"Debra, it's not polite to pry."
Ironhorse opened the old book, turning the pages slowly, looking for the reference that had been nagging him since they'd arrived at the Cottage earlier in the day. He stopped occasionally to re-read the myths of his people, wondering what it would have been like to confront a Utkena or Utluhtu. Would it have been any more frightening than facing beings from another world?
But where was the reference to the man with the bowl over his head?
The colonel stopped, tapping the quill of the eagle feather book-marker against a page. It wasn't in the book.
He smiled, remembering the story his grandfather had told him when he was a young boy.
The colonel reached over and added a log to the dying blaze in the fireplace. The flames leapt up, eager to consume the fresh log, chasing red-orange shadows across the living room walls. He sighed, relaxing in the warmth and quiet. He could hear the crickets outside. The safe house was comfortable, but he wondered how much use the living room would get.
After dinner each member of the newly constituted Blackwood Project had returned to the spaces they were carving out as their own. Suzanne headed back to her bio-lab, Norton to his Cray. Mrs. Pennyworth was in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher with Mr. Kensington's help. Debi was in her room, unpacking and watching TV, and Blackwood was in his office – doing whatever it was Blackwood did.
The colonel had already been at government safe house #348 for nearly a month, supervising the installation of additional security and the new computer and elevator system. The civilians, however, had just moved in that morning, too soon to appreciate the comfort and companionship that would be available in the cheery room, if they decided to use it.
A vague sense of loneliness washed over the colonel. While he would not trade this assignment for anything the Army had to offer, he missed the activity and camaraderie he'd left behind. He was participating in the most important war ever waged, and he was alone. The civilians had made it clear that they intended only to tolerate his presence.
Well, he thought, that's okay. I'm not here to win any popularity contests.
Standing, he left the suddenly empty room, carrying the book back to his office and sliding it back into place on one of the many bookshelves. Then, unwilling to spend the evening sitting at a desk, he grabbed his hand-woven Indian blanket, pulled a leather-bound journal from his desk, and returned to the living room.
He dropped the blanket in front of the fire, and sat. Opening the journal, he started to write, but noticed the eagle feather bookmark and picked it up, twirling it through his fingers. I'll put it back later, he decided, and began noting down his impressions of the day and his new charges.
He hadn't gotten far before footsteps interrupted. Glancing over his shoulder, the soldier nodded to Mr. Kensington as the older man entered and took a seat on the couch.
"I see you like a good fire, Colonel."
Ironhorse nodded. "Everything secure in the kitchen?"
Kensington grinned. "Will be… now that Greta's chased me out."
Both men chuckled.
"Debi?" Suzanne called as she walked in. "Have you seen my daughter?"
The small blonde galloped into the living room, bouncing down on the end of the couch. "I'm right here, Mom."
"You left this in the lab," Suzanne told her, handing over an issue of a popular teen magazine.
"Thanks, Mom," Debi said, her face lighting up. "I was looking for this. It's got a cool article on Def Lepard in it."
"I trust you found the lab adequate?" Ironhorse asked, wondering why Debi would be interested in a cat that couldn't hear.
Suzanne walked over and collapsed into one of the wing-back chairs, Debi springing out of her seat and playfully taking up residence in her lap.
"It's fine, Colonel. I'm just having a difficult time deciding where to start."
"My mother used to tell us…" Norton said, rolling in on the end of Suzanne's comment, "…when you don't know where you're going, be sure you know where you're starting from." He grinned and the microbiologist shook her head. "I'm almost finished loading programs. Maybe we can try some searches tomorrow."
"Definitely tomorrow," Suzanne said and yawned.
"What's going on tomorrow?" Blackwood strode into the room, clapping Norton on the back before flopping onto the couch.
"Suzanne and I are going to tiptoe through the micro-chips," Drake replied.
The gathering fell silent, and after a few uncomfortable moments, Debi pointed to the marker Ironhorse was once again twirling through his fingers.
"It's an eagle feather, Debi," he explained. "I was using it as a bookmark, and it slipped out."
"What kind of book?"
"Debra, it's not polite to pry," Suzanne chided.
"That's all right, Doctor. It was a book of Native American legends, Debi."
"Wow," she breathed, her imagination captured by the man seated in front of the fire. The firelight heightened the bronze shade of his skin, and the blackness of his hair, and she could easily imagine him racing across the wilderness on a wild mustang. "You mean stories about the Indians?"
A small and brief smile passed over his lips, and he noticed Blackwood settling back to wait for his answer. The civilian head of the Blackwood Project thought Ironhorse was nothing but a mechanical toy soldier. Maybe it would be a good idea to dispel that myth right now. Besides, he could see a potential friend in the girl, and he wasn't about to waste the opportunity.
"Yes, but it's more stories about the world, told by the Indians."
Casting a furtive sideways glance at her mother, Debi asked, "Will you tell me one?"
"I'd be happy to," the colonel interrupted. "Now, let me see… my great-great-grandfather was shaman of our tribe…"
"What's a shaman?"