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Close Quarters Drill

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"Sometimes heroes are better off dead."

 

Monday – 0830

January 17, 1992

The Cottage

 

          Norton Drake watched an explosion of transmissions erupt across his monitor.  His gaze flickered to the digital clock sitting nearby.  8:30 a.m.  This was not how he wanted to start a Monday morning.

          "This could be bad," he muttered, remembering the prophetic warning from the video he, Debi, and Ironhorse had watched the night before.  He reached for the phone.

          Upstairs, Paul Ironhorse pushed past the unhappy astrophysicist blocking the door to his office, trying to avoid a confrontation with Blackwood about how fast he was returning to full, active duty[1]  It wasn't like he hadn't been cleared.  He had.  Blackwood just had a different concept about how long a "recovery" should last.

          A soft jingle and two lines on Ironhorse's phone lit up, sparing him the impending argument.  He grabbed the receiver, punching the line to the basement.

          "Ironhorse," he said, ignoring the irritated glower Harrison fixed on him.

          "Colonel, we've got trouble," Norton replied.  "A burst of transmissions coming from a location somewhere near Elko, Nevada."

          "I'll be down as soon as I can, Norton.  I have another call."  Reaching out, he poked the second line.  "Ironhorse," he repeated.

          "Colonel, there's been an incident," his present commander, Brigadier General Henry J. Wilson, said crisply.  "How soon can you and your people be ready to move?"

          Ironhorse stiffened and his gaze met Blackwood's briefly, the annoyance in the man's expression was gone, replaced by expectation.  "We're ready now, sir."

          "Good.  Bring the entire Project.  I'll explain when you get here."

          "Sir, we have alien activity–"

          "So do I, Colonel.  Instructions will be waiting for you at Fort Streeter. I need you here, Paul – now."

          "Yes, sir."  Ironhorse hung up, his jaw muscles twitching.  Meeting Blackwood's concerned gaze, he shook his head; there was no time for explanations, and he only wish he had one to keep from the man.  He punched the comm-line to the coach house.

          "Coleman," the squad's platoon sergeant replied.

          "Aliens, Sergeant.  Everyone with full packs in five minutes."

          "Yes, sir."

          "Where to?" Harrison asked, shadowing Ironhorse after he hung up and headed for the door.

          Not breaking stride, Ironhorse stated over his shoulder, "We won't know until we get there, Doctor."

 

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

 

Monday - 0835

 

          The Omega-A soldiers made the short trip to Ft. Streeter in silence, each member of the elite Special Forces unit spending the time in preparation for battle, going over weapons and supplies with the redundancy that had, so far, kept them alive.

          Behind the troop truck, Norton's green van followed closely, Ironhorse echoing the same motions as his troops.

          Drake drove in silence, his usual lighthearted banter silenced by the tense expression on Paul's face.  Harrison and Suzanne watched the officer's usual preparations and exchanged frightened glances.  Whatever this was, it wasn't usual.  They had never been called out like this before.  Whatever was going on, they weren't going to like it.

 

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

 

Monday - 0905

 

          The Pave Low III choppers waited for them on the Fort Streeter flight pad, along with the remaining Omega Team personnel stationed at the base. Ironhorse gestured for the soldiers to board, hanging back to ensure that the civilian members of the Blackwood Project made it onto the helicopters safely.

          That done, Paul climbed in and pulled a harness free.  Clicking it in place, he settled back to wait.

 

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

 

Monday – 1055

Near Elko, Nevada

 

          The stark alkali desert revealed few details to identify the location as a government installation, but to Ironhorse's trained eye they were inescapable.  Given that he hadn't heard about the site, he knew it must have a classification above "Top Secret."

          What the hell's going on? he wondered as the choppers wagged into a line and landed, sending up a cloud of white-tan powder that immediately snuck into ears and noses as the doors were opened.

          A young army captain greeted them as the project members debarked. The Omegans fell into ranks just beyond the landing area, their gear resting in the dust next to them.

          The captain saluted.  "Colonel Ironhorse, if you and your people would follow me?  And please don't stray.  The security  has clearance to shoot to kill."

          Paul returned the salute and nodded, leaning forward and jogging out from under the windwash of the chopper blades.  "I understand," he told the captain.  They stopped at the edge of the landing pad, the captain waiting impatiently, his gaze shifting nervously from the emerging civilians to the troops.

          Ironhorse squinted against the dust, but it was useless.  He couldn't tell a damned thing about the situation from external appearances.  The facility must be underground.

          Blackwood and Suzanne walked quickly out from under the slowly turning rotors, and Ironhorse motioned them over.  Norton watched them go, sitting in the hatchway, waiting while his wheelchair was unloaded.  Two of the soldiers placed him back in the driver's seat, and after a smile of thanks he rolled over to join the rest.

          "Where's General Wilson?" Ironhorse asked.

          "He's waiting for you in C&C, sir."  The captain turned and headed off, keeping to the paved areas.

          "C&C?" Harrison asked as they followed the agitated officer.

          "Command and control," Ironhorse replied, his expression growing stiffer.  If they needed a C&C, all hell must have broke lose.  He whistled and motioned to Coleman.

          She hurried over, falling into step beside him.

          "Set a perimeter and a staging area, Sergeant.  Then sweep the personnel for infiltration.  I want A and B teams ready to move immediately.  Once we take over security, I'll call on the radio."

          "Yes, sir," she said, veering off and jogging back to the assembled troops, barking orders.

 

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

 

          "Colonel… Doctor… Mr. Drake," General Wilson greeted them as they entered a small but high-tech control center.

          Ironhorse's gaze dropped to his RD-heat sensor, then swept expertly over the room.  Consoles full of electronic equipment left the room looking like the cockpit of the space shuttle, but the dials, switches, and monitors gave nothing away concerning the exact nature of the location.

          Wilson stepped up to give his niece a hug.  "Suzanne… I'm sorry I had to call you out here.  How's Debi?"

          The microbiologist stepped back.  "Fine.  She wanted to know how long we'd be gone, but I didn't have an answer for her."

          The General looked uncomfortable.  "I'm afraid I don't either, Suzanne."

          "Sounds like trouble," Harrison ventured, doing his own reconnaissance of the room.

          Wilson nodded.  "Follow me.  Dr. Chappick can explain."

          The foursome trailed the General out of the control room, down a short, bare hall and into a small but modern fifty-seat lecture hall. They took front row seats in the plush auditorium chairs.

          A woman stood behind an oak podium, shuffling through a stack of papers.  She looked up, acknowledging them with a brief smile before going back to her papers.  In her mid-thirties, she reminded Harrison of Katya with her angular Eastern European features and rich mahogany hair.  But where Katya's hair was short, Dr. Chappick's fell in thick waves over her shoulders, and there was another, more striking difference.  Dr. Chappick's eyes were an unusual shade of amber, almost gold.  It was a very fetching picture, all in all, and he wondered if she was married.

          She righted the papers and looked up, clearing her throat.  "I am sorry we had to bring you here," she said, her accent confirming Harrison's suspicions.  "We have a very delicate, and dangerous, situation."  She glanced at General Wilson.

          "You can speak freely, Doctor," he assured her.  "These people have been leading the fight against the aliens."

          Looking relieved, she continued, ignoring the surprised expressions the proclamation sparked.  They must not know that she and her people were doing alien research as well; it wasn't something to be chatted about casually.  "This is the Largo Research Facility.  Three days ago representatives from several industrialized nations arrived here to discuss the implications surrounding the increasing number of mutant bacteria and viruses being discovered in Third World countries.  This facility is hosting a meeting of scientists, diplomats, and military leaders, each committed to understanding the dangers and doing whatever necessary to assure that these plagues do not visit their own countries."

          She stepped around the podium and leaned against the table it rested on.  "This facility is the most advanced laboratory in the United States for the study of bacteriological and viral agents.  It houses stores of these agents, and the laboratories where they are tested and studied."  Her gaze dropped to the plush green carpet.  "Yesterday this facility was compromised."

          "The aliens?" Harrison asked quietly.

          She nodded.  "We had no way of knowing that there was an alien danger.  We had no security in place.  We believe that three to ten of the delegates or on-site staff were, ah, you call it… possessed.  The aliens have barricaded themselves and the delegates in the main research wing and threatened to kill them if we interfere with their activity."

          "Which has been?" Ironhorse questioned.

          "At first they were simply accessing the computers—"

          "What sort of access do they have to the bacteriological and viral agents?" Suzanne asked, fear strangling her voice.

          Dr. Chappick drew a deep breath.  "From their present location they have complete access.  They can use the data, the researchers, the agents themselves.  Everything."

          Ironhorse swore softly under his breath.  "Do we have schematics for the facility, and information on the security?"

          Wilson nodded.  "It's waiting for you in an office."

          "I'll need a list of everyone who's inside," Paul said.  "The visitors, staff, technicians, everyone."

          "It's being compiled now," Wilson acknowledged.  "Fort Hawkins is on emergency standby to evacuate this location if things get… out of hand."

          "I'll need some extra equipment," Ironhorse told his commander.  "We aren't prepared to infiltrate a high security location."

          "Whatever you need, Colonel.  It'll be here within the hour.  You're in command."

          Ironhorse stood, then checked his watch.  "All right, people.  I want everyone back here in an hour for a briefing."

          The Blackwood Project members and Dr. Chappick nodded.

          Ironhorse pulled his radio free of its holder and keyed it.  "Red Two, this is Red Six.  We're in charge.  Repeat, we're in charge of facility security. Start the sweeps and get these people out of here."

          "Roger, Red Six," was Coleman's reply.

          "Paul, is there anything we can do?" Suzanne asked.

          He headed out, stopping to consider the question.  His hands coming up to rest on his hips, he suggested, "Brainstorm what the aliens are doing here.  I want worse case scenarios."  A second round of somber nods.  "Let's move, people."

 

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

 

Monday - 1200

 

          An hour later the group re-assembled in the lecture hall, the three Omega Squad sergeants in attendance as well.  Ironhorse stood behind the podium, his fingers wrapped tightly around the edges.  "Listen up, people."

          The room fell silent.

          "At 0800, three days ago, a delegation of sixty people was escorted into this facility and locked in with twenty-one staffers.  At 0830 the staff failed to check in, and several unauthorized transmissions were sent."  He nodded at Norton.  "Those were the same transmissions Mr. Drake monitored this morning.  We can be reasonably sure that the aliens are holding the delegates and staff hostage, but for what purpose we can only guess.

          "Internal monitors registered eighty-one individuals in the facility as of fifteen minutes ago.  They're separated into nine static groups of eight individuals each, with nine others scattered and moving randomly throughout the facility."

          "It's a good bet that the scattered nine are the aliens," Harrison said.

          Ironhorse nodded his agreement.  "The video monitoring equipment was disabled at 0915 this morning, so we have no idea what they're doing."

          Ironhorse motioned to Dr. Chappick, who stood and moved to take his place at the podium.  "Three of the storage vaults were opened twenty-five minutes ago.  Dr. Tanka is presently distributing a list of the agents stored in those vaults.  As you can see, they are highly toxic.  There have been no leaks, or the facility's failsafe mechanisms would have engaged.  However, the internal monitors do register slightly elevated radiation levels."

          She stepped around the table and sat down.

          "What kind of security are we lookin' at, Colonel?" Derriman asked as Ironhorse took back the podium.

          "This is an above top secret, Level-7, NBC containment and research facility," Paul answered.  "And we don't know if the aliens have access to any weapons."

          Norton leaned forward in his wheelchair.  "Do the internal monitors measure for trace elements?"

          Dr. Chappick turned in her seat to look at the hacker.  "Yes, they do… or, they can."

          "I might be able to write a program that would tell us if the aliens have guns – based on increased level of metals and oils.  Maybe."

          "It's worth a try," Ironhorse said.  "Do it."

          "What's the game plan, sir?" Coleman prompted.

          A small feral leer shot across his features.  "We're going to earn our pay, Sergeant.  According to the schematics, this facility was designed to withstand a nuclear blast twenty to fifty miles distant.  Notification of an impending attack from NORAD will kick off a series of failsafe routines that cannot be overridden from inside the facility."

          The hacker grinned.  "We're going to play War Games, Colonel?"

          The briefest smile crossed the angular red-bronze face.  "Something like that.  The President has already warned the Russians and our allies that NORAD will light up like a Christmas tree for fifteen seconds.  Once the 'under attack' message is sent, things here will move quickly."

          He nodded to Goodson, who turned on a waiting slide projector and dimmed the lights.  The image that filled the screen behind the podium was a schematic of the facility.  It rested on what looked like a large version of an auto mechanic's hydraulic lift.

          "With notification from NORAD, this facility will drop approximately 250 feet below its present position in seven minutes."

          "Drop?" Suzanne asked.

          "It's resting on a hydraulic system.  It'll drop into a natural dry cave," Paul explained.

          "That is why this location was chosen," Dr. Chappick added.  "In case of an attack, or a breach of containment, the facility could be dropped into the cave and sealed off to ensure no escape of the agents into the surrounding environment."

          "Concrete and steel doors will close on top of the facility, effectively trapping it inside the cave complex."

          "How does that help us?" Harrison asked.

          "It was assumed that the facility would still be manned after the relocation," Ironhorse said.  "There are three escape routes leading back to the surface."  He moved to pace in front of the podium.  "Ideally, Omega and I will breach the escape routes and wait for the facility to reach the cave complex.  If the aliens try to escape, we'll have them.  That's providing we can breach the outside hatches."

          "And if the aliens don't try to leave?" Norton asked.

          "Then we'll have to go in and get them," the Colonel said.  "Once the facility is relocated the internal security will be automatically disabled for an hour to ensure that the people inside can escape.  Failsafe systems will still be operational, but they'll only activate if there's a leak.  In the case of a nuclear attack, everyone in the facility would evacuate to an underground bunker, but that's already been sealed off."

          He looked up at the group, black eyes hard.  "There is one catch."

          "Why did I know that was coming?" Suzanne asked.

          "Exactly one hour after relocation the facility will begin an automatic shutdown.  One hour and ten minutes after the relocation the facility will be automatically neutralized."

          "There's that word again," Norton mumbled.

          Harrison pulled off his glasses and leaned forward.  "Could you elaborate on that, Colonel?"

          Dr. Chappick spoke up.  "Seventy minutes after the facility reaches the cave complex, it will be flooded with a combination of lethal radiation, chemicals, and super-heated steam to sterilize it.  If we were to take a direct hit from a nuclear bomb, there was too great a chance that agents here would be released.  This would ensure that could not happen."

          "Let the researchers and the information out, then kill the danger," Harrison translated.  "And there's no way to stop that?"

          "None," the doctor said.

          "We can't get into the facility here, but once it's in the cave we'll have seventy minutes to get in, get the delegates, and get out," Ironhorse said.  "We'll have to assume that the aliens will be waiting for us.  They're not going to miss the relocation."

          "Colonel?" Corporal Stein interrupted, stepping into the room.  "The aliens, sir.  They're on the phone."

          Ironhorse's eyebrows arched.

          "They want to talk to Dr. Chappick," the soldier finished.

          The Colonel motioned to the woman and they left the room, the project members and Wilson trailing.

          Entering the control center, Ironhorse led the way to the communication's console.  Peterson glanced up, his hand cupped firmly over the handset receiver.  "They want to talk to Dr. Chappick, sir."

          Ironhorse stuck out his hand and Peterson handed him the phone without hesitation.  Omega and the colonel rarely did what the aliens wanted.

          "This is Lieutenant Colonel Paul Ironhorse, United States Army."

          There was a brief hesitation.  "We wish to speak to Dr. Natalia Chappick."

          "I'm afraid that won't be possible," Ironhorse replied, motioning to Peterson to put them on the speaker.  The soldier complied.

          "If you do not allow us to speak to Dr. Chappick, we will terminate a hostage."

          "I am here," she spoke up, ignoring Ironhorse's angry glare.  "What do you want?"

          "We require nine TAS-D transportation units.  Immediately."

          "What are those?" Paul asked quietly.

          "Storage containers for the most active biological agents."

          He shook his head.

          "We— We do not have that many containers on-site.  I can—"

          "Do not lie, Dr. Chappick.  You will leave the nine units in Lab 7 within thirty minutes or one of the delegates will die."

          Ironhorse's teeth ground momentarily.  He nodded sharply.

          "They will be there," she said.  "Please, do not harm the delegates."

          "If you want the units, you'll have to give us something in exchange," Ironhorse told the alien.  "Nine of the delegates for the containers.  A one for one trade."

          A second pause, longer than the first, and they could hear the guttural clicks and slurs of the alien's native tongue.  "Two of the delegates will be freed.  No more."

          The line returned to a steady dial tone and Peterson hung up.

          "It's a start," Wilson said somberly.  "Our priority is to stop the aliens. Second to rescue the hostages."

 

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

 

Monday - 1250

 

          Tobias and Garlan moved steadily down the sterile off-white hallway toward Lab 7.  Behind them Oranack followed, pushing a wheeled cart bearing the requested containers.  The soldiers stopped short of the door, Tobias keying his lip mike.

          "Red One to Red Leader.  We're at Lab 7.  No contact."

          "Roger, Red One," Ironhorse replied.  "If the delegates aren't there, destroy the containers and pull back."

          "Yes, sir."

          Garlan moved to the door, risking a quick glance through the glass inset and into the room beyond.  "Red One to Red Leader.  We have two women, bound and gagged, sitting on stools in the center of the room.  No sign of traps or the aliens, and the RD is steady."

          "Roger.  Proceed with caution."

          "Proceeding.  Red One, out."

          Garlan motioned Tobias and Oranack closer, still keeping a close watch on the room and the hall.  Palming a flash-bang grenade, he reached out and inserted the magnetic key Dr. Chappick had provided into the waiting slot.  The numeric code warbled and the magnetic lock clicked off.  He pushed the door open and the three entered, still sweeping for traps.

          "Red One to Red Leader.  We're in.  Looks good."

          Tobias moved to the two women, cutting them free while Oranack wheeled the cart in and left it in the center of the lab.  They quickly escorted the women back into the hall, closing the door behind them.

          "Red Leader, we have them."

          "Get the hell out of there," Ironhorse's voice ordered over the mike.

          "Yes, sir."

          The three soldiers back-tracked to the first decontamination airlock.  Stepping inside, all five were surprised when the doors whisked shut and locked, the lights shifting from a cheery yellow-orange to a glaring red.  An alarm blared.

          "Red Leader, what's going on, sir?" Garlan asked.

 

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

 

Monday - 1305

 

          "What the hell is that?" Ironhorse demanded.

          Dr. Chappick and the decon technician huddled over a monitor, talking quietly and flipping switches and dials.

          "Doctor," the Colonel growled.

          Chappick straightened, her face a rigid mask of professionalism.  "They've been exposed."

          A chill froze Ironhorse's back into a stiff rod.  "Exposed? To what?"

          "We are working on that right now, Colonel."

          Ironhorse paced off several steps, then swung back to face the woman.  "I thought any release of these agents would activate the internal security?  What happened?"

          "It would," the technician interrupted.  "This wasn't an airborne exposure.  I don't know how—"

          Dr. Chappick bent over the keyboard, tapping across the keys.  "The agents must have been in solution."

          "There, on the UV scan," the technician said, tapping the monitor.  "It looks like the aliens suspended the agent in DMSO and painted the delegates' clothes.  I can't get an identification of the agent."

          The technician fell silent as the screams began.

 

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

 

Monday - 1325

 

          Blackwood knocked once, then stepped into the small office Wilson had commandeered for Ironhorse.  "Colonel?" he said softly.

          Ironhorse looked up from a blueprint of the facility.  "Something?"

          "Nothing," he replied.  "I just wanted to say— to tell you how sorry I am about what happened."

          Paul nodded, the two men lapsing into uncomfortable silence broken by Coleman's arrival a moment later.  "Sir, we've checked and double-checked the three exit routes and there's no way to override the security and open them from the outside."

          "Damn it," the Colonel hissed.  "Can Mr. Drake reprogram—?"

          "No, I can't," Norton interrupted, rolling into the doorway.  "There's just no way to do it.  The whole function of the escape routes is to allow people inside to get out.  The system designers figured that anyone trying get in from outside had to be terrorists, or Russians, or some kind of a bad guy.  They've got watchdogs set up in the programs to keep people like me out.  If I trip one it'll trigger an automatic intruder shutdown and the escape routes will close.  We won't be able to get them opened for… days.  I might be able to bypass the security, but it'll take who knows how long."

          Ironhorse reached up and squeezed the bridge of his nose.  "We'll have to be inside when the relocation's triggered."

          "But, sir," Coleman said hesitantly.  "If they've booby-trapped the facility with the bio agents—"

          "I know, Sergeant."  He looked at Norton.  "Get Dr. Chappick.  I have a few questions for her."

          "Right," the hacker replied, rolling out of the line of fire.

          "Coleman, I want the team ready to move in thirty minutes."

          "Yes, sir."  She took a step back, turned and hurried out of the room.

          "Paul, you can't be serious," Harrison argued.  "You can't go in there with the aliens in control of those kinds of—"

          "We don't have a choice.  We have to be inside when the facility drops, or we won't be able to stop the aliens at all."

          "Why can't you just wait for them to emerge and stop them there?"

          Eyes hard as cold obsidian locked on Blackwood's blue.  "Because, Doctor, if they get outside we'll have no way to stop them from releasing whatever the hell they want to before we mow them down."

 

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

 

Monday - 1335

 

          "It cannot be done, Colonel."  Dr. Chappick swung her chair to track Ironhorse while he paced in her office.

          "You have the suits."

          "Yes, but not enough for all of your men.  Regular chemical defense suits are not sufficient.  You will have to use the suits we have here, and this is all we have available. If there is a release, these suits are all that will protect you."

          "Colonel," Norton called, rolling into the doorway.  Given the expression on Ironhorse's face he wasn't sure he wanted to report his latest bit of news, but he had no choice.  "I'm pretty sure the aliens have weapons."

          Ironhorse stopped.  "Type?"

          Drake shrugged.  "I'm not sure, but I'd guess guns and plastique."

          "Great," Ironhorse muttered, his gaze dropping to the floor.  Looking back to Dr. Chappick, he asked, "How many suits do you have?"

          "Twenty-seven, but that means that each suit will only have enough oxygen to sustain an hour of average use."

          "We'll only have seventy minutes anyway, Doctor."

 

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

 

Monday - 1355

 

          Standing behind the podium, Ironhorse surveyed the packed room.  "Listen up," he said and the Omegans fell silent.  "We're still dealing with nine groups of hostages.  We have suits for twenty-seven."

          There was some uncomfortable shifting in the seats.  None of the soldiers wanted to be left behind.

          "Suits are gonna slow us down, Colonel," Derriman stated.

          "I realize that, Sergeant, but the aliens have already shown that they're willing to use the agents as weapons."  He looked the soldiers over, wondering how many of them would survive the coming fight.  "Mr. Drake also believes they're armed with guns and plastique."

          "Better and better," someone mumbled.

          "At 1415 NORAD will receive notification of a nuclear launch from North Korea.  The facility here will begin its descent.  We'll have seven minutes to enter the complex.  At 1422 we'll be at the bottom and sealed in. Nine of you will locate and secure the three escape routes.  The remaining eighteen will locate and release the delegates, working in two-man teams and taking out any aliens you encounter.  The facility is deceptive.  There are labs inside labs, so the room by room clearing is going to have   to be done very carefully.  We have a maximum of sixty-nine minutes.  After that we won't be coming out.  Questions?"

          "What security will be left intact after the relocation?" Coleman asked.

          "Only internal sensors that monitor for any leaks of the agents.  The door locks will all be open.  We'll seal the doors after each sweep with a failsafe key.  The aliens shouldn't be able to override those.  However, if they release any agents, the complex will automatically begin a shutdown from the point of release out.  If that happens while you're in a section, and you haven't been exposed, you'll have fifteen minutes to reach a decontamination chamber at one of the three escape portals and get into the tunnels."

          "What about a repeat of what happened to Garlan and the others?" Stavrakos asked.

          "The suits should protect us from all agents, biological and chemical.  If the suits are exposed, they can be sterilized and removed in the first decon lock.  You move through the second lock for release.  But there are no guarantees the aliens won't try something we can't plan for."

          "Why didn't the earlier exposure set off the alarms?" Coleman asked.

          Ironhorse motioned to Dr. Chappick, who sat next to the podium.  "The monitors were designed to register mistakes made by researchers.  Accidental releases, spills and the like.  The general system isn't set up to detect agents in solution, since they would never leave the work stations in that form.  Specialized areas are programmed differently, like the decon chambers and some of the research stations.  Those areas can detect the agents in solution.  If you are exposed, the alarms in these sensitive areas will seal you in."

          "If one of the escape routes is shut down due to an exposure, you'll have to move to the next closest and exit there.  Here are the assignments," Ironhorse said.  "I want everybody ready to go at 1405."  He handed the printout to Coleman.  "Dismissed, people."

 

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

 

Monday - 1405

 

          The twenty-six soldiers accompanying Ironhorse into the facility stood waiting in their suits, equipment ready.  The Colonel looked them over, noting their serious expressions.  It was going to be tight.

          Outside, eighteen Omegans guarded the choppers that waited to evacuate the above-ground facility, while three nine-man squads covered each escape route exit,  just in case.  The remaining nine soldiers were stationed in the above-ground facility for security and to help with the evacuation.  It was thin coverage, but it was the best he could do.

          "Colonel," Norton said, rolling up.  "I found a way past the last escape route lock, but that's as far as I can go without risking a shutdown."

          "We can breach the outermost doors?"

          Norton nodded.

          "Do it."  Ironhorse switched the lip mike on.  "Derriman, Mr. Drake can get you past the first set of outside doors.  Put a demo team in the tunnels and get them ready to blow.  If the aliens get through, blow the exits.  Understood?"

          "Roger, will do, Colonel," Derriman replied, but the strained clip of his voice told Ironhorse he didn't like it.

          Paul turned to Stavrakos.  "Sergeant, be sure the people here are out twenty minutes before the neutralization deadline."

          "Yes, sir."

          "All right, men, this is it."

          "Colonel, wait!"

          Ironhorse's finger lifted off the mike button.  "General, we—"

          "The aliens are on the line again," Suzanne explained, jogging behind Wilson.

          "Come with me," Wilson ordered, turning and starting back for the control room.  "The shadow launch is on hold."

          Paul fell into step beside him, keying the mike.  "This is Ironhorse.  The mission is on standby.  Repeat, standby, all teams stand down.  Acknowledge."

          "Roger, stand down," Derriman replied.

          "Roger, stand down," Alvarez said from his position guarding the choppers.

          "Roger," Stavrakos and Coleman echoed in the hallway.

          "The aliens are threatening to kill the hostages and reveal their presence to the population if we don't let them go," the General stated flatly. "The President is adamant.  They cannot be allowed to leave with any of the agents."

          "How the hell do they plan to reveal their presence?" Ironhorse asked as they stepped into the C&C.

          "They're trying to bypass the facility computers and get an outside line," Norton said, his fingers flying over a keyboard.  "I guess they're gonna call CNN."

          "Can they do that?"

          "If Norton can't stop them," Harrison said, the dull tone telling Ironhorse more than he wanted to know about the odds of their success.

          An alien-tainted human voice reverberated over the speaker phone.  "Cease your interference, humans, or we will kill those we hold."

          "What do you want?" Dr. Chappick asked, her tone nearing desperation.

          "We require samples of several of the agents you have stored here.  You will allow us to leave with these agents or we will kill the hostages and reveal ourselves to your population.  We will create panic across the planet."

          "I don't think so," Ironhorse growled.

          "If you continue to block our efforts, we will kill the delegates."

          Ironhorse and Wilson exchanged a brief glance.  "You will not be given access to the outside world, and you're not leaving with any of the agents."

          "Then the delegates will die."

          "Then they will die," Ironhorse said flatly.

          The line went dead, and Paul sank back against the workstation.

          "I have to go talk to some diplomats," Wilson said quietly.  "The repercussions are going to be messy, but we have no choice.  They cannot be allowed to leave."

          The Colonel nodded, but was kept from responding when a high pitched squeal sounded.  "What's that?" he demanded.

          "Internal alarm.  There's been a lab leak," one technician supplied.  "Checking for cause."

          "We just lost life signs for one room of six," a second voice added.  "Two sets are moving."

          "Security in Lab 12 is falling into place, we're getting a shutdown in area three, section three."

          Ironhorse bolted for the door.  "General, call in the strike, now," he directed, exiting at a run.

          Wilson grabbed the phone.  "General Track, Wilson, implement Shadow Attack now.  Authorization code three-one-oscar-tango-seven."

          "Will the facility relocate with the internal security activated?" Harrison asked Chappick.

          The doctor shook her head distractedly, leaning over a technician's shoulder and typing.  "I am not sure.  This scenario was never considered.  At least it is just one lab, not a general shutdown—"

          A technician cut in.  "We lost communications in section three."

          "More of the groups are moving," another commented.

          "Section three is sealed.  I'm not registering any leakage in the rest of area three."

 

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

 

Monday - 1420

 

          Ironhorse stepped into the chemical defense suit, Goodson and Stein sealing it up.  The medic tore strips of duct tape free from a roll, reinforcing the seals at the Colonel's wrists and ankles.

          Paul buckled on his utility pack and web belt, then accepted an Uzi from Coleman as another facility alarm sounded, the lights shifting to blue.

          "That's the shadow launch.  Let's go."

          The twenty-six man unit fell in, following Ironhorse through the first decon locks and into the facility.  The floor vibrated violently for a moment, tossing the soldiers into the walls.  They clung to the vertical surface until the shaking leveled off to a steady quake.  The supports pulled free, the lift kicked in, dropping them slowly into the cave.

          Two-man teams broke off as the unit moved down the main hall, each pair heading for their assigned destinations, while the three-man security teams moved out to secure the escape locks.

          It was a go.  Now all they had to do was find the delegates, neutralize the aliens, and get out before time ran out on all of them.

 

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

 

Monday - 1422

 

          "We're in trouble."

          Harrison and Suzanne swung away from the main monitor board and moved to Norton's workstation.

          "What's going on?" the microbiologist asked.

          Norton ignored the question, his fingers banging across the keyboard.

          A series of groans and exclamations sounded from the technicians across the room.

          With an exasperated hiss, Drake slapped the keys and leaned back in Gertrude, his hands coming up to cup the crown of his skull.  "Damn, damn, damn!"

          "What?"  Harrison's voice had a no-nonsense edge that seemed to get through to the hacker.

          "We're blown out of the water."

          "Why?" Suzanne asked, ready to strangle Norton if she didn't get an answer pronto.

          "When the aliens released the agents, the computer started an automatic shutdown of area three, section three.  That basically locks that section of the facility up inside out.  When the relocation order came in, it kicked off a program in the computer that unlocks the facility, including area three, section three, outside in."

          "And when the programs met in the middle?" Harrison asked, already guessing the answer.

          "They're incompatible commands.  The computer can't do both, but it has to do both.  It froze up.  Dead."

          "Can you bypass it?" Suzanne asked.

          Norton shook his head.  "It's dead.  But it triggered a feedback loop that's affecting all the areas and sections.  We're losing communication."

          "You mean we can't monitor what's going on in there?" Harrison asked, already turning and starting out of the room.

          "Harrison!" Suzanne called, dashing after him.  "Where do you think you're going?"

          "Inside."

          "Are you crazy?" she asked, grabbing his arm and forcing him to a stop.  "We don't have suits.  This stuff makes the Y-Fever—"

          Stavrakos stepped up.  "Sir, I can't let you—"

          "You can use the transportation team's suits," Dr. Chappick said, walking up to join them with her arms full.

          "Where—?"

          "They just arrived.  Part of the relocation protocol.  They pick up the survivors coming out," she explained.  "I thought the Colonel could use the additional suits."

          "Dr. Blackwood," Stavrakos growled.

          "There's no time, Sergeant," Harrison said, he and Suzanne already stepping into the protective clothing.

          "Timmons!" Stavrakos bellowed.

          The model-faced blond soldier scrambled forward and took the third suit, climbing into it as quickly as he could.  Dr. Chappick sealed the three suits and started the oxygen flow.

          "Here," Norton said, rolling up and holding out a radio, a mobile phone, and a laptop.  "Plug into the main computer from the communication center and patch me in.  Maybe I can do something from the inside."

          "You got it," Harrison said.

          "Hurry.  You have two minutes before they reach the bottom.  There is an entrance lock on the top of the facility.  You'll have to use that," Dr. Chappick said.

 

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

 

          Ironhorse moved forward slowly, his gaze sweeping the long hallway.  The structure still vibrated and hummed as it made its way to the cave floor, but the motion was little hindrance to the soldiers.  He glanced at his watch; three minutes before the relocation was complete.  He checked the NBC-meter hanging on his belt.  No nuclear, biological or chemical agents in the atmosphere – so far.

          He listened to the mike chatter, mentally monitoring the teams as they moved in on their targets.  Alien resistance was non-existent, but he knew their luck couldn't hold forever; Mr. Murphy would see to that.

          It was too easy.  His teeth ground.

          "Team three.  Target area empty.  Repeat empty."

          "Roger Three, join up with Four at their location," the Colonel ordered.

          "Roger.  Three out."

          "Colonel?"

          Ironhorse paused, sliding against the wall as he reached the door to Lab 3.  "Norton?"  He leaned forward, checking the room.  Empty.

          "The computer's dead, locked up.  We're relying on radio contact to monitor activity until you reach the bottom, then we'll lose contact.  Harrison and Suzanne are bringing in a—"

          "No!" he snapped, moving with Stein into the lab for a more thorough check.  "Keep them out of here."

          "It's too late, Paul, they're already in."

          "How?"

          "A surface lock on the top of the facility.  It opens into the main lock you used."

          "Damn it!" he growled, moving out of Lab 3 and re-locking it with the failsafe key. At least the aliens couldn't get back inside a lab once one of the soldiers checked it.

          "Team Three, report to the entry.  Find Blackwood and McCullough."

          "Yes, sir," Coleman said.  "Team Three out."

          "They have an escort," Norton told him.  "Timmons is with them."

          "One might not be enough, Mr. Drake."

 

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

 

          Suzanne swallowed hard and forced herself to follow Harrison and Timmons, rappelling down to the surface of the facility as it continued its descent to the bottom of the cave.  Thankful that the Omegan had reminded her not to look down, she dropped the remaining three feet and landed on the unsteady surface.

          She stood as the facility locked into place, jerking and upsetting her balance.  Stepping out to steady herself, Suzanne felt her foot slide over the curved surface of a pipe.  Her ankle gave way, and she gasped.

          Timmons was beside her, helping her up and unhooking the rope.  A sharp grinding above them made her flinch.  The cap was coming down to seal them in…

          She hated caves, hated any place that was too closed in.

          "Come on," Harrison said, grabbing her arm and helping her hop to the hatchway that opened down into the main decon airlock.  He inserted a key and waited while the hydraulic door slowly slid open.

          Timmons entered first, then signaled an all clear and gestured for them to enter. Suzanne hobbled down the steps and past the door, Harrison on her heels.  The threesome jumped when the door closed with a snap, sounding like a steel trap springing shut.

          "We're locked in," she said, looking nervously around the room and trying to get control over the rapidly growing panic that clawed in her chest.

          "It's okay, we have to go this way anyway," Harrison said, stepping forward to key in the release code.

          They stepped into the decon chamber, then out into the main hallway of the facility, Timmons leading the way.

          "Hold it!"

          The three stood perfectly still while Coleman and Matthews moved up to take a radiation and heat sensor readings.

          "Where's Ironhorse?" Blackwood asked.

          "Moving in on his target.  We have orders to hold you here, Doctor."

          "I have to get to the main computer lab," he argued.  "We've lost connection with the computer top-side.  Norton thinks he can override it if I can get him logged in from down here."

          Coleman chewed her bottom lip, then keyed her mike.  "Team Three, we have the baggage," she said, ignoring the expressions the scientists leveled on her.  "Colonel, Dr. Blackwood says he needs to get to the computer facility.  They're blind up-top."

          "Roger," Ironhorse replied.  "Take them in, but keep them there."

          "Roger.  Team Three, out."  Pulling her copy of the facility map out of her utility pouch, Coleman located the room.  "Okay, stay close and quiet.  Let's go."

          Suzanne took one step and stopped, the pain shooting up her leg making her pale.  "Sprained," she breathed.  "Sorry."

          Timmons and Matthews moved to either side and lifted her, carrying her down the hall.  Coleman glanced at Blackwood, almost asking him to carry one of the Uzi's, but it would be useless.  She ordered Matthews to trade places with the astrophysicist.  The more guns available, the better.

 

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

 

          The Colonel shook his head as he thought about the scientists' impulsive move into the facility, then sighed in resignation.  Maybe Blackwood could help.  With Norton blind, they had no way of knowing where the hostages were for certain, or what the aliens were doing about getting that outside line.  Not to mention what biological surprises they might be planning.

          It didn't affect his plans.  He and the Omegans would start with the original hostage locations, then work their way out, conducting a room by room sweep until they found them, alive or dead.

          Ironhorse checked his watch.  At this rate they'd be pushing the seventy minute limit when the sweep was completed.  If Norton could tell them where to go, it would give them back some valuable time.

          He started to pull out of an empty lab, Stein shadowing him, but a thin seam in the wall caught Paul's attention.  He froze.

          Stein stepped up next to him.  "Colonel?"

          Ironhorse pointed.  They moved forward, examining the seam and finding a door set flush into the wall.  Just like the other internal labs.  Specialized rooms for high containment work… there was no way to know what was waiting for them behind the door.

          "Looks clean," Stein said, running a detonator detector along the thin seam of the door.  "It's a pressure release lock.  Do we open it?"

          Ironhorse nodded.  Stein pressed the locking mechanism and the door hissed as the lock disengaged and the open.  Inside, eight bound and gagged delegates were crowded into a Ultraviolet lab station.  Given their panicked expressions and frantic grunting, the room was booby-trapped.

          Ironhorse and Stein swung back, pressing up against the wall on either side of the door.  Double-checking the opening turned up nothing.

          "Ready?" Ironhorse asked and received a nod from Stein.  "On three.  One… two… three."

          They slid into the room, Stein going low while Ironhorse went high.  Their weapons ready, they scanned the interior for traps and aliens.  Nothing.

          Stein moved into the room, while Ironhorse headed for the delegates, sweeping them with the bio-agent detector and RD-heat sensor.  Negative.

          But something was wrong, Ironhorse could feel it, a persistent prickling along the back of his neck, and an ache in the scar across his lower back.

          "Colonel!" Stein called as both their RD's crackled.

          The two men dropped into a crouch, sweeping the room for the alien or aliens.

          "Nothing," Stein said over the mike.

          "This is Ironhorse, we have contact." 

          His gaze moved over the delegates, up the walls, over the ceiling, and down under the lab benches.  Nothing.  Where the hell was the damned thing?

          There was a low, frightened groan from one of the delegates, and a grenade slipped from an exhausted, cramping hand.  It hit the floor and bounced once.

          "Cover!" the Colonel called, leaving Stein to watch for the aliens while he lunged, scooping the grenade up and flinging it out of the small room and into the main lab.  Rolling away from the door, he caught sight of two men in lab uniforms at the main entrance to the laboratory.  Aliens, and they were armed.

          Paul's arms came up to protect his face as the grenade exploded, the concussion slamming them into equipment and walls.

          "In the hall!" Ironhorse snapped.

          Both soldiers scrambled to the door as a burst of gunfire tore into the room, embedding the far wall.  Stein fired, the burst from the Uzi catching the alien across the chest.  He fell back against the wall, body dissolving.

          The delegates pressed themselves to the floor, another man grunting frantically as he felt the armed grenade the aliens had forced into his palm begin to slip out of his sweat-damp grip. Ironhorse heard the muffled but panicked cry and dove back toward the hostages, a shot catching him in the back of the thigh.  He fell forward with a grunt.

          Paul scrambled forward on his elbows and grabbed the grenade as it dropped out of the man's trembling hand.  Rolling onto his back, he yelled, "Stein, down!"

          The corporal dropped to his belly, still firing at the remaining alien as the Colonel tossed the grenade over his head and into the lab.  A flash of panic hit the younger man.  There was no way he could get to cover.

          Ironhorse threw, then jack-knifed up and lunged for Stein's feet, grabbing his ankles and jerking him back into the room.  A searing spike of agony embedded itself in his thigh, and he groaned as Stein curled around.

          The grenade rolled up against the toe of the second alien's shoe, then exploded.

          Stein was moving before the blast, reaching into his utility pack, pulling a dressing free.  He pressed it down on Ironhorse's wound and tied it down as tight as he could.  The blast rocked the room a second time.

          Ironhorse struggled to his feet, Uzi covering the door and hostages and tested his leg.  It was painful, but held his weight.  Stein freed the hostages, finding another grenade.  Breaking off a wire-tipped instrument, he inserted it in place of the pin and pocketed the grenade.  That done, they led the delegates out of the blasted room and into the hallway.

          "Team five, report," Ironhorse said into the lip mike as the delegates expressed their quiet, but heartfelt thanks to the two men.

          "Roger, Team Five here, sir."

          "Targets?"

          "No contact, sir."

          "Pick up our targets and report to lock three."

          "Roger," Peterson replied.

          Stein pointed.  "Sir, your suit's compromised.  You should get to an escape lock."

          "Too late to worry about it now, Corporal."  He checked his RD as the two Omegans rounded the corner.

          Stein reached into his utility pack and pulled out a small roll of duct tape, sealing the tear in the Colonel's suit the best he could, praying silently it would be enough.

 

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

 

Monday - 1440

 

          Ironhorse watched Peterson and Fayette lead the scientists away.  Eight down and sixty-four to go…

          "Team Seven, have targets, moving to lock two."

          "Roger, Seven," Ironhorse said as he and Stein returned to the room to room sweep.  The wound slowed him down, but at least he was still on his feet.

          He and Stein progressed steadily down the hallway, moving in and out of the rooms with practiced ease, checking and locking them as they went.  Where the hell were the rest of the delegates?  Were they already dead?  His leg cramped, and he fought back a curse.

          Four more teams reported in.  They'd located more of the delegates.  That left two groups of hostages unaccounted for, and two teams still searching, his and Team Two… and no further alien contact.

          What were they waiting for?  The numbers were turning to the aliens' advantage, if there were nine aliens…  What if the two they'd destroyed were the only two?

          No, couldn't count on that.  Too easy.  Mr. Murphy didn't like easy.

 

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

 

          Harrison stalked into the computer room and headed for a clear spot on the counter.  Suzanne set up the modem while Blackwood opened and booted up the laptop.  They linked the two, then dialed Norton.

          "Back on line," Blackwood breathed, sinking down on a stool in front of the computer.  The contamination suit was hot and uncomfortable, but he couldn't risk pulling it off.  He wondered how the soldiers could work in them.  He knew he couldn't.  He glanced at Suzanne.  She was still hurting, but it was the panic in her eyes that worried him.  She was claustrophobic and the suit wasn't helping.

          "Hi, Doc, how's it going?"

          "Don't know, Norton," was Harrison's tense reply.

          "Okay, hang tight," Drake replied, his voice slipping into Jamaican sing-song.  "Let's see if I can work a little magic on this machine… no problem, mon… a little voodoo will do the trick."

 

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

 

Monday - 1455

 

          "Team Two.  We have contact, section four, grid eight.  Repeat under attack, four-eight, small arms."

          Ironhorse finished the room sweep, his mind racing.  Team Two, Franklin and Marcus… the same area Blackwood and Suzanne, two sections away – he and Stein were minutes away.

          "Team Three, send one to reinforce Two, over."

          "Roger," Coleman replied instantly.  "Sending one."

          He motioned for Stein to close the distance and they moved steadily down the hallway – still sweeping rooms – toward the firefight.  Dull metallic pings said the aliens were holding their position.  They were thirty, maybe forty-five seconds away… just to the end of the hall and turn, the aliens might not even know about Blackwood and McCullough entering the facility.

          "Colonel," Stein said.  "Hostages."

          Paul eased back, joining the corporal.  Behind a glass door marked Lab 31 nine men sat on the floor, their uniforms labeling them among the contingent of foreign generals.

          Stein checked the door, while Ironhorse swept the hallways.  The corporal cursed softly when he found a thin wire filament attached to the locking mechanism.

          The Colonel shifted.  More gunfire, closer to the intersection.  He glanced back at Stein.  "I'll take care of this.  Join up with Three and get rid of those aliens."

          Stein pulled the trip wire up where it could be cut, nodded, and was gone.

          Ironhorse turned his attention to disarming the booby trap, his gaze flickering up regularly to check the hall for aliens.  His leg throbbed, and he blinked off the sweat running down his forehead and catching in his eyelashes.

          The muffled sound of the firefight continued.

          "This is Two.  Looks like we have six bogies here, repeat six."

          Stein's voice filtered over the mike.  "Backup on the way, Two.  Coming at you through the back door."

          That left one alien unaccounted for, Ironhorse realized.  One alien, two groups of hostages – it was a good bet that there were more aliens than they had first surmised… probably.

          Disarming the door, he reached to open it, but movement out of the corner of his eye and the sudden crackle on his RD triggered an immediate response.  The Uzi snapped up and Ironhorse raked the hallway, the approaching alien falling into a bubbling heap.

          "This is Six.  I have contact.  One bogie down.  One down."

          "Roger, one, Six," Stein acknowledged.  "Two, I'm at the door."

          Slipping into the Lab, Ironhorse checked the delegates, then cut the first man free.  The RD crackled occasionally, and he scanned the men's faces.  It was impossible to tell if it was one of the officers or the remains in the hall that had the device registering on and off.

          The freed British general scrambled to his feet.  "There's a bomb, Colonel," he announced, pointing.  "We have to—"

          Ironhorse handed the man his battle baton and moved to the device.  A TAS-D canister wired with plastique.  "Great," he mumbled.

          Gritting his teeth, Paul knelt down next to the bomb and started his investigation.

          "Colonel, this is Stein.  Three bogies neutralized.  Marcus is down," the corporal reported over the comm-link.

          "This is Six.  I have a live bang," Ironhorse replied into the lip mike.  "Stein, report to Coleman.  Matthews, Franklin, move Marcus to the surface. Route one."

          "Roger," the voices chorused.

          That done, his eyes refocused on the device.  The wiring was… wrong… twisted… distorted.  He blinked and the images returned to a more sane perspective.  However, the arrangement of colored wires was different from anything Ironhorse had seen, except—

          He fished into his utility pouch and removed needle-nosed pliers and a pair of thin wire-cutters.  His hand rose to push the sweat off his forehead, but met the hard plastic of the suit visor.  He puffed in frustration.  He was losing blood.  Getting shocky.  It was starting to tell.  This was no time to lose it.

          Using the pointed tips of the pliers he carefully moved several of the wires, trying to decipher the mechanism the aliens had used.  No mercury device – probably not a motion switch, just a timer…  Timer… on the nuke there was—

          "There it is," he said softly.

          "They're all free, Colonel," the Brit reported, squatting down next to Ironhorse.  "I don't recognize it," he whispered, staring at the device.  "They seem to handle things… differently."

          "Sir, if you'd take the Uzi and get everyone into the hall and close the door, I'll have—"

          "I believe I'll stay, Colonel," the general replied, staring at the bloody dressing on the back of Ironhorse's leg.  He handed the Uzi up to his Russian counterpart.

          "We will keep the aliens away, on that you can count, Colonel," the burly, gray-haired man said, then herded the others out, drawing the door shut behind him.

          Ironhorse handed the wire cutters to the Brit.  "I'm a little shaky, you'll have to cut."

          "Right-o."  The response rang with false bravado, but the man accepted the cutters.

          "Colonel Paul Ironhorse," Paul said as he worked, rearranging the wires, teasing the third green filament forward.

          Like the nuclear device he and Katya had disarmed, the weapon included several wires that he couldn't identify, but also like the nuke, the third green one seemed to be the key connecting the tangled knot to the timer.

          "General George Andrew Twiselton."

          "If you'd cut that green one, sir," Ironhorse said, blinking the sweat out of his eyes again.

          "You're sure?"

          "If I'm wrong you'll be one of the first to know, sir."

          Twiselton sucked in a deep breath and snipped the wire.  The timer stopped and Ironhorse took the clippers back, dropping them and the pliers into his pouch.

          A burst from the Uzi sent him hobbling to the door, his M9 drawn.  The seven officers pressed up against the far wall, the Russian general firing around the corner.  They were under attack.  Probably the three the others missed.

          "This is Six, we have contact, unknown number."

          A woosh-clang spurred Ironhorse before he could think.  The overhead vent swung open above them, squeaking loudly.  A grenade dropped into the room.

          Paul lunged, his shoulder catching Twiselton mid-back and forcing the general against the wall as the device exploded with a deafening blast and blinding flash.  Ironhorse stumbled into the wall, his injured leg giving way.  Twisting as he fell, Paul fired blindly in the direction of the overhead opening. A dull thud told him he'd found his target a second before beakers and glassware on a lab bench exploded along with a second grenade, showering the two men with glass and chemicals.

          The Colonel curled, his arms instinctively coming up to cover his face.  The plastic visor shattered, and the world dissolved into a sickening smear of colors.  He felt himself pitching into the blackness and fought frantically, mentally clawing his way back from the lip of unconsciousness.

          He felt Twiselton helping him up, holding him on his feet, asking him something, but his ears rang too loud to make out the words.  With difficulty he forced his eyes open, finding the world a gray and twisted parody of reality.  Reaching up tentatively, Ironhorse gently reached through the broken mask and touched his face around his eyes.  No blood… no shards… must be flash blindness.

          "Nice shot, Colonel."

          More gunfire sounded loud outside.  Ironhorse keyed the mike.  "This is Six, second bogey down."  There should only be one left.

          He waited.  Nothing.  The comm-unit was damaged.  "What's going on in the hall?"

          Twiselton stepped to the door.  "They're all there.  Yuri's holding someone back. There's an injury, Azad – he must have caught some glass from the blast.  General Gruber is helping him."  There was an embarrassed pause.  "And I'm afraid I've wrenched a knee."

          Ironhorse took a deep breath and called up a mental map of the facility.  They were about equal-distance from the first and second escape locks… the remaining alien or aliens was between them and Team Three and the civilians.  He couldn't leave Blackwood and Suzanne behind; they were too important to the project.

          His fingers fumbled over the comm-unit, revealing the problem.  Reattaching the plug that led from his mike to the power unit, he tried again. "This is Six, one bogey down."

          "Roger Six, this is Three.  Sir, everyone is at the escape locks except us, and we still have the baggage.  All hostages minus nine located.  Stein is on his way to you."

          "Roger.  I have the last group.  Stay there, we'll meet you."

          "Affirmative.  Three in the roost."

          "Okay, let's go," Ironhorse said, moving for the door.

          "But, Colonel," Twiselton objected.  "You can't see."

          "I know the facility layout, General.  Just follow me and keep me from bouncing off the walls.  We have to pick up three more, and then we're out of here."

          The two men stepped into the hall as the Russian general bellowed a string of obscenities in his native tongue.  Ironhorse recognized enough Russian to know that three of the officers had rabbited.  He could hear the German still working on the Egyptian.

          "Damn it," Paul hissed.  The RD was going off because there were aliens in the room.  The count was back up to three, at least, and all of them had access to the knowledge of highly trained military men.  Damn, damn, damn!

          Holding out his hand, he felt Twiselton return the Uzi.

          "Break off," Ironhorse commanded the Russian.  "Follow me and stay tight."  Over his shoulder, he added to Twiselton, "And don't forget the walls, sir."

 

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

 

Monday - 1515

 

          Stein met them halfway between the lab and the computer room.  Ironhorse turned point over to the corporal, allowing him to lead them back to where Coleman waited with Blackwood and Suzanne.

          At least the world was slowly coming into focus, Paul thought.  But it was going to take a while before things were back to their usual clarity.

          Ironhorse's RD crackled and he bellowed, "Down!"

          The remaining generals dropped.  Stein and the Colonel opened fire, nicking a white-coated man who had slipped into the hall.  The resulting burst of alien-speak told them they'd been right.

          "Twiselton," Paul said, and the general joined him.  He handed the man back the Uzi.  "Stay here."

          Moving down the hall, he and Stein slipped around the corner, only to be confronted by a half-decomposed alien still standing in the hall.  In his good hand the invader clutched a TAS-D container.

          "You all die, human," he said, frothy spittle dribbling over his lips.

          The M9 sprang up and Ironhorse fired.  A split-second later Stein's shot hit.  The alien fell, dead before it had a chance to react.

          "Come on," Ironhorse said.  "Let's get the fuck out of Dodge."

          They turned and nearly ran into Twiselton and Yuriskov.  "I've never seen anyone react that fast, Colonel," the Brit said, giving Ironhorse a shaky smile.  "Amazing."

          "You haven't seen the Spetsnaz," the Russian countered.  He nodded to Paul.  "But it was still damned impressive."

          Twiselton grinned.  "Yes.  Quite impressive… for a blind man."

          His head and leg throbbing too much to appreciate the compliment, Ironhorse staggered back to where the other generals waited.  "Let's go, people."

 

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

 

Monday - 1520

 

          "Paul?" Suzanne gasped, hobbling over to examine Ironhorse's puffy face as he limped into the computer room.

          "Flash/bang grenade," he explained.  "I'll be fine, just a little fuzzy around the edges."  He turned to Coleman.  "Is everyone out?"

          "The last teams are just clearing the external locks, sir," she said, then checked the chronometer on her suit.  "We have less than forty minutes before neutralization."

          A blaring siren sounded, causing Ironhorse to jump.  He keyed the second comm-line.  "Norton?"

          "Looks like a leak in area two, Colonel," Drake explained over the mike.

          Harrison and Suzanne both looked at the broken face visor on the Colonel's suit. "Paul, your—"

          "I know, Harrison.  Right now we have to worry about the wounded."

          "I'm afraid I can't move too quickly either," Suzanne said.  "I sprained an ankle."

          A second alarm sounded.

          "We're picking up leaks in areas five and three.  That's three in failsafe.  Route two is shutting down," Norton reported over the comm-link.  "Colonel, I think they're trying to block the escape routes.  You've gotta move!"

          "Coleman, Matthews, take Blackwood and the non-wounded.  Head for route three.  Stein, you're with me, we'll go for one.  Move, people!"

          "Colonel—"

          "There's no time to argue, Harrison.  Go!"

          The two Omegans gathered their party and headed out, leaving Stein, Suzanne, Azad, and Twiselton with Ironhorse.

          The Colonel squinted through the constant tearing at the fuzzy outlines of the people in the room.  "Stein, I want you at the rear, General Twiselton, if you'd stay with Suzanne in the middle.  General Azad, with me.  If you see something, sing out and drop."

 

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

 

Monday - 1523

 

          Ironhorse stopped as he listened to Coleman and Matthews engage one of the aliens in its officer host.

          "Stein, cut through section seven and come up behind them."

          "Yes, sir," the corporal said, heading off.

          Five minutes later the invader was dispatched.  "Two more Bogies down," Coleman stated.

          "I'm on the way back," Stein said.

          "Negative, Stein," Ironhorse interrupted.  "Leave with Two."

          "Sir—"

          "No argument."

          "Yes, sir."

          Team Two and their group moved on, reaching their escape lock and passing through without further incident.  Ironhorse let the small sigh he'd been holding go.  That just left the four of them.

          Escape route two was shut down.  Coleman would close three once they were past the first lock.  Three of the four sections leading to route one were already locked down due to leaks.  They were in the last open section, moving in on the last escape route.  It was now or never, they had ten minutes, and one alien was still on the loose.

          Things could be worse.

          Of course, they could be a whole lot better, too.

          The distant blare of a siren told him Coleman and the others were on their way out.  One less thing to worry about.

          He turned a corner, blinking to clear his vision enough to verify that it was the main hall leading into the facility.  Escape route one fed off that hall near the first decon-airlock.

          "There!" Azad yelled.

          Twiselton grabbed Suzanne, shoving her to the floor.

          Ironhorse sprayed the hall, forcing the last alien back, but not before it returned fire, driving the Colonel up against the wall.  It was a stand-off.

          "Into the lock!" Paul yelled, stumbling forward to hit the door release.  That done, he moved back down the hall, laying down cover fire.

          The three stumbled into the decon chamber, their injuries slowing but not stopping them.  Ironhorse fired a final burst and headed back to them, sliding along the wall for extra support.

          "Come on, Paul!" Suzanne called.

          A small block of C-4 landed in the center of the hallway.

          "Get down!" Ironhorse bellowed, turning and charging for the open door.

          He dove, somersaulting into the small room and colliding back-first with the far wall.  Twiselton hit the release button and the door slid shut, giving them some protection from the explosion, but the concussion still shook them like dice in a cup.

          The two generals helped Ironhorse to his feet, Paul gasping as he felt a new pain shoot through his shoulder.  He'd pulled or torn something.

          "Paul!"

          Ignoring the officer's helping hands, he scrambled back to the door to join Suzanne.  One of the TAS-D canisters rolled around the corner, a fine gray fog hissing from one end into the hallway beyond the closed door.  The lights shifted to red, the alarms screamed.

          While they watched, a heavy metal plate dropped in front of the escape route door.

          "We're trapped," Twiselton panted.  "That's blocked our escape."

          "Maybe not," Suzanne said, craning her neck to examine the ceiling.  "Harrison and I came in through an overhead lock before we got to this one… there," she said, pointing to a set of stairs descending from the ceiling in the small room beyond the decon-chamber.

          Ironhorse moved to the far door and keyed in the code.  The door slid open and they entered the second lock.  After sealing the door behind them, he climbed the stairs and tried the trap door.  It refused to budge.

          Suzanne struggled out of her suit.

          "I think the explosion torqued a hinge," Ironhorse panted, positioning his back and shoulder against the door and pressing again.  He could feel the muscles tearing in his shoulder, but kept up the pressure, forcing it open halfway.

          "Suzanne," he called airily.

          She scrambled up the ladder and wiggled through.  Azad and Twiselton followed her, helping force the portal open further.  Ironhorse was the last.  As he stood, the door creaked and fell back into place.  Without the light from the hallway, the roof of the facility plunged into total darkness.

          Removing the strong but small flashlight from his web belt, Ironhorse conducted a 360 degree reconnaissance of the flat roof.  There was no obvious way off, but there had to be; the builders would have had a way down if nothing else.

          "Spread out.  Feel for stair rungs," he directed.

          Bending over, Ironhorse braced his hands above his knees and tried to catch his breath, thankful that the darkness hid his condition from the others.  He wasn't going to make it too much longer.

          Good thing they didn't have too much longer.

 

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

 

Monday - 1530

 

          "I have it!" Twiselton called, his voice excited, but weak.

          Ironhorse swung the flashlight around to locate the British general.  Holding the light on him so the others could make their way over, Ironhorse waited until they were all crowded around a ladder mounted to the outside of the building.

          "Looks terribly steep," the Brit sighed, trying to keep his weight off the injured knee.

          The building vibrated and shuttered.  "What's that?" Suzanne asked.

          "The building's being neutralized," Ironhorse said.  "General Twiselton, if you'd go down first."

          "Right-o.  I'll take the plunge."

          Stepping to the ladder, he carefully maneuvered around and stepped down to the first rung.  Ironhorse held the beam on the steps as the man made his way down.  It was obvious his knee made the going difficult, but Twiselton moved steadily down to the floor of the cave.  About thirty feet, Paul guessed.

          "General Azad?"

          The Egyptian stepped forward.  One of the man's shoulders was bloody, and one calf was streaked as well.  "Allah help me," he said softly as he stepped over the side and down to the first rung.

          "I'm sure he will, sir," Ironhorse said softly.  "Hook your good arm around the rail, it'll give you extra support if you lose your grip."

          "I will do that, Colonel."

          When Azad reached the bottom, Paul turned to Suzanne.  "You ready?"

          She sucked in a deep breath.  "I think so."

          "You'll be fine.  Don't look down.  Use your toes and feel for the steps. We're not that far up."

          "Says you."

          Ironhorse gave her a reassuring smile.  "I'm sure the generals will catch you if you slip."

          She made a face.  "Thanks.  It's not the height, it's the… closed… dark places."

          "Not much longer, Suzanne.  You're doing great."

          "Thanks."

          Edging to the ladder, she white-knuckled the rails and stepped down, her eyes clinching shut.  "It's actually a really big cave, isn't it?"

          "Huge."

          She took a deep breath, held it, and stepped gingerly down to the next rung.  "Yep, it's a huge, airy, spacious cave…"

          While Suzanne made her way down, Ironhorse held the flashlight in his teeth and struggled out of the worthless protection suit.  That would give him a little more maneuverability.

          But there was no way he could hold onto the rail and the flashlight.

          "General?"

          "Yes?" two voices chorused.

          "I'm going to drop the flashlight down.  I'd appreciate it if someone would catch it."

          "Right-o."

          Leaning over the edge, Paul let it drop.

          "Got it," Twiselton said, turning the beam so it illuminated the ladder.

          Slipping the utility pouch and web belt back on, Ironhorse ground his teeth together and stepped off the roof of the facility, silently praying his leg wouldn't give out on the way down.  It was numb from mid-calf down, but from knee to hip it burned hot as a gasoline fire, forcing the sweat out of him.  His shoulder throbbed painfully in counterpoint, and he still couldn't see very well.  All in all, it was not a pretty picture.

          And where the hell was that last alien?

          Reaching the bottom, he felt Suzanne's hands helping to steady him as he swayed dangerously.

          "Suzanne, there's another dressing in my utility pouch.  If you could—"

          "I'll get it," she said.  Fishing in the pouch turned up the thick bandage and she quickly tied it onto his bleeding leg.  "You're losing a lot of blood, Paul."

          "Now we find the escape route," he replied, ignoring the comment.

          "And get the hell out of Dodge?" Twiselton finished.

          Ironhorse grinned.  "Yes, sir."

          Azad nodded.  "I like this plan."

          The four started around the facility, each moving slowly with painful determination.

 

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

 

Monday - 1540

 

          Harrison and the others stumbled out of the tunnel into the afternoon sun.  He looked at his watch.  Thirteen minutes to get out of the tunnels.  The facility began neutralization at 3:30.

          Around Blackwood soldiers scanned them with radiation and heat sensors while others kept them covered with the small but deadly Uzis.

          He drew in a deep breath.  It felt very good to be out of the long, narrow passage.  He might not have Suzanne's problems with claustrophobia, but closed, dark places weren't his favorite hangouts either.

          General Wilson stalked across the desert to join him.  "Doctor, are you all right?"

          "Fine.  Are Paul and Suzanne out?"

          "Not yet," Wilson replied.

          A distant rumble echoed from under the ground and the soldiers and escaped civilians fell silent.  The ground trembled, and several birds roosting in the nearby brush fluttered into flight.

          "What was that?" Harrison asked, his voice refusing to climb higher than a whisper.

          "The facility is being neutralized," Dr. Chappick said softly.

          Harrison turned, surprised to find her still there.

          She looked down at her hands.  "Once that's done, the escape tunnels will be next."

          "But if they're still in the tunnels—"

          "They won't be," Wilson said matter-of-factly, his gaze swinging to the exit.  An Omega Squad detachment still stood guard, but Derriman's gaze was fixed on his watch, not the opening.

          Harrison studied Wilson's face, reading the anxiety he saw there as concern for his niece.  "I'm sure Paul will get Suzanne out."

          "Yes, Doctor.  So am I."

          Harrison wanted to ask what the unspoken "but" was in that comment, but Stavrakos' arrival interrupted.  "This way, sir," he said, taking Harrison's elbow and leading him off toward a large tent that had been set up as a field hospital.

          "I'm fine," Blackwood argued.

          "Yes, sir," the sergeant said.  "But you still have to get out of that suit, get checked for any exposure, and get a blood test.  Usual drill."

          Harrison nodded.  SOP as Ironhorse would call it.  Standard operating procedures.  He glanced back over his shoulder at the escape opening.  SOP. The Colonel always comes through, he reminded himself, then silently prayed this would be no exception.

          Entering the tent, Blackwood scanned the relieved faces of the civilians and officers who had been rescued from the facility.  They looked cheerful, but the shadow of the nightmares which would haunt them couldn't be erased.

          "…damnest thing I have seen in years," the Russian general was saying.  "The man was nearly blind and still he shot that monster like it was a— a paper target."

          "And the way he disarmed that bomb," another added.  "I watched those monsters put that thing together and I don't know how he did it.  It made no sense to me."

          "We would all be dead if he hadn't stopped those grenades from exploding in the lab," a woman added.  "I've never seen anyone react like that.  He wasn't afraid at all."

          "Oh, yes, he was," the Russian corrected.  "But a real warrior does not let fear get in his way.  That man is a true warrior."

          Ironhorse.  It had to be.  Blackwood stared out of the open tent flap at the escape route exit.  At this distance it looked like a small black scar on the low hillside.

          "Come on, Colonel," he said softly.  "You have a lot of people waiting to shake your hand."

 

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

 

          The explosion shook the ground, sending the four escapees to their knees in the narrow passage.  Fine dust broiled up, choking them.

          "What was that?" Suzanne gasped.

          "The facility neutralization's over," Ironhorse said, then groaned as he forced himself to his feet.  Reaching out, he pulled Suzanne up.

          "But we're safe, right?" she asked.

          The Colonel's gaze immediately fell to the dirt.  "The tunnels are incrementally purged after the facility," he said softly.

          "I don't like the sound of that," Azad commented.

          "Me either," Twiselton agreed.  "Care to elaborate, Colonel?"

          "The tunnel sections will be blown at regular intervals from the inside out."

          "How long?" Suzanne asked.

          A dull explosion sounded and the ground shook, nearly knocking them down a second time.

          "Now," Paul said hoarsely.  "Let's pick it up, people."

 

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

 

Monday - 1550

 

          Harrison slid into the empty seat next to Norton.  The communication's truck was slightly larger than Drake's Green Machine, but packed with more equipment than the van, making it more cramped.

          "Good to see you, Doc," Norton greeted, reaching out to grab Harrison's shoulder and squeezed.

          "Any word?"

          Drake shook his head.  "The internal shutdown is done, the tunnels are almost finished.  I tried tapping into the security system for the escape tunnels, but it was just too dangerous, so I backed out.  Didn't want to take any chances."

          Blackwood nodded grimly.  "They'll make it."

          "Ironhorse is the best," Norton said quietly, his gaze remaining steadfastly fixed to the monitor.  "You should hear some of the stories going around here."

          "I did," Harrison said.  "But he's hurt, Norton, badly from the looks of it."

          "That bad?"

          Blackwood shrugged.  "I hope not."

          "Me, too."

 

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

 

          "Move!  Move!" Ironhorse barked as another section of the tunnel exploded, dust erupting up behind them and engulfing them.

          Motion.

          Squinting into shadows, he wasn't sure, but the soldier thought there was someone, something behind them.

          "Paul!"

          Ironhorse's attention shifted from over his shoulder to ahead where Suzanne had caught Azad in a hug.  The Egyptian officer sagged heavily against her.

          "Sir?" the Colonel asked as he stepped up beside them.

          "My apologies.  My leg.  It gave out."

          Ironhorse dropped to a knee, his own injury screaming in protest.  The Egyptian general was bleeding again.  Opening his pouch, Ironhorse removed the last of a gauze roll and wrapped it around the man's leg.

          "Colonel," Twiselton said, stepping closer.  "I'm sure I saw someone back there."

          Ironhorse nodded, his gaze flickering to his watch.  "We have to hurry."

          Suzanne and Azad headed out, Twiselton on their heels, ready to help if the Egyptian collapsed again.  Ironhorse held back, placing himself between the closing alien and the fleeing threesome.

          Another blast, closer.  Ironhorse's arms came up to half-cover his head, shards of rocks falling from the roof of the tunnel.  "Go, go, go!" he prodded.

          Suzanne sucked in a sharp breath and picked up the pace.

          A burst of guttural alien-speak echoed out of the darkness behind the Colonel.  Paul stopped, his M9 ready.  A shadow darted across the rear of the space.  He fired.

          "Paul!"

          "Go!" he yelled at Suzanne.

          "But—"

          "Now!  General, get them out of here!"

          "Right-o.  Let's go."

          Paul moved backward, slowly, sweeping the tunnel as he did.  Nothing.

          Another explosion.  It was in the section right behind them.  This one was next.

          "You will die, human," echoed out of the darkness.

          "At least I'll take you with me."

          Ironhorse picked up the pace, trying to reach the marker for the next section.  Loose rocks and slabs of rock made the progress slow.  If he could just keep the alien in the section set to be destroyed…

          There was a hiss.  Paul turned, diving for the section marker as the explosion hit. The tunnel erupted.

          He was buried!  Panic hit and he moved, pushing up on his hands and realizing he'd only been thrown face first onto the tunnel floor, the dust and grit coming up to nearly choke him.

          His fingers curled closed.  The gun was gone.

          Running his fingers through the dry silt, he found the weapon and checked it.  Jammed.

          He tried to stand, but couldn't.

          Blinking through the dust Ironhorse could see Suzanne and the generals still moving down the tunnel.  They stopped.

          "Get the hell… out… of here!" he yelled, the words ending in a groan as the strain sent waves of pain rippling out from his lower back.

          He turned, looking over his shoulder.  "Damn it," he growled.

          A slab of rock lay across his legs.

          He heard the three returning.  "No!  Get out!"  He stopped, the alien emerging from the swirling dirt.

          Twisting the best he could, Ironhorse trained the useless weapon on the alien.  "Stop, right there."

          A feral smile cracked the invader's human face.

          Ironhorse's mind reeled, then he knew.  He chuckled.

          The alien's smile evaporated.  "What do you have to laugh about, human?"

          "You.  You're dead."  The smile widened.

          "And so are you."

          "This is my job.  Are you still an alien?"

          The man's/alien's face folded into a frown.  "I am Mortaxan.  I am one who will live life immortal."

          "Wrong.  You're exposed.  To what it doesn't matter.  Whatever it is, it's eating away the human tissues, and yours.  I saw it happen before, in Ohio with the Y-fever.  You're dead.  And you're not a human or a Mortaxan, anymore, just a member of the walking dead.  I've won."

          A brutal snarl erupted from the man's chest, the third arm ripping free. "Then I will take you, human, and we will see who is the victor."

          "Can't.  I'm trapped.  You're dead."

          The creature stepped forward, the invader's extra-human strength easily hefting and moving the slab of stone.  The obstacle out of the way, the alien leaned over, the three fingers of the third arm closing on Ironhorse's throat.

          The man/alien smiled again, the expression shifting into a twisted snarl.  He screamed.

          With both hands Ironhorse forced the battle baton deeper into the alien's mid-section, then pulled it free and rolled away as the creature collapsed and dissolved.

          Scrambling to his feet, he stumbled down the tunnel, meeting the threesome.  "Go!  Go!  Go!"

          They cleared the section as the explosion sent a blast of dust and rock fragments belching in behind them.  Just ahead they could see the dust-fuzzied outlines of the soldiers.

          "They're coming out!" someone yelled.

          "RD is clear.  They're clear.  Clear!"

          "Hold your fire!" Derriman's voice bellowed.

          Suzanne and Azad stumbled into the fresh air, gasping and coughing.  Two soldiers stepped up on either side of the pair, keeping them on their feet.  Twiselton emerged next.  Another soldier met him, providing support for the general.

          Derriman scrambled forward, but stopped as Ironhorse stepped out of the tunnel, covered in dust and blood, and almost fell.

          "Colonel?" the sergeant said softly.

          The black eyes flickered up, dulled with pain, but aware.  Ironhorse shook his head.  Derriman took a step back.

          Cradling his left arm tightly to his chest with his right, the Colonel shuffled forward over the rugged terrain.  Behind him the final section of tunnel exploded and collapsed, shaking the ground.  Pain thrummed along every nerve, blinding him to the anxious group of people gathered along the stretch of desert between the exit and the waiting ambulances, blinding him also to the solemn and respectful salutes the generals gave him as he passed.

 

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

 

Monday - 1600

 

          Harrison felt his heart stumble as Ironhorse mis-stepped exiting the tunnel.  He started forward, but Wilson reached out, placing a hand against the scientist's shoulder.

          "No, Doctor.  He's earned this walk, without our help," the man said softly.

          Harrison studied the General's eyes.  What is he seeing?  He looked back to Ironhorse.  Blood… dirt… limp… arm… leg…

          The Colonel looked bruised and battered, but Paul had survived much worse.  What am I missing?

          Derriman trailed behind Ironhorse, his face set in grim but determined lines.

          Why?  What the hell's going on?

          Harrison's attention shifted to Suzanne.  She helped Azad sit down in the open back of the ambulance.  Looking up, she caught sight of Paul and started back.  The British general said something to her as she passed and she nodded.

          No one moved to stop her.  No one told her not to help.  So why can't I?

          Reaching Ironhorse, she cupped her hand under his right elbow, steadying his step and keeping his course straight.  Together they limped to the waiting medics.

          In the pit of his stomach Harrison felt his world crumble away.  He didn't know why, or how, but everything had changed, and for the worse.

 

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

 

Monday – 1630

Fort Hawkins Hospital

 

          Sitting in the small but crowded waiting room, Harrison stopped himself from demanding an explanation from the stone-faced soldiers waiting with him.  He glanced around, angry and feeling alone.  Suzanne was still being treated, and Norton had disappeared.

          Wilson, Derriman, a treated Twiselton, the Russian… they knew something he didn't, something about Ironhorse.

          Suzanne limped in, cleaned up, dressed in borrowed green fatigues, and wearing a brace on her ankle.  Harrison stood, giving her his chair.

          "You okay?" he asked as she lowered herself into the padded comfort and sighed.

          "Just a sprain.  How's Paul?"

          He shook his head.  "We're still waiting to hear something."

          Wilson stepped up behind Suzanne, wrapping his arms around her shoulders and giving her a squeeze.  "Are you okay?"

          She leaned her head back against his chest, eyes closing.  "Uncle Hank, it was—"  She shook her head, unable to find an adequate description for the ordeal.

          "I know, sweetheart," Wilson said softly.  "I know."

          "He saved our lives, more times than I can remember.  He was hurting so badly—"

          The buzz of Norton's wheelchair interrupted and Suzanne sat forward, studying the man following the hacker.

          "I'm Major Carl Raglan, Colonel Ironhorse's primary care physician," the stranger stated, looking decidedly uncomfortable with the amount of brass in the room.

          "How is he?" Blackwood demanded.

          The major paused, his gaze sweeping over the small gathering.  "Does the colonel have family?"

          "Major," Wilson interrupted.  "You will consider us the Colonel's family. Answer the damned question."

          "Yes, sir," the doctor said, automatically pulling up into an attention stance.  "Colonel Ironhorse's injuries are being treated.  They're superficial for the most part, but their cumulative effect has us a little worried.  The gunshot wound to the thigh is a clean through-and-through; no bone, arterial, or nerve damage.  I don't foresee any complications on that front.  Once he's out of surgery and recover, we'll move him to ICU for twenty-four hours, just to be on the safe side, then into a post-op ward.  I'll process the request to have the Colonel moved to Fort Streeter and schedule a follow-up surgery.  Barring any complications you can move him tomorrow."

          "Follow-up surgery?" Suzanne questioned.  "What for?"

          The doctor cleared his throat, his gaze meeting no one's.  "The Colonel's detached the muscles and ligaments from his left scapula.  The surgeon will try to reattach what he can, and get a better assessment of the damage.  It doesn't look good at this point, though.  I'm very sorry."

          Harrison scrutinized Wilson and Derriman's expressions.  Paul's injury obviously wasn't life threatening, but it was bad.  "What does that mean exactly?" he demanded softly.

          The doctor met Harrison's gaze.  "It means Colonel Ironhorse's days in the field are over," he replied.  "He'll be lucky to regain forty to sixty percent of his strength and mobility in that shoulder."

          Suzanne gasped, her hand coming up to cover her mouth.

 

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

 

Wednesday – 1200

January 26, 1992

Fort Streeter Hospital

 

          Ironhorse sat on the edge of his hospital bed, waiting in silence while Derriman checked the various drawers in his room for any forgotten items.  Finding none, the sergeant hefted the small suitcase as a nurse entered, pushing a wheelchair in front of her.

          "Colonel, one last ride and you're free," she said.  "I hope you'll stop by and let us know how the physical therapy goes."

          Paul nodded, pushing up from the bed and stepping over to the chair.  "I'll do that."

          The arm brace he wore made movement stiff and difficult, but he turned and lowered himself into the wheelchair with the nurse's help.  With that done, she stepped around to flip the foot rests down.  He picked up his feet and placed them on the peddles.

          "We're kind of sorry to see you go, sir," she said.  "You've been one of our better patients."

          "Believe me, Lieutenant, that's a first."

          "I find that hard to believe," she said, rolling Ironhorse from the room, Derriman trailing.  "But if it's true, be nice to any future nurses, okay?  We're just doing our job, too."

          "I realize that, Lieutenant, and I appreciate it."

          They reached the front doors, the nurse stopping.  "Here you go.  Take care, sir."

          "Thank you," Paul said, standing.  Without looking back, he pushed the door open with his good arm and stepped outside.  A carpool sedan was parked at the curb.

          Derriman stepped past him and opened the passenger door, waiting until Ironhorse was settled before walking to the trunk and tossing the suitcase in.

          Sliding in behind the wheel, the sergeant tried to keep his voice light.  "The folks at the Cottage are going to be mighty happy to see you.  You want me to call ahead?"

          "We're not going to the Cottage," Ironhorse replied flatly.

          "Sir?"

          Ironhorse's head turned and he met Derriman's concerned gaze.  "I'm not going back to the Cottage.  The sooner they get used to the idea the better.  Going back now would just prolong the process.  I'll be coordinating military activity at Streeter.  Major McCoy is on his way to take over field command of Omega Squad.  They're flying him back from the Middle East ASAP."

          "Major McCoy's a good man," Derriman said, not meeting Ironhorse's gaze.  "But they're gonna want to say good-bye, sir."

          Ironhorse looked forward again.  "I'm not leaving, John, just… changing roles.  If you and the Squad could box up my… equipment, and get it over to Streeter I'd appreciate it."

          Derriman nodded.  "I'll have it done today, Colonel.  Where to, sir?"

          "The project annex.  I want to get my office set up and see what the hell's going on."

 

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

 

Wednesday – 1500

The Cottage

 

          Blackwood stalked to the front door of the Cottage as soon as he heard the car pull up and park.  Grabbing the knob, he pulled the door open, expecting to find Ironhorse.

          "Sergeant.  Where's Paul?"

          Derriman took a deep breath.  "Settling in at Streeter, Doctor.  The squad and I will be packing up his belongings this afternoon."

          "Packing?  Streeter?  What the hell's going on?" Blackwood demanded, blocking the man's access to the house.

          Derriman's eyes narrowed.  "Look, Dr. Blackwood, this ain't my idea, so don't go raisin' your hackles.  The Colonel's been relieved of field command.  Major McCoy will be arrivin' within the next forty-eight hours to take charge of Omega—"

          "Now wait one damned minute—"

          "The Colonel's goin' to be coordinatin' things from Streeter.  You have a problem, take it up with him."  Derriman pushed past the astrophysicist, heading for Ironhorse's office.

          Blackwood followed.  "But there's absolutely no reason why he can't do that from here.  I mean—"

          Derriman stopped and turned.  He stepped in toe to toe with Harrison. "It's called a conflict of interest, Doctor," John snapped.  "If the Colonel's here, you'll bypass the Major and go to him.  That kind 'a shit costs lives.  The Colonel's not gonna do anything that'll risk your lives, or ours.  I'd appreciate it if you'd try to do the same."

          Harrison stood in the hall, watching the sergeant stomp off to Paul's office, slamming the door shut behind him.

 

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

 

Wednesday - 2000

 

          "It's not right, Uncle Hank," Suzanne said adamantly.  "Everything we've been though and now something as– as simple as this ends his career?"

          "Not his career," Wilson corrected from his seat in one of the Cottage's wingback chairs.  "Just his ability to function effectively in the field.  Colonel Ironhorse is still a brilliant strategist.  He's not leaving the project, just changing his focus."

          "But we need him here," Harrison argued.

          Wilson regarded Blackwood like he would a young child.  "Doctor, what you mean is, you've gotten used to having him here.  There's a decided difference."

          Blackwood leaned back on the couch, folding his arms over his chest.  "All right, I need him here.  We've developed a very successful working arrangement.  I need him to bounce ideas off."

          "I'm sure you'll find Major McCoy far from addled, Doctor.  I realize this will be an adjustment, but—"

          "That's not the point," Blackwood argued.  "What Paul and I have works.  This project can't afford to lose that while the Major and I get to know one another!"

          "You have a telephone, Doctor, use it."  Wilson leaned forward.  "I know this isn't easy on any of you, but this project, this war, is bigger than any one individual."

          The phone rang, interrupting the argument that was about to erupt.  Norton, sitting closest to the phone, scooped it up.  "Yeah, just a second."  He extended the phone to Wilson.  "It's for you."

          The General stood and took the receiver.  "Wilson here."  He listened for a moment.  "Yes, sir, I'd have to agree.  When?  Yes, I'll be sure everyone's there, sir. And, sir.  Thank you."

          He handed the phone back to Norton, who returned it to its cradle.  "Was that who I think it was?"

          Wilson nodded.  "It looks like we're all be taking a trip."

          "Trip?" Suzanne asked.  "Where to?"

          "Washington D.C., if I'm not mistaken," Norton explained.

          Wilson returned to his chair.  "The President has asked us to be present for Paul's ceremony."

          "What ceremony?" Blackwood demanded, then added sarcastically, "His retirement party?"

          "No, Doctor," Wilson replied smoothly.  "The presentation of his Congressional Medal of Honor."

 

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

 

Friday – 1700

January 28, 1992

The White House

 

          It was a bright, cool evening under the erected tents.  Small heaters were scattered around, softly blowing warm air onto the small group of guests.  Just past retreat, the fading orange-red sunlight filtered into the tents.  The beauty of the Rose Garden beyond the tent flap contrasted sharply with the somber mood of the people who sat in the neat rows of folding white chairs.  Farthest from the speaker's podium were some of the Omega Squad, closer a collection of foreign generals, scientists, and diplomats from the Elko facility sat.  The front row was taken up by the Vice-President, the First Family, project members, Wilson, Derriman, and Ironhorse.

          Sitting rigid in his full white mess uniform, Paul looked anxious.  The shoulder brace was gone, but it was clear watching the Colonel that he was still sore and stiff.  Movement was strained and slow, but at the moment he sat shock-still, eyes focused on his Commander-in-Chief as he stepped up to the podium.

          The President cleared his throat and began, glancing only occasionally at his notes.  "Few men in the history of this nation have distinguished themselves so profoundly as the man we are here this evening to honor.  Fewer still have done so twice in their lives, but Lieutenant Colonel Paul Ironhorse is one of them.[2]

          "The deeds which Colonel Ironhorse will be honored for today are acts of personal bravery and self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish him for gallantry and intrepidity above his peers.  These acts involved selfless risk of life and ceaseless dedication to duty."

          The President's voice caught, and he took a sip of water before continuing.  "My friends, today we come together to honor a man, who, in the service of his country, fighting a hidden and brutal war, risked his life – and more – to ensure the safe return of innocent civilians, respected foreign generals, and diplomats from the clutches of a most abhorrent foe."

          There was a murmur of agreement, and the President met Ironhorse's gaze.  "In addition, Colonel Ironhorse's actions were directly responsible for stopping the possible disastrous results of terrorism, which would have been possible if these enemies had succeeded in their mission."

          The President picked up a small jeweler's box and opened it.  Inside the Congressional Medal of Honor sat on white velvet.  "Colonel, if you would step forward."

          Ironhorse stood and stepped up to the podium, stopping at attention, his eyes locked forward.

          The President removed the medal, slipping the blue ribbon over Ironhorse's head and settling the medal over the matching one the Colonel already wore.  With a look of heartfelt gratitude, the President saluted before Paul had a chance to do so.

          Startled, Ironhorse returned the gesture.

          Debi, bracketed by the President's daughter and Derriman, nudged the older sergeant.  He looked down, then accepted a proffered tissue from the girl.  Debi smiled at their shared tears, and Derriman wondered if she, more than any of the other civilians, understood exactly what price the Colonel had paid for this honor.

          The President offered his hand, and Ironhorse shook it.  "Colonel Ironhorse, it is indeed an honor to present you with this medal in recognition of your exceptional service to this country.  I know this mission has cost you dearly, but that sacrifice has not been wasted.  Thanks to you, a disaster of unthinkable proportions was averted, and many lives were spared.  I thank you, and someday everyone in this country will do the same."

          "Thank you, sir," Ironhorse replied quietly.  He executed a sharp left-face that sent a flash of pain across his features.

          Completing the turn, Ironhorse found himself facing Wilson and the other Generals, who were now on their feet, along with the members of the Omega Squad.  In unison, all the soldiers saluted.

          His jaws grinding with bottled emotion, Ironhorse reciprocated the salute, then returned to his seat.

          Of all the soldiers present, only Derriman had remained seated, and Ironhorse knew their good-byes would come later.

          Suzanne waited for Paul to sit, then reached out and squeezed his good arm.  There were no words that wouldn't sound trite.

          He glanced at her, a quick smile flashing across his face.  "You're welcome," he whispered.

          She smiled, nodded, then wiped the tears off her cheeks.  Norton gave him a thumbs-up, but his eyes also glistened with unshed tears.  Only Blackwood seemed as unmoved as Ironhorse himself.

 

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

 

Friday - 1730

 

          The small reception following the President's presentation was subdued and quiet, voices rarely climbing above a whisper.  Ironhorse stayed as long as good manners forced him to, then tapped Derriman's shoulder and inclined his head toward a convenient exit.  The sergeant nodded and followed, grateful for their successful getaway.

          Meeting one of the many secret service agents just inside the door, they were escorted out of the White House.

          Ironhorse led the way to the borrowed military limousine.  He paused at the door, looking down at the two medals that clinked against one another on his chest.

          "Sir."

          Ironhorse looked up.

          Derriman stood at attention, his fingers rigid at his brow.  "It's been an honor and a privilege servin' with you, Colonel."

          "Thank you, John," Ironhorse replied, then returned the salute, freeing Derriman.  "I notice you didn't say it's been a pleasure."

          "I'm a lot of things, Colonel, but I'm not a liar," Derriman said, a sad grin tugging at his lips.  "But I do have to say, it's been one helluva ride."

          "That it has, Derriman.  That it has."  Ironhorse pulled the handle up, opening the door.  "Now, what do you say we find a bar and have a drink?"

          "Yes, sir," Derriman said.  "I know just the place.  Little hole-in-the-wall called Ba Muoi Ba's."

          "Sounds just about right."  He lowered himself into the front seat.  "Well, now that I'm not going to be a moving target any longer, I'm going to need a keeper.  Know anyone who'd like to volunteer?"

          Derriman chuckled.  "I appreciate that, Colonel, I truly do, but somebody's gonna have to show McCoy the ropes.  Might as well be me."

          Ironhorse nodded.  "I figured as much.  Thank you, John."

          "Least I can do, Colonel.  Least I can do."

 

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

 

Monday – 1000

February 14, 1992

Fort Streeter

 

          Ironhorse sat behind his desk, looking out the large window at the active Army post beyond.  Cars drove past.  Soldiers and dependents walked by.  It was all so familiar, so… normal, he decided.

          Two weeks.  It felt like two months.  McCoy was settled in at the Cottage, Omega was working well under his command, the project members were beginning to come around, and the aliens were quiet.  Maybe it would work out after all.

          He felt a twinge of jealousy that he'd been so easily replaced, and glanced at the picture sitting on the corner of his desk.  A present from Debi, it was a group shot of the project members: Blackwood, Suzanne, Norton, Debi, and Mrs. Pennyworth.

          God, he missed them.  Not that he didn't see and talk to them on a regular basis, but it wasn't the same as living with them.

          Living with them…

          Living with a family.

          He shook his head.  He'd let himself get too involved.  Way too involved.  He knew better.  Any of them might be killed or lost, and damn it, he was supposed to be the first.

          But knowing it didn't cut the anger, or the pain.

          His phone rang.  He picked it up.  "What can I do for you, Norton?"

          "Paul—" Drake's voice caught.

          Ironhorse leaned forward, his eyes locking on the photo.  "Norton, what's wrong?"

          "It's Harrison.  He's been… hurt."

          "How?  Where?  I wasn't—"

          "They're on their way to Streeter now – flight for life chopper.  Derriman and some of the squad are with him."

          "Are they—?"

          "They're fine.  It's for security."

          "I'll meet them at the hospital."

          "I was hoping you would.  It's bad, Colonel.  Real bad.  I don't think he's going to make it."

          "No, Norton, don't say it.  He'll be fine."

          "Not this time, Paul.  He's—"

          "I've got to go."

          "Suzanne and I'll be there as soon as we can."

          "Where's Scott?"

          "He and the rest of the Squad are on cleanup.  They'll meet us there."

          "I'll see you soon, Norton."

          "Right…"



[1]  "Day of Reckoning," by Gillian Holt.

[2]  See "The Tenth Level," by Gillian Holt.