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Day of Reckoning

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"I won't betray him like that."

 

Harrison Blackwood paced behind the Cray terminal, his short clipped steps causing Norton to hunch further over his keyboard as he continued typing like a man possessed.  From the doorway of her bio-lab Suzanne watched, trying to press the rising panic she felt into a distant corner of her mind.

It's not the first time Paul's been late reporting in after a mission, she reasoned.

But this wasn't a mission, came her own silent reply.  She shifted nervously.  It had been four hours since Ironhorse had finished a simple training exercise with his Omega Squad.  The whole thing was anything but simple now.

 

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

                                                                 ____

                                                                 MEMO

Code: 124-302x

Classification: TOP SECRET

 

To: Brigadier General Henry J. Wilson

 

From: Sgt. Norah Coleman

 

Re: Background information on events surrounding the abduction of Lt. Col. Paul Ironhorse

 

On the day of his abduction, Lt. Colonel Paul Ironhorse was participating  in a pre-arranged search and destroy exercise.  This exercise had been carefully planned by Colonel Ironhorse and Dr. Harrison Blackwood in preparation for an actual mission to be carried out against a known alien stronghold located in an abandoned warehouse in Marysville, California.

 

The training exercise was conducted at the closed Stead Air Force Base near Reno, Nevada.  The large airplane hangers at Stead provided a near perfect replica of the alien-held warehouse, and an obstacle course was erected in semi-darkness, the windows painted black to replicate the low light conditions favored by the Mor'taxans.

 

The entire exercise was scheduled to last ten hours from the time Omega Squad left the Cottage to the time they boarded the plane for the return flight to Ft. Streeter.

 

The Squad was activated per a response to alien transmissions picked up by project member Norton Drake.  The Squad, led by Colonel Ironhorse, proceeded to Ft. Streeter, where they met the on-base Omega C detachment, on permanent standby for emergency flights.

 

Within two hours we landed at Stead.  Omega Squad fanned out, moving in on the target hanger following the prearranged plan that had been devised after several days of discussion and small scale enactments.  This was not a spontaneous event.

 

Colonel Ironhorse remained with Omega A, directing troop movements and monitoring the progress of detachments B, C and F. Unit A breached the hanger on the colonel's command 15 minutes after landing, and set about navigating the constructed obstacles, seeking soldiers borrowed from the Tonapah Naval Weapons Storage Facility, who were standing in for alien scientists.  Along the way the Omega units neutralized a large number of Army 'volunteers' shipped in from Ft. Ord, playing the role of alien security guards.  NOTE: All weapons used fired paint pellets.

 

It took the units 27 minutes to secure the warehouse, 'killing' the security force and capturing the stand-in alien scientists.  Four Omegans were 'killed' and seven 'injured.'

 

Colonel Ironhorse debriefed the participants and dismissed the Ft. Ord and Tonapah Naval personnel before conducting a second debriefing for Omega Squad.  Three hours later the units were satisfied that they had a way to carry out the same mission just as successfully, but without the four casualties.  Several small scale trials were carried out.  Colonel Ironhorse then dismissed the Omegans with instructions to gather their gear and meet him on the flight line in half an hour.  Omega Squad dispersed to carry out that order while Colonel Ironhorse conducted a final walk-through of the warehouse.

 

Exactly nine and a half hours after we had left the Cottage, Colonel Ironhorse failed to appear for takeoff.  A search was immediately begun.

 

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

 

"That's it, Harrison.  Nothing.  Zip," Norton said, scrubbing his palms over his haggard face.

"There's no way he could have been flown out?" Blackwood asked, pushing himself off the small desk where he had been momentarily perched.

"Absolutely not.  I overlaid all the information for the air traffic controllers in the area," Drake stated, typing out a command to replace the blank screen with a highly cross-hatched map.  "It's a complete grid.  No gaps.  If a plane had taken off anywhere around there, I would've found it," he concluded, indicating the map by tapping on the monitor screen.

"But that doesn't rule out someone moving him by car," Suzanne said wearily from a chair in the doorway of her lab.  "I don't see—"

"The more possibilities we can eliminate the less we'll have to divide our attention," the astrophysicist argued, pacing to the coffee machine and yanking the nearly empty pot out.  Looking at the nearly black liquid that had been sitting there for several hours, he returned the carafe without sampling the brew.  "We know he's not in any hospital, morgue, or police station within a two hundred mile radius of the base.  We know he wasn't taken out by plane, and we know he isn't on the base itself."

"So where do we look?" Norton asked, his own worry carefully concealed behind a haggard, over-worked expression.

"Let's assume he was taken out by car."

"What about horseback?" Suzanne added only half-sarcastically.

Blackwood nodded.  "Good point."

"Whoa, people," Norton countered.  "We don't know which direction they went, how far—"

"Isn't it all academic anyway?" the microbiologist asked, finally verbalizing what was haunting all their thoughts.  "If it was the aliens…"

"We have to try, Suzanne," Harrison said, stepping over to stand in front of the woman, his blue eyes locking on hers.  "We don't know who it was, and until I have some proof that it was the aliens, I'm going on the assumption that he's still alive.  He'd do the same if it were one of us."

"Hold on, Doc," Norton said, pulling his wheelchair around.  He leaned forward, his fingers wrapping nervously around each other, hating the scenario he was about to paint.  "If it is aliens, and even if they haven't taken him over, they could've extracted the information about us . . . in other ways.  I know we have a twenty-four hour grace period, but we have to think about moving.  Right?"

Blackwood ran a trembling hand through his light-brown curls.  "I know.  God, Norton, don't you think I know?"

"Harrison, we have a procedure," Suzanne gently chided.  "It's what Paul wants us to do."

"Pack up and get the hell out of here," Norton supplied, just in case Harrison tried to conveniently forget the soldier's standing orders.  "Omega puts the Cottage under surveillance and we go mobile until we can make person-to-person contact with the big guy, or General Wilson, and check them out with a blood test."

"I know!" Blackwood snapped.  He paced several more steps before speaking again. "I know you're right.  It's just that this— Look, it feels different and that's the only way I can describe it.  Something's out of place."  He spun away, striding toward the stairs, then stopped and returned to the terminal.  "But I can't endanger the Project.  Get the material ready.  Who's here for security?"

The black man checked a sheet of paper attached to a clipboard.  The information, scripted in the colonel's strong hand, sent a chill up his spine.  "It's a borrowed team, Sigma Squad, from Tucson.  That's the security team for the alien-related research projects being carried out on the university campus there."

"At least they know what the situation really is," Blackwood said, nodding.  He remembered the unit.  "Alert them to the procedure, and ask the Sergeant to pick someone to come along.  We might need some back-up before this is over."

"You got it, Doc," Norton said.

Suzanne gave Blackwood one last reassuring nod before returning to her lab to ready the information she had stored there on laser discs.  The tears standing in her eyes spoke the concern they all felt for the missing soldier.

 

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

 

Less than an hour later, Specialist 5 James Sagehawk watched the Project members place two briefcases containing the data they had collected on the aliens onto a small hydraulic lift.  Locking them into place, Dr. Blackwood activated the unit and they watched the cases descend into the small storage bunker sixty feet under the Cottage annex.  It would require something close to a small-scale nuclear explosion to reach the materials without the correct codes.  That done, he followed the three civilians out to their vehicle.  Sagehawk waited until Drake was locked into place behind the baby Cray terminal in the back of the large green van, the two doctors seated in the front, before climbing aboard himself.

Sgt. Nathan Gill, Sigma's NCO, stepped to the driver's side window.  "Dr. Blackwood, we have the Cottage under full surveillance.  If the aliens arrive, you'll be notified immediately by either myself, or the automatic alarm.  If that should occur, please terminate your link with the Cray here."  Fishing into his jacket pocket, the squad leader removed a sealed envelope and handed it to Blackwood.  "This is the information you'll need to establish a connection to another safe computer.  No one here knows where this baby's located, so you should be fine."

"Thank you, Sergeant," Blackwood said, accepting the envelope.

"And not to worry, Miss McCullough and Mrs. Pennyworth are already safe and sound with Omega E," the sergeant explained to Suzanne.

She nodded her thanks.

Gill looked over Blackwood's shoulder to his second in command.  "Take good care of these folks, Hawk.  You don't, Ironhorse’ll chew our asses three ways from Sunday when he gets back."

"I'll do that, Sarge," the young man replied, his voice enough like the missing colonel's to make the three civilians squirm.  They hadn't expected the soldier assigned as their security to be a half-Apache, half-Shoshone sergeant with enough resemblance to Ironhorse to be distracting.

"Good luck, Doctors," Gill called, stepping back.

"I hope we won't need it, Sergeant," Blackwood said softly as he started the engine and headed off the safe house property.

 

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

 

After an hour of watching Harrison plow through the light freeway traffic Suzanne decided she had to ask, although she also knew what the answer would be, and that she wasn't going to like it.  But with the flat expanses of Sacramento spreading out before them, it was definitely time to confirm the inevitable.

"Harrison, where are we going?"

"Nevada."

She looked over her shoulder, catching the peaking eyebrows over Norton's black eyes.  "Why?"

"We're going to find the Colonel."

"Sir, I don't think that's the—"

"Sergeant," Harrison said, cutting the man off, "I know you mean well, and I know you've got a tough job, but I'm not willing to turn my back on Ironhorse.  He's saved our lives too many times for that."

"Yes, sir," Sagehawk said.  "But if you're going to do this, may I suggest you contact General Wilson first and make sure you've got someplace safe to go if it washes out?"

"The man has a good point, Harrison," Norton said, giving the young soldier an approving thumbs-up.

Blackwood glanced at Suzanne.  She nodded.  She was willing to go along with him so long as they didn't take any outrageous risks.  "Okay," he agreed.  "Norton, get on the mobile phone and have Uncle General Hank meet us in Lake Tahoe; we'll give him the specifics when he gets there."

 

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

                                                                 ____

                                                                 MEMO

Code: 124-307x

Classification: TOP SECRET

 

To: Major Dana Y. Trace, Sigma Squad commander

 

From: Sgt. James Sagehawk

 

Re: Situation Report

 

Major, per orders I have tried to interfere as little as possible with Dr. Blackwood and his people.  However, I felt it was necessary to suggest that a back-up safe house be established, should anything happen.  We are presently attempting to contact General Wilson for a personal meeting.  After several discussions with Dr. Blackwood, they have agreed upon a meeting location that is relatively easy to secure and public enough so we should draw no attention to ourselves.

 

General Wilson was contacted using Level-3 priority.  His ETA is four hours.  I will file an additional report once he has met with Blackwood and his people.

 

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

 

There was a double knock on the hotel door, followed by a single rap.

Sagehawk stood in the doorway of the wardrobe and bath area, his M-9 held in a ready position.  He nodded to Blackwood.

Harrison checked the peephole again – the sergeant having picked the hotel precisely for the view each room provided into the hallway.  General Wilson and a woman stood outside, waiting.  Both wore civilian clothing.  The scientist wondered who the stranger was, but he opened the door and motioned them inside without a word.

Wilson's sweeping glance immediately found the sergeant.  He smiled thinly as Blackwood raised the Geiger counter.

The woman also noted Sagehawk, as well as the arrangement of the others in the room.  Norton and Suzanne were also armed.  They were being very careful.

"Let's get the preliminaries over with, shall we?"  Wilson asked, slowly slipping off his sports jacket and draping it over his arm.  The woman tugged her long-sleeved T-shirt up over her elbows.

Suzanne walked around the bed, her 9 mm replaced with a glass slide and a lancet for a blood tests.

"The two of you, move apart," Sagehawk instructed before the microbiologist reached the pair.  "And keep your hands up where I can see them."

The woman took three slow steps away from the General.  Suzanne smiled shakily at her uncle, then drew a blood sample, immediately returning to the microscope she had set up on the writing desk.  Clipping the slide to the platform, she peered into the lens.  After a minute she looked up.  "He's fine."

There was a collective sigh of relief.

"Now, if you'd check Lieutenant Commander Thompson, we can get down to business," Wilson said, walking over to sit on the edge of one of the double beds.

Blackwood waited while Suzanne carried another slide and lancet over to the woman, for the first time noticing that the officer was at least half Oriental.  Taking the sample, Suzanne examined Thompson's blood and pronounced her fully human as well.

"Commander," Harrison said, motioning to the woman to sit.  He pulled a chair closer to the beds and sat down himself, hoping the General wasn't trying to ease in another security officer for the Project.  There was no way he was letting Ironhorse be swept under a Pentagon carpet… missing in action… presumed dead.

Norton and Sagehawk joined them from their positions.

"First of all," Wilson said, "Commander Thompson is acquainted with the entire situation."

The officer nodded and picked up the conversation, explaining, "I've been coordinating the efforts of a Pentagon group working on deciphering the alien's language, and—"

"Ah, my crypto-lingo contact," Norton interrupted.

She nodded.  "In addition, I've been heading up a task force that's working on locating Quinn."

"Quinn?" Blackwood said, leaning forward, his gaze locking on the woman's.  "Is he involved in this?"

"I think so.  We had a contact in Chicago pass along some information that suggested Quinn was heading west.  There was another report from Denver.  Neither of these reports has been corroborated, but given the unusual circumstances it is a possibility."

"Which is why I asked Commander Thompson to accompany me," Wilson cut in.  "If it is Quinn I wanted you to have the benefit of someone who's been working on understanding the bastard."

Blackwood nodded slowly as he pushed himself to his feet.  "I understand."

"I'd like to believe that the Colonel is still alive and human," General Wilson added. "I assume that's the reason you're in Nevada.  Just what did you have in mind, Doctor?"

 

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

 

 

                                                                 ____

                                                                 MEMO

Code: 124-315x

Classification: TOP SECRET

 

To: Major Dana Y. Trace

 

From: Sgt. James Sagehawk

 

Contact has been made with General Wilson.  He checked out, and we now have the location of a safehouse should we need it.  He has also assigned Lt. Commander Mary Rhee Thompson, U.S. Navy, to our team.  It seems she's a Pentagon expert on Quinn.  If you could run a check on the commander I'd appreciate it.  If anything "funny" turns up, contact me.  Plans are to go mobile.  Will keep you informed of our progress.

 

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

 

Commander Thompson sat in the back of the Blackwood Project van as they headed for the Stead AFB warehouse, trying to decide if the Project members would be able to accept the fact if their colonel did turn up dead.  Given what she knew about the alien invaders, and their tactics, it seemed unlikely that Ironhorse was alive if they were the abductors.  He would have been absorbed or emptied of any valuable information by this time.

Hopefully it is Quinn, she thought.

It was foolish, and borderline stupid for the Project members to be out in the field.  They belonged in the secondary safe house until she could establish what had happened, but Blackwood wasn't a soldier and he had flatly refused that suggestion when the General had made it at Lake Tahoe.  They were obviously a close-knit group.

Forced into a particular kind of intimacy, Rhee could see that they'd grown into something more than just coworkers.  She listened to the three as they batted ideas around, but she and the sergeant were outsiders and not privy to the full meaning behind the glances and shrugs that accompanied the ongoing conversation.

When she had entered the Navy, Rhee could never have imagined that she'd end up on the run with a group of scientists who were battling outer-space aliens.  She pushed the black bangs off her forehead and watched Norton's long fingers as the man worked over his computer keyboard.  Her green-gray eyes attracted the attention of the Special Forces sergeant sitting next to her.

Athletic, with an angular face, high cheek bones, and almond-shaped eyes, Rhee knew she fit the Anglo stereotype of the "mysterious Oriental woman."  Her mother's Chinese blood and her father's Nordic heritage were to blame, but she was not a fragile Oriental blossom.  One of the few women given access to the Navy SEAL program, her work with the Special Operations unit led her into cryptography, while education and a youth spent living all over the world with diplomatic parents had made her a linguist.  But it was an assignment to Military Intelligence that had introduced her to forensic criminal investigation, and that had landed her in the middle of a war with aliens from a planet called Mor'tax.

The team mentality of her training still clung to her sensibilities, and she wanted to help these people.  But they didn't have much to go on.  She'd talked to the noncoms from the Omega Squad who were still at Stead AFB before she and Wilson had driven to the Tahoe hotel, but they hadn't been much help.  One, a Sergeant Stavrakos, suggested that the starship Enterprise had beamed Ironhorse up for a chat.  Rhee appreciated a good sense of humor, but she respected the loyalty the sarcastic remark had hidden even more. The Army Special Forces unit had found no trace of the missing colonel on the base, nor any sign of anyone else who should not have been there.

If it was Quinn, she thought, they might've overlooked something.  The alien is… unique.

After three years of conducting "sensitive" investigations for the Pentagon, she still had a perfect record.  If there were clues, Wilson was hoping she'd find them.  And Rhee hoped the General was right.  She shook herself out of the thoughts when they were stopped at the main gate to the closed Air Force Base.

 

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

 

Rhee moved through the dimly lit Stead warehouse, searching for anything that might tell her how the colonel had left the building.  After an hour, she asked Sagehawk to turn on the overhead lights, filling the hollow structure with pale yellow.  She started the sweep again.  Several minutes of frustration later she called the Sigma sergeant over to join her.

He arrived at one of the blackened windows and she nodded to the portal.  He looked at it, then stepped over to the window next to it and nodded.

"So, Sergeant, what do you think?" she asked, kneading her lower back.

"That one's been opened," he said, pointing at the first.

"Glad to hear it.  I was starting to think Stavrakos was right."

"Excuse me, ma'am?"

Rhee grinned.  "Nothing.  Let's go check outside," she said, leading the way.

Harrison spotted Rhee and Sagehawk as they left the warehouse.  He'd been talking to Derriman, Stavrakos, and Coleman, but broke away to join the pair, who were examining the ground along the side of the building beneath the windows.

"Find something?" he asked as he jogged up.

"I think so," Rhee said, staring intently at the dusty ground.  "One of the windows has been opened.  Someone came in this way, but whoever it was, he or she didn't leave this way."

"So, where does that leave us?" the astrophysicist asked, dropping down alongside the commander to see what had caught her attention.  It looked like dirt to him.

"We know there was at least one person in the building who shouldn't have been there.  But there's no trace of anyone leaving," she commented more to herself than the scientist.  Standing, she turned slowly, taking in the lay of the base.

"But this— I mean, Paul's not here, so whoever it was had to have taken him out," Blackwood countered, also standing.  He shoved his hands into his jacket pockets in frustration.  "You found the entry point, there has to be an exit point, too."

"Why did they have to leave, sir?" Sagehawk asked from where he had been standing silently nearby.

          Blackwood studied the young man.  He might not look exactly like Ironhorse, but he was like the colonel in other ways.  "They had to get him off the base somehow, Sergeant," he said.

"I see what you're getting at," Rhee said, turning and nodding at the soldier.

"I don't think the Colonel's necessarily gone.  I think he's still in the warehouse, somewhere, sir.  Ma'am," Sagehawk offered.

"Impossible," Blackwood stated, his head shaking.  "Omega's been over the building at least six or seven times."

"They missed the window, sir," Sagehawk countered, stepping closer to the commander.

"No, we didn't," Derriman said, having walked over to join them.  "But I know for a fact the Colonel was the one who went in that window.  He did it to reconfigure the personnel right before we started the exercise."

"Had he done that before?" Rhee asked.

Derriman nodded.  "When we were building the exercise."

The commander looked thoughtful for a moment.  "Our abductor might have found the entrance and used it to cover his or her tracks."

"But there isn't an egress.  The Colonel might still be inside," Sagehawk stated again.

"He has a point," Rhee said.  "I've been thinking along the same lines myself."

Harrison ran his hand over the back of his neck.  "Let's take another look, then."

Rhee nodded.  "But first I need to grab a couple of things I brought along."  She jogged over to the van and hauled out a canvas bag, then met them at the door.  She turned to Derriamn.  "Sergeant, when we're in, have Omega seal the building.  We'll knock when we're through, but I don't want to take any chances of someone slipping out."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied.  "You just find the Colonel."

"I'll try my best," she assured.

 

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

 

Rhee and Sagehawk moved slowly through the building, starting with the outer walls and working their way in.  The Specialist carried an infrared sensor, and Rhee a metal detector.  It was the latter that finally solved the mystery.

"Here!" Rhee called when the machine began to hum.  Blackwood and Sagehawk quickly joined her.

"Where?" Harrison asked.  "I don't see anything."  The floor she was indicating looked perfectly normal.

Kneeling down, the commander removed the flashlight she'd shoved in the back pocket of her jeans and shone the beam along the floor, then got down on her hands and knees, lowering herself slowly toward the floor until her forehead was nearly touching the concrete.  Nothing.

"Sergeant, turn off the overhead lights again, will you."

"Yes, ma'am," Sagehawk replied, trotting off.

Rhee waited until the building fell into semi-darkness, then repeated the procedure using the flashlight beam to scan the floor.  "Yep, there it is.  I've got a seam, but it's tight."  She waited for Sagehawk to return, then said, "Get the Omegans in here."

"Yes, ma'am," Sagehawk replied, trotting off again.

"What is it?" Blackwood asked.

Rhee stood and gave the scientist a thin smile.  "Stead was actually an old Army base before the Air Force inherited it after World War II.  It was closed down in the mid-60s.  These hangers were only partially reinforced in a grid arrangement with cement filling in the rest.  But," she said, shoving the flashlight back into her pocket, "during the Second World War they built tunnels to connect the hangers so they could load cargo without being observed.  If I'm right, there should be one of those doors under this slab of concrete.  It's someplace to start."

Blackwood blew out a sigh, puffing his cheeks in relief.  He knew the colonel wasn't dead, although if someone had pressed him, he was unsure if he'd attribute that belief to stubbornness or something less definable.

 

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

 

"I don't get it," Derriman grumbled, staring at the metal door they'd found under the cement flooring slab.  "There were enough explosives in that charge to turn that door into thumb-tacks."

Rhee stood with Harrison, Suzanne, and Sagehawk – Norton having remained on standby outside in case the Cray turned up anything.  Removing the cement flooring had taken the combined efforts of the entire Omega Squad and the Project members, then Stein, the Omega Squad's demo-man had set charges to breach the metal door.  He had failed, three times.

"It's impossible," Suzanne grumbled, staring at the smoke that drifted up to fill the top of the structure.

Rhee noted the thoughtful expression on Blackwood's face.  "What?" she asked him.

"I— I don't know."  He walked off several paces, then came back to the two women.  Fishing in his jacket pocket, he found, then pulled a small tuning fork out and fumbled it through his fingers.  "When I was with Quinn in the United Nations building, he locked a door to the room we were in with a laser lock."

"I remember the report," the commander said.  "You think it could stand up to these charges?"

"If it's a kind of energy lock, I don't see why not," Harrison explained, pacing in front of the others.  "The physics are sound.  It's certainly not anything we can duplicate with our present technology.  He said it would be impossible to break it down as long as the lock was active.  But it's a timed device."

Suzanne reached out a hand to stop Blackwood's slow prowl.  "But, why would Quinn want Paul?"

Blackwood shook his head.  "I've been thinking about that myself, and I don't know, Suzanne.  He promised me we'd meet again, and I believe him."

"You think he took the Colonel to draw you out?" Rhee asked, folding her arms across her chest.

"There would be any number of easier ways to do that," the astrophysicist said with a mirthless smile.  "Like a phone call."

"But what do we do now?" Suzanne asked, stepping back out of the way as the Omegans moved their equipment back out of the warehouse.

"We wait.  When the time's up we'll be able to open the door."  Blackwood set his shoulders, his gaze fixing on the blackened metal surface.

"But Quinn would know that," Rhee said.  "So why would he lock himself into a situation where he's trapped?  If he is trapped."

"We don't have any other leads, Commander.  What would you suggest?" Harrison asked.

Thompson's forehead furrowed.  "I don't know, Doctor."  She motioned to Derriman who walked over to join them.  "Sergeant, I want people checking this door every ten minutes."

"Yes, ma'am."

 

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

 

"Damn it!"  Blackwood spun around, taking in the small room for the third time.  The lock had disengaged almost thirty minutes after the Squad had tried to blast their way in, and they had immediately descended into the dimly lit corridor beneath the hanger.  The passage was empty except for a single door.  Sagehawk had opened it, leading them into a ten by ten empty storage space – empty except for a small table.  On the table, Ironhorse's battle baton and tomahawk were laid out side by side.

The astrophysicist gathered up the weapons and set off down the tunnel that extended past the room for another hundred yards.  The others followed silently, emerging in a second warehouse that sat at the edge of the base.  The nearby fence was easy enough to climb over with a blanket to shield the wire at the top.  Beyond the fence they found the tracks of two horses. 

"Quinn must have taken the Colonel into the hills.  He probably had other transportation waiting," Harrison guessed, looking around at the landscape and wishing the trees could communicate.

"Doctor!"

Blackwood turned to find Coleman approaching at a dead run.  "What is it, Sergeant?"

"Mr. Drake's picked up something you need to see – right now."

 

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

 

Blackwood skidded to a stop in the loose dust that covered the desert ground, Suzanne, Rhee, and Sagehawk right behind him.  "What is it?" he panted.

"You're not going to believe this," Norton said, not bothering to look back at the assembled group.

"What?" Harrison demanded, reaching the end of his patience.

"There was an… incident," Drake explained, typing furiously.  "Just a sec and I'll have it…  It was in Reno.  It seems some guy freaked out downtown and attacked some tourists."

"So?" Blackwood said, slipping into the van and taking a seat cross-legged behind the black man.

"So, the man responsible was described in the report and it's our Colonel," Norton said, reaching up to switch on a second monitor mounted from the ceiling of the van.

"What?" Suzanne gasped.  "That's impossible.  Paul would never do something like that."

"Two men were injured, one critically," Norton continued, inserting a floppy into his primary CPU.  "It's him, Suzanne.  The witness sketch clenched it."

The machine beeped, the assembled group watching a replay of the report that Norton had seen.

"Let's go," Blackwood commanded, rocking forward to slap Norton on the back.  He backed out of the van just in time to avoid having his eardrums blown by the automatic alarm.  "Now what!"  Leaning back in, Harrison demanded, "Trouble?"

"Transmissions," the computer expert stated flatly.  "Just what we needed."

"Where?" Suzanne asked, leaning in next to Blackwood.

"Just a sec…  It's in… Carson City."  Norton turned, staring at the other two Project members over his shoulder.  "That's close.  Too close if you ask me.  Can't be coincidence."

Blackwood stepped away from the van, calling out, "Everyone, listen up.  We have transmissions.  It's time to move.  Sergeant Sagehawk, you drive," he told the Sigma member as he patted the side of the Green Machine.  He turned to face the three Omega sergeants.  "I know this is going to be difficult, people, but you're going to have to handle this."

Derriman nodded.  "Alverez, Stein, you're with me," he called and the two men broke from the group to grab their gear.  The Platoon sergeant turned to the other two NCO's.  "Norah, you and Alex take the transmissions, then head for the Cottage.  I'll meet you there."  The pair nodded once and jogged off to organize their squads.  "Doctor," he concluded, "stay in touch so we know what the hell's going on."

"Will do," Blackwood assured him.

"Be careful, and good luck.  We'll be ready to move if you need us."

"Good man," Blackwood said.

 

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

 

Packed into the back of the van as they drove to Reno, Harrison, Suzanne, and  Rhee scanned the police report that had been filed, leaning over Norton's shoulder.  A radio update greeted them as they pulled out onto the highway, stating that anyone with knowledge of the man's identity should call the police.

Harrison snorted and shook his head.  "They'd never believe it.  Norton, can you go back to the beginning?"

"Doc, that was the third time."

"Indulge me," Blackwood said, his smile warm enough to melt ice cream on a cold day.  "We're missing something."

"All right," he said, keying up the report and playing it again.

"There," Rhee said, reaching around Norton to poke a key and freeze the image of the police sketch before it scrolled by.  "Can you enlarge that, Mr. Drake?"

"In a flash," he replied, already starting to type.

"What do you see?" Suzanne asked.

"I'm not sure yet, but I think . . . yeah."  She pointed to the image of Ironhorse, his expression cold and distant.  "There.  What's that around his neck?"

"It looks like a… collar of some sort," Suzanne said softly, leaning in closer to the screen for a better look.  "He doesn't wear anything like that.  What's it for?"

"Control," Harrison said softly.

"Care to expand on that, Doctor?" Rhee asked.

"When I was Quinn's prisoner, he used a bracelet to force me to follow him.  Mentally I was in control, but Quinn had physical command over my body and where it went."  Harrison moved back to lean against the side of the van.  "Maybe that's the same kind of thing happening here, only this collar is controlling the Colonel, mentally as well as physically."

"But why?" the commander questioned.

"I don't know," Blackwood admitted.

"Because he could force Paul to do something that would get out on television and the radio?"

Norton nodded enthusiastically.  "That's it, Suzanne!  Harrison, Quinn knows you'll look for Ironhorse.  What better way to tell you where he is than something that's going to be broadcast all over the area?"

Blackwood nodded.  "It fits.  Quinn has an ego."

 

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

 

Ironhorse lay on one of the double beds in the cheap hotel room, fighting against the immobility imposed on his body by the collar Quinn had fitted on him.  Anger and frustration shone in his eyes, but the alien device made it impossible for him to even grind his teeth.  He sighed silently and mentally berated himself for ending up the alien's prisoner, while at the same time acknowledging that there was nothing he could have done to prevent it.  He hadn't walked into the renegade's hands like a green newbie, despite the fact that it felt that way.

The initial security sweeps at Stead had been clear, and nothing unusual had occurred during the exercise.  There had been absolutely no warning before the tranquilizer dart had found the back of Ironhorse's thigh.

When he had finally regained consciousness, he was with Quinn in a small storage room beneath the hanger.  Bent over an old table, arms secured out to the sides, his shirt was gone and the collar was already in place.  Quinn had continued working, running a thin wire down Ironhorse's spine and attaching a series of dime-sized metal discs on either side of his backbone, raising goose bumps across his skin.

 

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

 

Quinn waited until Ironhorse was fully conscious before he activated the control mechanism, untied Ironhorse's hands, and then commanded the soldier to sit down.  The soldier did as instructed, unable to resist.

Quinn removed his weapons, enjoying the anger and frustration Ironhorse was unable to hide.  He laid them on the small table, explaining his plans with a smug smile as he did.

"I do hate losing, Colonel.  You and Harry, and those lackeys from the Advocacy, cost me the first round.  Then you managed to escape the plans I'd laid out so carefully for you when I borrowed Mr. Cash McCullough."

Ironhorse's black eyebrows rose in graceful arcs.

"Oh, yes, that was me, Colonel.  But you shouldn't be surprised.  And it's all academic, you realize – I have you now.  Harry will come – to rescue you – and I will have him as well.  Humans really are too predictable at times, don't you agree?"

"What the hell are you after, Quinn?" Ironhorse growled, trying to fight against the forced immobility.

"Why, nothing less than the entire planet, Colonel," Quinn replied, walking around to stand across the table from the soldier.  "And I will have it.  Great changes are coming, my friend, it's just a matter of when.  But I'm tired of waiting.  I want it now."  He gripped the edge of the table and leaned forward.  "As long as I have you, Harry will cooperate.  He'll carry my ultimatum to the United Nations.  He will make the selections.  He will give me anything I want."

"Selections?" Ironhorse asked.

Quinn smiled evilly.  It was clear that Harrison Blackwood had neglected to tell the good colonel quite a bit about his time as the permanently blended alien's prisoner. His expression was thoughtful as he spoke.  "It doesn't surprise me that Harry didn't tell you.  I'm sure he wanted to forget my offer as quickly as possible.  He is too much the humanitarian."

Ironhorse waited, unwilling to play his captor's game any further.  If Quinn wanted him to know, and he obviously did, he'd tell him.

"You see, Colonel," Quinn said, shoving off the table and beginning a slow walk around the room.  "I made Harry a very important offer.  With the Advocates gone, the Mor'taxan soldiers will be only too willing to follow me, since I was one of them.  The scientists will follow me because I will give them a higher position than they have under the present leadership.  And when the fleet arrives, they will have a planet ready for settlement."

"Oh, really?"

Quinn continued to pace.  "Oh, yes, Colonel.  You see, all the humans will be gone, except for a handful, which I will spare – ten percent of the world's population, chosen by Harry and confined to reservations, far away from my people. There they will be allowed to continue.  A situation you should understand."

Ironhorse ground his teeth together.  No wonder Blackwood had been shaken by his abduction.  It hadn't hit until after they'd returned to the Cottage, but the depression Blackwood had fallen into was one of the worst Ironhorse could remember seeing, and now he understood why.  It wasn't hard to imagine the astrophysicist's reaction to the suggestion that he pick those spared from global genocide.

"You're cutting your own throat, Quinn," Ironhorse snarled.  "The aliens will never accept you in that human body, and we won't either."

Quinn shrugged.  "Perhaps.  Harry said the same thing, you know.  But you see, Colonel, the fleet that is coming is made up of only a tiny minority of Mor'taxans – ten-percent, at most.  The others are Morthre."

"Morthre?" the soldier asked, hating to admit that he was worried by the comment.

Quinn watched the soldier, knowing he'd caught the man's interest at last.  "They are a different people than mine, although we spring from the same ancient stock.  Our forefathers were a powerful, ruthless people who came to our solar system over a millennia ago.  They colonized the habitable planets in our system and flourished.  But evolution can have its drawbacks.  On Mor'tax one people developed, and on our sister world, Morthre, another race grew strong.  The Advocates take their orders from the Morthren council.  A few Mor'taxans, like myself, are more closely linked to our Morthre brothers, who are far more powerful than the Mor'taxans.  Even the Eternal has favored them."  The last came out laced with equal measure of awe and abhorrence.

"So you're no different than the worst of my race after all, are you, Quinn?" Ironhorse asked scornfully.  "Like the Indian scouts who worked for the Army, leading them to slaughter their own people."

"Oh, no, Colonel, I am very different," the alien said, coming to stop in front of Ironhorse.  "Very different indeed.  You see, I was— But why am I telling you any of this?  By now the search for you has begun.  Harry will come, but it won't matter. We will be gone.  If Harry should find this room, and he might, all that will be left are your weapons.  Aesthetic touch, don't you think?  I am, after all, an artist."

The soldier glared.  He knew the effect the weapons would have on the scientist.  "He won't fall for any of your traps, Quinn.  He escaped you once, remember?"

"Yes, he did, but he won't have to 'fall for a trap,' as you so quaintly put it.  Harry will voluntarily contact the UN and make the necessary selections.  And do you know why?"  He waited for Ironhorse to speak, and when he didn't, continued anyway.  "He will do it to spare you."

"I'm replaceable, Quinn.  That's my job," Ironhorse bit out.  "Blackwood won't sell out the human race for me or anyone else."

"Ah, but he will, Colonel Ironhorse.  I know Harry better than you do in that respect. But you will play a more important part in this historical moment than bait," Quinn promised.

"I'll pass, thanks."

Quinn chuckled softly.  "But I'm giving you the opportunity to do exactly what it is you want to do.  I will help you destroy the Advocacy."

 

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

 

Lying on the bed, Ironhorse wondered if that promise might not be the silver lining to this otherwise dismal situation.

Lounging against the headboard of the second bed, his legs crossed comfortably at the ankles, Quinn read through the local newspaper.  Glancing over at the soldier, the renegade Mor'taxan smiled and shook the paper.  "The police artist captured your likeness quite well, don't you agree?"  He turned the page so the colonel could see the sketch.

The intensity of the hate directed through Ironhorse's gaze made Quinn chuckle. Reaching down, he made an adjustment to the bracelet on his wrist, freeing the colonel's voice.  "How long do you think it will take before Harry arrives?"

"Go to hell," Ironhorse snarled.  The memory of the two men falling after he had delivered near fatal blows refused to leave his thoughts, and he held the grinning alien fully responsible.

"Now, now, Colonel.  You took an oath.  An officer and a gentleman, remember?"  Quinn folded the paper and tossed it aside before he continued.  "Harry was so much easier to deal with.  He has a fascinating mind.  Most complex." The older man/alien paused, watching the soldier for a moment before he continued.  "Do you honestly believe you can win this war?"

"Do you honestly think you can take over the planet?"

"Touché, Colonel.  But you'd better hope I can," he said, sliding from the bed and walking over to pour himself a glass of water.  "The Morthre are a much more dangerous force than the Mor'taxans could ever hope to be.  If we fail, we will be put to death, and humanity will face the wrath of the Eternal – a force more powerful than even the Qar'toans and their pathetic synths."  He carried the glass over to the overstuffed chair near the television set and sat down.

"I don't call 137 dead aliens pathetic," Ironhorse corrected, emphasizing the count.

"Perhaps, but you know why the synth was here as well as I do," the alien said, then drained the glass and set it aside.  "We just want to destroy you, the Qar'toans want to harvest you for food.  Surely that is a less appealing fate."

Ironhorse glowered at the alien.  Quinn was clever, and he was mad.  "This is our planet, Quinn.  We will fight you all."

 

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

 

"Where to?" Sagehawk asked as he took an off-ramp leading into the heart of Reno.

Suzanne read the "Biggest Little City in the World" sign aloud as they passed under the proclamation suspended between two of the city's largest casinos.

Blackwood thought for a moment.  They should try to stay as invisible as possible.  Even if it was Quinn who had the colonel, that didn't mean they and Ironhorse were not still in real danger, especially with aliens forty-five miles away in Carson City.  There could be other aliens with the renegade, or looking for him like they had been in New York.  They needed to blend in, buy enough time to evaluate the situation.

"Let's make use of the budget the General so generously gave us," he said.

"Sir?" the Specialist questioned.

"We need a location where we're not going to draw attention.  Somewhere we can blend in and get lost in a crowd, but we have to be able to move fast if we have to."

Rhee grinned.  "I'd suggest the Nugget, in Sparks.  It's not so large that we'll have to worry about someone getting the drop on us, it's out of the main tourist area so we can move quickly, and it's big enough to let us fade into the tourist scene."

"Perfect," Blackwood proclaimed.

The commander gave Sagehawk directions.

"You come here often?" Norton asked, smiling over at the woman.

"I worked there a couple of summers while I was going to college.  Good summer wages, and it beats the tuna factories in Alaska hands down."

"Ah," the black man said, "I see your point."

 

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

 

Blackwood and the others carried their equipment straight to their suite on the top floor of the hotel-casino.  The Governor's suite was one of three such groups of rooms on the top floor – the Presidential and Executive suites both unoccupied at the moment.

Norton immediately set to work with the portable laptop and secured modem.

And while the black man worked over his keyboard, Sagehawk collected orders from everyone and called room service.  Suzanne excused herself to take a shower and change, and Blackwood collapsed onto the couch for a much needed nap.  Rhee occupied her time arranging a series of passive alarms around the room to increase their security.

A groan from the round table that now served as a computer work station drew her attention from the last of the window alarms she'd placed and activated.

"Something wrong?" she asked Norton.

"Nothing several hours of sleep won't cure, Commander," he said, rubbing the back of his neck as he watched a series of screens scroll by.

Rhee stood and walked over to the black man, waving his hands away and massaging the back of his neck and shoulders.

"Oh, man, that feels great.  Thank you."

"Least I can do, Mr. Drake."

"You could do one more thing," he said, relaxing into the manipulations.

"What's that?" she asked.

"Call me Norton."

"Happy to, if you'll call me Rhee.  I understand this group isn't into titles."

He chuckled, then sat in silence for several minutes, savoring the diversion and tingle that spread throughout his body as she worked the tension away.  A knock sounded at the door, interrupting the session.  Rhee patted the man on the shoulder and turned to cover Sagehawk while he received their food.  Her hand inched toward the M-9 she had sitting in a belt holster at the back of her jeans.  The sergeant was also armed, but the delivery went uneventfully.

Blackwood yawned and stretched on the sofa, his nap over.  He rose, almost bumping into Suzanne as she exited the bathroom.

"Well, you look much better," he commented as he slipped his glasses back on and peered over at the cart.

Suzanne paused in her forward rush toward the food.  "Thanks, Harrison…  I think."

"Ah, the man with the silver tongue," Norton teased.

Blackwood ignored the barb, stretching again, then walking over to inspect his waiting salad.

"So, what's our plan?" Suzanne asked, when everyone was settled and eating.

"We wait," Blackwood said, impaling several vegetables with his fork.  "Sooner or later Quinn will tell us where to find him."

"Don't you mean tell you, Doctor?" Rhee asked, testing her soup.

"Yes."

"Harrison, don't you think it's time you told us what this is all about?" Suzanne suggested.

The astrophysicist shot Suzanne a half-angry glance.  "I suppose it is.  You know most of it, but…"

"We always thought there was more to that New York fiasco than you let on," Norton prompted.

"Not the kind of 'more' I like to remember, Norton.  But it's important, I know that." Blackwood chewed thoughtfully for a moment, then pushed his salad aside.  "You see, Quinn's brilliant, and he's talented, but he's also insane, a megalomaniac who's out to control the planet.  And if anyone can pull it off, it's him.  With a little help from us."  He launched into a more intimate description of his time with the alien.

 

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

 

Ironhorse watched the gathering darkness beyond the closed hotel room curtains.  His stomach growled audibly.  It had been nearly twenty-four hours since he'd eaten.  It wasn't enough to make him weak, but it was enough to make him uncomfortable with nothing else to do but lie on the bed and think.  Quinn had left earlier, content to abandon the soldier, knowing the collar would keep him from anything more than the angry thoughts that welled inside his mind.

But beneath the anger was a steadily growing fear.  The alien collar gave Quinn control over his movements, and his expressions.  And while his thoughts remained his own, his body did exactly what the alien commanded.  If Quinn ordered him to hurt Blackwood, or the others…

Frustration filled him, reverberating within the prison his body had become and striking a chord of empathy for the wheelchair-bound hacker.  There just wasn't a single thing Ironhorse could do about it.  And the entire situation was far too similar to what had happened to him when Kitara breached his will and emptied his mind of the information she wanted.

There has to be a way to break past Quinn's control! Ironhorse argued with himself.

He'd already tried brute force, throwing his considerable force of will against the paralysis, but he'd gotten absolutely nowhere.  Now, lying alone in the hotel room, he tried focused concentration.

Nothing.

He allowed his thoughts to wander while willing himself to relax, but he still couldn't produce even so much as a facial tic.

Ironhorse mentally reviewed the assault Quinn had forced him to commit.  The alien's control had extended even to the tone of his voice.  When he'd hit the first man an apology had risen to his lips, but it was suppressed, forced back in his throat, an angry slur taking its place.

How can Quinn know what I'm going to say?

The anger resurfaced, hotter than before.  It was hopeless.

No!  I cannot give up.  There has to be a way.

 

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

 

The computer began pouring forth a popular reggae song as the team finished the last of their meal.  Norton was rolling before the others could scramble off the beds and chairs they were relaxing on.

"What is it?" Harrison called as Norton reached the terminal screen.

"Give a guy a minute."  He typed out a series of commands.  "Oh, that's just great!"

"Norton," Suzanne warned, her nerves already close to frayed.

"More transmissions.  Close by, too.  How the hell did they find us?"

"They didn't," Harrison said, slapping his thigh.  "They found Ironhorse and Quinn."  He stood and marched over to join the hacker.

"How?" Sagehawk asked, unconvinced.

Suzanne's forehead wrinkled and she opened her mouth to demand an explanation.

Rhee interrupted.  "They saw Colonel Ironhorse on television and recognized him?"

"That's my guess," Blackwood concurred, leaning over the black man's shoulder to peer at the smaller screen.

"Chalk up one more coup to the great bloodshot eye," Norton sighed.  "Now what?"

The phone rang, causing the collective group to startle.  They stared at the instrument as the bell continued to demand their attention.

"No one knows we're here," Rhee offered unnecessarily.

"Well, someone does," Suzanne corrected, hating the knot that was forming in the pit of her stomach.

Closest, Blackwood reached out and answered the instrument, pressing the button on the speaker Norton had added to the instrument.  "Hello?"

"Ah, Harry, it's good to hear your voice again.  I suppose you've been waiting to hear from me?  It was good of you to come so quickly."

"Where's Ironhorse?" Harrison demanded.

The alien chuckled.  "He's safe, Harry, for the time being.  We have a few things we need to discuss, just the two of us."

"Impossible," the astrophysicist said, sitting down.  "What do you want?  Is Ironhorse all right?"

"Harry, Harry, surely you understand?  I will tell you everything you want to know, but we must meet – face to face.  You and I."

Suzanne stepped over to stand next to Harrison, her hand resting slightly on his shoulder for support.

"You must take me for a fool, Quinn," Blackwood snapped.  "I'll meet with you, but not alone."

"Oh, very well, but let me warn you, do not interfere with me," the alien threatened, his voice dropping to a low growl.  "If I do not return to your Colonel, he will die.  Do you understand that?"

"I understand, Quinn."

"Good.  Be at the Circus Circus at eight tonight.  I'll find you."

"Quinn, wait, there—"  The phone went dead, and Harrison dropped the receiver into the empty cradle.

"You can't go alone, Doctor," Rhee stated firmly, her voice making it clear to everyone in the room that she would entertain no discussion on the point.

Suzanne watched as Harrison's lips pressed together in an angry thin line.  The Navy officer was right, but he was a moment away from telling Rhee he'd do exactly what he thought best.  However, it was equally clear he knew that meant he went with a back-up.  It was a good thing, too, she decided.  The look in the commander's eyes said Harrison would have security whether or not he wanted it.  Uncle Hank had picked carefully, and it had been the right choice.  Rhee might not back down, but she knew when to stop pushing.

"No, Commander, I know that," Blackwood finally said, walking back over to join Norton at the computer.

"Amazing," the hacker said under his breath.

"Norton, contact the Cottage, tell Derriman about this latest set of transmissions. Maybe the Squad hasn't left Carson City yet."

"You got it, Doc," he replied.

 

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

 

The crowd wasn't overly large for the downtown attraction.  About fifteen minutes from their hotel, Circus Circus was half gambling casino and half carnival midway.  The games, which attracted as many adults as children, covered the entire second floor of the building.  The center section of the floor space had been removed so those on the second floor could see down into the main casino where Blackwood stood.  It also added a sense of danger and excitement to the overhead high-wire and trapeze performances that occurred several times a day.

Harrison looked up to find two young women walking across a thin wire from opposite sides of the large building.  What they'd do when they met in the center of the wire would draw several appreciative "oohs" and "ahs" from the watching crowd. Turning his attention back to the people who moved past him, he guessed that the human/alien would not be on the main floor where the crowd was thickest, but up among the games.  There were more children there, less of a threat.  Locating the stairs, he climbed.

Wandering past the water pistol horse races, a ring toss and the pinball arcade, he stopped and took in the area in a full three-hundred and sixty degree pivot.  He didn't see Quinn, but then he hadn't seen Sagehawk or the commander either.  With nothing left to do but wait, Harrison decided to watch the wire act.  He knew exactly how those performers felt.

A hand squeezed Blackwood's shoulder just as the two female acrobats took their final bow.

"Did you enjoy the performance?"

Dipping slightly, the astrophysicist stepped free of Quinn’s grasp before he could attach any devices to Blackwood's person.

"I would have preferred not waiting."

"Harry, you really must learn to relax.  You'll live longer," the renegade said with a paternal air.

"I'm not here for idle chatter, Quinn," Blackwood nearly snarled.  "Where's Ironhorse?  And what do you want in exchange for him?"

"You are quick, I'll give you that, Harry," Quinn conceded, walking along the rows of midway games.  Children and teenagers moved past the two men, their smiles and laughter a stark contrast to the seriousness of the adults.  "Let's just say your colonel is resting comfortably.  As for what I want, that's quite simple.  First, I want you to carry my offer to the United Nations, just as I asked you to in New York.  Second, you will agree to make the final selections, because, Harry, I trust your judgment.  And lastly, I want a look at the alien objects you've recovered.  I'm looking for something you might have found."

Blackwood forced back the almost overwhelming urge to lash out at the man. "Quinn, even if I took your proposal to the UN, they'd just laugh me out of the chamber. We aren't going to stroll calmly to the slaughter."

"You have no choice," Quinn snapped, reaching out to snare Blackwood's arm, his fingers digging painfully into skin and muscle.

Harrison ground his teeth together but refused to break eye contact with the alien.

"With your colonel's help I will destroy the Advocates.  The Mor'taxans will follow me.  It is all but done."

"This is useless, Quinn.  I won't talk to the UN, and I sure as hell won't pick your damned ten percent," Blackwood hissed.

"I anticipated some resistance on your part."  Releasing Blackwood, Quinn reached for his wrist, slowly drawing the sleeve back to reveal the bracelet he wore. Pressing one of the small raised triangular pieces, he spoke in a regular voice.  "Colonel, can you hear me?"

"I hear you, Quinn.  Where the hell are you?" Ironhorse's voice replied.  It sounded like he was standing right next to the alien.

Blackwood stiffened.  "Colonel?"

"Blackwood?" Ironhorse questioned, his voice a mix of relief and worry.  "What the hell's going on?" he demanded.

Quinn pressed a finger to the bracelet and a low moan echoed back in reply.

"What're you doing?" Blackwood snapped, the concern and outrage in his voice drawing the attention of a few of the patrons.

"Call it motivation, Harry," Quinn said in a near whisper.  "And if you don't behave, I will teach him another lesson in agony."

A second moan sounded, and Blackwood could tell that the colonel was trying desperately not to cry out.  "Quinn, stop," he implored, reaching out to grab the alien's arm.  "I—"

"Get down!"

Before Blackwood could sort out what was happening, Sagehawk had grabbed his shirt and was dragging the scientist to the cover of the closest game booth.  From the corner of his eye, he saw Quinn lunging into a small crowd, disappearing.

Gunfire erupted, exploding a large pink elephant suspended above Harrison and the specialist.  Stuffing rained down on them, and screams drowned out what Sagehawk was saying, but Blackwood caught one word:  "aliens."

"Quinn!" Harrison yelled, trying to bolt after the man, but Sagehawk stopped him.

"Doctor, we have to get out of here!"

"Not without Quinn," Blackwood snarled, pushing the soldier away and lunging off in the direction the alien had taken.

Sagehawk followed.

Stumbling through the panicked crowd, the two men tried to keep up with Quinn, but he was adept at using the surging mass of humanity for cover and within moments he was gone.

"Doctor," Sagehawk said, grabbing the shoulder of Blackwood's jacket.  "He's gone. We have to get back.  Now," he asserted, his voice mirroring the tone Blackwood had heard Ironhorse use on many occasions.  That, more than anything, convinced the scientist to follow the young man.

 

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

 

"Harrison, are you all right?" Suzanne asked as she opened the door to admit he and Sagehawk to the hotel room.  Norton checked them with the Geiger counter.

"Yeah," was all Blackwood said, striding across the room to the phone.  "Has Quinn called?"

"No, why should he?" Suzanne joined the scientist.  "Didn't you meet him?"

"We were interrupted," Blackwood replied, slipping out of the jacket.  He tossed the garment on the bed, then ran a hand over his unruly hair.

"Aliens," Sagehawk said, checking his weapon and reloading it with a fresh clip.  "They started shooting.  Can you check with the Cottage, see if they've had any activity?"

"Sure," Norton said, pushing Gertrude over to the terminal, "but they would've notified us if they had.  Where's the Commander?"

"Following Quinn, I think," Sagehawk explained.  "We have to load up and get out of here."

Blackwood nodded.  "If they grab her, they'll know where we are and why we're here."

Suzanne was already moving to gather up their belongings.  "What about the police?"

"I'll take care of that once we're relocated.  I hope," Sagehawk said, moving to help the microbiologist.

"All's quiet at the Cottage," Norton announced, then started to disconnect his machinery.  "What if she needs to contact us?"

The phone rang, cutting short the discussion.  Blackwood scooped up the receiver.  "Quinn?"

"No, Doctor, it's me.  I think I've located the Colonel," Commander Thompson told Blackwood, panting slightly to catch her breath.

"Commander, how do we know you're not an alien?" Harrison interrogated.  "Why didn't you—?"

"Because if I was, I'd be knocking on the door," she interrupted, then added, "Look, you can check me out when you get here, but I have a feeling Quinn's going to rabbit, so make up your mind."

Blackwood hesitated, rubbing his forehead to chase away the first waves of a headache, then demanded.  "Where are you?"

"Small motel on 4th street – across from the University of Nevada campus."  She gave the scientist specific instructions on where to park.

"We're on the way," he told her and hung up.  "God, I hope I'm not wrong about her."

 

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

                                                                 ____

                                                                 MEMO

 

Code: 124-330x

Classification: TOP SECRET

 

To: Brigadier General Henry J. Wilson

 

From: Lt. Commander Mary Rhee Thompson

 

Re: Events surrounding the discovery of Lt. Colonel Paul Ironhorse in Reno, Nevada

 

Spc.5 Sagehawk and I split up at the Circus Circus casino (see MEMO #124-327x through 329x).  The sergeant followed Dr. Blackwood while I waited and trailed Quinn once he arrived.  Three Caucasian males were also following Quinn.  At one point they lapsed into alien speech.  They shadowed Quinn to his meeting with Dr. Blackwood.

 

Using the radio, I contacted Spc.5 Sagehawk and informed him about the aliens.  I recommended he move in closer to Dr. Blackwood, and when they attacked, Spc.5 Sagehawk pulled Dr. Blackwood to safety, placing his own life at risk.

 

Quinn fled.  The three aliens pursued him through the casino, across an outdoor walkway that spanned the street, and into the casino's multi-level parking garage.  Quinn destroyed one of the aliens by blinding it with a small pyramid-shaped crystal which emitted a bright greenish light, then stabbing it with a knife he had concealed on his person.

 

The second and third aliens informed Quinn that he must turn himself over to the Advocacy.  Quinn refused, stating that soon the Advocates would "be no more, and you will follow me."  The alien disagreed. Quinn used the revolver the first alien had been carrying to kill a second alien.  The third fled.

 

I continued to trail Quinn as he proceeded to a black van.  When I saw that it was his vehicle, I searched the parking garage for a vehicle I could gain access to.  After locating a late-model pick-up truck, I was able to hot wire the vehicle and follow Quinn.  He drove directly to the Boots and Saddle Motel on 4th street in Reno.  He entered room #11.

 

At that time, I called Dr. Blackwood and asked him and the others to meet me on the south side of the building.  They arrived in twelve minutes.

 

Continued on following page.

 

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

 

"What's wrong, Quinn?" Ironhorse asked as he watched the alien anxiously prowl the hotel room.  "You look worried.  Your friends find you?"

"They are not my friends.  And you'd better pray they don't find us here, or I'll leave you for their amusement," he snarled, moving to pack his few belongings into a small valise.

The soldier's jaw ground shut, but a malicious glee sprang into his eyes.  "Well, if they do, at least I'll have the pleasure of knowing you'll be dissected."

Quinn's hand lashed out, catching the immobile soldier across the face as a sneer cut his sliver-black beard.  "I could—"

"Quinn!" called a voice, followed by a furious pounding on the door.

"Blackwood?" the renegade whispered, spinning away from the soldier.

"They know you're here, Quinn.  Let us help you.  We'll get you out of here."  Harrison waited a moment, then added, "Come on, Quinn.  We don't have much time."

The renegade pressed the bracelet, causing Ironhorse to stand and cross the room. "Colonel, it's time we left."

The soldier tried to yell, but his voice was back under the alien's control.  Reaching to the door, Ironhorse opened it to find Blackwood and Sigma Squad's Spec. 5 James Sagehawk waiting.

"Colonel?" the astrophysicist asked, reaching forward to grab Ironhorse's shoulders.

"He can't talk right now, Harry," Quinn interrupted, pushing past the immobile soldier to fill the doorway.  "We're in a hurry.  You have a car?"

"This way," Harrison motioned, his jaw tight with barely controlled anger.

"Come along, Colonel," Quinn said, stepping out onto the sidewalk.

The squeal of tires froze the four men and they watched as Norton's green machine skidded into the parking lot.  Behind it three cars thundered in pursuit.  Several men emerged from the vehicles, disappearing into the cover the parked cars provided.

"You led them straight to us," Quinn accused, his hand beginning to rise to strike the astrophysicist.

"Damn!" Blackwood swore as they dove for the cover among the cars.  "Here!"  He passed a gun from Sagehawk into Ironhorse's hands.

Quinn pressed frantically on the bracelet and the soldier's fingers curled around the weapon.  When he felt some control slip back into his muscles, Ironhorse's first inclination was to turn and shoot the renegade, but he knew he wouldn't be allowed to carry out such an action.

"It's your chance to show us all what a hero you are, Colonel," Quinn said, a sarcastic smile on his face.

Ironhorse felt himself being carried into the battle, but at least he was able to determine the direction.

"Quinn, you're going to get him killed!" Harrison hissed.

"Perhaps, but we will survive," the renegade mused, pressing back closer to the car.

"Go with him," Blackwood commanded the sergeant.

"I can't, sir.  It's my job to protect you."

Blackwood understood what the young man was saying, but he wasn't happy about it.  From where he peered around the grill of the large pick-up, Harrison could see that Suzanne and Norton were both armed.  There was no sign of Commander Thompson.  Maybe Ironhorse had help after all.

"Hold it!"  Sagehawk snapped and Blackwood's attention refocused on the renegade alien.  Quinn had a gun.

"Sorry, Harry, but it seems it's time for me to go.  The good Colonel will keep them busy."

"Quinn!" Harrison yelled as the alien backed away, his gun trained on the astrophysicist to keep Sagehawk from firing.

 

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

 

Code: 124-330x Continued

 

Upon arrival I established a defensible position.  Four minutes later, the Project members arrived.  Dr. Blackwood and Spec. 5 Sagehawk exited the van and headed  for Quinn's room.  Mr. Drake circled the parking lot.  Three additional cars arrived, each carrying three aliens.  Mr. Drake attempted to maneuver the van close to the motel room where Quinn, Colonel Ironhorse, Dr. Blackwood, and Spec. 5. Sagehawk were located.  However, one of the aliens shot out a rear tire, stranding Dr. Drake and Dr. McCullough in the parking lot approximately 30 yards from the others.

 

Quinn, Colonel Ironhorse, Dr. Blackwood and Spec. 5 Sagehawk took cover among the vehicles.  I could see that the aliens were fanning out to encircle them, and moved to open one side of that circle.

 

Spec. 5 Sagehawk, who was under orders to remain with Dr. Blackwood at all times, provided cover, while Colonel Ironhorse maneuvered for a position from which to attack the aliens.  Seeing that he had chosen to secure a path from where Dr. Blackwood was hiding to the project van, I moved around the edge of the lot to aid him.  Civilians had begun to gather, and I instructed the manager to call 911 and to keep the people back as best he could.

 

By the time I was able to offer the colonel assistance, he was engaged in a firefight with the aliens.  Dr. McCullough and Mr. Drake were offering what cover fire they could, but the van was also under attack.  Fearing that the aliens might be able to access the van, I concentrated on that threat, hoping Spec. 5 Sagehawk could give the colonel the help he needed.

 

The firefight lasted approximately eight minutes.  The nine aliens were destroyed, Colonel Ironhorse killing three, myself and Spec. 5 Sagehawk two each, Mr. Drake one, and Dr. McCullough one.

 

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

 

"Paul!" Suzanne yelled, taking careful aim at the alien standing up behind the colonel.  Squeezing the trigger of her 9 mm, she was rewarded when the blended creature fell heavily against a bright blue sports car and began to dissolve.

Ironhorse spun in response, but was immediately engaged in another battle as two of the creatures pressed in on him.  Another shot from the van evened the odds and the soldier dove for cover behind a jeep, the vehicle's passenger window exploding above him. Scrabbling away, the colonel suddenly found himself facing two more of the invaders.

Another shot dropped one of the pair and Ironhorse caught his first sight of Rhee.  His own weapon, coming up to destroy the second alien, was stopped halfway when he felt arms wrap around his shoulders in a powerful grip.  Struggling frantically, he felt the alien's third arm break through the human host's chest, the three-digit appendage reaching over his head to attach itself to his face.

Ironhorse yelled, firing as he did.  The alien moving in on him stopped its forward progress, its face suddenly missing.  The monster fell, but the three fingers crushing Ironhorse's skull tightened further.

Lowering the gun, the colonel fired backward, hoping to catch his assailant in the leg.  A cry of pain from the blended alien told him he had succeeded.  The three fingers slipped off of his face and the human arms released him, only to jerk him around.  One of the alien's hand rose, striking Ironhorse across the face, knocking him to his knees.  Fingers wrapped into the soldier's fatigue shirt and drew him up again, only to repeat the process for a second and then third time.

On his hands and knees, Ironhorse grunted when the alien kicked him viciously in the midsection, dropping him to the pavement a second time.  Rolling onto his back, the colonel was too slow to stop a swift kick from catching him in the back.  He cried out in pain as he felt a stab of white heat sear out from the point of contact along the wire that ran down his spine.  When it reached the collar it exploded into an agony like none he had ever experienced or imagined.

Unable to do anything to protect himself, Ironhorse felt the alien reach out and grab his shirt, heaving him to his feet.  The third arm lashed out, securing itself around the colonel's neck.  Human fingers reached for his exposed throat.  Locked in the maelstrom of his own hell, Ironhorse closed his eyes.  A blast exploded in the parking lot and the top of the alien's head vanished, raining slime and decomposing human flesh onto the soldier. Paul fell heavily to the ground, his screams echoing across the parking lot.

"What's wrong with him?" Suzanne demanded, as she, Blackwood and the two soldiers tried to subdue Ironhorse before he injured himself.  The colonel, sodden with sweat, struggled under their grips, writhing in agony.

"It has to be the collar," Blackwood said through clenched teeth.  "We've got to get it off."  Tugging powerfully he tried to remove the alien device, although he knew it was impossible.  "Damn it!" he swore in frustration.

The distant cry of approaching sirens was a welcome sound, and Harrison hoped that at least one of them was an ambulance.  With a great shuddering sigh, Ironhorse finally brought himself under some control, but he couldn't stop the occasional groan, or the blood that rolled down his chin from where he had nearly bitten through his lip.  He convulsed, losing the grip he had around his knees as he curled into a tight fetal position.

Specialist Sagehawk sucked in a deep breath and struck Ironhorse, catching him along the chin and snapping his head back.

"What the hell are you doing!" Blackwood bellowed, then realized that Ironhorse had fallen silent, finally unconscious, although his face was still contorted in pain, and he continued to twitch.  "Why didn't I think of that?"

 

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

 

"Just who are you people?" Dr. James demanded, storming into the conference room of the University hospital.  His short gray hair and blue eyes did nothing to soften his expression, and he drew himself up to his full six feet, hoping it might intimidate someone in the group into talking.

"How is he?" Blackwood demanded in lieu of an answer.

"I don't know," the physician snapped, folding his arms across his chest.  "Look, let me explain something to you people.  That man we have in there is suffering, and nobody can figure out why.  There is absolutely no physical reason, no physical trauma occurring to his body except what he's inflicting on himself whenever he regains consciousness."

"Nothing?" Blackwood questioned.  "I don't understand."

"Neither do I.  Furthermore, we can't remove that damned contraption."  Dr. James relaxed slightly.  He could see that the project members were as worried about his patient as he was.  "Whatever it is, it's responsible for the pain, but we don't know what it is, or how it works, or what it was supposed to do."

"We can't help you," Suzanne said, tucking her long brown hair behind her ears.

"You can tell me who you people are, and what that thing is," the doctor replied.  "I have to know if I'm going to help him."

"We don't know what it is!" Suzanne snapped, then took a deep breath, and continued, "I'm sorry.  But why can't you get it off?"

"Because it seems to have some kind of biological component, or something that has innervated itself along the man's spinal nerves.  We can't disconnect it without risking permanent paralysis or death.  It's like nothing I've ever seen.  We simply don't know what we're dealing with.  If asked, I would've sworn nothing like this could even exist!"

"Look," Blackwood said, pushing himself away from the table where he'd been leaning.  "We work for the government.  I can't tell you much, but suffice it to say that we're battling some very sophisticated… terrorists."

"Well, if they're that sophisticated they might as well be aliens!"

The assembled group blanched.

The doctor paused, concerned by the reaction.  "They're not aliens, right?"

Deciding it was time to deflect the conversation from its unpleasant trajectory, Rhee moved out of the uncomfortable chair and moved to stand near Blackwood.  "What are you doing for him?" she asked.

"Right now we're just trying to keep him under with some strong tranquilizers, but that's not good for his system, and we can't keep it up for long."  Dr. James ran a hand over his face, frowning slightly when he felt the stubble.  "We have to find a way to remove that contraption, or turn it off.  Now, if you know anything, I have to know about it.  There might not be any physical damage occurring at the moment, but I can tell you this, if this keeps up it will drive him insane and eventually kill him."

Blackwood shifted uncomfortably.  "Doctor, we're telling you the truth, we don't know how the device works, but I can tell you this much – it's designed to allow one person to control the physical, and maybe the mental actions, of another."

"Where do you people come up with this stuff?"  The doctor's hands flew up in a gesture of frustration.  "Aren't guns good enough?"

"Look, Doctor, it's not like that," Norton interrupted, leaning forward in his wheelchair.  "He's one of the good guys, okay?  So, let's just worry about what we're going to do for him, not whose fault this is."

Dr. James didn't look pleased, but he shelved his ideology and nodded.  "Okay, I'll see if that helps at all.  We've got a team of neurologists looking at the X-rays now.  Maybe we can come up with something.  In the meantime, if you know of anyone who might be able to shed some light on this, please get hold of them and get them out here A-S-A-P."  With that the physician turned and left the Project members alone.

"I'm going to check in with Sagehawk," Rhee told them, exiting.

"Nice to know there are military types who know when it's time to withdraw," Norton said, settling back in Gertrude.  "So, what do we do?"

"We find Quinn," Suzanne stated forcefully.

"Where?" the hacker countered.  "How?  He could be out of the country by now."

"Well, we have to do something!" the microbiologist countered.

"Arguing isn't going to get us anywhere," Blackwood intervened, reaching out to rest his hand on her shoulder.  "I don't think Quinn's gone."

"Why's that, Doc?" Norton asked, rolling closer to the pair.

"Because as long as there's a chance he can get me to do what he wants, he's not going to abandon it."

Suzanne reached out and took Drake's hand and gave it a squeeze.  "Harrison, what're you getting at?"

"A trade, Suzanne.  I'll do what he wants; he tells us how to get that thing off Ironhorse."

"Doc, you can't.  I mean—"

Blackwood interrupted the hacker.  "I don't mean I'll actually make his damned selections.  But I can go to the United Nations.  I can tell them Quinn's demands and they can laugh me right out of the chamber, for all the good it'll do him."

"I don't think the big guy would like that," Drake argued.

"Norton, we don't have any choice," Blackwood countered.

"And if he asks you to hand over a list of the ten percent of humanity who will be spared?" Suzanne challenged as the door swung open.

"I don't know," Harrison admitted, stepping away from the pair.  They were pushing too hard.  "I'll do what I have to."

Rhee stepped back into the room, letting the door fall closed behind her.  "You can't endanger the mission, Doctor."

Blackwood spun.  "Commander, that man is our friend.  He's saved our lives on more occasions than I care to remember.  I'll do what I have to—"

"Remember what you told Quinn?  You can't endanger the planet for one man," the Navy officer said softly.

"He's—"

"I've had to leave people behind, Doctor," Rhee said, her voice soft, but forceful. "And some of them died.  But I couldn't risk my entire team.  There can be no deals."

The muscles along Blackwood's jaws pulsed.  She was right.  He'd said it himself, but this was Ironhorse who was dying, and he couldn't shut the memories of the man's screams out, nor could he forget the look in the colonel's eyes as they tried to hold him down.  It was a plea for help.  Or was it a silent cry for release?  He leaned back against the conference table, his arms folded protectively across his chest.

Rhee took a deep breath and waited.  She watched the astrophysicist's expression carefully.

Ironhorse knows, or at least he suspects, Harrison thought.  He knew that collar was causing the pain, and there was nothing we could do to stop it.  He wanted us to end the ordeal.

Blackwood swallowed hard.  Paul was asking him to do whatever was necessary to make sure Quinn and the aliens didn't win, even if it meant his own death.  He could not betray that trust.

"The information to help Paul in exchange for my talking to the UN – nothing more," Blackwood said aloud.

Rhee sighed and sucked in a deep breath.  "All right.  So, how do we get hold of the man?"

 

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

 

Suzanne sat in Ironhorse's room, watching as the colonel struggled sluggishly in the wide Velcro restraints.  The man was on enough medication to render an ox unconscious, but still he was fighting.  She glanced up at the clock on the far wall, watching as the minute hand swept around the face faster than it should.  It had been nearly eight hours since they'd brought him in.  The doctor estimated he would begin to suffer irreparable damage within twelve hours if they didn't get Quinn's device off.  They had four hours left.

She rubbed her anxiety-damp hands together.  Norton was ensconced in a private office, poking computer links into every conceivable network he could think of, trying to locate the renegade alien.  Sagehawk stood guard outside the door, nervous and frustrated at the lack of activity he was forced to endure.  She felt the same way.

She'd examined the x-rays, the data, and while she followed most of what the neurologists were debating, her own area of expertise locked her out of any high level theorizing that might be useful.  She'd finally retreated to Paul's room, deciding that Ironhorse deserved company and a familiar face if he should force himself out of the drug-smothered sleep.

Disjointed bits and pieces of information, formulas, diagrams all filtered through her mind, but none of it tied together into any coherent whole.  She shook her head to clear it.  Ironhorse mumbled.  He'd been doing that on and off since she'd taken up residence in the comfortable chair the house-keeping staff had provided.  Sometimes he talked about Vietnam, sometimes his youth, sometimes their fight with the aliens, but always they were private, painful memories Suzanne wished she hadn't heard.

Standing, she paced in a semi-circle around the foot of his bed, hoping it would liberate some of the stiffness and tension trapped in her muscles.  Where were Blackwood and Commander Thompson?  Taking the van, the pair had headed into the city to see if they could locate Quinn.  If anyone stood a chance of second guessing Quinn, it was Harrison, but why hadn't they checked in?  Or had they?

She walked to the door and opened it far enough to find Sagehawk seated on a chair outside the door.  Arms folded across his chest, his gaze scanning the hallway, he looked like a younger version of the man he was protecting.  Suzanne shivered.  What if Paul doesn't make it?

No, she scolded herself, don't start thinking like that, it's not going to help any of us.

"Sergeant," she said before her depression deepened.

He jumped slightly, and smiled sheepishly.  "You startled me," he replied.

Suzanne smiled.  "Sorry.  I was wondering, have Dr. Blackwood and Commander Thompson checked in?"

"Yes, ma'am."  He glanced at his watch.  "About half an hour ago.  No luck.  I wasn't sure if I should interrupt, since I didn't have any news."

"Thank you, but this waiting is driving me crazy.  If they call back, let me know."  She leaned back against the doorframe and rubbed her eyes.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Are you Native American?" she asked, delaying a return to the agonized expression she knew awaited her in the room.

Sagehawk nodded.  "My father was a White Mountain Apache from Arizona, and my mother was a Shoshone from northern Nevada."

"Were?  Are they gone now?"  She folded her arms across chest, holding her elbows.

The specialist shifted uncomfortably on his chair.  "They died a winter apart, back while I was still in boarding school," he said, his voice carefully neutral.

"I'm sorry."

He shrugged.  "It's not that uncommon."

"How long have you been in the Army?" Suzanne asked, shifting the topic to something less personal.

Sagehawk pivoted on the seat so he could see her more easily.  "I joined when I was seventeen, so eight years, ma'am.  Why do you ask?"

Suzanne reached out and rested a hand on the young man's shoulder.  "No reason, just curiosity.  You look quite a bit like Paul."

The soldier's eyebrow climbed slightly in an echo of a common expression of the colonel's.  "Oh?  I hadn't noticed."

"To tell you the truth," Suzanne admitted, "I'm just rattling at this point.  I didn't mean to pry."

"I don't mind.  Major Trace holds bull-sessions where we all just sit around and talk. Stuff like that comes up," he told her with a smile.  It was clear he had a great deal of respect and admiration for his commanding officer.  "I guess I'm getting used to it."

"Does it help?"  Suzanne moved back against the door, her psychologist's curiosity emerging.

"I think so," was the serious reply.  "It makes you more aware of the other guys.  You know, who they are, what they're about.  I think it's made us a better squad."

"And if you lose someone?" she asked in a whisper.

He thought for a moment.  "I guess it hurts more, but at the same time, you don't get that feeling like maybe you should've known the person better.  You don't wonder if you might've missed something.  That probably doesn't make much sense."

Suzanne patted his shoulder.  "More than you know.  I have to get back."

"Yes, ma'am.  I'll let you know if I hear anything more."

 

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

 

Blackwood's frustration bubbled over and he slammed his fist against the van's vinyl dash.  "Where the hell is he?"

Rhee glanced sideways at the astrophysicist.  Blackwood was walking a fine line, and, unsure what to say, she opted to remain silent.  They'd been searching for hours, scouring the places Quinn had visited and following up the few leads Norton had provided. But each stop had proved to be futile and with each failure Blackwood had grown more and more withdrawn and anxious.  At least his outburst was some sign that he hadn't given up.

"Three hours," the scientist said, his voice ringing with defeat.

Rhee gripped the steering wheel tighter.  She hated losing, and she hated it more when good people suffered as a result.  Three hours and the colonel could begin to sustain irreversible damage, whatever the hell that meant.  Blackwood hadn't asked the doctor for details so she hadn't either.

"He has to be here, somewhere.  I know he is."

"We could try Circus Circus again," Thompson offered.

Blackwood shook his head.  "No.  I want to go back to the hospital.  I think it's time we told the doctor what's really going on."

The commander gave the man a quick appraisal.  "Are you sure?  Do you think it'll help?"

"I don't know, but I do know that we've run out of options.  Maybe it'll give them a different insight into the problem, something that might help."  The conviction was only half effective.

Rhee doubted he was right, but she kept the thought to herself.  "I'll need to call General Wilson."

Harrison nodded.

 

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

 

"Thank God," Suzanne said when Blackwood and Thompson entered the colonel's room.

The astrophysicist was immediately struck with a wave of panic.  The doctor was bent over Ironhorse, attaching EKG leads to the soldier's chest.  A nurse stood at the IV, injecting a full syringe into the bag.  "Suzanne, what's going on?" he demanded.

The microbiologist took Blackwood's arm and led him to the far side of the room. "He regained consciousness again.  I don't know how, but he managed to break free of the restraints.  It took six orderlies to subdue him."

Blackwood's eyes squeezed closed for a moment.  "And?"

"They've had to try another sedative.  It's more powerful and it has some side-effects.  They're arranging the equipment now so they can monitor his vital signs more closely.  Did you find anything?"

Harrison shook his head, then ran his hand over his disheveled hair.  "He's gone."  He felt the shiver that passed through Suzanne's body and slipped an arm around her shoulders.  "I'm going to tell the doctor what's really going on."

"Well, it's about time."

Blackwood's head snapped up and he met the half-angry stare of the doctor.  "I'm sorry, but this is a matter of national security."

"Where have I heard that before," the physician muttered under his breath.  He continued more forcefully, "Mr. Blackwood, if you have any knowledge about this damned device, now is the time to tell me, because, quite frankly, we've decided we only have three options available at this point."

"Which are?"

"We start cutting and pray we don't kill the man, but we'll certainly leave him permanently paralyzed.  We let him go, in which case he'll literally stress himself to death.  Or we could give him a lobotomy.  At least then he wouldn't feel the pain."

Blackwood ground his molars, the squeal of the enamel audible.  "Those are not options, Doctor."

"They're all we have left – unless you can suggest something else," Dr. James nearly bellowed.  "And I don't care much for them myself."

"All right," Blackwood said, turning away from the physician's accusing stare.

The door opened and Sagehawk leaned into the room.  "I'm sorry to interrupt, Dr. Blackwood, but Mr. Drake just called up – Quinn's on the line for you."

The scientist bolted through the door, pulling Suzanne in his wake, the physician and Rhee following them both.

 

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

 

Norton held out the receiver before Blackwood was close enough to accept.

"Quinn, where are you?" Harrison immediately demanded.  "How do we turn that damned thing off?"

Norton reached over and tapped the speaker button on the multi-line set, the alien's voice immediately filling the room.

"Are you ready to make a deal, Harry?" was the infuriatingly reply.

Blackwood's voice grew deathly quiet.  "No deals, Quinn.  I want that information, and I want it now."

"Then I'm afraid your good Colonel will die, and it won't be a pretty death, Harry, I can guarantee you that."  The last came out as an unconcealed threat.

Blackwood paused for a moment, his eyes closing in defeat.  He sucked in a deep breath, heaving it out in an explosive sigh as he said, "All right.  Fine.  I'll talk to the UN."

"That's not good enough, Harry.  I still want the objects, and the list."

The astrophysicist's blue eyes snapped open.  "No!" he yelled.  "I won't do it, Quinn!"

"What about Colonel Ironhorse?"  The renegade drew out the man's name, placing special emphasis on the final syllable.

"I won't betray him like that," was Harrison's choked reply.  "I can't.  If you want a deal, fine.  I'll talk to the UN, but that's all, Quinn.  They'll laugh me out of the chamber and we'll be right back where we are now.  But I'll do that much."

There was a pause, then a quiet chuckle.  "Except you'll have a new chief of security."

Blackwood drew himself up.  "If you wanted him dead, why did you bother to call?"  There was silence on the line, and Harrison allowed himself the smallest glimmer of hope.  "Answer me that, Quinn."

"I have said that you're too smart for your own good, Harry.  Very well, you've found me out.  I have other plans for your Colonel Ironhorse, plans I will one day see bear fruit.  I'll tell your doctors how to disable the device.  Once they do that, the filaments will withdraw and they can remove the device."

Blackwood was stunned.  He felt his knees go weak, and dropped into a chair. "Why?" he almost sobbed.

"Several reasons, Harry, none of which I expect you to understand.  Besides, it's hardly sporting, now is it?  Call the doctor, Harry.  By my estimates, you don't have much time left."

"The doctor's already here, Quinn."  Harrison handed the phone to Dr. James.

The physician listened, his head nodding.

 

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

 

 

                                                                 ____

                                                                 MEMO

Code: 124-353x

Classification: TOP SECRET

 

To: Brigadier Henry J. Wilson

 

From: Lt. Commander Mary Rhee Thompson

 

Re: The treatment of Lt. Colonel Paul Ironhorse

 

As described in memo #124-347x, Quinn made contact with Dr. Blackwood approximately 10.5 hours following his escape from the parking lot of the Boots and Saddle Hotel.

 

After a twenty-five minute talk with Dr. James, the physician  and a team  of three neurologists took Colonel Ironhorse into an operating room.  After forty minutes Dr. James returned.  They had deactivated the device and were monitoring the withdrawal of the micro-filaments from the colonel's neural system.

 

After seventy-five minutes, the colonel was returned to his room. Dr. James explained that the filaments had all withdrawn, and only the side-effects of the stress were responsible for the colonel's unconscious state.  The doctor also explained that the colonel would need to undergo a thorough neuro-logical examination to make certain that no damage had occurred.  Said exam was carried out over the next 72 hours.  No residual damage or side-effects were found.

 

Eight hours following the removal of the device, Colonel Ironhorse regained consciousness.  At that time he was suffering from residual, sympathetic pain and was only semi-conscious.  Dr. James ordered hot packs and massage therapy, which seemed to ease the situation.  The colonel slept for another six hours.  When he woke again he was lucid and only suffering from muscular aches and pains.

 

Dr. Ernst Gilbert arrived twenty-four hours ago and conducted a secondary evaluation.  Colonel Ironhorse was cleared for a return to light duty.  The doctor will re-evaluate the colonel in five days to see if he is fit to return to full duty.

 

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

 

Ironhorse pulled his black cowboy boots on and stood.  After four days of poking, prodding, passive muscle movement, mental evaluations and heaven only knew what else, the doctors were finally letting him leave.  A Pentagon physician had also participated and signed his return to duty, albeit restricted duty, with an additional line that still rankled the soldier: "Colonel Ironhorse is to take it easy for a minimum of five days, the logistics of which will be left to Dr. Blackwood's discretion."

Ironhorse looked up as Harrison entered the room, pushing a wheelchair in front of him.  The last indignity to be endured.

"Good morning, Colonel.  Are we ready to go?"

"I don't know about you, Blackwood, but I've been ready to go for three days."

"Modern medicine can only work so fast, Colonel," the scientist teased.  "Besides, you were a medical mystery to these people.  They wanted an opportunity to study you further."

The soldier grumbled something uncomplimentary as he stood.  "Where are Suzanne and Norton?"

Blackwood began a thorough search of the room to make certain they were leaving nothing behind, explaining as he did, "Norton is saying good-bye to a medical transcriptionist he met.  Suzanne is getting last minute instructions from Dr. James.  Specialist Sagehawk is bringing the van around to the curb, and Commander Thompson is with him, just in case there's trouble."  Harrison smiled, then added, "And I'm here as your private transportation and protection."

"Right," Ironhorse snorted.  Looking disdainfully at the chair, he sighed, then took a seat.

Blackwood grabbed the handles and headed them out the door,  Suzanne and Norton meeting them in the hall.

"Wanna race, big guy?" Norton asked as he rolled up alongside Ironhorse.

"No, thank you, Mr. Drake, I hate losing."

Norton grinned and wagged his eyebrows, then tsk'ed disappointedly.  "I'll give you a head start."

"Norton, please, don't tempt him," Suzanne said, reaching out to give Paul's shoulder a quick squeeze as they proceeded along.  "He's supposed to be taking it easy, remember?"

Drake shrugged and tossed the soldier an sympathetic "maybe-next-time" look.

"What I'm supposed to be doing is checking out of here," the soldier groused, grabbing the wheels and halting the small parade.

"You're absolutely right, Colonel," Blackwood said, slapping lightly at the man's hands.  Once he had control of the wheelchair again, he headed them toward the doors.  Outside, Rhee and Sagehawk had the van's lift ready for Norton.

The threesome waited until Drake was ensconced behind the wheel, then filed into the van, the colonel getting the passenger seat.  Settling in for the drive, the group was quiet until they were on the highway headed for Lake Tahoe.

It was Blackwood who finally broke the silence.  "We haven't seen the last of Quinn," he said quietly.

"Harrison," Suzanne said, her tone making it clear that she didn't think it was time to bring up the topic.

"It's all right, Suzanne," Ironhorse said.  "I think Harrison's right.  Quinn has an agenda and he's not going to give it up anytime soon."

Blackwood scooted to the edge of his seat and leaned forward.  "Did he say anything that might help us?"

Ironhorse shook his head.  "Negative, Doctor."  Paul paused, noticing the pine-covered foothills that were rapidly growing into pine-covered mountains.  "Are we going home?"

"Yep," Norton supplied, his gaze locked on the road.  "The Cottage was quiet the entire time, except for a couple of anxious soldier teams staking it out, of course."

Turning in his seat so he could see into the back of the van, Ironhorse met Sagehawk's gaze.  "I appreciate your help, Sergeant."

Sagehawk's faced reddened slightly and he looked away.  "Thank you, sir."

"I know how hard it can be," the colonel continued, "working with civilians."

Sagehawk's black gaze caught Ironhorse's and it was clear the younger man was trying hard not to smile, but it was hard.  "Yes, sir.  It's a… challenge."

"Hrumph," Blackwood snorted, folding his arms across his chest.

Ironhorse's voice took on a more serious cast.  "But I would like to talk to you about enlisted men popping colonels on the jaw."

The sergeant blushed a deep red.  "I'm— I'm sorry, sir."

A crooked grin broke across Ironhorse's stern countenance.  "Well, I suppose there are exceptions."

"Yes, sir," the young man agreed, looking relieved.

Ironhorse's gaze shifted to Rhee.  "Commander, thank you for your help."

Grinning from behind Blackwood she nodded.  "I won't say it was a pleasure, Colonel, but it certainly was an adventure."

"What will you do now?" Norton called back to the woman.

"I go back to the Pentagon group that's working on deciphering the alien language, and I try keeping better track of Quinn – if we can find him again."

"All right," Norton enthused.  "I guess we'll be working together then – over the computer, of course."  He wagged his eyebrows in the mirror.

"Of course," Suzanne said softly.

"Yes, of course," Blackwood agreed.  "Do they have your blessing, Colonel?"

"Of course," Ironhorse nodded.  "Couldn't have wanted a better match for this wayward computer hacker."

The group laughed, Norton deciding he didn't mind one little bit if at least a part of the teasing was true.  He'd love to spend more time with the pretty commander.

Ironhorse reached over and tapped the windshield in front of the man.  "The road, Mr. Drake.  Your eyes belong on the road."

The others laughed.  Everything was back to normal.  For the moment, at least.