal shirt and heavy flannel shirt, then followed Harrison into the living room, where a small square folding table had been set up next to a large blazing hearth.

          "Colonel, why don't you sit closest to the fire," Kristin suggested.

          Now that he was feeling better, he could appreciate the woman who had saved his freezing butt.  She was Kevin's age – in her late thirties or early forties – and still attractive, with thick, shoulder length light-brown hair.  There were a few hints of silver there, but they added an attractive highlight.  Her eyes were an almost disconcerting pale blue, and below them freckles danced across her tanned cheeks.  And even dressed in the thick flannel shirt and jeans her trim, almost petite figure was evident.  Kevin was a lucky man in more ways than one, he decided, taking the indicated seat and reaching for the waiting coffee.

 

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

 

          "Any change?" Suzanne asked, leaning over Norton's shoulder and staring at the computer terminal.  The sweeping patterns of white clouds made little sense to her.  Straightening, she rubbed her eyes and yawned.

          "Nada," he said.  "Looks like there's another low developing off the coast that's gonna keep the snow machine turned on high."

          She sighed heavily.

          "But, I did get into the County Recorders computer, and got the information on all the cabins in that area.  Mama Cray is plotting them onto a map for the Omegans as we speak."

          Suzanne smiled tiredly.  "Well, that's something.  Can we call them, maybe they—"

          "No go.  The phone lines in that area and all over the Sierras are down.  The phone company doesn't plan on sending crews out until the blizzard conditions are lifted."

          "Makes sense," she admitted with a frustrated sigh.

          "Corporal Stein's tried the shortwave, but nothing there either.  We're just going to have to wait a little longer."

          She could hear the doubt creep into his voice.  "Yeah."

 

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

 

          Two days of watching it snow and snow and snow some more wasn't high on Blackwood's list of entertaining activities, especially when he knew what must be going on with Suzanne, Norton and the rest of the Omega Squad.  At least the company was interesting.  Kevin and Kristin were educated, outgoing individuals.  He was an environmental architect – a topic which fascinated Harrison – and she was a gifted painter.

          A deep cough forced him to turn around, and Harrison watched Paul take a seat on the flagstone hearth, his shoulders hunched.  "Feel okay?" he asked.

          Ironhorse looked up, giving Harrison a clear view of his face.  It was drawn and slightly gray, with dark circles starting to form under his eyes.  He shrugged.

          Pushing off the couch, Blackwood walked over and sat down near the soldier. "Paul, what's wrong?"

          "I think it's probably pneumonia."

          "What?" he asked, surprised at the way his voice squeaked.

          Kristin walked in on Blackwood's question.  "Something wrong?"

          Ironhorse looked at the woman.  He didn't want to worry her, or Blackwood, but he knew he didn't feel well, and if he was right…  "I'm not sure, but—"

          "He thinks he's getting pneumonia," Harrison finished.

          "Pneumonia?" she said, moving over to stand next to the colonel.  Reaching out, she laid a hand against his cheek.  "You are warm, but that could be the fire."  Ironhorse coughed, his face pinching.  "But that doesn't sound good."

          "You don't happen to have any antibiotics, do you?" Paul asked.

          Kristin thought a moment.  "I don't think so, but let me go check."  She headed for the bedroom, leaving Paul and Harrison alone.

          "Paul, we've got to get you out of here and to a doctor before—"

          "We're not going anywhere until this storm's over, and then it might be impossible."  He meet the panicked blue eyes.  "We're staying here.  We don't know if they're still out there."  Harrison looked ready to argue him into submission, and that was the last thing he wanted right now.  "If I know Norton, he's been in the computer, finding out where all the cabins are up here.  When Omega can get out to start a search, they'll sweep the cabins, too.  That's our best bet."

          "Paul, if this is pneumonia, we're not going to be able to wait that long."

          "We don't have an option, Doctor."

          Kristin returned, carrying a brown prescription bottle.  "I have some Erythromycin that the dentist gave me to take before I had a root canal done, but I didn't end up using it.  It's old, but it's hasn't expired yet."

          Ironhorse nodded, reaching out to take the bottle.  "This'll help," he said.

 

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

 

          Derriman strode purposefully into the safe house living room.  "We've got our window."

          Suzanne and Norton were following him even as he turned to leave.  "How long?" she asked.

          "Maybe six hours, if we're lucky," Derriman said as they headed outside and climbed into the Taurus, one of the Omegans driving.  "You'll have to wait at the hotel with the rest of us."

          "Good enough," Norton said.  "Are they going to check the cabins?"

          "First thing, Mr. Drake.  Good work."

          "My pleasure."

 

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

 

          Harrison watched the snow falling, huge cotton-ball sized flakes splattering across the window, their delicate beauty crushed and smeared just before the heat from the house melted what remained.  The storm had let up for six hours and now appeared intent on making up the lost time.

          From next to the fireplace another cough ripped through Ironhorse's chest, and Blackwood winced.  He turned and tried to casually study the soldier as he traveled around the warm, wood paneled room, pausing at the numerous bookshelves.

          Ironhorse looked sick, his face ashen and drawn while rattling, labored breaths beat out an over-fast cadence, punctuated from time to time by the rending coughs.  He watched a chill shake the colonel – that was new – and Ironhorse edged closer to the fire.  With a weak grip the colonel took the fireplace poker and resettled the nearly consumed logs and wrestled in another.  When he was done another cough echoed through the room, and he reached up to rub at his chest.

          "Paul?" Harrison asked softly as he stalked over and sat down next to him.  Closer, it was clear that the soldier was almost panting in an effort to draw in enough air.  "This isn't a cold, is it?"

          Ironhorse shook his head.  "No."

          "Then it is pneumonia?"

          "I think so."

          Harrison felt the cold black fear he'd been fighting uncoil in his gut, sweeping up to strangle his heart.  "What can we do?"

          Ironhorse shrugged slightly.  "Not much.  I'm taking the antibiotics Kristin had…"

          Harrison's jaws ground slightly and he fought the impulse to accuse the man of running from the truth, or of acting like Superman.

          Why was he so mad?  It wasn't like Paul had intended to catch pneumonia.  The fall into the pond was probably the cause, that and the prolonged exposure afterwards…

          "There has to be something."

          Kristin padded into the room, her leather and rabbit fur slippers making a soft swishing sound on the thick carpet.  "I've been digging through all the first aid books we have, and I think there are a few things that we can do to help you, Colonel."

          "Let's hear them," Harrison said, turning slightly on the stone hearth to look at her as she pulled a chair over and sat down.

          "You're taking the Erythromycin?" she asked Paul.  He nodded.  "Good.  Okay, you need to force down as many hot liquids as you can handle.  And I think we can put some moist heat packs on your chest to help break up the congestion."

          "When do we start?" Harrison asked, standing.

          "Not so fast," Ironhorse interrupted.  "I'm doing okay right now.  Let's see if the storm lets up, and if the antibiotics do the trick."

          "Not likely on the storm, Colonel," Kevin said, rolling in to join them from the den.  "Last report was this one was expected to drop three to four new feet of snow and the next front will be in by late tomorrow morning."

          Ironhorse paused, contemplating the news.  It was slowly getting harder and harder to breathe.  The medication might slow the progress of the infection, but he needed professional medical help to get the condition under control.  He glanced up, noting the steep ceilings for the first time.  I'm slipping, he thought.

          "This an A-Frame?" he asked.

          Kevin nodded.  "Why?"

          "Your roof stay snow free?"

          "Most of the time.  The heat helps, too," Kristin supplied.

          "Do you have any paint, something relatively bright?"

          "Paul, what're you planning?" Harrison asked.

          "I have some red paint that we were going to use to repaint the shed out back," Kristin said.  "It's pretty bright."

          A crooked smile tipped the right side of Paul's mouth up.  "That'll get their attention," he mumbled.  "Can I borrow a pencil and a piece of paper?"

          Kristin walked over to the drafting table and carried back a pencil and a small notepad, handing them to the colonel.  "You want me to put this on the roof?"

          Ironhorse nodded, drawing out a simple design, then handing the paper and pencil back.  She glanced down at it.  "No problem.  As soon as it stops snowing I'll go out and do it."

          "Be careful," Kevin cautioned her.

          "I will."  She bent over, planting a kiss on his forehead.  "You gonna catch me if I fall?"

          "Hmm," was the playful reply.  "Don't I always?"

 

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

 

          "Goodson!" Derriman snapped.

          The medic snatched up the paper he was working on and trotted across the room to join him.  "Yeah, Sarge?"

          "You ready?"

          He handed the page over.  "These are the cabins Mr. Drake found that are closest to the area the colonel and Dr. Blackwood were in last."

          "Good work."  Derriman handed the list to Franklin, their chopper pilot.  "Start here and work out as far as you can."  The black man nodded, studying the locations.  "If you see anything, give a holler."

          "Got it, Sarge."  Turning, Franklin slapped Goodson's shoulder.  "Let's go, Doc," he said and they headed out to the chopper pad.

          Coleman slipped past and joined Derriman at the coffee machine.  "The unit at the mine site reported that it's been abandoned."

          "Damn it," the older sergeant sighed.  "Anything from the field units?"

          She shook her head.  "Nothing, and they're extracting now."

The pair locked concerned gazes.  "I'm getting a bad feeling about this, John."

          "I know what you mean," Derriman agreed.  "But we can't count the Colonel out until we see a body."

          "I know," she said.  "When's the next front due in?"

          "We've got about four hours, if we're lucky."

 

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

 

          Suzanne held the door open, allowing Norton to roll through before following herself.  The drive and following chopper flight to the small hotel had taken about half an hour, even in the heavily overcast weather.  They'd settled in, eaten and taken short naps.  She knew Derriman wasn't really happy about having them there, but she'd be damned if she just sat there in that strange house and wait.

          "Doctor, Mr. Drake," Coleman greeted them.  "Follow me, we have a command center set up in the banquet room.  The choppers just left again, and the mine's a wash."

          Drake grabbed the rims of his wheelchair and pushed off after the sergeant, her clipped walk telling both civilians that the soldiers hadn't located any signs of the colonel or Blackwood.

          Derriman looked up from the large map that covered half of a long table.

          "Any word?" Suzanne asked.

          He shook his head.  "The mine's abandoned.  No sign of 'em anywhere on the ground.  We've got teams in the field doing a search of the terrain, and a sweep of the closest cabins."

          Norton's eyes swept over the map, noting the large amount of ground that had already been covered.  Derriman must be stretching every rule in the book, he realized, to get that much terrain covered in so little time.  "Heard there's another storm coming in."

          Derriman nodded.  "Weather service says we've got about four hours."

          "That's not much time," Suzanne said softly.

          "No, ma'am, it isn't."

 

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

 

          "Harrison, I need your help."

          Blackwood jumped, his attention severed from the dancing flames he'd been staring at.  "What?"

          Kristin reached out and squeezed the scientist's shoulder.  "It's Paul.  He's getting worse."

          Harrison scrambled to his feet and followed her into the bedroom.  He blinked, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim light, but he could hear the sound, the labored, almost grunting breaths coming so close together.  He trembled and felt his knees give slightly as he forced himself closer to the bed.

          God, no, not again.

          Ironhorse was gray, his cheeks sunken, black smudges under his eyes deepening the hollows to depthless pits.  He hunched into the quilt that was wrapped around his shoulders, shaking with a chill that left his teeth chattering.  A hand came up, rubbing weakly at his chest.

          "Paul?" Harrison whispered, moving closer to the bed, and finally dropping down to sit on the edge.

          The door opened and Kevin rolled in with a tray.  "Here's the tea, Colonel.  I hope this'll help a little."

          "Thanks," Ironhorse replied.  He already felt like he was burning up, but he knew he had to do whatever it took to keep the phlegm from getting too thick.  He accepted the steaming cup from Kevin and sipped.

          Kristin exited from the bathroom carrying a towel with gray steam wisps curling off of it.  "Okay, let's get this on your chest," she said, walking to the far side of the bed.

          With Harrison's help they were able to get the covers down and deposit the hot cloth on Paul's upper chest.  The colonel sucked in a hissing breath and groaned.  Handing Paul back his tea, Harrison could tell that the soldier was in greater pain than he was letting on.  He watched the colonel snug his right arm in closer to his chest, bracing his ribs as he coughed.       Panting, he leaned back and worked on the tea.

          Kristin and Kevin left the pair alone.

          "Harrison," Ironhorse half-growled.

          "Huh?"

          "Quit staring at me.  I'm not gonna disappear."

          A thin wry smile lifted Blackwood's lips.  "Are you sure?"

          "Positive."

          Blackwood took the empty cup from Paul and stood, moving over to pour a second.

          "No more right now," Ironhorse interrupted.  "I'm a little nauseous."

          Harrison returned the cup to the tray and walked over to sit down on the hearth.  "Paul, we have to do something – try to find help – we have to get you to a hospital."

          "There's no way, Harrison.  Kevin said there's another storm on the way."

          "Damn it, Paul, you can't ask me to sit here and watch you die!"

          "I'm not going to die."

          Harrison pushed himself up and paced across the room.  "Don't say that," he snapped.  "You're lying there, you can't breathe, you sound like—"  He broke off, stopping in the center of the room.  "You sound like…"

          "Like when I did die?"

          Blackwood nodded, his eyes slipping closed.  "Yes."

          "I'm not that sick," Paul argued softly.

          The blue eyes sprang open.  "Yet."

          "Omega'll find us before that.  Believe it."

          He stalked over to the edge of the bed, peering down at the sick man.  "How can you be so sure."

          "I know what they'll do.  I trained them.  I trust them."

          Swinging away, Blackwood walked back to the fireplace, added more wood and sank down on the warm stones.  "I hope you're right."

          A knock at the door stalled the conversation.  Kristin stuck her head in.  "Time to change that towel."

          Paul nodded.

          "And keep drinking that tea," she told him.

          "I'm floating."

          "That's the idea," she said with a smile.  "We keep you floating, that congestion can't get too thick."

          Paul nodded.  "I know."  He just hoped he could keep it down.  His stomach was starting to do gymnastics.

          He glanced up and caught Harrison's wide-eyed concern.  Omega better hurry up, he thought.

 

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

 

          Franklin stomped several times before he stepped through the door, scattering snow across the wooden floor in the entryway of the hotel.  Goodson and Stein followed.

          Derriman and Suzanne met then just past the door.

          "Anything?"

          "Not a damned thing, Sarge," the black pilot said, shaking his head in disgust.  "We flew over all but four of the cabins.  As soon as this breaks we can hit those and then start on the next ones out."

          Suzanne sighed heavily.  The longer it took the less chance there was that they'd find the two men alive.  They all knew it, but the soldiers weren't going to give up, and neither was she.

          "Get some coffee and something to eat," Derriman told the three men.  "Alverez's got the latest weather update, looks like we'll have another window in six hours or so."

          Franklin nodded.  "I'll be ready, Sarge."

          The pair watched them go, Derriman finally reaching out and giving Suzanne's shoulder a squeeze.  "Try not to worry, Dr. McCullough."

          "Call me Suzanne."  He blushed slightly and nodded.  She smiled.  "And that's easier said than done."

          "Tell me about it," he drawled, following after the three soldiers to get himself some more coffee.  "I've spent half my career worrin' about the Colonel."

          "Oh?" Suzanne questioned.  "Sergeant, how would you like to spend the next couple of hours telling stories?"

          A sly grin split Derriman's face.  "Ma'am, I'd like nothin' better, but I've only got a couple more years to retirement…"  He trailed off, making it clear that the Colonel might see fit to cut those years short if he found out.

          Suzanne smiled.  "You're right," she conceded.

 

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

 

          "Is that towel ready?" Kristin called.

          "Almost," Kevin answered from the bathroom.

          Sitting on the bed, Harrison watched as another body-shaking cough left Ironhorse exhausted.  Curled up on his side in the large bed, the soldier hugged his arm in close to his ribs, helping to splint his chest.  Even in the limited light offered by the snapping fireplace, Harrison could see the bluish cast circling Paul's lips.

          "Paul, can you sit up?" Kristin asked, resting a hand gently on his shoulder.

          He nodded and turned over onto his back, too busy working on breathing to answer her.

          She nodded to Harrison and together they managed to get the colonel sitting up in the center of the bed.  Settling in behind him, Kristin began a steady pound on Ironhorse's back with her fists.  He coughed, curling inward and hugging his sides.  Harrison handed him a pillow to use as a brace and Paul nodded his thanks, hoping that the scientist could keep it together.

          Kevin rolled out of the bathroom with another steaming towel that Harrison maneuvered onto Paul's chest.  The heat from the cloth and the pounding helped a little and the black eyes dropped closed.  The noisy rales filled the room while the three waited for the next coughing fit.  It came, and doubled the soldier over.  Kristin alternated between rubbing and pounding while Harrison made do with squeezing one of the soldier's hands.

          As the coughing eased, Ironhorse was able to sit up again.  His breath caught.

          "What?" Harrison asked, scooting closer and gripping the colonel's shoulder.

          "Chopper," Ironhorse said, a tired lopsided smile playing across his lips.  "Told ya they'd find us."

          Blackwood's head tilted up and he looked out the glass-enclosed patio.  He couldn't see or hear a damned thing, except for Ironhorse's breathing.  Sliding off the bed, he bolted into the living room.  The faint thud of chopper blades echoed in the distance.

          "Yes!" he yelled and headed for the door.

 

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

 

          Derriman leaned against the table where Stein sat, monitoring the radio.  Folding his arms across his chest, he reached up and rubbed at his tired eyes.  Their time was running out.  General Wilson had already called and warned them that the search would have to be called off in forty-eight hours.

          Where the hell were they?

          "Skybird to Homebase, do you read?  Over."

          Stein keyed the mike.  "Homebase.  We read you, Skybird.  You're a little faint.  Over."

          "We're coming up on the last of the cabins we missed, we—"

          Derriman straightened and turned, his hands gripping the edge of the table while he stared at the radio.

          Stein glanced up at the older NCO.  "What do you think, Sarge?"

          Derriman shrugged.

          "E'haaa!" echoed through the small room.

          Derriman keyed the mike.  "Skybird, what—?"

          "We got 'em, Sarge!  We got 'em!  The colonel's left us a big Omega sign on the roof of a cabin!  It's location thirteen."

          Stein echoed the cowboy cry and bolted from the room to spread the good news.

          "I'm coming up on it now.  I've got Dr. Blackwood in sight, he's wavin' us in."

          "Be careful.  I want them checked out.  By the book, understand?" Derriman ordered.

          "Roger, Homebase, by the book.  Goodson and Alverez are winching down, now."

 

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

 

          Harrison burst through the front door, his eyes searching out the chopper in the overcast sky.  Once he spotted it, he jumped and began to wave.  "Over here!  Over here!"

          The craft moved in close, the rotors sweeping up the loose snow and splattering Harrison with the cold wetness.  He watched as two of the Omegans lowered themselves on ropes, dropping into the snow and then jogging for the cabin.

          The pair stopped about ten feet short, and Harrison's arms automatically came up to show them he wasn't armed.  Alverez moved closer, a Geiger counter in hand to check him out.

          When the soldier smiled at him, Harrison reached out and clasped the man's shoulder.  "It's good to see you.  Colonel Ironhorse is very sick."

          Goodson waved the pair inside.  "I'll get my gear," he said, running back to the hovering chopper.

          Entering, Alverez did a quick check of the Colonel and the two civilians and then radioed Franklin.  "They're all clean, but the Colonel looks pretty bad.  Find out what the closest medical facility is.  It looks like pneumonia."

          "Will do," was the pilot's reply.  He shook his head.  Nobody was going to be happy about this turn of events.  "Homebase, everyone's clean, but it looks like we got other trouble."

 

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

 

          Suzanne, Norton and Coleman formed a semi-circle behind Derriman and Stein.

          "What's wrong?" the senior NCO demanded.

          "Alverez says it looks like the Colonel might have pneumonia.  I need the location of the closest medical facility, ASAP.  Goodson's got his bag and he's going in now."

          Coleman moved over to a large map taped to the wall, her finger sweeping along the paper before stopping abruptly and tapping.  "Closest hospital's in Truckee.  That's about thirty miles northwest from that location.  I'll get the coordinates."

          Derriman accepted the mike from Stein.  "Skybird, you've got a roost in Truckee, thirty miles northwest.  We're getting the coordinates now."

          "Roger, Homebase.  Waiting on directions."

 

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

 

          Goodson lugged his medical kit into the warm cabin and followed Blackwood straight to the bedroom.  "Morning, sir," he said to Ironhorse as he pulled out a BP cuff and a stethoscope.  The black eyebrows rising slightly and a small smile told the medic that he was a welcome sight.  "Don't talk, sir," he instructed, setting to work.

          After a quick examination, Goodson pulled the radio off his belt.  "Franklin, relay to Homebase.  Definitely pneumonia.  I'm going to start treatment.  Do we have a location?"

          "Affirmative, Doc.  We're taking him to Truckee.  I'm ready when you are."

          "We'll need a cage to get the Colonel and Dr. Blackwood up."

          "Roger.  Send Alverez out and we'll be ready."

          Kevin and Kristin watched the soldier work from a distance.  She smiled up at her husband.  "He'll be okay now."

          Kevin nodded.  "Thank God."

          Goodson looked gratefully at the pair.  "You all did a great job; probably saved his life.  Thank you."

          Kristin smiled.  "Our pleasure.  Just make sure he doesn't join the Polar Bear Society."

          Harrison laughed, but Goodson looked confused.  "Ma'am?"

          "People who go swimming in sub-freezing weather," Kevin explained.

          "We'll see to it, ma'am," the medic said, carefully avoiding the black glare of his commander.

 

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

 

          "Homebase, this is Skybird.  It's pneumonia.  Doc's starting on him now, and we'll be taking him to Truckee.  Over."

          "Roger, Skybird, they're expecting you," Derriman said.  "We'll meet you there."

          Suzanne squeezed Norton's hand, the black man giving it a little shake.  "Don't worry, if it was bad, they would have said so," he reassured her.

          "Roger.  Alverez will be staying behind with the civilians, just in case of activity."

          "Roger the security."

 

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

 

          Goodson reached into his kit and removed a small cylinder of oxygen, settling the mask onto Ironhorse's face.  "I'm going to give you a shot of penicillin, sir," the medic said, prepping the syringe.  "Do you need anything for the pain?"

          Ironhorse shook his head.  "That won't be necessary, Corporal," he wheezed.

          Goodson nodded and glanced around at the three civilians who were watching.  "Huh, could I get you to clear the room?"

          "Why?" Harrison asked, stepping closer.

          Kristin reached out and laid a hand on the scientist's arm.  "I think what the corporal is trying not to say is he needs to deliver that injection in a… private setting."

          Harrison's eyes widened slightly and he grinned at the scowl that settled across the colonel's lips.

          Kevin gave Ironhorse a thumbs up.  "Good luck, Colonel."

          "Thanks," Paul replied.

          Kristin and Harrison led the way out, Kevin rolling along behind.

          Goodson turned his attention back to his commander.  "Roll over, sir."

          Ironhorse groaned.

 

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

 

          "Can we get to Truckee?" Suzanne asked, watching Derriman peer at the large wall map.

          "Let's find out," he said determinedly.  "Stein, you're in charge here."

          The radio operator nodded, watching as Derriman, Coleman and the two Blackwood Project civilians headed for the waiting Jeep.

 

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

 

          Suzanne rushed into the hospital's Emergency Room ahead of the others to find Harrison pacing in front of a nurse's station.  He stopped when he saw her, his face breaking into a smile.  She gave him a solid hug.

          "We were so worried."

          "I know," he said softly.  "I'm sorry."

          "What happened?" Norton asked, rolling up and exchanging a warm handshake.

          "We were chased by a group of the… terrorists," he explained, catching sight of the listening nurse.  He led the foursome into the waiting room.  "The Colonel fell through some ice and I think we got lost."

          Derriman grinned.  "The Colonel, lost?"

          Blackwood grinned back.  "Well, it felt like lost to me.  But then we found that cabin."

          "Good thing for him you did, too."

          The group turned to find a white-haired Santa Clause look-alike, with neatly trimmed white beard and roly-poly belly waddling up to join them, Goodson trailing. "I didn't find any lasting problems due to the exposure and frostbite, but Colonel Ironhorse is working on a nasty case of pneumonia.  It's a darn good thing you found him when you did."

          "Will he be all right?" Suzanne asked.

          The doctor nodded.  "I think so.  We've got him on heavy antibiotics, oxygen and a mild painkiller now so he can rest.  He's a little dehydrated and running a fever, but we'll keep a close eye on him."

          "Thank you, Doctor…?"

          "Kringle, Chris Kringle, and please, no Santa jokes, I've heard them all before," the older man said with a rueful shake of his head.

          "When will he be able to leave?" Derriman asked.

          "Oh, depending on how well he responds to the antibiotics, I'd say three to five days."

          Harrison pulled Suzanne into another hug.

          "Now, if you'll excuse me," the doctor said, "I've got a date with a cup of coco and a foot massage."

 

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

 

          Ironhorse stretched out in the wingback chair, inching his feet closer to the brightly blazing fireplace.  It felt good to be home.  Four days in the hospital were four days too many as far as he was concerned.  He still had a cough, and less energy than a dead battery, but at least it didn't feel like someone was pulling his lungs out every time he coughed.

          He and Blackwood had been lucky – very lucky.  No real frostbite, nothing permanent…  He closed his eyes and relaxed.

          Nothing permanent except that mother hen expression in Blackwood's eyes, Ironhorse thought ruefully.  And that's been there since the beginning.  At least he hasn't blown up and accused me of thinking I'm some kind of superhero, but he's scared.

          He coughed softly and sniffled.  At least their attempts to discover what it was the aliens were doing up there in the mountains had kept Blackwood busy and away from the recovering colonel.  Good thing, too.  If Harrison brought in Hitchhiker's Guide one more time to read to him, Ironhorse wasn't sure he'd be responsible for his actions.

          The black eyes cracked open and he stared into the flames.  Oh, who was he kidding, anyway?  It felt good, damned good to have these people care about him the way they did.  They were a family, if you could call a group of eclectic weirdos family, and Paul decided that he could.

          "Paul?"

          "I wondered how long it would take, Doctor."

          "For?" Harrison asked, walking into the Cottage's living room and taking a seat in the matching wingback chair on the other side of the fireplace.

          "For you to come in."

          "You were waiting for me?"

          Ironhorse nodded.  He motioned to the glass of brandy that was resting on the hearth.

          Harrison scooped it up cautiously, his blue eyes fixed on the soldier.  "Paul, what's wrong?"

          "Nothing.  I just wanted an opportunity where we could talk – alone."

          Harrison took a long swallow.  "Oh?"

          The black eyes pinned Harrison in the chair.  "Let it go, Harrison.  It's over."

          Blackwood's gaze dropped to the glass he was holding.  "I know.  I've tried, but…"

          "But you keep thinking about what it felt like when I died."

          The curly brown head rose.  "Yes.  And don't tell this is all part of your job, Paul, because I'm well aware of that."

          "So, what is it then?"

          Harrison leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and holding the glass in his hands.  "Despite what you've always said, Colonel, you're not expendable.  I'm not sure any of us are any more."

          "And?"

          "And we keep pushing the odds."

          Blackwood's head came up slightly, and Ironhorse could see the seriousness of the man's expression.  Harrison had come to final conclusions and decisions.  That was good.  "We don't have any other option."

          Harrison nodded.  "I know, but it means that sooner or later our luck's going to run out.  Sooner or later one of us is going get killed, or injured so—"

          "And?"

          Blackwood paused, taking another sip of the warm alcohol.  "And when it happens the Blackwood Project is—"

          "Going to go on."  Ironhorse sat up, leaning forward to match Blackwood's position.  "Harrison, when you're fighting a war it doesn't matter who gets killed, the enemy doesn't stop.  The only way to honor a soldier is to finish the fight."

          The blue eyes shifted to the dancing flames.  "I don't know if I could do that."

          "You've been doing it all your life."

          Blackwood's forehead furrowed.

          "When your parents were killed you didn't quit.  When Dr. Forrester died, you didn't give up, you picked up his research.  Sylvia's madness, Karen McKinny's disappearance…  Every time you've shouldered the grief and gone on.  Why am I so different?"

          Harrison settled back into the chair, his hands occupied turning the glass in steady circles while he continued to stare at the fire.  "I don't know, exactly.  I've always been a loner, Paul.  I liked it that way.  But the aliens have changed all that."

          "They've made you a soldier, Harrison.  For better or worse, you're a soldier now and this is a battlefield."

          "'These voices, these quiet words,'" Harrison quoted, "'recall me at a bound from the terrible loneliness and fear of death by which I had been almost destroyed.'"

          Ironhorse smiled, picking up with his own paraphrase of the classic All Quiet on the Western Front.  "'They are more to me than life… and more than fear, they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere, they are the voices of my comrades.'"

          "I didn't know they made you study literature at West Point, Colonel."

          "I didn't know they made astrophysicists read the classics either, Doctor."

          Both men laughed, and that, for now, was all they needed.