And Hell Followed With Him
Back to: And Hell Followed With Him Part 3
Ironhorse had been waiting in Blackwood's office when he came down that morning. He had sat silently while Suzanne administered his morning shot of methadone, but Blackwood had noted with dismay his unwillingness to meet the woman's glance.
It was a sad, dismal party that had gathered to wave them goodbye, the one concession to Ironhorse's depression was his leave-taking from Debi, who had risen early for the occasion. The young girl had thrown herself into the colonel's embrace and ordered him to come back soon. He had looked decidedly embarrassed, but had smiled an agreement to her words.
The tension in the air reminded Blackwood of their first few weeks on the project, when Ironhorse had been no more to him than the annoying army officer who had some control over his project. He sighed, keeping his eyes on the road. Back then Ironhorse had built a wall that prevented them from seeing the real him, but they had still managed to penetrate it. Now... now the force field was back, and this time it was Ironhorse's own emotions that were keeping it firmly in place. Blackwood seriously doubted if he would be able to breach it before the colonel asked for a reassignment.
"You are going to love it at the cabin," Blackwood enthused to his silent companion. "There's a lake, the fishing is great and the woods seem to go on forever."
"How long will we be staying?"
Blackwood shot Ironhorse a glance; those were his first words since leaving the Cottage. "Oh I don't know... a few days, a few weeks... whatever we feel like. I made all the arrangements, so if we are needed they can contact Derriman."
"So you didn't go to General Wilson this time?" the voice had a chilled edge to it and Blackwood recalled the last time he had offered the cabin as a retreat for the colonel. It had been after the man had accidentally killed an innocent civilian. The project leader had been concerned enough at the time to voice his worries to the general in an attempt to get Ironhorse to take some time away and collect his emotions.
"General Wilson is aware that we will be at the cabin, but you are still on sick leave anyway." He paused, then added, "It was a request that you accompany me, Paul, not an order. I just thought the change of scenery would do us both some good."
The colonel shifted his body in the seat, trying to get comfortable. The injury made sitting still for periods of time painful, and the unsteady movements of the car did not help. He also felt tired, but knew this was a side-effect of the methadone.
"Okay," he finally answered. Then, resting his head back, he closed his eyes and effectively prevented any more conversation. Blackwood drove the rest of the way in silence. He did not believe that the colonel was asleep, but the man did not open his eyes and Harrison was loath to disturb him in case he had managed to drift off.
When the car pulled to its final stop, Ironhorse opened his eyes and slowly, carefully stretched himself out of the vehicle. The cabin, he noted, was indeed set in beautiful surroundings, with tall trees shading the clearing. Ironhorse suspected that the opening only got the full force of the sun when it was directly overhead.
He turned to see Blackwood unloading the car, passing cases and equipment to Derriman and Wright who had joined him. Hearing the sound of wood splitting, he realised that Jameson must be chopping some around the side of the cabin.
As if in acknowledgement of this, he heard Derriman say to Blackwood, "We're camped about a quarter of a mile over to the east." He pointed in that direction. "Jameson is just finishing off the wood, we've given the place a good airing and replenished the food in the cupboards." Seeing Blackwood's expression, the sergeant added, "Yes, and some rabbit food for you. We had a bit of trouble getting some things in town yesterday, but they put them on order so we should have no trouble in the future. Oh, and one of us will be doing a run into town daily, so anything you need - just holler."
Derriman's voice faded as Ironhorse made his way to the edge of the clearing, heading towards the wide lake. He stood for a few moments, breathing the fresh, clean air, not realising until then just how much he missed the fragrance of the wild.
"It's a beautiful view, isn't it?" Blackwood said, coming to stand beside his friend.
Ironhorse cleared his throat, surprised that he had not heard the man's approach. "It's very peaceful," he ventured, watching an eagle glide across the water.
"I love this place. Clayton used to drag me up here when things got too much 'down below'. We'd spend hours fishing and walking; I'll show you some of the tracks we used to follow...." He stopped, letting the words hang, waiting for Ironhorse to accept his offer.
Instead, the colonel stated, "I'd better check where Derriman has set up his camp; I don't really like the idea of him being that far away." Ironhorse squinted at the sun across the lake and noted that it was late morning.
"The cabin is only really built for two people, and I thought the whole idea of this vacation was to get away from everything," Blackwood finished with a smile. "I don't think I could effectively do that with three soldiers moping about the place."
"I'd still like to check the perimeters." Ironhorse gave a slight smile, taking the sting out of his tone. "I guess old habits are hard to kick."
The smile brought a returning grin onto Blackwood's face. The colonel smiled so rarely these days that each was one to be cherished. "Do you mind if I accompany you, then?" the doctor ventured, very conscious that he was intruding upon the other man's territory.
Ironhorse thought about it for a few seconds, then nodded his agreement. "It's your forest, Harrison," he commented dryly. The next hour was spent wandering through the trees. The site of Derriman's camp was perfect for its job: they were not in plain view, but within easy yelling distance of the cabin; the two tents were camouflaged and blended into the surrounding area; the car they had used the day before stood by the cabin, next to Blackwood's own four-wheel drive.
As they passed the edge of the cabin, Blackwood waved to Corporal Jameson who was leaning against the wood pile he had just chopped, an axe held loosely in his hand. He waved back as they passed into the trees, this time heading away from the lake.
"This trail goes on for miles, leads right up into the mountains and gets pretty rough," Harrison supplied. "There is another one: it goes around the lake, passes a few other cabins on the west side, but you rarely bump into people out here." He paused, soaking in the sight, feeling nature at her best. "The nearest town is about fifteen miles past the turning we took to get here. You can walk it, but it's a bit up and down... would take most of the day." He came to a slow halt, realising that his companion had stopped a few yards behind.
Ironhorse was casually leaning against a tree, giving the impression of listening to the forest, but Blackwood saw with sudden guilt that it was exhaustion that had caused the man to falter. It showed plainly about the other's face, and Blackwood cursed himself for a fool. He had been so involved in his tour that he had forgotten that Paul was recovering from his recent illness.
Knowing that Ironhorse would never admit to weakness, Harrison yawned. "I could do with a rest; if I remember correctly, there should be a great view of the lake from over there." Catching the look the other threw at him, he smiled innocently. "I'm not as young as I used to be, you know."
Ironhorse, gritting his teeth, followed Blackwood as he made his way slowly over to a small clearing that opened out to a panoramic view of the lake.
Ironhorse stopped in surprise. He had not realised that they had climbed so high. Choosing a tree near to Blackwood, he gratefully sat down. Although the wound in his chest had nearly healed, it was still inclined to painfully remind him that it was still there.
"How long since you were last here?" he asked, watching Blackwood select a blade of grass to chew.
Blackwood glanced over the view and considered the question. "It was about eight years ago. I'd just taken over as head of the department at the Institute and wanted to take a few weeks off before I started."
"And you've not been back since?"
Harrison swallowed. Clearing his throat, he replied, "After Clayton died, it didn't seem right coming up here. This used to be his retreat."
"I'm sorry," Ironhorse murmured, not wishing to raise bad memories for his friend. "I didn't mean to..." he paused, not sure what he wanted to say. He seemed to be upsetting a lot of people these days, and he felt the recurring annoyance growing. Blackwood, noting Ironhorse's frustration, hastened to put his mind at ease. "Don't apologise, Paul," he said. "I like talking about it... about him. He was a positive influence in my life and he will always be a big part of it, even now that he's gone."
"My grandfather was like that," Ironhorse supplied unexpectedly. "I can remember one time, after my father had...." He stopped, realising what he had been about to say.
"Yes?" Harrison prompted.
"It doesn't matter... it happened a long time ago," snapped the other man, refusing to meet Blackwood's look, preferring instead to look out over the lake, watching the birds play over the water and letting the gentle rustling of the leaves lull him into an unwilling doze.
He was awakened some time later by Blackwood gently shaking his good arm. He blinked a couple of times, trying to orientate himself, "What.... Where?" he began, still not used to not being fully awake upon opening his eyes.
"It's getting late and I think we ought to head back," stated the other man, holding out a hand to offer assistance. Looking past the hand, Ironhorse saw that the sun was on its downward arc and a breeze had replaced its gentle rays.
"How long have I been...?" he began, still confused by the loss of time.
"About five hours."
"Christ, Blackwood, you should have woken me before now," he shot back angrily.
Harrison smiled and helped his friend to his feet. "Why? There was no hurry... we ARE on vacation, you know."
"I know, but..." he looked down sheepishly, "five hours?"
"You needed the rest, and I am not about to go against Suzanne's expressed orders."
They began the pleasant stroll back to the cabin and were met a short distance from it by Derriman. "Mr Drake called a short while ago, sir, and reported that everything was fine at the Cottage."
He spoke to the colonel, who nodded, saying, "Good... keep me informed."
Derriman acknowledged, knowing that if anything did occur, he was to report directly to Blackwood and not the colonel, as per General Wilson's orders, but he could report the daily situation to Ironhorse. "We are just about to return to camp... is there anything else you need?" he asked, keeping pace with the two men.
"No..." began Ironhorse, who stopped and looked towards Blackwood who shook his head. "I think that will be all, Sergeant."
Derriman saluted and made his way off towards his own camp.
"He's a good man," Blackwood commented, watching him fade into the forest with ease.
Ironhorse said nothing. He swallowed and pushed the niggly feeling of discomfort away. He knew that it was nearly time for his next shot of methadone and hated the way his gut reacted to the thought of it. It was as if his body betrayed him, made him feel the need by applying internal pressure upon his healing wound, causing it to throb with the need for the drug.
"Shoulder hurting?" questioned Blackwood, noticing the beads of sweat that appeared upon the other's face. Ironhorse shook his head in denial and quickened his pace. "I bet you're hungry," carried on Blackwood, easily keeping up. "I think I could rustle up a nice salad.... Mrs Pennyworth sent a pie for you, we can warm it up in the oven and...." He stepped back as Ironhorse rounded on him.
"What the hell is this, Blackwood...? Are you waiting on me now...? You think I can't look after myself.... I can use this, you know..." as he spoke, he forced his injured arm up and pushed Harrison back a few steps, biting back upon the pain it caused to flash through his body.
Blackwood fell back, shocked. He had not even seen the mood swing coming, and the intensity of it caused him to pause a moment. Then, regaining his composure, he raised an eyebrow and said slowly, patiently, "Fine... you want to cook your dinner... go right ahead.... It's no big deal."
Ironhorse, realising how silly he must look and seeing that Blackwood was not going to argue with him, dropped his arm and took a deep, steadying breath. Part of him wanted to apologise, but another part snarled that he had been doing a lot of that lately, and to hell with them all. Spinning round, he carried on down the track, tossing over his shoulder, "I'm not hungry, anyway." He swallowed again, hearing a spoilt child but not caring any more.
Blackwood watched his friend and considered his options. He knew that the drug tended to rob the appetite, but Ironhorse needed his strength, yet he did not want to make an issue of it. By the time he had reached the cabin, Blackwood had made up his mind to carry on and make his meal and maybe, after the methadone had taken effect, the soldier would be in a better frame of mind and prepared to eat.
He noted that Ironhorse had gone directly into the bedroom. He listened for a few seconds, then headed towards the locked drug cabinet that had been fitted into the bathroom. Taking out the needle, he prepared the injection, carefully measuring out the required amount.
Ironhorse was waiting for him when he returned and Harrison saw his eyes fix hungrily upon the needle in his hand. He witnessed the struggle of need cross Ironhorse's face. The man hated his dependence upon the clear liquid, but his craving was such that, at the moment, it won and he silently held out his arm.
Neither man said anything while the drug took effect. Harrison disposed of the needle and began to prepare the food, casting occasional glances at the colonel as he sat in front of the unlit fire. "Are you sure you're not hungry?" he asked, watching Ironhorse wipe his hand across his face, is if trying to push away the exhaustion that lay there.
"Maybe just a little," Ironhorse finally conceded. He did not feel like eating, but he knew that this was a small way to apologise for his earlier behaviour.
The meal was a silent affair. Blackwood watched Ironhorse push his food about the plate; with each swipe of the fork, the tension in his body became more obvious. Finally he could stand the confines of the cabin no longer and fled out the door towards the lake.
Blackwood watched him go with growing concern. He was aware that the tension was caused by the drop in dosage of the drug and Ironhorse's desire for more, but he was uncertain of the speed with which Suzanne seemed to be weaning the colonel off the methadone.
He pushed his own half-eaten plate away and sat back, watching Ironhorse as he stopped by the lake. He knew that the arm and chest wound were still giving his friend pain; the drug should at least take the edge from it, but Ironhorse's lack of appetite was starting to become a real problem. His weight loss could no longer be disguised.
After clearing the table, Blackwood wandered out into the clearing and settled himself on the bench that was fixed to the wall of the cabin. He sat watching his friend and the setting sun, knowing that he had to get past the wall Ironhorse had built if he was to keep the man with the project.
The pain in his chest rose again to choke off his breath. He gritted his teeth and pulled the cover further up over his head. The drug had worn off. He knew that the lower dosage was necessary to wean him from it completely, but it did not help his body in the predawn fight against the pain.
At first he had tried to believe that it was the cold that had seeped into the wound, but he knew the throbbing agony was too deep to be caused by any outside influence.
He bit back another groan and turned onto his back, trying to get comfortable. Pulling the blankets down, he gently rubbed the angry wound, trying to knead the pain away.
He heard Blackwood turn in his bed and stopped his movement. The last thing he wanted was to disturb the other man, to have him fussing about, stifling him with his attentions. Hearing him settle, he sighed in relief and went back to his kneading. He closed his eyes and counted to fifty. When he had been wounded in 'Nam this trick had helped, but now the counting just seemed to ally itself to the pulsing pain. It flared again, causing him to screw his eyes shut in concentration. He fought to push it away from him.
Suddenly a hand was reaching behind his neck, lifting his head up, and a glass was held to his lips with the words, "Drink this... it will help."
Seeing Blackwood leaning over him, he automatically swallowed the liquid and coughed as the brandy burned its path down his throat. His head was rested back upon the pillow as Harrison explained, "I'll be back in a moment." He left the room and Ironhorse ran his tongue about his mouth, still tasting the bitter warm fluid. The throbbing agony faded as the spirit hit his system and he gratefully breathed a sigh of relief.
"Here," Blackwood said, coming back into the room with a cloth which he placed over the wound, gently moving Ironhorse's pyjama top out of the way of the hot damp towel.
At first the heat seared into the wound and surrounding flesh and Ironhorse wanted to wrench it off, but Blackwood patted his reaching hand away and persisted in applying slight pressure to the towel. Slowly the heat penetrated the injured skin and left a healing throb in its place.
"Thank you," Ironhorse murmured as sleep began to claim him. He tried to fight the drowsiness that wanted him, but Blackwood gently lifted the towel and applied the other side, allowing more of its heat to treat the wound. As he did, he advised in a gentle, calming voice, "Relax, Colonel. Your body needs the rest; just let it go, just let the pain go."
Ironhorse's last thought was of Blackwood's deep, steadying voice taking him back into the folds of slumber. As he slipped further and further into its grasp, he realised that Blackwood's voice sounded very like his grandfather's, and a slight smile played across his face.
Blackwood sat for a while beside the sleeping man, occasionally changing the towel for another, warmer one. He had awakened to hear his friend groaning and knew that the pain must be bad for him to make that sound.
He watched the deep, even breathing and gently reached out to brush away the unruly lock of hair that persisted in disobeying its master. The colonel looked so young, buried in the covers of the bed. It was only the raw, angry wound that proclaimed that this was a fighting man, and the shadow of illness that clung to his features showed that he had fought one fight too many.
Blackwood glanced towards the window, the sounds of nature informing him that it would soon be dawn. He looked towards his own bed and decided against returning to it. His need for one hour of sleep in five had been well filled that night and the thought of coffee was calling him into the kitchen.
He gently dried the skin about the wound. Standing, he pulled the blankets up over his friend and moving to a cupboard, he pulled two more blankets from the shelf and placed them over the sleeping man, hoping that these would retain the heat that he had applied.
Ironhorse's next awakening was slow and gradual. He climbed up through the layers of consciousness and tasted each to its fullest. Gone was the ache of that morning, and in its place was the contentment of not waking with pain as a companion.
He breathed deep and smelt the coffee, knowing that Blackwood would be in the main room of the cabin. Sighing, he regretfully opened his eyes and, grabbing up his robe, made his way out to greet his fellow teammate.
Blackwood looked up from the puzzle he had been working on and smiled a warm greeting. "Coffee?" he offered, standing and retrieving his own cup.
"How are you feeling?" the tall, lanky man asked, pouring out two coffees from the old-style pot.
"Better." Ironhorse mentally felt down his body and was surprised to note that it was true: he did feel better. "I didn't know brandy could have such an effect," he commented, remembering the bitter warmth that had spread across his body.
Blackwood placed a cup in front of his friend and, sitting down, confessed, "It wasn't just brandy." Seeing the other's surprised look, he continued, "It's an old family recipe and..." he held up his hand, forestalling any questions, "I did check with Suzanne before we left that it wouldn't affect your other medication." He paused, then added, "As long as you don't take it too often."
Ironhorse smiled. Rubbing the back of his neck, he agreed, "It's certainly strong stuff."
"You've an hour before your shot," Blackwood said, noting the time. "If you get a move on, we could have breakfast out of the way and then go for a walk."
The colonel looked surprised; he had forgotten about the injection. He paused... no, not really forgotten; it had not been his first waking thought, like it had been for the past four weeks. "I guess so. To tell the truth, I feel like a long shower and a big breakfast."
Blackwood broke into a bright smile and nodded enthusiastically. "Well sir, you get your butt into the bathroom and take care of the first part and I'll see to the second." Standing, he asked, "Ham, eggs and pancakes sound good to you?"
Ironhorse did a double take; he did feel hungry, but he was not sure he could face all that. "Er... how about some toast and a little fruit juice?"
"Colonel... Colonel, you're not playing the game. If I am going to get my hands dirty cooking you breakfast... then you are going to have slightly more than toast!"
Ironhorse knew that there was going to be no arguing with his friend that morning, so he shook his head and, after taking a long swallow of the boiling brew, advised, "You can cook it, mister, and I'll do my best about eating it... how's that?"
Realising that this was going to be the best offer he was going to get, the scientist wisely decided to accept the treaty offered.
By the time breakfast had finished, the nagging pain was back and Ironhorse's good mood of the morning was fading. The desire for the drug had returned during the meal and, no matter how much he tried to deny it, the need was there.
Blackwood noted the winces of pain that crossed the other's face as he ate. Suzanne had given very strict instructions about how much and when the colonel was to receive his shots. The morning shot was about nine and the afternoon could vary between four and eight, depending on how long the injured man could cope without it.
Holding the cotton swab to the injection wound, Ironhorse let out a deep sigh and confided, "I hate this, Blackwood... I really hate this."
Dismantling the needle and tossing it into the bin provided, Blackwood could not help but hear the desperation in the other's voice. Biting his lips, he returned, "Not for much longer Paul... a week at the most.... The dosage is pretty low now and...." he paused, not sure how he could comfort the man in front of him.
"It's a necessary evil for the morphine, I know," Ironhorse finished for him. Shaking off his mood, he turned towards the door and, grabbing up his coat, asked, "What about that walk you mentioned?"
Taking his own jacket from the rack, Blackwood followed the colonel from the cabin. "I thought we could try the pathway by the lake this morning."
"Lead on, Pathfinder," Ironhorse returned with a smile, while motioning Blackwood in front of him.
"Hey," yelped the other man, a distant memory coming to the fore. "That's a point. One summer I built a wigwam up along this way; if it's still up, you could give me points out of ten on it."
Ironhorse pulled a face and shot back, "Give me a break, Harrison."
Looking slightly hurt, Blackwood mumbled, "It was just a thought."
As they walked, they fell into a companionable silence, each lost in the beauty of their surroundings. Blackwood would stop and point out views of interest, and the threat of an alien invasion seemed a long way away.
"This looks like a good place to rest," Blackwood offered, seeing the colonel's arm reach up to rub his chest.
Not wishing to break the mood, the colonel agreed and both men settled down to soak up the view.
"Someone must be using one of those cabins over there," Blackwood commented, pointing towards the distant rising smoke.
"Either that or it's a forest fire," returned Ironhorse, not really sounding too bothered if it proved to be the latter. Blackwood pulled a face. "How come you always look on the bright side?"
This was greeted with a slight smile. "It's a side-effect of working with civilians."
"Do you miss not working with a proper army unit?"
Ironhorse frowned and considered the question. "Sometimes," he ventured, purposely keeping his look out over the lake.
"You know that you are invaluable to the project. We all -Suzanne, Norton and I - consider you to be a vital member of our team." Blackwood watched his friend as he spoke, looking for a sign that all would be right, that they could go back to being the team they were before the attack.
Ironhorse dragged a deep breath into lungs that suddenly did not seem to want to work. He felt the pressure building up inside his body; he wanted to reassure the man sitting near him, yet he could not.... Every time he thought of the attack - and, he had to admit, not a day went by when he did not feel those three fingers pierce his flesh - he felt sick and dizzy and the overwhelming need to run. It was so overpowering that he feared it would become a reality if he had to confront the aliens again. He stood up and brushed himself down. "I think I've done enough walking for one day." He turned, but Blackwood had leapt up and grabbed his arm.
"Paul... I just want to help.... Maybe, if you explained... it would be..." he faltered to a stop, seeing the pain and uncertainty in the other's eyes.
"Harrison... I don't know.... I just don't know any more...." Ironhorse reached up and rubbed his forehead, mainly to hide the raw emotions he knew were crossing his face. He felt so ashamed at not being able to control himself better.
Feeling his friend tremble under his grasp, Blackwood took a step back, releasing him. "Want to go into town this afternoon?" he asked, needing to change the topic and give his friend time to recover.
Ironhorse nodded, not trusting his voice. He took a couple of deep breaths and finally agreed, "Yeah, why not." There was no real conviction in the answer, just an agreement to let the conversation drop.
The walk back was made in silence, but not the companionable silence of that early stroll out. Glancing up, Blackwood noted the large rain clouds that had covered the sun and reflected that the weather was, for once, a fine judge of mood.
The sound of thunder cut into Blackwood's thoughts as they headed back to the cabin. Glancing up at the suddenly darkening sky, he realised that the storm would break before they made it back.
Ironhorse, also realising this, hastened his pace, his hand slipping up to close upon his healing wound as it protested at the rough treatment it was receiving.
The rain began to fall and their fast walk became a slow trot, each man concentrating on their footing as the pathway became darkened and slippery with water.
Ironhorse shot a quick glance at Blackwood. Feeling the water soak through his shirt, he shivered at the coldness against his warm skin. His hair, which had grown during his illness, was annoying him by the way it kept falling into his eyes. Reaching up, he swiped it up over his head. As he did so, his footing slipped and he sprawled upon the ground, his good arm shooting out to break his fall, the other trapped helplessly in the sling under his jacket.
He landed heavily on his injured side and the pain forced the air from his lungs, a blinding agony tore into his chest causing the world to fade from his view.
It could only have been for a few seconds, because his next coherent memory was of Blackwood leaning anxiously over him, trying to get him into a sitting position.
The rain had turned from a heavy drizzle to a pounding attack of water. Both were well and truly wet, their jackets not preventing the liquid from reaching even their most protected areas.
"Can you stand?" Blackwood asked, trying to maintain his grip upon his friend.
"Give me a minute," gasped the injured man, still trying to ride out the pain which flamed across his body.
"Colonel... Paul, we have to move now," insisted the other man, trying to pull Ironhorse from the wet ground. Slowly he managed to get Paul to his feet, where he swayed a few seconds before Blackwood could get a firmer grip.
"Come on..." Blackwood advised, squinting through the rain, seriously worried by Ironhorse's lack of movement. He pushed forward, supporting most of the other man's weight.
Ironhorse struggled to place one foot in front of the other and gritted his teeth at the torment each step cost him. He could tell his strength was fading fast. He swallowed the bile that rose in his throat and staggered on.
Between Blackwood's half-carrying and Ironhorse's struggles they finally made it back to the clearing where they were met by Derriman, who had been watching the trail, awaiting their return.
"We got worried about you when the storm started," he explained, taking in the scene and offering his own support to his commander, who did not have the strength to refuse.
It took only a few seconds to carry the injured man across the clearing and into the cabin. Within another few minutes he was laying naked and dry in his own bed, beneath a growing pile of blankets.
Shivering with cold and reaction he just lay there, letting the others administer to his needs, his own strength no longer able to supply any assistance.
"Here, drink this," Blackwood requested, lifting Paul's head to allow the burning liquid to trail down his throat.
Ironhorse did as he was told and coughed as the heat radiated out from his throat and stomach.
"Now, let's get a look at that shoulder," commented Blackwood, placing the empty cup upon the side table and motioning to Derriman to move the light nearer.
Gently he pulled back the blanket and began to remove the wet dressing. He bit his lip when he saw the blood that was seeping into the wrapping.
"Shall I call the doctor?" Derriman asked, referring to Suzanne. Blackwood shook his head, she was too far away.
"How's the storm?" he asked, wondering if it might be wiser to get Ironhorse into town to see the local doctor. Sighing, he dismissed the idea; there would be too many questions that he didn't want to answer, and the wound itself would be impossible to explain.
"I'm alright," slurred Ironhorse, slowly lifting his good arm to rest it across his drawn face. He swallowed again as Blackwood continued his probing of the wound. "It's just painful," he gritted out.
"The storm's pretty bad, sir," Jameson advised from the doorway. "I think it's in for the night."
Making up his mind, Blackwood decided, "I think we should dress it and see how it goes. The bleeding's almost stopped," he added, lifting the pad he held against the injury and seeing no new blood had appeared. "A few days' bedrest should help it heal," he advised Ironhorse, then paused as he realised that the colonel had passed beyond hearing - whether because of the pain or the brandy mix, he was not sure.
Sighing again, he reached for the first aid kit Derriman was holding. It was a large box that contained everything he would need, and he spent a few seconds sorting out the items. "Get me a bowl of hot water," he ordered the sergeant.
Returning a few moments later, Derriman placed the bowl gently down on the side table, removing the cup to make room.
"Call the Cottage; try to find out if there is a hospital we can use in this area."
"Is it that bad, sir?" Derriman asked in slight surprise; the wound had only opened a little and he had seen the colonel with worse.
Blackwood weighed the question, working as he thought. Finally he answered, "I don't want to take any chances. You three had better stay here until the storm passes, and," he added as the sergeant left the room, "get that damn fire going; we need some heat in here." He spared a glance at the window and saw the rain lashing against the pane, the darkness outside giving the impression of night instead of early afternoon.
A few hours later, Blackwood was seriously considering taking Ironhorse into town to the local hospital they had been advised about.
The man had lain in deathly silence for the first hour, but since then a growing fever had caught hold of him. Even now he was twisting and muttering under its influence. He occasionally tried to push the heavy blankets from his body, but Blackwood was always there to replace them and whisper words of comfort to ease the man's troubled ramblings.
"What do you think, sir?" Derriman asked, handing Blackwood a steaming cup of coffee.
Blackwood shot a glance at the window. Seeing that the storm was showing no signs of abating, he replied, "Give it another two hours; if he doesn't wake up, we'll try to get him into town."
"The storm's pretty bad; the forecast is saying it's in for the night." Derriman moved to pull up a chair and sat the other side of the bed.
Blackwood leant back and stretched his tired muscles, muttering, "I should have remembered these storms, how suddenly they could appear. They happened a few times when I was here with Clayton."
"Do you want me to sit with the colonel for a while?" Derriman asked, seeing the signs of strain about the other's eyes. Blackwood was about to refuse, then he realised that Derriman needed to do something other than just wait. Nodding, he slowly stood up, saying, "I'll call Suzanne and fill her in; if she thinks he needs more medical attention, we'll head for the hospital."
Derriman nodded, not really hearing Blackwood leave. He reached out and gently replaced the blanket over his commander's upper body. He found himself chewing his bottom lip and chastised himself for his visible sign of worry.
The heat would not leave him; the sweat would run down his torso and the agony in his upper chest would not abate. He took another shallow breath, trying to gain some control over his errant body.
He knew he was not really awake, but the sight before him confused him into thinking that he wanted this to be a nightmare so much, that his mind was taking the reality of the advancing alien into nightmare domain for him.
His back was pressed against the wall, his gun empty and useless in his limp grip. He had fired several rounds into the monster without any visible sign of affecting the advancing creature. He glanced to his side, judging his ability to escape in that direction, but his eyes were drawn back to his aggressor as it raised its three-fingered hand to attack him. He pushed away from the cold stone behind him, but was slammed back by the force of the alien's hand as it pushed into his already wounded chest. He arched up and cried out as the pain grew in intensity. He began to fight the being with all his strength, twisting and struggling to claw at the face of his attacker. He could hear his own voice crying hoarsely, screaming an old Indian war cry of impending death, alerting his ancestors that he would soon be joining them.
"Damn it, Ironhorse," came a voice he knew. "Calm down, it's us.... Paul...." Suddenly his body was released and the grip fastened upon his face, pulling him up and about to look away from his nightmare. He cried out again and tried to twist free, but the aggressor would not release him; its pure strength of presence forcing him to open his eyes.
"Blackwood," he gasped, seeing the tall man leaning over him, a deep dread burning in the other's eyes. "Blackwood," he repeated louder and more firmly, pulling in the sight of Derriman, standing back and rubbing his jaw where a lucky punch of Ironhorse's had caught him. His eyes flitted to the window of the cabin, seeing the rain and realising that he was safe. He let out a gasping choke and went limp in Blackwood's arms Blackwood held him a moment longer, ascertaining that the fit was over and that Ironhorse was in his right senses. The suddenness of the nightmare and Ironhorse's subsequent attack on Derriman had shocked and - in a way - frightened him. The raw power of the man under the blankets had reminded Blackwood that Ironhorse was capable of killing with his bare hands.
Slowly he laid him back against the pillows and pulled the blankets back up to cover his chest. "How do you feel?" he asked, swallowing his own shock.
Ironhorse gulped in air and winced at the pain this caused. "I'm alright," he finally answered, his too-pale face lending no weight to his lie. "How long...?" he began, his memory still caught up in the nightmarish attack, the alien still waiting behind his closed eyes.
"A few hours; you've had us quite worried." Blackwood righted the seat that had been knocked over and glanced at Derriman, who nodded that he was alright.
Ironhorse let out a dry, bitter laugh and replied slowly, "Everybody's worried about me... it might have been better if...."
Blackwood again met Derriman's look; the note of despair was clear in the injured man's tone. Knowing there was nothing he could say at the moment that would help the other's pain, Blackwood decided that his best track would be to take Ironhorse's mind off his own problems.
"Suzanne wanted to come up here to see you," he said, knowing that this would instantly get Paul's attention.
"In this weather?" snapped Ironhorse, struggling to rise, but Blackwood easily prevented him with a gentle hand upon his shoulder.
"I managed to calm her down, but," he added firmly, "only by telling her you would not move out of that bed for at least two days."
"Two days," groaned the Indian, feeling as if he had spent the last half of his life in one bed or another.
Blackwood smiled in sympathy. "It's either that, or explain why you are out of it to Suzanne... in person."
Knowing when he was beaten, Ironhorse decided to give in gracefully. "Two days," he said again, confirming his sentence. "Two days," agreed Blackwood with a smile, relieved that the despair seemed to have left his friend.
Ironhorse moved his body about the bed, testing the fleeting pain that flew across his chest.
Seeing the movement, Blackwood leant over and replaced the blanket that had slid down, saying, "You missed your last injection, but Suzanne wants you to take these painkillers instead." He held out the tablets and assisted the other man to take them. Placing the glass back upon the side table, he finished, "She suggested it might be an idea to wean you off the methadone a bit sooner, if you think you could do it?"
"I don't know, Harrison," began Ironhorse, then seeing the concerned look in the other's eyes, he nodded. "Okay, Harrison, if that's what Suzanne wants." Glancing up at the window, he saw that the rain still lashed heavily against it. "How long do you think this storm is going to last?"
"I guess you must be in luck, because we've just heard that it might last two days... so we couldn't go out, anyway."
Ironhorse looked hard at Blackwood for a full minute before he started to laugh. It was a deep, mellow sound that soon had the other four men joining in. "Blackwood, I always knew you were good, but I never knew you were THAT good."
"With you about to push my limits, what do you expect?" Blackwood slowly stood up and stretched. "I'm going to get some shut-eye, and I suggest that the rest of you do the same," he added, noting that the three soldiers looked as tired as he felt.
"I'll take first watch," put in Derriman, allowing the other two soldiers to sleep first.
Blackwood threw up his arms and cried, "We are in the middle of the wilds, Derriman. The nearest human is at least eight miles away."
The tall sergeant looked slightly uncomfortable, but returned firmly, "Sir, it's our duty to look out for you, and... well, it wouldn't be right not to do our duty, sir."
"You've trained your men too well, Paul," Blackwood began, turning back to his friend. He stopped when he saw the deep, even breathing of sleep which had crept over the man. "Okay, you win, Derriman. Place your guards, keep an eye on Paul." Even as he said it, he knew that the words were not necessary. Smiling, he reached out and gripped the other man's arm. "Sorry." Derriman smiled back. "That's alright, sir, we..." he paused, suddenly embarrassed, "we've all been concerned for him... the colonel, that is...." He stuttered to a stop.
"I know what you mean," finished the other man, stifling another yawn.
"Look, you get some sleep; we'll see to things here," Derriman said, moving Blackwood towards the other bed.
Blackwood considered protesting, but decided that it was going to be a losing argument - Ironhorse had obviously installed his own stubbornness in his people, and he knew how hard a battle it was to get the colonel to do anything. He wisely decided to give in gracefully.
The next two days passed in relative calm. Ironhorse, for once, seemed to take Suzanne's threat seriously and had stayed in bed -not without the odd moan about bossy women, but Blackwood could handle that.
Derriman and his men had moved out of the cabin at the first sign of the storm letting up. They were now back in their own camp, which had survived the weather far better than any of them had expected.
The two days since the injections had stopped had not been easy on Ironhorse, and Blackwood secretly suspected that the reason he had remained in bed was to better fight the effects of the lack of drug. He had been both sleepy and restless, but the painkillers seemed to take the edge off the craving.
Now, on the third day, he was chomping at the bit to get up, and Blackwood found himself smiling as he heard Ironhorse fighting to get into his clothes. The sling, unfortunately, would still be needed for a while longer, and the colonel could not seem to come to terms with the handicap this caused when dressing. He still steadfastly refused any help in getting his shirt on, and Blackwood now waited until the sound of swearing grew before he offered his help. By then, it was usually accepted without comment.
"Do you need any help, colonel?" he asked, hearing a swear word he had not heard since his college days.
"If it's not too much trouble, Harrison," came the gritted-teeth reply.
Throwing the dish towel back on the side, he made his way into the bedroom. He stopped dead in the doorway, suppressing a smile at the sight of Ironhorse half-in, half-out of his black shirt. The colonel was turning a slow circle, trying to capture the errant arm of the shirt that was fleeing him.
"Here, let me," Blackwood said, grabbing the offending cloth and holding it steady as the other man gingerly placed his injured arm into its folds.
"Thanks," Ironhorse sighed, turning to look for the sling. He picked it up and, throwing it over his head, spent a few seconds rearranging it comfortably upon his chest before bending his arm and placing it within its nest.
"Better?" Blackwood asked, standing back to look the other man up and down. The black shirt was not a good colour choice, as it highlighted the colonel's pale features.
"I will feel a lot better once I can get rid of this," he snapped, poking at the sling.
Blackwood began to laugh, but stopped at the look this earned him. He licked his lips in an effort to keep his face straight. Coughing, he added, "Breakfast is ready."
"Great," snapped Paul, his temper fading at the sight of laughter still lurking in Harrison's eyes. He could picture what he must have looked like, chasing his shirt about the room, and he could not blame Blackwood for being amused.
"Come on, Paul, I made a pot of Norton's special coffee today... to celebrate."
"Celebrate?" the colonel asked, following his friend into the main room of the cabin.
Realising that he could not explain his feeling of relief at his friend's present state of health, Blackwood shook his head, replying, "Never mind. It's a lovely day, no sign of a storm, and I thought we could take a drive into town."
"Maybe," Ironhorse hedged, moving to sit down and gratefully accepting the coffee offered. There was still the slight nag of addiction in his body, but he had been able to push it further and further from his mind... and with it went his uncertainty of what he wanted for the future.
He felt good... not perfect, but definitely better... more able to see the past and future for what it really was. Now all he had to do was face his worst nightmare and confront the aliens once again. He shot a glance at Blackwood, who had his back to him, working over the stove.
Taking another sip from the cup, Ironhorse contemplated his future with the team. If he survived the next conflict with the enemy, he knew he had a future and could embrace it with both arms. Yet, if he did not... if he let his fear gain control... then he was finished, and it might have been better if they had let him die in the warehouse. He took a deep breath, and winced at the slight pain this caused.
Hearing the deep sigh, Blackwood turned round and looked at his friend. The expression upon his face was serious, and Harrison felt some of his earlier joy fade. Ironhorse had come to a decision, he could tell, but what that was he was unable to discern. "That was a deep sigh, Paul," he said, turning back to the breakfast.
"I think we ought to go back to the Cottage today," Ironhorse answered, placing his cup down in front of him.
Blackwood spun back to face him, a frown upon his handsome features. "Why? We've only just got here."
"We've been here four days, and two of those I've spent in bed." Shaking his head to prevent Blackwood from butting in, he continued, "I don't need to stay here, Harrison. Our place is back at the Cottage, fighting the aliens, not here." He stood up, unease biting into him. He could not explain his real reason for wanting to return: how it would give him a better chance to confront his nightmare, to see if he could still handle an attack and fight back.
Blackwood was at once pleased and alarmed by Ironhorse's decision to return to the Cottage and begin their fight against the enemy once more. Even as this thought crossed his mind, it was followed by a darker one. The reason behind this sudden change worried him. He knew that Ironhorse was a long way from full recovery, and yet the man was giving the indication of being at the fore of the fighting once more.
"Paul... it's going to be quite a few weeks before you can even contemplate being on a mission against the aliens." He picked up the coffee pot and, walking over towards the table, filled both the cups. Sitting down, he faced Ironhorse over the steaming brew. "Don't even think we are going to allow you...." He paused, unable to explain in words the fear he and the others had felt at the thought of losing him; how much they had come to depend upon his steady-as-a-rock ability to look at the aliens and see an enemy that could be beaten.
Paul let out a bark of laughter that tore across the tension that had been growing in the room. "Harrison, I was not planning on taking them on just yet. I thought I might at least get rid of this first." He smiled again, lifting up the sling-encased arm. Reaching across the table, he gently touched Blackwood's hand. "Hey, I'm a soldier, and a good soldier knows when to fight and when to spend time getting well. I'll take it slow and easy until you guys give me the all-clear... alright?" He tilted his head slightly and smiled innocently at the other man.
Blackwood felt relief rise within him and, nodding, he smiled back. "Alright." Standing up, he finished, "But I wish I'd taped that, because I get the feeling that I may need to replay it over the next few weeks." He turned back to the stove and started to serve the breakfast.
Ironhorse bit his lip and turned his attention back to the coffee. He felt bad lying to Blackwood, but he knew that the other man would not let him within a mile of the Cottage or an alien if he knew what he was planning. He knew that he would have to be on his best behaviour until the aliens made their next move, then he would do what he had to do to confront his nightmare... even if it meant losing Blackwood's friendship.
Placing the food in front of Ironhorse, Blackwood commented, "And I want to see a clean plate, mister."
Paul nodded in compliance and began to eat the food with apparent enthusiasm. Harrison watched his friend for a few seconds before he started his own bowl of cereal. He could not shake the feeling that he had missed something very important, and it worried him.
Three weeks had passed since Ironhorse had persuaded Blackwood to cut short their vacation, and he had done everything in his power to reassure the others of his good health.
The sling was no longer an accessory to his clothing, and he revelled in the joy of being able to flex his limb when he wanted, and to be free of the pain. He had started a tough regime of training that involved both the gym and short runs, his body not yet up to the vigour of his usual programme.
He had also spent some time with Debi, building back the bridges his bad temper had threatened to destroy. He was pleased to note that hardly any work was needed in that area, because the child accepted that his bad moods had been due to his illness and, with the trust of youth, she was prepared to put it behind her with the knowledge that he was better.
Sometimes Ironhorse would feel Blackwood's eyes upon him as he worked and, looking up, he would see a frown upon his friend's face. He would only offer up a smile in return, knowing that he could not let the others know about the nightmare which haunted his sleeping mind. It had taken an evil form, replaying over and over in his mind's eye, even dragging memories from his past to the fore to torment him. He awakened from it terrified, breathing hard, and drenched in sweat most nights, yet he had been able to hide the signs by agreeing that his wound was healing slowly, and he needed the extra sleep to build up his body strength. The others were so pleased to have him back that they almost fell over themselves to agree with him. All, that is, except Blackwood, who had taken to checking up on him while he was training, following him when he walked about the grounds, relaxing. Ironhorse could not be angry at him for his intrusion because he knew it was born of worry. Instead, he began to invite Blackwood to accompany him, and this seemed to settle them into the routine their friendship had assumed.
They had just sat down to dinner when the computer's alarms began to vibrate about the Cottage. They all looked at each other in surprise before Norton said, "I guess this break was too good to last." Seeing the others about to follow, he waved them back, saying, "No, stay and finish dinner. It might be another false call." Casting a regretful glance at the food, he finished, "No need for all of us to miss dinner."
Within fifteen minutes they had all gathered in the lab, the food upstairs having hardly been touched. Debi had excused herself to her bedroom, pleading homework - all knew that it was her way of getting out from under their feet. Suzanne felt a twinge of guilt, but pushed it to the back of her mind; Mrs Pennyworth would see to her daughter, and it might just be a false alarm.
Looking at the information playing across the screen and taking in Norton's intense expression, all three knew that this was the real thing. The aliens had finally managed to regroup enough to offer another attack upon the human race.
"Well?" Blackwood asked, leaning over the computer buff's shoulder, trying to read the information as it flashed across the screen. Feeling slightly dizzy, he gave up and leant back. Norton was typing on the keyboard and processing the information the computer fed back to him. "It's definitely our boys.... A chemical warehouse was ripped off. Police are stumped by the stuff taken, as nothing is drug-related - seems it was..." he paused. Confused, he typed a few more keys and rechecked his information. "The chemicals are mainly used in the garden: weedkiller, plant food...." He paused again, digesting new information that played across his terminal. "There's been another break in at a garden centre!!" Pushing back from the table, he added, "That's it; the aliens have finally flipped and taken up gardening as a pastime."
"Maybe... maybe not," Harrison replied, squeezing Norton's shoulder. "Suzanne, what do you know about the aliens' eating habits?"
The woman blinked a few times, surprised by the question, but she knew where Blackwood was headed. "They do seem to eat flowers... the incident at Grovers Mill proves that... could be any form of vegetation. But why steal this stuff? They could easily steal the plants once grown."
"Not if they were after a special form of food, maybe something we don't grow... a plant they want to produce, but would need special chemicals to do so. Norton, get a printout of what's missing. Suzanne, can you cross-reference it and see what they might be after?"
"Sure thing," Norton replied, turning back to his machine. Suzanne frowned, then, letting out a sigh, she smiled crookedly. "Why not? I was only going to wash my hair, anyway." She moved to stand by the printer, awaiting the list.
"Suzanne, your hair is lovely as ever," shot back Harrison, returning to his position over Norton's shoulder. "Can you give me the location of the garden centre? That was the last place robbed, wasn't it?" There was an excitement in his voice: he had been born to confront this enemy; this was what he lived for. "I'll inform Derriman we'll be moving out," Ironhorse said, moving towards a phone.
Blackwood's hand snapped out. "Not us, Paul... you're still on sick leave."
Ironhorse paused, his hand reaching for the phone, his body stiffening in anger. "I came off the sick list when Drake's computer started to sing, Blackwood," he shot back.
Suzanne turned to watch the two men. She knew that neither would win this fight; even the victor would leave with wounds.
"Colonel, you have not been cleared by a doctor to return to active duty," Blackwood explained patiently.
"Harrison," began Ironhorse slowly, clearly, "there are aliens out there, and it is my job to fight them. If you think that I am just going to sit here on my butt while you go waltzing off into the night, you can think again."
Blackwood opened his mouth to answer, but Suzanne stepped in, knowing that the argument was wasting time. "Harrison, why not take Paul; you might need his expertise, and he will promise to stay out of the way - not take on any aliens in hand to hand combat." She proposed the last to Ironhorse, who only glared at her before nodding. It was the best he was going to get, and he knew it.
"I don't know," began Blackwood, then, seeing the flash of anger in Suzanne's eyes, he relented, saying, "Alright, but only if he promises not to leave the vehicle once we get there."
Ironhorse felt his jaw tighten with anger at being treated like a child, but he fought down his bitter reply, saying instead, "If you think it's for the best."
Blackwood nodded, not trusting his voice in answering. He thought it would be better if Ironhorse stayed at the Cottage, but Suzanne had stood against him on that and she was more aware of Paul's medical condition than he was.
Ironhorse took the nod as agreement and, turning, threw back over his shoulder, "I'll get the team together. See you outside in," he glanced at his watch, "ten minutes."
After he was gone, Blackwood rounded on Suzanne. "What the hell did you agree with him for?" he asked, anger evident in his stance.
Ripping off the printout, she turned towards her office and replied simply, "He needs to go with you."
Blackwood could not believe what he was hearing and moved towards her. "That's it? He needs to go with me?"
She looked at him and felt sorry for the worry she saw in his eyes: he took their safety into far greater account than he took his own. "Harrison," she began, reaching out to hold his arm to try to make him see that what she said was necessary. "The last month of his recovery has been the hardest for him. Before, it was up to us and the hospital to keep him alive. Now, he doesn't have that to lean upon, and he needs to know that he is still a member of this team." She paused, unsure whether to tell him the whole truth. Seeing the look of worry again in his eyes, she decided against it, choosing to say instead, "If you stop him from going, he will never forgive you. He will see it as a sign that you no longer trust him in the field."
Blackwood swallowed his anger and replied, "Suzanne, I trust him more than I trust anyone else - and that includes you - but he has been ill, damn it. We nearly lost him. He's just not up to this." He stopped, out of words to express his concern.
"Harrison, if you don't let him go tonight, he will never be up to it. Don't you see he has to prove to himself that he can face the aliens again. It's like falling from a horse, Harrison. If you don't ask him now, when he wants to go... then the next time will be harder, and before long he will be making excuses not to go. Do you want to be responsible for that?"
Blackwood took a step back and shook his head, knowing that what she said was true. Turning, he looked towards Norton and saw that he, too, agreed with her. "He's my best friend," he said quietly, emotion strong in his voice as he remembered how close death had come.
Suzanne moved forward and threw her arms about him, pulling him close. "Harrison, we know that. None of us want him to go tonight, but we don't really have a choice."
Blackwood hugged her back. "I know," he finally agreed. Pulling himself together, he slipped from her arms and took the directions from Norton, saying, "Call us en route if you pick up any more signals."
"Will do," Norton said, replacing his headset.
Turning back to her lab, Suzanne wondered if she had done the right thing in not telling Blackwood about Ironhorse's nightmares. She knew that Paul would have to face his fears to be able to put them behind him. She just hoped that he did not die trying.
They were en route to the garden centre when Norton called in a new radio position. It was coming from a gas station, seventeen miles out of town. Checking on the map, Ironhorse advised the other car to follow them to the gas station, saying to Blackwood as he replaced the phone, "They seem to be heading our way."
"I think they might be waiting for further orders from their leaders. If so, we might catch up with them there."
"Good," Ironhorse said, fighting down the fear that knotted in his middle, and pretending that the shaking his body felt was due to the cold and not the thought of the dream becoming reality. "Are you alright?" Harrison asked, seeing the hand that reached to check the gun shake slightly.
Ironhorse licked suddenly dry lips and coughed, saying, "Excitement."
"Really," shot back Blackwood, not believing a word of it, and once again feeling annoyed at the others for backing Ironhorse's decision to be there.
Thirty-five minutes later they were drawing up just out of sight of the lonely gas station. It was set on a back country road, surrounded by trees, and had obviously seen better days. The newer highway had taken away most, if not all, of its business.
Picking up the phone, Blackwood answered Norton's call. "They're still transmitting?" he asked, wishing for once that the aliens had been long gone. "Okay, keep on top of it.... Has Suzanne come up with anything?" He waited until she came on the line and listened for a few minutes. Finally, he said, "I'll take your word for it, Suzanne... I don't know that much about roses." After a few more moments listening, he said his goodbyes and turned the phone off.
Looking towards the gathering soldiers, with Ironhorse in the middle of them, he said, "Norton is still picking up their transmissions, so we know they're still here. Suzanne seems to think the stuff they were after is a derivative from the rosa."
Seeing their confused looks, he added, "The rose. Apparently it might hold some healing powers for them, and they are after the pure stuff. Anyway, she's still working on it, but it would help if we can get the chemicals for her to run some tests on."
Taking over, Ironhorse gave out a few terse commands. "I want this to be clean and fast; we have no idea how many there are. We are after the chemicals, but I don't want anyone placed in danger because of it." He paused, wanting and receiving nods of understanding. "Derriman, take one unit and cover the east side." He glanced at his watch. "I'll give you ten minutes to get there. You push the attack; I want them out of the station, away from the petrol and chemicals."
"Yes sir," came the sure reply as the older man took his group and headed off into the undergrowth, making his way to the other side of the station. They moved silently and were soon lost in the night.
"Coleman." She snapped to attention at her name. "Your unit has this side and the front." He paused, then added as she readied her men, "Remember, we don't know how many are in there... it could be three or thirty, so keep your heads down."
She nodded in understanding and began to move her people into position, knowing she only had a few minutes.
Looking at the remaining unit, Ironhorse commented, "I guess that leaves the back to us."
Blackwood chose this moment to step in, anger again visible on his face. "No way, Colonel.... Remember you were invited as an observer only." He stood forward, giving the impression that he would forcibly prevent the other man from taking any action in the upcoming encounter.
Ironhorse glared at Blackwood for talking to him like that in front of his men. Grabbing the civilian's arm, he pulled him back over toward the Bronco. "Listen, Blackwood, and listen good. Derriman is going to attack in under five minutes, and we will be ready to offer him support." Releasing his arm, he spun round and made to walk off. Blackwood grabbed for him and suddenly found himself lying flat on the ground, Ironhorse glaring down at him. "Jameson," he called to the nearby soldier. "If Dr Blackwood tries to follow us... shoot him."
The young man in question swallowed hard and squeaked, "Sir?"
Blackwood leapt to his feet, glaring at Ironhorse, who stood back, crouched and ready for an attack, all sign of his recent injury gone from his body.
"If he tries to leave this area, shoot him." He paused, taking pity on the young, hapless corporal. "In the leg or arm," he added, as much for Blackwood's sake as the young man's. "Yes sir," Jameson replied, lifting his weapon and turning it weakly upon Blackwood.
"Damn you, Ironhorse," snarled Blackwood, but if the soldier heard he gave no sign as he disappeared into the darkness, followed by the remaining soldiers.
A few minutes later, the night exploded into sound. The gas station became the centre of a fierce and bitter fight between two races of beings, fighting for their survival: one for their race, the other for their planet.
Derriman pushed his attack from the east, forcing the aliens to scatter towards Coleman's waiting ambush. Light flaring from automatic weapons' fire told its own story, as human and alien cries filtered through the night.
Blackwood paced helplessly by the van, throwing occasional glances at the young man who held his weapon firmly pointing at Blackwood's legs.
"He's going to get himself killed, you know that," snapped Blackwood at the soldier.
"Sir?" was his only reply.
"Do you think he's fit enough to be taking them on?" he ground out, knowing that if Derriman was near, he would soon sort the young man out. He would have prevented Ironhorse from leaving the van. Blackwood ground his teeth in anger.
"Sir." This seemed to be the only reply the corporal could make, his pale face showing how much he liked the order he had been given.
Blackwood moved towards him, easing himself across the ground, saying, "I don't think General Wilson will look kindly upon the soldier who shot the Project Leader, do you?" He spoke in a reasonable tone. "And, well, Colonel Ironhorse has not really been cleared fit for duty yet." He saw the implications of this hit home and the gun waver slightly. "If Colonel Ironhorse dies out there, it's going to be our fault." He paused, seeing Jameson's eyes grow larger.
"I was given a direct order, sir," replied Jameson, wishing that he had become a farmer like his father wanted.
Blackwood nodded in agreement, adding, "From a commander who is still on the sick list, and should not even be giving orders yet." The sound of the fight growing in intensity robbed Blackwood of what little patience he had. "Damn it, Jameson, he's going to die unless you let me stop him."
Blackwood's anger washed over Jameson, along with his concern for his commander, making his decision final. Lifting up his gun, he said, "Then we had better get after him, sir." As he spoke, he saw his career fading into the distance, but at the moment it didn't seem very important, compared to his commander's life.
Blackwood let out his breath and followed the army-trained man into the forest, trusting his instincts to find the colonel. Jameson fell to the ground and fired off a couple of shots, a cry issuing from the fast-dissolving body before him.
The sound of gunfire was now further afield and more spasmodic. A clearing loomed up in front of them, the road off to their right. They had passed a couple of their own men, one kneeling by an injured comrade who had fingered the OK sign to Blackwood's quick enquiry, and pointed further into the forest in answer to his question about Ironhorse.
It seemed to Blackwood that every sound intensified and rebounded about the woods as he walked, half-crouched, behind Jameson. Suddenly a shot rang out and Jameson flipped over to his left, a force stronger than his own body movement causing him to crash into a tree. He gasped a few seconds and then slipped to the ground, his gun falling beneath his body.
Blackwood threw himself behind a tree for shelter as another shot ripped through the air and embedded itself into the tree he now hugged for protection. Again the sound of bullets ripping into bark caused him to flee to another. Knowing that he was not going to win this game of cat and mouse against an automatic machine gun, he yelled as a bullet flashed across his leg, causing him to lose momentum, and he slipped to the ground, still crawling towards the safety of another tree.
His assailant suddenly loomed up out of the night. It had shed its human form, preferring to use its own night vision to full advantage. It slowly paced towards him, seeming to know that the human could offer it no resistance.
Blackwood was caught and held by the sight of the alien as it came towards him. It was a lot taller than he imagined, and it moved with an eerie gracefulness that belied its bulk. Still, he tried to scramble from it. His hand slipped upon a rock and he threw it at the advancing creature, fear making his aim loose and it flew harmlessly over its shoulder.
Its hand reached out for him and suddenly Blackwood knew that this was how Ironhorse must have felt in the warehouse, then the alien had him trapped. He struggled against the stretching hand, hitting it aside, fighting with it. Two hands gripped his coat, allowing the third to move towards his chest. He closed his eyes, unable to look at the monster any longer, feeling sick and sorry: sick for losing the fight, and sorry for the pain he knew it would cause the others.
Suddenly a voice ripped out across the forest; a strong cry of an old people. "Let him go, you bastard. You want to take a body, try mine... it's healthy and..." Blackwood was dragged round as the alien turned to face the new threat. His eyes widened in fear as he saw Ironhorse, an insane look in his eyes, toss away his weapon, snarling, "...I'll even up the odds a bit. How's that?"
The creature was torn between the two men; should it take the injured man it now held, or should it try for the healthy one standing a short distance away? Its grotesque head turned towards Blackwood, then back to Ironhorse who was still shouting obscenities at it. Almost casually, it tossed Blackwood away. He landed hard and saw the massive alien turn towards Ironhorse, who squared his shoulders and stood his ground.
"No!" Blackwood cried, knowing what was about to happen.
Frantically he began to crawl towards Jameson, knowing that he had a gun under him. He had to reach it before the alien reached Ironhorse, who seemed intent on facing the creature on its own impossible terms.
Ironhorse was mad. A rage had been building in him since he had left Blackwood by the van. He knew that his friend would never understand what he had to do - that he could never explain. He had lost sight of his unit a short time after the fighting began; that did not bother him... he did not want any witnesses for what he was about to do. They would certify him insane if they only knew.
He had been tracking an alien who had shifted from its human form and had lost it a short while before it had come upon Blackwood and Jameson, but the sound of their fight had brought him running to the scene of Blackwood being attacked by the creature.
He had lost all reason then, knowing that to shoot the alien was impossible without harming Blackwood, so he did the only thing he could: not knowing how badly injured his friend was, he played upon the fact that he had to be injured, otherwise Blackwood would have made a better attempt at fleeing.
Now he stood facing the alien as it advanced towards him. He could see Blackwood crawling towards the inert body of Jameson, yet he felt nothing. The insanity had passed with the tossing aside of Blackwood... this was his nightmare now. He controlled it: it would end how he wanted it to, not like the dreams.
The huge body blocked out the sight of the struggling Blackwood, the trees and the light from the moon. The creature became his universe; it was his reason for existing and, unless he could overcome it, it would destroy him.
He kept his face clear of emotion, as was his people's way. He would await death on its own terms. The hands reached for him but still he made no move, the grotesque face leaning towards him, the smell choking him. He felt the rough wood against his back, yet still he did not move. He heard Blackwood's cry of mingled rage and frustration as the alien's third hand moved towards his chest.
Finally he allowed a small smile - a triumphant smile. This was his nightmare, and he had won. As he thought that, he brought his knife up and plunged it deep into the alien's body, twisting it with an almost joyful surge of energy. Still no true emotion played across his face: he had done it all without moving a muscle, except for the dark smile.
He felt the alien jerk with the impact of the long blade's pain. It felt good, felt right... this was how one was meant to kill one's enemies. The bullet, he realised, had taken a lot from the art of war.
He stood for a few moments, savouring the sight of the bubbling alien as it drooled down his body. Its smell stuck to him again, but this time he did not object; it was the smell of a fallen enemy, and it was a good sign.
The sound of Blackwood calling his name brought him back from the brink of his nightmare and he saw that Harrison had stopped trying to get the weapon out from under Jameson, who was now groaning in pain. This galvanised him into action: he picked up his own gun and wiped his knife down his pants leg, realising too late that there was more alien goo on that than on the knife. Sighing, he put the blade away dirty. He would have to clean it later.
He knelt down beside Blackwood and quickly checked his leg. "You'll live," he commented, moving on to Jameson, who had opted to slip back into unconsciousness now that Blackwood had stopped pulling him about.
"Not if you keep doing things like that, I won't," Blackwood shot back, still in a bad temper. "Just what the hell did you think you were doing, anyway?" he snapped, more angry now that the danger had passed.
"Putting a nightmare to rest," came the dry comment as Ironhorse ripped a rough bandage from Jameson's shirt and tied it tight about the wound. The man groaned under the administration, but did not awaken.
"Well, the next time you want to put a nightmare to rest, damn well tell me so I can wait in the van," flared Blackwood. Suddenly, he pulled back his fist and punched Ironhorse across the jaw.
The other man, not expecting the blow, was thrown to the ground. He lay stunned for a few seconds then, shaking his head to clear it, asked, "What the hell was that for?"
"Just putting a nightmare to rest," Blackwood shot back, glaring at Ironhorse, daring the other man to pass comment. His reward was a raised eyebrow.
Ironhorse reached for his radio and ascertained that the aliens had been disposed of, and that the gas station - with its store of chemicals - was in their hands. He issued further orders and requested that the medic be sent to their location, and a helicopter dispatched for the wounded. After he had finished, he sat back and looked towards Blackwood. They had nothing to do but wait until help arrived.
"That thing could have killed you," Blackwood finally said wearily, anger an emotion he could not maintain for long.
"Then why? Why take the risk?"
"I needed to know."
Ironhorse paused in answering, not sure if he could explain to the man who sat near him. The nightmare was in the past; he knew that he could now handle anything the enemy threw at him. How could he explain to Blackwood his need to face the aliens in his own way? Slowly, haltingly, he tried....
"After the alien attacked me in the warehouse, I lost something. Until today I didn't know what it was." He paused, reaching out to check Blackwood's wounded leg again, needing to keep busy. Seeing a deep gouge of ripped skin, he began to work at covering the wound, using Blackwood's own handkerchief to secure the dressing. As he worked, he continued, "I've been having nightmares."
"I know," put in Blackwood, reaching out to touch the other man, offering his support.
Blackwood smiled into his friend's surprised face. "I guess everybody at the Cottage knew, but... well... nobody liked to talk about them, as if doing that would make them go away."
Ironhorse finished working on Harrison's leg and, leaning back, he said, "I thought I had them under control, but it wasn't really working. They were getting worse, and I knew that unless I sorted it out soon, I was going to have to leave."
"Leave? Why? Because of a few nightmares? Paul, after what you've been through, a few nightmares is getting off easy," explained Blackwood, shocked at the conviction in the other's tone.
Ironhorse snorted his amusement at the other's expression before replying, "Harrison, it wasn't the nightmares I was running from, it was the knowledge that I had lost."
"The knowledge you had lost? I don't understand." Blackwood leant back against the tree and wondered if the recent events had finally caught up with him, or if Ironhorse was not really making any sense.
Taking a deep breath, Ironhorse replied, "I didn't know if I could still face the enemy. After what happened, I was not sure.... In my dreams, they always..." He paused, remembering the pain and agony of awakening from his dream, the explosion of the Cottage always ringing in his ears. "They always won, and I needed to know if it was just a dream, or...."
"Premonition?" supplied Blackwood, seeing the man struggle for words.
"Yes. I had this fear that they could use me to get to you and the others at the Cottage." He paused. "Hurt... Debi, Suzanne..." He stopped again, emotion strong in his voice. "I needed to know that I could face them on their own terms and still win. I needed that knowledge back."
Hearing the sound of approaching people, Blackwood reached out and grasped the other's arm, causing him to meet his eyes. Harrison stated firmly, "Paul Ironhorse, there isn't a damned creature on this planet that can take you on and win." Settling back, he finished, "And with me to help you, they don't have a hope in hell."
Smiling, Ironhorse replied, "I'm going to have to tell you about this nightmare sometime, and a man called John Kincaid..."
"Who?" Blackwood enquired, sitting up straighter.
Ironhorse moved aside to let the medic get to Blackwood. Seeing another working on Jameson, he replied, "Someone I hope you never have the privilege of meeting."
Blackwood leant back against the tree, content to let the medic do his job. He watched Ironhorse move about, giving orders, arranging for them to be lifted out of the forest, passing on details of the fight to the Cottage via a radio phone, and assuring everybody that they were alright. Blackwood smiled when he saw Ironhorse smack away a geiger counter and indicate the alien goo on his uniform. Coleman nodded and wisely backed off. Ironhorse was back and totally in control.
Feeling Harrison's eyes upon him, Ironhorse looked directly into his vision and smiled. 'Yes,' thought Blackwood. 'A little knowledge is a dangerous thing - especially if you're one Lieutenant Colonel Paul Ironhorse....'
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