"Don't you want to check in on him?"
Harrison Blackwood stood, watching the scene before him in the reflected glare of an overcast northern California morning. He felt like he was captured in the frames of a Van Gogh rendered in film. Special Forces soldiers dashed in and out of the Kirby Hall complex. Firefighters entered and left, their smoke- smudged faces strained and serious. Military police stood evenly spaced around the perimeter, keeping back the inevitable spectators.
It was not the first time he had witnessed destruction, and, he was sure, it would be far from the last. The thought saddened him, leaving him feeling hollow and brittle. It should have been the find of a lifetime, but it had turned into a fight for survival. At least they had been lucky this time. None of them had been hurt… at least, not too badly.
Blackwood sucked in a deep breath to conceal his relief and the wave of giddiness that swept over him. He was alive. Suzanne was alive. And the medic had told him Ironhorse would be fine. The arm and hand wounds were superficial, the leg wound appeared to be near the surface. Ironhorse was already on his way to the hospital, and, Harrison chided himself, he should have ridden along with the colonel, but there was too much left to be done at Kirby Hall.
Blackwood's lips folded into a frown. Ironhorse would understand. Wouldn't he? He shook his head and walked back into the building. As much as he hated to admit it, Harrison Blackwood was actually worried about a member of the United States Army, the very same Army who had rejected his adopted father's claims that the aliens remained a threat despite being packed away in barrels and conveniently forgotten. The Army had been wrong, and Ironhorse was the perfect example.
Looking at the carnage around him, Harrison found it somewhat unsettling that he could actually be worried about a member of the military. The military-industrial complex and the people who operated within it stood against everything the astrophysicist held dear. But Ironhorse was more than an Army automaton. Somehow he'd become... human to Blackwood.
Harrison glanced around, watching the soldiers as they completed their clean-up operation, wondering if any of them could guess what it was they were dealing with – the remains of aliens from outer space, aliens who had taken over the bodies of their fellow soldiers; aliens Ironhorse had been forced to kill.
It sounded ludicrous, even to his mental ears.
Harrison had heard the count, too. Twelve deposits of the slimy green-brown goo. Twelve alien/soldiers that the colonel had destroyed. And he knew that another nine were lost in the explosions in the faults. So many innocent lives lost in so short a time.
As he walked around, side-stepping to keep out of the way, he pondered what the colonel must have felt as he fired on what looked to be perfectly human soldiers. And what if General Masters had been above ground? Could Ironhorse have killed him, too? They seemed to be friends, or at least close acquaintances… what had he felt? Harrison wondered. Did he feel anything? Was he just doing his job? What had last night cost the colonel?
Blackwood took a second deep breath. He didn't know. He still didn't know or understand the soldier well enough to even make a guess.
And if Ironhorse had been killed? Harrison asked himself. What would that have cost me? The world?
The depressing line of thought was taking him nowhere. He shoved his hands into his pockets and picked a direction. The next stop was the vaults. He had to see if anything had survived the explosion and fire. There had been so much…
No, he told himself sternly. He couldn't dwell on what he'd lost. The work of Clayton Forrester's lifetime…
Suzanne joined him near the elevator, her face grim. "The fire's out of control down there," she told him. "They're not sure when, or if, they can actually get through to the first floor."
"Great," Blackwood said, shaking his head. "All that information, the artifacts, lost."
The microbiologist nodded. "At least they didn't get it either," she said quietly. "One of the soldiers is establishing a modem link to Norton for us in some truck outside. Some of the vaults might not have been on the first floor. I thought we might be able to locate the others before they're threatened by the fire. I heard someone say it was climbing the elevator shaft and breaking out on some of the other lower floors."
She fell silent as one of the soldiers approached them. "Sir. Ma'am. I'm afraid you're going to have to clear the area. They're bringing in some heavy firefighting equipment."
Blackwood nodded. "Who's in command of this operation?"
"Major Waxler, sir. You can contact him through the acting base commander, Colonel Nethers, or see if he's at the communications truck outside. The colonel will be in command until General Masters is located."
Harrison thanked the soldier, wishing he didn't know that General Masters had been lost to the aliens. They would find that out soon enough, although he was sure the story would be stated in very different language.
Leaving Kirby Hall, the scientists headed for the olive drab communications truck parked outside.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Sliding behind the wheel of the black Ford Bronco, Harrison inserted the key into the ignition, but didn't turn it over. Suzanne watched the man from the corner of her eye as she pulled the seatbelt over and snapped it into place.
"What?" she finally prompted when it appeared he intended to just sit there.
"I've waited all this time to find that material, Suzanne. And now it's gone. All of it, buried as far down as the Army could put it. God only knows what we lost in there."
Reaching out to pat Harrison on the shoulder, she offered what consolation she could. "I know, but it's too late to dwell on it now. We have to move on. Maybe there are other sites, or duplicates in other vaults. I can't believe the Army didn't do everything in triplicate."
"But look how long it took us to find this site. If there are others, it could be months, years, before we locate them."
"Then we'll just have to try harder."
Blackwood nodded, but remained defeated. Hunching forward slightly he started the Bronco. "Let's go see what the doctors have to say about the colonel."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Checking his watch as they entered the hospital, Blackwood was surprised to find that four hours had passed. Where had the time gone? Granted, they'd waited to see if the firefighters were able to get the blaze under control. They couldn't. It now looked like they'd have to wait for the blaze to burn itself out and hope the whole complex wasn't destroyed.
Suzanne left Harrison in the waiting room while she wandered off to talk to someone on the staff. When she returned the smile she wore helped buoy Blackwood's sagging spirits.
"Well, at least there's some good news in all this," she told him. "The doctor said that the colonel's going to be fine. They were flesh wounds, as they say. He'll be stiff and sore for a few days, but should heal with no lasting side-effects."
"And the leg?"
Suzanne nodded. "Better than the medic thought. It wasn't as deep. The doctor said it was probably a ricochet. No damage to the bone or tendons. The muscle damage should be taken care of with some physical therapy. No limp."
Blackwood sighed with relief. "Glad to hear it. When will he be released?"
"They'll keep him for forty-eight hours, then make a determination, but the doctor said that he thought the colonel could be discharged then, provided he remained on, and I quote, 'light duty' for the next three weeks."
"What does that mean?"
"I haven't a clue, but I suggest we find out before he gets back to the Cottage."
Blackwood nodded, suddenly feeling very tired. "I need a nap, but I want to get back to the vaults," he said. "Can you drive?"
Suzanne accepted the proffered Bronco keys. "Don't you want to check in on him?"
"He's probably resting," Harrison reasoned. "We'll see him tomorrow, when we have something to tell him."
"Okay," Suzanne said, but it nagged at her all the way back to Kirby Hall.
Once Harrison was occupied on the phone with Norton she told the major she was headed back to the hospital and left.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Suzanne pushed the door to Ironhorse's room open as quietly as she could. He slept, his head rolled to one side, strewing black hair across his forehead. She smiled to herself. He looked much younger, more innocent than she was used to.
Sliding into a chair she leaned back and relaxed for the first time in hours. It took her slightly by surprise that she suddenly felt safe again.
Just sitting in the same room with Paul and she was secure… amazing, she mused. She'd spent a good deal of her life fighting the military – teenage rebellion, marrying Cash, her refusal to allow her research to be used as a weapon of war…
In that one way she and Harrison were a great deal alike. They'd both developed a rather jaundiced view of the military. She had Uncle Hank to balance her views, but she'd never expected to actually like Lieutenant Colonel Paul Ironhorse.
She studied the soldier's face, calm and peaceful in sleep. Under all that right-wing bluster there was an intelligent, sensitive man. So, why did he do it? she asked herself. Why live up to all of our expectations?
Because it's easier than letting us in and dealing with the pain if we get hurt or killed…
He cares about us. The realization reverberated through her like the echo of cymbals, leaving her feeling warm and cheered.
Standing, she slipped out to get a cup of coffee and check on Harrison's progress via a call to Norton. That done, she returned to Ironhorse's room. Was he awake?
"Hmm?" he mumbled, blinking.
She stepped into the room, saying, "Sorry, did I wake you?"
He shook his head.
He looked… relieved? Why? she wondered, searching for something to say. "I just wanted to check and see if you were okay. The doctor said everything's fine."
"I guessed," he replied.
I'll bet you did, she replied silently. Given some of the scars she'd seen glimpses of, Paul Ironhorse was no stranger to pain or injury.
"He said you have to stay here tomorrow, but then you should be able to go back to the Cottage," she reassured. At least, she hoped it was reassuring – after her ambulance comment, she wasn't sure if he'd be positively disposed to her, Blackwood or the Project as a whole.
He nodded. "The vaults?"
She slid back into the chair. "Still burning. Harrison's there now. Norton had some possible leads on more material, but they haven't been able to locate it." She mentally crossed her fingers in preparation of a white lie. "He told me to tell you he's glad you were there."
Well, Harrison probably was glad, on some level, and she wanted, needed to make sure Paul understood that they did appreciate the risks he'd taken for them.
She took a deep breath and added quietly, "So am I."
Suzanne watched the soldier's mask fall firmly into place.
"Just doing my job, Doctor," was his reply.
"I know," she said, standing and walking to his bedside. "But, I'm still glad." Reaching out, she rested her hand lightly on Paul's shoulder and squeezed. "Get some sleep. We'll see you in the morning."
Without waiting for a reply, and before he saw her blush, Suzanne turned and left, but she was sure she'd seen just the hint of a smile on his lips. Safely in the hall, she allowed herself to smile. Maybe she'd been a little too quick to judge Paul Ironhorse.