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Far Above Rubies

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Standard fanfic disclaimer that wouldn't last ten seconds in a court of law: These aren't my characters. I'm just borrowing them for, um, typing practice. Uh, yeah, typing practice. They will be returned to their original owners (relatively) undamaged. No profit was made from the writing of this story; 'tis an amateur work of fiction.  Originally published in the fanzine Our Favorite Things #22, from Elan Press: a crossover of War of the Worlds and Airwolf, with a cameo appearance from Matt Houston.

Far Above Rubies

Airwolf/War of the Worlds/Matt Houston

Susan M. M.

"Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies" Proverbs 31:10

Lt. Col. Paul Ironhorse sorted through his mail. Military History magazine, a flyer for the Sycuan Pow-Wow in San Diego County, junk mail –- how did junk mail follow him even here to the Cottage? –- and a monogrammed envelope. Curious, he opened it first. He smiled as he read it …until he saw the name at the bottom. "Oh, no. Not her."

The Cherokee thought a moment. He could turn down the invitation, but he really didn't want to. He just wanted to avoid the woman who'd made his West Point years dangerous. An idea crossed his crossed his mind, and a smile crossed his lips again. He headed downstairs to the lab.

"Suzanne, are you at an interruptible point?" Ironhorse asked. He was a tall, muscular man, with short black hair; he wore army fatigues.

Dr. McCullough looked up from her microscope. "Sure, what is it?"

"I need your help."

"Some new alien evidence?" the microbiologist asked.

"No, this is … personal," Ironhorse confessed. "I've been invited to participate in a charity polo game."

"Polo? You?" the brunette asked in amazement.

"I was captain of the West Point team," he explained, not quite huffily. "Haven't played in years, though."

"So what do you need me for?" Suzanne asked.

"Protective camouflage," Ironhorse confessed sheepishly.

The scientist raised an eyebrow.

"There's a dance after the game. And there's a woman there I don't want to face alone."

"Old girlfriend?"

"Worse. Andrew's mother." Suzanne looked up at him, confused, and he continued. "She is the world's most incorrigible matchmaker. Andrew, my roommate at the Point, threw me at her to try to avoid her meddling himself. And she's the chairwoman of the committee hosting the event. If I show up solo, she'll be throwing debutantes at me all night."

Suzanne managed not to giggle in his face -– just barely. "You mean there's something the great Colonel Ironhorse is afraid of?"

"Look, we could both use some R&R from fighting the aliens. And if you say yes, I would really, really owe you one," he admitted, knowing she would not hesitate to claim the debt. Black eyes looked up at her. "Please?"

Suzanne hesitated a moment before answering, enjoying the sensation of having the handsome army officer at her mercy. "All right. I'll go, if only to see the woman who frightened Ironhorse."

"You've never met Flora Coldsmith-Briggs."


Michael Coldsmith-Briggs III forced a smile. How, he wondered, had he let his mother talk him into this? It was bad enough that his younger brother had just beaten him at polo, but now he had to waste an evening with empty-headed socialites. He should be in his office at Knightsbridge, going over the reports from his agents in Libya. He didn't have time for this.

"Having a good time, darling?"

"Yes, Mother," the blond spymaster lied. He wore a white tuxedo. A white eyepatch covered the empty socket that had once held his left eye. "You've outdone yourself."

Then he heard her say the words he'd been dreading all day. "There's someone I want you to meet."

"Just a minute, Mother. I see Colonel Ironhorse. I really should congratulate the winner," Michael grasped at the opportunity for escape.

He walked toward Ironhorse, his limp barely slowing him down. His mother's pink silk gown rustled as she followed beside him.

Lt. Col. Ironhorse was in uniform, his chest glittering with medals and ribbons. He was accompanied by a brunette in her thirties wearing a yellow dress with a floral print.

"Ironhorse, good game." Michael congratulated the captain of the winning team.

"You put up a good fight," Ironhorse acknowledged.

"Paul, how nice to see you again," Flora Coldsmith-Briggs greeted him. "And this is …?"

"Suzanne McCullough." She shook hands with the older woman.

"Suzanne, I'd like you to meet Flora Coldsmith-Briggs, and her son Michael," Paul introduced them. "Andrew's mother and brother."

Suzanne smiled. "I met Andrew earlier."

"Is it Miss McCullough or Mrs.?" asked Flora.

Suzanne deftly sidestepped the question. "Actually, it's Dr."

"M. D. or Ph. D.?" Michael's interest was aroused for the first time that evening. The colonel's companion was attractive, and if she was a doctor, she had at least a fighting chance of not being a feather-brained idiot.

Suzanne didn't want to brag by replying 'both,' so she merely said, "I'm a microbiologist."

"The band's pretty good. If I can talk them into playing a slow song, is there any chance I could persuade you to dance with the loser?" Michael indicated his cane with a self-deprecating grin. "I'm afraid I don't cha-cha-cha anymore."

"Sorry, she's spoken for." Paul said. His dark eyes glared at Michael.

"For this dance," Suzanne spoke up. "I'd be happy to save the next one for you." She smiled ingenuously at the colonel. "I know Paul said he was looking forward to reconnecting with some old friends."

Michael's smile grew wider, while Paul managed to somehow lose his.


The first dance was just to annoy Paul. The second dance was because Suzanne was pretty, charming, and a good conversationalist. The third dance Michael didn't care why he was dancing with her –- so long as he could steal her away from Ironhorse for a fourth dance with her.


"Damn," Michael muttered under his breath. He rubbed his mustache with his index finger.

"What is it?" his aide, Dr. Marella Lincoln, asked. There was nothing in the briefing on the joint operation with ISI that should have provoked his reaction.

"I didn't get her phone number."

"Whose phone number?" Marella asked.

"Dr. McCullough. The woman I met at Mom's party last night. Can you look her up in the computer for me?" Michael asked. "Her name was Suzanne McCullough." He hummed a bit of "Queen of Argyll" under his breath. 'Though I own she is a creature/of character and feature/No words can paint the picture/of the queen of all Argyll.' He wondered what she was doing with someone like Ironhorse.

"The Firm's resources are not for personal business," Marella reminded him primly. Although she kept a poker face that a Vegas cardshark would have envied, she was surprised. Michael never hummed.

"It'll take you five minutes. Now, what were you saying about these separatist groups?"


After the briefing, Marella complied. She grumbled, but she complied. At least, she attempted to comply. She found basic background: education, published papers, etc. Former academic posts. Nothing current -– nothing. Marella's curiosity was piqued, her professional skills challenged. She dug deeper.

After two weeks, she called her friend C. J. Parsons.

"Houston Investigations, C. J. Parsons speaking," the attorney answered the phone.

"C. J., it's Marella. Can you do me a favor?"

"Sure, what's up?" asked the redhead.

"Can you check something for me on Baby?" Marella asked.

" Houston's super-computer? Sure, but why?"

"Maybe money can accomplish what the government can't. I'm trying to research a Dr. Suzanne Wilson McCullough. Let me tell you what I do have, so you don't need to re-invent the wheel."


"Good morning, Michael. You have an appointment with Senator Kelly at 10:00, and a meeting with the lab techs on Project Sesame this afternoon." She handed him a pile of manila folders as he entered the office. "Oh, and I finally found a phone number for your Dr. McCullough."

Michael raised a blond eyebrow. "After three weeks, I was beginning to think you'd forgotten."

"I do have real work to do, after all," she reminded him. "I had to track her down through Defense Department pay records.

"DoD?" Michael repeated.

Marella nodded. "She's working for something Very Top Secret called the Blackwood Project. And I can't find out anything about what the Project is or what it does."

He hid a smile at her annoyed tone. Her professional pride had been injured.

"You won't be able to reach her directly," she warned. "The only phone number I could get was a scrambled message line."


Curious, Suzanne dialed the number.

"Hello," a male voice answered after three rings.

"Hello, this is Suzanne McCullough, returning Michael Coldsmith-Briggs' phone call."

"This is Michael. I'm glad you called."

"How on Earth did you get this number?" Suzanne asked.

She could almost hear the smile in his voice. "I have my sources."

"Well, now that you've found me, what can I do for you?"

"I'd like to get to know you better. Would you consider joining me for dinner, followed by a concert or a play? What are you interested in, ballet, opera, a walk on the beach?"

"You went through all the trouble of getting this number," and I know that wasn't easy, "just to ask me out on a date?"

"From what I saw at the ball, you seemed worth the effort. The date is to see if I'm right or not," Michael explained.

"You certainly have a way of getting a woman's attention. All right, how is next Saturday for you?" she asked.

"I'll clear my calendar," he promised. "What's your pleasure: seafood, Italian, Chinese, Thai?"

"Seafood sounds good," Suzanne agreed.

"I know a fantastic seafood place in Bel-Air," Michael suggested. "And after dinner, maybe a jazz club, maybe a string quartet recital?"

"Sounds great."

"Where shall I pick you up?" Michael asked nonchalantly.

"My place is tough to find. It'll be easier if I meet you there."

Michael's nose twitched. The Blackwood Project must have some pretty powerful security.


"Marella, get me Lt. Col. Paul Ironhorse. Last I heard, he was with Delta Force."

"Yes, sir." Playing a hunch, Marella hacked into the Pentagon's payroll computer and went straight to the Blackwood Project file. Ironhorse, Paul Aniwaya, {Lt. Col.} was listed as project security chief. Another scrambled message line phone number was listed for him – one digit away from Dr. McCullough's number. She dialed. It might take a while to get through to him. The sooner she started, the better.


An hour later, Michael Coldsmith-Briggs III, the Deputy Director of 'the Firm' was on the phone with Lt. Col. Paul Ironhorse.

"What can I do for you, Michael?"

"I wouldn't turn down a rematch of our polo game, give my ponies some exercise and give me a chance for revenge," the one-eyed spy said.

"Sounds great, but I'm afraid my schedule is too full these days to play much polo," Ironhorse replied.

"Then maybe you could oblige me with some information. What's the Blackwood Project?"

"Never heard of it," Ironhorse lied.

"This is a secure line," Michael informed him. "Tell me."

"I've never heard of it," Ironhorse repeated. "And if I had, it'd obviously be need-to-know, wouldn't it? It sounds like neither you nor I need to know, or else we already would, wouldn't we?" He hung up the phone, swearing quietly as he replaced the receiver.


"Suzanne, there you are," Ironhorse called out.

"Make it quick, Paul. I'm on my way out." Suzanne stood in front of the hallway mirror, adjusting her earrings.

"Debi asked me to fix the clasp on this." Ironhorse handed her a gold locket. "I did, but then I forgot to give it to you. Here you are."

"Thanks." She held the necklace up before the mirror. "You know, this looks better with this dress than what I have on." She took off the artificial pearls and replaced them with the gold locket.

Ironhorse stared at her for a moment. She looked good. Damned good. If she noticed him studying her, she said nothing. Perhaps she didn't notice, or else she thought it was merely masculine interest. He opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again. After a lifetime in the army, security was pure reflex. 'Need-to-know' was too strong a habit to break.

"Bye," she said.

"Have a nice evening." As she walked out, he wondered if he should have told her that Michael was a spy.


The three Mortaxians were of the worker caste. They had been sent to fetch supplies. They played hooky, stopping to nibble some roses –- such tasty treats were seldom granted to workers –- on their way to rob Radio Shack.

One looked up from the pink blossom she was chewing. "Comrades, do you see that human female?"

Her triad-mates peered in the direction she indicated.

"I have seen her before."

"It is difficult to distinguish one human from another," pointed out one of her companions.

"This female I remember, for she is not human. She is the Synth Katara, and I last saw her in the company of our enemies, the humans who know of us and oppose us."

"Are you sure?" asked the third.

"I will never forget. It was the day the rest of my triad was slain."

All three bowed their heads in mourning. Theirs was a patchwork triad, made up of survivors whose mates had been killed. On Mortax, such as they would have been euthanatized, rather than left to suffer the shame and agony of outliving their mates. But on Earth their numbers were few, a mere million or so, forcing the Advocacy to join such as they into new triads and thus husband their limited resources.

"We must contact the Advocacy," announced the second one, who wore the body of a human male.

It took them a few moments to convince the communications technician at their headquarters that their report was important enough to disturb the Advocates themselves.

"Advocates, we seek your wisdom," the female reported.

"Speak," the first Advocate ordered.

"We have seen the Synth Katara."

"Has she seen you?" asked the third Advocate.


"Is she alone?" asked the second Advocate.

"She is with a human male. At least, he appears humanoid." The thought suddenly struck the worker that the blond man could be another Synth in humanoid disguise. "He is not one of the humans with whom I saw her, months ago."

"What is your will?" asked the second worker.

"Do not kill the Synth. Keep her under surveillance until another triad can join you," ordered the second Advocate.

"The Synth must be taken alive," declared the third Advocate. "If she dies, you die."

"We are nothing without your counsel," the workers said in unison. "To doe nakatoe."

The Advocates echo'd, "To life immortal."


Half an hour later, a triad of warriors joined the triad of workers.

"To doe nakatoe," One of the warriors greeted them. "Where is she?"

"The Synth and her companion went into that eating establishment," the female worker pointed to the restaurant, "and have not yet come out."

"It is a custom of the humans, a ritual, to make plans whilst consuming nourishment," observed one of the warriors.

"Truly, their rituals are strange," complained his triad-mate.

"We are here to conquer this planet, not study it. Such time-wasting activities are the place of the scientists' caste. We are warriors," the first reminded his mates sententiously. "Be silent and keep watch."


Suzanne and Michael walked out of the restaurant.

Six strangers approached them. "You will come with us," one ordered.

Suzanne took one look at the radiation burns on their skin and realized who they were. For almost a quarter of a nanosecond, she considered the need for project security. Then survival won over secrecy. She pulled her gun out of her purse and fired.

Michael stared in shock when the 'man' she hit melted into a puddle of brownish-green goo. Then instincts honed by years as a field agent took over. He swung out with his cane.

Another attacker approached him. A third arm burst from his chest – a greenish-brown limb ending in a three-fingered hand.

The sight stunned Michael, but battle reflexes kept him fighting.

"Capture them alive!"

Suzanne fired again, and another one melted into goo.

Another alien held up what looked like an old-fashioned seltzer bottle. He took aim. Instead of soda water, a pale pink mist came out.

Suzanne and Michael fell to the ground. As he fell, he managed to twist the silver ring on his cane.


Ironhorse stared at the monitor. Something wasn't right.

"Does the Pentagon pay you extra if you drill a hole in it with your eyes?" asked Norton Drake. The young African-American man sat in an electronic wheelchair.

"What?" The colonel looked up, only vaguely aware of the computer programmer's presence.

"Nothing," Norton replied. A joke that had to be repeated wasn't funny. "What are you studying? Alien activity?"

"I hope not," Ironhorse muttered.

Dr. Harrison Blackwood came down the stairs. The curly-haired astrophysicist whistled a Beatles song as he came into the Cottage's basement lab. "Colonel, you're being paged."

Ironhorse looked up. "Who? General Wilson? Sgt. Stavrakos?"

"Debi. She's requested a Cherokee folk tale as a bedtime story."

"Isn't she a little too old for bedtime stories?" Norton asked.

"You're never too old for stories," Harrison replied. "Besides, I think she's using her mother being out as an excuse for a little extra attention."

"I'll go talk to her. Could you keep an eye on the monitor for me?"

"What's it monitoring?" Harrison asked.

"Just call me when the blip is stationary." Ironhorse went upstairs. After confirming that her homework had been completed and her teeth brushed, he sat beside Debi McCullough's bed and told her how Eagle had formed the Great Smoky Mountains, his wings going up raising the mountains, his wings coming down creating the valleys.

"Colonel, do you think Mom'll be back before I'm asleep?"

"Depends on how long it takes you to fall asleep." Keeping his voice as casual as possible, he asked, "Did she give you an ETA?"

Debi shook her head. "But dinner shouldn't take too long, should it?"

"I don't know. I've been to some restaurants with really slow service."

Debi smiled, as he'd hoped she would.

"I think they were planning to go out after dinner," he reminded himself. "You'll probably be asleep by the time she gets back. But I'm sure she'll stop by to check on you, no matter what time she gets in, and give you a kiss."

"I don't like it when Mom goes out on a date," Debi complained.

Neither do I, Ironhorse thought.

"When she goes out with other men, then … then it means she's not going to get back together with Daddy."

From the little Paul Ironhorse had seen of Cash McCullough, that struck him as a good thing, not something to mourn. "There's a German proverb that I can't pronounce properly: the pear is peeled. Honey, they're divorced. They're not going to get back together."

"If Mom has to go on a date, why can't she go with you or Harrison?"

The colonel had wondered that himself, more than once. And so, he suspected, had Dr. Blackwood. "We're co-workers, Deb. It wouldn't be … appropriate for us to date." He kissed her cheek gently. "Good night."

"One more story?" she begged hopefully.

"You're stalling, kid." Nonetheless, he sat down again, tousled her blonde hair, and began to tell her why Possum had no hair on his tail.


When Michael regained consciousness, he had a headache that rivaled his first hangover. He felt chilled. It took him a moment to realize he was lying on a cold stone floor. He tried to sit up. The wave of nausea that accompanied even so slight a movement convinced him that sitting up was a mistake.

Survival habits drummed into him when he was a field agent, long before he'd become Deputy Director of the Firm, forced him to examine his surroundings. He was in a large metal cage, the kind sometimes found in older zoos that couldn't afford to replace iron bars with enclosures that simulated the animals' natural habitats. The cage appeared to be in a large cave. He could see a table ten feet away, although at his angle, he couldn't tell what was on it. Suzanne lay on the stone floor next to him. She, too, was struggling to regain consciousness.

She moaned.

"Are you all right?" Michael asked.

"I feel like a Sherman tank knocked me down, and then ran over me two or three times," she replied.

"Ditto. Where are we?" Michael asked.

"Their lair, I think." Suzanne looked around.

"Whose lair? Just who were those … people?"

Suzanne bit her lip. She thought a second, then decided to tell him the truth. "They're not people. That is, they're not human."

"What are they?"

"Aliens." She watched his face carefully, trying to gauge his reaction.

"Aliens," he repeated. "That would explain why they melted when you shot them." He wondered if she always went armed on dates.

"They inhabit human bodies –- steal human bodies -– through a process called cell phase matching. It's a temporary measure; the radiation burns on their skin we saw means they're ready to take a new host."

"What happens when they take a host?" Michael suspected he wouldn't like the answer.

"The human being possessed dies. The corpse is occupied by one of the aliens. They then have access to everything that person knew." Suzanne paled. If the aliens took over her body, the Blackwood Project would be betrayed. "We don't know how long they can occupy a body, but it's not permanent. Eventually, the radiation from the aliens affects the host body, and they need to seek a new host."


"This way, Advocates," they heard a voice say. "The monitors reveal that the prisoners have regained consciousness."

Four beings entered the stone chamber. Three whose bodies were completely covered by raincoats, rubber gloves, and gas masks followed a human woman whose face and arms bore the characteristic radiation burns.

"So, Katara, you dare to return to this planet," the first Advocate accused Suzanne. "Know you not that Mortax claims this pitiful world?"

Suzanne shook slightly at the sound of the name Katara. They think I'm Katara, the Synth, she realized. She wondered if it would be safer to pretend to be ignorant, or to try to claim she was Katara. "If it's such a pitiful world, why do you want it?" she asked, playing for time.

"The decisions of the Mortaxian High Council are no concern of yours, Synth. This planet is under our domain," declared the second Advocate.

"Unlock the door, and we'll be happy to walk out and leave," Michael spoke up.

The third Advocate turned to the woman with radiation burns. "Technician, is this one also a Synth, or a human?"

Bowing, the technician turned to examine her monitor screens.

"If human, is it tool or ally?" asked the first Advocate.

"It is no one's tool." Michael's one eye flashed sapphire fury.

"Advocates! This is impossible!" The frightened technician turned back to her leaders. "The monitors -– the monitors must be in error."

"Calm yourself, Technician," ordered the third Advocate.

"What erroneous data is the monitor giving?" asked the second Advocate. Her voice was openly curious.

"The monitors say that both are human!"

"Impossible!" the first Advocate declared. The three gathered into a tight huddle, switching from English to their native language.

After two minutes, they turned to their prisoners. "Who are you?"

"Who are you?" Suzanne countered.

"Find the worker who claimed this was Katara, and have it executed," ordered the first Advocate.

"These humans have seen and heard too much. They must be disposed of." The third Advocate suggested, "They can be used as hosts."

"Wait," countered the second Advocate. "Consider the reports of the warriors who captured them, and the worker who first saw them. The female fought without panicking when they attempted to capture them, and it was recognized as one of a group of humans who had been with the Synth. We know that there are humans aware of our existence and opposed to us. Surely she is one of them."

Her colleagues turned to face her. Their plastic masks hid any facial reaction, but neither was pleased. For one member of a triad to be noticeably cleverer than its triad-mates was the worst of poor etiquette by Mortaxian standards. Worse, such a situation was dangerous to the other triad-mates. Although the option was not open to the lower castes (who were not even aware of it), divorce and re-assignment to a new triad was very rare, but not unheard of … for the upper castes.

"If your hypothesis is true, then these two are dangerous, but valuable. We should possess them as hosts and gain their knowledge," suggested the first Advocate.

"Disguised in its body, it might be possible to infiltrate their headquarters and to overwhelm our enemies in their own stronghold," added the third Advocate.

The second Advocate shook her head. "Too dangerous. Let the humans should be kept alive as bait for their companions, and interrogated without killing them."

"Can such a thing be accomplished?" asked the first Advocate.

"Humans are very susceptible to pain. Also to certain drugs," the second Advocate assured her colleagues. "I have seen it in their broadcasts. It can be done."

"If not," added the third Advocate, "we can always kill them later."

"There is wisdom in both your words," the first Advocate consented. In unison, the three chanted, "To doe nakatoe."


Ironhorse returned to the basement.

"How's Debi?" Norton asked. The Black computer programmer regarded the twelve-year-old girl as a kid sister.

"Tucked in." Ironhorse turned to Harrison. "How's the blip?"

"I was just about to go upstairs and let you know. It's stationary, and has been for about five-ten minutes."

Ironhorse stared at the screen for several minutes. He checked the blip's coordinates on the map. Then he stared at the screen again, silent.

"Paul? Is something wrong?" Harrison asked.

"I hope not, Doctor."

Harrison and Norton traded worried glances. When the colonel called Harrison by title instead by name, it was a bad sign.

For ten minutes, Paul Ironhorse watched the monitor, and thought, and worried. Then without a word, he trotted up the stairs. He had to call Omega Squad, but there was no reason to worry Harrison or Norton … yet.


Harrison strolled up to the Chinook helicopter. He stood there for a moment, his hands in his pockets, watching the soldiers load aboard. Then he climbed aboard, too.

Several Omegans traded worried glances when they saw the astrophysicist. One forced a fake cough.

Ironhorse turned around when he heard the noise. One dark eyebrow rose when he saw the scientist. "Harrison, what are you doing here?"

Harrison just smiled at the Cherokee warrior.

"Out of the chopper, mister," Ironhorse ordered.

Harrison turned to Sgt. Peggy Coleman. "Sergeant, what's the name of this project?"

The blonde, caught between her CO and the project director, bit her lip. Doing her best not to look at Ironhorse, she reluctantly replied, "The Blackwood Project, sir."

Ironhorse gave his friend a dirty look. It wasn't fair for Harrison to do that to Coleman, and he knew it. "This is just a training mission. Nothing for you to do but get in the way. There's no reason for you to tag along."

One or two Omegans raised their eyebrows and traded disbelieving looks, before getting their faces as blank as a poker player's. The colonel hadn't said anything to them about this being nothing but a training exercise.

"Blips on the monitor don't cause training missions, Colonel," Harrison said quietly.

Ironhorse frowned. He said nothing. Harrison may have been a pain-in-the-neck egghead, but being a mega-genius, it was difficult to pull the wool over his eyes.

"You can explain to me en route, or we can delay the mission while you try to persuade me to stay home. Is that blip going to wait?"

Ironhorse suppressed a sigh, and jerked his thumb back. "In the cockpit, Doctor."

Harrison just smiled.


Suzanne stared in horrified fascination as the technician combined various chemicals to make a truth serum. She wondered how much or how little the Mortaxian knew about human physiology.

The Advocacy had left the chamber to re-interrogate the ones who had captured them. When they returned … Suzanne paled just thinking of it.

Michael took Suzanne's arm and pulled her toward the back of their cage. Keeping his voice to a barely audible whisper, he advised her, "There are two ways you can handle this. Pick something you know well, something you have memorized, but something complicated enough that you'll need to concentrate -– Shakespeare, the periodic table, whatever -– and recite it over and over. Or lie to them. Mix a little truth in with your lies as disinformation, so wh- if they break you, they won't know what's true and what isn't."

Suzanne thought a moment. "Michael, are you a spy?"

After a moment's hesitation, he nodded.

"Do you know how to kill?"

"Yes, but I don't think I could manage to kill the Advocates and escape."

"No," she told him, "not the Advocates. Me. If I can't hold out against the interrogation … I know too much."

Stunned, Michael hesitated, then nodded. He kissed her cheek. "You're a brave woman."

"I," she corrected him, "am scared shitless."

"I can make it fairly painless," he promised her. "But I'd like to wait a bit. We haven't exhausted all our options yet."

"It's okay. I'm not volunteering right this instant. But if worse comes to worst…."

Gently, Michael caressed her brown hair. "I've been in tight situations before and survived. And sometimes tells me you haven't spent all your time pottering away in a laboratory."

She smiled and batted her eyelashes. In a fake southern accent, she asked, "Why, suh, whatever gave you that idea?"

Brave, beautiful, and even under stress, able to crack a joke. Michael wished they'd met under different circumstances.

"Does Ironhorse know what you do?" she asked.

"Suspects, at least. Why?"

Suzanne brightened up. "Then the cavalry is on the way … although he'd hate that analogy. The colonel didn't trust you, not at all. He would've done something rotten, like have us followed. I'll kill him for it later."

"I didn't want to get your hopes up, but I sent for help myself. Between Ironhorse and Marella, one or the other of them ought to succeed. And neither you nor I is helpless. We just may have a chance after all."


"My aide."

"Your aide," she repeated. "Not your partner. That means you're more than just an ordinary spy."

Michael smiled at her. "I'm glad you're on our side. You're too smart for your own good."

"Is that a complaint or a compliment?"

Michael didn't answer her question. "Can you play chess in your head? It might help pass the time. Or would you like to just talk? Seen any good movies lately?"

"The only movies I have time for are when I take my daughter to Disney pictures. I can't remember the last time I saw a grown-up movie."

Ironhorse stared at the unmoving blip on the screen. He compared it against his maps. "Middle of nowhere," he muttered.

"You planning to tell me what this is all about, or shall I play Twenty Questions until I guess the right answer?" Harrison asked.

Instead of answering the sandy-haired astrophysicist, Ironhorse picked up the radio and called The Cottage. "Norton, has there been any word from Dr. McCullough? Phone call, message, anything?"

"Nope, Colonel. Not a peep," Norton's voice came over the scrambled receiver. "As far as I know, she's still out on her date. Although it is getting a little late."

"Thank you, Norton. Ironhorse out."

"Well?" Harrison Blackwood persisted.

Ironhorse asked, "Does Suzanne strike you as the one-night-stand kind?"

"What?" The non sequitar took the scientist by surprise. "No. No, she's not. Especially not with Debi waiting for her."

Ironhorse sighed. "Then Su- Dr. McCullough may be in trouble."


"This blip indicates a tracer I put in her necklace. It's been stationary for a while, and the location is not the sort of place a couple would sneak off to for a romantic tryst." Especially not a man like Michael, he thought.

"You bugged Suzanne on her date? She's gonna kill you," Harrison predicted.

"In order to do that, she needs to be alive. The man she was with … has enemies. Or the aliens may have grabbed her. Anything is possible."

"Just who is her date?" Harrison inquired.

"That's need-to-know, mister," the Cherokee snapped.

Harrison templed his fingers, making a little steeple out of them. "Or she could just be having such a good time on her date that she's forgotten the time. She's a healthy woman with normal needs and desires, Paul. If that blip is some discreet little motel, and we burst in with Omega Squad when she's in the middle of making mad, passionate love … there won't be enough of you left for an undertaker to bother burying."

"I know." After a moment's awkward silence, Ironhorse asked, "Do you really think it's likely that she's in the middle of a romantic rendezvous?"

Harrison shook his head. "No. No, I don't."


"All right, people, you have your orders. Find and rescue Dr. McCullough. The survival of anyone -– or anything -– else in that cave is secondary," Ironhorse reminded Omega Squad. He turned to Harrison, an extra pistol in his hand. "Are you sure you won't take this?"

Harrison shook his head.

"Then make sure you stay out of the way," Ironhorse growled.

Harrison nodded. Ironhorse might not understand his pacifism, or his refusal to carry a weapon, but at least after all the long months of working together Ironhorse had learned to accept and respect it.


"Yes, Corporal Hay?" He turned to face the communications specialist.

"We're picking up signals from within the cave. Faint, but definitely alien, sir!" Hay reported.

"You hear that, people? It's our old friends," Ironhorse said. Now let's get in there, and hope it's not too late to get Dr. McCullough back."

Three or four of the soldiers crossed themselves. If they were too late -– if Dr. McCullough had been taken over by the aliens -– they'd have no choice but to shoot her.

"Colonel, now that we know that these are aliens, that changes things. We'll want prisoners for questioning, lab samples to analyze. We'll want to study and test their equipment," Harrison pointed out.

"That's not our prime objective, Doctor," Ironhorse retorted.

One by one, Omega squad hustled out of the chopper. Two men stayed to guard the Chinook; the rest followed the colonel into the cave.

The firefight started three minutes later.


"Sir," Sgt. Coleman said, "I'm sure the colonel would prefer –"

"Would prefer me back in the chopper, or better yet, back at the Cottage," Harrison interrupted her. "But I'm here, whether he likes it or not, and I'm not going to stand by while the rest of you hunt for Suzanne." He continued along the cavern's tunnel, seemingly oblivious to whether she accompanied him or not.

"Yes, sir." Her voice was resigned. It was next to impossible to guard a man who insisted on putting himself in harm's way, especially when you weren't allowed to shoot him in the leg just to make him behave. Still, Lt. Col. Ironhorse knew that the project director was difficult. The colonel's exact orders had been 'try to keep him out of trouble.'

Bullets echo'd through the cavern again. Coleman pushed Harrison against the cave wall, blocking his body with her own.

"That sounded close," Harrison muttered.

Coleman shook her head. "Sound echoes in a place like this. It probably wasn't as close as it sounded."

"Probably," Harrison repeated. He didn't sound convinced.

"Seems quiet now." Coleman scraped her boot on a small stalagmite. The goo of dying and disintegrating aliens made for slippery footing. "Let's go. Stay close, and stay behind me."

Coleman and Harrison followed the twisting, turning path until it opened up into a large chamber. Two-thirds of the chamber was filled with scientific equipment, an odd hodge-podge of technology and junk combined into configurations their original designers had never dreamed of. The right hand third of the chamber was filled with a large metal cage.

"Suzanne! Are you all right?" Harrison exclaimed. He rushed to the cage at the sight of her and Michael locked in there.

"Mostly." Suzanne replied, smiling wanly at the sight of their rescuers. She and Michael rose and hurried to the front of the cage. Surreptitiously she dusted off her fanny; the cave floor had been dirty.

Coleman smiled at the sight of Dr. McCullough and Michael safe, then forced herself to business. "Hands up, please, Doctor McCullough, sir."

"All three of 'em, eh, Coleman?" Suzanne joked. Nonetheless, she raised her hands without hesitation.

"I thought they were here to rescue us?" Michael asked. His hands stayed at his side.

"It's SOP, Michael," Suzanne assured him.

"Hands up, sir. I will not hesitate to shoot." Coleman turned to Harrison. "Doctor, please check for radiation."

The astrophysicist removed his mini-Geiger counter from his belt and checked the two prisoners. "They're clean."

Coleman glanced at all the weird equipment. "Think you could use any of that for a blood test, sir?"

Harrison approached the equipment and drooled over it. "Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating."

Suppressing a sigh, Suzanne directed his attention to the here and now. "I'd like to study it, too, Harrison, but can you get us out of here first?" She turned to Coleman. "Give me your knife."

Sgt. Coleman drew her knife and handed it to the microbiologist through the bars of the cage, hilt first. She watched carefully as Suzanne nicked her finger.

"Red," Suzanne announced unnecessarily. She passed the knife to Michael. "Your turn. Show her the color of your blood."

Michael did so. "I assume if one of those things had taken us over, it would be a different color?"

Suzanne nodded.

"Good enough for me," Sgt. Coleman declared when she saw Michael's blood. "The colonel will want a proper blood test later." She glanced at the table, looking for a key. Not seeing one, she aimed her pistol. "Stand back."

Suzanne and Michael backed up. Coleman fired twice. The lock shattered, and the two prisoners hurried out of the cell. Suzanne hugged Harrison, then Coleman.

"Michael, this is -– these are my co-workers. Dr. Harrison Blackwood, Sgt. Peggy Coleman," the brunette introduced them.

Coleman nodded politely, then holstered her pistol and took out her walkie-talkie. "Colonel, this is Sgt. Coleman. We have found Dr. McCullough. Repeat, we have found Dr. McCullough and another prisoner. Preliminary exam indicates both are uninfected."

Meanwhile, Michael shook hands with Harrison. A teasing glint in his one blue eye, he said, "I hope you don't mind just the handshake. I'd rather hug the sergeant than you, Doctor. Unfortunately, Paul Ironhorse would probably object to that."

Coleman noted that he referred to the colonel by his first name, and wondered how he knew him. With competition as handsome as that, no wonder the colonel didn't trust him with Dr. McCullough, she thought. The eyepatch gave him a rakish look. His white suit, though dirty from the cave floor, showed the hallmarks of fine tailoring: Hong Kong or London, if Coleman was any judge. His thick blond hair just invited a woman to run her fingers through it. If it weren't for the kidnapping by aliens, Coleman wouldn't have minded being in Suzanne's shoes when it came to spending an evening with the likes of him. She couldn't help wondering if the microbiologist had had time to find out whether or not his mustache tickled.

Michael limped slowly to the table and reclaimed his cane. He twisted the silver ring on the cane twice.


High above the desert, in the top secret attack helicopter code-named Airwolf, Marella shrieked.

"Huh?" In the back of Airwolf, better known to her crew as 'the Lady', Dominic Santini, the gray-haired flight engineer, looked up, startled. "You okay, Marella?"

"It's Archangel! He's signaling." She sat in the co-pilot's seat of the mach-one plus aircraft.

"Does that mean we can turn around and go home?" Stringfellow Hawke asked wryly. He was the Lady's pilot, and he was still wondering how Marella had talked him into this rescue mission at this hour of the night. He wished his usual co-pilot, Caitlin O'Shaughnessy, had been available. However, she'd been out on a date with that long-haired boy scout from the Phoenix Foundation, and where Michael's safety was concerned, Marella could be very … persuasive.

"No, we can't," the spy said firmly. "He's still in danger, or he wouldn't be signaling. He's just letting us know he's alive."

Other than the thrum of the rotor blades and the quiet electronic humming of the instruments, the helicopter was silent.

String, the pilot, was taciturn by nature. A wiry Vietnam veteran, he had brooding blue eyes and that odd shade of hair that belonged to those who'd been blond in childhood, but darkened -– almost, but not quite –- to brown as they aged. String was Shakespeare's Cassius: lean, hungry, and more prone to thinking than excess conversation.

Although Dr. Marella Lincoln could engage in diplomatic double-talk or techno-babble in seven languages, she, too was silent. Clad in a gray flight suit instead of her usual white jacket and skirt, she was too worried about Archangel to make idle chit-chat.

A flight suit identical to String's and Marella's covered Dom's wide girth. And like them, he was silent. For Dom the condition was unusual; he was normally gregarious and talkative. A born matchmaker (String would say a born meddler), he'd long suspected Archangel was more to Marella than just her boss. The Italian-American had too much tact to chatter when she was so concerned.

Thus the flight continued until they reached the cave.

String looked at the Chinook on the ground. "Something's up," he told his flight crew. "That's an army chopper down there."

"Attention, unknown helicopter," the Chinook hailed them. "You are intruding on military airspace. Change course at once."

"Negative, Chinook," String replied.

Marella grabbed the radio. "We are on a rescue mission. Our party is within that cave."

There was a long hesitation before the army chopper responded. "Now that's a coincidence. We're on a rescue mission ourselves, and our rescuee is inside that cave."

Both helicopter crews fell silent, mulling over that bit of data. Changing frequencies, one of the guards called Lt. Col. Ironhorse to report.

A moment later, Michael's voice came over the radio. "String, that you?"

"Archangel? You all right?" String asked.

Marella imitated the Cheshire cat, grinning from ear to ear, too overcome with relief to say anything.

"I've been better," Michael confessed. "We're on our way out. Once everyone is out of the cave, blast it. Sidewinders, Hellfires, the works. I want this whole cave destroyed."

Deadpan, String pointed out. "The EPA won't like it."

"I don't care what –" Michael forced himself to calm down. "Trust me. The danger here is greater than you can possibly imagine. As soon as everyone is out of the cave, blast this mountain to rubble."

In the background, Harrison's voice could be heard protesting, "No! We need to investigate, to gather samples for analysis, prisoners to interrogate –"

"Shut up, Harrison. This is one time I agree with Michael," Ironhorse said.


Five minutes later, the first of Omega Squad made their way out of the cave. They immediately took a defensive position at the mouth of the cave.

Three Mortaxians emerged from the cave. The Omegans fired. The aliens collapsed and melted. String's eyes flew open wide. Just what were they rescuing Archangel from?

Eight minutes later, Coleman led Suzanne, Michael, and Harrison out of the cave. Michael waved to show he was all right, then limped over to the Chinook and its first aid kit. It was a full fifteen minutes before the last of the soldiers exited the cave.

"Now," Ironhorse shouted. "They're coming."

"Give 'em everything you've got," Michael ordered.

Airwolf fired her missiles. The cave mouth collapsed, sealing the aliens inside. The mountain didn't crumble, but it definitely …rearranged itself.

Airwolf landed. String and Marella disembarked, leaving Dom to handle the post-flight check by himself. They hurried over to join Ironhorse, Suzanne, and Michael.

Ironhorse stared at the Lady. He swore. "I thought Airwolf was destroyed in Libya."

Michael demands, "How did you even hear of Airwolf?"

Ironhorse smiled. "I have my sources."

String smiled, too. Paraphrasing Twain, he said, "The reports of her death have been greatly exaggerated."

Wearily, Harrison trudged up to join them. "We haven't won, you know."

Ironhorse nodded. "This is a major battle, but not the war. But with their headquarters and leadership destroyed, things should be easier."

"Shame about the headquarters being destroyed. Not that I'm regretting the rescue, you understand," Suzanne assured them. "But the opportunity to study their technology, maybe learn something of their culture." She sighed.

"We might have been able to learn how to destroy them," Harrison lamented, "maybe even meet them on equal terms."

String glanced up at the carnage. "I'd say they look pretty well destroyed." He wondered who –- or what -– 'they' were.

"We don't know enough about them to know how much this will weaken them. We do know there are more of them," Ironhorse informed him. "More than that is need-to-know only."

"So's Airwolf," String pointed out."

Suzanne said, "If this is what a first date with you is like, Michael, I'm not sure I want an encore."

Ironhorse and Marella both said "good" under their breaths, then winked when they realized how the other was reacting.

Then each, as discreetly as possible, gave the other a second look.