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Embracing the Snake

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"Maybe someday we'll get past all this hoopla…"


          Again the memories and his own words came unbidden in his thoughts, shattering his concentration, and forcing Harrison Blackwood to face the reality of his situation.

          This war has taken my parents, Clayton, Karen, everyone and everything I've loved!  If we're fighting for the whole damned world, then the world owes us a little in return!  This is it, and I'm taking it!  I am not giving you up, Paul Ironhorse, so you'd better get used to the idea.[1]

          But he hadn't given the colonel up.  The soldier, the Blackwood Project's protector, and Harrison Blackwood's best friend and lover, had been taken from him – snatched away by something not of this earth.  Paul Ironhorse was dead.

          Suzanne had buoyed his spirits early on with her report on the battle site, but that hope too had waned as the time passed.  And while she and Norton kept trying to explain the absence, Harrison refused to believe them.  It was easier to accept that Ironhorse was dead than dwell on what the aliens might do to him, or contemplate the loss he represented to the team and to Blackwood personally.

          First it was six hours, then twelve…  More time passed, and still there was no word from the soldier.  How did it happen?! Blackwood demanded of himself, but there was no answer.  How did it go so wrong?

          They were trying to capture an alien, to ask it why so many of its kind were being killed, and how.  Ironic, really.  For nearly two years he and the others had been slowly exterminating the invading menace, and to end up trying to determine why so many were dying so rapidly without their help…  It was almost laughable.

          For twenty hours and forty-six minutes Harrison Blackwood's world had stood still…


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


          Among my people there are legends about joined warriors.  When one dies, his spirit joins with that of his lover.  The living one takes up his strength and will and love.  That way they are never apart and the one's death has a deeper meaning.


          No! Blackwood yelled back at the echo of Ironhorse's voice.  "You can't be dead, Paul," he whispered aloud.  "You can't.  I don't have the strength to bear that burden."


          It was Norton.

          What was it the computer expert had said when they first told Drake and Suzanne about their relationship? – "Con-gratula-tions, big guy, Doc.  I know you'll be happy."

          "I want to be happy," Blackwood whispered to the man on the other side of the door.  "Just a little.  Is that so much to ask?"

          "Hey, Doc, you in there?"

          Rising from his chair, Blackwood walked to the door and unlocked it.  "Yes, Norton, I'm here."

          "Look, I know you don't think— That you think the Colonel's dead," the computer genius said hesitantly.  "Suzanne and I are finished downstairs.  If that is what you really think, then we gotta get out of here.  ASAP.  It's been over twenty hours.  We have to go."

          The astrophysicist nodded.  "I'll start on Clayton's notes."


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


          But Ironhorse wasn't dead.  He had walked back into Blackwood's office while Harrison was still shredding Clayton Forrester's notes, alive, and carrying the most startling news.  There was another alien on earth – an alien who wanted nothing more than to kill the Mor'taxans.  And she needed their help.

          Ironhorse was convincing, his faith in Katara easily winning Blackwood and Norton over.  Only Suzanne had reservations.  And now it seemed she'd been right.

          But it had sounded so plausible.  The beings from Qar'to wanted to preserve humanity, Katara told them.  She even saved their lives after the Mor'taxans had attacked them at the fairgrounds.  Harrison shuddered at the memory – Ironhorse going down, crawling back to them, determined to do all he could before the steady loss of blood stole away his ability to fight; Suzanne and Norton fatally injured -- their damaged bodies still haunted the astrophysicist's dreams.

          But somehow Katara had cheated Death and healed them.  They were spared in order to continue the fight.  She made it clear that they must not give up, that she would return in a year with help.  If they could just hold out that long there was a chance for an ultimate victory – destruction of the beings from Mor'tax…

          Yet, if he'd admit it to himself, even in the midst of their personal resurrection something had scraped along the edges of Blackwood's awareness, leaving a part of his conviction raw and bleeding.

          That euphoria, left behind from Katara's healing, had lasted for several days, but then things began to shift, change.  The colonel's nightmares started.


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


          Blackwood heard the muffled cry, and the memory of a similar sound echoed in his memories – the pleading entreaty following the nightmares of Sara Cole's death.  Standing, Blackwood left his office to return to the Colonel's room, a room he had been sharing less frequently with the soldier.

          "Paul?" he asked in the darkness.

          "I'm fine, Doctor."

          Blackwood heard the man lie back down, and roll over.  "Damn it, Paul, what's going on?  What's—"

          "I said I was fine," Ironhorse snapped.  "Now, if you don't mind, Doctor, I'd like to get some sleep."

          "I could stay if you thought—"

          "That's not necessary."

          Blackwood felt his own anger flare.  "The nightmares are getting worse, Paul, not better.  I know.  I sit in there and listen to them!"

          At first they had been vague and formless, and Ironhorse had described them – he was trapped, blind, grappling with an unknown terror.  Blackwood would wake to the muffled gasps, or half-stifled screams and comfort the man, holding the soldier, rocking him gently until the shaking stopped and he drifted off again – into the hands of the next twisted vision.

          But steadily Ironhorse had pulled back, began refusing the comfort, even rebuffing any efforts Harrison made to draw him into talking about the problem.  The terror had gained a face.  Katara.

          Harrison felt his stomach tighten.  He'd fought the implication, and by doing so, fought Ironhorse.  But he believed her.  He had to believe her.  She and her kind wanted to preserve humanity, they would help mankind defeat the Mor'taxans.

          "It's still Katara, isn't it?" he asked, the words snapping like an accusation.

          "Yes," the colonel bit back.  "Hold on to your damned illusions if you want to, Blackwood, but not with me.  That robot is—"  He stopped, choking back the fear that nearly forced the hysteria free.

          The physicist stiffened, unwilling to face Paul's fears concerning the synth again.  With Katara there was an opportunity for dialogue, there would be a successful meeting between their brothers and sisters from the stars when Katara returned.  Ironhorse might be convinced she was a threat to mankind, but he was wrong.

          "You're wrong," he told the soldier.  "She saved our lives.  She killed the aliens, and tried to destroy their Advocacy!  What more does she have to do to convince you?"

          "She has to get the hell out of my mind!"

          "You don't know what she did to you, it—"

          "Exactly, Doctor!  I don't know, but if what I see— If my dreams are even half right— Get, out, Blackwood.  Just get the hell out!"

          Harrison had vowed to himself and his soon-to-be-lover when their relationship began that he would not give Paul up, but it felt to the astrophysicist that the reverse was happening.  Paul Ironhorse was giving him up, betraying every dream and hope the scientist still clung to.  But if Ironhorse was so disturbed, there had to be a reason.  The frustration caused Harrison's jaws to grind.  He wanted to believe Paul, but he had to believe Katara.

          "Fine.  I'll go, but you're letting some stupid fear get in the way of your seeing the truth.  Katara is our friend, and I look forward to her return!"


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


          Harrison knocked on the Colonel's office door, but silence was the reply.  Opening it, he found the room empty.  Frowning slightly, Blackwood began a search of the house – living room, kitchen, bedroom, basement labs, gym…  Nothing.

          His concern rising – the colonel wasn't prone to unannounced absences – he returned to the basement.

          "Harrison, is something wrong?" Suzanne asked, emerging from the biolab to join Norton at his work station where Harrison was pacing.

          "I was just trying to find the Colonel, but he's not—"

          Drake looked over his shoulder at the microbiologist.  They both knew things had been strained between the two after Katara's departure, but if Harrison was back to calling the man 'Colonel' around them, it was worse than they thought.  "Is that all?  He went out dressed for a run about half an hour ago."

          "Thanks, Norton," he said, slapping the hacker on the back.

          The pair watched Blackwood leave.  "I hope they get this worked out, and soon," Norton said.  "They both look miserable."

          "I hope so, too.  That damn robot.  She's at the bottom of this, Norton.  I can feel it."


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


          Ironhorse was not at the stables, in the pool, or on the obstacle course.  That left the beach or the pond.  If the soldier was just wandering on the grounds, it would be close to impossible for Blackwood to locate him.  Since the pond was closer, Harrison headed there first.

          The lone swan greeted his arrival, watching to see if there would be an offering of bread or popcorn.  Harrison smiled apologetically at the bird.  He hadn't thought to bring anything.

          Okay, Paul, the beach, the scientist said silently to calm himself.  And I hope to God you're there, because I'm rapidly losing the nerve to confront you.

          As he made his way down to the section of sandy shoreline, the many angry encounters between he and the officer played through Blackwood's memory.  Had they really been that distant at one time?

          One overriding fact became clear.  In every case, Ironhorse had been the one to compromise, to back down and allow Harrison to do what he wanted – in a slightly different manner, perhaps, but nonetheless the astrophysicist had gotten his way.  The only exception occurred when Blackwood had been addicted to the alien-tainted music, and Harrison recognized the moments then when Ironhorse had wanted to bend, but he hadn't, and with that refusal, the soldier had saved the scientist from himself.

          Maybe if I make this a demand he'll— No.  Ironhorse looks at his personal life as distinct from his professional obligations.  Damn it!  I am not going to give you up, Paul!  There has to be another answer.  Katara is our friend.


          Ironhorse sat on a large flat rock, staring out at the slowly rising tide.  The sun was dropping steadily toward the western horizon and, with scattered clouds collecting along the edge of the skyline, it promised to be a spectacular sunset.  Overhead the gulls had left the sky and an occasional owl passed, beginning the nightly hunt.

          Walking up behind the man, Harrison did nothing to hide his presence.  The soldier would have heard him long ago.  "Mind if I join you?"

          "No.  I was just waiting…  It took you long enough."


          "I knew you were thinking... about, us... that you'd come looking for me.  I thought it would be better if we spoke in private."

          "Do you also know what I was thinking?" Harrison asked with a forced lightness he didn't feel.

          "I can guess."

          "Paul, we do need to talk.  I—"

          "Harrison," the colonel interrupted.  "I don't know exactly what happened to me when Katara… had me, but…"  He trailed off, shaking his head.

          "Paul, please, talk to me.  I need to know what's happening to you, to us."

          "I don't know.  It's all… confused.  I can't seem to get my feet back under me.  Sometimes, when I look inside myself, it… it scares me."

          "That happens, when we really look.  We all have—"

          "But everything's shifted.  Distorted… like I'm looking in one of those funhouse mirrors.  I'm not sure who I am, or what I'm supposed to be doing."

          "You're Lieutenant Colonel Paul Ironhorse.  And you're fighting to keep this planet safe from aliens."

          "But how, Doctor?  No matter what we do it isn't enough.  Now there's Katara and her people to worry about, the Mor'taxan fleet is only a few years away from their arrival, and I'm supposed to figure out if we can trust Katara like you want me to, but the dreams…  And how can I keep you and Suzanne and Norton safe when I'm not convinced I can trust myself?"

          "You're starting to sound like me."

          "This isn't funny, Harrison."

          "I know.  Believe me, I know.  But as you've told me – more times than I can count – there are no easy answers to those questions, Colonel.  We just have to keep going, one day at a time, doing the best we can... The mists will clear.  And we all have faith in you, Paul."

          "That's not good enough."

          "But—" Blackwood caught himself.  Ironhorse was hiding something, and whatever it was, it frightened the soldier.  "What's really going on?"

          Black eyes locked on Blackwood's blue.  The desperation resonating in their depth shook the scientist's soul.

          "I have got to know what happened to me while Katara held me.  I have to know exactly what I told her.  Her 'mind probe' might be dangerous to all of us…  And, it might help make sense of the dreams – the nightmares, I've been having.  Until I know, I won't be able to put this aside, trust myself, and get on with the mission."

          "We tried hypnosis, Colonel, and we couldn't get anywhere.  Whatever Katara did, it's more powerful than—"

          "I've set up a debriefing at Ft. Streeter."

          "Debriefing?" Harrison asked, a knot of fear tightening low in his gut.

          Ironhorse nodded curtly.  "Whatever it takes to find out what the hell she did to me."

          "Paul, there might be logical, normal, reasons why you can't remember.  A memory block—"

          "Could be the after-effects of a psycho-traumatic event, Suzanne said."

          "But we don't know that.  Whatever the reason is, you might not be up to it. If you push past those blocks before you're ready, it could damage—"

          "I'm damaged now, Doctor."

          "Colonel—" Blackwood said, but he knew Ironhorse was already beyond listening.  "Paul, please, at least let me try again.  Maybe Suzanne—"

          "I've already given a complete report to General Wilson.  I can't stop it now. National security is at stake.  Our security is at stake.  If she can take away my memory, who knows what commands she might have put inside me.  I just can't take those kinds of chances."

          "I want to be there."

          "Absolutely not."

          "This is not a request.  As head of this Project, I need to be there."


          "You can't keep me out," Blackwood argued, his own anger and fear mounting.  "I'll go to General Wilson if I have to."

          The black eyes were intractable.  "No."

          "You can't—"

          "I already have, Harrison."


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


          "Colonel, I don't think you understand," Dr. Rachael Cathcart said, her own frustration showing slightly.  "We've tried all of the conventional methods, and a couple of not so conventional ones, and we've got nothing to show for it.  It's been three days.  You're exhausted.  I'm exhausted.  And if we haven't broken through yet, then your alien is simply a lot better at this sort of thing than we are.  It's time to let it rest."

          "Major, are you sure there aren't other… less standard drugs?" General Wilson asked.  "This could be a matter of critical national security."

          Rachael sighed, allowing her green eyes to slide closed for the briefest moment.  Of course the general had read her file.  He knew what she was working on, but it was still experimental, and if he thought she'd test it on another human being…  "There's nothing left except the experimental drug that I'm working on, General," she ground out.  "And that has not been tested.  It's time to—"

          "Then let's test it, Doctor," Ironhorse said.

          She turned to regard the Cherokee soldier.  "Colonel, you might not care, but I do.  The drug I'm working on is strictly experimental at this time.  It could kill you, or leave you a blithering idiot, and personally, I don't need the guilt."

          "We don't have a choice, Major."

          "We always have choices, General, and I'm making mine.  I will not go along with this without someone a lot higher up than you telling me I have to.  And even then I might tell them where to go.  Bring me up on charges if you want, but I have another oath that I took—"

          "May I use your phone, Doctor?"

          She motioned to the instrument hanging on the wall by the door.  "Be my guest."

          Wilson strode over, and snatched the handset off the cradle, punching out several series of numbers.  "Code forty-seven, level three, authorization ten," he said, using the code for the Blackwood Project.  "General Wilson for the President."


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


          "Are you ready, Colonel?"

          Ironhorse watched the med-tech prepare a syringe, drawing it full of a clear yellowish liquid.  An IV line already emptied a saline solution into a vein on the back of his hand.  "Yes."

          Dr. Cathcart checked the additional restraints that had been added to the medical recliner the Colonel sat in.  When she was sure there was no way he could fight his way out of the seat, she nodded to her assistant.  "Sergeant, administer the drug, then escort the general to the observation booth and start the recorder and the video.  After that, you're dismissed."

          "Yes, ma'am," the young man said, efficiently carrying out the orders.

          There was a momentary sting as the drug entered Ironhorse's bloodstream, followed by a painful hot-flash.  He felt a sweat break out across his body.  Three ragged breaths later he slipped into a swirling color-riddled void.


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


          An hour later, Rachael paced across the floor of the treatment room, her hands shoved into the deepest corners of her lab coat, fists balled so tightly her short nails dug painfully into her palms.

          Forcing herself to continue, she administered the last of the drug.  A medical doctor, as well as a psychologist, Rachael knew she was risking her patient's life.  In nine years of practice for the government, she had never felt so trapped.  And, as she carried out the orders she'd been given by the President himself, she prayed that the result wasn't a raving mad Lt. Colonel.

          Stepping back as Ironhorse's head snapped from side to side and he struggled in the restraints, she ground her teeth together and tried to shut out the scream that ripped past his raw, dry throat.


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


          "Colonel, after you told Katara you'd pass on the mind reading, what was the next event.  Tell me."

          "She…  She, forced me…  Yield to me…"  His head rolled weakly side to side, as she watched him continue to struggle.  It was damned amazing, and any other time she might have even found it fascinating, but at the moment she only found it sad and sickening.  Paul Ironhorse had an incredibly strong spirit, but she was pushing him to the edge of even his tolerance.  There had to be some way to get past the block.

          "Colonel, tell me exactly where Katara is standing."

          "Behind me."

          "Is she touching you?"

          "Yes… hands… either side of my neck… palms up."  His voice, a flat monotone, seemed more stable answering the superficial question.

          "Tell me, exactly, what she's doing."

          "She-she touches my neck then… my throat… pushes my head forward 'n' pulls it back…  Yield to me!  No!" he growled through tightly clinched teeth.

          Stepping behind the chair, Rachael took up a position that she hoped would parallel the alien's.  "Yield to me," she repeated.  The colonel stiffened for a moment, then relaxed.  He began to speak.

          "Lieutenant Colonel Paul Ironhorse, on special assignment for…"


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


          Several hours later, Major Cathcart stormed out of the treatment room, slamming the door behind her.  A very weary Brigadier General Henry J. Wilson stepped aside just in time to avoid being plowed over by the Pentagon's top research psychiatrist/psychologist.  "Major," he barked.

          She stopped, spinning on her heel.  "General, I don't know whose bright idea this was, but if I ever get asked to do that to another human being, I'm going to tell whoever's asking they can go straight to—"

          "Doctor, please.  Surely you can understand why this was necessary."

          "Necessary?  You watched that—that… Inquisition?!  If I wasn't under orders from the President I would've stopped twenty minutes into this session!  I should have!"

          "We, he, had to be sure of what happened while he was under the alien's influence.  If she'd left hidden commands for Ironhorse to carry out, God only knows what could have happened.  He's too damned good at what he does for us to leave him out there, a possible loose cannon."

          "Well, she didn't.  She only took his knowledge, and now you know, don't you, along with a helluva lot of other things that neither of us had a right to hear.  And it will probably cost the good Colonel his oak leaves, if, and that's a damned big if at the moment, General, he ever wakes up!"

          "That's why you're here, Doctor.  You're the best we have.  I'm confident you can pull Colonel Ironhorse through this.  He's strong and—"

          "I pray you're right, General, because if you're not, then you will have lost a damn fine soldier, and for what?"

          "For the future of this planet, Major."

          She ran her fingers through her short but still thick, red-blond hair.  Green eyes locked on the general's.  "Now that you know what happened, and the strength of Katara's mind block, I expect you to go to bat for him, one hundred and ten percent.  If you don't—"

          "Major, it's not good form to threaten a General, especially when it isn't necessary.  Paul Ironhorse is more than a junior officer to me.  I watched him come up at the Point.  He's more, well, he's more like a son to me, but that is to remain off the record."

          The major nodded, slightly mollified.  "And his relationship with Harrison Blackwood?  I know how the Army—"

          "What the Army doesn't know won't hurt anyone, now will it, Doctor."

          So maybe General Wilson wasn't an asshole after all… "But the tapes, they'll—"

          "Be sealed so as not to endanger the security of the Blackwood Project.  Only you and I will have access to that information."

          Okay, he was a good man – damned good thing for him, too…  Rachael shook her head.  "Not possible, General.  Colonel Ironhorse will need to view them, if he pulls out of this.  I think he'll want to see them.  And I think the Project members should see and hear at least the sections that relate directly to the alien.  As you said, this was for the future of the planet."

          Wilson paused for a moment, considering.  "Very well, Doctor.  But I'll be placing the tapes in a secured vault here at Kirby Hall.  Our voices will be the only keys.  If Colonel Ironhorse or the Project members need access to them, I want us to know about it."

          She nodded.  He was okay…


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


          "When can we see him?" Blackwood asked through nearly gritted teeth.  The debriefing had taken four days, and another day had passed before they had told them Ironhorse was still unconscious.

          "Just as soon as Major Cathcart gives me the word, Doctor," General Wilson reassured.

          "Uncle Hank, how is he, really?"

          Wilson stepped over and wrapped an arm around his niece's shoulders.  "I honestly can't tell you, Suzanne.  I just don't know myself.  It was much harder than we expected to break through the blocks Katara set in place.  It wasn't pleasant on any of us, I'm afraid."

          "And?" Norton asked, reading the concern in the officer's voice.

          "And at the moment the Colonel is… fighting, to regain his balance."

          "You mean you drove him over the edge and he's trying to find his way back," Blackwood corrected caustically.

          "I'm afraid it is something like that, Doctor."

          "I want to see him, and I want to see him now!"

          Suzanne felt her uncle stiffen.  The general was unused to taking orders delivered in that tone of voice, especially from a civilian, and she was sure he was going to balk, but instead, a heavy sigh was followed by, "Very well, Doctor, but only if you can convince Major Cathcart."

          "You just take me to him.  I'll handle the doctor."


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


          "Dr. Blackwood," Rachael said, stepping into the small office that had been arranged for her at Ft. Streeter.  "I'm Dr. Rachael Cathcart."

          "I want to see Paul Ironhorse," Harrison said coldly.

          "I know."

          "Where is he?" the scientist's voice was over-controlled.

          "Before I take you to the Colonel, I'd like you to see something."

          Blackwood's curiosity overriding his anger, he cocked his head slightly, asking, "What?"

          "A video that was taken during the debriefing."


          "Because, Dr. Blackwood, you and your team have been fighting aliens for nearly two years.  You have the best chance of interpreting the block I found.  And, you know the Colonel better than anyone.  I need your impressions of his actions, reactions, feelings.  I need your opinion on what we do next, because, quite honestly, I'm at a loss.  The drugs we used are experimental, but they've been flushed from his system.  There is no physiological damage, and all of the neurological tests are negative.  He's simply pulled inside himself and refuses to come out, and nothing I've tried has budged him.  I'm hoping that you can help me—"

          "Get him back?" he finished.  She nodded.  "And what are we going to get, Doctor?  Now that you've sifted through his mind, what's left?"

          Rachael began to arrange the recording equipment for Harrison, ignoring the comment as she said, "Since there's no reason, physically, why he shouldn't wake up, I want you to tell me why.  I hope that when we do get him back he'll still be the man you knew.  But psychological traumas leave their own invisible scars, Dr. Blackwood.  I won't make you any promises."

          "What did you people do to him?"

          The anger in the man's voice chaffed against her own.  "Before you go accusing us, remember that it was his idea.  I did what I was ordered to.  I should have stopped the process before it was ever started.  When all the conventional methods failed I knew Katara's level of technology was far enough beyond ours to warrant grave concerns.  I ended up using the last option I had, and my formula is not designed to reduce people to vegetables!

          "I honestly cannot tell you if the Colonel's current condition is a result of the emotional and psychological trauma of reliving the event, a side-effect of the drugs or the methods used by Katara, or a combination of all of them.  This is unknown territory."

          "If you didn't think this was safe, why did you do it?"

          "Because your Colonel insisted, and General Wilson concurred, and the President told me personally to do whatever was necessary to acquire that information.  But I did not enjoy it, Doctor."

          "I'm sorry," Harrison said, his anger defusing.  "I didn't mean to imply you had.  And I appreciate your candor."

          "Well, don't thank me for anything until you've seen the tape.  And, Doctor, I'm giving you the full version.  Nothing's been cut out.  What you see must remain in this office.  No one but myself and General Wilson will know what's in the full contents.  If the Colonel needs to view them later, that will be arranged."

          "I understand," Blackwood breathed, an irresistible sense of dread crashing over him.


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


          When the tape finished, Harrison finally allowed his gaze to drift from the static-filled screen to the blackness of the night beyond the small window.  A chill, colder than any he'd experienced, jarred him from the deepening horror.

          "My God, Paul," he whispered to the absent man.

          A soft knock at the door startled him, but Blackwood remained in the chair, unable to move.  Dr. Cathcart entered, taking in the devastation on the astrophysicist's face.  "I'm sorry," she said, the sympathy in her voice genuine.  "I wish to God I hadn't had to put him through that, but—"

          "You had no choice," Blackwood finished for her.  "There's information here we'll need.  I wonder if Katara knew she was leaving behind her own thoughts as well as taking his."

          "I doubt she did.  The 'remember nothing' command seems to be a way to ensure no information is passed."

          "I want to see him," Blackwood said, his hollow voice nearly lost in the small room.

          "Dr. Blackwood… Harrison.  You should rest first.  I can arrange—"

          "I want to see him now."

          The flat tone of the request, more than anything else, prompted her to allow it.  That and the fact the colonel's condition had remained unchanged.  "Come with me.  But then we need to talk."

          Harrison stood stiffly and followed, his motion mechanical and devoid of all energy.  When they reached the door to Ironhorse's room, Blackwood paused.  "You and General Wilson are the only ones who have seen that tape?"


          "Then you understand my… relationship, with the Colonel?"


          "Will you leave us alone for a while?"

          "I'll be back in the morning, Doctor," Rachael said, checking her watch.  "That will give you about eight hours.  If there's any change, pick up the phone.  It will ring me directly."

          "Thank you."

          She nodded.  "I sincerely wish your thanks weren't necessary.  In the morning we'll talk some more."

          Harrison watched the major leave before turning back to face the tan, wood-grained door.  Raising a hand, he pressed his palm flat against the smooth finish and willed himself to enter.  The three steps it took were the hardest the scientist could remember taking.

          Lying in the center of the bed, an IV and various monitors still attached and running, Paul Ironhorse looked like he'd fought the private war Harrison had witnessed on the tape.

          Crossing to the side of the bed, Blackwood hesitated, unsure as to what he should do.  "Paul?" he called softly.  "Paul, can you hear me?  It's Harrison."  The Colonel remained still, the beeps and whirls unchanging.

          Extending a hand, the astrophysicist reached for the colonel's, but found his wrists encircled by padded velcro bands, holding them to the bed.  Frustration, anger, and pain welled up in Harrison, and he spun away, pacing across the small floor space.

          "Damn it, Colonel.  Did you have to be right?  Why couldn't she have been our friend?  Is it so much to ask that we find one race of aliens who don't want us dead?"

          Stalking back to the foot of the bed, Harrison gripped the board there to keep his ever weakening knees from failing him.  "You have to wake up, Colonel.  We need you.  We need you more than ever before."

          Stepping around the end, Blackwood lowered himself onto the mattress, one hand reaching out to grip Ironhorse's arm.  "I need you, Paul.  Please, don't leave me alone.  I don't want to fight this battle by myself.  I need you there with me…

          "Why the hell did you have to do this?!" he yelled at the unconscious man.  "You proved you were right, but what difference does it make if you're not here to help us when that synthetic bitch comes back?!

          "Suzanne was right.  Did you know she suspected Katara all along?  I don't know how she knew, but she did.  I should have listened to her.  I should have listened to you when the nightmares started, but I wanted to believe…  I wanted to hope."

          Standing, Blackwood collected the single chair from the corner of the room and carried it back to the bed, positioning it so he could sit and rest his head on his arms, folded on the bed near Ironhorse's shoulder.  "You have to wake up, Paul.  I'm not leaving here until you do."


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


          Rachael found the scientist sleeping when she entered the small treatment room the following morning.  Not wanting to wake the man, she tip-toed to the bed and made a quick check on her patient.  There was no change that she could determine from the monitors, but she was sure some of the tension had left his face.  It was something.  Turning to leave, she stopped short when Blackwood's voice caught her.

          "How is he?"

          Rachael turned to face the man.  "I'm sorry if I woke you."

          "No, I've been sleeping too much anyway."

          "More than your usual one in five, huh?"

          Harrison smiled thinly and nodded.

          "Don't worry, he's doing about the same, which means he's not slipping further away.  No changes on the equipment, but he looks more comfortable."

          "Now what?"

          The major knew she was treading on treacherous ground.  "I'm meeting with General Wilson later this morning.  I'm going to recommend that we use a mild stimulant—"

          "More drugs?  Hasn't he had enough—?"

          "I think if we can bring him around you might be able to keep him conscious."

          Blackwood sighed.  "I'll go along, provided you're convinced it's the only way."

          "The longer we wait, the more worried I get."

          "All right then."

          "Good.  But first we need to talk, over coffee, in my office."


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


          Ironhorse paced.  He wasn't sure where he was, and halting the constant rhythm, he took a deep breath and tried to focus on what was going on.

          He'd been kidnapped by an alien.  The thought of Katara sent an instant shard of pain flashing through his mind.  She'd stolen eight hours of his life.  He wanted them back.

          He'd gone to the general and requested a radical de-briefing.  It was necessary, he'd argued, to protect the Project.  He'd reported to the medical facility, but had been taken to a small, isolated building where Dr. Cathcart was waiting.  She'd tried the standard truth drugs, hypnosis, and a few other tricks he'd been unfamiliar with, but nothing could break the block the alien had left behind, until…

          With a crashing clarity the pain and humiliation returned.  Katara probing him, forcing him to yield his knowledge, impressions, even his feelings; he had fought, but it was impossible.  He knew that, but it didn't erase the feelings of helplessness and horror.

          He'd even spoken of Harrison.  The trial with Lt. Nelson, the battle at Dr. Forrester's cabin, and what Ironhorse thought was a deathbed confession.  He'd told Blackwood that he loved him, and in turn, Harrison had revealed his feelings as well.  They had become lovers while the Colonel was still recuperating.

          That had amused Katara, if a machine can be amused.  Human emotions, strange and illogical, she'd thought, but they were vibrant with energy.  She'd taken him back through the first time he and Harrison had made love, drawing off the emotional energy before pressing him on.

          She had fed on his memories.

          He shivered.

          Something warm touched his arm, and a sound embraced him in its familiarity.  Harrison? he called, and felt the suggestion of a tug.  He followed it.


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


          Blackwood heard the increase in pitch coming from the monitors, and saw Ironhorse tremble.  Reaching out a hand, he rested it on the man's arm.  "Come on, Colonel… Paul, please. Wake up."

          The door swung open and Dr. Cathcart hurried in.  "I saw the jump on the board in my office.  He's waking up!  And without stimulants!  Yes!!"

          Harrison turned back to the soldier, Cathcart's enthusiasm contagious.  "That's it.  Fight, Colonel, open your eyes."

          Eyes moved sluggishly under the still-closed lids.  "Come on, Colonel," Rachael encouraged.  "You can do it – all by yourself.  No more half-tested drugs for you.  Come on, man, get those peepers open.  That's an order, soldier!"

          The colonel's mouth opened slightly and he moaned.

          "Paul?"  The man's eyes fluttered, but remained closed.  "That's it.  Force 'em open, Colonel."  Reaching out, Harrison gripped the man's shoulder.  "Come back to us, Paul."

          Ironhorse's breathing grew more ragged, and his head rolled from side to side, but he was fighting, trying to push past the thick grey fog that held his eyes shut.  Finally, with a focused groan, he shoved through the last of the mist, the black eyes opening to stare into Blackwood's concern-filled blue.

          "Welcome home," Harrison whispered.  "God, I missed you."

          The right side of Ironhorse's mouth twitched upward.


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


          A week later, Ironhorse stood outside the closed office door and knocked once.  "Come," issued from inside.

          Gripping the knob in a slightly quaking hand, he pushed the door open and stepped into General Wilson's Ft. Streeter office, snapping to attention and saluting.

          "Lt. Colonel Ironhorse, reporting as ordered, sir."

          "At ease, Colonel, please.  Have a seat.  You're looking better.  How do you feel?"

          "Fine, sir.  Major Cathcart has cleared me, one-hundred percent."

          "Good, good.  I'm truly sorry we had to put you through that, Paul."

          "Thank you, sir, but we both know it was necessary."

          "Yes.  And we're a jump ahead of those damned Qar'to synths, now, thanks to you."

          "I just hope it helps, General."

          An uncomfortable silence settled over the two men.  It was the General who finally cleared his throat and spoke first.  "About this resignation, Paul," he said, tapping a closed file.

"Sir, I don't think a court martial proceeding would do anything to change the regulations, but I would like an opportunity to brief my replacement before—"

          "Colonel, there isn't going to be any court martial proceeding."

          "National security.  I understand.  I appreciate that, sir.  But I'll have to insist that you accept my resignation.   My.. relationship… with Dr. Blackwood—"

          "Colonel, let me tell you a story," Wilson interrupted.  "Off the record, of course."

          "Of course, sir," Ironhorse said, his heart pounding furiously.  Why was the General hedging?  Army regulations were quite clear on the subject of homosexuality in the military.  The notion still rankled him.  Sexuality was much more complicated than the black and white pigeonholes the white man had developed.  Still, he had taken an oath, and he would stand by it.

          "I'm sure you're aware that I have a brother."

          "Yes, sir, Suzanne's father."

          "No, Suzanne's father was my half-brother.  I also have a younger brother, Michael.  All his life, Michael wanted to follow in my footsteps and make a career out of the military.  He loved to fly, and he was a damned good pilot, too."  Wilson paused, his expression becoming wistful.  "He applied to the Air Force Academy, graduated third in his class, and won an appointment to the Test Pilot's School at Edwards, where he was flying some of the most sophisticated aircraft ever designed."


          "Bear with me, Colonel."

          "I'm sorry, sir."

          "Michael had always been something of a loner… a serious young man.  But one day he met someone who... completed him, gave him a new spark inside like I'd never seen before.  I think Michael was truly happy for the first time in his life."

          "She must have been very special."

          "He was."  Ironhorse jerked slightly, his eyes widening.  "That's right, Colonel.  My brother found happiness with another man.  I'll admit that I was livid at first, but once I met Nathan, saw them together, and grew past my own fears, all that mattered was the fact that my brother was happy."

          "What happened, sir?"

          "Michael was killed when a jet he was testing for NASA crashed… thirteen years ago."

          "I'm sorry, sir.  And Nathan?"

          "Maggie and I see him from time to time.  He lives and works in Washington. But you know, I don't think I've ever see him happy since Michael's death.  He's a good man, Paul.  I count him a friend."

          "What are you trying to tell me, sir?"

          "Paul, no one but you, me, Dr. Cathcart, and Dr. Blackwood, knows what is on the tapes made while you were under the influence of the Major's experimental concoction.  As far as I'm concerned, your private life is your business – as long as it doesn't interfere with your mission."

          "The mission and my life aren't two separate issues anymore, General."

          "Precisely why I think all of this is best left our secret.  Your relationship with Harrison Blackwood is simply another piece of information on the Blackwood Project that's need to know.  And Colonel, no one needs to know."

          Ironhorse felt his throat constrict.  He'd always admired Henry Wilson – there were even times Ironhorse felt like the General thought of him as a possible protégée, or a pseudo-son of some sort, but never did he expect the man to care and understand this much.

          "Thank you, sir," was all he was able to say.

          "What all of you are doing is more than enough to make up for anything I might be able to do to keep the idiots from handing this planet over.  You're the best, Colonel.  So, why don't you get back to what you do so well – go kick some alien butt for me."  With that he shoved the file away, and smiled at the junior officer.

          Ironhorse allowed himself a small grin.  "Yes, sir."

          Standing, he gave the General a sharp salute and turned to go.  Pausing at the door, Ironhorse looked over his shoulder. "We will win this one, General."

          "I'm counting on it."  The colonel reached for the knob, Wilson halting him.  "Paul, is it true in your culture that men like yourself and Dr. Blackwood, or Michael and Nathan, were accepted and respected?"

          "Yes, sir.  It's not so… black and white."

          Wilson nodded.  "Maybe someday we'll get past all this hoopla and just let people live… and love.  It's a precious commodity, too precious to be killed by fear."

          "Yes, sir."


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


          Ironhorse sat in the high-backed chair, watching the embers of the dying fire change from orange to red.  There had been a welcome home party for him earlier that evening, complete with a special dinner and desert.  Following the meal, Mrs. Pennyworth took Debi into town to see a movie, along with a three-man Omega escort.  The four Project members had retired to the living room where the Colonel told what he remembered of the time he spent with Katara.

          Despite the fact that he left out many of the details, Suzanne and Norton could tell that the encounter, and the efforts to tear down the memory block, had cost the man more dearly than he was willing to admit.

          Blackwood had remained quiet, lost in his own memories of the tape he'd seen.

          Knowing they now had two enemies to worry about, the three civilians had wandered off to bed, leaving Ironhorse alone.


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


          Glancing at his watch, the Colonel finally stood and stretched.  It was time he gave his own thoughts a rest.


          "Harrison, what are you doing up?  I thought you'd gone to bed."

          "I did, a little over…"  He glanced at his watch.  "…two hours ago.  So, I've had my nap."

          "Well, it's time I got mine,"  Ironhorse said, surprised he'd been sitting there that long.

          Blackwood's hand rose, the fingertips coming to rest on the soldier's collarbone.  The touch was light, but even through the flannel shirt the colonel was wearing, he could feel the heat that sprang up under the Harrison's contact.

          "Colonel…  Paul, please."

          "What is it, Harrison?"

          "I have to know something."  The black eyebrows rose.  "When Katara forced you to… relive our, our first time together…  Is that what made you decide to pull away?  Was it so wrong that you—?"

          "Harrison, what are you talking about?"

          "I saw the tape, Colonel.  I know she reviewed that part of our relationship."

          "Yes, she did, but because it was so… foreign, to her.  She couldn't understand that any more than she could understand what happened with Joseph Lonetree when he called the Bear Spirit to destroy the alien warship."

          Blackwood's hand slipped up over Ironhorse's shoulder, his grip tightening.  "Then why have you pulled away from me?"

          "Pulled away?  Harrison, I haven't.  I mean, it's been so… confused.  Katara, then the nightmares, all of the alien activity.  I couldn't keep it all sorted out.  I knew I had to find out what she did to me.  But you wanted to believe her.  It was like my fear was a betrayal to you, but I couldn't force it away."

          "I know that, now, and a part of me still wants to believe her, but I can't.  Not after seeing…"

          "I never meant to hurt you, Harrison.  I was treading water out there, and just trying to keep my head above the waves."

          The raw hurting in the taller man's blue eyes galvanized the feelings he'd been pushing to the back for too long.  Reaching up with one hand, Ironhorse touched the other man's cheek, tracing along the jaw line until his fingers melted into the brown curls, his hand coming to rest on the back of the Harrison's neck.  Pulling him closer, their lips brushed in an almost chaste kiss.

          Harrison closed his eyes, and drew in a deep breath, almost afraid to hope that this one wish would be granted when all the others were shattered.  The chance that he might find some happiness burned like an unseen fire in his chest, making the simple act of breathing difficult.

          "Tell me it's all going to work.  That we can fight them both, and you'll be there beside me."

          "I can't make those kinds of promises…  But I will promise you this.  I have made my choice, and I have chosen you.  No one can take that away.  Not Katara and her mind rape, not the Army and its regulations, and not the aliens who make this planet a living hell sometimes."

          "Then we—"

          "Yes, Harrison.  I still want you, like I have since the first time I dreamed we were lovers."  He chuckled softly.  "You make a helluva beautiful stallion, by the way."

          Blackwood smiled in triumph.  It was over.  Whatever the aftershocks, they would weather them together.  The healing had begun.  The war might rage on, but tonight he would not allow himself to care.  All that mattered now was the love he felt for the man in front of him.  That love was his life preserver, and he clung to it as though his life depended on it – and in some way he couldn't explain, it did.

          Leaning forward, Blackwood gently kissed the waiting mouth, this time their passion making them both more aggressive.  When they parted, short of breath and aching for more, it was Ironhorse who groaned low.  "Let's take this upstairs, Doctor, or we might end up damned embarrassed if Suzanne or Norton decided to grab a midnight snack."

          "A midnight snack, humm?  That sounds just like what the doctor ordered.  My room or yours?"


          "Lead the way, Colonel."

          Ironhorse grinned, feeling his world fall back into balance.  "Why don't you say that when I give you orders in the field?" he asked the astrophysicist under his breath.

          "I heard that."

          "Good, now get moving, mister.  We have some catching up to do."


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


          Ironhorse woke with a start.  Taking a deep breath, he pushed himself up until he sat in the middle of the bed.  Next to him, Blackwood shifted, then opened his eyes.


          "It's all right," the soldier whispered.  "Go back to sleep."

          Concern creasing his face, the scientist pushed himself up to sit next to Ironhorse.  "Are you sure?  Is it the nightmares again?"

          "No.  Not nightmares."

          In the pale pre-dawn light Ironhorse's back and shoulders glowed a warm red-brown, and Harrison reached out to rest a hand on the bare skin.  Feeling the tautness in the muscles, he began gently rubbing across the soldier's shoulders.  "You want to talk about it?"

          Ironhorse took a deep breath, relaxing under the man's touch.  "It was a dream, but it was more like… a vision."

          "Sounds intriguing," Blackwood said, leaning forward to kiss one nude shoulder.

          Ironhorse chuckled softly.  "Doctor, I thought you wanted to hear about my dream."

          "I do," came the mumbled response, along with another light kiss.

          "Then stop that."

          It was Blackwood's turn to laugh.  "Sorry.  Please, continue."

          "I was in a desert, walking through a narrow wash.  I could hear the water coming, like a flash flood, and I knew if I didn't get the hell across I was going to get swept away.  I started to run, but then I realized that the wash was full of snakes.  Rattlesnakes."

          "That sounds like a nightmare to me."

          "Somehow they were helping me across the wash, but they were also biting me, but it didn't really hurt.  When I got to the other side, I pulled myself out just as the wash filled and started running like a river."

          "Thank goodness."

          "I was watching the water, but then parts of me began to fall away, because of the snake bites."

          "What kind of parts?" Blackwood asked, concern filing his voice.

          "They were like paper dolls, my mind, my strength, heart…"

          "Where did they go?"

          "Nowhere.  I mean, they stood up, became three dimensional, like men, and started chanting.  I looked down at myself, and I was shedding my skin, like a snake.  I had to work my way out of the old skin, and when I did, I felt… reborn.  The parts that had left came back to me and stepped back inside my body.  I was whole again."

          "Do you feel whole, Paul?"

          "Yes.  I do…"  He took a deep breath and blew it out.  "It's time I saw those tapes major Cathcart made."


          "No, Harrison.  It's all right.  Really.  I'm going to it willingly.  If I don't resist what I see, I think I can finally put this thing to rest."

          "Was that the whole dream?"

          "Not quite," Ironhorse admitted with a crooked smile.  "When I was all in myself again, I looked around and there was a fire burning.  I went to it and you were there, waiting for me."


          "You stood up, walked over to me, and put your arms around me and—"

          "Hmmm," Blackwood said, allowing an arm to slip around the colonel's shoulders.  "I think I can take it from there."

          "Psychic, Doctor?"

          "I don't know.  Let's find out."

          "Excellent idea…"

[1]  The quotes used are from, "Behold the White Horse," in Dyad #5, by Debra Hicks.