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" That man saved my life, Sam.  He's trying to save the entire planet!"

 

October 1989

 

          Blinking past the blinding blue-white light that marked a completed leap in time, Sam found himself staring out the passenger window of a fast-moving vehicle. A steep precipice opened up just beyond the door, disappearing down the side of a steep pine-carpeted mountain into an unknown, apparently depth-less pit.

          "Oh, boy," he squeaked, closing his eyes.

          "Don't worry," a comforting voice responded.  "It's not as far down as it looks.  We'll be off the mountain in a few minutes."

          Sam forced his eyes open, wanting to see who held his life in his hands.  Even in profile the man commanded respect, with angular red-bronze features and black hair with an occasional faint streak of gray.

          "Major…?" he whispered.

          "That's Colonel, Debi, remember?" he replied, his gaze never wavering from the narrow winding road, although the black eyebrows rose slightly.  "You're picking up Harrison's bad habits."

          Paul Ironhorse.  Major Paul Ironhorse.  He had just seen the man again not long ago… at the Wall.[1]

          A chill snaked down the physicist's back.  Why was he continuing to run into this man?

          What had Al told him Ironhorse was doing in 1982?  Delta Force?  The rest of the memory skittered out of reach.  But he was older now.  Was he still in the service?

          Something about the situation made the physicist uncomfortable and anxious.  He squirmed in his seat.

          "Debi?  Are you all right?"

          "H-Huh?" Sam stammered, but before he could pull his racing thoughts under control, a small red car shot into view from the far side of a sharp turn.

          Ironhorse's foot hammered the brake peddle and he cranked the wheel hard to the left, sending the Bronco into a sliding skid away from the edge of the drop-off.  The red car roared forward, clipping the truck's rear bumper on the passenger side, the force of the impact spinning them around.  Sam reached out, his fingers curling around the armrest in a strangle-tight grip as the Bronco's front tires slipped onto the dirt shoulder with an ugly hiss.

          Ironhorse fought the wheel, frantically dragging it back the other direction, a curse escaping from behind his clenched teeth.  "Hang on!" he growled as they edged over the side of the cliff, snapping young trees off and careening down the side of the mountain before striking a large felled tree that torqued the Bronco around and sent it tumbling farther down the steep terrain.

          Sam's eyes snapped closed and he clung desperately to his shoulder strap as they toppled painfully down the embankment.  With one final bounce they came to an abrupt stop.  He waited for the vertigo to still, noting absently that his neck was crimped painfully to one side, his cheek pressed against the cold glass of the window.  A demanding force squeezed his chest, making breathing next to impossible.  He grunted and forced his eyes open.

          "Oh, boy," he moaned, the world still spinning.

          The Bronco's hood looked like some kind of art deco sculpture, warped and pressed into the ground.  Dirt was scattered across the cracked windshield, making it impossible to see beyond the front of the truck.  Sam blinked, trying to bring things back into focus, but his eyes refused to cooperate.

          Forcing his head around, he quickly realized that the passenger side of the Bronco was tilted up higher than the driver's side.  He shifted slightly, trying to get a better perspective, but the movement triggered an automatic moan in his throat.

          Sam froze, then carefully turned his head.  He found the driver's side door twisted off, the seat leaning halfway out the gaping opening.

          "Colonel?" he called.

          "Debi?"

          There was deep, genuine concern in the soldier's voice, and Sam automatically checked his reflection in the rearview mirror.  "Debi" was blonde, with large blue eyes and a few freckles sprinkled over her nose.  She looked about twelve or thirteen.  His daughter? he wondered.

          Not likely, given her complexion… maybe a step-daughter?

          "Debi?"

          "Yeah?"

          "Are you hurt?"

          "I don't think so," Sam said, wiggling his fingers and toes.  All his parts seemed to be attached and functioning, but his head was still spinning and it was starting to throb.

          "Debi… you have to… get out of the truck," Ironhorse said, the words taking more effort than they should.

          "I'll try," Sam said, adding under his breath, "If I can figure out which way's up."

          Rubbing at the tightness in his chest, his fingers caught under the shoulder harness strap.  I'm upside down!

          Closing his eyes, Sam let that added piece of information sink in, then opened them again, the unsettling disorientation gone.  He was on his side.  Reaching out, he unlocked his door and pulled the handle, popping the door open.  With effort he managed to push it out until it fell open, revealing a bright blue sky, dotted with white fluffy clouds edged with gray.

          Freeing the seatbelt took more effort, but once that was accomplished, Sam hooked his arm over the open doorframe, then freed the clasp.  He swung out of the seat, clinging to the Bronco.

          A half-stifled moan escaped Ironhorse.

          "Colonel?"

          "Don't stop," the soldier gasped.  "Get out.  Hurry."

          Sam pulled himself up, his feet pushing off the dash and seat as he scrambled out of the Bronco as quickly as he could and dropped onto the loose rocks and pine-needles making up the surface of the hillside.  A sharp cry of pain echoed down the mountain and he started forward, only to end up on his butt when both of his feet slipped out from under him.  He slid down the slope several feet before he could dig his heels in and stop the descent.

          Standing carefully, Sam tested the slippery footing, debris giving way under his weight.  Shoving his toes into the loose needle-dominated humus, he slowly made his way around the truck without falling a second time.  Coming upon Ironhorse, he paused, sucking in a sharp breath at all the blood.

          "Is he—?"

          Sam's head snapped up at the near-panicked half-question.

          Al stalked over to stand next to the injured man, a worried frown folding across unusually pale features.  "Get over here, Sam.  You've got to help him – now!"

          The physicist moved closer.  Hearing the escalating panic in Al's voice unsettled him.  It wasn't like the observer to show that kind of emotion, even if Ironhorse was his friend.

          The colonel was pinned from the hips down beneath the Bronco.  Blood covered most of the soldier's face, and his shoulder seeped where a shard of glass from the broken driver's side window stuck out through his flannel shirt.

          "Debi?" he called.

          "I'm right here," Sam said reassuringly.

          The black eyes cracked open, the man's gaze seeking out the girl.  Once he made eye contact he sighed, relaxing slightly.  "Good girl.  Debi, I want you… to walk around the Bronco," he panted.  "See if it's leaking anywhere… if it smells like gas… can you do that?"

          Sam's eyes widened and he met Al's suddenly stricken gaze.  "I can do that."

          "Hurry, Sam," Al said, already moving around and through the damaged vehicle, looking for any signs of a leak.

          "Hurry, Deb," Ironhorse echoed.

          Knowing he wouldn't be able to walk well on the slippery ground, Sam dropped to all fours and started a quick, sliding crawl around the overturned truck.  "I don't see anything," he called.

          "Does it smell like gas?"

          Sam sniffed.  "No, I don't smell anything, either."

          Al searched through the truck, stopping in the middle and bending down, disappearing into the Bronco's frame.  "Uh-oh, Sam.  You better take a look at this, but be careful!"

          The physicist crawled under the frame, almost running into a narrow fin of basalt that the luggage rack had scraped up against, then wrapped around.  The metal shafts were all that held the Bronco in place like a bloated teeter-totter.  Backing out and peering down the steep slope, Sam knew one good push would tip the balance away from Ironhorse, dislodging the truck, and sending it down the slope.  But if it tipped the other direction…

          He stalked off a few steps, Al hovering just off his elbow, until he stopped near a stand of tall skinny pines.

          "Sam, if that thing moves…" the observer said, trailing off, then added hotly, "You have to get him out of there!"

          "I have to get the bleeding stopped first," Sam corrected, turning and starting back.  "Is there any help around here?  A ranger station?  Town?"

          "No, nothing," Al responded, pacing away, then back, his arms folded tightly across his chest, his ever-present cigar forgotten.

          "No," the colonel echoed.

          "The closest town is twenty-three miles away," All added, his gaze fixed on Ironhorse.  "You have to get him out from under that truck, Sam.  That rack isn't going to hold for long."

          "Al, what's wrong?"

          "Nothing," the observer replied too quickly.

          Sam shook his head, his friend's purple and olive-colored silk jacket finally making an impression on the physicist.  At least it didn't clash with the shiny charcoal pants and metallic purple sneakers.

          "Nothing?"

          The observer's expression was closed, almost hard.  "Ziggy's having trouble getting into Ironhorse's records.  We're not sure what happened here… exactly," he explained.  "The records are sealed.  It takes a Presidential okay to get them unsealed."

          "Great.  Come on," Sam muttered, nodding toward the Bronco.  Al wasn't telling him something, but he didn't have time to interrogate the man at the moment.  "Tell me what you can while I work," he said, cat-footing it back to Ironhorse.

          "Who were you talking to, Debi?" the colonel mumbled, his eyes closed.

          "Huh, just myself."

          Ironhorse smiled thinly.  "It'll be okay… you can get… to the road… find help."

          "I have to stop the bleeding first," Sam replied.

          The soldier nodded.  "There's a first-aid… field kit… in back… a black… nylon bag."

          Sam nodded and headed for the rear of the Bronco.  Carefully lifting the hatch, he spotted the bag wedged in behind the passenger seat.  "Why isn't it ever easy?" he mumbled, heading back to the passenger side, shoving his arm in behind the seat and wrestling for the bag.

          Al followed, the worried frown back, and darker then before. "Debi is Debi McCull—"  The handlink beeped, whistled, blinked several colors, then warbled.  He gave it a vigorous shake.  "Not now, Ziggy," he growled, slamming it hard against his palm.  "Ough?  Oh, McCullough, Debi McCullough, the daughter of Suzanne McCullough, one of the Blackwood Project members.  She's a sweet kid, Sam.  And she's worried sick about Paul."

          "What's the Blackwood Project?" Sam whispered, trying another angle to reach the bag.

          Al gave the physicist a wry smile.  "You're not going to believe this, Sam… it's… incredible."

          His fingers finally wrapping into the nylon, Sam lifted the bag and slid it out.  "Al," he growled.

          "Ironhorse and the Blackwood Project are waging a covert war against aliens who are trying to take over the Earth."

          Sam shot the observer a disbelieving, annoyed glower.  "This is no time for jokes."

          "Believe it," the observer said, punctuating his words with a sharp jab of his cigar.

          "Aliens?" Sam demanded as he sat down next to Ironhorse.

          "I don't think so, Debi," Ironhorse mumbled, his eyes still closed.  "Drunk driver… someone… asleep at the wheel."

          "I don't think this is aliens either," Al confirmed, walking over to squat down next to the soldier.  He reached out for the man, wanting to squeeze his shoulder, but his slightly trembling fingers passed through the flannel material of Ironhorse’s shirt.

          Sam glanced up, prompting Al to continue.

          "They're from a planet called Mor'tax," Al explained softly, not bothering to consult the handlink.  "They invaded Earth in 1953, but they fell victim to our bacteria.  In 1988 the aliens were accidentally resurrected, and the Blackwood Project was formed to stop them."

          Sam tore into the nylon bag and found the kit well supplied.  He tugged out what he needed, laying the items in his lap, then located the cut along Ironhorse's scalp and probed.  The man's skull wasn't obviously fractured, which was a plus.

          "This is going to hurt," he warned.

          "That's okay," Ironhorse slurred.

          Sam pressed two gauze pads against the wound and black hair, then tied them in place.  A soft moan accompanied the additional pressure.  "How are they doing?" he whispered to Al.

          "That's what Ziggy's trying to find out.  You just worry about keeping him alive, Sam.  That man saved my life – more than once."  He met the physicist's eyes.  "But then, you were there the first time…"[2]

          Catching the hesitation and worry in the man's voice Sam glanced up.  "I remember.  What's wrong?"

          "He's an old friend, Sam.  Isn't that enough?"

          "Nothing, Debi, 'm just tired," Paul slurred, responding to the question as well.

          Sam turned his attention back to the shoulder wound, lifting the torn edge of the blood-soaked flannel shirt.  What the heck was Al hiding?  He shook his head.  There was no time to worry about that now.  The shard appeared to be wedged against or under Ironhorse's collarbone, blood seeping out slowly but steadily around the glass.

          "If that's cut any major vessels the glass might be acting as a tourniquet," Al said, peering over Sam's shoulder.

          The observer was pale, Sam noted, the usually humor-filled eyes nervous and full of fear.  Real honest-to-goodness terror.  And his mouth… that was the clincher.  Al's mouth was pinched at the corners, which meant Sam wasn't going to like the truth when the man finally got around to telling him whatever it was.

          "I know," Sam whispered.

          "Know?" Ironhorse slurred, his eyes blinking open.

          "I know it must really hurt," Sam covered quickly.  "I better leave that glass where it is."

          "Good idea," Ironhorse said, his lips tilting into a lopsided grin.  "You're doin' fine, Debi… just fine… 'm proud of you."

          Sam smiled, already digging in the bag for what he needed.  "Thank you… Colonel."

          "Do you… 'member… first aid class?"

          "I— I think so," Sam hedged.  One of his advanced degrees was an M.D., but he couldn't very well tell Ironhorse that.

          "Remember… donut bandage?"

          "Yes," Sam said, finding the dressings he needed to make one.  I'm one step ahead of you, Colonel.  "Can you feel your legs?  Move them?"

          Ironhorse paused a moment.  "Yeah, but I can't pull 'em out."

          Sam worked the strips into a thick circle, settling it around the piece of glass, then tied it into place as best he could without moving Ironhorse too much.  That done, it was time to see if he could find out exactly how the colonel was trapped.

          On his belly, Sam inched under the truck next to the soldier, thankful for Debi's small size.  Above him he could hear the wind begin to pick up.  The Bronco shifted slightly, the metal moaning.

          "Where are you pinned?" he called.

          "Across my hips," was Paul's half-gasped reply.

          Sam adjusted his position and squinted into the dark shadows under the Bronco.  The truck was pressing down across the colonel's hips, but he couldn't see if there was blood, or any broken bones.

          Several unpleasant scenarios played themselves out in Sam's mind as he slowly backed out – broken hip, ruptured organs, internal bleeding…

          Clearing the Bronco, he shivered as a sudden gust of cold wind wrapped around his shoulders, lifting the hairs on the back of his neck.  He looked up at the sky, which had grown darker and more overcast.

          "Just what we need," Al grouched.  "A damned storm.  Hurry, Sam.  We have to get him out from under there."

          Moving back to where he could see the soldier, Sam's eyes narrowed in concern.  "Colonel?"

          There was no response.

          Reaching out, he probed along Ironhorse's neck until he found a pulse, weak and rapid under his fingertips.  The man's face was slightly ashen, a fine film of sweat making it clammy to the touch.  Shock.  They were running out of time.

          Rising, Sam stumbled to the rear of the Bronco, pulling the suitcase he found free.  Opening it, he found Debi's clothes.  Tossing the suitcase aside, he peered into the truck a second time, spotting a smaller duffel bag in the corner.  Fishing that out, he unzipped it, pulling out the two carefully folded flannel shirts he found inside.

          Tucking the shirts around Paul's shoulders first, then he fished the space blanket out from the bottom of the first aid kit and spread it over Ironhorse's chest, anchoring it under the man's shoulders.

          Sitting back, Sam studied the mountainside that rose between him and the road.  It was a good one hundred yards, some of it nearly straight up, and there didn't appear to be much traffic on the road.

          "Sam!" Al called.

          Spinning, the physicist watched as the Bronco rocked slightly under the force of a strong gust of wind.

          Unconscious, Ironhorse moaned.

          Sam rushed to the first-aid kit, a plan taking form in his mind.  Digging into it, he pulled out the thin nylon rope he had seen earlier and fashioned a loop at one end.

          "Sam, what're you doing?" Al asked, crowding in next to the time-traveler to watch.

          He ignored the question, slipping the loop over Ironhorse's head and positioning it under his arms.  Tying the end off around the trunk of a nearby tree, he began scouring the hillside, slipping and sliding as he scrambled over the loose topsoil.

          "Sam, what the hell are you doing?" Al demanded.

          "I'm going to get that truck off him, but I need a big branch or a thin trunk," he replied.  Al remained rooted in place, obviously assessing the physicist's sanity.  Sam pointed sharply.  "Go!  Look!"

          The observer hesitated a moment, then stalked off, his gaze fixed on the ground.  "Over here!" he yelled a moment later, waving his cigar above his head.

          Sam hurried over, slipping in the loose pine needles and landing on top of a six-inch trunk that had been snapped in half by the Bronco and thrown to its present location.  "Perfect," he said, scooping up the long piece of pine.  Cradling it in the V of his arms, he dragged it back to the Bronco.

          Wedging the broken tree under the vehicle next to Ironhorse, Sam pressed down.  He wasn't strong enough.  He leaned all his weight onto the tree trunk, levering the Bronco up slightly and tipping the balance on the rock fin and shifting the weight off Ironhorse’s hips.

          With a loud rending cry the luggage rack twisted under the added weight and broke, the Bronco sliding off the rock and further down the hillside, tumbling once more before slamming up against a small stand of pines.

          "How is he?" Al asked, crowding in over Sam's shoulder to check on the colonel.

          "I don't think he's bleeding internally, but I can't be sure.  We've got to get him up to the road."

          "Sam, you're not strong enough to pull him up there!" Al said, his voice rising.

          "I'll have to be.  Let's find a couple of branches I can use to make a drag."

          It took less than twenty minutes to locate the branches and for Sam to rig a drag for the unconscious soldier.  While he worked, Al paced next to Ironhorse, occasionally pausing to consult the handlink.  Whatever was really bothering Al, it must have something to do with Ironhorse.  Something that happens if he dies, Sam reasoned as he pulled the final knot into place.  Standing, he walked over to join Al and the colonel.

          Paul was still unconscious, and Sam worked quickly to roll him onto his side, then position the drag in behind him.  Carefully he rolled Ironhorse back onto the crude device, the motion causing the soldier to grunt, his eyes opening.

          "What’re ya doin'?" he groaned.

          "Easy, Colonel," Sam soothed.  "I'm going to try and get you to the road."

          Ironhorse's head rolled side to side on the drag while Sam tucked the space blanket around him.  "Too far… too steep… leave me here an' go…"

          Using the end of the nylon rope to tie the injured man in place, Sam countered, "I can't do that, Colonel.  It looks like it's going to rain.  We have to get up there and find you some help."

          "I'm too heavy."  Ironhorse's head rolled to one side as he drifted off again.

          Just as well, Sam thought.  It wasn't going to be a very comfortable ride.  Lifting the ends of the poles, he started up the slope.

          Each struggling step carried Sam and Ironhorse slightly forward, but then they'd slide back as rocks and pine needles gave way under the physicist's feet.  Within a few minutes he was sweating and out of breath.

          "Come on, Sam!" Al pleaded, his gaze drawn to the interminable distance left to the road.

          "I'm trying," he panted.

          "Leave me here," Paul said.

          Sam laid the poles down and dropped to one knee beside the soldier.  "How do you feel?"

          "Like I was at ground zero when the bomb went off," he replied with a slightly lopsided grin.

          Sam smiled.  "I'll bet.  Look, Colonel, I don't want to leave you here, but I can't make it up all the way with you."

          Ironhorse sucked in a sharp breath as he shifted on the drag.  "Debi, listen.  Are there some trees… up… a little way?"

          Sam glanced up the slope.  "Yeah?"

          "You get me there… then you can go up… to the road… alone."

          Al checked the terrain between them and the trees.  "Listen to him, Sam."

          "Okay," the physicist agreed.

          "Good girl."

          Sam stood and picked up the poles, heading toward the small stand of pine.  Panting from the effort, he paused halfway there to catch his breath.  It was slow going and his hands were already starting to blister.

          "Debi," Ironhorse panted.

          "Yeah?"

          "Don't drag me… straight up… the hillside… go at an… angle," he groaned.

          "I should've thought of that!" Sam berated himself.

          "Hurry, Sam.  That storm's getting closer."

          "Al, tell me what's going on," he demanded, continuing on.

          The observer hesitated a moment, glancing around nervously as if he were afraid someone might be eavesdropping – and back at the Star Bright Project's headquarters they might be.  "If he dies we'll lose the planet."

          "What?" Sam asked, stumbling slightly.  He paused to catch his breath again.

          "If Ironhorse dies the aliens are going to win, Sam.  They're going to take over the Earth."

          Sam let that sink in, trying to decide if he really believed it, but the naked fear on Al's face was convincing.  "There's more, isn't there," he said, starting forward again.

          "Just keep moving, Sam.  Please."

          It only took fifteen minutes to reach the trees, but when he entered the cool shadows Sam was ready to collapse.  After making Ironhorse as comfortable as possible, he leaned against a tree and tried to pick out the easiest route up the remainder of the hillside.

          "Sam, what're you waiting for?"

          The physicist turned.  "I'm trying to find the best path up," he snapped.

          All took a step back, his eyes widening.  "I'm sorry," he apologized.  "I'm just—"

          "Scared," Sam finished.  "Why?"

          Al shook his head.  "I can't say, Sam."

          With a heavy sigh, the physicist pushed away from the tree and walked back to Ironhorse.  Gripping the soldier's good arm, he squeezed gently.  "Colonel?"

          "Mmm?" Paul moaned, the black eyes cracking open.

          "I made it to the trees, Colonel," Sam explained.

          Ironhorse raised his hand and Sam clasp it in his own.  "When you get to the road," he said airily, "keep going… the direction we were… headed."

          Sam nodded, suddenly very afraid that the soldier wouldn't be alive when he returned.  "Maybe I should stay—"

          "No, Debi, you… have to… get help…  I'm counting on you."

          "Sam, that storm's going to break soon," Al said, urging him on.

          Sam reached up and wove the pine boughs together over Ironhorse's head, hoping it might protect him a little if it did begin to rain.  "Okay, I'm going."

          "Be careful, Debi," he said, then called, "Debi?"

          Sam knelt down and took the man's hand again.  "Yeah?"

          "If anything happens—"

          "It won't."

          "If it does… remember… you did everything… you could.  Everything right.  I'm proud of you."

          Sam's eyes burned.  "Thank you, Colonel," he said softly.  "Just hang in there.  I'll be back before you know it."

          Standing, Sam stalked out of the trees with renewed purpose.  He would not let Paul Ironhorse die.

          Al kept pace, not saying anything as the physicist struggled up the steep slope as best he could, but it was still slow going.

          Pausing about halfway up to rest, Sam sat down on an exposed rock.  The first large drops of the approaching storm began to fall.  "I'm not going to make it in time, am I?" he asked, the words catching in his throat.

          "I don't know," Al said, moving up the slope a few feet.  "Come on, Sam.  Just a little farther."

          "Tell me what happens if he dies," Sam said as he climbed up to join Al.

          The observer turned away, continuing up the hillside.  "Six weeks after Ironhorse dies, Dr. Harrison Blackwood is captured by the aliens.  The Project is compromised, the aliens are able to increase their numbers and they take control of the planet within six months."

          "How can that happen?" Sam demanded, struggling to keep up with Al.

          "I don't know."

          "What else?"

          "That isn't enough?" the observer snapped.  "That man saved my life, Sam.  He's trying to save the entire planet!"

          Sam slipped, falling flat.  Pushing himself up, he briefly considered his bleeding fingers, then continued.  "What else!"

          Reaching a flat area, the observer waited for Sam to reach him, then tucked the hand link to Ziggy into his pocket.  "I can't tell you, Sam.  I'm sorry.  But I can say that it's something I don't want to see happen."

          "Come on, Al, I need to know."

          That elicited a smile from the observer.  "Now you sound like Paul."

          "Al," Sam growled, knowing the man was hedging.  The rain began to fall harder and he glanced up at the sky.  Can't you hold off a while? he silently implored.

          Al paced off a few feet, his back to the physicist.  "If Ironhorse dies…"

          Sam stepped closer, wishing the observer could reach out and give him a hand up.  "What?" he panted.

          Al turned, his eyes wide with fear.  "The aliens find out about our project, Sam.  They come to New Mexico…"

          "And?" he prodded, knowing he didn't really want to hear the answer.

          "They…"

          "Al!"

          The observer blew out a breath and then said, "They take over your body, Sam.  They kill you."  He turned away.

          "What else?"

          "It's not you any more, Sam."

          "What do I do?" he half-growled, forcing himself farther up the incline.

          "You kill the rest of us."

          Sam sucked in a sharp breath and felt the blood drain from his face, leaving him lightheaded.  "But—"

          "It wasn't you," Al said, turning back to face the time traveler.  "The alien inside you kills us."

          Sam looked up at the remainder of the slope as the first clap of thunder echoed in the sky.  It might be easier to attack the steep hillside at an angle, but the shortest distance between two points was a straight line.  He started straight up.

          "Sam!  You can't make it up that way!"

          Ignoring the observer, Sam clawed into the loose earth.  Inching forward, he managed to reach the next level, where the distant wail of a siren froze the physicist.  "Al?"

          The observer whooped.  "Help's on the way!"

          Sam sank down to the ground, a light rain starting to fall.  "Is it in time?" he gasped.

          Al pulled the link out of his pocket and shook it.  "Ziggy's not sure," he said, fear and disappointment clear in his voice.

          The siren drew closer, then stopped.  "Hello?" a voice called.

          "Here!" Sam replied, his voice shrill as he stood.

          "Hello?"

          "Over here!  I need help!"

          A ranger leaned over the top of the embankment and smiled down at Debi.  "Hang on, kid, we'll be down in a minute!"

          "My friend's in those trees," Sam cried.  "He's hurt!  Hurry!"

          "Okay, take it easy.  The paramedics are with me," the ranger called back, then disappeared.

 

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

 

          Sam and Al stood next to the ambulance, waiting for the paramedics to bring Ironhorse up.  The ranger cleared the top of the road first and walked over to the physicist.

          "You did real good work, kid," he said with an approving grin.  "They're bringing him up now.  He'll be fine."

          Sam sank down to sit on the bumper.  "Thank you," he said.

          The ranger ruffled Debi's hair.  "You're welcome.  You're just lucky that driver felt guilty enough to stop and call in the accident.  And that you were close enough to hear me."

          Sam nodded, glancing at Al, who was fighting with the hand link.  "Well?" he asked when the ranger moved off.  "If Ironhorse is going to be okay, why am I still here?"

          Al shrugged, but the smile on his face told the physicist that Paul was going to make it.  "I can't answer that, Sam."

          The paramedics cleared the road, carrying Ironhorse in a litter.  Sam stood, moving out of the way while the two men maneuvered the solider into the ambulance.  One of the medics motioned for Debi to get in as well.

          "Time to go," his partner said as he closed the door.

          Sam took a seat next to the medic, Al taking up space at the end of the litter, as he stood at the colonel's feet.  Ironhorse was pale and damp.

          "You're sure he'll be okay?" Sam asked.

          The medic nodded.  "I think so.  We should have the shock under control by the time we get to the hospital, and these bandages kept him from losing a lot of blood.  You do that?"

          Sam nodded.  "The Colonel taught me first aid," he said, wishing he could meet the girl himself.

          "Well, he did a great job.  You plan on being a doctor?"

          Sam smiled and Al chuckled.  "I don't know yet," he answered, wondering what a child who grew up fighting aliens would choose as a career.

          Ironhorse groaned, his eyes blinking open.  "Debi?"

          "I'm right here," Sam said, reaching out to take the soldier's hand in both of his.

          Ironhorse raised his head just high enough to see the girl.  "I told you… you could do it," he whispered.

          Sam smiled.  "I know."  He squeezed Paul's hand.  "You just rest now."

          "Thank you, Debi," Ironhorse said softly.

          "You're welcome," Sam replied, looking at Al.

          "Good work, Sam," his friend whispered.

          With a heavy sigh, Sam leaned back and felt the first tingle of his next leap.  A moment later, it carried him away…



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

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