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It's Not Safe Out There

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"It's not fair, not after all they've been through."

 

November 1991

 

          The flash of blinding blue-white light faded and Sam blinked, forcing his eyes to adjust to the dim surroundings.  For a moment he thought he was back in Kevin Grigsby's mountain cabin[1], but a cacophony of sounds and attendant activity, disorientating in its intensity, told him he wasn't.  With a startled grunt he realized that his arms were being pulled and twisted behind him.  He rocked from side to side, trying to break free, but a pair of strong hands pushed and pulled him around with ease.

          "Hurry up with that, will you?"

          A bright light blinded him again, making it impossible to see.

          "Harvey, get the sedative ready."

          More hands gripped along his legs, moving from mid-calf to his ankles, holding him still while Sam spontaneously struggled against the invasion.  "Hey, what're you doing?" he cried.

          "At least the screaming's stopped."

          "Dr. Blackwood is on his way."

          Sam was pushed back further, his back and shoulders now pressing against something soft, then they rolled him half-way onto his side.  A bed, he realized as his vision, protected in a shadow, cleared and the physicist found himself squinting into the hairy grooves of a human ear.  Grunting, he jerked his head back in surprise, pressing it further into a down-filled pillow.

          "Easy."

          "It's okay, the jacket's secure now."

          "Give me that."

          "Ouch!" Sam yelped as a needle pricked his exposed backside.  "What're you doing?"

          He looked down, seeing the hem of a white and floral print flannel nightgown, his bare legs and the pink slippers hanging daintily on his feet.  The sound of a door bursting open stalled his questions, but he couldn't see around the undulating walls of uniform white to the latest interruption.

          "Sylvia?"

          The ear pulled back to reveal a gray-haired older man in a white uniform shirt. "Harvey" was mechanically stenciled across the man’s name-tag.  "Easy, Miss van Buren, everything is going to be just fine."

          "Miss?" Sam whispered.  Of course, the nightgown, the slippers, he was a woman… again.  He wanted to run his fingers through his disheveled hair, to lift it off his forehead, but he couldn't.  He was firmly strapped into… what?

          A straitjacket?

          A flash of pain erupted in Sam's skull, several disjointed images flashing on the screen of his closed eyelids as a wave of panic broke over him.  He had been in an institution at least once before:  straightjackets, electro-shock…  He moaned softly, then forced his eyes open and glared pointedly at Harvey.  "Where am I?" he demanded.

          Strong hands gripped Sam's shoulder and chin, drawing his head around.  Kind but concerned blue eyes regarded him critically, narrowing as they did.

          "Sylvia, it's all right.  You're at Whitewood.  I'm here.  Everything is all right."

          "Who are you?" Sam snapped, instantly regretting it.  The staff were buzzing.  The man looked familiar, but beneath the vague recognition another wave of fear churned deep in his gut:  A cold table… a thunderstorm… unbearable pain… electro-shock…

          "It's Harrison, Sylvia – Harry.  I'm here.  You're going to be fine."

          The man reached out and began smoothing back Sam's hair, solving the obscured vision problem, but leaving the physicist decidedly uncomfortable under the familiar administrations.

          "Al?" Sam mumbled weakly as the sedative began its work.  Where's Al?  Why isn't he there?  How could he let this happen again?

          "Sylvia?" Harrison called, shaking her gently.  "Sylvia, what's wrong?"

          "Al?" Sam moaned again.  Al would know where he was.  What was going on?  Why was he there?  Not again, dear God, not again.

          "Who's Al?" asked a disembodied masculine voice.

          "I don't know," Harrison replied, still stroking Sam's hair.

          "She's calming down," the voice said.  "That's good."

          That voice… it sounded… familiar.  Sam forced his drug-weighted eyes open, searching for the source.  A face appeared, hovering over Harrison's shoulder.  Angular, red-bronze, black hair with a touch of silver, black eyes… familiar… caring.

          "Colonel Ironhorse?" Sam breathed, his eyes growing too heavy to hold open.  He was still in the same stream.  "Aliens," he muttered, feeling safer with the soldier there.  "Oh… boy," he sighed airily, drifting off into the engulfing blackness.

          "She's asleep," Harrison said, pushing himself off the bed, and pulling the colonel several feet away.  "She recognized you," he whispered.  "But she didn't recognize me.  I wonder why."

          Ironhorse shrugged.  "Let's go, Harrison.  Let her rest.  Then we'll see what's going on.  Maybe Norton's picked up something by now."  Turning, they found the orderlies already gone, only the nurse remaining.

          "This was a bad one," she said, tugging her sweater back down over her ample bosom.  "I haven't seen anything like this since terrorists took over the power station and cut off the juice."[2]

          Harrison frowned, remembering all too clearly the events.  But the terrorist story was just a cover – their usual one.  Aliens had infiltrated the Lyndon power plant, and with twenty-seven human brains ripped from their living victims' skulls they had cured one of their own.  But that had been nearly four years ago, and while Sylvia's anxiety attacks had continued, none of them compared to this one in severity.

          "You should’ve called me sooner," Harrison admonished the nurse.

          She cast around the room for something to keep her hands occupied, deciding on retrieving and folding Sylvia's sweater.  "The light sedative the doctor was giving Miss van Buren was keeping her attacks under control until this evening.  Maybe Mount St. Helens is going to blow again.  I hope not," she said with a shudder, "ruined my marigolds the last time."

          Harrison stared down at the sleeping woman.  Nearing sixty, Sylvia was still a remarkably handsome woman, except when the attacks struck.  Blackwood's jaw tightened, remembering how vibrant and happy she had looked just before the power plant takeover.  She'd been alive and whole then – the mother he'd never had, and so desperately needed.  Why couldn't they find a way to help her?  What good were all the miracles of modern medicine if they couldn't—

          "Come on, Harrison," Ironhorse said quietly, gripping the astrophysicist's arm and directing him out of the room.  "Let's get some air and let her sleep."

          Out in the hallway they nearly collided with an older man, his frizzy silver-gray hair sprouting out from underneath a battered cap.  He shuffled along in worn brown slippers, his hands balled in his sweater pockets until he spotted Ironhorse and Blackwood.  He stopped, squinting intently at the two men.  "It's not safe out there," he proclaimed, nodding sagely.

          "I know," Blackwood responded tiredly, trying to step around the man.  He had heard this all before.

          "Not safe in here no more, either!" the old man announced, then waddled off, Ironhorse and Blackwood exchanging concerned glances.

          Harrison bolted forward, getting in front of the old man and stopping him with two hands on his shoulders.  "What do you mean, it's not safe in here?" he asked.

          The old man shook his head sadly.  "They're dyin'.  They're all dyin'."

          "Who's dying, sir?" Ironhorse questioned, coming around to stand next to Blackwood.

          "People on the east wing.  Lots of 'em.  And it's spreading.  Gonna get us all.  You'll see."

          Harrison shook his head slightly.  "The east wing.  That's where the patients who are confined to bed are kept.  They're going to have a higher mortality rate."

          "Six in a week?" the old man challenged.  "Look here, sonny. I might be old, I might even be crazy, but I'm sure as hell not stupid."  He stopped and glanced around suspiciously.  "Someone know you're in here?" he asked softly.

          "Yes," Blackwood said quietly, his mind racing.  Sylvia was sensitive to alien activity; what if they had found her?

          "Be careful," the old man whispered, his watery, faded blue eyes narrowing as his gaze swept the hallway.  "They're gonna get us all."  And with that he turned and tottered off.

          The two Blackwood Project members stood in the hallway, watching the old man until he turned the corner.

          "He's crazy," Ironhorse said.  "Paranoid."

          "But that doesn't make him wrong."

          Ironhorse's lips disappeared into a thin line.  "No," he said after a beat.  "No, it doesn't.  Guess I'd better go check out the east wing."

          "See what we're up against?" Harrison asked him.

          Ironhorse nodded.  "I'll contact Omega Squad first, get some reinforcements up here – just in case.  You stay here with Sylvia."

          "Colonel, I don't think it's a good idea for you to do this alone."

          "Doctor, I can get on and off that ward before they even know I'm there, but not if I'm dragging you along."

          Blackwood considered, then nodded.  Paul Ironhorse was a trained professional.  "Be careful."

          "Always."

 

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

 

          Al stepped into the small room.  He craned his neck as he took in the myriad of drawings that papered the walls.  The sketches, arranged around several pictures of two men, looked like a macabre anatomy lesson from some low-budget horror show. One of the men was Clayton Forrester, his images smiling out of a black and white photo, the other was Harrison Blackwood, the head of the Blackwood Project.  The aliens were still a threat to the timeline.

          "Damn," he whispered softly.

          Glancing at the bed, he found Sam sleeping, still confined in the straitjacket.  He ground his teeth together and stalked over.  "Damn it!  Aw, Sam, I'm sorry I wasn't here earlier, but Sylvia was in bad shape when she arrived."

          There was no response from the sleeping man.

          "Sam?" he called louder.  "Come on, Sam, wake up."

          The man's eyes rolled sluggishly under his closed lids.

          "That's it, Sam.  Wake up.  You can do it, I know you can."

          The physicist's eyes popped open, but immediately sagged half-closed.  "Al?" he croaked.

          "Yeah, Sam," he said affectionately, "it's me."  He leaned forward, staring intently at the younger man.  "You awake?"

          "Awake?"

          "Come on, Sam, kick that brain of yours into gear, we've got a problem here."

          Sam's eyes dropped closed, but he sucked in several deep breaths, trying to push back the effects of the sedative.  At least it had been a light dose.  "Where am I?" he asked between two breaths.

          "Whitewood Mental Hospital.  In Portland, Oregon."

          "I didn't want to hear that.  Why am I here?"

          "Sam, try and get out of that thing," Al encouraged, jabbing his cigar toward the confining jacket.  It made him uncomfortable to see Sam in the restraint.  It also made him mad.  "Ziggy's working on the 'why' right now."

          "I saw Colonel Ironhorse," Sam said, his eyes snapping open. "At least, I think I did.  This has something to do with the aliens, doesn't it?"

          Al shrugged, reaching in to pull out his link to the project's computer.  "In all probability, yes, but we don't have any details yet.  Now come on, get busy with that jacket."

          Sam struggled inside the confining canvas, but it did nothing to loosen the restraint.  "I'm not Houdini.  I can't get out of this."

          "You leaped into a magician once," Al encouraged.

          Sam shot the observer a frustrated scowl.  "Yeah?  Well, I'm not a magician now."

          "True.  You're Sylvia van Buren."  Al's expression took on a faraway look.  "She's an amazing woman, Sam."

          "Al," the physicist prompted, wondering what the woman looked like.  She must be pretty to elicit that particular expression from the observer.

          "She was on the front lines during the 1953 invasion.  She was Clayton Forrester's right hand, cataloging the research he and other members of the top-secret Ezekiel Project conducted on the aliens in 1953 through 1955."

          "Why is she in here?" Sam asked, still trying to squirm his way out of the straightjacket.

          "We don't know, exactly.  She was committed in the mid-1960s.  Dr. Forrester and Dr. Blackwood thought her madness was due to her exposure to radiation and the alien tissue samples.  But from what Ziggy has able to pull out of the Blackwood Project records, it looks like she was 'tuned in' to the aliens in some way."

          "'Tuned in?'" Sam echoed, a chill washing over him.

          "It seems Sylvia has rather violent reactions to alien activity within a certain geographical radius.  Fits of depression and paranoia, along with migraines, nose bleeds and some dozy delusions."

          "That's terrible," Sam whispered, noticing the drawings decorating the walls for the first time.  They were fragmented images of alien body parts, distorted warships and contorted faces wrapped in fear and psychic pain.  He could feel those same emotions lapping at the edges of his own mind.

          "She's really something, Sam."

          He shook his head to force the rising fear back.  "Do I detect something more here than sympathy?" he probed.

          Al shifted uncomfortably, suddenly finding his silver and maroon shoes a fascinating study.  They matched his silver gray suit and shiny maroon shirt.

          Where does he get this stuff?  "Al?"

          "She's… special," the observer said, his head coming up as he skirted around the subject.  Then he smiled and added, "And she says I'm charming."

          "I'll bet…  Look, this is impossible," Sam grouched, his tongue feeling too thick. "What am I here to do?"

          Al shrugged.  "We don't know."

          "Where are Ironhorse and Blackwood?"

          A second shrug.

          "Al, you're not helping much."

          "I'm sorry, but Ziggy's still not completely through running the permutation on the time stream, so the data's coming a little slow."

          "I know, I know.  I remember what you told me about the Blackwood Project, but Harrison—"

          "Harry."

          "Huh?"

          "Sylvia calls Harrison Blackwood, Harry."

          "Oh."

          The handlink to Ziggy bleeped, and Al glanced down.  "Gotta run, Sam."

          "Al!"

          "Sylvia needs me.  Keep working!" he said, stepping back through the holographic door to the Imaging Chamber and disappearing.

          "Thanks," Sam grumbled.  His eyes crossed slightly as he realized the tip of his nose had developed a severe itch.  "Great!  Just great!"

 

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

 

          Ironhorse stood at the far end of the deserted hallway.  Where is everyone? he wondered.  The room doors were closed, and there was no staff present on the floor, carrying out the myriad of tasks required for the care of bed-ridden patients.  It was unsettling and he felt his battle senses beginning to kick in.

          Stopping at the first of the closed doors, he checked the name typed on the index card that fit into a clear plastic holder at eye level.  Mrs. Hazel Thorton – Alzheimer's (Depression).  "Deceased" was scrawled across the card.  Stepping into the room he made a quick but through search, then proceeded silently down the hall, checking the rest of the names and rooms.  Six were listed as dead, nine remained in their beds, but they were all unconscious, and nothing the soldier tried could rouse them.

          At the far end of the hallway he found a nurse seated at the care station.  She looked up from a chart.  "May I help you?" she asked, her eyes narrowing slightly.

          "I hope so," Ironhorse said with an easy, lopsided grin.  "Guess I just took a wrong turn somewhere.  How do I get back to the guest wing?"

          "Go down all the way down this hall," she said, pointing to the passage that was perpendicular to the one he had just traversed, "take a right, go to the end of that hall, then left.  That'll put you on the guest wing."

          "Thank you."  Ironhorse smiled and headed down the hall.  He hadn't missed the small skin lesions on the woman's throat.  The old man's right.  We're not safe in here anymore either.

 

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

 

          "Sylvia?" Harrison said, stepping into the room.

          Sam looked up, blushing slightly at getting caught trying to scratch the tip of his nose on the nightstand.  "Can you please get me out of this thing?"

          Harrison hesitated, but the lucid expression on Sam's face convinced him, and he moved to the bed, helping "Sylvia" to sit up so he could unhook the straps.

          Sam pulled the jacket off and tossed it away with a disgusted grunt.  If he never saw another one of the infernal contraptions, it would be too soon.

          "I'm sorry about that," Harrison said, helping Sam out of bed and into a white terry bathrobe.  "How do you feel?"

          "I'm fine," Sam replied emphatically as he walked over to sit down in a padded recliner.  He scrubbed his nose vigorously, then sighed with relief.

          Harrison took the straight-backed chair and carried it across the room to sit next to her.  "What's wrong, Sylvia?"

          Sam looked sharply at the man, then softened when he saw the concern in the man's blue eyes.  "I'm sorry," he said, "I shouldn't take this out on you."

          Harrison grinned.  "Sylvia, tell me what's happening, please. Is it the aliens?"

          Sam paused a moment.  "I don't know.  I—"

          The holographic door whisked open and Al stepped in, immediately apprehending the physicist's attention.  "Sam, we've got trouble.  Big trouble."

          "What kind of trouble?"

          Harrison leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and staring at her intently.  "Yes, Sylvia, what kind of trouble is there?"

          Sam and Al both looked at the astrophysicist.  The observer walked over to stand next to Blackwood's chair so they could carry on an easier covert conversation. "Sam, listen to me.  Sylvia's attack was so bad because the aliens are here, right here at Whitewood."

          "Here?"

          "Yes!" Al cried.

          "Here?" Blackwood echoed, confused.  "What's here?"

          "Aliens," Sam said.

          "My God, the old man was right," Harrison breathed, looking away.  His head came up.  "Ironhorse."

          "Exactly!" Al said.

          "What?" Sam asked the observer.

          "Colonel Ironhorse went looking for the aliens," Harrison explained.

          Al waited for the man to finish, then added, "According to Ziggy, there was a fire at Whitewood, tonight, and eighty-five people were killed.  Among them Sylvia van Buren, Harrison Blackwood and Paul Ironhorse.  Sam, you've got to get everyone out of there – now!"

          "We have to go," Sam said, heading for the door.  He staggered as the room spun.

          Harrison stood, blocking the physicist's path.  "No, Sylvia.  Stay here.  I'll go find the Colonel and we'll—"

          "We'll go find the Colonel."

          "Sylvia—"

          "Come on," Sam said, grabbing the man's arm and directing him toward the door.  "We don't have much time… Harry."

          It was clear that Blackwood was uncertain, but he finally nodded.  They paused at the door.  Sam slipped off the robe and tossed it back onto the bed, then kicked off the slippers.  Blackwood gave her a perplexed look.

          "I can't run in those, now can I?" Sam explained.

          Harrison smiled, his eyes filling with pride.  "No, I guess you can't.  Stay close to me," he whispered, cracking the door open and glancing out.

          Sam peeked out over his shoulder, a nagging sense that something was wrong keeping him close to the astrophysicist.

          "Come on," Harrison said, easing into the hallway.  He led them away from the nurses' station where the ample Ms. Hamilton sat, reading her latest copy of Vanity Fair.

          "You've done it, Sam," Al said following behind the skulking men.  "You've changed history.  There's no fire…"

          "Then why don't I leap?"

          "I don't know…  Ah, because Sylvia, Blackwood and Paul are still found dead," Al groaned.

          Harrison asked over the observer, "Leap?"

          "Huh, lead," Sam covered with a sheepish thin smile.  "Why don't I lead?"

          Blackwood smiled affectionately at the older woman.  "I know you're more familiar with Whitewood than I am, but just in case, I'd feel better if you stayed behind me."

          "All right," Sam relented, then waited until they were moving again before he coughed and whispered, "How do they die?"

          "They were found… stran—"

          "Stran?" Sam asked.

          All shook the handlink, then pounded it against his palm.  "Geled?  Stran… gled.  They were found strangled."

          Sam glanced sharply over his shoulder.

          Al shrugged.  "That's all Ziggy can find.  It's a top-secret project, Sam.  The bulk of the records are sealed.  Remember, I told you before, it takes a Presidential authorization to—"

          "Can you locate Ironhorse?" Sam interrupted.

          Al nodded, wrapping the link against his hand again, then giving it a vigorous shake.  "Ziggy, center me on Paul.  Now!"  He looked after the two men.  "Be careful, Sam.  These aliens are dangerous."

 

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

 

          Ironhorse felt the short hairs on the back of his neck prickle as he continued down the hallway away from the nurses' station.  He glanced casually at the doors as he passed, noticing three more name tags with "deceased" scrawled across them.  There did seem to be some kind of epidemic on this particular wing.  But they were all elderly and bedridden.  What could the aliens possibly want with them?

          But if it wasn't aliens, why was his battle sense sounding like a klaxon?

          No, he was sure the sores on the nurse's neck were due to radiation.  The aliens were there somewhere, doing God only knew what.

          The sound of a door opening behind him brought Ironhorse's shoulders up in a predatory hunch.  His hand shifted toward his concealed weapon.

          "Watch out, Paul!" Al called, but the hologram's warning couldn't reach the colonel's ears.

          Ironhorse took three more steps, then lunged to the far side of the hallway, reaching under his jacket for the M-9 Baretta resting in his shoulder holster as the attendant charged him.

          "Sam!" Al called.

          The intern lunged after the colonel, a wet tearing sound echoing down the corridor as the man’s white uniform shirt popped open, freeing the alien's third arm.  Three slimy fingers groped the air, looking for a hold on the soldier.

          "Ziggy, center me on Sam!"

 

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

 

          Harrison continued down the hallways, trying to be as quiet and as unobtrusive as he could.  Behind him, Sylvia followed.

          "Sam, hurry, an alien's got Ironhorse!" Al yelled as he popped into the hallway next to the physicist.  "Follow me!"

          "This way, Harry," Sam announced, turning down a hallway and jogging after the rapidly disappearing hologram.

          "Sylvia!" Harrison called in a harsh whisper, but he charged after her.

 

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

 

          Ironhorse struggled to force the gun around far enough to shoot the alien, but the grip the monster had on his wrist was making that impossible.  The third arm latched onto his throat and squeezed.  The creature jerked the soldier forward slightly, then thrust him back against the wall, sending an explosion of colored spots exploding across Paul's vision.

          With a feral growl, Ironhorse drew his leg up and pistoned his heel into the human host's mid-section.  The grip on his throat loosened slightly and he followed up the kick with a crashing knife-hand blow to the base of the attendant's neck.

          The alien’s grip slipped momentarily and Ironhorse twisted away, but he was still caught in the vice-like hold the creature had on his wrist.  Ironhorse grabbed his gun with his free hand and fired just as the three-fingered hand reasserted its hold on his throat.  The high-pitched death scream drowned out the arrival of Blackwood and Sylvia, as well as the other aliens, which emerged from several rooms along the hallway.

          Paul's knees were weak and he sucked in gasps of air, sagging back against the wall.

          "Colonel!" Sam yelled, seeing another of the invaders slip from the room nearest the soldier.  "Look out!"

          Ironhorse's eyes flashed open and he squeezed off a round, catching the man in the upper chest, destroying the alien as more of the blended beings moved into the hallway.

          Blackwood lunged away from one alien as it burst from a room behind the astrophysicist.   An abandoned cart of empty dinner trays provided him with weapons, and he snatched up a metal tray-cover and steak knife, advancing on the being.  When he was in range, Harrison swung the tray, distracting the alien while he used the knife to slice deeply along its exposed forearm.  The creature squealed and staggered back, looking down unbelievingly as its arm began to dissolve.

          Sam watched the alien decompose, too shocked to move.

          "Sam!" Al yelled.  "Get out of there!"

          Two aliens stalked toward the physicist, but Sam, spurred on by the observer's cry, bolted away from Blackwood, who was already busy with another of the Mor'taxans.

          "Sylvia!" Harrison bellowed, but there was nothing he could do.  They were outnumbered.

          Ironhorse's M-9 continued to punctuate the surrealistic encounter as Sam slipped into one of the rooms, the two aliens following.

          "Sylvia," one of them said kindly.  "What are you doing here?"

          "Stay away from me," Sam warned, casting around for anything he might use as a weapon.

          "You shouldn't be over here," the second orderly said.  It was Harvey.  "It's after visiting hours.  You should be in your room."

          "Sam, the cleaning solution," Al barked, pointing to a bottle of blue liquid on the bedside table.  "They're allergic to ammonia!"

          With a snatching grab Sam scooped up the bottle by its handle and directed a stream of the ammonia-based solution at the two advancing aliens.  They both cried out, backing away and rubbing at their bubbling faces.

          "Any more ideas?" Sam asked, backing the bottle held out in front of him body to keep the aliens at bay.  The aliens weren't dissolving, but at least they were keeping their distance.

          "I'm working on it; just don't let them get close enough to grab you."

          Sam heard more gunfire in the hallway and knew Ironhorse must be running low on ammunition.  "Hurry."

          Without warning, Blackwood bolted through the door.  Harvey grabbed him, shoving the scientist up against the wall.  Pinned there by the blended human's superior strength, Harrison watched in horror as the being's third arm exploded from the man's chest, the fingers closing around his throat.

          "Now, put that down and come over here," the second orderly commanded Sylvia.

          "Don't do it, Sam!" Al countered, stepping in-between the alien and his friend.

          "Let him go," Sam ordered.

          "Put that down first," the orderly countered, taking a step toward Sam.

          "No!  Sylvia!" Harrison choked, struggling sluggishly as the lack of oxygen began to steal away his consciousness.

          Harvey's hand shifted as he readied himself to begin a transfer to Blackwood's body.

          "Sam!" Al howled.

          The door opened and a single shot thundered inside the room.  Harvey's grip melted away as the being dropped to the floor and began to puddle.  The second orderly lunged for Sylvia, but Sam squeezed out several streams of the cleaning solution and he staggered back, rubbing at his dissolving face and screaming.  With a final cry, the alien fell against the bed, then slipped to the floor and began to froth.

          "Harrison?" Ironhorse asked, wrapping an arm around the man’s shoulders and pulling him around so he could sit on the bed.

          "I'm fine," he rasped, rubbing at his throat.  Looking up at the older woman, he forced himself to his feet and maneuvered around the bed to wrap Sam in a hug.  "Sylvia, are you all right?" he asked against the physicist's neck.

          "Fine," Sam replied, trying to ignore Al's grin.  "I'm fine, Harry, really."

          "Kiss his cheek, Sam," Al instructed, trying his best to hide his growing smile behind his cigar.

          Sam's eyes rounded.

          "It's what Sylvia would do – trust me."

          Rolling his eyes heavenward, but expecting no help, Sam turned his head and kissed Blackwood on the cheek.  The astrophysicist chuckled and hugged Sam tighter.

          "You're enjoying this too much," the physicist whispered hotly to Al.

          "I'm just glad you're all right, but we still have work to do," Harrison said, releasing her.  He looked at Ironhorse, who nodded.

          "We'll make a sweep," Ironhorse said hoarsely.  "Everyone – patients, staff, doctors."  His attention shifted to Sylvia.  "Thank you."

          "My pleasure, Colonel," Sam said.  Glancing at Al, his smile faded into a concerned frown.  "What?" he whispered as Blackwood and Ironhorse moved to the door, cracking it open and checking the hall, which was littered with puddles of frothing, decomposing aliens.

          "I thought you'd done it, Sam," the observer responded, shaking the link.

          "They're still killed?" Sam squeaked softly.

          Al shook his head.  "No, not here, but all records on the Blackwood Project and its members end in 1997."

          "Then they win the war," Sam guessed, his smile returning.

          A second shake of the head.  "No, they disappear, Sam.  Poof!  Paul, Blackwood, and two other members of the Project, Suzanne McCullough, Debi's mother[3], and Norton Drake, simply vanish without a trace."  He rattled the link and waved his cigar over it like he was performing an incantation.  "Sylvia's okay, though. Once the aliens are finally gone she's a new woman."

          Sam frowned, his gaze coming up to lock on the two men.  Should he warn them?  Paul Ironhorse was almost like a friend, and he was Al's friend…  "Was it the aliens?"

          "I don't know, Sam.  But according to Ziggy, they do win the war in 1997."  Al glanced at Ironhorse and swallowed hard.  The colonel had come for him when Al needed him most[4], but there was nothing he could do to help the man.  He just didn't have enough information.

          "But if they won, how could they just disappear?" Sam asked.

          They looked over at the two men standing at the door, Sam feeling the first tug of his next leap beginning.  His gaze shifted to Al.  "It's not fair," he cursed softly. "Not after all they've been through."

          "I know, Sam," the observer replied, his voice catching.  "I know."

          In a flash of blue light Sam felt himself leap…

 



[1]  A reference to "Just Another Face, Reflecting off the Wall."

[2]  War of the Worlds episode "To Heal the Leper."

[3]  Al meets Debi when Sam leaps into her in "Ground Zero."

[4]  A reference to "To Erase a Name."