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An Exercise of Mind

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"I simply found the perfect psychic, that's all."


Friday, September 27, 1991


          "How do these humans manage to foil our plans at every turn?" the female Advocate seethed.

          "I do not know, comrade, but we must not allow this to continue."

          "I concur," the third member of the triumvirate intoned.  "Now that we have located another of our warships, we must not allow anything to stand in the way of its retrieval."

          "Yes, but we were counting on the knowledge from the humans called psychics to prevent another incidence like that on the Westeskiwin Indian reservation," the female Advocate stated.  "Why must our ships be in such close proximity to these humans called Indians.  They are a powerful foe."

          "As our advance scouts discovered long ago, comrade."

          "Perhaps our newest strategy will work," the younger male said, his tone hopeful.  "This human institution, the Hamlin Foundation, is involved in researching the human mind, and includes many of the ones called psychics."

          "A no doubt dull and simplistic undertaking," the female countered, turning back to watch the bank of video monitors.

          "Still," the older male argued.  "If we can take their knowledge, we might yet find a way to defeat the ones called shaman and retrieve our ship.  With the weapon our victory on this planet is assured."


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


Monday, October 2, 1991


          "Yes!  I have it!  Oh, Harrison, you're going to love this!" Norton proclaimed, smiling broadly and folding his arms smugly across his chest.

          Suzanne looked up from her latest set of stained alien tissue slides and grinned.  The hacker was certainly proud of himself.  Whatever nugget he'd found, it must have been quite a feat to spark such exuberance.

          The echo of Harrison's tennis shoes and Ironhorse's cowboy boots bounced down the stairs, severing the remainder of her concentration.  Tossing her pen into the crack of her lab notebook, Suzanne walked out to join the rest of the Blackwood Project members gathering around the monitor.

          "What is it?  More transmissions?" Ironhorse asked.

          "Nothing so depressing, big guy.  I simply found the perfect psychic, that's all."

          Blackwood slapped the computer expert on the back.  "Great job, Norton!  I knew you could do it.  Who is it?"

          "Dr. Cedar Chen Ridge.  A lady psychic."

          "Oriental?" Suzanne asked.

          Drake shrugged.  "The printer will be finished in a few short moments and you can all read to your heart's content.  It was sheer luck that I found her at all.  No, I take that back.  It was skill!  Genius!  She isn't in the databases as a psychic under her legal name.  But she has a top level security clearance – higher than some of ours, in fact – to satisfy the Colonel; she's a well known and respected scientist, to keep Suzanne happy; and she's a psychic with a 96% identical profile to Kevin Peters, for Harrison.  Perfect."

          "Well done, Mr. Drake," Ironhorse said, a smile on his face.

          "I broke into enough computers to put me away for life, but I wanted to make you all happy."

          Harrison gripped the man's shoulders and gave him an affectionate shake.  "Don't worry, Norton, I'll take full responsibility."  Stepping past Drake's motorized wheelchair to reach the now silent printer, the astrophysicist detached the finished printout.  A grin spread across his face, the expression reminding the others of a small boy with his first puppy.  Attempting to gather the pages up, Harrison headed back up the stairs, several connected sheets trailing behind him like a banner.

          "I still don't know what that means," Ironhorse said.  "Do you?"

          Drake shrugged, giving Suzanne a wink.  "I don't have a clue, Colonel."


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


          Harrison continued straight to his office, closing the door behind him and settling into his chair.  It had been two weeks since he'd first encountered Kevin Peters, a test subject at the John F. Kennedy University parapsychology department, and he knew he shouldn't dwell on the young man, but he couldn't stop himself.

          Kevin had warned them that the aliens had found another warship on Indian land.  After their failure on the Westeskiwin reservation, the Mortaxans thought they could use psychics as a weapon against Indian interference.  How, Harrison and the others were not sure.  The constant threat of pending alien movement to recapture their warship, accompanied by a lack of any actual activity had set them all on edge.

          Kevin had also hinted that his resistance to the blending was the result of the alien having blended with a professor suffering from a cold just prior to absorbing Kevin.  How or why that mattered was keeping Suzanne busy.

          In fact, everyone except Harrison was busy.

          Norton was number crunching in the databases, Suzanne was running tests to determine the effects of various cold and flu viruses on alien cell cultures, and Ironhorse was monitoring the security teams dispatched to the reservations in northern Arizona and New Mexico.

          Harrison had little to contribute, which meant he had time to think, and thinking too much usually left him depressed, especially when he focused on the aliens and the human potential they shattered.

          But now, maybe, just maybe, they could enlist the help of someone like Kevin.  Maybe this woman could help them formulate theories about how he'd resisted the blending.  If they had a few good theories to pursue, they might get lucky.

          According to his files, Kevin was an above average clairvoyant with strong psychometric abilities.  Diligently collecting all the records on Kevin and the two other test subjects targeted by the aliens, Norton had combed through the databases, looking for other psychics who possessed similar profiles.  From an initial pool of twenty-seven, he whittled down to Dr. Cedar Chen Ridge – or C.C. Hamlin as she appeared in the databases for psychics.

          Harrison nodded enthusiastically as he read the printout.  Dr. Ridge was highly educated with undergraduate degrees in molecular biology and biochemistry; minors in psychology and philosophy.  Her masters were in the same major fields; the minors more focused in neurological psychology and metaphysics.

          He wondered briefly why he hadn't seen any of her research, or heard of her in any of the academic circles he'd traveled in prior to heading the Blackwood project.

          Shuffling through the pages, he discovered a doctorate in quantum biophysics and a medical degree in cellular neurology, both advanced degrees taken at the same time at Cornell's renowned Kettington Institute.  He stood and paced, still reading.

          No wonder he hadn't seen her work…  After graduating near the top of her class, she was hired by the Hamlin Foundation, a private, internationally known organization involved in the study of human thought and creativity.  The foundation was removed from the competitive world of the academy and private business.  Her entire career outside the university system, since 1980, had been spent there.  And she was a psychic, a psychometrist.

          He walked back to the desk and picked up the phone.

          "Yeah, Doc?"

          "Norton, pull whatever you can on psychometry, will you?"

          "Sure, Harrison, in my copious amounts of spare time I just love acting as your personal librarian."

          "You're a gem, Norton."

          "I know."


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


          The Project members sat scattered around the Cottage living room, listening as Blackwood gave them a report on "their psychic," finishing with a description on her latest research – compliments of Norton's hacking magic – into Cyclic-AMP/GMP levels, beta-wave generation, and increased positive performance on standard psi tests.

          The astrophysicist finished and launched into a discussion with Suzanne concerning the ramifications hinted at in that research when the tell-tale music drifted up from Norton's Cray.

          "Battle stations," he said, and leaning back in his wheelchair and ordering, "Gertrude, to work!"

          The others watched him go, wondering if the aliens were finally on the move. When Norton failed to return after several minutes, Harrison excused himself, Ironhorse and Suzanne following.

          Reaching the basement computer lab, they found Drake hunched over his keyboard, typing furiously.

          "What's up?" Blackwood asked.

          "Shhh," Drake responded, continuing to type.

          The threesome waited in silence, Suzanne finally walking over to pour them all coffee.

          Norton straightened and nodded at the screen.  "Bad news.  You remember Gabriel Morales, from Peru?"

          Three nods.

          "He was found, dead, with, I quote, 'a circular hole in his left temple, surrounded by a clear mucus-like substance.'"

          "My God," Harrison breathed.

          Suzanne reached out and squeezed the astrophysicist's arm.

          He patted her hand, then accepted the cup of coffee she handed him.  There would be time to mourn later.

          Morales and Blackwood had remained in touch after meeting in Philadelphia, sharing their ideas on the possibility that the Mortaxan invasion was the culmination of activity, building over a longer period of time than anyone suspected – perhaps more than 2,000 years.

          Norton continued.  "And the black pyramid he brought to Philadelphia was stolen.  That struck me as a little odd, so I was checking…"  He took a sip of his latest blend from the proffered cup, continuing, "When we ran into those aliens in Santa Barbara, there was the reported theft of a solid black cube from an Indian grave on the Santa Barbara Mission property, remember?"

          "Hard to forget," Suzanne said, recalling her own brush with death during that trip.[1]

          "Well, those aren't the only two thefts of solid, black, three-dimensional figures.  There are reports from Ireland, Turkey, China, Syria, Greece, and Brazil," Norton said.  "Now, here's the interesting part… each of the objects are shapes that can be constructed out of various combinations of isosceles triangles."

          "I don't like this, people," Ironhorse said.

          "Me either," Suzanne concurred.

          "Can you get a list of the objects and the exact locations of the robberies?"

          "Already working on it, big guy."

          "And if there were any other deaths associated with the thefts?" Harrison added.

          Norton grinned.  "Working on that, too, Doc."

          "What about a list of other possible shapes that might be targeted, and then a search to see if they're listed in any museums, universities, private collections…?"

          "Ahh," Norton breathed.  "Good idea, Suzanne…  I'll see what I can find, but it might some time, even for this baby."  He leaned forward, patting the Cray's terminal affectionately.

          "Keep me posted.  I'll go call our psychic," Harrison said.  "It's too bad Dr. Ridge isn't clairvoyant, maybe she could tell us what's going on."

          Ironhorse gave the man an 'oh-please' look as Blackwood disappeared up the stairs.  "Norton, if you locate any more of those objects, let me know and I'll see what we can do about putting them under some sort of surveillance."

          "You got it."


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


          The commander approached the three Advocates, his head bowed in embarrassment at having to speak to the leaders while in the body of a vile human female.

          "You have news, Commander?" the female Advocate asked.

          "Yes, Advocates.  We have begun our infiltration of the Hamlin Foundation.  From what we have learned, the foundation is run by one human, Joshua Hamlin.  If we are to exploit the resources of this institution, it is that human we must blend with in order to acquire his knowledge."

          "Very good," the elder male replied.  "We trust you will be able to gain access to this human very soon."

          "Yes, Advocate, we will move on your order."

          "Then you have it," the younger male responded, annoyed.  Must they direct every move of the lower classes?

          "We are nothing without your council," the commander said, his head dropping lower.

          "To life immortal," the triumvirate said.

          "To life, immortal," the soldier returned.


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


          Dr. Ridge pushed a rogue strand of long auburn hair out of her eyes and scowled at the microscope.  The stained slides should show a marked increase of cyclic-AMP, but it wasn't there.  She stuck her tongue out at the scope.

          "That isn't the sort of behavior I expect to see from one of my top researchers."

          Cedar turned with a smile to appraise the source of her interruption.  At sixty-five he was still very handsome.

          "Hi, uncle Josh.  Didn't you know?  Every good machine deserves to be harassed by the human who works with it; only thing that keeps 'em in line."

          The older man chuckled.  Joshua Arnold Hamlin was a wealthy man.  He was also dedicated to exploring the frontiers of science.  His Foundation employed many of the brightest people in their respective fields, working in an environment that encouraged free thinking, open sharing of data and results, and no pressures to publish.  The Hamlin Foundation community thrived.  Carefully screened contracts with major corporations, hospitals, and the government provided their funding – not to mention the many donations Joshua Hamlin was able to coax out of the California elite.  None of the Foundation's personnel would become famous, but they all knew they were doing cutting-edge work with as much support as was possible.

          "You, my dear, have a call."


          "A Dr. Harrison Blackwood, an astrophysicist from the New Pacific Institute of Technology."

          "Now there's a place I wouldn't mind teaching for a semester.  I hear it's a cross between an asylum and a science fiction convention," Cedar said, following her uncle out of her lab and down the wide hallway to one of the several comfortable lounges scattered throughout the building.

          She headed for the phone sitting on the large oak table while Joshua Hamlin made his way across the room to the coffee machine and poured them each a cup.


          "Dr. Ridge?" came an excited voice on the over end of the line.

          "Yes.  How I can help you, Dr. Blackwood."

          "I'm not sure how to ask you this, so I'll take the direct approach and hope you won't be offended.  I know you're a psychic, and I was wondering if you'd be willing to meet and talk with myself and my colleagues about an issue that affects national security."

          Her thick brown eyebrows rose, and she set aside the proffered cup of black coffee, pressing the speaker button so her uncle could listen.  "Sounds important, Dr. Blackwood.  Can you tell me more?"

          "Not over the phone, I'm afraid.  This is highly classified.  You understand, I'm sure."

          "I take it you work for the government?"

          "In a manner of speaking, yes."

          "I see."  She leaned against the table and chewed on her bottom lip for a moment.  In the past, her work with the government had been strained due to her refusal to release any part of her research that might apply to weapons research.  "Where and when would you like to meet?"

          "As soon as it's convenient.  And would the San Francisco area be agreeable?"

          "That's fine.  We're not that far away."

          "The day after tomorrow?"

          "I'll clear my schedule."

          "Wonderful, I'll have the information delivered to you.  Is ten a good time?"

          "Fine.  I'll see you the day after tomorrow, at ten.  Should I bring anything?"

          "We'd just like an opportunity to meet and speak with you."

          "All right, I'll see you then."

          "Fantastic.  And thank you, Dr. Ridge.  Goodbye."

          "Bye."  Cedar hung up the phone and turned to her uncle.

          He ran his fingers through his thick sliver-grey hair and regarded her with warm brown eyes.  "Sounds intriguing."

          "Doesn't it?"

          "I'll have Tony drive you."

          "I don't think that's necessary," she responded.  Tony was not only her uncle's private driver, but the Foundation's security specialist as well.  "Dr. Blackwood sounded sincere."

          "That doesn't mean a thing, young lady, and you know it."

          "I really think this'll be fine."

          Her uncle frowned, reminding her of a grumpy leprechaun.

          "But, I'll let Tony drive if it'll make you feel better," she capitulated.

          "Thanks for humoring an old man."  He smiled.  "I'll inform the front desk to expect a message for you."

          She gave him a hug.  "Thank you.  And you have a long way to go before you get to old."

          "Pushing for a raise, Cedar?"

          "Who, me?"

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


Wednesday, October 4


          "The field unit has narrowed the contacts which will give them access to the human, Joshua Hamlin," the elder male Advocate stated, his voice decidedly pleased.

          "That is indeed good news, Comrade," the female responded, drifting away from the bank of video monitors to join her two companions.

          "Yes, there are two who have close contact with Joshua Hamlin.  Our team is following them and will take them as soon as an opportunity presents itself.  It will not be long before we have what we need to ensure the recovery of our warship, then nothing will stand in the way of our victory."

          "Yes.  The humans will be eradicated once and for all," the younger male gloated.  "The Council will be pleased."


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


          Harrison paced across the large, tastefully decorated living room of the latest safe house Ironhorse managed to arrange for them.  He checked his watch, finding the minute hand two hash-marks closer to ten.

          "Harrison, will you please, sit down."

          He paused, looking at Suzanne with a puzzled frown.

          "You're pacing," she stated emphatically.

          He wasn't getting the message.

          "It's driving me crazy."

          "Oh."  The lanky scientist shuffled to a chair and lowered himself into it.

          Ironhorse watched the exchange and mentally calculated.  Three… two… one… the astrophysicist stood.  Suzanne sighed in exasperation and the soldier allowed himself a faint smile.  Blackwood was predictable in a few ways.

          "This could be a major breakthrough," Blackwood told them for the twenty-second time in two hours.  "If we could find a way to fight the blending process—"

          The radio crackled on the coffee table, drawing the attention of all three Project members.  "Red Leader.  Checkpoint Three.  We have a car headed your direction."

          Ironhorse picked up the radio and keyed it.  "Roger Three.  Checkpoint Two, heads up.  Notify me when the vehicle passes your location.  Run the check."

          "Roger, Red Leader.  Checkpoint Two, out."

          Less than two minutes later, the radio crackled again.  "Red Leader, Checkpoint Two.  The car has passed checkpoint Baker.  They're coming at you inside.  Two occupants.  One male, one female.  DMV check says the car's registered to the Hamlin Foundation in Pacific Grove, California."

          "Roger, Two," Ironhorse replied.  "Checkpoint One, prepare to meet our guest."


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


          Cedar watched Tony Manelli stiffen as he pulled up and parked at the front of a large, rambling ranch-style house just outside Santa Rosa.  The drive up from the Foundation's main facility in Pacific Grove had been uneventful, until now.  The two soldiers who stepped out to meet the car looked like they took their jobs seriously, and the side-arms they carried made the security man nervous.

          He glanced back at Cedar in the rearview mirror.  "You sure you want to do this?"

          She smiled at the man.  At forty-four, he was still handsome and in excellent shape.  There had been a time, when she was younger, when she'd had a crush on the Italian-American.

          "Tony, please, don't worry.  Uncle Josh called some friends.  They couldn't tell him what Dr. Blackwood and his people are doing, but they did have high praise for the man and his coworkers.  I'll be fine.  The army's here to protect me."

          The man grinned slightly although the dark brown eyes held little humor.  "Yeah, that's what they told me in Vietnam, too.  Be careful."

          "I will.  I'll call when it's time for you to pick me up."

          They exited the car, Manelli enduring a weapons check before pulling two small bags from the trunk and handing them over to a waiting soldier.  After a last angry glare at the two sergeants, he climbed back into the car and left.

          Cedar watched him go, then gave the pair a smile.  "Don't take it personally. He's just a little over-protective.  So, why don't you do whatever security stuff you need to so I can go meet Dr. Blackwood.  I must admit, this all has me very curious."


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


          "Red Leader, Checkpoint One.  Dr. Ridge is clear."

          "Show her in, Sergeant."

          Harrison walked over to stand by the door.

          Ironhorse glanced over as the second door opening onto the living room swung in and Norton rolled into join them.  After a short knock, Coleman escorted the woman in.

          Harrison took a step back.  She wasn't at all what he'd expected – about five foot six, an athletic build and ample curves, long, thick auburn hair and pale green eyes.  The lightly freckled face and healthy tan left her looking like a poster girl for Irish tourism.

          "Dr. Cedar Chen Ridge?" he asked.

          She smiled.  "My middle name's Celtic, Dr. Blackwood.  It's Chen."

          "Hey, that's pretty keen," Norton replied, picking up on the obvious pun.

          "Thank you, sir," she replied in her best Irish lilt.  "You're the one millionth man to have kissed the blarney stone and come up with that little gem."

          There was no anger in her voice, and he smiled.  She had a sense of humor, too.  "Yeah, I guess that was pretty obvious."

          Harrison grinned.  She seemed at ease with the situation.  Perhaps this would be the break they'd been waiting for.  "Dr. Ridge—"

          "Please, call me Cedar."

          Blackwood started again.  "Cedar, let me introduce our resident computer and communications expert, and punster, Norton Drake."

          "Pleased to meet you," he said, adding, "Gertrude forward five."  The motorized wheelchair crept forward, stopping in front of the woman so they could shake hands.

          "Likewise," she dropped her voice and added in a playful tease, "And if you have a sidecar stashed someplace for this roadster, maybe we can go sightseeing?"

          The group, with the exception of Ironhorse, chuckled.

          Harrison continued.  "This is Dr. Suzanne McCullough, our microbiologist and psychologist."

          Cedar smiled at the woman, grateful for another female face.  "I've read some of your work, Dr. McCullough.  Very insightful."

          "Just Suzanne, and thank you."

          "And," Harrison concluded, nodding toward the colonel.  "This is Colonel Paul Ironhorse, our security expert."

          Ironhorse gave a slight nod, but kept his distance.

          Cedar studied the man.  The Native American officer was uncomfortable.  Whether that had to do with the reason why she'd been invited, or with the talents that had won her the invitation, she wasn't sure.

          "Cherokee?" she asked.

          Two black eyebrows rose gracefully and Ironhorse cocked his head slightly to the side.  "Yes.  How did you know?"

          "One of my colleagues, Dr. Matthew Redhorse, is Cherokee.  He's taken a great deal of pleasure in expanding my horizons beyond the Hamlin Foundation.  Besides, the ears are a giveaway."  She turned her attention back to the group as a whole as he blushed.  "Now, why was I invited?"

          Harrison took a deep breath and held it for a moment before he said, "If you'll come with us, I think this will be easier with the computer."


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


          Tony Manelli sat in his charcoal-colored Corvette, using a pair of high-powered binoculars to survey the property surrounding the safe house.  The deserted hillside road was isolated and he doubted any of the residents of the house would spot him parked there.

          Soldiers occupied all the correct strategic points to prevent anyone slipping onto the grounds unseen.  Whoever was in charge of security was good, damned good.

          He knew he shouldn't be there, spying on the location, but he'd watched Cedar grow up and looked on her like a daughter.  Orphaned at twelve, she had withdrawn into her studies and her own fantasy world until he had started working for Joshua Hamlin in 1973.  Within a year, the fourteen-year-old had developed a crush on the ex-Green Beret and emerged from her isolation to join the rest of the world.

          He felt protective, and if that meant he did a little spying, he was willing to do it.  He nodded as one of the sentinels spotted him.  At least he was beginning to feel like she was safe.

          A Ryder rent-a-truck pulled up across the street, blocking his view.  A young couple climbed out of the cab and headed into a house.

          The sounds of footsteps drew his attention away from the couple.  An old woman made her way along the street, pulling a two-wheeled aluminum cart behind her.

          Probably on her way to a neighborhood market, Tony thought, remembering his grandmother's treks through a neighborhood not that far away.

          Laying the binoculars aside before the old woman spotted them, he smiled kindly as she passed.

          A small crash a moment later drew him out of the car.  The cart had lost a wheel.

          "Oh, dear, I was afraid that might happen.  It was getting loose, but I didn't have a chance to ask my son to fix it the last time he visited," she said, shaking her head sadly.

          Tony smiled.  "I have some tools in the trunk, ma'am.  I should be able to have you up and rolling in no time."

          The old woman beamed.  "Oh, that would be lovely.  If it's not a bother.  I'm sure you're a very busy man."

          "No bother at all, ma'am."

          Tony walked back to the Corvette, unlocked the trunk and raised the lid.  Bending over to remove the small tool box, he was surprised to find two sets of hands suddenly holding him down.

          "What the hell do you want?" he snarled at the men.

          They pulled him back, and he was surprised to find the young couple holding his arms with more pressure than he would have thought possible given their builds.

          "We want your body."

          Tony didn't like the sound of that and drew up his leg, delivering a solid side-kick to the man's mid-sections.  He grunted, but only grinned at the effort.  Manelli frowned.  The kick should have doubled-over anyone.

          The old woman stepped up in front of the Italian, and he hesitated a moment, unsure if she was a part of the ruse or not.  She smiled kindly at him, then, with a sick tearing sound, a brown-green, three-digeted hand thrust through her chest and clamped itself on his throat.  He tried to scream, but the sound was choked off as the alien made the transfer.


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


          Cedar watched the evidence passing on the screen with a growing fascination.  She hadn't been born when the 1953 invasion had taken place, but she remembered her father and uncle discussing it on several occasions prior to her father's death.  They'd argued over why no one seemed to remember the event.  Her grandfather had evidently been killed during that attack, but there was no word of it in the school textbooks, or even in the half-faded reminiscences of their colleagues at the Foundation.

          The events surrounding the death of the psychic, Kevin Peters, were disturbing, but she chewed her lower lip and continued to watch the prepared program.  She hadn't known Kevin, but she did know the three professors from the John F. Kennedy University parapsychology department who had died in order for the aliens to gain access to the student psychics.  As she reviewed the young man's file, the similarity of his profile and her own was unmistakable.  The Blackwood Project had set out to locate someone with similar profiles and found her.

          Cedar's sadness deepened, watching the remainder of the tape.  Kevin Peters was obviously a talented psychic and a bright young man.  Given a few more years, he might have been someone the Foundation was interested in cultivating.

          When the screen went blank a silence hung in the room until she asked, "Okay, what can I do to help?"

          Harrison grabbed a chair and drew it up next to the one the young woman sat in.  "We want you to help us build a series of possible explanations on how Kevin was able to resist the alien blending."

          She nodded.  "All right.  It might take some time, but I have a few ideas.  Do you want me to work along more acceptable scientific avenues or—"

          "Whatever avenues you'd like, doctor.  It's entirely up to you.  Anything, no matter how remote, is welcome."

          She smiled.  "Please, call me Cedar.  No one at the Foundation uses titles."

          "Sounds like Harrison's kind of place," Norton said.  "How's the coffee?"

          The humor helped lighten the mood and the three scientists and Norton began to confer.  Ironhorse excused himself to check the security on the grounds.


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


          "Yes, Commander?" the female advocate responded to the incoming transmission.

          "Our mission was a success.  We have acquired the body of Anthony Manelli, Joshua Hamlin's security advisor."

          "Well done.  You will have no difficulty in penetrating the Foundation and acquiring Hamlin himself," the elder male said.

          "No, Advocate, we do not foresee any difficulty."

          "Then why have you contacted us?" the younger male demanded.

          "We seek your council.  In the memories of this human we have found that Dr. Ridge, Hamlin's niece, is meeting with a group of humans calling itself The Blackwood Project."

          "Not that collection of miserable humans again," the female nearly moaned.  "Will we never be rid of this nuisance?"

          "We will be rid of them now," the elder male replied.  "Commander, once you have acquired the necessary information from the human Joshua Hamlin, you will contact Dr. Ridge and use her to lure the members of the Blackwood Project to their deaths."

          "It will be as you say, Advocate.  We are nothing without your council."

          "Do not fail us," the younger male added, his voice conveying the threat.  "These bacteria-ridden humans must die."

          "To life immortal," the triumvirate chorused.

          "To life, immortal," the commander replied.


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


          "Colonel, can I see you for a minute?" Norton asked into the phone speaker.

          In his borrowed office Ironhorse leaned forward and replied, "I'm on my way, Mr. Drake."

          Ironhorse's prompt arrival forced Norton up from the monitor linking him to the supercomputer back at the Cottage.  "I think we have a problem here."

          "What is it?"

          "I've picked up a couple of transmissions and they're close, real close."

          Ironhorse's brow wrinkled.  "Anything happening that might suggest the aliens?"

          "Not a thing that I can find."

          "Give me a printout of the locations and I'll check them out."

          Norton nodded.  "You think they caught wind of what we're doing here?"

          "I don't know, but we're not going to wait around to find out.  Let Harrison know we'll be leaving as soon as I can arrange another location.  Three or four hours.  No calls out until we're at the new location, and I want someone with Dr. Ridge at all times, just in case."

          "Got it, Colonel.  And be careful."


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


          Tony Manelli drove into his reserved parking space and cut the Corvette's engine.  Looking at himself in the rearview mirror, the blended alien smiled.  This would be easier than he'd imagined.

          Stepping into the sunlight, the commander removed a pair of sunglasses and drew them over his eyes.  Entering the Foundation, he nodded at the security men on duty, who smiled back.  The receptionist waved.

          The elevator was waiting for him when he arrived, compliments of another security officer.  "Good morning, Mr. Manelli," he said as 'Tony' entered.

          "Good morning, Scott.  Thanks."

          The younger man grinned.  "Just being nice to the boss."

          The door slid closed before the commander had to reply, and he took time to gloat over his impending victory.


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


          The doors opened, allowing the alien off on the seventh, and top floor of the Hamlin Foundation's main building.  Situated on a small rise, three sides of the building had windows with a view of the Pacific Ocean.  Smaller individual lab buildings were scattered across the seven-acre property, some with private houses built nearby for the researchers who wanted to live closer to their work.

          The landscape was green and as undisturbed as possible, leaving plenty of space for walking and thinking, surrounded by some of the most beautiful northern California coastline.  The beach that ran along the western edge of the property also belonged to the Foundation, used for afternoon lunches and volleyball games where the researchers mixed ideas and play, keeping them sharp.

          The commander hated to admit it, but he had a certain amount of respect for this human, Joshua Hamlin.  The man knew how to manipulate those under his authority.  He gave what the alien found inconsequential and received these people's undying respect and support in the bargain.  He would have made a fine commander.  Unfortunately, he was also a humanitarian.

          Reaching the oak door to Hamlin's office, Tony knocked, then entered.

          Joshua Hamlin stood at a glass wall, watching the incoming tide, crashing higher than usual on a section of rocky beach, driven by the incoming storm that promised much needed rain later that day.  "Good morning, Tony."

          "Morning, sir."

          "So, I know you didn't just drive off and leave Cedar in the hands of strangers.  Were you finally satisfied?"

          Tony nodded.  "Their security's top-notch, and she mentioned that you were able to get good references from some of your friends in Washington?"

          "Yes, they're all very impressed with Dr. Blackwood and his team, although I couldn't pry the smallest hint out of anyone as to what they're doing."

          The commander walked over to join Joshua.  It would be a shame to forsake this human body for the older man's.  At least Hamlin looked as if he was in better than average physical condition given his age.

          "I know I shouldn't, but I can't stop myself from worrying about her.  She's had so many losses in her life, I don't want to see her disappointed or hurt anymore."

          The commander nodded.  "Some things are… unavoidable," he said, his voice ringing with the waver of alien blending.

          Joshua looked around in time to see the three-fingered hand before the fingers closed around his throat.


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


          Settled into the new safe house, Suzanne and Cedar disappeared into the lab.  Harrison took up a position in the corner, his eyes closed, listening to the two women as they worked.

          After re-establishing his link to the Cray, Norton continued to monitor for additional transmissions in the area, but those he found were too brief for a fix.

          Ironhorse split his time trying to track down the aliens and supervising security at the new safe house.

          After five days, Suzanne and Cedar called a conference.


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


Monday, October 9


          Harrison arrived in the living room first, grabbing a cup of the ever-present coffee that Norton was forever trying to prefect.  Sitting on the edge of the couch, he waited anxiously.  Drake was next, then Ironhorse.

          When Suzanne and Cedar entered, Blackwood could tell by their smiles that the two women had come up with something significant.

          "Okay," Suzanne said, sitting down and forcing herself to talk slowly.  "After running a series of possible scenarios we think we have a pretty good idea about the contribution of biology to Kevin's resistance."  She smiled, and took a deep breath before continuing.  "First, when the alien blended with Dr. Keivchek – right before it took over Kevin – she was probably suffering from a strain B Influenza virus.  With Norton's help, we checked the public health records and that was the type most commonly being reported at local hospitals and clinics."

          Cedar leaned forward.  "Because the alien only used Dr. Kievchek's body for a short time, the blending process was probably incomplete."

          "Meaning, exactly?" Harrison interrupted.

          Cedar continued.  "Meaning that although the majority of human cells had been destroyed, the alien cells didn't have time to take up and bond with all of the human genetic material, or destroy all the cells, especially the more mobile cells like macrophages."

          "When it blended with Kevin, the alien brought along some of Dr. Kievchek's cells involved in the immunological process," Suzanne inserted.  "According to what Norton found, Kevin was an acute asthmatic.  That means his body would have elevated levels of histamines and cells involved with the immune response.  Those cells responded immediately to the blending process, like an asthma attack, creating very high levels of adrenaline and histamine in his system."

          Harrison nodded enthusiastically.  "And those chemicals have affects on the brain."

          "Wait a minute," Ironhorse interrupted.  "Are you saying that it wasn't Kevin's psychic abilities that—"

          "No," Cedar interrupted, holding up a hand to stop the questions.  "Kevin and others who exhibit a high degree of psychic talent have elevated levels of cyclic-AMP in their brains normally.  But with the increase of the histamines, there's a corresponding increase in the levels of ACTH – that's a corticotropin – from the pituitary, and ACTH will stimulate a further increase in inter-cellular cyclic-AMP levels."

          Cedar took a deep breath, smiled at Suzanne and continued.  "In humans, ACTH is also involved in diurnal rhythms.  People who sleep with a regular pattern have increased levels of ACTH in the third and fifth hours of a sleep cycle, which corresponds to their dream cycles."

          "And in the dream cycles there's increased beta and theta wave generation in the brain," Suzanne added quickly.

          "I don't get it," Ironhorse said, trying to keep up with the jargon.

          "Psychics and dreamers have one thing in common," Cedar told him.  "They both have elevated beta and theta waves.  A psychic and a lucid dreamer control those waves."

          "The histamine stimulates the ACTH, which in turn stimulates the cyclic-AMP, and that acts to elevate the beta wave generation," Suzanne summarized.

          "And that made Kevin a more powerful psychic than he normally would be," Ironhorse stated.

          The two women nodded while Harrison turned a surprised look on the soldier.  "So the increase of beta and theta waves, and Kevin's ability to control his own psychic energy allowed him to resist," Harrison concluded.

          "But it was a fluke," Ironhorse said, the disappointment clear in his voice.

          Suzanne nodded.  "Yes, but the conditions are ones we can duplicate."

          "Explain," Ironhorse said, inching forward in his seat.

          Cedar stood and poured herself a cup of coffee.  "We can artificially inflate the levels of cyclic-AMP in the brain, but Kevin's talent, whatever you want to call it – his familiarity with his own mind, the ability to focus and hold thoughts, center and maintain his consciousness – isn't something that can be induced by an external agent.  But," she added quickly, "it is something that people can learn to do themselves, at least to some degree."

          "So what does that mean for us?" Norton asked.  "Do we have something we can use against the aliens or not?"

          "We don't know, yet," Suzanne said.  "We'd need a chance to run some experiments on unblended alien cells."

          "But, I suggest that all of you start exercising your minds," Dr. Ridge concluded, returning to her spot next to Suzanne.

          "You mean like Harrison and his yoga?" Norton said, not sure if she was serious or not.

          "Give me a break, people," the colonel sighed.

          "Don't scoff, Colonel.  I'm sure you've used feelings you can't explain in battle situations.  All I'm suggesting is that you begin to take control, to some degree, over another kind of energy at your disposal.  Each of you will find certain methods and abilities that are more comfortable and successful.  Use them.  I'd think anything that might give you an edge fighting off an alien takeover would be attractive."

          "It is," Suzanne said.  "But we're not psychics.  I'm not even sure I really believe that—"

          "Everyone is to a certain degree, Suzanne, but it's not anything odd or mystical.  It's like a skill humans developed as a part of their survival structure.  I can show you the research.  All you have to do is practice.  You might not be able to pick the next winning lottery ticket, but it'll give you a weapon you don't have right now."

          "I always wanted to be a psychic," Drake said with a smile.

          "How do you suggest we… exercise of our minds?" Ironhorse asked.

          Harrison sat back and smiled.  He expected resistance, open hostility, scoffing, but not this!

          "There are some standard exercises to teach focus and visualization.  After that, I'd say, find something that interests you and start studying.  Yoga, meditation, wicca, creative visualization, OBE's.  Colonel, you might want to look into shamanic options – if you're interested in traditional practices."

          Three heads turned to stare at the officer.  Ironhorse shifted uncomfortably in his seat.  "I'll keep that in mind."

          "What's O-B-E?" Norton asked.

          "Out of body experiences.  Some people call it astral projection or travelling."

          "Sounds interesting.  Take a vacation without having to pack, make reservations, or even leave home."

          "Uh," Suzanne interrupted, "I don't know if I can do this.  I mean, I really have—"

          "Then go for a more scientific approach, Suzanne, one that lacks any metaphysical overtones that make you uncomfortable.  Try something that's geared for improving memory, or focusing thought to improve efficiency and problem solving abilities."

          Harrison grinned.  "I can teach you how to stand on your head… or use my tuning fork."

          "Thanks," she said half-heartedly.  "But I think I'll pass on re-aligning my organs, Harrison."

          Ironhorse broke in, shocking the others to silence.  "We can't afford to leave any possible avenue of resistance untried.  We know too much.  We don't have a choice.  Anything that improves the security of the Project has to be implemented.  Dr. Ridge, if you'd help me set up something for the members of my Squad, I'd appreciate it."

          Cedar nodded.

          Ironhorse stood, his hands on his hips.  "Well, people, I suggest you do what Dr. Ridge suggested and start looking for your own… mind exercises."  With a deft movement he turned and stalked out before anyone could respond.

          "He always like that?" Cedar asked with a grin.

          Harrison leaned forward, patting the young woman's leg.  "Oh, sometimes he's much worse."


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


          "Advocate, we now have possession of Joshua Hamlin."

          "Very good, Commander," the female Advocate said.  "Is the information we need with him?"

          "Yes, Advocate," the soldier said.  "However, the human psychics are not at this facility.  They are in the place called Marysville."

          "Then we have lost this time for nothing?" the younger male Advocate questioned.

          "No, Advocate.  The niece of this man, the woman we told you of earlier, is also a psychic.  We will bring her to you.  We will have our victory."

          "Very good," the elder male replied.  "We will eliminate the humans who interfere with our taking of this planet."

          "Yes, we will be victorious," the female proclaimed.  "Find the woman and destroy the Blackwood Project."

          "We are nothing without your council."


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


Monday, October 17


          "Colonel, mind if I interrupt?"

          Ironhorse looked up from the report he was writing for General Wilson.  "What can I do for you, Harrison?"

          Blackwood walked to the front of the desk and leaned over, resting his palms on the polished surface.  "I want us to go back to the Cottage."

          "And Dr. Ridge?"

          "I want her to come back with us."

          Ironhorse frowned.  "Harrison—"

          "Wait, before you can this idea, let me tell you why."

          Ironhorse sat back in his chair and waited for him to continue.

          Harrison weighed his choice of words, then continued.  "If you're serious about us getting our minds in shape, then I think it'd be easier if we're at home.  We're all more relaxed there, and I think it would give us the best chance to get off to the right start, especially Suzanne.  She misses Debi."

          Ironhorse nodded slightly.  "What else, Doctor?"

          "Quite frankly, I'd like a chance to have Dr. Ridge put her particular talents to use reading some of the artifacts we have."

          "Those could be brought here."

          "I know.  Call it a hunch, Paul, but I think she can help us."  He ran a hand through the light brown curls.  "I'm not saying this very well."

          "I understand what you're getting at, Harrison."

          "I know we'd be… compromising the Cottage, but we need to move forward on this, regardless of the methods."

          "We have to try anything that might help us defeat the aliens."

          "You're starting to sound a little like me, Colonel."

          "Heaven help me," Ironhorse said with a crooked smile.  "If Dr. Ridge will submit to a thorough review by Suzanne, I'll make the arrangements."

          "This is going to help us, Paul," Harrison said, standing.  "I can feel it."


          Blackwood shrugged.  "Who knows."


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


          Cedar removed the blindfold and looked around the grounds of the Cottage.  "It's beautiful."

          "We've come to think of it as home," Harrison told her, taking her elbow and escorting her to the front door.

          Mrs. Pennyworth met them there, motioning them inside.  "Why don't you all go into the living room.  I have some coffee waiting, and I'll bring in some fresh baked banana bread."

          Norton rubbed his hands together.  "Oh, you'll love this," he promised Cedar.  "She's a wizard of dough."

          "I'm sure I will," she grinned back, her neck craning to take in the large house.  "I'm a sucker for any random piece of pastry."

          They headed for the living room, Ironhorse lagging back long enough to talk to Coleman about increasing security on the grounds.  Afterwards he joined the others, already scattered around the living room, sipping on coffee and sampling the older woman's latest masterpiece.

          He hoped they were doing the right thing.  After all, this was their home and it bothered him to bring in a stranger.  But he trusted the woman.  She had her head screwed on tighter than Blackwood's, or at least she seemed to.

          "You all have something to get started on?" Cedar asked.  The four Project members nodded.  "Good.  I should spend some time streamlining the biological side of this.  If you have questions, ask.  I've run a lot of seminars to help budding young psychics get started."


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


 Monday, October 24


          "Yes!  Wow!  In-cred-ible!"

          Everyone at the dinner table looked up from their plates, each turning to stare in the direction of the living room.  Ironhorse was on his feet first, the others following.

          When they reached the living room it was clear why Norton was late for supper.  The black man was stretched out along the floor in front of the low-burning fire.  A huge smile split his face.

          Harrison and Ironhorse moved to his side, reuniting him with Gertrude.  As the black man arranged the straps that held his legs immobile, he explained.  "I did it!  I finally did it!"

          "What?" Suzanne asked.

          "I decided to try some different techniques for OBE's and it worked!"

          "It did?" Ironhorse asked.

          "What happened, Norton?" Harrison pressed, excited about the possible breakthrough.

          "I was trying out a technique, sort of a mix of the Monroe method and straight visualization and I did it!"  A somewhat goofy expression settled on the hacker's face.  "Well, I sort of did it, but I did it!"

          "Would you care to put that back into English, Mr. Drake?"

          "Sorry, big guy.  Okay, I was lying there and it happened!  I mean, I wanted to just float up to the ceiling, so I reached out for it and I felt my arm move.  It was above my face and I wiggled my fingers.  I wasn't sure if I was on the floor or not so I opened my eyes and my arm was on the floor, but it was in the air!"

          "That's a great first step," Cedar said, giving the man a hug.

          Suzanne shook her head, not sure if she believed it, but unwilling to doubt Norton's enthusiasm.  Harrison grinned and Ironhorse watched it all from behind two peaked eyebrows.

          "Can you teach me?" Debi asked.

          Norton chuckled.  "As soon as I figure it out myself," he promised.  "Do I smell dinner?  I'm starved!"

          "After you, oh mystic hacker," Harrison intoned.

          "Next thing you know, I'll be flyin'!"


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


          Suzanne walked quietly into the living room, two cups of tea in hand.

          Cedar looked up from where she sat in front of the snapping fireplace and accepted the cup.  "Thanks."

          "No problem.  It helps me sleep."

          Cedar smiled.  "Hard to do when there's so many things running through my mind."

          "Exactly," Suzanne agreed, settling comfortably into the closest wing-backed chair.  "It it's own way, it's…"


          Suzanne nodded.  "But I wish we didn't have to do it."

          The two women shared several moments of comfortable silence.  "The work you're doing here is… frightening, but so important.  I'm really honored that you've made me a small part of it."

          Suzanne leaned forward, drawing one leg up into the chair.  "Do you really think these exercises can help us?"

          Cedar sat her cup down on the flagstones.  "It can't hurt.  I think it might help…  I mean, if nothing else, it'll help you in your own projects.  If it'll stop an alien from being able to use your mind if they take you over, I hope we never find out."

          "Amen to that," Suzanne concurred.  "I'm still not sure just how much of this I can believe, but I'm too scared to let anything pass by that might give us an edge."

          Cedar nodded.  "Exactly.  Think of it as preventative medicine."

          Suzanne laughed softly, her eyes twinkling.  "And I have to tell you, it's been nice having a colleague… a woman, to work with."

          "I know what you mean.  I usually work alone at the Foundation.  It's been enjoyable working with a group," she looked up at Suzanne.  "Especially Norton, but don't tell him that."

          "Why?  He likes you, too."

          "But I know none of you need any distractions right now.  Norton's got enough to deal with his OEB work."

          "But this can't last forever," Suzanne reminded her.  "Stick around, you never know…"

          It was Cedar's turn to laugh.  "What about you?"

          "Me?"  Suzanne leaned back, a contemplative expression on her face.  Her head rolled against the chair.  "No... not that I don't love all three of them, but…"  She looked at Cedar.  "I'm not in love with any of them.  Too bad, too, I haven't been out of a date in a long time."

          "Tell me about it."

          The two women fell into 'girl-talk' their voices rolling softly over the warm evening air.

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

 Wednesday, October 26


          "Ah, there you are.  Mind if I interrupt?"

          Harrison entered the living room and proceeded to the wing-backed chair near the fireplace.  Cedar, stretched out along the hearth, reading a book, reminded him more of Debi than the scientist she was.

          "Sure, what's up?"

          "I know you have to leave Friday, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit to having some thoughts about keeping you here."

          "Kidnapping, Harrison?  It doesn't seem your style."

          He chuckled.

          She sat up, crossing her legs and resting the book in her lap.  "I've enjoyed working with all of you, but you're right, there's a lot of work waiting for me when I get back to the Foundation.  If you need me to stay, I will.  Your work is too important."

          "No.  There's really nothing more you can do.  The rest is up to us.  But I'm sure we'll be borrowing you from time to time.  Uh, but I do have two favors to ask," Harrison said, looking guilty.


          "First, tell me how are we doing.  Really."

          Cedar thought for a moment and answered the man honestly.  "Suzanne's making great strides, even though she doesn't know it."

          "Which means?"

          "She decided on a set of techniques designed to enhance creativity and problem solving abilities.  In those areas she's shown substantial improvement, but on the psi tests she's showing stronger and stronger negative scores."

          "You mean she's missing more than chance accounts for?"

          "You got it."

          Harrison grinned and shook his head.  "She'll come around."

          Cedar shifted to a more comfortable position and continued, her voice serious.  "Norton's getting closer and closer to a full-fledged OBE.  He might need a friend once that happens.  He'll be a lot more… free there than he is here, and I don't know if that'll create any problems or not.  Keep an eye on him.  As long as he's willing to talk about it, everything should be fine.  His mind's a lot more disciplined than I first thought."

          Blackwood nodded.  "In some ways he might be the most disciplined of all of us."

          She nodded.  "And you already know the basics, Harrison.  Just keep doing what you do.  The yoga and the mantras are a wonderful focusing tool, but you might want to move to a more active level.  From what you've told me, it sounds like you're tuned in to the aliens somehow.  Work that angle, but be careful.  It might work both ways."

          Blackwood nodded, Sylvia flashing through his mind.  "And the Colonel?"

          Cedar folded her arms and rested them on her raised knees.  "We had a long talk about what happened on the Westeskiwin reservation, and he admits to having seen and felt things there that he can't explain in conventional terms."

          "But he's resisting?" Blackwood surmised, not surprised.

          "No, not at all," she said, enjoying the look of shock that passed over Harrison's face.  "He's just having a hard time finding a way to integrate the path of the warrior and the path of the shaman.  Among the Cherokee those two paths didn't cross very often.  He's a very powerful man, Harrison.  And once he makes peace with the two halves of his nature, he'll be a formidable force on the metaphysical plane.  I suggested he get in touch with Joseph Lonetree, to talk and study."

          "Will he?"

          She shrugged.  "I don't know.  I hope so.  It'll speed his learning.  He's already read a great deal more than I suspected.  And he knows a lot more than he lets on.  Keep at him.  He should have a teacher, though.  It can be dangerous, learning alone.  Now, what's the other favor?"

          Harrison stood, and fidgeted for a moment before blurting out, "I'd like you to, ah, read a few objects for me."

          "If you think it might help, I'd be glad to."


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


          Harrison opened his desk drawer and removed several items, laying them out across the top of the cleared surface.  Suzanne and Norton watched from a position near the backboard, and the colonel stood by the window, feeling nervous for no good reason that he could identify.

          Looking first to Cedar, who nodded encouragingly, Harrison reached out and removed all but one item from its box.  Cedar took a deep breath, releasing it slowly, feeling herself slip into that comfortable place between waking reality and a dream world she controlled.  Sitting forward, she accepted the item, then leaned back against the chair and closed her eyes.

          Turning the clear pyramid over in her fingers, she marveled at the smooth texture of the surface.  It was only three inches high, but she felt the enormous power that the figure could channel in the right hands.

          "This is very old, but it's… not of this world.  It was a gift, Part of a greater whole.  There is another piece, maybe two, identical to this.  A man of power holds one.  It's safe with him…  I see a bear, caught in a storm, lightning around his head."  She opened her eyes.  "That's all I see."

          Four startled faces regarded her, Ironhorse in particular looking stunned.  He had told her many of the events surrounding his meeting with Joseph Lonetree, but he hadn't mentioned the crystal or the form the Thunder-being had taken.

          "That's amazing," Norton breathed.

          "Yeah," Suzanne agreed.

          Blackwood took back the crystal and handed Chen a small box filled with flakes of what appeared to be the same material.  Cedar held the box for a moment, then allowed a finger to dip over the lip and roam into the loose material.

          She sucked in a breath.  "This material is touched with death.  Many deaths… but there's also healing, or rebirth here, too, but it's so twisted… confused… the energy is strong, but…"  Shaking her head, Cedar forced her eyes open.  "I'm sorry it's too mixed up."

          "That's fine, just fine," Harrison told her, gently removing the box from her trembling hands.  Reaching back, he took a sealed envelope off the desk and handed it to her.

          She took several deep breaths before accepting it.  Her brow furrowed, then she smiled.  "A test, Harrison?"

          He grinned, the other Project members looking perplexed.

          "Wait," she said, her face growing more serious.  "There's fear buried here… fear and… something.  It's… ambiguous?"

          "What is that?" Ironhorse asked.

          Blackwood took the envelope and tore it open, pulling out a photo.  He handed it to Paul, who blasted a scowl at the astrophysicist.  "I see."

          "What?" Suzanne asked.

          Harrison yanked the print free from the colonel's fingers and handed it to the microbiologist.  She giggled.  "That was right on.  It's the picture of Paul I took in Beeton.  If I had to describe it, I'd defiantly call it a moment of ambiguity."

          Harrison handed Cedar a item wrapped in a soft cloth.  The team members all watched as she took the item, gripping it so tightly her knuckles turned white.  "I— I don't think you want me to…"

          "Wait, Cedar.  Paul, can I have a word with you?"

          Ironhorse stepped over next to the astrophysicist.  "What is that, Doctor?"

          "Your battle baton."

          "What?" Ironhorse asked, careful to keep his voice low enough so the young women couldn't hear.  "What the hell are you doing—"

          "I wanted a reliable test of her abilities, in part so you'd believe what she tells us.  Are you willing to let her read that in order to establish her credibility?"

          Ironhorse thought for a moment, then nodded slowly.

          "Please, go ahead," Blackwood said loud enough for Cedar to hear.

          "I see green… a jungle… it's raining… there's confusion, explosions that aren't supposed to be there.  Damn it who called in the air strike!"

          Her voice was strained, her posture drawing up in a rigid ball of fear.  The others looked at Ironhorse.  The blood had drained from his face as he recognized the moment she'd somehow connected with.

          "Where are the choppers?" she asked.  "Wounded.  Too many wounded… There!  Incoming too close… Get down!" she panted, forcing herself to pull back from the flood of images.  "The wounded are almost loaded… running… I'm grabbed!  My gun!"  she squeezed the cloth tighter.  "Grandfather, help me… it's in my hand… thrust… he looks at me… knows he's dying… I killed him… blood's running over my hand…"

          Cedar's eyes sprang open and she blinked back the sweat.  Ironhorse stepped forward, taking the wrapped weapon from her so she could wipe her face with shaking hands.  After several minutes she smiled and looked at the soldier.  "They're not usually so vivid."

          The faintest trace of a smile tugged at one corner of his mouth.  He grew somber as he said, "It was when I blooded that knife.  He was the first man I ever killed up close."

          "Harrison, I think that's enough," Norton said, when Harrison reached for the last item.

          "More than enough," Suzanne concurred.

          "Cedar?" Blackwood questioned, leaving the decision to her.

          "One more."

          A soft knock interrupted.  Ironhorse broke away to open the door to Blackwood's office.  Mrs. Pennyworth stood outside, looking concerned.  "You have a call, Colonel."

          "I'll be right back," he said over his shoulder to the others, then left, drawing the door shut behind him.

          The older woman smiled.  "There's coffee and pastry in the living room."

          "Well, I guess we should take that as an omen," Suzanne said.

          "Good idea," Norton concurred.  "Come on, let's see what Mrs. P's got for us."


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


          When the Colonel left his office he found the rest of them back in the living room, laughing at a story Norton had just finished telling.

          Entering, he cleared his throat to gain their attention.  Cedar looked tired, but not as drained as he'd expected.  "That was Mr. Hamlin.  It seems the Foundation's come to a screeching halt without Dr. Ridge and he wanted to know if we intended to give her back anytime soon."

          Cedar chuckled.  "Sounds like uncle Josh.  I guess I really should be getting back.  I don't know what else I can really do for you.  Not that I've really done anything."

          Harrison nodded.  "You've done more than you know.  You gave us an understanding of how Kevin resisted the blending, gave us a tool that we might be able to eventually use against the aliens, and confirmed several notions we had."

          She nodded.  "Oh, I don't want to forget, so I'll invite you now.  Why don't you come back to the Foundation, let me show you the facilities.  There might be a few projects on-going that'll spark ideas, and some people you might like to talk to."

          Ironhorse interrupted before Harrison's enthusiasm could bubble up, out of control.  "Your uncle made the same offer.  I took the liberty of agreeing."

          Blackwood smiled at the soldier.  "Why, Colonel, I do believe it's working."


          "Your exercises."  Harrison waited for the blank look to settle firmly on the man's face before he added, "You're starting to read my mind."

          "Grandfather," the colonel mumbled and the others broke into laughter.


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


Thursday, October 27


          Once she removed the blindfold it only took Chen a moment to reorient herself to the coastline and realize that the Cottage was north of the Foundation.  She'd agreed that it would be best if the exact location remained their secret.  The fewer possible security leaks, the better.

          She rode with Harrison, Ironhorse, and two Omegans in the Bronco, Suzanne and Norton following in the computer expert's van – know affectionately as the Green Machine – along with three more Omegans.

          The drive was quiet, except for an unending stream of questions from Harrison.  Ironhorse finally tuned out the conversation, concentrating on the road.


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          "The grounds are gorgeous," Blackwood said when they finally left the road and started to work their way into the main building complex.

          "Uncle Josh thought he should keep the setting as relaxed as the atmosphere."

          "Smart man."

          "What exactly is the Hamlin Foundation?" Ironhorse asked.

          "Well, I guess you'd call it a private think tank.  You know we're working on researching human thought.  We basically conduct research on all possible levels in order to get the most accurate picture possible.  We also take on specific projects for various institutions, universities, hospitals, and even the government – if we're sure the work won't have any weapons applications.  No offense, Colonel."

          "None taken."

          "Why don't you park here," she said, pointing to several visitor spaces that were empty.


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          They entered the largest building, a seven story structure of wood and glass that had the Blackwood Project members craning to take in an interior that was as beautiful as the outside.  Plants grew everywhere, several fountains emerging from the growth near comfortable lounging furniture.  The thick carpet cut the extraneous noise, but blended into the natural design of the wood panels and windows.

          Harrison took a deep breath, feeling perfectly at home with the place.  Looking at his team members, he noticed that they seemed as relaxed as he was.  The pretty blond receptionist smiled at Cedar and her guests, and quickly removed the necessary visitor's passes.

          The Project members attached the badges to their shirts and followed Cedar to a large elevator.  What followed was an orderly whirlwind tour of the main facility.  Harrison was nearly dumfounded at the range of research being conducted.  It was more than he'd allowed himself to hope for.  Maybe, just maybe, if they could get some of these people helping as well…

          Suzanne was amazed at the obvious pleasure the researchers had for their jobs.  Never had she met a more relaxed, dedicated group of people – and why not, she asked herself.  They do what they love, get everything they need, with no pressures to compete, or publish, or produce sellable products…  It's a researcher's paradise!

          Norton mentally calculated his chances of sneaking back to talk to the woman he'd met in the main computer lab.  Her obvious interest in him had been slightly disconcerting, but he was flattered, especially when he found out she was one of the foremost researchers on artificial intelligence, and loved the two video games he'd actually sold while working at the PITs.  She was also a very beautiful Nigerian.

          Ironhorse was as impressed as the others, but his attention was less on the people and projects they'd encountered and more on the security of the facility.  It was passive, but he doubted that anyone short of Delta Force could breach it.  An impressive display, and, given the work they were doing, necessary.  He tried not to contemplate the possibilities if aliens, or anyone else with evil intentions, got their hands on this research.  He made a mental note to talk to Cedar about arranging additional security that would be more specific to the aliens.


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          At last they arrived at the seventh floor, home to both Joshua Hamlin's office, Cedar's lab, and a chamber where they could replicate weightlessness.  She knocked once on the carved oak doors and entered.

          "Cedar, good to see you, sweetheart," Joshua said.

          The young woman headed straight across the room to her uncle.  Wrapping her arms around him she started to give him a hug, but backed-pedaled violently.  "Ohmygod."

          "What's wrong?" Harrison and Hamlin asked at the same time.

          "He's an alien!"

          Ironhorse clicked the radio on his belt, alerting the Omegans as a second door opened and two security guards entered, each carrying their revolvers at the ready.

          A set of samurai swords were displayed on a table along the wall, and the colonel hoped they were the real thing as he grabbed them up.  Using the short sword like a club, he hurdled it at the first guard, the weapon striking the alien/man in the face.

          "Get down, people!" Ironhorse yelled as he followed up the attack with a charge, unsheathing the sword as he did.

          Hamlin stalked after Cedar, angry guttural sounds frothing across his lips.

          Harrison dove for the nearest object he could use for a weapon, coming up with a large photo from the wall – an ocean scene protected by heavy glass.  Swinging that, he tried to stop Hamlin from grabbing Chen.

          Drawing up his arm, the commander took the full brunt of the wielded attack.  It stunned him for a moment, but was not enough to stop the third arm from emerging and grabbing the psychic.

          Cedar screamed, her mind filled with the last moments of her uncle's life.

          Suzanne pulled Norton back out of the room, the computer expert pushing off to get help.  Stepping back into the room, she lunged to help Harrison, who was in the process of trying to dislodge the alien hand clamped around Cedar's neck.

          Ironhorse removed the first guard with a quick sweep of the oriental blade across the alien's neck.  The second, however, raised its weapon and fired, the shot tearing a furrow in the sword sheath the colonel held in his other hand.

          Feigning a lunge to the floor, Ironhorse watched the guard's weapon follow the projected trail of movement, leaving him vulnerable when he drew up short and charged instead.  With a violent cry to focus, Ironhorse brought the weapon down across the man's midsection at the appropriate angle.  The alien fell, already decomposing.

          Spinning, the soldier found Harrison, Suzanne, and Cedar entangled with Hamlin.  Throwing the sword and sheath aside, the colonel grabbed up one of the abandoned revolvers and yelled, "Get back, people!"

          Suzanne retreated to the doorway, catching sight of Norton and the Omegans charging down the hallway.  Harrison twisted, but was unable to escape the grip the alien/human had on his jacket.  The commander's free human hand rose for Blackwood's face.

          Hurdling the couch, Ironhorse raised the gun, but couldn't find an opening that didn't endanger one of the two civilians.

          The Omegans entered the room as Ironhorse reached the threesome and jammed the revolver into the base of Hamlin's skull.  "Let them go!" he growled.

          The struggling stopped, but the commander maintained his grip on the two humans.  He had failed.  It was all so simple, and he had failed.

          "I said, let them go!"

          The grip on Harrison fell away, but the alien held fast to Cedar, whose face was beginning to turn a frightening shade of blue around her lips.

          "One day we will defeat you," the commander spat as Ironhorse began to pull the trigger.  With the loud report, the three fingers released Cedar, Harrison catching her before she fell, unconscious.

          The four security guards stood in shocked silence as the body of Joshua Hamlin melted away before their eyes.


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


          Three hours later the doctor at the Fort Streeter emergency room allowed them in to speak to Cedar.

          "I'm so very sorry," Harrison whispered.

          The young women nodded, tears filling her eyes, but she did not try to hide or stop them from falling.  "It was like… the fear…"  She trailed off, shaking her head.  Her voice was rough, throat bruised by the attack.  "I'm just thankful he's free now."

          "The doctor says you're going to be fine," Suzanne said, reaching out to pat the young woman's arm.

          Cedar nodded.  "Are you okay?"

          "We're fine," Norton assured her.

          "I take responsibility for this—" Ironhorse began.

          "No, Colonel, this was nothing you could stop," she whispered in a rasp.  "But I saw… in its mind… the warship's  in Arizona… Chuska Mountains… getting ready to move on it."  She accepted a glass of water from Harrison and took a sip.  "They wanted a psychic in case there's trouble with the Indians."  She smiled weakly.  "I guess your Mr. Lonetree made quite an impression on them."

          "You're sure about the location?" Ironhorse asked.

          Cedar nodded.

          Reaching out, he gave her arm a light squeeze.  "I am sorry about your uncle.  He was a causality of war, but one day we are going to beat these things.  I promise you that."

          "I believe you, Colonel.  And the Foundation will help as much as we can.  Count on that."

          "Keep practicing," she called after them.  Letting her eyes close she drew a deep breath, and relaxed.  It was just beginning…

[1]  "Deadly Force," by Gillian Holt